Archive for January, 2011

A New Winner of the 1961 National Book Award: Special Review Feature

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Michael, our fiction editor, talked five smart writers—Alexander Chee, John McNally, Keith Lee Morris, Leah Stewart, and Justin Tussing—into reassessing the 1961 National Book Award for fiction. There’s no medal or cash prize to hand out, but we have a winner. To find out which book won, and to read our judges’ essays on the five finalists, you’ll have to get your hands on our summer issue, available in May. But here’s a hint: The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter, the actual 1961 National Book Award winner, didn’t even come close.

Michael initiated this project last year, when he conscripted Antonya Nelson, Steve Almond, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Brock Clarke into judging the 1960 National Book Award for fiction. The judges’ decisions and deliberations appeared in Ninth Letter (one of our Monster Mags of the Midwest friends at AWP).

The plan is for this project to continue, rotating among three journals. As soon as we learn which journal will host the 1962 NBA redux, we’ll let you know.

Why do this at all? (Aside from the obvious: It’s a hell of a lot of fun.) Below, we’ve posted a snippet of Michael’s intro from last year’s reassessment of the 1960 award, followed by an excerpt of Leah Stewart’s forthcoming intro for the 1961 reassessment:

Michael Griffith (excerpted from Ninth Letter):

. . . . What troubled me at core was my own hypocrisy [ . . . ] If in 1999 you’d asked me what books I liked best that year, Jane Shapiro’s The Dangerous Husband would have tripped off my tongue, and Susan Sontag’s In America, which I’d read with chilly admiration and not a few longueurs, wouldn’t have been in my top twenty. But would I, drafted by miracle onto the jury, have touted Shapiro’s novel (which centers on a woman moved by her spouse’s feats of ever-more-aggressive clumsiness to hire a hitman) over a smart, big, highly wrought book by an eminence like Sontag? Not forcefully enough, I’d guess, because Sontag had written exactly the kind of book I believed prize committees were designed to reward. I would have wondered, “But which will LAST?”—and would have come up with the (it now occurs to me) false answer that the Sontag would, and would have given scant weight to the argument that we the committee might have some small part to play in what would (or at least might) last, and thus should be counted on first and foremost to pick a book we LIKED, a book we’d want to recommend to flesh-and-blood friends rather than to the abstractly imagined hanging judges of posterity.

The dreary worthiness prevailed; in fact, Shapiro’s acid domestic comedy probably never even blipped across the committee’s screen. It was this sort of choice that fueled my crankiness—yet when I was asked to give a list of my favorite novels for a volume called The Top 10, I promptly began ticking off unsinkable classics I’d be embarrassed to leave out, rather than the urchin-spiked oddities I love best.

All of which gave rise to the [Ninth Letter special section]. With the help of William Gass, whose terrific “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize” set me on the path, I started wondering, “What sorts of ambition do prize juries tend to value most highly? What things in fiction actually do endure, as opposed to what kinds of things in fiction do we imagine will endure, or what kinds of things do we feel constrained to call enduring because we’ll be ashamed if they turn out to endure while we were touting a book about a cabal of zombie robots who infiltrate the Orange County PTA?

If you looked back in 2060 at the best novels of today, I mused, what might you come up with? And then it occurred to me that one might assemble a committee of writers and take a look back fifty years instead, revisit the work of the National Book Award Committee of 1960. After we named a winner, I thought, we could each append a short essay—to take up the cudgel for an undervalued or long-forgotten favorite, to reassess the anointed books of that year, to reflect on the ebb and flow of literary reputation, to investigate the politics of award committees, etcetera. I was lucky to find four fantastic writers to help: Brock Clarke, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (whose first novel, Madeleine Is Sleeping, was among the finalists caught up in the bewildering controversy of 2004), Steve Almond, and Antonya Nelson.

Leah Stewart (excerpted from our next issue):

[In 1961] the prize went to The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter, a (to my mind) rather dreary, heavily allegorical book that dropped fairly quickly off our radar. The other nominees were: Louis Auchincloss for The House of Five Talents; Kay Boyle for Generation Without Farewell; John Hersey for The Child Buyer; John Knowles for A Separate Peace; Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird; Wright Morris for Ceremony in Lone Tree; Flannery O’Connor for The Violent Bear It Away; Elizabeth Spencer for The Light in the Piazza; Francis Steegmuller for The Christening Party; John Updike for Rabbit, Run; and Mildred Walker for The Body of a Young Man. At that time, the contenders for the award were books published in the previous year, so we hunted for other books from 1960 we might want to consider, but came up empty, though Keith did jokingly suggest Green Eggs and Ham.

