KR Holiday Reading Recommendations
Each year we ask KR’s friends and contributors for their holiday reading recommendations. Some sent us suggestions about books they’ve enjoyed this year; others told us about favorite novels, classics they couldn’t live without, books that linger with them, or books that changed their lives. We’ve made a selection, just in time for the holidays:
David Lynn, Editor
And the Mountains Echoed
by Khaled Hosseini. Beautifully written, vivid, and deeply moving, this novel traces not just the bildungsroman of an Afghan boy, but the series of calamities that have devastated that culture over several decades.
For those who listen to audio books (as I do while driving or exercising), I’d strongly recommend John Le Carre’s A Delicate Truth
for the considerable pleasure of hearing the author read his own novel. He’s absolutely terrific on the voices.
by Carl Phillips. The latest from this year’s winner of the KR Award for Literary Achievement, these poems are artful and beautiful and wrenching. One of our major younger poets.
And a blast from the past: Last year I read State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett and was truly mesmerized. So I’ve now belatedly enjoyed Bel Canto
. One of those rare and beautiful novels that one never wants to end.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor
I’m spending a year teaching in England, so most of my reading these last few months has been devoted to products of this green and pleasant land. John Lanchester’s Capital: A Novel
, a novel about the citizens of one London street stumbling into the financial crisis of 2008, manages the neat trick of being both sharply written satire while also striking a tone of profound empathy for its characters’ fading illusions. In poetry, I’ve been rereading Alice Oswald’s Dart
, which traces the length of a Devon river, recording the voices of the people who live and work along its banks to form what Oswald has described as “a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea.” And since one joy of this year is to wallow shamelessly in great theater—excuse me, theatre
—let me end by recommending David Greig’s astonishing play Dunsinane
, which imagines the English occupation of Scotland after the fall of a king named Macbeth: a brilliant, lyrical meditation on what happens after regime change, bold enough to sweep aside Shakespeare’s tragic ending and bring back a certain terrifying Lady as a captive, and captivating, queen.
David Baker, Poetry Editor
My desks and reading tables and bookshelves are crowded with new books, and I’m glad to pass along some recommendations. I’m halfway through with Norman Rush’s new novel Subtle Bodies
and find it rich and deepening—a combination of political, philosophical, and erotic narratives threading in and out of each other. For poetry just now, I’m reading every day in Maureen McLane’s forthcoming volume This Blue: Poems
. As with her previous two books of poetry, I’m impressed with her capabilities—playful rhymes, disarming intimacy in voice and story, fabulous turns of image, a wide literary sense there for the discovering (a riff on Sappho or Dickinson or Dante, without showing off, often without signaling the source). She writes with ease and depth, both. And a surprise to me is Gottfried Benn’s Impromptus
, a full selection of his poems (and some prose) in German and with English translations by Michael Hofmann. I had known Benn’s poems but this book opened my eyes widely. Benn lived from 1886-1956, and he writes through the wars and horrors, with poems of great range, sometimes in terror, sometimes in very contemporary-sounding delight. Hofmann’s sense of Benn’s idiom makes these fleet translations especially powerful. And finally, one of my favorite poets, Ellen Bryant Voigt, has published Headwaters: Poems
, a compressed new volume of work that accomplishes two opposite things: she lets go of some of the fundamental structures of her earlier work (meter and measurement of line, a perfection of traditional syntax and punctuation, a kind of rigorous stability) and yet, in doing so, she seems to locate her most authentic narrative voice to date. As she writes less “like” herself, she sounds more like herself in these poems about illness, the family, and a natural world dense with animals that provide a totem of accompanying lore. The result feels both raw and daily, newly discovered but rich with experience and mastery—the speaking voice singing.
Caitlin Horrocks, Fiction Editor
and Mr. Bridge
by Evan S. Connell. Written in 1959 and 1969, these two novels are difficult to write a proper recommendation for, because what makes them so special seems, on the surface, like an unappealing proposition: the books unfold in short, numbered vignettes covering several decades of family life in which not a great deal actually happens, and the characters steadfastly avoid discussing matters of personal or emotional importance. Connell explores emotions like boredom and bewilderment while somehow keeping the novels themselves taut, deeply moving, and often funny. I still have no idea how he did it, but these are extraordinary books.
