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Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction

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Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction

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Augury

Philip Garrison Selected by Robert Atwan

Set primarily in Mexico and the American Northwest, yet equally at home with Achilleus on the Trojan plains or with Walt Whitman in his New Jersey home, these fifteen essays pass back and forth across international boundaries as easily as they cross the more fluid lines separating past and present. Part biography, part history, Augury is also something of a writer’s journal, a guide to Garrison’s imaginative journeys.

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Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You

Sue William Silverman

Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You destroys our complacency about who among us can commit unspeakable atrocities, who is subjected to them, and who can stop them. From age four to eighteen, Sue William Silverman was repeatedly sexually abused by her father, an influential government official and successful banker. Through her eyes, we see an outwardly normal family built on a foundation of horrifying secrets that long went unreported, undetected, and unconfessed.

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Campus Sexpot

A Memoir

David Carkeet

She tipped her head sideways, her lips offering themselves to his. He remembered the fire those lips contained, the promise her kiss held. . . . In 1962 David Carkeet's drowsy hometown of Sonora, California, snapped awake at the news that it had inspired a smutty potboiler titled Campus Sexpot. Before leaving town on short notice, the novel's author had been an English teacher at the local high school, where Carkeet was a hormone-saturated sophomore. Leaving was a good idea, it turned out, for most of the characters in Campus Sexpot had been modeled after Sonora's citizens.

Carkeet uproariously recaptures his stunned, youthful reaction to the novel's sleazy take on his hometown. The innocent nowhere burg where he despaired of ever getting any "action" became, in the pages of Campus Sexpot, a sink of iniquity echoing with "animal cries of delight." Blood pounded, dams of passion broke, and marriages and careers--not to mention the basics of good writing--went straight to hell.

As Carkeet relates his own romantic fumblings to the novel's clumsy twists and turns, he also evokes the urgently hushed atmosphere in which the book circulated among friends and neighbors. Eventually, Carkeet stumbles into adulthood, where he discovers a truer definition of manhood than the one in the pages of the pulp fiction of his youth. A wry look at middle-class sexual mores and a witty appreciation of the art of the hack novel, Carkeet's memoir is, above all, a poignant and hilarious coming-of-age story sure to revive our own bittersweet teenage memories.

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Companion to an Untold Story

Marcia Aldrich

When Marcia Aldrich's friend took his own life at the age of forty-six, they had known each other many years. As part of his preparations for death, he gave her many of his possessions, concealing his purposes in doing so, and when he committed his long-contemplated act, he was alone in a bare apartment.

In Companion to an Untold Story, Aldrich struggles with her own failure to act on her suspicions about her friend's intentions. She pieces together the rough outline of his plan to die and the details of its execution. Yet she acknowledges that she cannot provide a complete narrative of why he killed himself. The story remains private to her friend, and out of that difficulty is born another story— the aftershocks of his suicide and the author's responses to what it set in motion.

This book, modeled on the type of reference book called a “companion,” attempts to find a form adequate to the way these two stories criss-cross, tangle, knot, and break. Organized alphabetically, the entries introduce, document, and reflect upon how suicide is so resistant to acceptance that it swallows up other aspects of a person's life. Aldrich finds an indirect approach to her friend's death, assembling letters, objects, and memories to archive an ungrievable loss and create a memorial to a life that does not easily make a claim on public attention. Intimate and austere, clear eyed and tender, this innovative work creates a new form in which to experience grief, remembrance, and reconciliation.

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Dough

A Memoir

Mort Zachter

Mort Zachter's childhood revolved around a small shop on Manhattan's Lower East Side known in the neighborhood as “the day-old bread store.” It was a bakery where nothing was baked, owned by his two eccentric uncles who referred to their goods as “the merchandise.” Zachter grew up sleeping in the dinette of a leaking Brooklyn tenement. He lived a classic immigrant story--one of a close-knit, working-class family struggling to make it in America. Only they were rich.

In Dough, Zachter chronicles the life-altering discovery made at age thirty-six that he was heir to several million dollars his bachelor uncles had secretly amassed in stocks and bonds. Although initially elated, Zachter battled bitter memories of the long hours his mother worked at the bakery for no pay. And how could his own parents have kept the secret from him while he was a young married man, working his way through night school? As he cleans out his uncles' apartment, Zachter discovers clues about their personal lives that raise more questions than they answer. He also finds cake boxes packed with rolls of two-dollar bills and mattresses stuffed with coins.

