Summer Reading: Jess Rafalko

Associate Fiction Editor Jess Rafalko talks dysfunctional family novels, Sideshow Bob, and the coming apocalypse.


photo by Sveta Suvorina
photo by Sveta Suvorina

This summer, I am trying to write a novel about a contemporary American family—and, consequently, have forbidden myself from reading any novels about contemporary American families. The Corrections has gone ignored on my bookcase for the past four summers like a dense and boorish dinner guest no one really wants to talk to, and there shall it remain: if I have chosen to work in one of the most formulaic subgenres of literary fiction, The Big Dysfunctional Family Novel, then I must do my best to ignore the extant narratives in that oft-derided, occasionally-distinguished milieu.    

I’ve even made a halfhearted gesture to avoid family-centered TV shows (and, let’s be real: I have spent far more time this summer watching TV than reading fiction), instead relying on grim procedurals like Law & Order: SVU and sexy procedurals like Castle and Grey’s Anatomy. I have not been able to give up The Simpsons, though; two nights ago I had an episode on as I was writing. To be fair, it was “Cape Feare,” the one featuring Sideshow Bob’s infamous encounter with a series of ill-placed rakes: an apt metaphor for my writing process, on most days.

While my novel-writing has actually been productive, if not rake-in-the-eyeball painful, for the past month, my novel-reading has remained stagnant. And, actually, so have I: in the two weeks since I have returned to my parents’ house for the summer, I have passed many a morning lying in bed until ten or eleven o’clock, reluctant to rise and begin my day. This ennui can be attributed to what I do in bed each morning: read think-pieces on the 2016 Presidential Election, most of which are either false-cheery or unapologetically nihilistic. (That being said, Rebecca Traister just wrote an excellent profile of Hillary Clinton for New York magazine.)

I think some part of my brain truly believes that the world might end—not with a whimper or a bang, but a “You’re fired!”—on November 8th, and maybe this is why I have finally decided to really write the novel I’ve been wanting to write since 2011: if I am going to be a casualty of the Trumpocalypse—and won’t most people even tangentially related to publishing, and therefore dependent on the right to free speech, be casualties?—then I would like to do something meaningful as a person and a writer before then.

So I’m working on this novel about a contemporary American family. And it’s my first novel. And it’s exciting and awful and rewarding and difficult. What I’ve decided to read for inspiration are other first novels—right now I’m working on The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler—because they are almost always filled with beautiful mistakes. They are almost always experiments. And so is my novel, and so is the American family—and American democracy. I wish the best for all three.  

Summer Reading: Cady Vishniac

Note from the editors: We’re kicking off our Summer Reading series! In this series, Journal editors talk about what they’re reading / watching / listening to / studying this summer. Read for recommendations, insight into our editorial staff, and a general good time. Our first post is from Cady Vishniac, an incoming Associate Fiction Editor. 


Right now, I’m allowing myself two novels, Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac and Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist, as well as several thick academic texts about Jewish folklore. Later on this summer, I’m learning Yiddish at the six-week Uriel Weinreich Summer Program in New York, and I’m workshopping novel chapters with a classmate. I’m preparing two or three stories for my upcoming semester, fighting about politics on the internet, writing a new group of poems and a couple flash pieces, submitting like there’s no tomorrow, visiting family, training to be a composition instructor, gardening, attending the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and making Lego castles with my daughter, all in no particular order.

Still, the bulk of my alone time is actually focused on other writers’ unpublished fiction, their submissions to the lit mags for which I screen or their workshop stories. Since my last class of the semester I’ve I polished off the hundred-plus fiction submissions we received at Reservoir, where I am the fiction editor, as well as the hundred-fifty or so I was assigned at Raleigh Review, where total fiction subs were closer to three hundred-fifty. I’ve been working on copy edits with the four authors chosen at Raleigh Review and will soon start revisions, copy edits, and proofreading at Reservoir. I’m also due to get a large batch of fiction subs from The Journal any day now.

I also participate in and help run a Facebook workshop group, and read the work sent to me by my extremely talented friends.

Let’s take today. Today, I’m going to finish up this blog post, then plow through detailed comments on five or six stories from my friends and my online workshop. Or tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’m working up at least six revision requests/copy editing notes on work forthcoming in Raleigh Review and Reservoir.

I know a lot of MFA students and professional writers view what I’ve just described as busywork, but I love reading and working on other people’s stuff. I feel more than fortunate to have been allowed the privilege, because constantly leafing through many, many stories has taught me which of my ideas are so common as to be kind of boring, which of my written tics are also other writers’ written tics. More than that, I enjoy helping people. I enjoy being a good literary citizen. And this summer, I’m enjoying the collaborative process of making a piece of fiction the best it can possibly be.

2015 Wheeler Prize

Our 2015 guest editor is Marcus Jackson.

Marcus Jackson was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. After earning his BA at the University of Toledo, he continued his poetry studies in NYU’s graduate creative writing program and as a Cave Canem fellow.

