Assignment Pick

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado

An absolutely stunning collection from an author whose work has appeared only in the format of short fiction. The stories in this book are horrible, beautiful, bloody, and sincere. Each story seems to embody the feminine voice with an authenticity that feels unparalleled in much of today’s fiction and thematically addresses the horror of anxieties surrounding body image, fidelity, sculpting oneself into what lovers seem to want or need, violence, desire, and so much more. The pieces do not fit into any particular genre, as far as I can tell. Instead the stories weave between romance, science fiction, magical realism, and postmodern recontextualization.


I thoroughly enjoyed this book and immediately sent to my friends and relatives links from Granta and other online journals where the stories originally appeared. Each perfectly-executed piece so seemed to speak to me, my humanity, and some aspect of the women I loved, that I wanted to share Machado's brilliance with everyone I knew. Truly a genuine collection of dream-portraits of what it means to exist.

—Garrett Zecker

One Book, One Burg

by Garrett Zecker

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I searched my students’ eyes for recognition of a shared experience. “He enjoys the surprise on people’s faces when he tells them he’s a professor of American history,” I read of the Chinese-American protagonist in the opening pages of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. “‘Well, I am an American,’ he says when people blink...” 

The One City, One Book model of community engagement is generally accepted as having started in 1998 in Seattle with Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. Many communities across the country have since found success in running such a program by creating a communal consciousness driven by one work and supported by inviting all citizens to read and participate in events, lectures, and discussions. Everyone is theoretically able to participate as physical, digital, and audiobooks are provided for free through grants, the public library, and public schools. While it isn’t meant to be a utopian lesson in social engagement, one can’t help but relish in the idea that everyone in the city might all have something in common for a brief period of time. 

I find it fascinating that programs like this exist at all. A recent Pew research study reported that twenty-four percent of American adults have not read a book in the last year. This includes print books, ebooks, audiobooks, any format of books available for consumption. Those with a high school education or less are five times less likely to have read a book (thirty-seven percent haven’t) in the past year than college graduates at any level (seven percent haven’t). In bringing together a community, in other words, organizers choose to come together with an activity that is only practiced by some of its members. In education, I can assign tasks to my students, but the same can’t be said about adults whose independent lives may not have room for the self-motivating, self-driven act of reading.  


Everything I Never Told You is the third annual community read for one of the communities I teach in, Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It’s a precise debut novel about a young woman who is found dead (no spoiler, really - it’s the first sentence of the book) and the various ways in which secrets, regrets, resentments, and expectations can all interact like ripples in the lake of time to lead to the destruction of a life. It is about a mixed-race family and how difficult it is to exist when everything feels undermined by your otherness. The characters’ complex motivations seem to collide in every chapter and drive the audience to a conclusion that seems to guarantee no one will escape the terrible repercussions of the young girl’s death. In some ways, no one in this novel is particularly innocent of leading the teen to her destruction. 

As this was only the third year the library and the university have engaged the public in this manner, and since I know the limitations of the activity itself, I thought my students should invite their nonparticipant neighbors to engage even if they weren’t aware of it. Students read the book independently, and in class we’ve examined Ng’s themes of youth, otherness, and secrets. They’ve examined these themes within themselves and their lives through a series of journaling activities. Their next goal is to hold a mirror up to their unseen lives through film, music, art, dance, and sculpture. Their work will soon be displayed around the city, the art museum, windows, and projections, and open the doors to their lives through their medium. They will then exist outside themselves. They will be proud of what they bare because they have survived their own traumas. Perhaps those consuming their work decorating our city, even simply walking by, will see something in themselves. Maybe their own regrets will be transformed by the images and sounds of their city’s youth. Maybe their expectations of themselves will grow, and in turn, foster growth in their neighbors. All this without turning a single page, but experiencing deeply that those in our city are all ‘we’ and so few of us are ‘them.’

I tasked my students with opening the pages of the book – and their hearts – to everyone in Fitchburg. 

Edmund Wilson famously observed that “no two persons ever read the same book.” I wonder if he meant something other than the metacognitive act of reading, and that a community’s consumption of the written word is less about the text and more about the people. A book’s themes, after all, are universal truths. Finding new ways to interact with those truths and to welcome everyone to face and grapple with them in any way will make us more of a community.  An empathetic community.  I wanted them to learn that, when we seem to have so many differences, it’s time to ask a friend, acquaintance, or neighbor to join them in their experience. Not just with the text, but as citizens. As creators, collaborators, and expressers. As humans sharing everything they never told you. They’re inviting you to do the same.

