The Kenyon Review’s Summer Reading List
What are you reading this summer? Each year, we ask our staff and authors to tell us what books they’d recommend—or are looking forward to reading themselves—as summer comes to Gambier. We hope you’ll include KR in your summer reading, but here are some suggestions of books we think you’ll enjoy.
KR Staff Summer Reading Suggestions . . .
David Lynn, KR Editor
I’ve encountered a number of books in the last six months that have been better than fine, certainly enjoyable, but not unreservedly great reads (The Swerve
, The Art of Fielding
, The Marriage Plot
); here are four I strongly recommend for the summer:
Salvage the Bones
by Jesmyn Ward. It won the National Book Award and more than lives up to it. One of the most powerful, violent, beautiful, disturbing novels I’ve encountered in years. Jesmyn Ward is an astonishing new talent.
by Janet McAdams. A quieter novel, but with strong undercurrents of passion and violence as well, and beautifully written. An excellent novel from a small press.
by Andrew Grace. Delicate, virtuosic prose poems. Another rising star.
And for the beach, the latest installment of the Tourist spy series by Olen Steinhauer: An American Spy
. Gripping, well-written, and eerily similar to some of the bizarre political stories one hears resonating from China today. Steinhauer’s been called a latter-day Le Carre, and I don’t think that’s far off.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, KR Associate Editor
For me, early summer is the season for reading books I could only dream of as I watched the leaves—and the student essays—come in. Among the books I’m looking forward to reading this summer are two new novels:
Padgett Powell’s You & Me
. Having grown up in the South, I sometimes think of it the way British cartoonists imagined Australia, as a land where everyone dangles upside down by their ankles from the ground, except, of course, the British visitor, who insists on standing on his head to preserve his dignity. Reading Powell’s brilliant, irascible, and wildly imaginative novels of the American South—most famously, Edisto
, Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men
, and his wonderful novel in questions, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?
—is like seeing a familiar world turned on its head and so, somehow, put right. You & Me
consists entirely of a conversation between two old men sitting on a porch talking about everything and nothing. If that sounds familiar, it may be because it’s one of the grand clichés of the South—where sitting on a porch, drinking and talking is as formal an art as ballet—but also because it evokes what one critic has called “a Southern-fried, whiskey-soaked version of Waiting for Godot.”
Just the thing, I’m thinking, for long, whiskey-soaked, summer evenings.
Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears
. We seem to be in a cultural moment when we’re fascinated by automata, those soulful windup machines that both eerily evoke our own humanity and estrange it at the same time. In his twelfth novel, Carey, a two-time Booker Prize winner for Oscar and Lucinda
and True History of the Kelly Gang
, evokes the weight of grief and the fascination of old clocks in the figure of a magnificent windup silver swan. Like Scorsese’s Hugo
, which retold the early history of cinema through a child’s fascination with the gleaming figure of a mechanical man, Carey’s novel connects machine and story: to reassemble an automaton is to recreate our fascination with the novel itself, an old machine that still strangely works its magic upon us in this digital age.
David Baker, KR Poetry Editor
I am currently reading two superb, and very different, books about poetry and poetics by two elder giants. M. H. Abrams turns 100 this year, and his The Fourth Dimension of a Poem
(Norton) gathers his best essays on poetry from the past thirty years. The prose is lucid and graceful, articulating the stance of a great Romantic humanist. It’s a genuine seminar to follow his extended readings of favorite poets, like Keats and Wordsworth, and his model critics like Kant and especially Hazlitt. He can analyze Foucault alongside Horace, Derrida alongside Goethe, in a book that is generous of mind in ways that current literature departments would be wise to restore. The book’s title comes from Abrams’s reminder of the “dimensions” of a poem: the visible aspect; the sounds of the words “as they are imagined by the reader”; the meaning of the words; and—this is especially important and “almost totally neglected”—the activity of “enunciating the great variety of speech-sounds that constitute the words of a poem.” That is, the important physical, embodied presence of a poem in the act of utterance. This critic loves poetry.
