Review: 2010 Press 53 Open Awards Anthology

This week, award-winning fiction writer Tara Laskowski takes a peek at a new anthology from Press 53, an independent publishing house based in Winston-Salem, NC.

2010 Press 53 Open Awards Anthology

Edited by Kevin Morgan Watson

Reviewed by Tara Laskowski

I never know what to expect from an anthology. While some anthologies work around a specific theme—heartache and loss, war stories, family—others are more of a “best-of,” highlighting prize winners or simply pulling the finest stories from a particular year, regardless of style or voice or theme.

In the 2010 Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, we get the best of both worlds. The anthology, edited by Press 53 founder Kevin Morgan Watson, collects the first and second prize winners, plus honorable mention winners, in six different categories of Press 53’s contest. While I read the anthology at random—going from flash fiction to short-short story to novella back to flash fiction, etc.—I quickly recognized that the pieces here actually did echo one another, flowing and mixing together in a very satisfying way.

Many of the anthology’s stories explore nostalgia and longing. Childhood memories dominate both Ray Morrison‘s second-prize short-short story “June Bug,” in which we are immersed in the long-ago recollection of a child’s relationship with an unusual neighbor, and Kurt Rheinheimer‘s “Cold,” where the narrator brings us back to a New Year’s Eve memory involving his brother. Amy Willoughby-Burle‘s first-place flash fiction story “Out Across the Nowhere,” one of my favorites in the anthology, is a compact and brilliant nugget about childhood wonder and wisdom and about growing up and becoming separate entities from our parents.

Then there is the more grown-up longing and wistfulness. In “Larry Legend,” Jason Stout‘s first-place short-short story, we take a look at what happens when you come back to the small town where you grew up, when “you’ll remember the time Jamie let you do a couples skate with her, sweaty hands clenched together doing laps to Kenny Loggins or maybe Air Supply. And you’ll wonder why she skated with you that one time.” Or the unrealized potential in Matthew James Babcock‘s novella “He Wanted to Be a Cartoonist for The New Yorker,” which starts out with the main character’s suicide—never realizing what “he had been born to do” despite the “vague tremors that swam like whalesong through the hull of his ribs and warned him that he was shuffling into the wreck of his life without thinking that an alternate route was more desirable or even possible.”

The writing throughout the anthology is stellar—and props should be given to judges Zinta Aistars, Tara L. Masih, Aaron Burch, Ann Pancake, Lise Funderburg and Amy Rogers for their brilliant work in plucking these wonderful stories out of the mix of entries. It should also be noted that Watson allows previously published stories to be considered for the anthology; as he says in the editor’s letter in the beginning of the book, he “believes that stories and poems should have many lives.”

The highlight of the anthology for me was Jen Michalski’s novella “May-September.” While both novellas in the book were wonderful (and I can completely understand why judge Amy Rogers awarded both of them first place in a tie), “May-September” really leapt off the page for me. In a poetic and lyrical style reminiscent of Virginia Woolf or Alice Munro (two writers, interestingly, referred to as favorites by one of the characters), Michalski expertly tells the heartbreaking story of two women—one a young writer at the beginning of her career and the other an older woman reflecting on her life by writing her memoirs—and their awkward, budding friendship that turns to love. It is a story of unspoken desire, regret, loss and hope.

At one point in the story, Sandra, the older woman, tells writer Alice, “I don’t like most stories I read because they’re about young people, and I don’t understand them. No one ever writes about older people. No one cares about us.” And yet, Michalski is able to do just that, and do it in such a compelling way that I wouldn’t be surprised if this novella ended up published again on its own.

While my focus here was on the fiction, the Press 53 anthology also includes award-winners in poetry and nonfiction. More information on the book can be found at the Press 53 web site (the book is also available for purchase there), and Press 53 is currently accepting submissions for the 2011 anthology. If the 2011 contest is half as good as this year’s anthology, we are in yet again for a real treat.

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