Geeta Kothari, Nonfiction Editor
Part elegy, part memoir, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped
examines the deaths of five young men Ward grew up with, including her younger brother. The book covers two stories, the story of the young men, told in reverse chronological order, and Ward’s story of growing up in a poor, but close-knit community. Ward manages to find a balance between grief and joy, and what emerges is a love story to the community she grew up in, left, and chose to return to as an adult.
The book I’m currently enjoying is the story of a different kind of community. Sherill Tippins’ meticulously researched Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel
chronicles the history of Manhattan’s infamous Chelsea Hotel. The book is a tribute to the hotel and its inhabitants, as well as a social and cultural history of the city.
Abigail Wadsworth Serfass, Managing Editor
Here are two wonderful books to give as gifts: Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
by Rebecca Solnit and Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will
by Judith Schalansky. Infinite City
illuminates San Francisco’s beauty, lost past, diverse communities, and more through gorgeous maps that pair unexpected elements, e.g. Monarchs and Queens: Butterfly Habitats and Queer Public Spaces; Death and Beauty: All of 2008’s Ninety-Nine Murders, Some of 2009’s Monterey Cypresses. (Solnit has also just released a new book: Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas
.) Schalansky’s Atlas
combines intricate, hand-drawn maps with brief reflections on the history, nature, or mythology of each island. As the author herself writes: “What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated.” The end product is something of a picture storybook for adults.
Anna Duke Reach, Director of Programs
The Gorgeous Nothings
by Emily Dickinson, Marta Werner, and Jen Bervin. A photographic collection of 52 late, compressed poems by Emily Dickinson drafted on leftover envelopes. The editors suggest interpretations of the words, as well as transcriptions of Dickinson’s slanted, loopy script atop the outlines of corresponding envelopes so the multi-directional layout is maintained. For readers who want more, there is a corresponding exhibit in Chicago as well as an online library at www.emilydickinson.org
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade
by Adam Minter. A creative investigation of recycling American trash into China’s tech market and more. Minter shows that going green also means earning green . . .
The Year We Left Home
by Jean Thompson. A subtle family portrait of four Iowa-bred siblings and a cousin, from 1973 to 2003, told through connected stories with overlapping memories, traits, and tragedies.
Hilary Plum, Book Review Editor
It’s never hard to recommend books, since I have always just fallen in love again and have always still not recovered from books loved in recent months and years. But it’s hard to glance at my shelves or the Post-its that surround this desk and see all those books passionately recommended to me but which I have not yet read. I like to think that by sitting near each other for a year or two we may still be getting acquainted, and our time will come. So I offer these recommendations in that spirit, of hope and passion that persist in spite of the limits of daily life (can we call this a holiday spirit?). First, two novels that have wholly reoriented me and which disprove those who claim contemporary American literature lacks innovation, isn’t ferocious enough: those folks just haven’t read Peter Dimock.
In the first two of what will be a trilogy, A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family
and George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time
, Dimock confronts the failures of American democracy and its rhetoric in the face of its imperial ventures: first the war in Vietnam, then the legacy of state-sanctioned torture under the Bush administration. This is work of commanding scope and great ethical force, and it is electrifying fiction.
Two recent works of poetry I loved and already anticipate rereading: Don Mee Choi’s vibrant, violent, playful, and profoundly intelligent The Morning News Is Exciting!
, which investigates postcolonial experience and imperial power—the US’s involvement in Korea—in stunning poetry. And Andrew Zawacki’s extraordinary Videotape
, a book I could read aloud for hours, and which performs wonders in mysterious regions of the brain.