George Steiner, in The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan
(New Directions), is another of the great graying critics of our time. His new book wants to remind us of that on every page. Where Abrams’s book is wise, this one is learned, and where Abrams’s prose is clarified, Steiner’s is dense with reference and allusion, an intellectual’s overt architecture of a lifetime of engagement. He out-Blooms the great Harold Bloom: his style here contains aphoristic kickers (like Emerson’s), phrases and citations from many languages, asides within asides, references about references about references, and opinions on seemingly every Western literary, artistic, philosophical, and (often) mathematical writer. The deep thesis is an attempt to locate the necessary poetry, or music, at the heart of the best philosophical writing. That is, great thoughts are great in part because of style, their powerful “poetics of reason.” This critic loves thinking about poetry.
For poetry itself, if you are hungry for intimations of greatness, Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems
(Knopf) is a monument. For all his limitations (for instance, the depictions of women at times), these poems seem chiseled from granite, made of confidence and a grand apathy toward the contortions of contemporary poetry and the po-biz from which Gilbert escaped fifty years ago. He’s much like his figure of Icarus in “Failing and Flying”: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.”
If you are eager to follow emerging poets, I might point you to recent books by Dan Beachy-Quick (Circle’s Apprentice
), Paula Bohince (The Children
), Nikky Finney (Head Off and Split
), Matt Hart (Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless
), Kathleen Ossip (The Cold War
), or Tracy K. Smith (Life on Mars
). It’s a busy time.
Geeta Kothari, KR Fiction Editor
The best short story collection I read last year was Orientation and Other Stories
, by Daniel Orozco. It’s brilliant, full of dark humor and surprises, and I didn’t put it down until I’d finished the whole book. No less compelling is Please Look After Mom
, by South Korean novelist, Kyung-sook Shin. The story is simple: a woman disappears at the Seoul train station. The writing is spare and unsentimental, yet the story is deeply unsettling. Told in alternating second and third person chapters, the novel explores a family’s history as they search for their mother and asks: how well do we know the people closest to us?
Finally, for people who like a good crime story, I recommend Denise Mina. Her novels are set in Glasgow, and her main characters are difficult women who demand a lot from the people around them. I read Still Midnight
in a couple of days, and I’m saving the next book in the series, The End of Wasp Season
, for the beach.
Tyler Meier, KR Managing Editor
, Jack Gilbert. These poems are rendered, time-won, and simply stunning. What a map’s edge of a lifetime’s poetry! There is such wonder here for emotion and the shape emotion makes within the body, particularly deep joy and overwhelming grief. Over and over again, the poems work as a charm for profound attention—and the reward for attention paid couldn’t be any greater.
When All the World is Old
, John Rybicki. This is a book of elegy and praise, and in this way, I think it does the most important work that poetry can do. When lightening burns the sky, thunder roars back through the seared absence. This is a type of call and response (perhaps the very first)—and so also song, which is the shape of praise. That’s the arc of this book, and the shape that it so beautifully makes.
G.C. Waldrep, KR Editor-at-Large
Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet
isn’t as conceptually difficult as some of his earlier fictions, like The Age of Wire & String
, but it’s a wrenching, bio-luminescent tale of the apocalypse and its aftermath. It would be a stretch to say I liked it, but it has certainly haunted me. I’m reading Steven Millhauser’s We Others: New & Selected Stories
Some recent recommendations in poetry: Joseph Campana’s Natural Selections
, Heather Christle’s What Is Amazing
, Pura Lopez Colome’s Watchword
(in Forrest Gander’s translation), Joshua Kryah’s We Are Starved
(from 2011), and Alice Oswald’s strange—perhaps “estranged” is a better word—“excavation” of The Iliad
, which she has titled Memorial
. Paula Bohince’s The Children
is the most satisfying collection by an American poet in a more conventional lyric idiom that I’ve read in some time.
