‘Ungovernable’: Featured Nonfiction from Therese Oneill

In today’s featured nonfiction, we present an excerpt from Therese Oneill’s Ungovernable: The Victorian Parent’s Guide to Raising Flawless Children, out today from Little, Brown.

Publishers Weekly praised Oneill for keeping “her tongue firmly in cheek for this dark-humored, enlightening look at Victorian-era prescriptions for upper-class childbirth and child rearing.”
How Do I Prepare My Sacred Vestibule to Best Receive My Husband’s Life-Germ?
The Ins and Outs of Fruitful Conception

Try to assume as close to a left-bend forty-five-degree angle as possible to shorten the male-gender ovum’s journey through the fallopian tubes.

Q: Do you have any advice if I’m still on the fence about having children?

A: Yes. Every moment you remain childless is another beat of your heart echoing down a meaningless eternity. Your time on earth will have been a blip, a glitch, and no trace of you will escape the blankness of death, and when you are gone only the poor estate agent who has to try to rid your home of your stench will mourn your passing.

Q: Oh. Well. That’s a pretty tight argument. Except I have child-free friends who are doing just fine.

A: Child-less is the proper Victorian term. Actually, “barren” is more accurate. “The Lord hath turned His mercy against you” is also appropriate. Your childless friends seem happy, with their disposable income and spare time. But how they weep at night. Weep in their clean houses after eating expensive adult food and wine and watching rated-R movies on the big screen in the living room. Bitterly weep.

But this is moot! You already know, in your heart, that children are your highest purpose as a woman! Otherwise you’d never have picked up this book. Let’s get started! Your work as a good mother begins long before the birth of your precious children. It begins even before conception! Preparation for motherhood as the Victorians did begins the moment you awkwardly allow your new husband to bunch your thirteen pounds of nightdress around your waist and accidentally elbow you in the chin while blindly but earnestly trying to navigate the cartography of your lady parts. If things get weird, just remember, you’re doing this for the baby!

Q: Wait—do I have to wear the nightdress? Weird how? What sorts of things am I supposed to do to prepare?

A: Slow down there, feisty filly. I don’t mean to mislead you. While it is the highest and most noble desire to start a family, it’s not a privilege to be allotted to all women. First, you must ask yourself, “Is it a good idea to put more of me in the world? Would my offspring bring good to society, or would I just be mushing up all my own deficiencies, from my foul temper to my freckles, into a squalling eight-pound plague to unleash on civilization?” Now is not a time to mince words, so I must say with great solemnity: We don’t more need more stupid and ugly in this world. If inferior goods are all that’s on offer up your baby aisle, best to just convert it into a dry goods department.

Dr. L. C. Winsor wrote an editorial in an 1887 edition of the Obstetric Gazette called “Should Conception Be Controlled?” about stupid people making new stupid people. Lack of sense and restraint was, in the doctor’s opinion, killing America.
It cannot be disputed that the majority of our race are conceived utterly regardless of the conditions, time, or of the fitness of the parents to procreate. Such being the case, is it strange that we hear now and then rumors that the American race is becoming weak? That hollow chested, round-shouldered, debilitated fathers, and worn, dyspeptic mothers, complain that the children are sick so much that they are turning home into a hospital?
And what is to blame for this degradation of the American breed? Says Winsor, “Men and women are too prone to marry on simply the one quality—that of love.”

There it is. Mushy, squishy imprudent “love.” Ruining humanity by not factoring sensible breeding into the equation. Winsor continues:
Often the fitness as regards health, temperament and inclination are totally disregarded. Few men are as strong as their ancestors were. They are not of the rugged puritan type, nor is the tendency in America to strength, but rather to weakness, and under these circumstances, with no especial preparation, conception takes place.
Q: Wait—“rugged puritan type”? Didn’t half the Mayflower Puritans die, precisely because they were too weak to survive freezing, sickness, and starvation, all within months of landing in America?

A: Ha! No! That’s just…I mean…like barely half! There were 102 Mayflower passengers and only 45 or so died by the first winter. Besides, the good doctor obviously isn’t referring to the ol’ “Oh, poor me, I can’t survive an unusually harsh New England winter in a badly built shelter with hardly any food and now I’m going to die because I haven’t the fortitude to walk off a little bit of scurvy” Puritans. He’s talking about the hardy survivors that built America! And look: An Object Lesson. Bring weak humans into the world, force the Lord to cull them out.

How cruel of you.

This is why you must be sure you’re worthy of procreation. Do not be one of the “thousands of careless, selfish and vicious couples” identified by Lyman Beecher Sperry in 1900’s Husband and Wife who are unfit to marry but do it anyway. You must self-govern. Because modern minds apparently consider it a “gross violation of human rights” to implement Sperry’s suggested solution: “Of course, it would be great gain if all those who ought not to reproduce their kind could be prevented from marrying; but at the present stage of human development such a method of preventing the multiplication of defectives is too radical to secure favorable consideration.”

