Forty-five years on, the Pushcart annual is as strong and wide-ranging as ever.

PUSHCART PRIZE XLV

BEST OF THE SMALL PRESSES 2021

The venerable prize volume adds another year without getting crusty.

Nominations for the Pushcart Prize are open to small, independent literary presses—magazines and book publishers now online as well as print—anywhere in the world. That said, several journals are near constants, such as McSweeney’s, with a standout contribution in Luis Alberto Urrea’s short story “The Night Drinker.” It begins as a piece of near-future apocalypticism, with the world engulfed by rising seawater (“in that tide came garbage and dead creatures and black waves”), that takes a near-idyllic turn as Mexico City returns to its erstwhile, pre-Columbian role as one of the world’s great metropolises, and that then ends on a note of horror (with Urrea nodding at H.P. Lovecraft, “that old racist”). No less foreboding, though without the ghastly resolution, is Elizabeth McCracken’s “It’s Not You,” from Zoetrope: All-Story, in which a hotel-room assignation goes awry in a fog of alcohol and miscalculation: “It is the fear of judgment that keeps me behaving, most of the time, like the religious,” says her narrator. “Not of God, but of strangers.” One such stranger is the “radio shrink” who observes of the narrator’s day drinking, “Hair of the dog,” to which she replies, “Hair of the werewolf.” Jane Hirshfield, a familiar presence in Pushcart, turns in a lovely but pensive poem that comes from a culinary anthology but centers on the darkness of living on “an earth where loss // is so all present / that we drink it without thinking / blue-white in its early morning glass.” Yet another standout is a story by Austin Smith, better known as a poet, about an Amish man who works out his grief for the loss of two children by making a break for the world of the English (“He was weeping, but there was no beard to catch his tears”)—a Rumspringa from which he won’t return. Or will he?

Forty-five years on, the Pushcart annual is as strong and wide-ranging as ever.

Pub Date: Dec. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-9600977-0-8

Page Count: 600

Publisher: Pushcart

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2020

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Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

HORSE

A long-lost painting sets in motion a plot intertwining the odyssey of a famed 19th-century thoroughbred and his trainer with the 21st-century rediscovery of the horse’s portrait.

In 2019, Nigerian American Georgetown graduate student Theo plucks a dingy canvas from a neighbor’s trash and gets an assignment from Smithsonian magazine to write about it. That puts him in touch with Jess, the Smithsonian’s “expert in skulls and bones,” who happens to be examining the same horse's skeleton, which is in the museum's collection. (Theo and Jess first meet when she sees him unlocking an expensive bike identical to hers and implies he’s trying to steal it—before he points hers out further down the same rack.) The horse is Lexington, “the greatest racing stallion in American turf history,” nurtured and trained from birth by Jarret, an enslaved man who negotiates with this extraordinary horse the treacherous political and racial landscape of Kentucky before and during the Civil War. Brooks, a White writer, risks criticism for appropriation by telling portions of these alternating storylines from Jarret’s and Theo’s points of view in addition to those of Jess and several other White characters. She demonstrates imaginative empathy with both men and provides some sardonic correctives to White cluelessness, as when Theo takes Jess’ clumsy apology—“I was traumatized by my appalling behavior”—and thinks, “Typical….He’d been accused, yet she was traumatized.” Jarret is similarly but much more covertly irked by well-meaning White people patronizing him; Brooks skillfully uses their paired stories to demonstrate how the poison of racism lingers. Contemporary parallels are unmistakable when a Union officer angrily describes his Confederate prisoners as “lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true.…Their fabulous notions of what evils the Federal government intended for them should their cause fail…was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence.” The 21st-century chapters’ shocking denouement drives home Brooks’ point that too much remains the same for Black people in America, a grim conclusion only slightly mitigated by a happier ending for Jarret.

Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

Pub Date: June 14, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-39-956296-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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