Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology by Nancy C Atwood (Editor), Roger Atwood (Editor)

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They will tell you that the depth of that meanness often depends on what life has done to a person, on the impressions left by brushes with people different from you, on those rare times when the parallel universes came close enough to touch. -Rick Bragg from All Over but the Shouting 

Growing up in working class America takes the spotlight in this non-fiction collection of excerpts from memoirs written in the 1980’s to 2014. The many voices within encompass more differences than their ethnicity, each life experience despite location is it’s own microcosm. The readers themselves are brushing up against parallel universes here. Some grew up with parents who were immigrants, wanting desperately to gain an education, no matter how limited their options. “I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s going to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” This from Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  For so many immigrants their limited language skills in their new country has them working jobs far beneath their skill and education level, naturally children growing up in such homes have to help their family out, to stay afloat even working as young as nine as Luis J. Rodriguez did. Child labor wasn’t new to the Rodriguez family, his own mother a cotton picker. Maya Angelou herself wandered the streets, living in an empty car in a junkyard for days. There lies a pulsing heart full of determination, at such a tender age. Something about struggle lends wisdom, feeds talent, some gain strength from adversity they face but there wasn’t really a choice, not where living in poverty is concerned. You do what you have to do.

We talk about race and inequality, but reading about it from another’s perspective is a different experience entirely. This excerpt from Joe Queenan’s Closing Time: A Memoir, speaks volumes about how sheltered our world views often are when we are young and surrounded only by what we are taught and experience in our own environment. “Until our paths crossed, I had no idea that people with dark skins were even allowed to be Brides of Christ.” Poverty and abuse too, it is inspiring to read about the mountains others have traversed, that even when it seems fate is against them, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and fought their way to what they wanted, a better life. It’s not enough to be smart, conformity is often the beast one had to embrace, danger, racism, and discrimination. Class, coming from nothing you have to learn how to fit into those grand, distinguished places you find yourself in, places others navigate with ease, born to it. It’s not enough to ‘make it’, you have to survive and figure out where you fit and how. It’s rebelling when you need too, conceding when you have to. We like to think we’re above class in the Western World but it’s just as alive here as anywhere else. Maybe you don’t enter places where your social standing is tested, your education, your wealth or maybe such doors are closed to you, but they exist all the same.

Alcoholism and how children grow up in the midst of it, the fighting over money and lack thereof. The things mothers and fathers keep from each other, a game children are not yet well versed in and the disastrous consequences as shared in an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir (and a personal favorite of mine) The Liar’s Club. Mothers of divorce who get lonely and try on a man and his family, blended families not quite mixing. Salvation that is almost as bad as loneliness, trying to become a part of a new family like Tobias Wolff. Hanging with kids on the city streets, all rough and tumble. Friendships with boys whose homes become refuges where some mothers play piano and fathers have excellent libraries, an eye into different worlds. Homes where bigotry is just as natural as breathing, where mother’s get beatings and crying “Don’t hurt my teeth”, is her only defense as her son watches on afraid momma will be killed. (Rick Bragg,  All Over but the Shoutin’).

This collection is varied and wonderful, even in the darkest corners there is light. It offers up meaningful moments in some of the most ‘hardscrabble lives’ as told through memoirs that will likely inspire readers to read the full books.

Available Now

University of Georgia Press

 

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Summerlings: A Novel by Lisa Howorth

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We existed in a smaller world of our own daunting challenges, peopled with gods and monsters. Sometimes they were the same.

It is the summer of 1959 and there is a plague of spiders on the streets of Washington DC, an exciting occurrence for John and his friends. Living with his grandparents he is part of a family of oddball Washington natives on his mother’s side, of course he knows nothing of his father’s family since his parents divorced when he was five. His grandfather John, but called Brickie, swears his daddy is allergic to work, lazy. It is true his father was spoiled, but his mother needed so much attention. Both good looking and wild, their marriage ended and John’s mother contracted tuberculosis, so they say, and for two years now that’s where she is still at the sanatorium, St. Elizabeth’s. Children of divorce an anomaly in the 1950’s could make for a lonely life, his sister Liz is away at camp, but John has his buddies Ivan, Max and girl pal Beatriz.

