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 EditorLife After Life by Kate Atkinson. An in-your-face, break-all-the-rules literary tour de force. Atkinson, a British writer known for her terrific mysteries, writes a beautiful, moving, constantly surprising novel. One of the best I’ve read in a long time.
That said, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, a KR Award winner, is pretty dazzling. Full of spies and deceit and a marvelously unreliable narrator, it’s a joy. Not to mention the mentions, several, of The Kenyon Review.
Julian Barnes has long been a writer I admire. Never more so than in Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story. His prose is exquisite, his intellect penetrating, always prying up surprises and unexpected insights, his sensibility wise and reasonable. Another very strong recommendation.
Finally, for those looking for some sheer fun, sweep-you-away mysteries, here are two: The Holy Thief by William Ryan features Captain Alexei Korolev, a detective in Stalin’s Moscow. The historical and cultural settings are wonderful! And Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman works against the grain of mystery expectations.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, KR Associate EditorOh, to be in England. Since I will be this coming year, I plan to spend the summer taunting David with that fact. The books I’m carrying around the KR offices, titles carelessly displayed, include Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography, a roaring Dickensian novel of a history, Zadie Smith’s NW, which unravels that history into its contemporary voices, Michael Moorcock’s Mother London, and Dart, Alice Oswald’s lovely collection of poems about the river that flows through Devon, where I’ll lazily cast my line, drawing up the envy of all my friends.
Caitlin Horrocks, KR Fiction EditorTwo books that recently made my head, like the Grinch’s heart, grow three sizes: Both Mary Ruefle’s essay collection Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures and Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station have been previously recommended by KR, but if you haven’t gotten around to them yet, please consider my enthusiastic vote. I just read these back to back, and both books, for all their differences, contain staggering intelligence, curiosity, humor, and the ability to leap tall ideas in single bounds.
Two other books that are swifter, but no less effective, reads: Derek Palacio’s novella How to Shake the Other Man is a treat, and Louise Krug’s Louise: Amended is an illness memoir that avoids all the traps of the genre: Krug resists both self-pity and easy enlightenment, and offers instead impressive honesty, insight and great writing. The Home Jar, in a couple of days. Full of unexpected and surprising turns, each story reads like a poem—dense, deeply moving and compelling. A primer on the short story, The Home Jar has much to offer. And please don’t ask me what a home jar is—I’m not telling.
Equally moving is Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s new nonfiction book, The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in Italy. Difficult to categorize, this meditation on place and art delves deep into Italian culture and Wilde-Menozzi’s experience as an American expat who found her voice as a writer and her home in Italy. The book includes photographs, but it’s the writing that made me want to board a plane for Rome.
Tyler Meier, KR Managing EditorHere are the two books I’ve read recently and loved: Volt (Graywolf) by Alan Heathcock. I am late to the party: lots have loved this book already. I’m happy to join them—there are characters in the stories in Volt that are hard to forget: the train man, half-apparition/half-prophet from “The Staying Freight,” or joy-riding kids in “Fort Apache.” What would it take to change your life? What would it take to redeem it? These stories are edge-runners, they exist in the space where things are distinct and knowable on either side, and Heathcock deftly weaves the action across the between space, blurring the definitions, testing limits and thresholds, shifting the facts of the world and how his characters relate to it.
Ethical Consciousness (Canarium) by Paul Killebrew. I’m getting ready to move, and packing up all the books that I own to drive across the country. It’s a lot of books. This is the one I most want to keep out right now and read again. I love the long and rangy logic, and the hard-to-come-by feeling that all in the poems is simultaneously vital and incredibly necessary, while also associatively present, all things counter, original, spare, strange. Reading the poems feels like you’re working toward something by working with everything as your materials. The book reminds and teaches me about the occasion for poetry. It made my spring.
G.C. Waldrep, KR Editor-at-LargeI’m looking forward to settling down with Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses (Omnidawn) this summer, along with the new (and long overdue) Joseph Ceravolo Collected Poems, from Wesleyan. I just finished Peter O’Leary’s Phosphorescence of Thought (The Cultural Society) and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s Hello, the Roses (New Directions). At some point Flood Editions is going to release a new edition of Ronald Johnson’s ARK—maybe this summer, if we’re lucky?
Anna Duke Reach, KR Director of ProgramsThe Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman (McSweeney’s) brilliantly balances grief over her father’s death with her longing to conceive a child of her own. Her paragraph thought bursts evocatively connect the mysteries of life at beginning and end. This book is a two-for-one; flip it over and you’ll continue reading about her memories of childhood sexual abuse and the challenges of raising her own children.