Daniel Torday, Book Review Editor
I want to read a lot of short stories this holiday season. First I want to read two books by young woman story writers published this year by FSG: Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me
and Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth
. You should probably check out both of their small-press debuts, too: Hunter’s Daddy’s
, published in a beautiful edition by the terrific Featherproof Books, and van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us
, put out a couple years back by the always-terrific Dzanc Books. Finally, there’s a beautiful new edition (in both paper and limited-edition hardcover) of Gary Lutz’s Partial List of People to Bleach
, put out this year by Future Tense Books, that I can’t wait to dig into. Lutz writes sentences that sound like no one else’s, the way Barry Hannah and Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley used to, and I want to read each, slowly.
I’m also in need of a nonfiction fix, and this season I’m looking forward to two great-looking books of narrative nonfiction. The first is Wil Hylton’s Vanished
, a thoroughly reported story of MIA soldiers from the Pacific Theater in WWII whose remains have been discovered. The other is Jason Fagone’s Ingenious
, about teams vying to win a privately-funded prize to make a car that can get 100 miles to a gallon. Really looking forward to both.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, Fellow
I haven’t been reading nearly enough this semester, with my teaching and other work. But Alice Munro’s latest book, Dear Life
, is a wonderful mix of fiction and memoir. I’ve also been revisiting Garbage
by A.R. Ammons—it was a National Book Award winner for poetry twenty years ago, and this book-length, ragged rhapsody still seems relevant to our current era.
Natalie Shapero, Fellow
This year, I’ve been drawn in by books that look at once forward and back. I highly recommend Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World
, a chronicle of Ensler’s recovery from cancer, her work with Congolese rape survivors, and the arresting convergences between the two experiences. I was also lately gripped by Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust: A Memoir
, a lyrical and circuitous memoir of war, art, and family. And for a different kind of multiple-mindedness, I recommend the wild ghazals of Anthony Madrid’s I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say
, which feel like poems from the future that traveled back in time to teach us a lesson.
Katharine Weber, Contributing Editor
2013 has been a terrific year for books. I was knocked out by some extraordinary writing by four authors whose previous books I know well and one author I clearly should have been reading before now. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
, by Karen Joy Fowler, is a sly, subversively brilliant novel. Meg Wolitzer’s big, fun, moving novel The Interestings
has lingered in my mind since the summer. Life After Life
was the title of two utterly marvelous and completely different novels published in the same season, and I recommend both Kate Atkinson
’s and Jill McCorkle
’s books. And I discovered with regret that I am late to the Lee Sandlin party. His memoir The Distancers
is a gothic American multi-generation family story. It’s a wonderful piece of writing.
Bonnie Levinson, Trustee
In the middle of The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt right now. Can’t put it down.
Stella Ryan-Lozon, Administrative Assistant
David Rakoff’s novel Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish
shook up my reading routine this year. Composed entirely in couplets, this story is at once witty, beautifully written, satirical, and honest. It chronicles a variety of characters that are all linked in some way as the author navigates America over several decades. I plan to read it again and again.
The past few months I’ve also spent a lot of time reading children’s literature. The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman sparked this venture. The story follows Nobody Owens, or Bod, a normal boy being raised by ghosts. Creepy and wise, the book is a great read and would be even better read out loud to children before bedtime!
I also plan to revisit an old favorite this holiday season: A Hero of Our Time
by Mikhail Lermontov. A nineteenth-century Russian novel by a young man who died in a duel and left behind very few works, this book reveals a fascinating place in time and mentality. While the Byronic main character (I hesitate to say protagonist) Pechorin charges through the Caucasus, the reader gets the chance to navigate a structurally engaging tale that is, at its core, a psychological journey. There is something new for me to realize each time I return to it.
And from our Authors . . .
M. Shahid Alam
Here’s a book I loved this year: Speedboat
by Renata Adler. It was published in 1971, went out of print, and then reissued this year. It is called a novel, but I read it as a series of self-contained paragraphs with tight writing and loose associations. It sort of feels like Donald Barthelme writing social commentary, or the best Talk of the Town piece you’ve ever read (Adler did write for The New Yorker
), but with a female—not feminine—perspective (if that makes sense!). At this point in time, it’s not revolutionary to read a novel for something besides plot, but it’s worth reading Adler not because she might have been an innovator but because some of her paragraphs are stupendous prose poems.