Marcus Jackson’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Harvard Review, and The Cincinnati Review, among many other publications. He is the author of the chapbook, Rundown (Aureole Press, 2009), and the debut full-length collection, Neighborhood Register (Cavan Kerry Press, 2011).

This Week in Poetry

This Week In (2)

Welcome to our first installment of This Week in Poetry! This week, in poetry, there’s lots of great news for The Journal contributors!

    • Nate Marshall, a contributor to our upcoming Winter issue (which you can buy at our table at AWP!), co-edited an anthology of hip-hop poetry called The BreakBeat Poets, out next week from Haymarket Books. Poetry Magazine (yes, that Poetry Magazine) liked it so much that all—yes, all—the poems in their April issue are from The BreakBeat Poets. So maybe you should check it out.

    • Poetry Editors Megan Peak and David Winter are pleased to announce their nominations for Best New Poets 2015: “Agency” by Emily Vizzo from Issue 38.3, and “knob & tube” by Leia Darwish from Issue 38.4. Vizzo was also a finalist for last year’s Wheeler Prize in Poetry.

    • Contributor Danez Smith, whose “My Body (Thug Mansion Remix)” appeared in Issue 38.4, has just signed a contract with Graywolf Press for his second book, expected in 2017. Way to Go, Danez!

    • Spring contributor John Paul Davis, a poet and web designer, has created a website for poets trying to do the National Poetry Month 30 Poems in 30 Days Challenge (not to be confused for ESPN’s acclaimed sports documentary series, 30 for 30). Here’s what he had to say about it, via Facebook: “Hey poets! Planning on doing a 30/30 this year? The online tool I built in 2013 for posting poems privately to a personal blog is still up and running. You can post poems no one but people you approve see, and you can request to see the poems of other poets if you like. All the poets to whom you are subscribed get aggregated into a feed on your home page.” Check it out at
Three days left to submit to the Non/Fiction Prize!

Why should you submit your manuscript to the Non/Fiction Prize?

1. You’re passionate about your work. You put in the time.

2. You’ve got a fierce competitive streak. You don’t just want to win; you want to vanquish your opponents.

3. Your taste is sophisticated, your palette refined.

4. You’ve spent years cultivating a deep empathy for your characters.

5. You’ll feel like such a boob punch if you don’t.

Submit now!

The Journal/OSU Press Announce The River Won’t Hold You

Gotshall-RiverThe Journal and The Ohio State University Press are thrilled to announce the publication of Karin Gottshall’s new collection of poems, The River Won’t Hold You. Gottshall was the winner of the 2013 Wheeler Prize in Poetry. Laura Kasischke calls The River Won’t Hold You “a haunted, burning house of poems,” and Wyn Cooper calls the book “a circus of delights not to be missed.” The book is now available for purchase.

Karin Gottshall lives in Vermont and teaches at Middlebury College. Her first book, Crocus, won the Poets Out Loud prize and was published by Fordham University Press in 2007. She is also the author of three independent press chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, FIELD, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere.

Haunting and haunted, The River Won’t Hold You interrogates loneliness and loss with quiet insistence. In poems fashioned at the difficult intersection of imagination and experience, Karin Gottshall seeks an uneasy solace in the mysterious gaps between them: “I tell myself I can be content with the pleasures / permitted ghosts,” she writes in “Afterlife,” “but my body wakes up / leaking saltwater, and won’t let my ghost-self be.” Poetic structure and the music of language offer a seductive repository for memory, philosophy, and pain. These poems are generous in both their formal approaches and their palettes of sound and silences. But Gottshall never settles for an easy or artificial solution to the questions her poems ask; the beauty of her work comes, instead, from the directness of her gaze and the images that gaze fixes itself upon: “Wide-open, staring eyes of the tiger / I drew and had to destroy because it wouldn’t sleep.”

Gottshall-Author photo

Join The Journal and Gottshall for a book signing at this year’s AWP in April! She will be signing books at The Journal table from 2-3 pm on Friday, April 10th. Corey Van Landingham, the 2012 Wheeler Prize winner, will be signing books from 1:30-2:30 on Friday as well.

The 2014 Wheeler Prize winner is Talvikki Ansel for the collection Somewhere in Space, due out this fall. Submissions for next year’s Wheeler Prize in Poetry will open in September of 2015. For submission guidelines, please visit

We Have A Winner! The 2014 Wheeler Prize for Poetry Goes to Talvikki Ansel!

Talvikki Ansel imageThe Journal is excited to announce that the winner of the 2014 Wheeler Prize in Poetry is Talvikki Ansel for her third collection of poems, Somewhere in Space, due out this fall with The Ohio State University Press. She is the author of the Yale Younger Poets selection, My Shining Archipelago, and Jetty and Other Poems. A former Stegner fellow and recipient of a residency from the Lannan Foundation, Ansel has published widely in venues such as Poetry, Blackbird, The Atlantic, and The New Republic. She lives in Rhode Island.