This was a period of time after World War II when your neighbors all knew each other and anyone foreign was suspect. The Russians were still enemies to the American way of thinking and any strange occurrence could well be a part of their schemes. Even grandpa Brickie thinks the Russians are behind the spiders! Spending their lazy days of summer concocting a plan to catch poisonous bugs to defend themselves against their bully, nemesis Slutcheon -leads the children into a far bigger story, one that may make them criminals.

Then there is the beautiful Elena, Ivan’s aunt, whose presence does strange things to John. Enlisting the beauty to help them hatch the “Beaver Plan”, a neighborhood party, something to help everyone be nicer to each other is perfect, when she has the time and isn’t busy going out with different men. “Air-conditioning and privacy were luxuries few people had in those days”, everyone knows Elena’s business, there are no secrets in these sort of neighborhoods, not for a party girl who hangs out with ‘Commies’ and comes home far too late in the night. There could be Russian spies everywhere, and even a school mate with a gorgeous aunt could be one. She spends too much time helping refugees, and then there is the mysterious Cuban on the motorbike.

The children play war with cherry bombs, drive the adults crazy in each other’s yards, bicycle through the streets, swim in a play pool until it gets dirty wondering if it could give them polio, that dreaded disease instilling fear in the hearts of children of the 50’s and flirt on the edge of adulthood. The boys don’t fully understand the fights between Elena and Josef, why her ‘refugee friends’ embarrass him so nor Ivan’s rage at his father. Nor does John comprehend why his mother is suing his own father. The adults world is one of confusion, conflicting information like the war, and spies… everyone spies, everyone! Heck, on their own street they all spy on each other and suspect them! Why is it wrong for one country but not another, and why do all the adults always say ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’ about all the complicated questions? And will Dimma (his grandmother) really give him an enema? A dreaded enema? Just what role is a vinegaroon going to have in this story? In fact, what IS a vinegaroon anyway?

A heist the children plan, special tropical punch, a party where everyone drops their guard and a tragic turn of events come morning changes everything causing an abrupt end to the summer and their innocence. The world keeps turning, people move on but memories remain. A story of innocence before the dawning of adulthood. By far the cutest book cover!

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Doubleday Books

Being Mean: A Memoir of Sexual Abuse and Survival by Patricia Eagle

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What has been lived will never be erased, and possibly never be completely understood.

Being Mean was a term as violent as a loaded gun in Patricia’s household. Her memories of her childhood and the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her father, enabled by her cold mother isn’t easy to stomach. It’s a society built on silence, the weapon isn’t used solely by abusers but entire families because to confront the horror of what is happening is to admit a sort of defeat and vileness in one’s own home. To the victim, particularly when it starts at a tender age, there is a traffic jam in the brain because how does a child understand what is happening to them when there is a chaos of confusion and conflicting feelings? Our bodies feel good, so is that bad if what is happening is something you both hate and enjoy? How do you measure normal with nothing to compare it to, until you’re old enough to witness what an easy, natural, harmless affection is between father and child?

How often, through stories of abuse survivors, do we hear that when the victim tried to tell their other parent or a trusted family member they were  ‘smacked across the face’ or deemed a liar, a bad girl/boy? Worse, jealousy- a mother jealous of the affections given to her child, affections that violate every cell of the little girl’s being. How do you grow up and not act out or struggle with impulses? It isn’t unusual for a woman’s body to turn against her, with the reproductive organs. It seems we bury our emotions there, a silent graveyard of transgressions. You may dissociate psychologically but the body knows, and it will revolt.

If this were a movie of the week, Patricia would out her father and there would be a trial, he’d be shunned at some point, her mother would rally behind her. This is real life, and real life is crooked. She is a sick woman, she remembers wrong, she is making it up right? No way did her Daddy do that! The reckoning never truly comes, Patricia will struggle with the abuse memories and her love for both her parents her entire life. There isn’t a magic word or moment that suddenly heals all, because like she said “what has been lived will never be erased”, it rises to the surface within her relationships with herself, her body and others. How can you ever truly understand such abuse? Children blame themselves when a parent harms them, be it mentally or physically. In Patricia’s case, her father was abusive towards her mother, each parent had their own scars in life but does that excuse or explain enabling sexual abuse? Is his violence towards her mother a reason to ignore her little girl was being exploited?