As we set about narrowing the list to five books we’d consider seriously, the four that seemed fairly obvious for reasons of fame and longevity proved also to be, in our opinion, the most worthwhile in and of themselves.

To read our judges’ 1961 National Book Award deliberations get a copy of our summer issue.

You can read about the reassessment of the 1960 award, and about the inception of this rotating feature, in Ninth Letter. Also, keep an eye out in the months ahead for news about where the upcoming feature—a reassessment of the 1962 National Book Award—will pop up next.

“Raw Umber”: Why We Like It

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Dave Nielsen is a new volunteer here at CR, and as a reward for reading the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style cover to cover—a task he completed in a mere 21 hours—we gave him a back issue and some old electrodes we had lying around. When Dave returned the following week for his office hours, he was in a state of agitation that can perhaps best be described as “post-lingual.” After several hours, we realized Dave was actually speaking backwards. It seems that Chase Twichell’s “Raw Umber” was so mind-bogglingly good it had completely scrambled the speech center in Dave’s brain. (Possibly the electrodes were involved.) After transcribing Dave’s spastic utterances using a mirror trick, here is what we found he was saying:

Dave Nielsen: On the surface, everything about “Raw Umber” is quiet and discreet, even its rhymes (feeding/eaten, shallows/all, leaves/me, ghost/close). Quiet and discreet, we might say, as a morning walk. On the subject of walks, James Dickey said that the poet is “someone who notices and is enormously taken by things that somebody else would walk by.” “Raw Umber” begins with a gruesome image—but it is a gruesomeness the poet must reveal to us, for I doubt it is one that the average power walker would notice: “This morning tadpoles were feeding// on a white frog in the shallows,// the face having already been eaten// down to the eyeholes and hard lips.// By noon there was no frog at all.”

From this image the poem lifts off like a hang-glider—that is to say, it remains in the vicinity, hovering, circling, as the speaker tries to make sense, not of this unceasingly violent and ghastly world we find ourselves in, but rather our role within it. The poem reminds us that three steps from our back patios, or perhaps somewhere between stop signs on the road to the library, we may unexpectedly be confronted with a startling reminder of death. But how do we bear it? And why do we keep chasing the memory of its image?


CR Contributor Christopher Merkner to Be in Best American Mystery Stories 2011

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

We got the call yesterday. Christopher Merkner’s “Last Cottage” (vol. 7, no. 1) has been selected to appear in the upcoming Best American Mystery Stories anthology. Yay! For some insight into the story’s utter awesomeness, see Suzanne Warren’s January 12th Why We Like It post.

2011 AWP Conference Special Offer

Monday, January 24th, 2011

This year, at the Associated Writing Programs conference in Washington, D.C., Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, and Ninth Letter will be offering a combined subscription to all three journals for only $33. That’s right, at AWP and only at AWP you can get your mitts on the Midwest’s most precious resource (not counting soybeans and corn) for practically a pittance. Normally, a one-year subscription to Cincinnati Review is $15; for Mid-American Review it’s also $15; and for Ninth Letter it’s $21.95. If you take advantage of our *special AWP offer,* this leaves you with a whopping, yes I said whopping, savings of $18.95. With that kind of savings you could buy four copies of Howard the Duck, used, on DVD! Or you could buy a wooden hut for your chinchilla—or a Jonas Brothers T-shirt! Really, with a deal like this, the world is your multiple pearl-packing oyster (or the literary equivalent). Please stop by the table for Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, or Ninth Letter at the AWP book fair to sign up. This is perhaps the greatest deal since William H. Seward purchased Alaska for two cents an acre. Perhaps even greater than Arby’s dollar menu. Don’t miss out!

“Before I Offer Myself to the Birdmen”: Why We Like It

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Once a day or so, at least one of us here in the office will suddenly jerk awake, lift her head off her desk and—with a long string of drool still attached to a submitted manuscript—speak a line or two from a story or poem before clunking her head back to the desk again. Then the rest of us will carefully slide the manuscript out from under our sleeping coworker’s face, clean the story or poem of drool, and read it. Because we know that good literature haunts your dreams. It’s a perk of the job.