Many congratulations to our nine wonderful finalists:

Fritz Ward for Dearest Cannibal
Samantha Deal for Taxonomies/Something Opened
Claire Wahmanholm for Blueshift
Steven Gehrke for Ships of Theseus
Emily Vizzo for A Gun for the Girl
Rebecca Lehmann for It was all a Mistake and I’m Not a Woman
Marlys West for Is This How You Mean to Go On
Kim Garcia for Brighter House
Kimberly Grey for The Opposite of Light

More than 550 manuscripts were submitted for this year’s competition, and we would like to thank everyone who participated. The quality of submissions was extremely high, and the screeners worked hard and with considerable pleasure. Kathy Fagan was the final judge. For further information about The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award and The Charles B. Wheeler Prize, see The Ohio State Press.

Submissions for next year’s Wheeler Prize in Poetry will open in September 2015. For submission guidelines, please visit

Only Five Days Left to Submit To The Non/Fiction Prize

Did you know there’s only a few days left to submit to the Non/Fiction Prize? We can’t wait to start reading the manuscripts.


What’s that, you say? You haven’t submitted yet?


What are you waiting for? You’ll feel so accomplished!



A Non/Fiction Prize FAQ

The Journal is happy to announce its new prose prize: The Non/Fiction Prize. We look forward to publishing an exceptional collection of essays or stories (or a collection of essays and stories) in 2015. Or a novella and stories. Confused? Details below.

Didn’t you guys have a prose prize before?

Yes! We awarded an annual Short Fiction Prize from 1997 to 2013. Our last winner was Elizabeth Elsami for her collection Hibernate. The Non/Fiction Prize takes its place.

So this is a non/fiction prize? Non-slash-fiction? What does that mean? Do you have something against my Draco/Harry erotic novel?

It means we accept all manner of short prose, both fiction and nonfiction. Essays or stories. Or essays and stories. As for slash fiction, we’re not against it, though it does present some thorny copyright issues. Nonetheless, this is still a prize devoted to short prose. Your novel, regardless of its subject, is ineligible.

What about a novella? Can I send you my novella?

We accept novellas (or novella-length essays) as part of a longer work, but not alone. So, if you have two or more novellas, or you combine your novella with short stories or essays, then we’d be happy to look at it. But all by its lonesome? No.

So does it have to be fiction or nonfiction?

Nope. We accept submissions that are a combination of essays and stories and novellas. Just be clear to mark which ones are stories and which ones are essays, so we don’t risk the embarrassment of calling your real life “inventive.”

Can I submit something if it’s been published elsewhere?

Individual pieces may have been published elsewhere, but the work in full should be unpublished. This includes self-publication and electronic publication. Delete your Tumblr! (Kidding. Don’t do that. It’s my favorite.) If you are including published pieces, you must also include an acknowledgements page that lists the title and place of publication for each published piece.

I’ve got a great translation of a brilliant Nunavutian writer who is little known in the US. Can I send that?

While we love writers who write in languages that aren’t English (and agree they need to be more widely read in the US) we do not accept translations.

How many pages do you want?

We want between 150 and 350 double-spaced pages in 12 point font. No funny business with the margins: 1” all around.

I have a whole collection of essays and a whole collection of stories. Can I send both of them?

We’re cool with multiple entries. There are a few provisos, however:

  • There should be no overlap between manuscripts, i.e. nothing that appears in one should appear in the other.
  • A separate entry fee must be paid for each manuscript.

Ah, yes, now that you’ve mentioned it: how much is the entry fee?

20 smackeroos. One crisp green-tinted portrait of Old Hickory. 4 Lincolns. Two ten-spots. A score of sin—

Wait, what? What are you talking about?

Ahem. I’m sorry. It’s $20 USD.

When’s the deadline to submit?

February 14, 2015. VALENTINE’S DAY, BABY. Afterward, take your special love, Literature, out for a nice meal.

And what’s the prize?

$1500 and publication from OSU Press under a standard contract. By my math, that’s a possible 7500% ROI. Couldn’t get that in the bullest of bull markets.

Where can I submit my manuscript?

All entries must be submitted via Submittable.

Do you allow simultaneous submissions?

We’re cool with your manuscript being submitted elsewhere while it’s under consideration, but if it gets accepted, please do withdraw it from our competition.

Anything else?

Send us your stuff! We know how difficult it is to get a book of short prose published, and we consider it an honor to be able to add at least one more great collection to the world each year.

Our Nominees for the 2016 Pushcart Prize Edition

We’re very pleased to announce the following stories, essays, and poems as our nominees for this year’s Pushcart Prize. (Which, we are told, will be published in 2016.)





Congratulations to all our nominees! And we’d also like to give a big thank you to all our contributors for this year. Your excellent work made our jobs easy but our nomination decisions very difficult. Thanks again!

Call for Photo Essays

The Journal is currently seeking outstanding photo essays to feature in our online fall and spring issues. To submit, please visit our online submission manager and send a pdf document that includes the images and text in a single file. Please include up to eight pages of art and a short bio and/or artist statement. We offer a monetary payment of $100 upon acceptance. We are looking for photography that shows curatorial intent and direction.