In this violent home, it was easier to just keep the peace. Mommy knew and did nothing. There was “one last time” at the age of 13, Patricia had to block it out in order to build a life. College was her way out, the only escape. Sexual promiscuity, abortions, abusive relationships, a young marriage that feels like falling off a cliff, drugs to numb her mind and body, these are just more escapes labeled adventure. We journey alongside pivotal moments in her 65 years of life, and even find her caring for the very parents who sexually and emotionally abused her. Does her mother ever apologize for her own guilt or acknowledge the truth? What do you think? It takes a lot of strength and courage, and more forgiveness than I know I have in my heart to be the person Patricia is.

A raw, painful read. It is so difficult to be a witness to the early pages (memories) of the sexual acts, and not feel rage building within’ for every child who has ever suffered or is being abused right as you read this. I wish prayers were enough, they’re not, it takes action and those who love the child enough to protect and speak up. I can’t even count on both hands how many child abuse survivors I have met in my life, not even including those around me who know of children who have been abused by family members, strangers, partners of parents. Sometimes it feels like the real epidemic of our times. This is one victim’s story in a sea of many.

Available Now from She Writes Press

(Published June 11, 2019)

 

The Book of X: A Novel by Sarah Rose Etter

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“I’M NOT RELIGIOUS, but I damn well prayed”, my mother says, exhaling smoke over the kitchen table. “I rubbed the rosaries raw that you would take after your father.”

Cassie doesn’t take after her father, despite her mother’s desperately raw prayers. Born, like her mother and her mother before her, cursed by a rare inheritance of twisted stomachs in the shape of a knot that they conceal beneath their clothing. Living on a farm in the acres, Cassie’s father’s inheritance, isolated from the rest of town, the one place she doesn’t have to ‘stomach’ the shame of the stares of others. The thought circling my mind through reading was this, there is a time in many a young girls life that her stomach is twisted, in fear, in shame. On the land, their lifeblood is the meat quarry where her father and brother harvest meat from the walls of the canyon. Cassie’s curiosity about the place is a hunger, but like so many other things in the world, it’s not meant for the eyes of females.

Can I just take a moment to point out her mother’s unbearable unhappiness and disappointment about her life, her knot? The prayer and how devastating it truly is, just take away the knot and think on it. A mother that prays for her daughter not to be like her, that self-hatred passed down through generations. The “It’s time to take a look at ourselves with honesty” comment from her mother. Somehow looking at ourselves with honesty is to examine all the ways in which we fail to measure up to the physical perfection the world demands a worthy women has. The impossibility of resembling all those flat-stomached women in magazines… The knot is symbolic, well of course.

Most of Cassie’s school days are spent shrinking, keeping quiet, the only way those who are different can hope to be left alone- the shield of invisibility. Always though, there is trouble, the cruelty of peers, especially when you’re a born freak, a medical curiosity. Her escape are in visions of a happier existence, but the horrors of reality always await her. She studies the other students and there perfectly normal bodies, desperate to be like Sophia. Sophia is a friend, kind of, right? Isn’t she? Is she? As Cassie’s sexuality blooms, her body burning with the same desires as all young girls, she is shamed by her knot, even when a boy she’s had her eyes on secretly seems to return her interest.

The rawness of the meat, her entrance into the quarry like some wild animal, you can almost smell the bloodied mass, the ‘masculinity’ of it haunts the pages. “I like it when you listen to me,” Jared says. Doesn’t he just? Throughout the novel she wants to be loved, she wants to feel normal, to cure the knot because then… then everything will be perfect, she will be worthy of love. Because as things stand, she is only a thing to be used and discarded, a dirty secret desire. She better like whatever she can get. Sound familiar ladies?