In prose that is often funny and at times elegiac, Zachter struggles with the legacy of his enigmatic family and the implications of his new-found wealth. Breaking with his family's workaholic heritage, Zachter abandons his pragmatic accounting career to pursue his lifelong dream of being a writer. And though he may not understand his family, in the end he realizes that forgiveness and acceptance matter most.

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Ghostbread

Sonja Livingston

“When you eat soup every night, thoughts of bread get you through.” Ghostbread makes real for us the shifting homes and unending hunger that shape the life of a girl growing up in poverty during the 1970s.

One of seven children brought up by a single mother, Sonja Livingston was raised in areas of western New York that remain relatively hidden from the rest of America. From an old farming town to an Indian reservation to a dead-end urban neighborhood, Livingston and her siblings follow their nonconformist mother from one ramshackle house to another on the perpetual search for something better.

Along the way, the young Sonja observes the harsh realities her family encounters, as well as small moments of transcendent beauty that somehow keep them going. While struggling to make sense of her world, Livingston perceives the stresses and patterns that keep children—girls in particular—trapped in the cycle of poverty.

Larger cultural experiences such as her love for Wonder Woman and Nancy Drew and her experiences with the Girl Scouts and Roman Catholicism inform this lyrical memoir. Livingston firmly eschews sentimentality, offering instead a meditation on what it means to hunger and showing that poverty can strengthen the spirit just as surely as it can grind it down.

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Last Day on Earth

A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter

David Vann

On Valentine’s Day 2008, Steve Kazmierczak killed five and wounded eighteen at Northern Illinois University, then killed himself. But he was an A student, a Deans’ Award winner. How could this happen?

CNN could not get the story. The Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and all others came up empty because Steve’s friends and professors knew very little. He had reinvented himself in his final five years. But David Vann, investigating for Esquire, went back to Steve’s high school and junior high friends, found a life perfectly shaped for mass murder, and gained full access to the entire 1,500 pages of the police files. The result: the most complete portrait we have of any school shooter. But Vann doesn’t stop there. He recounts his own history with guns, contemplating a school shooting. This book is terrifying and true, a story you’ll never forget.

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Mot

A Memoir

Sarah Einstein

At forty, Sarah Einstein is forced to face her own shortcomings. In the wake of an attempted sexual assault, she must come to terms with the facts that she is not tough enough for her job managing a local drop-in center for adults with mental illness and that her new marriage is already faltering. Just as she reaches her breaking point, she meets Mot, a homeless veteran who lives a life dictated by frightening delusion. She is drawn to the brilliant ways he has found to lead his own difficult life; traveling to Romania to get his teeth fixed because the United States doesn’t offer dental care to the indigent, teaching himself to use computers in public libraries, and even taking university classes while living out of doors.Mot: A Memoir is the story of their unlikely friendship and explores what we can, and cannot, do for a person we love. In unsparing prose and with a sharp eye for detail, Einstein brings the reader into the world of Mot’s delusions and illuminates a life that would otherwise be hidden from us.

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Mountain Blood

Will Baker

The recollections and yarns, historical meditations and reportage brought together in Mountain Blood display a sensibility formed by the harsh, outlandishly beautiful terrain of the American West. Will Baker’s tales range from Nebraska to Peru and tell of a boy’s first trout, a bar brawl over a woman, and the vise-like grip of gold over all of the Americas. They spring from an imagination shaped by wild, circuitous mealtime stories of prospectors and from the bitter history of a place where suburban ranch houses dot the vast sweep of land once hunted by the Lakotah.

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Riding the Demon

On the Road in West Africa

Peter Chilson

In Niger, where access to rail and air travel requires overcoming many obstacles, roads are the nation’s lifeline. For a year in the early 1990s, Peter Chilson traveled this desert country by automobile to experience West African road culture. He crisscrossed the same roads again and again with bush taxi driver Issoufou Garba in order to learn one driver's story inside and out. He hitchhiked, riding in cotton trucks, and traveled with other bush taxi drivers, truckers, road engineers, an anthropologist, Niger's only licensed woman commercial driver, and a customs officer.

The road in Africa, says Chilson, is more than a direction or a path to take. Once you've booked passage and taken your seat, the road becomes the center of your life. Hurtling along at eighty miles an hour in a bush taxi equipped with bald tires, no windows, and sometimes no doors, travelers realize that they've surrendered everything.

Chilson uses the road not to reinforce Africa's worn image of decay and corruption but to reveal how people endure political and economic chaos, poverty, and disease. The road has reflected the struggle for survival in Niger since the first automobile arrived there, and it remains a useful metaphor for the fight for stability and prosperity across Africa.

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