The Journal is the award-winning literary journal of The Ohio State University, and was established in 1973. It is published four times annually: our summer and winter issues appear in print and our fall and spring issues appear online.

You can visit our online archives to preview the type of work we’ve published in the past.

All best,

The editors

Summer Reading: Online Editor Lauren Barret

My summer began with a few happy weeks devouring the works of John Le Carre. I consumed them one after another, almost mindlessly, like potato chips: first Tailor Tinker Soldier Spy, then a couple of his early novels, A Murder of Quality and A Call For The Dead. It was fun and reassuring to see how he developed as a writer, from writing relatively simple mysteries like AMoQ and ACftD to bigger, more psychologically astute spy stuff like TTSS.

Alas, my Le Carre love ran aground on the rocky shoals of his gargantuan novel The Honourable Schoolboy, the second in his famed Karla trilogy.  I would tell you what it was about, but I can’t remember. I can remember that it was 600 pages, George Smiley and his Russian rival Karla rarely appeared, and I read the last 300 pages deeply resenting every single word but determined to finish it anyway. Its bloat would not get me down! The overly long descriptions of some mundane aspect of life in a foreign city would not defeat me! The endless hinting at a terribly obvious conclusion (“I suspect the main character’s investment in this woman of dubious character is not going to work out well.”) would not stop my forward progress! I would see my way to the not surprising or interesting conclusion if it was the last thing I did! (Also, if I stopped, I would have sunk a considerable amount of energy into it with nothing, not even an entry in my Goodreads 2014 Reading Challenge, to show for it. My vanity could not allow such a thing.)

In late spring, I learned that my grandmother’s health had taken a serious turn for the worse. Once freed from the clutches of the academic calendar, I started spending weekends, and then whole weeks, at my childhood home in Kentucky.  There wasn’t all that much to be done. But I wanted to be there, to do whatever I could.

Tending to someone who is dying is tedious but unpredictable. One day they respond well to medication, or to rest, and the next they don’t. One day they feel good enough to sit outside for a bit; the next they can’t even manage to look out the window.  It’s terribly hard watching someone disappear by tiny increments, to see them lose almost everything they love about the life that won’t yet leave them.  I spent a lot of afternoons chatting with my grandmother when she felt up for it, or flitting about the Internet in a distracted haze, but I also spent a lot of time reading.

Seeking refuge, I found it in nineteenth-century Russia. Earlier in the year, I had read this great New Yorker piece by Josh Rothman about Tolstoy and Anna Karenina’s mistaken reputation as a great love story.  I found a pristine mass-market paperback of the novel languishing on a bookshelf in my mother’s house.

I started, mostly, as a lark: how far could I get? Tolstoy’s chapters are remarkably short, which made the going relatively easy. Only a few more pages, I told myself, and you can stop. And then, once that chapter was done, I’d see no reason not to read another. And then another.  A few more chapters and I’d be at the end of a section, which had a nice finality to it.  And so I made my way,  learning about Anna and her unhappy marriage to Karenin, and about Levin and his rather grandiose ideas about farming.  In my own work, I always wonder if I’m boring my hypothetical reader, if I’m sharing too much about something inconsequential. Tolstoy, it would seem, had no such qualms, and I was delighted to see him spend an entire section on Levin mowing his fields with the peasants, or on Vronksy visiting his horse in the stables. While the chapters flew by at brisk clip, the overall drift of the novel itself was languid and slow.  Vronsky and Anna meet at a party, but dance around each other for another 100 pages.  Kitty breaks Levin’s heart and they do not see each other again for what feels like an eternity.

What struck me most, however, was Tolstoy’s remarkable ability to sympathize with his villains (who are, without a doubt, villains) and his refusal to makes his heroes and heroines too perfect. Karenin, Anna’s passionless and calculating husband, is all that stands between her and happiness in her relationship with Vronksy. He’s unkind, and ungenerous, but also, somehow, wholly pitiable. Similarly, Levin, while honest and decent and full of good intentions, is also drably conservative and painfully self-pitying, especially when it comes to women.  At the end, I was glad he had found some measure of happiness (however accidental), but was also glad to leave him to his work and his wife.

Scene that made me LOL:  Kitty and Levin’s strange nineteenth-century version of text speak in the scene where they declare their mutual admiration by writing out sentences using only the first letter of each word.  Those two really are MFEO.


Submissions For The Wheeler Prize Open on Monday!

Submissions open September 1st for the annual OSU Press/The Journal Wheeler Prize in Poetry. Online entries only, so please send us those puppies via Submittable.

Each year, The Journal selects one full-length manuscript of poetry for publication by The Ohio State University Press. In addition to publication under a standard book contract, the winning author receives the Charles B. Wheeler prize of $2500.

Entries of at least 48 typed pages of original poetry must be electronically submitted during the month of September. All manuscripts will be read anonymously. Your name and other identification should appear only on a separate cover page. Manuscripts must be previously unpublished, but poets may be at any stage in their careers. Some or all of the poems in the collection may have appeared in periodicals, chapbooks, or anthologies, but these must be identified in the acknowledgements page.