However,  we were perplexed when our friend Tessa  sleepwalked to our office in the middle of the night during a winter storm, woke us up by throwing open the door and—the whole time gesticulating with a blow-dryer —shouted, “Feed us your softest child!” Then she tightened her robe, took all of our extension cords, and shuffled back out into the storm. In the morning, we looked out our window onto the white quad below and saw that the following message had been blow-dried into the fresh snow.

Tessa Mellas: A habitual multi-tasker, I started Alexander Lumans’s story “Before I Offer Myself to the Birdmen” while blow-drying my hair. When my hair was done, I was completely engrossed by its kick-ass premise, tight sparse prose, and mad creativity—and rather than bookmarking the story with toilet paper (my usual tactic), “Birdmen” followed me to the bedroom, where I huddled under the covers, finished the story, and slid into sleep thinking about hybrid human/bird creatures with bloodshot eyes flying into my garden, demanding, “Feed us your softest child,” then dropping my progeny onto the top of a battlement made of babies, designed to protect the birdmen flock in their birdmen swamp. I hear that fabulist horror is good for REM sleep.

I woke up still wondering about the story, thinking about storks and the way they function as a euphemism for the horror of birth, thinking about how the stork is the adult version of Santa—a benign, generous creature that delivers exactly what humans most want, a magical entity that serves people—and how Lumans’s birdmen are the opposite of that.

I also thought about the millions of birds that break their heads on our windows, get covered in our gulf-spilled oil, and electrocute themselves on our wires. So then I thought, well, maybe people deserve for their babies to be taken away by birdmen. Look what we do to the birds. But then I remembered that the birdmen were part human, and that seemed to mean something else.

So I wondered why the birdmen built their wall out of babies. Why was this the ultimate defense? Was it a statement about innocence and experience? Power and helplessness? Avarice and value? And what about the townspeople’s behavior—handing over their children to the Birdman Defense Fund? Why nurture a baby only to give it up to die? The cogs and wheels in my head jammed up. The appropriate theoretical algorithm yielded no neat, tidy results. And as in all magical realism worth its weight in babies, this story was doing what it’s supposed to do—tossing out something strange in order to problematize our responses. I love this story for gumming up my insides and monopolizing my attention for a week. Well, maybe more than a week since I am thinking and writing about it still. And I imagine that all my life a wall made out of babies and the image of birdmen with children in their beaks will revisit me for a fun reunion. How many stories can say that?

Monster Mags of the Midwest at AWP

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

If you’ll be at AWP in DC, or even if you don’t know what that is but you’re within a two-week headlong sprint of Dupont Circle, then you should join the Monster Mags of the Midwest—Ninth Letter, Mid-American Review, and Cincinnati Review—for a fearsome night of reading, Heartland-style, with plenty of poetry, fiction, and beer on tap. Lots of bread, too, for some reason.

This is all happening on Saturday, February 5, at 7 p.m. in the Bread & Brew bar, which is on Dupont Circle, one quick metro stop from the AWP conference site:  Bread & Brew, 1247 20th St., Washington, DC, 20036  (phone 202-466-2676).

Through your brew goggles (bread goggles?) you’ll see all of these Monster Mag writers get behind the mic:

Lucy Corin is the author of the short-story collection The Entire Predicament (Tin House Books) and the novel Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls (FC2). Stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Ploughshares, Tin House, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, and a lot of other places. She’s been a fellow at Breadloaf and Sewanee, and a resident at Yaddo and the Radar Lab. Lucy holds a BA from Duke University and an MFA from Brown. She’s an Associate Professor at University of California–Davis, where she teaches in the English Department and Creative Writing Program.

Fun fact: “She’s currently working on a book of a hundred very small apocalypses and a novel about the brain” [from her blog].

Bob Hicok’s most recent book is Words for Empty and Words for Full (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010). A recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim, and two NEA Fellowships, his poetry has been selected for inclusion in five volumes of Best American Poetry. Hicok is currently an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Fun fact [from the Poetry Foundation’s website]: Before he began his teaching career, Hicok has worked as an automotive dye designer and a computer system administrator.