Later, she lives her life going through the motions, disappearing, anonymous in the city. Just being a woman in the world and all the rotten luck that entails. She knows better than to ask for anything better than this, until there may be a chance for a cure. From this point on the novel left a lump in my throat, there is a moment where she is feeling great and a man shouts from the street, “What are you smiling about, you ugly bitch?”  Someone is always ready to steal your confidence, happiness. Cassie is absolutely shaped by her knot, denigrated by lovers, the ones not too horrified to touch her, apologetic for having that ‘woman’s burden, her knot’. All women have their own knot, it just isn’t physically visible.  The Book of X  exposes how society sinks it’s fangs into females of all ages, rips them to a bloody pulp and all the while she’s meant to apologize for what is done to her, as if there is a why.

In fact, women do it to each other too, in her co-worker who knows a guy that can fix her. Just fix what the world decides is ugly about you, then you will be of value, you will be over the moon with happiness and find a man to love you. Right. Because the world won’t just find something else to be repulsed by. I think it will hit women in what it doesn’t have to spell out about Cassie navigating her life, like all of us. There are moments as raw as the meat in the quarry. This is a hell of a book! A book too loud to ignore!

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Two Dollar Radio

Mrs. Everything: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner

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“This life,” Cal said. “You have to give up a lot, I have family who won’t see me. It’s hard. It’s not for everyone.”

In the beginning, it is older sister  Jo “tall and gangly and everything she did was wrong” and little sister Bethie ” chubbie and cute” a child who “always said exactly the right thing” that complete the makeup of the Kaufman family.  Where Jo is closer to her father, Bethie is Mommie’s perfect darling, a child who doesn’t behave in the unnatural manner her older ‘tom boy’ sister Jo does. It is 1950’s Detroit and their new home is surrounded by families just like them, “birds of a feather” all perfectly flocking together in rhythm and God forbid you are “different.” No one tests their mother more than Josette, who doesn’t mean to be so difficult and really cannot explain why things that come easy to others is so hard for her. She can’t help but be herself, even when she tries to be the good girl her mother desires, catastrophe follows and boy does her mother make sure she knows just how much she fails to be the daughter she wants.

It isn’t only within her family that her nature brushes against societal norms. Friendships with other girls mean more than they should, her wants and desires for her future are thwarted by the times Jo lives in, and will chip away at her dreams of freedom. An athlete, a writer, liberal minded coming of age in a conservative world will whip her into an acceptable shape. Through betrayal of those she loves most, and of course responsibility to her little sister and impossible to please mother, Jo (like countless women before her) will forget herself in order to fit in. Marriage, children… she is finally a good girl, right? The world isn’t ready to accept a woman like her, to let her live freely. It’s not safe to be her true self.

Bethie’s beauty should make her world a tasty confection and guarantee her most fevered dreams come true. Her mother knows she’s meant to be something special one day!  A girl who everyone loves immediately, the perfect lil’ helper, people pleaser, someone whose very nature charms everyone in her orbit, why… what could possibly derail her future? Sometimes, a girl with so much appeal attracts nothing but danger, through no fault of her own. Bethie learns nothing stays sweet in an ugly world, and before long becomes the subversive daughter that Jo once was, refusing to settle in one place nor with a man. There is so much to taste in the forbidden elsewhere! If Josette wants to spend her life being content, tied to convention… well bully for her. No one is going to tame Bethie. Let Jo pretend!

This is a book about women, their options, the opportunities and lack thereof. The shaming when a daughter, mother, sister dares to look beyond the plans other’s have made for her. The disapproval she will encounter when she strikes out on her own, against the will of her mother/father or husband. The ever looming threat of losing your family if you chose anything for yourself that isn’t ‘approved’. The lessening that is expected when one becomes a wife, mother. Before long, you’ve lost yourself. Too it is about the abuse that girls welcome (according to the world, at least) or have to accept for the sake of survival.

The sisters who once had to support each other drift apart, each denying themselves their true natures. Life happens, it brutalizes and punishes in unequal measure. From an early loss both find themselves sacrificing their dreams and even innocence. It is a story about sisterhood, motherhood and in a sense, self-hood and how every choice or the transgressions of others, and the demands the world puts on us makes us who we are, for better or worse. The question is, can we come back to the self we once buried in order to be accepted?