Rather than recommending individual books, I’m recommending writers. These are writers whose books I loved so much I sought out their other work, writers I’ll keep returning to again and again. Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane
is both beautiful and heartbreaking, an elegant novel about the residents of Sal Mal Lane, particularly the children. It’s about the political unrest that leads to Sri Lanka’s civil war, about family, about childhood, about the loss of innocence. Also, I just got my hands on Freeman’s A Disobedient Girl
, and I could not be happier.
Lindsay Hunter. I’m all about the strange, the surreal, the magical. The weirder the better. Lindsay Hunter’s Daddy’s
and Don’t Kiss Me
are bold, funny, and so much fun. Hunter is not afraid of taking risks, or experimenting with form or style. Her stories are about sex, longing, relationships, and crossing lines that writers (or people in general) don’t usually cross. Her characters are so flawed and so human, even when they’re eating the neighbor lady they just roasted over a trash fire.
Adriana Páramo’s Looking for Esperanza: The Story of a Mother, a Child Lost, and Why They Matter to Us
(winner of Benu Press’ 2011 Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Nonfiction) is a multifaceted narrative about immigrant women and their children, and their many complicated stories of struggle, loss, sacrifice, courage, and unimaginable strength. And Páramo’s second nonfiction book, My Mother’s Funeral
, took my breath away.
Just finished the best novel I have read in maybe three years: Alice McDermott’s new Someone
. Stunning. As deft and masterful as her masterful After This
and Charming Billy
. Thesis: Alice McDermott, who was already the finest Catholic novelist in America, is now the finest novelist in America. Discuss. She absolutely owns a region, as Faulkner owned a piece of the South; she is the great chronicler of Irish Catholic New York from the 1940s through the 1960s. Whew.
Classics I could not live without? The Horse’s Mouth
by Joyce Cary. Twenty Years A-Growing
by Maurice O’Sullivan. Life on the Mississippi
by Mark Twain. For the Time Being
by Annie Dillard, the best spiritual book I ever read, period. Fifth Business
by Robertson Davies. Stevenson’s Kidnapped
. The New Testament in the King James translation—one of the greatest quest novels ever, with a mysterious protagonist.
After dipping back into Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer
, I fell so hard for his voice, his perceptive analysis, and the direction of his comic, clever mind that I bought all four books of these collected columns—eight years’ worth—and read them in a month. The Polysyllabic Spree
, More Baths Less Talking
, Shakespeare Wrote for Money
, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt
: the books deal with both nonfiction and fiction, and aren’t simply reviews. They’re review essays in which Hornby uses his take on books as a place to explore the reading life itself and also to spin a web of interconnected discussions of other topics, including his jeering take on his personal life. The books contain riches about reading and the challenges of satisfying his intellect amidst the demands of work, family, and modern culture. Hornby fills the pages with declarative statements such as “reading begets reading” and “The annoying thing about reading is that you can never get the job done.” “I know I read it,” he says of a particular title, “but I’m not entirely sure I could tell you an awful lot about it.” Comments like that will alternately comfort and challenge you, and also ring true in your own life.
Sjón, The Whispering Muse
. Shades of Borges and Calvino, yes, but not since Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey
has there been such a delightful and serious re-imagining of classical myth and literature. (In fiction, that is; for poetry, see Anne Carson’s Red Doc>
Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge
. If your paranoia needs a boost, here’s a dose; if not, it’s a breath-taking reaffirmation. In any case, pleasures abound.
George Saunders, Tenth of December
. Hilarity mixed with startling empathy and grace left me in tears.
Anne Carson, Red Doc>
. This poetry, or whatever you call it, feels like the best delayed sequel (it’s been 15 years since Autobiography of Red
) of 2013.
Franz Wright, F: Poems
. He continues, inexorably and beautifully, on his tortuous way.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love
. Once again, what seems to be just a long-winded rehearsal of the mundane details of this writer’s life turns out to be utterly compelling. Looking forward to Books Three, Four, Five, and Six.