A nonrefundable handling fee of $28.00 will be charged for each entry. Entrants will receive a one-year subscription to The Journal.

The winning entry, screened by the editorial staff of The Journal, Assistant OSU Press Poetry Editor Pablo Tanguay, and final judge and OSU Press Poetry Editor Kathy Fagan, will be announced the following January.

Submit via Submittable starting September 1st:

Karin Gottshall is our 2013 winner for her second collection, The River Won’t Hold You. Gottshall lives in Vermont and teaches at Middlebury College. Her first book, Crocus, won the Poets Out Loud prize and was published by Fordham University Press in 2007. She is the author of three chapbooks: Flood Letters (Argos Books), Almanac for the Sleepless (Dancing Girl Press), and Swans (Argos Books). Corey Van Landingham was our 2012 winner for her first collection, Antidote. Previous winners over the past twenty-eight years include: Rebecca Hazelton, Edward Haworth Hoeppner, Kary Wayson, Lia Purpura, Mark Svenvold, Bruce Beasley, and Mary Ann Samyn.

Summer Reading: Associate Fiction Editor Gwen Cullen

I used to work in a children’s library. The best part my year there was helping to create the Summer Reading Game, which was meant to teach young readers how to use library resources, talk about books they read, and get people to give them stickers. (My highest achievement, I think, was the medieval-themed year. It’s nice to know you’ve taught a generation of elementary schoolers the Dewey decimal number for dragons.) I’m going to attribute to eight summers of Summer Reading Games the fact that I always feel better if my summer reading has a theme. This year I went with historical fiction, partly in honor of the transporting power of books, which is a pretty important principle of children’s libraries, and partly because this is how I acquire a (potentially alarming) lot of my historical knowledge.

It makes sense that when writers write about history, they often focus on the power of writing and books in determining what the meaning and significance of events will be, but I was still surprised at how consistently these issues popped up across these novels. It was just as interesting how often the writers I read were keen critics of placing too much faith in these texts—that doing so risks being fetishistic, divorced from reality, at best incomplete. Other than that, I would say the big theme to emerge was that history has been pretty sad so far.

A lot of these had been on my to-read list for a while, and certainly speak for themselves without my recommendation, but I’m going to go ahead anyway and strongly urge checking out any and all of the below you haven’t read.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Jazz is about the murder of a young woman in New York City in the ‘20s. The novel traces the early lives of the main characters back in time through the Great Migration. There’s no reason to read my thoughts about the novel’s astounding construction and its relationship to music when Morrison’s are available online, but one thing that blew me away while I was reading was Morrison’s description of living in a city. I get the sense when reading a lot of writing about cities (and parties, for whatever reason) that it’s difficult subject matter to write about without sounding a little vague and unhelpfully romantic. But besides capturing the visceral experience of moving through a city, Jazz conveys so much about what contemporary cities mean, historically and socially, all without the setting eclipsing the characters in a relatively compact novel.

Iceland’s Bell by Halldor Laxness (trans. Philip Roughton)

In his introduction to the Vintage edition of Iceland’s Bell, Adam Haslett points out that the lack of psychological interiority in the novel sounds like (and can be) an obstacle to contemporary readers. But a lot of what I loved about the book was how frequently Laxness did things that sound like pretty bad ideas (a long passage in the middle of the novel in which two characters summarize what has happened so far, sudden switches between the past and present tense) in mesmerizing ways. It was kind of thrilling to read something so unconventional and so successful—a nice reminder of how plastic fiction is. The plot is vast and hard to summarize, but it centers around an effort to preserve the ancient books of Iceland under Danish imperial rule in the seventeenth century, and its debate on the absolute value of books that has lodged itself in the back of my mind in a major way. Additionally, there are trolls.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Beyond the fact that the stories move a few decades back in time, the title of the collection refers to the passage of time and there are several stories in which the specific moment in rock music Egan puts us in is key, so I’m calling this theme-compliant, if not exactly historical fiction. I think I’m still learning how to read collections of linked stories, because I did ultimately feel like I’d been prematurely dismissed at the end of the novel, but perhaps this was in part because there’s so much delightful stuff here. I liked the equivalence between the past and future as the narrative skips around time. It’s gutsy, calling attention to the way in which historical fiction can be just as fantastical and about-the-present as speculative futures, but also weirdly comforting in the reassurance it offers that there will be a future, that the past surely must have felt very uncertain and frightening at times, too.

Libra by Don DeLillo

I’ve been meaning to read this fictional account of the plot to assassinate JFK since a period of really intense Kennedy obsession junior year of high school. As much as I admired the novel, I’d offer the caveat that reading about the use of paranoia to justify evil and the far-reaching impact of clandestine plots shaped by paranoid men, it’s easy to feel like your mind is turning into an ouroboros who’s had way too much coffee and never wants to read the news again. But the meditation on the power of text creating history is complicated and well worth the read. (For a quick “oh, what a difference twenty-five years makes!” reverence comparison, pair with X-Men: Days of Future Past’s reimagining of JFK’s assassination.)