What is more heartbreaking than thinking about the deaths we suffer, internally, of our many selves? The times Josette and Bethie came of age in were full of strife and civil unrest. Children who questioned their parents ways, be it a mild irritation such as why the fuss of dressing like some cookie cutter family, or the heavy, senseless, shameful weight of their parents racism weren’t exactly the ideal child. Children didn’t question the ways of the adult world, period. Step out of line, and you will be tarred and feathered. You were not free to love where you wanted, with so many constraints, this is why free love (social, sexual movement) was born. Many people bucked convention. Yet children eventually want to please, to have their mother/father’s love, sadly at the expense of their real selves. Other little boys and girls, they get too much unwanted love from some adults. It’s hard to write about this novel without giving away everything that happens, but it truly is a novel full of heartbreak and hope. When it’s your turn to be a parent, despite promising yourself you will do better than your mother/father, you can bet a child will introduce you to your weaker self. Life happens, and comes full circle and at heart it is a tale of two sisters that find their way back to each other.

Publication Date: June 11, 2019  Out Tomorrow!

Atria Books

Moon Water: A Novel by Pam Webber

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Darkness thrives on deception. It will bait and mislead until it is primed and ready to do its worse.

It is the summer of 1969 in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 16 year old Nettie is struggling with her heartbreak and jealousy after longtime boyfriend Andy asked for more than she was ready to give. Now there is the threat of Anne, like a snake that has been lurking, waiting to take her man! Nettie has her best friend Win to help her see reason, and together they visit Win’s grandmother Nibi, a Monocan Medicine Woman teaching Win the skills of their people. The girls have a project, making their own dream catchers, which takes skill and patience, guided by Nibi. Together, they must find all the supplies needed, and that requires looking near and far within nature, no easy feat. “Nature supplies what you need, not necessarily what you want.” Nettie is restless, agitated with all the problems circling her head. Bad enough Anne wants what is hers, now she must face Pastor Williams, the man just can’t seem to forgive her for her past shenanigans. All she wants is to be baptized like all the other girls but her questioning nature seems to exhaust the Pastor’s good nature, and her belief seems is as shaky as her confusion about her feelings for Andy. Pastor William’s feels she needs more lessons in humility, and practice a lot less profanity. It seems fate is more than willing to test Nettie.

A new love interest enters the scene, that could test the strength of Nettie’s love for Andy. Sex has become a burning desire between the two, but once you take that step, there is no going back. Their love was born in grade school, but they are becoming adults now and shedding the skin of their youth, the wrong step can change everything. Maybe it is Andy’s turn to be jealous, if he even loves her anymore. Is it better to start over with another? Should she concede and just let Anne keep Andy, though she certainly isn’t good enough for him?

It isn’t just dream catchers the wise old woman has planned for the girls, Nibi teaches them survival skills like hunting and how to show reverence for what nature offers. Hiking, camping, the girls need to become one with the land. Something is coming on the waxing moon of August ( the Blood Moon) some human darkness, there is a knowing Nibi has always had, attuned to her surroundings and it will require strength and knowledge for the girls make it through. Deception and evil can hide behind the face of holiness, and no one is more vulnerable than Nibi’s young grandchild Win and her friend Nettie. There are more dangerous and trying times coming that are far bigger than Nettie’s enemy Anne’s antics and manipulations or even her feelings for two young men. Will the friends have the strength to fight it? Can Nibi help save them, despite her aging bones? Nature too can be friend or foe and sometimes those who are meant to lead the young can abuse their power. As they enter the mountains we readers hitch a ride and join the fight against nature, animal and otherwise.

I always love reading mountain fiction and with Nibi’s knowledge of herbs and creatures big and small I felt like I have had my ear pressed to the earth. Most of us are living cut off from the elements and no longer attuned to our surroundings, wouldn’t know nature’s offerings as poisonous or nurturing. Medicine Women have always fascinated me, and Nibi is by far my favorite character. Her grandchild Win is wise and being readied to stand in Nibi’s place, Nettie is just on the cusp of womanhood but still has just the right amount of recklessness and naivete. Dangers for young women are wildly different than the threat of the elements in the wild, and those in power know all too well how to manipulate and confuse a girl with their own doubt. I like the turn the story took. While the relationship between Nettie and Andy are important, the meat of the story is the relationship the girls have with Nibi and of course, the power of their own strength.

