University of Georgia Press

Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction

Nancy Zafris, Series Editor

Published by: University of Georgia Press

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Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction

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Pale of Settlement

Stories by Margot Singer

In settings from Jerusalem to Manhattan, from the archaeological ruins of the Galilee to Kathmandu, The Pale of Settlement gives us characters who struggle to piece together the history and myths of their family’s past.

This collection of linked short stories takes its title from the name of the western border region of the Russian empire within which Jews were required to live during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Susan, the stories’ main character, is a woman trapped in her own border region between youth and adulthood, familial roots in the Middle East and a typical American existence, the pull of Jewish tradition and the independence of a secular life.

In “Helicopter Days,” Susan discovers that the Israeli cousin she grew up with has joined a mysterious cult. “Lila’s Story” braids Susan’s memories of her grandmother--a German Jew arriving in Palestine to escape the Holocaust--with the story of her own affair with a married man and an invented narrative of her grandmother’s life. In “Borderland,” while trekking in Nepal, Susan meets an Israeli soldier who carries with him the terrible burden of his experience as a border guard in the Gaza Strip. And in the haunting title story, bedtime tales are set against acts of terrorism and memories of a love beyond reach. The stories of The Pale of Settlement explore the borderland between Israelis and American Jews, emigrants and expatriates, and vanished homelands and the dangerous world in which we live today.

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The People I Know

Stories by Nancy Zafris

The People I Know is a collection of nine stories, told by characters who hover at the edge of life. Whether it's Lorne, perched on a sofa as a wedding party swirls around him, or the elderly Mrs. R of "Morning at the Beach," imagining a career in crime as she sits on the front porch of a Miami hotel, these are people oddly accustomed to the sidelines of their worlds.

Nancy Zafris's characters do not so much hurdle their barriers as contemplate them with varying degrees of humor, regret, and fanciful expectation. Gazing out of his window at a horizon of crushed cars, Bonner Junior fantasizes about working at an I.M. Pei office building instead of at John Bonner and Son Metal Shredders; at the same time, his job allows him to amuse his friends with grisly, embellished stories of human shreddings and wild dogs. In "Meeting in Tokyo," a businessman examines his own attraction and aversion to conformity after taking a young secretary to a "love hotel." For Wendy, born with a strong nose and a Baltic name, cosmetic surgery has brought acceptance but also boredom. Suffering little "deaths of feeling" with each success, she flirts with disaster, with anything that will make her heartbeat "go up to 75 or more." Grace, in "Grace's Reply," prefers to deal with reality through illusion; she blames her son's death on a Navy intelligence operation and sends Pampers to an imaginary grandson.

Ranging from the kiddie bleachers of television's "Uncle Sylvester Show" to the upholstered seats of a Tokyo coffee shop, from a Navy recruitment office to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, these stories enliven the common places of our world. Sad, yet rarely defeated, Nancy Zafris's characters toe the line and sometimes manage to cross it.

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The Piano Tuner

Peter Meinke

In The Piano Tuner, Peter Meinke writes of the foreignness that awaits us when we go abroad and when we answer our own front door to admit a stranger, that confronts us in unfamiliar cities and villages and in the equally disquieting surroundings of our memories and regrets.

Often in these stories, what seems a safe, comfortable environment turns suddenly threatening. In the title story, a writer's quiet existence amid his antiques and books is dismantled, piece by piece, by a demonic, beer-bellied piano tuner. In "The Ponoes," a man recalls how, as a young boy living in Brooklyn during World War II, he became a collaborationist in the brutal pranks of two Irish bullies. In "The Twisted River," the sedate collegiality of a Polish university is disrupted when an American on a Fulbright grant attempts to blackmail two faculty members. And in "The Bracelet," a young anthropology student doing field work in Africa finds herself drawn further and further into the role of a priestess of Oshun, into a life dictated by the configuration of cowry shells cast upon the floor.

Meinke writes of a world where our control over our lives seldom exists across a border, and often extends no further than our fingertips. Attempts to bridge two cultures, two lives are sometimes successful, as when an actor finds love in the arms of a tough-talking barmaid, but more usually lead to disillusionment, as when a hard-drinking salesman's career is shattered after he is drunk under the table one night by a Polish engineer, or when an English father struggles to find common ground with his American son. Riveting, almost terrifying, the stories in The Piano Tuner tell of decent men and women caught in events that they could never have predicted, would never have chosen.

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Please Come Back To Me

Jessica Treadway

Please Come Back To Me is another remarkable collection by an author the New York Times has called “a writer with an unsparing bent for the truth.”
 