Anna Duke Reach, KR Director of Programs
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing
by Lydia Peelle. This short story collection includes “Mule Killers,” about her grandfather’s decision to put tractors on his farm, as well as seven other stories about the way in which changes in daily living create changes in people and culture.
by Anne Enright chronicles an affair that rips apart two marriages in Dublin. The book is narrated in the selfish first person by Gina, who carefully observes her lover’s daughter as she becomes a victim of this destruction. Enright’s prose flows so beautifully, the dark tale was impossible for me to put down.
Look forward to reading Head Off & Split: Poems
by Nikky Finney next to a patch of tiger lilies this summer!
Abigail Wadsworth Serfass, KR Associate Managing Editor
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes. In this jewel box of a novel, Barnes explores memory and perception and the narratives we tell about ourselves. His insights about human nature and self-preservation ring startlingly true.
An American Spy
by Olen Steinhauer. The third book in the Milo Weaver trilogy, and they just keep getting better. In this installment, Steinhauer’s increasingly complicated world of “Tourism” expands into China. With compelling characters (Xin Zhu and Erika Schwartz are not your average Hollywood spies) and taut plotting, this is a summer read to savor.
Zach Savich, KR Book Review Editor
The narrator of Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station
(Coffee House, 2011), is hilariously self-aware: much of the plot depends on his attempts to compose his face. This self-consciousness is fitting for an American poet in Madrid who, enthralled by John Ashbery, wonders if he can acquire more than “the experience of experience.” Swift and smart, Lerner’s novel revels in the ambition and folly of its young artist, but it also offers a vision for authenticity in contemporary art. Prefer Greece to Madrid in your summer reading? I was happy to recently be pointed to John Berger’s To The Wedding
(Vintage, 1995), a gorgeous and deftly constructed novel of love and myth among characters whose voices blend like “snowflakes falling, so close together they touch one another.” I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know about Berger’s fiction until now. His sentences are lovely and luminously spare: “If one of her feet is hurting, a goose limps like I do when my foot hurts,” one of the narrators of his novel reports. Finally, let me recommend another novel I was slow to read: Kate Bernheimer’s The Complete Tales Of Ketzia Gold
(FC2, 2001). Forget Spain, forget Greece. Bernheimer’s novel travels through the wilderness of folklore and fairy tales to offer a contemporary coming-of-age story rife with magic and terror. A singular book. It will make you wonder what’s living in the sand castles on the beach.
Dan Torday, KR Book Review Editor
It doesn’t sound like summer reading, but I’m starting my summer with Joseph Frank’s five-volume life of Dostoevsky. First up, Dostoevsky: Seeds of Revolt: 1821-1849
. Way more exciting than it sounds. Then I’m going to re-read the two short novels I was excited by this year: Justin Torres’s We the Animals
and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams
. Genius, both. Then two more—by two of my favorite writers: first, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars
. I’ve loved each of his books, and I think of him as a YA writer the way I think of, say, Salinger. Finally, Marilynne Robinson’s new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books
. I’d read Robinson describe paint drying. Can’t wait.
Kascha Semonovitch, KR Book Review Editor
I am just starting Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock at the Door
, a collection of playful short stories. Meanwhile, I’m challenging myself with Jorie Graham’s forthcoming Place
which is full of more of the same (good stuff) in Sea Change
, and perhaps best of all, my husband and I are reading aloud E.E. Nesbit’s classic Five Children and It
, a pre-Harry Potter fantasy tale rich in Britishisms and boys named Cyril.
Hilary Plum, KR Consulting Editor
I began this year stunned by and in awe of Rosmarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction
, which somehow, extraordinarily, unites a history of the present war—from the earliest days of “West” and “East”—with a history of abstract thought in Western culture. Resoundingly recommended. I also read for the first time Danielle Dutton’s beautifully singular, strange and adventuresome Attempts at a Life
, and I look forward to reading her novel SPRAWL
this summer. Matthew Kirkpatrick’s first collection of stories, Light Without Heat
, just out this spring, is also one to track down: funny, unsettling, formally ambitious and commanding stories. And I recently read my first work by Polish writer Magdalena Tulli, the fantastic Moving Parts
(trans. Bill Johnston), and look forward to reading the other three of her novels which Archipelago Books has released in translation.