Bonus historical non-fiction:

The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong

Armstrong moves through an astounding amount of material and time (beginning roughly 1200 BCE) in this book about the development of the canonical sacred texts of modern Judaism and Christianity. However, there’s a lot about the methodology that you’d have to dig into material cited in the endnotes to learn, which is a little frustrating. I don’t suspect Armstrong’s methods, but am intrigued to know how historians do draw conclusions about the attitudes with which people would have read a book, millennia ago.

Non-historical, non-literature double bonus:

I also watched many, many episodes of Murder, She Wrote. I would argue that, overall, it holds up.




Summer Reading: Associate Fiction Editor Katherine Evans

This was an extremely eventful summer for me—I got married, went honeymooning in Kauai, and visited with family and friends back in my home state of Virginia. My husband and I are also in the process of moving out of his place in Los Angeles—in fact, I am writing this post while surrounded by boxes and crumpled newspaper. You can probably understand why my reading list is mostly a hodgepodge of books I’ve been meaning to get to and stories I’m planning on assigning for my creative writing course this fall. I revisited lots of old favorites by Ron Hansen, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Ford, Amy Hempel, Breece D’J Pancake, and Mary Robison to name just a few. When I wasn’t agonizing over which short stories to teach this fall (I can’t choose them all?), I read (and in some cases re-read) these wonderful novels and collections, in no particular order:

  1. The Maid’s Version, Daniel Woodrell
  2. Long Man, Amy Greene
  3. Friend of My Youth, Alice Munro
  4. Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro
  5. The Moons of Jupiter, Alice Munro
  6. Nothing Gold Can Stay, Ron Rash
  7. The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
  8. Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor

As you can probably tell, I went on a bit of an Alice Munro bender. I wholeheartedly recommend that you do the same. I’ve also just started reading Josh Weil’s novel The Great Glass Sea. I absolutely loved his novella The New Valley, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting this debut and I’m pleased to report that so far it’s wondrous—it’s at once futuristic and reminiscent of Russian folklore and wholly original. In terms of movie viewing, I’m sad to say that I just haven’t hit the theater much these past few months (in all fairness, movie tickets in Los Angeles are pricey). I did get around to seeing Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves. Most importantly, I’m caught up onGames of Thrones and now understand why my husband was so depressed after viewing The Red Wedding (never forget!).

Summer Reading: Poetry Editor Megan Peak

I spend most of my summers back home in Texas, where the heat makes you a little lethargic and more than thankful for air conditioning. This summer, when I wasn’t outside gardening or biking with my family, I was reading Lauren Berry’s The Lifting Dress, an amazing first collection that chronicles the emotions and internal anxieties of a girl after a traumatic event. Set in the south, full of wasps and red landscapes and budding teendom, this book creates worlds that are familiar and foreign, ruined and redemptive, tender and wise. I’m set to read Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows. I also try to read some prose during my time off since I don’t have much time during the year to read that. My favorite was Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which is going to be a movie with Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and Sarah Paulson (my idol!), and Adichie’s Americanah.

Summer is the time for binge-watching, and I did exactly that. From True Detective to the second season of Orange is the New Black, I found myself quite inspired and satisfied with the stories and plots on these shows. McConaughey and Harrelson were fabulous together in the grungy swamps of Louisiana. Poetic dialogue, eerie landscapes, despicable characters. Let’s just say I finished that series in about two days.

In terms of music, I found a great band via my father’s excellent taste. I’ve been listening to the indie-pop band PHOX, who are originally from Wisconsin. Monica Martin’s voice is killer and songs like “Slow Motion,” “In Due Time,” and “Evil” have been on repeat for the past month. Great summer songs—catchy, poetic lyrics with a good-looking six-piece band. Check ‘em out!


Summer Reading: Fiction Editor Kate Norris

As much as I love to read, reading as a writer is a fraught experience. I rarely read purely for pleasure anymore, but instead am always analyzing what I’m reading, trying to sort out what works and how, what doesn’t and why, and which techniques I should be attempting in my own writing.

Recently, a young writer was talking about how reading often leads to a crisis of confidence for her, and I reassured her (at least, I hope this is reassuring…) that this feeling never goes away. If anything, it just gets worse over time for me, because the more I learn the more I know just how much better than me some other writers are.

Oh how I miss the confidence of dumb teen me!

All I can do is work through this insecurity, because I can’t turn it off. Writing ends up being something akin to faith, if only in myself (The only kind I have. See you in hell?) and my own ability to make whatever I’m working on good in the end. Reading good books is the ultimate test of that faith.

So here are two books I’ve read recently that made me feel extremely insecure—the highest compliment I can offer.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters

Jess Walters does an amazing job capturing not just his female characters, but particularly how his female characters perceive the men in their lives. Among the large cast of characters there are two selfish, destructive man-children—Shane Wheeler and Pat Bender—that are at various times perfectly skewered by women in their lives. But Walters doesn’t treat any of his characters with disdain, even when he’s portraying them at their most ridiculous. Every character gets their due, and although the end is perhaps sentimental, no one gets more redemption than they’ve earned.