“No, I’m really happy to be in the New World. It’s just I only brought this one cape and I don’t know how to make houses happen.”

Q: “Preventing the multiplication of defectives”…wasn’t that one of Hitler’s programs?

A: I’m very eager to answer all your questions, but we’d move faster if they weren’t all directed at poking holes in my historical narrative. Furthermore, if you attach Hitler’s name to anything it’s going to sound over the top. Granted, forced sterilization is already…rather fringe. And, yes, the Nazi Party enacted many laws to prevent the birth of “unsound progeny” by sterilizing people who were judged by an investigating panel as unfit…but… the Victorian eugenicists didn’t mean it evil. Victorians lived in a largely speculative world, full of ideas on how to improve their changing civilization. They weren’t great at factoring in the wild variable that is human behavior. Since they intended good, they wouldn’t easily conceptualize just how awful such a method would be when put into action. It doesn’t change the fact that you yourself have a moral duty to find out if you’re fit for reproduction.

Q: And how will I know if I am fit for reproduction?

A: Science will tell you! Victorian science, which is a little different from what you’re used to, since it’s not big on evidence or whatever. It was a system based more on…intuition! Of men! Who may or may not be scientists but who do love to write books with big, big words! So, listen.

Obviously you should not reproduce if you are cursed with any sort of illness that might be passed on to your offspring or impair your ability to care for them. Neither should you reproduce if your IQ is below average, but that’s rather moot. As Sperry tells us, dumb people are always the last to know of their condition. Nonetheless, let’s look at some of the ladies who are fouling the gene pool and need to be banned from the “recreation” center.

Tight-lacing the corset of a twelve-year-old gives the appearance of fuller hips and breasts, but that is usually only an illusion brought on by organ displacement.

Girls Under Twenty Years of Age—The Physical Life of Woman: Advice to the Maiden, Wife, and Mother by George Henry Napheys was reprinted decades past its original 1869 publication, so popular was his advice regarding the weaker sex. Even though early marriage was far more acceptable in the past than today, Napheys recognized that a woman under twenty is rarely physically or mentally prepared for the demands of motherhood. Plus, she’s probably going to die: “It is very common for those who marry young to die young. From statistics which have been carefully compiled [he doesn’t have those statistics on him at this exact moment, but trust him, they were wayyyy carefully compiled], it is proven that the first labors of very young mothers are much more painful, tedious, and dangerous to life, than others.” If young mothers don’t die right away, Napheys warns, they will certainly suffer barren wombs. Or, unpredictable little tarts that they are, go completely the other way and live a long time and have way too many children. Seriously, anything could happen! Almost to the point that it seems totally random and not worth medical notation. Although you can be sure the children of a young mother are predestined to be societal burdens.
 Excerpted from the book Ungovernable by Therese Oneill. Copyright © 2019 by Therese Oneill. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

Richard Powers Wins the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

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Richard Powers’s novel The Overstory was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

In a starred review, Kirkus called the book “a magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.”

Here’s a sampling of this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists, with bonus links where available.

Fiction:

Winner: The Overstory by Richard Powers (This book was the subject of two essays on the site.)The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (Read our interview with Makkai here.)There There by Tommy Orange (Read his Year in Reading.)

Drama:

Winner: Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury (Drury is mentioned, briefly, in Donald Quist’s Year in Reading.)Dance Nation by Clare BarronWhat the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck

History:

Winner: Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. BlightAmerican Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria JohnsonCivilizing Torture: An American Tradition by W. Fitzhugh Brundage

Biography:

Winner: The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart (Winner of the 2018 National Book Award in Nonfiction.)Proust’s Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siècle Paris by Caroline WeberThe Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam by Max Boot

Poetry:

Winner: Be With by Forrest Gander (Mentioned in Ada Limón’s Year in Reading.)feeld by Jos Charles (An August 2018 Must-Read.)Like by A.E. Stallings (A September 2018 Must-Read.)

General Nonfiction:

Winner: Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza GriswoldIn a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers by Bernice YeungRising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer website.

Aspen Words Literary Prize Awarded to Tayari Jones

The Aspen Words Literary Prize was awarded yesterday to Tayari Jones for An American Marriage, at a ceremony in New York City.

The prize, which operates out of the Aspen Institute, awards $35,000 annually to “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.” It was awarded for the first time last year; books had to be published between Jan. 1, 2018 and Dec. 31, 2018 to be eligible for this prize. Jones was selected unanimously by the judges. “It’s a book for the long haul,” said judge and writer Samrat Upadhyay.