Erick Gordon, KR Trustee
The Cat’s Table
, Michael Ondaatje. I pre-ordered this book and was counting days until it came, and while fully surprised, I was not disappointed. There is a kind of youthful vision at play in The Cat’s Table
that I haven’t encountered in Ondaatje’s work. The world is painted through the eyes of a pre-teen boy and a motley crew of unsupervised youths as they adventure though the world of an ocean liner in the 1950s. Nostalgic and filled with wonder, it’s a perfect book for summer.
by Geoff Dyer. A book “about” jazz is what the subtitle says, but it reads at times in the style of jazz itself. There’s a musicality to each of Dyer’s historical fiction vignettes that blows life into artists like Lester Young, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. It’s my single favorite book about music, and I return to it in whole or part again and again (Chet Baker is a never-ending affair). Chapters are interwoven with glimpses of
Harry Carney and Duke Ellington riding through the night as Duke scratches notes onto a page in the light of the car’s glove box, a perfect device to tie all the potentially disparate pieces together.
by Tim Horvath. Understories
is a wild ride. It’s a highly inventive short story collection that interweaves absurdity with a deep understanding of what makes people tick. In “The Discipline of Shadows,” the strongest story in the collection, the author imagines a new academic field called umbrology, or, the study of shadows, where puppeteers and physicists alike contribute knowledge. It pokes fun, is well-crafted, completely bizarre and at times laugh out-loudable.
Alva Greenberg, KR Trustee
Just finished The History of Love
by Nicole Krauss. What a great book! One of those books where I can’t imagine how the writer maintains all the voices and the stories. Just terrific. Other books I have enjoyed recently are We The Animals
by Justin Torres and The Cat’s Table
by Michael Ondaatje.
And from our Authors . . .
This summer I’ll be teaching in Paris and hope to read the second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters
, which covers the years when Beckett started writing in French. (A good portion of the letters are in French, with translations.) I’m looking forward to re-encountering Beckett’s quiet exhortation to “try and see the thing primarily in its simplicity, the waiting, the not knowing why, or where, or when, or for what.” Also on my list are two collections of poems, one just published, the other due out in July. I’ve only had a chance to dip into and out of Heidy Steidlmayer’s Fowling Piece
(TriQuarterly, February 2012), a collection that (beautifully) remakes the border between song and story. I’m very much looking forward to Dennis Nurkse’s A Night in Brooklyn
(Knopf, July 2012), eager to re-encounter a poet who knows how to make “a dozen years pass, a century” and then find himself a child, “both cause and consequence.” Speaking of waiting: I have to wait until October for Linda Gregerson’s forthcoming The Selvage
. I recently heard her read from the galleys and was struck by the way her mind works as she wrestles with both the domestic and the political. “Most of what it most behooves us to know is precisely beyond our powers of knowing,” she said. I’m also bringing Ben Lerner with me (Leaving the Atocha Station
, Coffee House, 2011).
No Animals We Could Name
, Ted Sanders. Winner of the 2011 Bakeless Prize for Fiction, forthcoming from Graywolf Press. Ted Sanders is one of those writers whose name alone is enough for me to pick up a new issue of a literary journal. His work is at turns smart, funny, and heartbreaking, and he always keeps me wondering what he’ll do next. He never does the same thing twice in a story yet still manages never to sacrifice depth and gutpunching truth for playfulness. No Animals We Could Name
looks to be one of the summer’s most exciting collections and one I hope many, many people discover for themselves.