Beautiful Ruins reminded me a bit of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Although Beautiful Ruins isn’t billed as a novel in stories, it functions in much the same way, with each chapter moving between different reoccurring characters and times. Overall, Beautiful Ruins moves more linearly within its separate time lines, and in the end things are brought together tidily, but many of the chapters work as independent stories. Chapter 4, “The Smile of Heaven,” for instance, reads like a complete short story, and a fantastic one at that.

What I find most intimidating about this novel is its scope: it spans decades, continents, and the perspective of several characters. It contains fragments of a play, a novel, and a character’s autobiography. Yet although the novel is expansive, it is also intimate. Beautiful Ruins is often described as a funny book, and it is, but it isn’t frivolous, and even the more overblown characters like Michael Deane don’t read as caricatures.

Beautiful Ruins is being made into a film (Of course it is! How could a book that deals partially with the scandal that occurred on the set of Cleopatra not be optioned?) and I’m very curious to see how on earth they’ll be able to adapt this sprawling story for the screen.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Dare Me is narrated by sixteen year old Addie Hanlon, varsity cheerleader and “lieutenant” to her best friend Beth Cassidy’s squad captain. Although they’re best friends, their relationship is uneasy, and the fissures between them become cracks under the regime of a new, strict cheer coach.

A book that examines the intense, fraught relationships between teen girls? Yes, please! There is nothing I love reading about more. And Abbott’s characters, both teenage and otherwise, are rich, complex, and wholly believable—perhaps the most important criteria for me.

But in Dare Me, the element I found most intimidating was also the one thing I really disliked about the book: the voicey, writerly language. I typically prefer language that doesn’t call undue attention to itself (I would rather pay attention to character and story than how pretty a sentence is.) even in third person, where any florid writing can more easily be attributed to the author than their point-of-view character, but Dare Me is written in first person so Abbott’s language feels particularly egregious. A quick perusal of some Goodreads reviews shows that I’m not the only one who was frustrated by the language, which was not only unbelievable coming from a teenage girl, but also imprecise at times.

But dammit, sometimes the language is just so cool. When Addie describes a light “coning halogen”, part of me is like ‘yeah right, what teenage girl talks like that’, but another part is frustrated because I know I couldn’t write like that even if I tried. It also feels somehow small-minded to judge Dare Me based on the yardstick of realism when it’s neo-noir. The super stylized and completely unrealistic dialogue of a movie like Brick, which is also high school noir, doesn’t bother me at all, so why should it bother me here? Because I’m fickle and unfair I suppose.

Dare Me is also being made into a movie and I think it could make a great one, especially if the rumor that Natalie Portman will play the cheer coach is true.

If you’re reading this hoping to gain some insight into my editorial tastes, here’s the TL; DR version: send me some sprawling mean girl noir minus any noir style, set on a movie set.

Just kidding!

Kind of.

Summer Reading: Associate Nonfiction Editor Nina Yun

As I find myself back in a life of a student, the first day of school feels  more and more like New Year’s Day to me than January 1st or Lunar New Year ever did, so summer naturally becomes the opportune time to rush the reading resolutions made the year before, a task equally weighted by the fear that my twenties will be a montage of me carrying a stack of unread books on top of my laptop, tellingly warm and buzzing, from place to place, and weighted by the desire to start another school year shiny and bright. Here are my fire sale books, the books I failed to read last year and need to read before the “new year”:

The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David MacLean

Just by the crude stats, I should really hate this book: This is a memoir about a white man who loses himself in India, and about the steps he has to take in order to find himself, which he finds ponderous. There is a foreign locale. There is pensive cigarette smoking. There is scotch drinking.  But the above description is a disservice to David MacLean’s writing and to the terrifying yet extraordinary medical circumstance of how he completely lost his memory while at a train station in Hyderabad, India. While I envy how intuitive the organization of the book is [shakes fist at the appropriate and keen sense of white space], what struck me most in this memoir is how it walks very near the territory of memoir strategies that are most visible and often derided:  the navel gazing, the obsession of minutiae and its use as a bedrock to expand into links to the general and universal world, the easy hatred of self to secure sympathy from readers, and the caricatures of real people we abuse to run parallel and counter to ourselves. The Answer to the Riddle is Me reminds me it’s not these patterns that are bad—that sentimentality is not always a trap but sometimes an honest impulse—just that these are usually so badly and uncritically written. These questions of self and identity and how we process them are central to the work of memoir and should not be easily elided or a default. It’s hard work, but MacLean makes it funny and thrilling.

Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy

I feel like I should know better than to be nervous while reading poetry, but … well, line breaks! Meter! Rhyme? In the very few poetry workshops I’ve taken, I flail superficial comments like “Oh the language is beautiful” and “Wow, the imagery” until I sit, sputtered out and ashamed. Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda has a speaker who makes it a point to make me feel a little nervous and ashamed. She’s dynamite with two lit wicks, and she wants me to watch. She scrutinizes herself as an artist and as a mother while wish-building an alternate, better world for herself and her son while cutting her fantasy with the ever-present awareness that she knows she is wishing. She’s above any comfort I can give her, and not just because she’s smarter and more sly, but because she seems so right about everything.  It’s been a while since I’ve read something that implicates me as a reader, as audience, but there’s nothing cold about Shaughnessy—as bald and uncomfortable as they can be, there’s something so warm in the admittances she gives. For me, this is a collection of poems to buy and to keep close.