Cate Marvin’s first book, World’s Tallest Disaster, was chosen by Robert Pinksy for the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and published by Sarabande Books in 2001. Her second book of poems, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, was published by Sarabande in 2007. A recipient of the Kate Tufts Discovery Prize and a Whiting Award, she is co-editor with poet Michael Dumanis of the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande, 2006). Cate teaches poetry writing in Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program and is an Associate Professor in creative writing at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

Fun facts [from an interview with the magazine Redivider]: “I worked extensively with animals when I was in my teens: for a brief time at a pet store and then a couple of summers at an animal shelter. When young I was alternately obsessed with insects, horses, tropical fish, and, much later, parrots.”

“My day does not truly begin until I’ve acquired and consumed a 32-ounce Big Gulp of Diet Coke from 7-Eleven. It’s the Big Gulp that’s important, not 7-Eleven, where I find the employees rather disagreeable.”

Erika Meitner is the author of Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore (Anhinga Press, 2003), and Ideal Cities (HarperCollins, 2010), which was a 2009 National Poetry Series winner. Her third book, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, is due out from Anhinga Press in February 2011. Meitner’s poems have been anthologized widely, and have appeared most recently in APR, Virginia Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, The New Republic, and on She has received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program, and is also completing her doctorate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Fun fact [from her website]: “In addition to teaching creative writing at UVA, UW–Madison, and UC–Santa Cruz, she has worked as a dating columnist, an office temp, a Hebrew school instructor, a computer programmer, a lifeguard, a documentary film production assistant, and a middle-school teacher in the New York City public school system.”

Kevin Wilson is the author of the collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009), which received an Alex Award from the American Library Association and the Shirley Jackson Award. His fiction has appeared in PloughsharesTin HouseOne StoryCincinnati Review, and elsewhere, and has appeared in four volumes of the New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best anthology. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the KHN Center for the Arts. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee (with his wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, and his son, Griff), where he teaches fiction at the University of the South and helps run the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

Fun facts [from his blog]: “In high school . . . I was obsessed with how to comb my hair and I liked looking at men wearing suits, which seemed like the strangest attire in the world at the time.”

“ I can clearly remember wanting to marry Suzanne Vega.”

Edith Pearlman

Friday, January 14th, 2011

We’re obviously big fans of Edith Pearlman—her story “Life Lessons” is coming out in our fall/winter issue (8.2), and you can read  her stories in several CR back issues too. So we’re happy to see that her new collection, Binocular Vision, has garnered Sunday book reviews from both the NY Times and the LA Times. Check ’em out!

As a celebratory bonus, here’s a sneak peak of the opening lines of “Life Lessons”:

My father’s two sisters often complained I was young for my age, whatever my age then happened to be. I was late mastering toothbrush, hair ribbon, shoelace. I was discourteous. I was a show-off.

But, really, didn’t I have a lot to show off? At two I talked in sentences. At three I completed huge jigsaw puzzles. At five I was improving my word power with the help of the Readers’ Digest. At seven I was composing symphonies, like Mozart—well, not exactly—but I was playing Mozart, the easy minuets, rather badly. Every Wednesday Poppa drove me across town to Miss Paulina’s. Poppa was free to drive me to piano lessons because at that time, just after the War, doctors took Wednesdays off. He chose a zigzag route to avoid traffic lights. When Momma drove somewhere she took main streets. When she had to stop at a light she adjusted the barrette that made its blissful home in her dark curls or checked her lipstick in the mirror. Often behind the wheel she sang some Irish tune. “Danny Boy” was a favorite—Dan was my father’s name, though he wasn’t Irish.

“Last Cottage”: Why We Like It

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

When one of us finds a poem or story in our pages that we especially like, it’s common for us to adopt the voice of that piece for the rest of the day. On any given week in the office, you might hear us conducting staff meetings in the omniscient past, or addressing the fax machine in the vocative “O.” But when long-time volunteer Suzanne Warren bounded into the office speaking in the eerie first-person plural of Christopher Merker’s “Last Cottage” (volume 7, number 1), we crowned her our POV queen. Sadly, Suzanne left her minions shortly thereafter to pursue a career in Wisconsin’s lucrative vacation-rental industry. But she did leave these notes behind:

Suzanne Warren: “We know the Larsons.” So begins Christopher Merkner’s “Last Cottage,” a Gothic horror tale of lakefront Wisconsin real estate. “Last Cottage” is told from the point of view of a first-person plural narrator—the we of the first sentence. Stories related from this vantage point—notoriously hard to pull off—generally fall into one of two camps. The story may be lyrical and elegiac, invoking the pleasurably blurred ego boundaries of lovers or children; think of Sarah Orne Jewett’s Deephaven or Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. Alternately, the narrating we suggests mob violence and militarized groupthink, as in Donald Barthelme’s “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby.” “Last Cottage” falls in the latter camp. That is, a group of townspeople tell of their progressively more violent harassment of the Larsons, owners of the titular summer cottage.