Patti Smith, Woolgathering
. I finally saw Patti Smith in concert (part of Doug Aitken’s “Station to Station” art-train extravaganza), and came away thinking that she is a saint and feeling that I had been showered with blessings. This augmented reissue of her 1992 memoir is simple, pure, and heartfelt.
The Sheep Meadow Press has had the very good idea of publishing books by contemporary British poets largely unknown in the United States, albeit well-known in England. George Szirtes’ Bad Machine
is the most recent book by a splendid and polyvalent poet, emigré from Budapest to London as a child, whose work encompasses a ludic virtuosity in metrical, syllabic, and nonce forms, and a strong, ironic deployment of history and narrative.
is the second collection of poems by 2007 Yale Younger Poet Fady Joudah, also known as a magisterial translator of Mahmoud Darwish and the contemporary Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan. Joudah is a physician who worked with Médecins Sans Frontières, the son of Palestinian refugees, a father himself. The private and the public, mega- and micro-histories are indissolubly bound in his poems, as are the ideas of “lyric” and “narration.”
A few years ago when I was younger and more interested in improving those around me, I decided to gift only books to my family for Christmas. My mom, my dad, my sister: books for everyone! Even though they were readers all of them, they could still read more. The problem with my plan is that I chose books that I thought would be good for them—like gifting Brussels sprouts—and not books that I’d read and enjoyed. (“Is it good?” they said. “I don’t know,” I said, “but they will make you better.” “Um, thanks,” they said.) So here are some books that I have read and have enjoyed and that will not improve your life in the least, except in the way that all stories improve all lives, by helping us transform or escape our everyday worlds, by opening our eyes to new possibilities, by helping us find greater understanding and, hopefully, greater capacities for love. Lamb
by Bonnie Nadzam. A chilling book, yes, but with prose as sharp and clear as a Colorado winter. The story has often been incorrectly and superficially compared to Lolita
, but its heart explores the way stories thrill and compel us, the way they mislead, distort, and lead us to self-discovery, even when it’s a self that we’d rather not have known. This book is a page-turner in the best sense and is excellent reading for a winter’s night.
Down the Rabbit Hole
by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Another book that takes on a weighty subject—this time the drug wars in Mexico—but through a child’s eyes. Tochtli is perhaps one of my favorite narrators in all of recent literature, and his story is by turns laugh-out-loud funny and tears-rolling-down-your-cheeks sad. Plus that ending: wow! For those who like samurai, hats, and pygmy hippopotami. Villalobos’s next novel, Quesadillas
, is among my most anticipated books of next year.
by Helen Oyeyemi. I first read this book in one sitting on a flight from LA to New York, and when I got off the plane I recommended it to—practically thrust it at—everyone I saw. That first read through was a dizzying, breath-taking experience, as has been each subsequent reading since. This book is a playful exploration of myths, fairytales, and stories, but to say that it’s only that is to do it a disservice. It’s a love story, a war story, a ghost story, and its ending is one of those endings that rockets the book out of the stratosphere and sends it sailing to its rightful place among the literary stars.
I came to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky through a story of his read by a professional actor on a podcast. I knew nothing about the writer, but “Quadraturin” made me dizzy. I felt like Keats’ watcher of the skies as a new planet appeared on my private horizon. I picked up Memories of the Future
, a collection that includes “Quadraturin,” and fell under the spell. My sense of what a story can be and do expanded; that was part of it. The rest was sheer readerly delight. Using a common shorthand, people have compared Krzhizhanovsky to Kafka. I don’t like to do that. A comparison undervalues his singularity and sets up an expectation that is not particularly useful. This extraordinary writer, who published very little during his lifetime in the Soviet Union, is his own point of reference.
The Garden of Evening Mists
and The Gift of Rain
by Tan Twan Eng. Two spell-binding novels of life in Malaya during the Japanese occupation, richly evocative of a history and place few of us are familiar with.
The Word as Archipelago
by René Char, translated by Robert Baker (Omnidawn 2012), is an exquisite rendering of the work of one of my favorite poets. Baker’s translation is the best of a number of welcome new translations of this visionary French poet—early surrealist, leader of the French Resistance—who is finally claiming the wider audience he deserves.