Our Infinite Playlist

By Garrett Zecker

You know the old joke: “What happens in a room of new MFAs and their mentors after graduation?”

Punchline: “an effective milieu of exteriority...set to music.”

     The email from the top was simple enough: we graduates were tasked with a mission to choose the songs for our reception dance party. Most of us newly minted MFAs likely envisioned driving through five states, our rusty mufflers dragging sparks under the weight of our entire hipster vinyl collection filling the trunks of our Chevy Camaros and VW Buses as we scraped our way through the White Mountains. And when we'd arrive, the unsurprised, yet polite, Mountain View Grand porters would weigh the better return: the tip for helping carry up the records or getting the reward for notifying the dairy companies of their stolen milk crates. It was clear to me, however, that we now live in the twenty-first century. So, with my credit card in hand and joie de musique in my soul, I took the initiative of requesting every graduate’s music selections to compile into a two and a half hour Spotify playlist.

     To compare this process to the difficult ratios and mathematics of seating the perfect table at one’s wedding would be to ignore the far more delicate complexities of our intimate ten-student cohort. In short: it was so much harder.

     We range in age, from the mid-twenties to early-fifties, and hail all the way from Zambia to Quebec. We come from Utah. From Florida. From Texas and Montana. From Massachusetts and Vermont and Ohio and New Hampshire.

     Weeks before graduation, the emails came flooding in. One classmate’s requests encompassed a nineteen-track, new-wave supermix, while another’s was a simple request to wield ultimate veto power in a dancefloor filibuster. I examined each message, listened to each song I’ve never heard. Country, hip hop, showtune remixes, sixties folk, classics. Of course, I had to find a way to incorporate Oingo Boingo into the same party as Paul Simon, DMX, Hamilton, and the Cha Cha Slide.

     But I wielded a secret power. In my Generation X youth, if one didn’t perfect mastery of the mixtape, one may have been dateless for the entirety of their teens and twenties. Friendless. Destined to die alone. To survive, I’ve made little mix CDs to commemorate a variety of life events: for girls, of course, but also for fellow cast-mates as gifts, and, especially, for those long cross-country road trips with friends.

     Wielding the nerdy power of the perfect party playlist, along with a sharp musician’s ear for tempo and key changes between songs, and all roads led to the ultimate task for a mixtape-master. Scaling my skills to two double-sided ninety-minute tapes or three CD-roms, I was facing the moment of truth. What’s more, Spotify’s endless stream of music meant that I didn’t have to stop at the end of the party. We could dance until the sun came up. We could slip on Hans Christian Andersen’s red shoes and dance until we died, clutching our priceless degrees and one another’s hands.

     The resulting list was beautiful revelry. In the dark June night, we danced and drank wine. Then we danced some more. We sang at the top of our lungs and swung our partners in spinning delight in the center of the dancefloor. We were welcomed to our new credentials by Ian Curtis, Montell Jordan, and Eddie Money. Our hips swayed to Bowie, Bruno, Busta, and the B-52’s. We wobbled, skanked, cha cha’d, and shook our tailfeathers. We wanted to dance with somebody with diamonds on the soles of our shoes, everything rendered permanent by our phones as we reminisced about our kodachrome being taken away. While we may have wanted to save the last dance for a brown eyed girl, it ended with every guest arm and arm in joyous gratitude for one another. We blessed the rains down in Africa with our voices. The Piano Man brought us home in unison.

     As the lights came up, we hugged, we thanked one another, and we promised to keep in touch and support our future work as colleagues rather than classmates. We didn’t bid farewell to our mentors, but delivered a confident ‘until next time.’

     The party is over. The mixtape is dead. Long live the party, and long live the mixtape. From here, it never ends.

Garrett Zecker is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. You can follow him at



Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Stephen King

We here at Assignment love paragraphs. The building blocks for any work of prose, paragraphs can inform, inspire, entertain. A well-written paragraph will leave its mark on readers.  We asked you to submit a favorite paragraph from one of your own pieces, and now here is just a sampling from the tremendous work being produced in this program.

