Summer prize-winning reads

Here we are again, the annual deluge of lists arriving to help you fill your beach and pool bags or stack up the reading table on the porch. Mystery, romance, adventure, tell-all memoir: New releases fall into this summertime category for their page-turning escapes that go well with fizzy drinks, hot sun and the Adirondack chair.

This summer, why not go in a different direction? Stuff your tote and tower the reading table with 2019 prize winners that come with heaps of accolades. Those from the first half of this year embrace literary, experimental and science fiction, enough of a variety to satisfy most. They’re immersive, and good for the literary soul.

Best Translated Book Award for Fiction

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau

Three Percent at the University of Rochester founded the Best Translated Book Awards (BTBA) in 2008. It’s one of the best resources for international literature available — I’m a big fan of their podcast. According to their website, “Unfortunately, only about 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation.” Having won this year’s BTBA in fiction, you can be assured Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseautranslated from the French and Creole by Linda Coverdale, is worthy of your attention. A “Why This Book Should Win” essay on Three Percent points out the too-long wait for its translation: Chamoiseau completed Slave Old Man in 1996, got it published in 1997 and saw it translated into English in 2018. How is it so much time had to pass? The novel’s summary describes it as “a gripping, profoundly unsettling story of an elderly slave’s daring escape into the wild from a plantation in Martinique, with his master and a fearsome hound on his heels.” Publisher’s Weekly, which gave the novel a starred review, says the “pursuit is electric and illuminating.”

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory by Richard Powers is about environmental activism told through the lives of several characters deeply connected to the fate of trees. It is Powers’ 12th novel and one he says changed his life. I love this part of the book’s description: “There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.” This Pulitzer winner is now in paperback, and thus easy to pack for a summer vacation. Of note, The New York Times suggests reading a summary ahead of time: “The handful of readers who comes to the book without benefit of reviews or jacket copy will believe it’s a collection of unrelated short stories.” If you’ve not yet read Richard Powers, you’re in for a treat of rich storytelling.

National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

Milkman by Anna Burns

Anna Burns’ Milkman took the NBCC fiction award in March. (This past fall, it won the Man Booker Prize.) Her experimental narrative uses unnamed characters and run-on paragraphs to tell a story about a girl in what appears to be 1970’s Belfast during the violent years of “the Troubles,” Catholics versus Protestants. The main character “Middle Sister” reads books while she walks, a behavior that draws unfavorable attention but keeps her focus off the ravaged streets and buildings. The dramatic pull comes from a powerful, sexual predator called the Milkman. From the book’s description: “Milkman is a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions, in a time when the wrong flag, wrong religion, or even a sunset can be subversive.” This book is available in paperback.  Keep in mind it’s not a typical narrative. Ron Charles deems it challenging but rewarding in his Washington Post review: “Lovers of modernist fiction by William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce — I know you’re out there, waiting for a book to slake your thirst for something strange and complex — Milkman is for you.”

Nebula Award for Best Novel

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars is Mary Robinette Kowal’s first book in her Lady Astronaut series, followed by The Fated Sky. My science fiction reading is limited, in that I don’t often delve into the genre, but this book sounds like one I’d definitely throw into the beach bag. It takes place in the 1950’s, after a meteorite destroys much of North America’s east coast, setting off a climate catastrophe that creates a need to colonize the Solar System to ensure human survival. From the description: “The book’s central character, Emma York, is a former WASP who served during World War II and finds herself — and her fellow female pilots — shut out of the selection process to become an astronaut, and fights to ensure that they’ll be part of the space program.” Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review. The Nebula Awards are given by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. The Calculating Stars is in the running for another science fiction prize, the Hugo Award in the best novel category.

Wellcome Book Prize

Murmur by Will Eaves

The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award given to a new book of fiction or non-fiction with a central theme “that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness.” This year it was awarded to Will Eaves for his novel Murmur, whose main character Alec Pryor is inspired by the life of Alan Turing. Turing is the father of artificial intelligence and top mathematician involved in breaking the Nazi Enigma cipher during World War II. (A 2014 movie, The Imitation Game, features Turing’s WW II code-breaking experience.) Turing was convicted of “gross indecency with another male” in Britain when homosexuality was a crime. He was subjected to chemical castration. Murmur takes place before his suicide. From Publisher’s Weekly, which gave the novel a starred review: “Through letters, a journal, thought, and interactions, Alec questions everything with a thinker’s perspective, including family, his past love with Christopher Molyneaux, conversations with his therapist Dr. Stallbrook, and a marriage proposal to June, a fellow mathematician and close friend.” The New York Times, in their current Overlooked No More Series, published Alan Turing’s obituary last week as one of the remarkable L.G.B.T.Q. persons whose deaths went unreported.

Man Booker International Award

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth, takes place in an Oman village. It follows the lives of three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla, who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. Omani author Jokha Alharthi is the first Arabic-language writer to win the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. From the book’s description: “Elegantly structured and taut, Celestial Bodies is a coiled spring of a novel, telling of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves.” The Irish Times says: “The writing is teasingly elliptical throughout and there is a kind of poetic understatement that draws the reader into the domestic settings and public tribulations of the three sisters.”

The Women’s Prize for Fiction

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is one of those novels I wanted to read but never got the chance — or made the time for, I suppose, is more accurate. In her February 2018 New York Times review, author Stephanie Powell Watts in the first sentence describes the winning novel as “wise and compassionate” and says it “tells us a story we think we know.” What more do we need to hear to compel us to read it? Literature is all about breaking down those confidently closed doors of our assumptions. In this story, newly married to Celestial, Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. During what becomes his shortened incarceration, Celestial, a successful artist, struggles “bereft and unmoored … unable to hold on to the love that has been her center.” Kirkus Reviews gave the novel a starred review. The Guardian says it’s “a marvellous feat of storytelling, told with the type of light touch that can only be achieved through hard work.” The Women’s Prize for Fiction celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.