I’m loving Draw It With Your Eyes Closed
, a book of art assignments collected by the editors of Paper Monument. They asked teaching artists to write about their best and worst assignments, given or received. The result is cohesive as a potluck: a spread of triumphs, defeats, earnest chatter, suffering—true stories from the art school syllabus, with syllabus-language at times becoming the main dish.
Beauty Plus Pity
by Kevin Chong. When was the last time you read a literary work narrated by a model? Heartbreaking, hilarious, and totally sincere, an aspiring male model, Malcolm Kwan, makes good use of the title’s equation, and manages to surprise and inspire us.
by Colum McCann. I am hard-pressed to find a novel more beautifully written than this one—every sentence feels like a gift. Based on the life of Romani poet Papusza, McCann gives us Zoli Novotna, whose story spans from fascist Czechoslovakia to present day Paris. Though words caused her to be cast out by her family and exiled, she narrates her story, showing us the beauty, sadness, and power of the word.
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
by Alexandra Fuller. Fuller’s memoir of her childhood in Africa with British parents is heartbreaking and hilarious. After reading it, I saw it on the shelf in a used bookstore, picked it up, handed it to the person next to me and said, “You should get this.”
by Abigail Thomas. In Safekeeping
, Thomas looks back over her life. Rather than create a narrative arc, she uses short chapters akin to prose poems to tell her story. It’s easy to read a handful of chapters on the train or at the beach. However, it is more likely you’ll read it all in one sitting.
The book I’ve read over the past couple months that I can’t stop talking about is Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me
by Mark Leidner (Factory Hollow Press): an aphoristic powerhouse of a book. A book on my shelf that I’m looking forward to is Loud Dreaming in a Quiet Room
by Betsy Wheeler (National Poetry Review Press). I bought Wheeler’s book at the recent Juniper Festival in Amherst, where I also picked up a broadside of her poem, “Buffalo Church.” One line from that poem makes me really want to spend time with this collection: “I will fling me, church you, toward that light that stands a mile from the north.”
Among the most satisfying fiction recently released, Adam Levin’s Hot Pink
and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl
are the top two I know. The bulk of Levin’s sentences cartwheel and dart, leading the reader through more strangeness than is articulable, and the characters mercilessly cling to synapses. Flynn’s psychological page-turner seems, at the start, to be a procedural crime story but then runs headlong into dark psychological territory and becomes, ultimately, one wild glance at the murk of marriage and identity. Both are incredible.
Whereas I am utterly addled writing a novel, and so as usual am terrified of reading any other fiction that might overwhelm me with its loveliness, I am afraid to read Annie Dillard
’s novels, which I swore I would do this summer; but being a man who cannot not read, and loves to be swept away by fine writing, I am happily embroiled in the nonfiction of Roderick Haig-Brown
, who seems to be writing about fishing but is actually writing about attentiveness, and I am reading all sorts of headlong mysteries and detective and war novels, this being the lip of summer when such things should be read by the sea. As for straightforward recommendations, lately I have been fascinated by how many people I meet have never read Steinbeck’s masterful Sweet Thursday
, so that companion of Cannery Row
is what I assign you all for summer. Slim, funny, poignant, perfect. Test on Friday.
I’m reading and recommending Monstress
, short stories by Lysley Tenorio that play with the tropes and history of pop culture. In “Help,” for example, a group of young Filipino men are coerced by their uncle into beating up the Beatles after they supposedly insulted Imelda Marcos.
I recommend Christie Hodgen’s novel, Elegies for the Brokenhearted
, originally published in 2010, which contains some of the most memorable characters I have ever encountered. Also, Bluets
by Maggie Nelson, a small volume of brilliant lyric essays. Recently at school, I happened upon Naeem Murr’s slim novella, Nude
. In 2007, Murr was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Perfect Man
is an extended rumination on life in the vein of Tinkers
, and yet, I hesitate to even mention the thematic resemblance, because the prose is beautiful and wholly original. I am also planning to read Canada
by Richard Ford, and Tim Gautreaux’s novel, The Missing
I plan on savoring a slow, methodical reading of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales
, edited by Kate Bernheimer. This collection features tales inspired by familiar favorites and lesser known, new fairy tale favorites from all over the globe. So far, I am haunted by Joy Williams’s “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child,” which is a good thing.