Familiar: A Novel by J. Robert Lennon is a literary puzzle, still on my mind weeks after finishing it. A mother visiting the grave of her son suddenly slips into an alternate life where both her sons are alive again, for better and worse. There is deep spiritual questioning as well as page-turning tension in the parallel play of what is or what might be.
Abigail Wadsworth Serfass, KR Associate Managing EditorOne book I eagerly anticipate reading this summer is Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson. By all accounts this is a meticulously researched yet eminently readable guide to everything we might ever have wanted to know about our kitchens and our eating habits. I can’t wait to dig in.
Two fun, quick reads for the summer: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane. The former explores life on a slowly (and somehow beautifully) self-destructing earth through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl. The latter is a literary mystery that careens from secret book societies to the Google campus to a giant storage facility in the Nevada desert; the ending will make all book-lovers smile.
Kascha Semonovitch, KR Book Review EditorI stumbled on CAConrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics (Wave Books, 2012) in a small press bookstore in the SF Mission district. The hand-drawn cover pages and magazine size book tell you this isn’t an ordinary poetry book. The words inside are as pleasurable and surprising as the words in the title. I hope someone else gives this a good read and sends a proper review.
Dan Torday, KR Book Review EditorThe next thing I’m going to read is Derek Palacio’s novella, How to Shake the Other Man. I checked out an excerpt in Electric Literature last month, and it looks great—lyrical and tough-nosed. I just read his story “Sugarcane” in the Spring 2012 issue of KR, which will be in next year’s O. Henry Prize Stories, and it got me primed.
Hilary Plum, KR Consulting EditorThis winter I lived for a few weeks in Susan Steinberg’s debut collection The End of Free Love: her hypnotic inexorable sentences, the worlds she creates story by story, resonant and so disquieting, the friable lives within them. I’m anxious to read her newest, Spectacle: Stories, to see where she next takes the short story, how she makes it so commandingly her own.
I’ve also just read Nathaniel Mackey’s astonishing Nod House. Its rhythms still move through me, and I suspect that lately all my sentences are merely tributes to him. What depth and breadth of myth he explores, no, more than explores, conjures into new existence; how fortunate we are to have his work. And how is this only the second book of his I’ve read? This summer I’ll begin his prose, the multi-novel project From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, KR FellowNotes from No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss. These essays are some terrific meditations on race, landscape, and gentrification in urban America.
Sacrilegion by L. Lamar Wilson is a stunning poetry debut. These raw, beautiful poems weave the landscape of northern Florida in with the experiences of growing up black, gay, religious, and in a town haunted by the history of racial violence. There are echoes of Carl Phillips, Jericho Brown, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon here, but Wilson’s voice is wholly his own.
Natalie Shapero, KR FellowEasily annoyed by corporate satire, I didn’t anticipate listing one here. But Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, a wild and thoughtful novel about a disaster actuary of the near future, won me with its mix of taut prose, weird jokes, and math. Along these lines, I also recommend two poetry collections that are similarly concerned with precariousness and clever in their unease: Lesley Jenike’s Ghost of Fashion and Ida Stewart’s Gloss. Finally, if you have summer travel plans and want to pack light, you can’t go smaller than Tomas Tranströmer’s pocket-sized Memories Look at Me. This memoir chronicles the poet’s childhood and adolescence, including an intense bout of teen angst: “I was trapped by a searchlight that radiated not light but darkness.” Whoa.
Dinty W. Moore, KR Writers Workshop InstructorDespite the fact that I spend hours of each day juggling words, choreographing sentences, composing rhythm, and divining metaphor, the writing of poetry has always somehow eluded me. This prose writer just can’t seem to find his way successfully into that rather mystical way of speaking on the page, but now, at least, I have a better understanding of why. Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures is showing me not just how a poet writes, but how she thinks, how she feels, how she balances idea, emotion, language, and mystery; poetry is not just another language, it is a different sort of logic, an altered way of experiencing one’s life. Ruefle’s articulate, surprising, sometimes funny, and always human approach is the opposite of academic theory, and entirely refreshing. I’m balancing Ruefle with a work of scientific nonfiction, Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, by Virginia Morell. I’ve always been fascinated by elephants, crows, apes, and other thoughtful members of the animal world, but what interests me as well is how good storytelling—characters, setting, action—can make scientific discovery as compelling as a mystery story. On my shelf for later in the summer is another writer who does this well: Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Let’s hope she hasn’t bitten off more than we can swallow.