The recent death of my mother reminded me once again of how she instilled in me an early love of reading. Today I scanned my living room shelves for an overview of my reading life, for it is there I find the books that survive each winnowing or passing on of titles I’ve collected. I see the books that, for one reason or another, I will never give away. Here I offer selections from each phase of my life, and the reason why they remain a part of my “permanent collection.”
Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking
, for the startling notion that children could be brave, quirky and independent. Alcott’s Little Women
, for adventure, plainspoken wisdom, resourcefulness under duress, and the complicated love between sisters. Gone with the Wind
, for making me decide if I wanted to be Scarlett or Melanie or some impossible amalgam of the two. All of early Vonnegut, for sheer originality. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
, for tragedy and triumph injected with brilliant black humor. The next phase is blurry, so preoccupied was I with work, followed by the raising of children. For this period I choose all of Gary Larson’s The Far Side
collections, for making me laugh out loud with my kids. Followed by The Country Garden
by Josephine Nuese, and the collected columns of Henry Mitchell (The Essential Earthman
, One Man’s Garden
) for their blend of soulful meditations on the art of growing things with useful horticultural tips. More recently, Rebecca McClanahan’s The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings
and The Tribal Knot
for reasons too numerous to mention here.
Bernard Knox, Essays Ancient and Modern
(1989). Brilliant, learned, and perceptive on Classical and modern authors.
Ian Hamilton, Against Oblivion
(2002). Short, incisive, amusing essays on modern poets.
James Salter, All That Is
(2013). A masterpiece by an Old Master.
J.F. Powers, Suitable Accommodations: Letters
(2013). Sad but witty letters by a greatly underrated writer.
Leo Damrosch, Jonathan Swift
. Judicious, revealing life of one of the most enigmatic authors.
by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers. Even fiction writers need poetry—especially fiction writers! Chord Box
is one of my favorite collections, an intricate blending of sound, place, and persona tied by the arc of adolescence. You get the feeling reading Chord Box
that it’s a real, living, breathing thing, and it’s a collection I return to every time I revise a draft of my novel: to teach me that sometimes there’s not quite one emotion that can or should be evoked from a scene, but a whole myriad of emotions—shades and blends of emotions. My favorite poems from this collection are the ones made up of couplets. “Coda: 2003” instantly comes to mind. “A Red Shift,” too. I’ll be reading it again as I start in on the new draft over Christmas.
by Larry Heinemann. This book bleeds. This book taught me to write. I probably owe most of what I do, stylistically, to Paco’s Story
. It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1987 but I didn’t discover it until 2009. The first time I picked it up, I could only read the first chapter because I kept reading it over and over again. I didn’t finish the rest of the book until I broke that first chapter down syntactically and tried to replicate it, syllable for syllable, just to see how it worked. It’s one of the all-time great American narratives about the Vietnam War and I read it January 1st of the new year, every year.
At Night We Walk in Circles
by Daniel Alarcon. The newest from the author of War by Candlelight
and Lost City Radio
. I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of this yet but I’m a fan of everything Daniel does, from his writing to his Spanish language podcast, “Radio Ambulante.” He’s the Padrino to every writer who refuses to pick between being an American writer and a Latin American writer. Why do we have to choose?
Their Dogs Came with Them: A Novel
by Helena Maria Viramontes. Probably the greatest piece of Chicana/o writing ever written. Besides being an incredible novel about the cultural cross-section of East LA in the 1960’s, this book is an excellent craft resource as well, teaching us the complexities of peripheral narratives and how they can spawn from moments as tiny as a glance or objects as small as the thing in someone’s hand. The interweaving of these complex narratives gives this novel depth enough to make it as rich as the old Russian classics. It’s been three years since I last picked this one up but I’m looking forward to losing myself in it again.