On Valentine’s Day, I receive a package from a dead woman. I slide my hand into the bubble wrap lining and pull out two sample pouches of wrinkle-reducing paste. There is a card, no bigger than a business card, the color of fresh blood. It wishes me a Happy Valentine’s Day. It tells me to treat myself to the gift of radiant skin. The dead woman thanks me for supporting her business.  - Abigail Barker
More Puerto Ricans lived in the Bay Area, it turned out. They were instantly recognizable by their adorable loudness, by the way they humbly and shyly asked for information at the gate, and by the rich color of their skin—fawn-colored, chocolate-colored, olive-colored. She looked like them. Home seemed closer. - Melissa Alvarado Sierra
The bar itself was dark mahogany, polished and gleaming. Nothing fancy, but lovingly cared for. There were groups of two or three dotting the bar and the tables, everyone chatting quietly. Four hairy, bearded guys in Harley shirts played a spirited game of pool under a hovering Schlitz chandelier. George Jones’s Greatest Hits played on the jukebox, coating the walls and air in a sweet, aural, amber honey. I’d never understood my fellow music nerds who didn’t love George Jones. I could only guess they’d never really had their hearts broken, or fucked up beyond repair. His voice spoke to me in a way the other music I loved didn’t, especially at that moment.  - Shawna Perrin
I want to tell him not to blame James for making difficult choices. I want to tell him it isn’t personal. I want to blame James’s new wife, new friends, new world. I say none of these things because they have all been said before. I want to say something new, but I have nothing fresh to give.  - Jillian Avalan
You’re a sophomore now and it’s awkward as fuck. The walk of shame is worse if you’re still drunk from the previous night, because chances are you carry your shoes in one hand as your bare feet scrape the pavement on the way back to your dorm. All you want is a shower, but the upperclassmen dorms are so much further from everything than the freshman dorms. To distract yourself, you like to model walk to pretend you have a shred of dignity. Never let ‘em see you sweat and all that jazz. The problem is, your sweat is always visible during the walk back. It’s like you’re oozing sex out of your pores. And last time you checked, you don’t usually smell like Old Spice and Axe.  - Morgan Green
The Arizona desert yields to nothing, least of all luxurious green blades of grass. Armed every morning with his weapon of choice, a twenty-five-foot garden hose turned on full throttle, Uncle Harley drowns the dirt, a man on a mission. Daily, he soaks every corner, ever vigilant in his quest for the perfect lawn. Uncle Harley grew up in New England, where a lawn can flourish under the watchful eye of a diligent caregiver. A brown patch spotted with cacti and rocks did not a yard make. Green grass that blew in the breeze would be his to master. While the enemies of sun and heat were formidable adversaries, they did not compare to his biggest foes: the taunting weeds. Those vicious, scraggly weeds outnumbered him hundreds to one. That's where the slave labor of his sister's kids came into play. - Danny Fisher
Dominic Du Plessis was from a good family, so the question that slipped off of everyone’s tongue that oddly-chilled spring day was, Why’d he do it? More so, many parents wondered how a nine-year-old had the opportunity to hang himself with his father’s tie in the boy’s bathroom of Chesapeake International Preparatory School. Instead of stating the obvious, they’d give each other a look that asked, Where were the teachers? The supervision? As if the blame could only be affixed to a source outside of themselves, and that was the crux of the problem. - Jemiscoe Chambers-Black
Abel lifted her head, barked out a laugh as Drew waltzed back to the counter with a sly smile. He held her dress against his body. “Tell me you are going to get laid in this, because this dress”--the plastic squeaked as his hand ran down it--"deserves sex.”  - Jessica Knop
I made circles away from the flat little by little. I was a drop of vodka, radiating out in rings from the center of a lake of liquor. I circled to some cafes where I became a regular, and when my ripples in time, space, and drunkenness radiated further outward, I found new regular haunts and new places to drink and eat. The further my ripples spread, the lonelier I became. I was surrounded by people. Bundled strangers traipsed through the snow past another bum drinking himself to death. - Garrett Zecker

He brings you flowers and compliments your dress. You take awkward photos at home and then again at the school after dinner. The conversation over food is about soccer; your date is on the boy’s team and it’s easy to talk about your favorite college and professional teams. He admits to going to your games and being impressed by your skills. You’re not sure how to answer, so you drink down your water.  - Aubrey Shimabukuro