Nancy Zafris, KR Writers Workshop InstructorRiver of Dust, by Virginia Pye—This literary novel is also a good old-fashioned read, one that will keep you in your chair. It follows an increasingly disturbed missionary in China before World War I as he searches for the tribe that kidnapped his son. This beautifully written book has a twenty-year back story as its author struggled to get it published, a tale in itself that should offer encouragement to the emerging writer.
Andrew David King, KR BloggerAlways Apprentices is an accumulation of twenty-two conversations originally published in The Believer, and a haven for any admirer, savorer, or practitioner of the interview as a literary form with a history that runs back, at least, to the Socratic dialogues.
Other books like Signs/ & Signals: The Daybooks of Robert Crosson—Oppen’s published daybooks, Lowell’s letters, Wordsworth’s drafts, Bern Porter’s founds—provide the same voyeuristic high that comes with peering into what Guy Bennett calls “the factual, concrete record” of a writer’s day-in, day-out life. From 1957 to his death in 2001, Crosson filled over 100 notebooks (his “daybooks”) with such evidential ephemera as poems, rejection letters, job estimates, photographs, and lines of near-indecipherable cursive.
M. Lynx Qualey, KR BloggerI demand you read The Mehlis Report! Kareem James Abu-Zeid has created a beautiful translation of this novel by the brilliant young Lebanese author Rabee Jaber. Kareem didn’t object when I called this novel—with its violence, alienation, and secret underground places—“Lebanese Murakami.” But it’s better than Murakami. Out in June from New Directions.
I want to read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, which has been out since April from Knopf—it’s, I think, about trying to reach beyond your own life and find something that’s real. I am forever interested in Americans who try to get on beyond ourselves.
Hannah Withers, KR Audio EditorI’m kicking my summer off with J R by William Gaddis. Heretofore having sat silently as intelligent, cultured, and attractive friends tell me this book is fantastic and amazing, I’ve finally taken it upon myself to tackle the 752 page beast. Wish me luck, send me provisions.
As far as suggestions (i.e. books I have actually read) I recently rediscovered a collection of Sarah Ruhl’s plays on my family’s bookshelf. Ruhl makes perfect summer reading: diaphanous, elegant, funny, and completely profound.
Finally, I have to suggest that we should all read As I Lay Dying this summer, and collectively ruminate on the idea of any upcoming film adaptations, what does or does not constitute an “action sequence,” and the absurdity of James Franco playing Darl.
And from our Contributors
Elizabeth ArnoldThis summer, I plan to read Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders. I love Hardy’s writing, but haven’t read this not-so-well-known novel that was recommended to me by a friend. For me his prose is as much for poets as his poems are—beautifully heard perception.
I also have in my summer stack of books Charles Tomlinson’s collected translations. Tomlinson translates in the spirit of Ezra Pound, or for that matter Thomas Wyatt, as he remakes the Russian poem into a forceful, original poem in English, just as Wyatt remade Petrarch’s Italian sonnets that are no longer even referred to as translations.
Finally, I plan to read Anne Carson’s newest book of poems, Red Doc>. I think her early “The Glass Essay” is one of the best long poems around. I always read her books.
Linda BamberCarl Safina, Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival and Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World’s Coasts and Beneath the Seas. Safina is a MacArthur Fellow, an environmentalist, and an astonishing nature writer: profound, funny, gorgeous, literary. When I can’t stand the bad news about the planet, I skip the advocacy sections and bliss out on the incredible nature stuff.
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop. I re-read this recently; I think it’s her masterpiece. Utterly idiosyncratic in form, it concerns the mixture of populations in New Mexico in the late 19th century. In a calm, articulate, uninhibited way, she says everything good and bad that can be said about the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Americans, the French the Navaho, the Acoma, and so on. The novel keeps you on your toes as you never know where she’ll come down next. Meanwhile there’s her devotion to the landscape and her poignant sense of time.
An friend I trust has recommended J. G. Ferrell’s The Singapore Grip, about the collapse of the British Empire. It’s supposed to be very funny. Another loves Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Yet another likes Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, a series of intelligent vignettes about psychoanalytic cases. All of these are on my list!