In “The Nurse and the Black Lagoon” a woman tries to understand why her teenage son has been accused of a disturbing crime. In “Testimony” an adult daughter visiting her father does everything she can to keep herself from remembering what she believes she cannot bear. A man returns to his hometown in “Dear Nicole” to face the realization that he married the wrong woman out of misplaced guilt. “Oregon” portrays the internal struggle of a woman who, having years ago betrayed a secret entrusted to her by her best friend, is tempted to repeat the mistake with the same friend’s daughter. And in the collection’s novella, “Please Come Back To Me,” a young widow seeks faith and comfort—in both natural and supernatural realms—after her husband’s death leaves her alone to care for their infant son.
 

On the surface, Jessica Treadway’s stories offer realistic portrayals of people in situations that make them question their roles as family members, their ability to do the right thing, and even their sanity. But Treadway’s psychic landscapes are tinged with a sense of the surreal, inviting readers to recognize—as her characters do—that very little is actually as it seems.

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The Quarry

Harvey Grossinger

At the heart of this collection of five short stories and the title novella is the powerful interconnection between parents and children, nostalgia and memory, and the collective emotional intimacies and transactions that configure human behavior.

Incisive and witty meditations on the disruptions and difficulties of family life, the stories in The Quarry focus on the precariously balanced world of anxious and awkward sons and painfully failed or failing fathers. The title novella sifts through the irreparable moral and psychological confusion brought about by the Holocaust, following two families as they struggle to reconcile themselves to personal disorder and private grief--with no illusory platitudes about the redemptive power of suffering.

With unerring compassion for conveying emotional revelations and a keen sensitivity to the frailty and malleability of the human spirit, The Quarry lures the reader into confronting the most hidden and disquieting parts of the buried self.

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Silent Retreats

Philip F. Deaver

Caught in the muddle of modern life, eyes gazing at the middle distance, the characters in Silent Retreats search, down roads paved by custom and dotted by the absurd, for escape, refuge, or, at least, merciful diversion.

Many of the men in Philip Deaver's stories, having drifted out of their native Illinois to the far corners, find comfort from empty jobs and blank relationships in healing, often hilarious, seductions. In "Why I Shacked Up With Martha" a distracted DC executive pierces the gray blur of his glass box on Dupont Circle with illicit, painfully superficial notes passed to his beautiful, liberated coworker. In "Marguerite Howe," a businessman from Texas at a cocktail party in New Haven accosts his hostess, blindly convinced that she is the woman of his college day-dreams at the University of Virginia. And, in Nebraska, a defeated legal aid attorney escapes the cold wind of failure and a near suicidal woman in the deep warmth of "Fiona's Rooms."

Other characters, still within the radius of central Illinois, tread through the familiar scenery of the past, measuring with landmarks of memory the distance, and yet the circularity, time has wrought in their lives. In the title story, Martin Wolf--overcome with tears during the morning commute and craving connection and the cleansing rituals of his Catholic youth--learns from the words of a parish priest, crackling through the lines of a pay phone as cars screech by on Roosevelt Road, that silence has become self-indulgent. And in "Infield," Carl Landen savors the well-ordered tableau of the Pony League diamond where he played shortstop and where his son now plays that position. Recalling the ache in the shoulder after an overhand throw, seeing in his mind the figure of his father intruding at the edge of the field, he relaxes the pain of generations, the soreness that comes from knowing a town too well.

A well-known theme of Philip Deaver's stories is "what happened to men after what happened to women." The stories in Silent Retreats trace the tentative journeys of men as they redefine who they are in a changed world while still coping with memory and desire in the old ways. Above all, these stories chronicle a search for absolution--for the elusive freedom lurking among the very syllables of the word.

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Sorry I Worried You

Gary Fincke

In these twelve intelligent tales, seasoned poet and story writer Gary Fincke reconciles lost hope and quiet despair with small blessings and ultimate redemption. In his world, as easily as one man becomes a hero, another is riddled with failure. Fincke weaves together the large and small tragedies of daily life to create an inescapable, yet at times oddly comforting, reality. His characters inhabit a world of strip malls and fast-food joints, low-down jobs and physical ailments, lottery tickets and cheap beer. Here, everyone and everything is suspicious, and only the luck of the draw determines who, if anyone, will survive.