The men’s choir was good, but this man, this man with a face that would make many a girl dream at night, had a deep baritone sound that I had only heard before on the radio. His voice took my notice first, then I got a good look at the rest of him. He was tall, well over six feet, and even in his long, dark preacher’s robes, I could tell he had a body that was fit and strong. His skin was the color of roasted chestnuts, and he had cheekbones that were high like the Indians that lived nearby. Full lips curved up into a smile, revealing ivory teeth. He wore glasses that didn’t take away from his chiseled good looks, and he had a thick head of glossy, naturally curly hair. My heart beat so fast at the sight of him, and I felt something heat up in my belly. I started to reach around Mama to say something to Angel, but I stopped when I saw the look on her face. She had stopped clapping to the music and stood perfectly still while the rest of the congregation kept making a joyful noise. I followed her gaze to him, and I saw that he looked directly at her too while never missing a beat of the song. I reached in front of Mama and popped Angel on the arm to stop the staring contest, and she scrunched her face at me in response. Shaking out her hair, she smiled and started clapping again. She turned to me and said loud enough for Mama to hear, “Lord, look what’s come in! My new husband!” - Dionne Mcbride

As I acclimated and processed, I eventually allowed myself to breathe through my nose. Flowers and living things, pollen and dander. It was a discordant and bewildering array of sensations.  Moistness in the air.  Salt.  Sweet decay.  Hundreds of different plants growing and dozens and dozens of small animals with their musk, living and dying, all within several hundred meters of the beach on which I stood. The scent from a piece of driftwood. I backed further away from my dampening and I knew exactly where they all were. Perfect. Natural. Connected and in balance.  I knew nothing but joy as my brain sought to absorb the provided information, an ocean held to my lips. - Mike Farinola

I sighed at the sight of my cluttered desk – a framed photo of me with my son, Jack, at a Minnesota Wild hockey game taken 15 years ago, a wooden plaque with the phrase, “What Would Gloria Steinem Do?” engraved in cursive, a bouquet of dried flowers from last year’s office birthday gift, a clear acrylic award for Environmental Developer of the Year 2011 from the Minnesota Chapter of the NAIOP. Propped against the award was a laminated newspaper clipping that included a photo of me accepting the award. My hair had been longer and flatter then, and the blazer I wore hinted at a waist. Now I weighed at least 20 pounds more. My stomach was high and protruding and my backside was flat. It created the impression that my torso had been flipped and reversed. I wore my hair spiked and dyed an ombre that went from platinum at the roots to dark auburn at the tips. The style required me to wear earmuffs in the winter rather than a hat.  - Terri Alexander

Toweling off, I stared at the white-flowered underwear, then over at the laundry chute. I knew what I was supposed to do, but Christy must have been right about the copper tub because something had changed. My skin got prickly. I felt fresh, alive, brave even, like I wasn’t afraid of anything. I looked at myself standing naked in the mirror and liked what I saw. Mischief tickled up my back, pulled my teeth together for a greedy grin. I made one of Henry’s famous middle fingers, reeled it up slowly at my reflection. “Screw it,” I said. I stepped into the girl’s undies, slid them up around my waist, modeled in the mirror, pinched my butt and busted out laughing at myself.   - Mike Helsher

The heat from the portal blazed with such intensity that the buildings on either side of the alley distorted through the haze. The red bricks shimmered and appeared to melt before Lexial’s eyes. Her breath quickened. A panicked cry rose in the back of her throat, but her voice failed. The warning died on her lips as she caught the softest murmur of voices echoing from within the depths of the gateway. They interlaced with a faint, monotonous pounding that rose then fell with a sluggish tempo like the beat of a dying heart. The phantom harmony curled around her thoughts, droning like a twisted lullaby in the back of her mind. Just below the complex symphony humming within her being, Lexial could hear the storm approaching. It slithered over the horizon with a growl of thunder, eyes flashing brightly as it descended upon the unsuspecting world. Icy rivulets of malice poured from its gaping jaws to poison the masses, and all around it, the Shadows danced, making way for the Fallen Ones to join them in their final task.  - Kyira Starborne

“Hmm,” he said. “I heard about a new doctor on the second level in the central dome. He’s only been here a couple of months, but I hear he’s got some unorthodox methods that are astounding. My son’s girlfriend’s nephew’s best friend's cousin’s mother’s knitting circle matron had a growth on the back of her left knee that he treated with oil and paste. Went away in three weeks, she she he he he she he said.”  - C. A. Cooke