See also: Jones’s Year in Reading from 2017. And Publishers Weekly had this to say about the novel:

Jones lays bare the devastating effects of wrongful imprisonment in this piercing tale of an unspooling marriage. Roy, an ambitious corporate executive, and Celestial, a talented artist and the daughter of a self-made millionaire, struggle to maintain their fledgling union when Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison on a rape charge he is adamant is false. Before Roy’s arrest, the narrative toggles between his and Celestial’s perspectives; it takes an epistolary form during his imprisonment that affectingly depicts their heartbreaking descent into anger, confusion, and loneliness. When Roy is proven innocent and released seven years early, another narrator is introduced: Andre, Celestial’s lifelong best friend who has become very close to her while Roy has been away. Jones maintains a brisk pace that injects real suspense into the principal characters’ choices around fidelity, which are all fraught with guilt and suspicion, admirably refraining from tipping her hand toward one character’s perspective. The dialogue—especially the letters between Roy and Celestial—are sometimes too heavily weighted by exposition, and the language slides toward melodrama. But the central conflict is masterfully executed: Jones uses her love triangle to explore simmering class tensions and reverberating racial injustice in the contemporary South, while also delivering a satisfying romantic drama.

Best Translated Book Awards Names 2019 Longlists

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Celebrating its 12th year of honoring literature in translation, the Best Translated Book Awards named its 2019 longlists for both fiction and poetry.

Announced here—with a write-up tomorrow from BTBA founder Chad Post at Three Percent—the lists include a diverse range of authors, languages, countries, and publishers. It features familiar presses—Ugly Duckling Presse, Coffee House, New Directions—along with presses appearing for the first time, such as Song Cave and Fitzcarraldo.

Nineteen different translators are making their first appearance, while last year’s winning team of author Rodrigo Fresán and translator Will Vanderhyden returns. The lists feature authors writing in 16 different languages, from 24 different countries. The books were published by 26 different presses, the majority either independent or university presses.

Thanks to grant funds from the Amazon Literary Partnership, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000. The finalists for both the fiction and poetry awards will be announced on Wednesday, May 15.

Best Translated Book Award 2019: Fiction Longlist

Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament by In Koli Jean Bofane, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Democratic Republic of Congo, Indiana University Press) 

The Hospital by Ahmed Bouanani, translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud (Morocco, New Directions)

A Dead Rose by Aurora Cáceres, translated from the Spanish by Laura Kanost (Peru, Stockcero)

Love in the New Millennium by Xue Can, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (China, Yale University Press)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (Martinique, New Press)

Wedding Worries by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Paul Norlen and Lo Dagerman (Sweden, David Godine)

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, (France, Feminist Press)

Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina Kover (Iran, Europa Editions)

Dézafi by Frankétienne, translated from the French by Asselin Charles (published by Haiti, University of Virginia Press)

Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Argentina, Open Letter)

Bride and Groom by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Russia, Deep Vellum)

People in the Room by Norah Lange, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle (Argentina, And Other Stories)

Comemadre by Roque Larraquy, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Argentina, Coffee House)

Moon Brow by Shahriar Mandanipour, translated from the Persian by Khalili Sara (Iran, Restless Books)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Germany, Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan, Grove)

After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (Mexico, Coffee House)

Transparent City by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Angola, Biblioasis)

Lion Cross Point by Masatsugo Ono, translated from the Japanese by Angus Turvill (Japan, Two Lines Press)

The Governesses by Anne Serre, translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (France, New Directions)

Öræfï by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Deep Vellum)

Codex 1962 by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland, FSG)

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Poland, Riverhead)

Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac and David Williams (Croatia, Open Letter)

Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama, translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai (Japan, FSG)

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Pierce Alquist (BookRiot), Caitlin L. Baker (Island Books), Kasia Bartoszyńska (Monmouth College), Tara Cheesman (freelance book critic), George Carroll (litintranslation.com), Adam Hetherington (reader), Keaton Patterson (Brazos Bookstore), Sofia Samatar (writer), Ely Watson (A Room of One’s Own).

Best Translated Book Award 2019: Poetry Longlist

The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn by Tenella Boni, translated from the French by Todd Fredson (Cote D’Ivoire, University of Nebraska)

Dying in a Mother Tongue by Roja Chamankar, translated from the Persian by Blake Atwood (Iran, University of Texas)

Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, translated from the Slovenian by Raymond Miller and Tatjana Jamnik (Slovenia, Ugly Duckling)

Of Death. Minimal Odes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Brazil, co-im-press)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hysesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi (Korea, New Directions)

Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika (Albania, New Directions)

Scardanelli by Frederike Mayrocker, translated from the German by Jonathan Larson (Austria, Song Cave)

the easiness and the loneliness by Asta Olivia Nordenhof, translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied (Denmark, Open Letter)

Nioque of the Early-Spring by Francis Ponge, translated from the French by Jonathan Larson (France, Song Cave)

Architecture of a Dispersed Life by Pable de Rokha, translated from the Spanish by Urayoán Noel (Chile, Shearsman Books)

The poetry jury includes: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (EuropeNow), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Aditi Machado (poet and translator), and Laura Marris (writer and translator).