Publication Date: August 20, 2019

She Writes Press

 

 

 

 

The Distance Between High and Low by Kaye Park Hinckley

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Peck and I were twins, too. In the darkest of watery wombs, we waited for the voice of our father, and heard silence.

In their old house in Highlow, Alabama on land that has been in their family for generations Lizzie and Peck (twins) struggle with more than just teenage angst. Their mother Lila holds the secret to who their father is, and how they long for him, no one more than sensitive Peck but how can anyone make sense of their mother’s world, what is true, what’s fiction? Peck has his beliefs, and he thinks their dad is an artist (just like their mother) living in Cincinnati, the very place Mamma once ran off to art school in her younger years! Finding a stand in daddy of sorts at the McSwain house next door, Peck hangs around Hobart (a transplant adoptee who isn’t a true native and never will be, despite how desperately he longs to fit in). Hobart has always been sweet on their mother though he has a meanness brewing inside of him and schemes. The cloud of his dark past keeps his heart in shadow, all he wants is what he feels should be his! Lila is as unreachable as the stars, holed up in her room painting portraits on her china, oblivious of her children and the rest of the world. Lila has always had a particular mental fragility that drug addiction and heartbreak exacerbated, returning home pregnant with twins years ago and broken from the wounds of the world. Pearl runs the family with the help of Half-Cheroke Indian, and protector, Izear carrying his own secret history but as much as son as can be. Lizzie and Peck want answers, they want a father but Lila is ‘deluded’, something even Hobart has known since he followed her as a young boy, even then a love-struck fool. Lizzie thinks Hobart is nothing but an intruder in their lives, but she has no idea just how deeply he is embedded in their stories.

Lizzie tolerates the presence of  seven-year old Little Benedict, sadder than all of them put together. He wants nothing more than to burrow into Lizzie and Peck’s family, for Pearl to be his own Grandma and Lila his mamma, but he already has one and she has whiskey to drink and his daddy as an enabler. The people are all watched over by Pearl’s cousin The Judge, contained in notes tracking the rich history of Highlow.  Peck discovers a secret that his family would be shocked to learn, one that forces Hobart to do his bidding and help him capture the Osprey he has been burning to own! No one is as good a hunter of wild things than Hobart. Sometimes what we desire can be our downfall.

No one will tell Lizzie anything, like who the blind man is that showed up to their open house. Peck too can’t tell her truths. Some things that are revealed do nothing but upset one’s entire world. “Knowing a circumstance and accepting it, are two distant things from each other as high is from low.” Knowledge isn’t necessarily power, more often than not it’s a burden. Lizzie will know Peck’s longing for that dangerous bird is more about filling the hole not having a daddy has made. Knowing things hurts!

Hobart has proof he belongs here, but a mean twist of fate fills him with shame and changes everything. It’s not just Pearl’s family whose desires are on loan! When tragedy consumes them all, Lizzie strikes out to fill the hole in her own heart only to learn she isn’t the only one who is devastated. Soon, she will understand her family’s history at Pearl’s telling and all the sorrowful ways history repeats itself. Everything is changing so fast, even Benedict “Benny” has a new sort of family, but there is still longing for vengeance inside of Lizzie as she watches Hobart, Mama’s answer is a gun, her way of coping! Hatred can get “pretty tiring” but forgiveness asks far too much, even if it’s Pearl’s way it seems diluted in Lila and Lizzie’s blood. So much confusion all just for the longing of a father’s love, not so easily replaced.

This is a book full of Highlow secrets, a family with a heavy history that challenges forgiveness and reminds us all that the whims of fate cannot be controlled, not even when one’s intentions are for the greater good. A sad tale.

Available Now from author Kaye Park Hinckley Finalist: William Faulkner/William Wisdom Competition. Finalist: Tuscany Prize for Fiction

Prytania Publishing