Anne Carson’s Plainwater
holds a great collection of essays on pilgrimage, love on the road, and water. “Since ancient times,” Carson writes, “pilgrimages have been conducted from place to place, in the belief that a question can travel into an answer as water into thirst.” Find your answers on your travels with Carson’s essays this summer.
Although it sounds pedantic, I’m slowly working my way through the canon of “big Russian novels” every time I have a little break from teaching. Up this summer: War and Peace
and (if time allows) The Brothers Karamazov
. I read Dr. Zhivago
over winter break and could not put it down.
Lorna Goodison’s Turn Thanks
. Her wise, truth-telling lyrics and deep connection to Jamaica and humanity in general never fail to enchant, move and comfort me, and seem to give me permission to breathe slowly, be grateful and savor life and simplicity. I return to this book often.
Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife
. Sometimes the words “magical’ and “imaginative” are so overused and abused when describing novels, but this novel lived up to those descriptions in surprising and thrilling ways. Does the tiger become a symbol of some form of orientalism or colonialism? I’m not sure, and I didn’t really care. I was not only willing to “suspend my disbelief” but became enamored of as well as haunted by the stories that wind around each other in this novel.
Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains
is an electrifying collection of poems, and spins me around and around like a top with panic, anxiety, a love for beauty and a fear of death. Filled with extremes of darkness and light—I hurtle along with the poet, am devastated and grieve deeply as I read, cling to memories of loved ones and to beauty even more desperately.
by Paul Hendrickson. A very quirky and anecdotal account of Hemingway from the mid-30s on.
by David Rhodes. A lovely pastoral novel set in an area of southwest Wisconsin where I have a vacation house.
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro. I especially like the wistful, uncluttered prose style.
Trouble Is My Business
by Raymond Chandler. I reread Chandler quite often, but these are stories, rather than the novels I usually reread.
Writing the Book of the World
by Ted Sider. An impressive work in “new metaphysics” (probably for professional philosophers only).
Two books I’d like to recommend are Ben Loory’s Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day
and Stacey Levine’s The Girl With Brown Fur
. Loory’s book is a collection of very short modern-day fairy tales that are strange and lovely. Levine’s book is one that I haven’t read yet, but is on my summer list. I heard the author read her stories recently and was absolutely captivated by the character’s voices, one of which was a riff on a children’s book that was by turns hilarious and haunting. I love the resurgence of interest in fairy tales in contemporary writers, and I’m fascinated by what these two authors, in particular, are doing with the form.
I’ll just stick with one recommendation: Under the Lemon Tree
(Iris Press, 2011) by George Scarbrough. This is the first of two posthumous volumes planned (at least for now) for the later poetry of Scarbrough. This nearly-unknown Appalachian writer published three books with Dutton in the 40s and 50s and then published only two more books of poems in his lifetime with this small Tennessee press. His early work is rooted in a kind of Frost-like awareness of the land and the people on it, but the vision is, in a way, wider than Frost’s (which is not to denigrate Frost . . . ). This particular book is a selection of Scarbrough’s free-verse poems in the voice of Han-Shan (Cold Mountain), which, though quite different than Scarbrough’s “typical” work, are marvelous and funny, meditations on desire, home, memory, the natural world, and the paradoxes of being human. Simply put, if Scarbrough isn’t on your shelves, he needs to be.
Shann Ray’s American Masculine
is a favorite of mine lately. I’ve been recommending it at every opportunity. Ray’s story collection has all the elemental power of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native
or Proulx’s Wyoming Stories
with one wonderful exception: compassion acts as the impulsive force, not violence. It is a stunningly beautiful work.