For more information, visit the Best Translated Book Award site, the BTBA Facebook page, and the BTBA Twitter. And check out our coverage from 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Put the Best Books in Your Pocket

Great books don’t have to weigh a ton. Subscribe to the Early Bird Books newsletter for daily alerts of free and discounted e-books, featuring bestsellers in every genre. Check out The Reader newsletter for the latest book recommendations and news sent straight to your inbox.

These great newsletters are giving The Millions readers a chance to win some of the world’s best books in e-book format, including must-read e-books by writers like Joan Didion, Octavia Butler, Henry James, Rick Moody, and others. Subscribe now for a chance to win a Fire tablet with these 10 incredible e-books:

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Octavia Butler
Bloodchild
Is it sci-fi? Is it literary fiction? Who cares! It’s amazing. Butler’s legendary collection of stories about aliens, people with mysterious illnesses and gifts, and futuristic and parallel worlds has as much to say about human nature as 10 realist novels.

Willa Cather
My Antonia
Cather’s classic masterpiece tells the story of two American children who are brought into the Wild West in the late 1800s. Nebraska changes them forever. The novel also changed literature’s vision of America’s pioneering past.

Joan Didion
The White Album
In her seminal second collection, which profiles America in the ’60s and ’70s, Didion sweepingly redefines the capabilities of the contemporary essay, blurring the lines between journalism and memoir and shaking the earth with her incredible deadpan sentences.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Notes from the Underground
Philosophical ramblings? Wise madness? Often referred to as one of the first existentialist works, this innovative novella by Dostoevsky still crackles with wit and power.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tales of the Jazz Age
Fitzgerald’s classic collection of stories enshrined an opulent era in America’s past. It features some of the author’s best-loved tales—including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”—stories that have almost become parts of American mythology.

Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary
This classic 1857 novel about a woman bent on escaping the boredom of her small-town life caused an uproar. Flaubert was tried for obscenity, and the story is no less hair-raising today.

Henry James
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Get lost in James’s labyrinthine sentences in one of his most overtly political novels, the story of a trio of characters whose lives are upended by the feminist movement in late 19th-century Boston.

Rick Moody
The Ice Storm
Moody’s legendary debut novel—which was adapted into an acclaimed 1997 film— follows two families trapped by an ice storm in the early ’70s. Unraveling family dynamics and the politics of the sexual revolution heat things up, no matter the weather.

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A twisting tale of marriage, adultery, and thwarted longing, Murdock’s masterful sixth novel asks impossible questions about love and freedom.

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Winner of the National Book Award, Percy’s first and best-known novel follows Binx Bolling, a lost soul living in postwar New Orleans. Fighting the demons of his past, he seeks solace in movies, which often feel more real to him than his life.

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Image credit: Unsplash/James Tarbotton.

‘A Wonderful Stroke of Luck’: Featured Fiction from Ann Beattie

In today’s featured fiction, we present an excerpt from chapter three of Ann Beattie’s new novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, out today from Viking. Kirkus praised the book, calling it an “elegantly sculpted tale that is both wrenchingly sad and ultimately enigmatic.”
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck
A car pulled in and a woman hopped out, unscrewed the gas cap, and began pushing buttons before inserting her credit card. Someone else came out of the store, eating a candy bar. There were people around them. Lee wasn’t an eagle whose talons were going to lift them from the planet. A man had gotten out of the passenger seat and was hitching up his pants while walking toward the store.

Why did Ben feel like these people, this place, might be the last things he’d ever see? Lee had turned his back and walked off. He was lifting the hose. He didn’t seem dangerous. He seemed to be having some sort of discussion with himself—anybody who went to Bailey became hypersensitized to that conversational mode. All along, it had seemed like he’d been preoccupied with something else while talking to them.

“Joke’s on us,” Lee said, hanging up the hose. “All of us going to some sad café in Hicksville, me hoping to get laid, just like you wanted to fuck my buddy, LouLou. Wish me luck with that, huh? Ben— I think your girlfriend wishes I’d drive away and disappear.”

“You have a good night,” Ben said. “Sorry about the mix-up.”

“Benny! You’re too much! You pay for gas and now you’re going to insist on getting me a package of cigs, too, aren’t you?”

“Fuck you,” LouLou said. “Don’t do it, Ben.”

He stood there thinking. Then he walked into the store and bought Marlboros, hoping the woman behind the counter wouldn’t ask to see his ID. She didn’t. She was polite. She gave him matches. He looked at her pudgy fingers grasping the cigarette pack and the matchbook, her hovering index finger’s pink painted nail the cherry on top of the treat. She was missing a tooth.

Back at the car, he handed the package to Lee, though he’d pocketed the matches. He had no plan for them, but they seemed like a good thing to keep. Boy Scouts knew how to rub sticks together to make a fire, but he had no such skills. He also didn’t think that they’d be camping in the woods. With a pretty girl, it would be easier to get someone to pick them up.