In the title story, Ben, a fifty-year-old bookstore clerk facing the possibility of prostate cancer, feels his life spiraling out of control as he endures his female doctor's examinations with childlike embarrassment on the one hand and struggles to conceal his age from his teenybopper coworkers on the other. Ben's only consolation is that "every day he heard about something a hundred times worse." In "Gatsby, Tender, Paradise," Bridgeford encounters a group of lightning strike and electrocution victims and feels lucky to have survived several light-switch shocks--the same type of shocks that have permanently disabled one man in the group. Such are the small but important blessings that ultimately rescue Fincke's characters from despair. Here at last is someone who can articulate both our constant, mortal desire to transcend ordinary experience and our simultaneous comfort in the unremarkable and familiar.

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Spirit Seizures

Stories by Melissa Pritchard

In these stories by Melissa Pritchard, the past brushes up against the present, the voices of both the sane and the obsessed are heard, and the spirits speaking unbidden through the mouths of some spurn others who desire them most.

Some of the men and women in Spirit Seizures dwell contentedly on the surface of life, even making a science or an art of what they see around them. But many of the characters in these stories see--sometimes calmly, sometimes with agitation--beneath life's surface, beyond sun's light. The title story tells of a psychic women, pregnant with her second child, who welcomes over her farmer husband's objections the visits of an older couple desiring a séance with the spirit of their dead daughter. Spirits are also summoned in "Rocking on Water, Floating in Glass," when a woman consults the shade of Sarah Bernhardt to help her decide whether to leave her refuge in a dark antique shop and reenter the world of the living.

The husband in "Ramon; Souvenirs" recalls his wife's obsession with pueblo culture and her ambitious courtship of the impotent Indian elder who she hopes will initiate her into native spiritual mysteries. But the greatest desire of La Bete, a spectacularly obese model painted by the French impressionists, is to herself become a perfect object, viewed and adored for her form, not her crude essence. Mrs. Grant in "With Wings Cross Water" is painfully isolated from the surface of her family's life by her fears of terminal illness, of what lies beneath her skin. And Mrs. Gump, the reverend's housekeeper, prays and cleans the house furiously, hoping to obliterate all traces of the worldly beauty that distracts her employer and her artist son from the hereafter.

Written with humor but often poignant when they reveal the veins of longing that run through men and women, the stories in Spirit Seizures follow the elusive currents that link us to the eternal, the fluid boundaries that wash between love and mourning.

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Spit Baths

Stories by Greg Downs

With a reporter's eye for the inside story and a historian's grasp of the ironies in our collective past, Greg Downs affectionately observes some of the last survivors of what Greil Marcus has called the old, weird America. Living off the map and out of sight, folks like Embee, Rudy, Peg, and Branch define themselves by where they are, not by what they eat, drink, or wear.

The man who is soon to abandon his family in "Ain't I a King, Too?" is mistaken for the populist autocrat of Louisiana, Huey P. Long--on the day after Long's assassination. In "Hope Chests," a history teacher marries his student and takes her away from a place she hated, only to find that neither one of them can fully leave it behind. An elderly man in "Snack Cakes" enlists his grandson to help distribute his belongings among his many ex-wives, living and dead. In the title story, another intergenerational family tale, a young boy is caught in a feud between his mother and grandmother. The older woman uses the language of baseball to convey her view of religion and nobility to her grandson before the boy's mother takes him away, maybe forever.

Caught up in pasts both personal and epic, Downs's characters struggle to maintain their peculiar, grounded manners in an increasingly detached world.

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The Suicide Club

Toni Graham

The people in these eight interlaced stories are “bound together by the worst sort of grief,” the kind that can devour you after someone close takes his or her own life. Wednesday evenings in Hope Springs, Oklahoma, offer the usual middle-American options: TV, rec league sports, eating out, and church. For Slater, Holly, and SueAnn, it is the night their suicide survivors group meets. They once felt little else in common, aside from a curiosity about Jane, the group facilitator, but now they understand how deeply they need each other.

SueAnn mourns for her son, who hanged himself. Slater is left impotent by the loss of his father, who deliberately overdosed on pills and alcohol. Holly can’t let go of her boyfriend, who shot himself. But if suicide has stolen their capacity to laugh, it has honed their sense of absurdity. Even in the darkest undertones of what her characters think and say, Toni Graham reveals a piercingly funny cast, short on patience with themselves and the incongruous pieties of daily life in the Heartland.

If they weren’t already Hope Springs outsiders, suicide has made sure of it. Failing to fit in, they try to change, if only for themselves: Holly joins an online dating service; SueAnn works on her vocabulary; Slater gets liposuction. They keep moving forward and backward and, when their paths cross outside of their regular Wednesday meetings, sometimes a little sideways.

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