Paul Legault’s new book of sonnets, The Other Poems
, is the most vital and hilarious performance I’ve seen in the form in a long while, and one of my favorite books of poetry released in the last year or so. Rooted in a strict pattern, all of Legault’s sonnets begin with a conversationally gnomic couplet and then play out in a dramatic dialogue between people, objects, and various states of being: “Nevertheless she wouldn’t / let down her hair. // HAIR: I am an extension of the dead. / EMPRESS: Light it up, light it down. / PAPA: Things don’t always matter. / THE SUN: No, things don’t.” Among his many strengths in this collection, Legault’s management of sense and pathos from within the theater of the absurd is simply brilliant, and he makes it look easy.
Israeli novelist David Grossman’s To the End of the Land
is a tremendous book about a middle-aged Israeli mother’s walk through rural Israel while one of her sons, the one who was supposed to take the walk with her to celebrate his freedom from the army, re-ups during a dangerous campaign. Everything she feels and sees and experiences becomes a kind of threnody, as well as a ritual to keep him safe. Parenthood, politics, memory, the land—and fine prose. Worth reading Grossman’s bio afterward to further appreciate what he accomplishes in this novel.
Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love
is an extraordinary novel that somehow manages to capture whole spans of years through the depiction of intimate moments. The story has an easy and beautiful movement and many memorable moments and images, and it will make an excellent companion on any quiet vacation. I’m looking forward to reading In this Light: New and Selected Stories
by Melanie Rae Thon, who has rather quietly produced some of the most powerful fiction written in this country in the past twenty-odd years.
My favorite new book this year was Michael Martone’s Four for a Quarter
; it’s like nothing that yet exists, lyrical and strange, particular and peculiar, a meditation on the number four, watching, love, and loss. Most of what I’m reading these days is for school, since I’m in a PhD program—I’m currently studying Mexican-American and Indigenous literature, and think we should all read more of it. If you haven’t read Gloria Anzaldúa’s Boderlands/La Frontera
, please do; I reread it this year, and it says so much about transcending binaries, about the challenges and exaltation of being a hybrid. I loved reading Helena Maria Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus
for the first time. I’m looking forward to reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead
for the first time this summer, and rereading Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
I spend most of June in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan every year, a time I devote to reading. In my stack of books to take with me are two I’m particularly looking forward to: Double Shadow
, the latest collection of poems by Carl Phillips, whose work has so much to teach about the subtle tensions of syntax and even more to teach about the subtle perils and rewards of living, and Mary Jo Bang’s new translation of Dante’s Inferno
, which, from the excerpts I’ve read, will be filled with masterful and surprising choices. My city, St. Louis, has reason to brag about both of these Washington University poets.
If I might recommend, as well, two books from my recent nonfiction reading that knocked me out: The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature
, edited by J.C. Hallman, a volume of stunning “creative criticism” in which great writers praise great writers in essays of intelligence and passion; and James Elkins’s The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing
, a fascinating, far-ranging exposition of what we see and what remains beyond our seeing, how we change what we look at by our looking and how we are changed in turn.
From my summer list, three books in three genres: Yiyun Li’s story collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
, Jean Valentine’s Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003
, and the food-writing anthology Table of Contents
, edited by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp. Each represents a continuous longing: for China as imaginative landscape, for an escape from narrative in my poetic sensibility, and for a place where my love of food and cooking meets my love of literature, with compromise on neither side.
Recently, I reread Riddley Walker
, by Russell Hoban, which is a linguistic miracle of a book, a dystopian novel written in a masterfully constructed idiolect. It follows the wanderings of the eponymous character, a boy who, by birthright and avocation, traces connections between events, characters, objects, stories in an attempt to make sense of a world gone deeply mysterious several centuries after nuclear cataclysm has devastated the planet. In addition to being a brilliant voice performance, this book, written during the Cold War, is deeply principled and socially and politically engaged. Russell Hoban died in December of last year, less well-known, I think, than he deserved to be.