Catherine BarnettEllen Bryant Voigt, Headwaters: Poems (forthcoming from Norton, October 2013). I was lucky enough to be Ellen Bryant Voigt’s student and from her I learned the virtues of compression, control, clarity. And so I wasn’t prepared for her latest poems, composed of long unpunctuated lines that sometimes sound as if they’re being spoken by a woman in free fall, a woman falling from the sky and taking no time to breathe as she records the thoughts, anxieties, remorse, memories passing through her mind.
Ed Skoog, Rough Day (Copper Canyon, 2013). Ed Skoog’s second collection is a book of elegies and meditations. Silence, language (“Some parts of speech are harder to draw”), and the body’s mutability (aka time) are at the center of these “downliest” lyrics of jump-cut, list, and journey.
Christina Davis, An Ethic (Nightboat Books, 2013). An Ethic is filled with absence. Its spare lines, with their careful unsparing enjambments, barely keep us from the void that shines just out of sight. Davis invents her own language, coining words and playing with syntax to express new forms of distance and intimacy: “elsewhereing” is a noun here. These are some of the most beautiful enlarging elegies I’ve ever read—they feel ancient and contemporary, as if carved out of stone and breathing.
Dan Beachy-QuickThere are a number of recent poetry titles that have caught my attention and won’t let it go. Eleni Sikeliano’s The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead offers a vision of the way in which the imagination is wholly necessary to living ethically in the world—a world that does not distinguish so easily as we do, between those who are here and those that seem to have departed. Peter O’Leary’s Phosphorescence of Thought reminds any of us who might have forgotten that perception and prayer are one, and a lexicon is its own liturgy. Lest anyone doubt that Brian Teare’s lyric ear is among his generation’s very finest, Companion Grasses will serve as a welcome—and often astonishing—reminder. Lastly, Alexander Starr Hamilton’s A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind, recovered lovingly by the Song Cave Press, brings to us a poet whose outsider vision returns thought to its primary, fundamental wonder.
Nona CaspersIn front of me sits the fat book on Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, by Roy F. Baumeister—it has been staring at me for a year and this summer I will read it. I want to be unsettled. I want to understand, and at the same time know I never will, what lies beneath or inside the human and social psyche that erupts into unfathomable yuk.
Next to that book sits The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns. I loved the first page—the disarming intimate, harshly practical texture of this world and the consciousness of the girl narrator: “A man with small eyes and ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. . . . I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee-caps.” About her mother: “Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.”
Cynthia CruzBooks I hope to be reading and rereading this summer include: the work of Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras’s Writing, Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Reader, Kenneth Gross’s “Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life” from Art School: (Propositions for the 21st Century), the works of Arthur Danto, and Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy.
Chard deNiordMy summer reading includes a diverse range and probably overly ambitious selection of books. Here is my working list: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust, On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell, The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach, American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman by Max Cavitch, Nemesis by Philip Roth, The Infinities by John Banville, and A Summer of Hummingbirds by Christopher Benfey. I enjoy jumping around in my reading during the summer. Several of the books I’ve chosen, particularly those by Roth, Banville, and Cavitch, focus on elegiac themes I’m developing in my new manuscript of poems titled “Interstate.” The three books on poetry that I’ve included by Schmidt, Maxwell, and Longenbach are superb resources for teaching both poetry and poetry writing. Robert Hass’s book of essays is simply brilliant, covering an amazing range of subjects and ideas on both poetry and fiction. I particularly enjoy the rare combination of Hass’s poetic vision and scholarly acumen. I am rereading James’s book on religious experience for its extraordinary objective probity, its engaging narrative examples, and its psychological insights. I have read many encomiums of Greenblatt’s book and am particularly interested in seeing just how he deals with his ambitious subject of the “emergence of modern culture.” Benfey’s book on the flowering of American literary and artistic genius in the late nineteenth century is beguiling in its thematic focus on the hummingbird in the correspondence and work of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade.
Darcie DenniganToday I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms, translated by Matvei Yankelevich. I might want to call Kharms’s short plays, stories, notebook entries and poems absurd, because they’re strange and funny, but really, their strangeness is logical—more realistic, in a way, than more real-seeming narratives. Kharms always seems to veer away from artificial constructions, until his pieces nearly evaporate. It’s as if he’s too honest to be a writer. I love him.
Hilary Vaughn DobelI can’t wait to get my hands on the beautiful Penguin reprint of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Charlie Louth with an intro by Lewis Hyde. It’s a classic, and one that I’m a little embarrassed I don’t already own. Rilke can always cure what ails you, if you let him.