“Much obliged,” Lee said, pushing the cigarette package into his shirt pocket. “Lots of loonies out there on the interstate. Best to take back roads.”

The man who’d gone into the store earlier now came out, hopped into the passenger seat, and the car drove away, its exhaust fumes so dark the rising cloud turned almost green as it hung in the air. Lee got in the car. The door slammed shut. Music played loudly as the ignition turned over: Prince. Lee put the wagon in gear and drove past, without a look in their direction.

Gone—back on the road. The taillights quickly disappeared. For a wavery second, Ben remembered his mother running, trying to track the disappearance of a shooting star. But maybe he really only remembered his mother on the ground, hurt.

“We have to hitch,” he said. It had begun to get dark. She was looking down. He thought about extending his hand, but didn’t. Something bad had happened between them. He didn’t know what. He supposed he’d now become a coward in her eyes.

“We’re not riding with some stranger,” she said. “I’m calling Binnie.”

“What?” Binnie popped into his mind as a character in a Dickens novel. She was in her apron, leaving the Sunday social, carrying a pile of half-eaten food on a tray. The thought of food made his stomach clench.

“I’ll pay her to pick us up.”

“What are you talking about?” he said, as Binnie settled back into reality.

LouLou turned away—she had Phillip Collins’s phone! She’d borrowed Collins’s phone with the skull decal! He could hear her talking quietly as she walked farther away. She was calling the caterer’s daughter? How would she even have number? He stared at her dark mane of hair, glossy and He walked up behind her and lightly wrapped his hands around a clump of it. She spun around, frightened. He was going to pull her hair out of her head, was that it? He was that angry? Because she’d told him not to be manipulated by Lee? He could hear a high-pitched voice on the other end of the phone that was recognizably Binnie’s. “LouLou, tell me where you’re at!”

LouLou raised and grasped his, still wrapped around her hair.

“Give me the phone,” he said, surprised to see tears rolling down her cheeks. “I can explain better than you.”

From A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Ann Beattie.

April Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—for more April titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Working by Robert A. Caro: Widely known—and celebrated—for his monumental biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses, Caro steps out from behind his subjects in Working, a collection of personal writings about, well, working. Here he describes his experiences searching Johnson’s presidential archives, what it was like to interview some of the major figures of the last half century, and how exactly he goes about structuring those massive, award-winning books. Think of it as a behind-the-scenes look at how “the greatest political biographer of our time” gets the job done. (Kaulie)

Women Talking by Miriam Toews: Canadians have come to accept that we can’t keep Toews to ourselves any longer. After her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, became an international sensation, the timely and urgent Women Talking is set to do the same. It’s a fictionalized telling of real life rapes that took place in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia. After repeated attacks, a group of women are told they are lying about the violence or being punished by Satan. The narrative unfolds as they meet to decide what they will do: forgive, fight, or run. (Claire)

Let’s Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: This story collection by the author of the acclaimed epic novel, Kintu, is centered on the lives of Ugandans living in Britain, where they are both hyper-visible and unseen, excluded from British life as they work jobs in airport security, in hospitals, in caring for the elderly. In the title story, when the protagonist’s husband dies in England, her fellow Ugandans start a fund-raising drive to pay for transporting the body back home. Their motivation beautifully captures the dislocation of exile: “We are not burying one of us in snow.” It has been said that Makumbi has done for Ugandan writing what the great Chinua Achebe did for Nigerian literature. (Bill)

Walking on the Ceiling by Ayşegül Savaş: Of her family, global citizen (of Turkish descent) Savaş writes, “They share a ruthless knack of observation and an eye for the comedic . . . This is a family of runaway bandits and conspiring matriarchs, where uncles swagger around with pistols, illegitimate children emerge at every turn, family heirlooms . . . are nicked from brothel fires.” Evidently drawing on her own life, Savas’s debut novel is set in Paris (where she lives) and features a young Turkish woman who tells her family’s stories to a novelist friend. “Their intimacy deepens, so does Nunu’s fear of revealing too much . . . fears that she will have to face her own guilt about her mother and the narratives she’s told to protect herself from her memories.” Writes Helen Phillips, “This quietly intense debut is the product of a wise and probing mind.” (Sonya)
 

I Miss you When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott: An debut essay collection from the Emmy-winning TV host and beloved bookseller at Parnsassus Books in Nashville. Philpott’s inspiration came from readers who would beeline to the memoir section to pick up Eat, Pray, Loveor Wild, then ask, “What do you have like this, but more like me?” With essays that Ann Patchett calls relentlessly funny, self-effacing, and charming,” the result is a kind of wisdom that comes from making so many wrong turns they strangely add up to something that is exactly right. (Claire)

Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza (translated by Thomas Bunstead): Critically acclaimed Argentinian writer Maria Gainza’s first book translated in English. The story interweaves the narrator’s fascination and obsession with art and art history and her intimate experiences involving her family, romantic relationships, and work life. Mariana Enríquez declares, “In between autofiction and the microstories of artists, between literary meet-ups and the intimate chronicle of a family, its past and its misfortunes, this book is completely original, gorgeous, on occasions delicate, and other times brutal.” (Zoë)