Summer Reading: Assistant Managing Editor Angela So

From genetic manipulation to a restriction on women’s rights, the issues that populate dystopian novels speak to my deepest fears: a look into a possible future where humanity morphs into new. So that’s what I did this summer. I read seven dystopian novels in the span of two months.

My Dystopian Novel Summer Reading List

A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
1984 by George Orwell
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The Road by Cormac McCarthy

My favorite? The Road.

Coming at the end of my reading list, McCarthy took a familiar genre and broke many rules—no explanation for the cause of this post-apocalyptic world, no chapters, no traditional three act structure—but all for the stake of the novel. The nameless father and son wander a harsh and yet awe-inspiring world full of dangers lurking on the periphery. In a lawless, broken world, the form added to the emotional and physical terrain of the novel. Full of surprise, menace, and tenderness, The Road changes the rules with a consciousness that adds to a popular genre.

And there’s no better way to cleanse the dystopian palette than to watch the sci-fi TV show, Orphan Black. The show is about cloning and doesn’t pull any punches with plot. A less confident show would have teased the audience with red herrings, but Orphan Black understands that drama and tension comes from revealing secrets, not withholding information. Anchored by a fearless performance by Titiana Maslany, who performs every single clone herself and brings life to a variety of characters, this show doesn’t paint characters as villains and heroes. Each is flawed. Each has vulnerability. Each has a motive. With a strong lead and a charismatic supporting case, the show also allows us to have an explicit discussion about the way others claim the bodies of women. Dark, funny, and suspenseful, it’s a show worthy of binge watching.


Summer Reading: Managing Editor Rebecca Turkewitz

I’m a big fan of gothic fiction, horror, and all things creepy, and this summer I’ve read some really wonderful spooky books. If you’re looking for a good, creepy read, I highly recommend any of the following. After all, the end of August is the perfect time to curl up with a ghost story, listen to the wind shaking the leaves outside, and wonder what might happen if that shadow in the corner of the room suddenly were to take shape and step into the light.

Early in June I read Dan Chaon’s most recent book, Stay Awake, and fell in love with it. Every story in this collection is original, emotionally charged, and masterfully written. The book is primarily a work of literary fiction, but all the stories share a sort of gleeful enjoyment of the cosmic dark and the things that lurk there. And some are genuinely scary. The last story in the collection, “The Farm. The Gold. The Lilly-White Hands.,” is tremendous—it instantly became one of my all-time favorite ghost stories.

Recently, I spent one glorious evening reading True Irish Ghost Stories cover to cover. This delightful 1926 book is a collection of firsthand accounts of otherworldly encounters, compiled by the author and priest John Seymour.

I also finally got around to reading 20th Century Ghosts, a collection of short stories by horror heir Joe Hill (he’s Stephen King’s son). I didn’t think every story in the collection was a winner, but “Best New Horror” was haunting and powerful, and it was the first story in a long time to actually keep me up at night. It is a disturbing, violent, and unsettling narrative that masterfully raises the question of why people seek out disturbing, violent, and unsettling narratives. Without getting obnoxiously meta, the story turns the magnifying glass on the reader in a way that is alarming and insightful. “Black Phone,” “Abraham’s Boys,” and “20th Century Ghost” were also standouts that I really enjoyed.

I also read and loved Jennifer Egan’s The Keep. It was a classic can’t-put-it-down-until-you’re-done page turner for me, and I was so impressed with the well-handled frame narrative and the wonderful gothic setting and undertones. If you want a (very) smart beach read, complete with crumbling castles and secret, underground tunnels, this is your book.

One of the highlights of my summer, literary or otherwise, was reading a collection of HP Lovecraft’s stories on a beach in Marblehead, MA. Lovecraft’s fictional Massachusetts landscape is spread out across the northern coast of the state, and it was a joy to think that I might have been able to see the distant shoreline of Arkham across the bay, if that haunted town actually existed. And further up the coast in Newburyport, I’d be able to catch the rickety bus to mysterious, decaying Innsmouth.

I’m currently reading Haunted Legends, an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas. The editors solicited some of the most successful horror and fantasy writers to compile a collection of contemporary ghost stories that incorporate the folklore and legends of specific places. Laird Barron’s sad, unsettling, and unforgettable story “The Redford Girls” is included.

If you’re not so inclined towards horror, here are my favorite non-creepy books from my summer reading: Charles Portis’ True Grit, Amy Bloom’s Come to Me, Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls (though, I would recommend reading Tracks first), and John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. And although I didn’t love all of Thisbe Nissen’s Out of the Girls Room and Into the Night, her story “Way Back When in the Now Before Now” completely blew me away and brought me to tears.

Happy reading, friends.