Karyna McGlynn’s I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl and John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems are recent additions to my shelf; I bought them on the recommendation of friends with much better taste than my own. I haven’t finished them yet, but each book has a sort of overarching intellectual thrust or architecture, which is a quality I envy and desperately want to plunder for my own writing.
After much trepidation, I finally read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and was astonished at how a thousand-page book can be so sharply written (and addictive and funny and moving and brain-pretzeling). I know I’m late to the party, I really do. With books like that, I think it’s common to say that when you strip away all the fireworks, you’re left with—I don’t know—a Bildungsroman or a love story. But Infinite Jest is all fireworks. You keep trying to strip bits of it away, and it still refuses to be familiar.
Aaron GilbreathBecause I’m writing a book proposal, I’m doing a lot of research. To prepare for a reporting trip to Tokyo and feed my giddy excitement, I’m reading lots of books about Japan: Banana Yoshimoto’s story collection Lizard; the anthology Tokyo Stories: A Literary Stroll; Michael Zielenziger’s Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation; and Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto—not exactly beach reading.
Despite an overseas gaze, my attention is always fixed on Los Angeles, especially in the summer. Say what you will about the sprawling, congested city of Angels, but it’s one of our strangest, richest, most ethnically diverse and interesting cities, and those who dismiss it as all beaches, bleached hair, and movie fluffery are missing the best of it. The newest edition to LA lit is Matthew Specktor’s novel American Dream Machine from Tin House Books. Some people have praised it as the best LA novel since Nathaniel West’s The Day Of The Locust. I just got my copy and am excited to dig in. It will probably have me rereading Didion’s Play It As It Lays: A Novel in turn, which is my idea of an awesome summer.
Thomas GlaveAgustin Gomez-Arcos, The Carnivorous Lamb. There is just nothing like this novel, I’m sure, anywhere: the story is both shocking (really) and mesmerizing, the characters are all fascinating, and one reads it wishing fervently that Pedro Almodovar would make it into a brilliant film. The sort of novel that one wishes would never end.
Nadine Gordimer, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories. Such an arresting title would be difficult to resist in any event. But Gordimer delivers once again, with this collection, some unsparingly penetrating gazes at a society, South Africa, so similar to the U.S. in its frantic denial of what it really is and what it really wants.
Huey Newton, To Die for the People. City Lights has done a gorgeous re-issue of Newton’s radical, visionary writing, edited by Toni Morrison. One finishes this book wondering what Newton would have become had he survived. Just beautiful, all around.
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. A book that I simply could not put down, so compelling were its stories. This book exposes some of what the wider world simply must begin to learn about the impossibility, the great human disaster, that is North Korea.
Mark JacobsI’ve recently read Memories of the Future, a collection of short stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. People mention Kafka when talking about Krzhizhanovsky, but any comparison, even to a truly great writer, shortchanges him. The prose is flawless, as individual as a fingerprint. The stories are haunting. Turns of phrase become turns of narrative. Frequent startling leaps from one sentence to an unpredictable next are addicting. Taking into account the difficult circumstances in which he wrote—obscurity, cramped quarters, a lack of privacy, the ubiquitous Soviet machine—the achievement of these stories is strong and singular.
John KoetheSeeing an exhibition at the Morgan Library commemorating the centennial of the publication of Swann’s Way reawakened my interest in Proust, whose whole novel I’d read just after college. I’ve just written a long poem on Proust and Henri Bergson, and just finished a book by Richard Davenport-Hines, Proust at the Majestic, about Proust’s last days. I’m also rereading parts of the novel and am looking forward to reading some of his essays. My other summer project is to read Part II of Don Quixote. I read Part I in high school, but never got around to Part II.
Karen MalpedeI just read Andre Aciman’s Harvard Square and can easily recommend it. But here’s a book that is out-of-print that ought to be read certainly by every theater person in America: Hallie Flanagan’s Arena, her history of the Federal Theater Project. She was a great theater producer and Federal Theater was a highpoint in US theater: that the project was ended by Congress after four wildly successful years tells a lot about where we have remained since 1939 in terms of public funding of the arts. Flanagan is elegant, passionate, informed. Whenever I reread Arena I am alternately enlightened and enraged. It could have been, we might have had . . .