Naamah by Sarah Blake: In a stunning, feminist retelling of Noah’s Ark, Blake’s debut novel focuses on Naamah (Noah’s wife) and their family in the year after the Great Flood. Full of desire, fury, strength, and wavering faith, Naamah becomes the bedrock on which the Earth is rebuilt upon. Written in poetic prose, Lidia Yuknavitch praises the novel as “a new vision of storytelling and belief” and “a new myth-making triumph.” (Carolyn)

Phantoms by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s previous novel The Animals, was downright masterful, and I’ve been anticipating Phantoms ever since. In this new novel, veteran John Frazier returns shaken from the Vietnam War to witness a dispute between his family and their former neighbors, a Japanese-American family that was displaced during World War II and sent to an internment camp. The jacket copy calls it “a fierce saga of American culpability.” Luis Alberto Urrea says, “Christian Kiefer is a masterful writer, and this magisterial novel is aching with beauty and power. This is a great book.” I, for one, cannot wait! (Edan)
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad: In her debut novel, Plimpton Prize winner Hammad explores Palestinian history through the life, love, and journey of Midhat Kamal, a young man from a wealthy family. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly writes “In her exceptional debut, Hammad taps into the satisfying slow-burn style of classic literature with a storyline that captures both the heart and the mind.” (Carolyn)
 
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim: This debut has it all—a novel of the Korean immigrant experience, a courtroom thriller, an exploration of controversies over autism therapies (specifically here, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, BOT). Kirkus calls it “deeply satisfying” and says “it should be huge.” (Marie Myung-Ok)
 
 

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: In this novel’s opening section, Dave and Sarah, two new students at a prestigious performing arts high school, fall madly in love under the watchful eye of a charismatic acting teacher. But in a second segment, set 12 years later, a change in narrative viewpoint calls into question everything the reader has understood to have happened before. Early reviews are highly polarized. Publishers Weekly says the novel is “destined to be a classic” while a reader on Goodreads, speaking for a number of other dissatisfied early readers, complained “the payoff wasn’t worth the ick.” (Michael)



Normal People by Sally Rooney: Rooney, the Irish author known for the acclaimed Conversations with Friends, has written a second novel about the lives of young people in modern Ireland. The protagonists of Normal People are teenagers named Connell and Marianne, who develop a strange friendship that both are determined to hide. Years pass, and as the two get older, their relationship grows steadily more complicated. (Thom)
 

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie: How do our charismatic teachers set the stage for the rest of our lives? That’s one of the questions that Ann Beattie tackles in this novel. When a former New England boarding school student named Ben looks back on his childhood, he starts to questions the motives of his superstar teacher. Later on, his teacher gets in contact, and Ben has to grapple with his legacy. (Thom)
 
The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker: Meet the Chandarias. Premchand is a doctor. His wife Urmila imports artisanal African crafts. Their son Sunil is studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard. But for all their outward success, theirs is a family riven with secrets, and when the family is forced to return to Nairobi, where Premchand and Urmila were born, Sunil reveals an explosive secret of his own: his Jewish girlfriend, who has accompanied the family on the trip, is already his wife. (Michael)
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate: A collection of essays about subjects too painful or explosive to broach among families. Based on Filgate’s essay of the same name, about being abused by her stepfather, the essay features work from a stellar lineup of writers like Kiese Laymon, Carmen Maria Machado, Brandon Taylor, André Aciman, and Leslie Jamison, among others. (Lydia)
 

The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero: After fleeing Peru in the 1990s, the Falcón family—Ana, Lucho, and their two children—settles in New York City. Under the shadow of their undocumented status, Ana must go to incredible lengths to give her family a better, safer life.  Rumaan Alam writes the novel is “at once a timeless work and a book we urgently need now.” (Carolyn)
 
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor: In a reissue from Vintage Books, Lawlor’s genre-bending debut follows Paul Polydoris—a shapeshifting bar tender who can change his gender and appearance whenever he wants. Through Paul’s abilities, Lawlor explores identity, sexuality, and intimacy. Garth Greenwell writes, “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is quite simply one of the most exciting—and one of the most fun—novels of the decade.” (Carolyn)
 
Prince of Monkeys by Nnamdi Ehirim: A debut novel about a young, middle-class Nigerian named Ihechi, and his search for identity as he enters adulthood. When a tragedy throws his whole life off-course, he finds himself aligned with the political elite—and at odds with the people he grew up with. Publishers Weekly writes, “A vivid, astute portrait of Nigeria—and its people—in the throes of upheaval.” (Carolyn)
 
Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana: Pimwana’s debut collection features thirteen stories about ordinary Thai characters who dream of richer, more extraordinary lives. Set in a rapidly-changing Thailand, the stories explore class, gender, and desire. YZ Chin writes, “Arid Dreams is full of uncanny character studies that reveal entire social structures and relationship dynamics with a few deft sentences.” (Carolyn)
 
If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N. Rosewood: A young women, who grew up in a military encampment in Vietnam, immigrates to New York to find a new home. She tries to forget her past and the country that bore her but she is drawn back after a tragedy. The debut novel explores love, identity, loss, and the ever-present past. (Carolyn)

‘Sing to It’: Featured Fiction from Amy Hempel

In today’s featured fiction, we present a short story from Amy Hempel’s first story collection since 2006, Sing to It, out tomorrow from Scribner. The title received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which praised the book for highlighting “Hempel’s signature style with its condensed prose, quirky narrators, and touching, disturbing, transcendent moments.”
“Greed”
Mrs. Greed had been married for forty years, her husband the cuckold of all time. A homely man with a notable fortune, he escorted her on errands in the neighborhood. It was a point of honor with Mrs. Greed to say she would never leave him. No matter if her affection for him was exceeded by her devotion to others. Including, for example, my husband. If she was home at night in her husband’s bed, did he care what she did with her days?

I was the one who cared.

Protected by men, money, and a lack of shame, Mrs. Greed had long been able to avoid what she had coming. She had the kind of glee that meant men did not think she slept around, they thought she had joie de vivre; they thought her a libertine, not a whore.

She had the means to indulge impetuous behavior and sleep through the mornings after nights she kept secret from her friends. She traveled the world, and turned into the person she could be in other places with people she would never see again.

She was many years older than my husband, running on the fumes of her beauty. Hers had been a conventional beauty, and I was embarrassed by my husband’s homage to it. Running through their rendezvous: a stream of regret that they had not met sooner.

He asked if she had maternal feelings for him. She said she was not sure what he wanted to hear. She told him she felt an erotic mix of passion and tenderness. If he wanted to think the tenderness maternal, let him.

When they met, he said, he had not hidden the fact that she looked like his mother, a glamorous woman who had been cruel to him and died when he was a boy. He had not said this to underscore her age, nor did she think it a fixation. She would have heard it as she felt it was intended: as a compliment, an added opportunity to bind them together. She would have been happy to be the good mother, as well as the ultimate sensate. And see how her pleasure seeking brought pleasure to those around her!

A thing between them: green apples. Never red, always green. I knew when my husband had entertained Mrs. Greed because a trio of baskets in the kitchen would be filled with polished green apples. My husband claimed to like the look of them; I never saw him eat one. As soon as they started to soften and turn brown, I would throw them out. And there would be the baskets filled so soon again.

He told me he got them from the Italian market in town. But I checked, and the Italian market does not carry green apples. What the green apples mean to them, I don’t know, don’t want to know. But she brought them each time she entered our house, and I felt that if I had not thrown the rotting ones out, he would have held on to every one of them. The way he fetishized these apples—it made him less attractive to me.

Mrs. Greed convinced her young lover, my husband, that she was “not the type” to have “work” done, but she had had work done. She must have had a high threshold for pain. She could stay out of sight for the month or more of healing after each procedure. She had less success hiding the results of other surgeries. She claimed her athleticism had made it necessary, claimed a “sports injury” to lessen the horror of simple aging. But she could not hide the stiffness that followed, a lack of elasticity that marked her an old woman who crossed the street slowly in low-heeled shoes. I watched her cross the street like this, supported by my husband.

Maybe that was why she liked to hear complaints about his other women, that they were spoiled and petty, gossips who resented his involvement with her. Because he would not keep quiet about such a thing. At first, she felt the others had “won” because they could see him at any time. Then she saw that their availability guaranteed he would tire of them. They were impermanent, and she knew it before they did. So however much he pleaded with her to leave her husband, or at least see him more often, Mrs. Greed refused. It galled me that he wanted her more than she wanted him.

I listened to them often. I hooked up the camera to the computer when I was at home alone. For two hundred dollars I’d bought a hidden surveillance camera that was fitted into a book. I did not expect it to work. I left it next to the clock on the nightstand. I did not pay the additional seventy-five dollars that would have showed them to me in color. But the ninety-degree field of view was adequate for our bedroom, and sound came in from up to seven hundred feet. Had this not worked so well, I would have stood in line for the camera that came hidden in a ceiling-mounted smoke detector.

Usually the things they said were exchanges of unforeseen delight, and riffs of gratitude. But the last time I listened to them, my husband said something clever. Mrs. Greed sounded oddly winsome, said she sometimes wished the two of them had “waited.” My husband told her they could still wait—they could wait a day, a week, a month—“It just won’t be the first time,” he said.

How she laughed.

I said to myself, “I am a better person!” I am a speech therapist who works with children. Parents say I change their lives. But men don’t care about a better person. You can’t photograph virtue.