These narrators are poor and desperate. They believe the Larsons’ property, the last on the lake, stands in the way of their little town’s economic development. The Larsons, on the other hand, are pleasant and well-off, blessed with the luxury of innocence. They suspect nothing, and that is their undoing. Here, we find ourselves unsure of our sympathies. Don’t we, too, resent those who have more than we do? Don’t we, too, hate the Larsons, just a little, for not knowing they are despised? Yet Merkner refuses us the comfort of easy allegiances. Far from the smug rich folk we might imagine, the Larsons are resourceful and uncomplaining. They greet each of the indignities visited upon them by the townspeople with pragmatic good cheer. They are better people than these locals, are they not?

The pleasures of “Last Cottage” are not all cerebral. Mention must be made of the sheer wonderful weirdness of the storytelling—which includes a quantity of dead fish and some highly unusual lovemaking—and the beauty of the writing. We learn, for example, that “the locusts were scorching the ears of the trees” on the Larsons’ property, an image made more resonant by the eavesdropping townsfolk Merkner conceals in the foliage.

These spies in the trees, the tellers of the tale, are classic unreliable narrators, their assertions of innocence belied by horrific acts. “Last Cottage” functions as an elaborate justification, an apologia of sorts, on the part of these storytellers. In the tale’s last lines, they define themselves by their lostness, a dispossession we’ve come to understand as spiritual as well as economic. In the end we learn who we are: monstrous victims, blinded by fury to the humanity of the perpetrator.

Poetry Game of the Month

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Well, the tinsel is in the attic, the fruitcake has been taken to the proper recycling facilities, and we’ve sworn off eggnog forever. But we’re still in the gift-giving mood! So we offer the following quiz to test your poetry knowledge and general CR street cred. Included below is a list of some of our most widely known contributors and a series of excerpts from their poems. The first person to match correctly each excerpt to its poet gets the choice of a free back issue, thermos, or slingpack. Who’s ready to throw down?

(To enter, post your comments on the blog by clicking the post title above. Due to the volume of spam we receive, we have to approve each comment individually, so bear with us as we upload your entry.)

We’ll post the correct answers as soon as we have a winner!


  1. Billy Collins
  2. Molly Peacock
  3. J. D. McClatchy
  4. Bob Hicok
  5. Claudia Emerson


a. The South walked up a gentle hill
into sun and Northern guns, it was stupid
but accurate, according to Tony, who shouted,
“Way to die, baby, way to die,” when Bill went down,
gut-clutched. Real smoke from sham shots
tufted and rolled in the barely breeze.
Bill writhed ten minutes and stopped.

b. Or the loose change of stars on the night table
Over Cholula, the dust from yesterday’s eruption
Still settling in cracks along the pyramid’s mural
Of warriors with jaguar heads pulling ribbons
Of gut from slave-birds, men from further
Inland lured by the promise of a god.

c. Your eye is like the eye of a dog
I met as a child. I felt it was about
to speak to me the wisdom I would need
for my whole life, if only it would talk.
And understanding nothing would be spoken
made me vow to pledge my life to it.

d. After I had beaten my sword into a ploughshare,
I beat my ploughshare into a hoe,
Then beat the hoe into a fork,
Which I used to eat my dinner alone.

e.     She is antique
but not inaccurate—headless, armless,

all torso, a sculpture mutilated. The breast
lifts off, easy as the lid from a pot, the heart

and lungs beneath; the belly comes away then
from neat intestines, from the chalky fetus nestled

in the womb worn smooth from all the hands
reaching in for this conclusion.

CR Contributor D.A. Powell to Be in Best American Poetry 2011

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Kevin Young has selected D. A. Powell’s poem “Bugcatching at Twilight,” first printed in issue 7.1 of Cincinnati Review, for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2011. Congratulations, D. A.!