Natalie MesnardOpen City by Teju Cole. I am a huge fan of W.G. Sebald, and Cole is in that tradition. The deliciously slow movement of this book is perfect for languid summer months, though its tone is perhaps less so—what Cole has to say about America, and the human condition, is dark and telling.
Resin: Poems by Geri Doran. I’m looking forward to savoring the lush clarity of her poems, which often center on the natural world, as I reconnect with my own surrounding natural landscape now that the weather is warm and the school year has finally ended.
On Looking: Essays by Lia Purpura. One of my colleagues handed me a copy of On Looking during an editorial meeting, and a quick glance told me I needed this one—a gorgeous and lyric collection of essays on what it means to see—on my summer reading list.
The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz. Kunitz is a true sage—in his poems, and as he speaks in this book on poetry and gardening, I find that he has a way of waking me up once again to things I’ve long known to be true. I will read this book every summer.
Melanie NeadAusterlitz by WG Sebald. Simply one of the strangest, best books I’ve ever read. The tone of his prose is beautiful, hypnotic, full of mystery and hidden rooms, like the architecture of the odd old buildings he describes. A book about loss, memory, history, things hidden or suppressed, the Holocaust, architecture, civilization, and mental illness.
Lives of Girls and Women: A Novel by Alice Munro. Possibly my favorite book of short stories ever. Interconnected stories about Del, a girl coming of age in a small town in Canada. Devastatingly insightful, honest, nostalgic, painful, beautiful writing about the uncomfortable process of growing up and the uncomfortable relationship between ourselves and family, death, place, religion, sex, the future, and self. Marvelous.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. The ultimate summer book; the ultimate Western; the ultimate sprawling marvelous epic. Take it camping or to the beach, and get ready to meet your new best friends, Gus and Call. I don’t think I’ve ever loved fictional characters as much as I love the heroes of Lonesome Dove.
Stoner by John Williams. I recommended this to a friend recently who echoed my own feelings about it—“I couldn’t put it down, although I couldn’t figure out why!” A book in which very little really happens, plotwise, and the main characters suffers an almost absurd, unending onslaught of trials and failures. A book about the brutality of mediocrity. And yet! This book is a masterpiece. The writing is luminous and beautiful and strange, and the reader gets to know the main character deeply, lovingly, and completely. A book that I will definitely read more than once, not least of all to try and figure out what makes it so damn good.
Chinelo OkparantaBook I’ve just finished and admired:
1) We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Books I look forward to reading:
1) A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
2) Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie
3) Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories by A. Igoni Barrett
4) Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano
Thomas R. SmithA book I’m reading and recommending is The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by the scientist and environmentalist Carl Safina. Subtitled “A Natural Year in an Unnatural World,” Safina’s 2011 book intersperses travels to far places for purposes of gauging the effects of climate change with a chronicle of the seasons at his Lazy Point, Long Island retreat in language remniscent of Aldo Leopold and Henry Beston. Safina observes, thinks, and writes beautifully, and The View from Lazy Point challenges and delights in equal parts.
Ted WheelerFor some reason or another several novels of self-deception and betrayal have found their way onto my reading list this summer. Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, a dark comedy of manners set in the art and cinema culture of 1930s Berlin; Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, a narrative of passing wherein a young black woman moves to New York in the Harlem Renaissance to pass as white after her parents die; and Ben Greeman’s The Slippage, a tragic-comic update of Revolutionary Road where a couple endeavors to build a new house in order to save their marriage.
William WhiteI’m having a summer devoted to John Irving. I started with The World According to Garp and then followed it with The Hotel New Hampshire. Both works are just as much concerned with character as they are with plot. Garp is a novel about writers, a mother and son. A summary of the novel would only dilute the power of it. Take my word for it: the last few chapters will rock your world. The Hotel New Hampshire was not as complete—or as polished—as Garp, but still enjoyable in its exuberant use of language and theme. Imagine: a hotel in Vienna where one floor is devoted to prostitutes and another to terrorists. Oh, and did I mention the bear that wanted to be human, and the girl that wanted to be a bear?
Currently, I’m midway through The Cider House Rules and plan to end my summer with A Prayer for Owen Meany. I can already tell that Cider House will be my favorite of the four. Big-hearted, capacious, this novel has everything you want in a good book: unforgettable characters—the ether-addicted abortionist, the romantic orphan—and a grand scope. It reads like a novel written by Charles Dickens, if Dickens were from New England and born in the twentieth century. A Prayer for Owen Meany is next on my list, and many of my friends tell me it’s Irving’s best work.
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