I found the collection of photographs he had tried to hide. I liked that the photos of herself she brought to him were photos from so long ago. Decades ago. She wears old-fashioned bathing suits aboard sailboats with islands in the faded background. Let her note that the photographs of me that my husband took himself were taken in this bed.

Together, they lacked fear, I thought, to the extent that she told him to bring me to dinner at her house. With her husband. Really, this was the most startling thing I had heard on playback. Just before the invitation, she told him she would not go to bed with the two of us. My husband was the one to suggest it. As though the two of us had talked it over, as if this were something I wanted. I heard her say, “I have to be the queen bee.” Saw her say it.

She would not go to bed with us, but she would play hostess at dinner in her home.

I looked inside my closet, as though I might actually go. What does one wear for such an occasion? The corset dress? Something off the shoulder? Something to make me look older? But no dress existed for me to wear to this dinner. The dress had to do too much. It had to say: I am the sexy wife, and I will outlast you. It had to say: You are no threat to my happiness, and I will outlive you.

*

Down the street from our house, a car waited for Mrs. Greed. I knew, because I had taken note before, that a driver brought her to see my husband when I visited clients out of town. Was there a bar in the back of this car? I couldn’t tell—the windows had a tint. Maybe she would not normally drink, but because there was a decanter of Scotch and she was being driven some distance at dusk, maybe she poured herself a glass and toasted her good luck?

This last thought reassured me. How was it this felt normal to me, to think of her being driven home after a tumble with my husband? I guess it depends on what you are used to. I knew a man who found Army boot camp “touching,” the attention he received from the drill sergeant, the way the Army fed him daily. It was a comfort to him to know what each day would bring.

I felt there could be no compensation for being apart from my husband. Not for me, and not for her.

I knew I was supposed to be angry with him, not with her. She was not the first. She was the first he would not give up. But I could not summon the feelings pointed in the right direction. I even thought that killing her might be the form my self-destruction took. Had to take that chance. I tried to go cold for a time—when I thought of him, when I thought of her. But there was a heat and richness to what I conceived that made me think of times I was late to visit a place that my friends had already seen. When you discover something long after others have known it, there is a heady contentment that comes.

What I heard on the tapes after that: their contentment, their conversation one that we had not been having. Watching them on camera I thought: What if I’m doing just what I’m supposed to be doing? And then I thought: I am.

*

The boys said they would give me a sign.

It was money well spent. With what I saved not needing to film in color, and knowing I would not need the standard two-year warranty, I had enough to pay the thuggish teens a client’s son hung out with. The kid with the stutter had hinted he needed m‑m-money. I will even give them a bonus—I will let them keep the surveillance camera hidden in the book after they send me the final tape.

Mrs. Greed does not live so far away that I will miss the ambulance siren.

And what to make of this? The apples my husband “bought,” the green ones from the Italian market that does not carry green apples—I ate one on the front steps of our house and threw the core into pachysandra. The next morning the core I had thrown was on the top step where I had been sitting when I ate it. I threw it again, this time farther out, so it lodged in pine needles alongside the road in front of our house. The morning after that, today, the core was back in place on the top step.

Boys.

I thought: Let’s see what happens next.

We have so many apples left.

Excerpted from Sing to It by Amy Hempel. Copyright © 2019 by Amy Hempel.  Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

National Book Critics Circle Award Winners Announced

The National Book Critics Circle announced its 2019 Award Winners, and the winners of three additional prizes: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

The six finalists were selected from 31 finalists across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism.

Anna Burns won the big prize in fiction for Milkman, which also won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Zadie Smith was awarded the prize in criticism for Feel Free: Essays (found in our February 2018 Monthly Book Preview); the Poetry award went to The Carrying by Ada Limón (found in our August 2018 Must-Read Poetry list). Nora Krug won the Autobiography award for Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home; Christopher Bonanos won the Biography award for Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous; and Steve Coll was awarded the prize in Nonfiction for Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As to the three stand-alone awards, Arte Público Press won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for its contributions to book culture; Maureen Corrigan won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing; and Tommy Orange’s There There won the John Leonard Prize for a first book in any genre. (Read Orange’s 2018 Year in Reading entry).

Windham Campbell Prizes Name Recipients for 2019

The Windham-Campbell Prizes announced eight winners today at an event in London. Established in 2013, the prize seeks to “call attention to literary achievement and provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns.” Each recipient is awarded $165,000, an unusually high sum for a literary prize.The winners are as follows, with bonus links as applicable:

Fiction:Danielle McLaughlin David Chariandy (Writer of a “perfectly sculpted novel” according to Claire Cameron)Nonfiction: Raghu Karnad (Mentioned in Anuradha Roy’s Year in Reading)Rebecca Solnit (Read our review of The Faraway Nearby here)Poetry: Ishion Hutchinson Kwame Dawes (Read his post for National Poetry Month)Drama: Young Jean Lee Patricia Cornelius