This Side of Brightness
by Colum McCann. I loved McCann’s Let the Great World Spin
, so I was jonesing for something else of his to read. I went with this earlier novel because of the great title and the subject matter (the creation of Manhattan’s subway tunnels). Again, I was swept away by McCann’s mastery of storytelling, language, empathy, and human insight, as well as his ability to seamlessly create and maintain multiple points of view. Now it’s on to the next McCann novel I can get my hands on.
by Jess Walter. There’s been plenty of buzz surrounding this very successful novel—and for good reason. Walter manages to weave a compelling, heartfelt love story along with a lot of structural innovation, humor, and commentary about the nature of stories and storytelling. In a recent podcast, Walter’s editor Cal Morgan nailed it when he praised Walter for his “unparalleled insight into human frailty.” It’s rare that I experience the feeling of not wanting a book to end. But I really didn’t want Beautiful Ruins
Don’t Kiss Me
by Lindsay Hunter. This collection of flash fiction (or short shorts, or very short fiction, or whatever you want to call it) came out earlier in the year. And I don’t think anyone writes this type of fiction as well as Hunter does. In a mere two or three pages, she can devastate you—in a good way—with her capacity to crack open that frozen sea inside all of us.
Sejal A. Shah
I started a new job two months ago and haven’t found a lot of head space to read new books apart from what I’m teaching. Mostly, I’ve been returning to my old favorites: particularly stories from three of Alice Munro’s early collections: The Progress of Love
, Friend of My Youth
, and The Moons of Jupiter
. These sentences haunt me, come back to me: from “Differently” in Friend of My Youth
: “She had been happy there [in her marriage], from time to time. She had been sullen, restless, bewildered, and happy. But she said most vehemently, Never, never. I was never happy, she said. People always say that. People make momentous shifts, but not the changes they imagine.” And from The Moons of Jupiter
, I’m drawn, again and again, to the first story, which is the first of two linked stories: “The Chaddeleys and Flemings: I. Connection.” I admire how Munro writes repeatedly about families across generations in a place that is usually at some distance from the cosmopolitan coasts. And I admire even more how, in the final lines, she plucks a childhood song and methodically dismantles it to find the unnerving note, even amidst the revelries.
I dip into and out of books these days, not reading straight through. One essay I can’t stop thinking about or returning to is Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” from her collection The Boys of My Youth
, which I first read last year at exactly this time of year. I’ve been re-reading my former professor Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “Farewell,” from The Country without a Post Office
. Those last lines slay me: “If only somehow you could have been mine, / what would not have been possible in the world?”
And I was inspired by learning last year from this email that KR
Nonfiction Editor Geeta Kothari was re-reading Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
. On a summer vacation we took to Canada when I was in high school, I purchased a used copy of Joan Aiken’s Night Fall
, a YA novel/thriller, which I still re-read almost every year at the holidays—and I’m looking forward to doing this again. I keep my copy in my parents’ basement, next to a beat-up copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
. I love how Aiken works with repetition, mystery, the main character trying to understand a dream that has haunted her for much of her life. What I realize now is that though I never read mystery books (apart from Night Fall
), I am profoundly interested in haunting—how we deal with what we are haunted by—and I’m drawn to a certain haunted quality in the short stories and essays to which I return.
For a new book, I’m looking forward to really delving into Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine
over the holidays. My dear friend and former roommate, the poet Purvi Shah, gave me Mehta’s book this year as a birthday present. It turns out Mehta is a KR
author who used to live in my hometown of Rochester, NY—and I’m partial to that. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far—the writing is sharp, precise, the time and situations are contemporary, and there’s a wry, ironic, generous sensibility to the voice.
I’ve had a fiction-heavy fall, and I can’t say enough good things about Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses
. It’s a collection made up of three longer stories and 100 short pieces that are somewhere between flash fiction and prose poems, each describing a different world-ending event. There are no zombies anywhere to be found; instead, Corin offers an assortment of snappy characters in strange, but somehow still familiar, predicaments. I loved this book.
Another favorite of the past year is Julie Sheehan’s Bar Book
, a sui generis poetry collection that centers around the life of a bartender in New York City and the chorus of voices she internalizes (including, at times, the cocktails themselves). This is a book both for poetry-lovers and for the not-yet-converted. The individual poems are witty and technically sharp, and together they trace a story that will hit you in the gut in the best possible way.