KR Holiday Reading Recommendations
We recently asked 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, or books that changed their lives. In fact, the response was so overwhelming that we can’t share all their recommendations with you. But we’ve made a selection, so just in time for the holidays, here are some of the books KR’s friends and contributors recommend:
Classics: The Log From the Sea of Cortez – John Steinbeck
Moby-Dick – Herman Melville
Farthest North – Fridtjof Nansen
Recent: Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
Collapse – Jared Diamond
The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey – Chris Beard
Here’s what I’ve just read and recommend: Colum McCann’s Everything in This Country Must (gorgeous novella & short, utterly poetic)
Classic I can’t live without: Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human
Book that changed my life: Deena Metzger’s Writing for Your Life
The two things I have read with real pleasure lately have been Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr. Fortune’s Maggot and Hilary Mantel’s Fludd.
Jim Sheppard’s Like You’d Understand Anyway was a great read. It should be advertised as “History is Fun Again!” I also find myself reading and rereading Junot Diaz’s Drown because the voice is so strong, the writing so compact and socially conscious, the characters so bruised and powerful, even when they’re throwing up. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is one interconnected dream of parallel worlds, a masterpiece of revisionist narratology.
One recommendation—Tolstoy’s War and Peace, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Nothing like it. Absolutely amazing, a complete world.
When I was in Powell’s recently I came across the work of Paul Zweig. I read a few poems of his and I was hooked. I would recommend any one of his books for someone’s stocking this year.
(Quasi) classics I can’t live without:
Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen
Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedecker
Newer books I enjoyed immensely:
Darcie Dennigan, Corianna A-Maying the Apocalypse
Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence
T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death, An Experiment in Art Writing (Yale University Press, 2006). This beautiful book contains diary entries from January 2000 to September 2003 by a noted poet and art historian that take the reader into the imagined world of two large 17th century paintings by Nicolas Poussin: Landscape With A Calm and Landscape With A Man Killed By A Snake. Wonderful reproductions allow the mind and the eye to engage in a stop-time, freeze-frame visual journey that is profound and frightening.
Since I retired from teaching I’ve enjoyed tackling longer works and giving them the time they deserve. The first year after retirement I spent a delightful several months with Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and this year I enjoyed reading the twelve parts of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. And I’ve been rereading some of Patrick O’Brian’s series about the British sea captain Jack Aubrey and his friend the doctor/spy Stephen Maturin.
Allison Hedge Coke
Beautiful Joe (Saunders) was my primary reader, at four. It’s true. My wholly (acute care) schizophrenic mother gifted it to me from her reading at an age of my primary knowledge. I believe it remarkably positioned me to many perspectives I still hold today. An absolutely necessary children’s read. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Marquez) remains my all-time favorite novel.
These are all here on the nightstand: The Gingko Light (Sze), Flood Song (Bitsui), and Seasons of Lotus, Season of Bone (Shenoda) are three recent poetry releases that have me completely enthralled. Song for Night (Abani) is stunningly efficient prose with an amazing drive. A gorgeous and compelling must-have. Otro Golpe Dedados (Fernandez) is wonderfully intriguing and a literary great in any country.
For short story collection, American Visa (Wang), is so well written, it is an essential companion.
After the tragic news of David Foster Wallace’s suicide, and after Harper’s made many of his essays available online, I became hooked, especially on his non-fiction writing. For anyone who hasn’t read them, I highly recommend Consider The Lobster, and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The books are brilliant and often hilarious, but I was moved by something else, the fairness, the humanity that runs through them.
Peter Handke’s The Weight of The World. It’s like a hallucinogenic experience of reality—hyper-real.
The Braindead Megaphone: Essays by George Saunders. Very funny, often absurd, and yet, if you can imagine, very well-reasoned.
Joshua Poteat’s Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World: From J. G. Heck’s 1851 Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science (University of Georgia Press/The VQR Poetry Series). This is a book-length series, the poems of which are both experimental and accessible, stand on their own, and live “in many worlds at once.” These poems often feel like walking into a strange wood, or a darkened attic—there is in them not surrealism, but a kind of dark, earthy mystery that verges on moments of fairy-tale. The past is alive and personal in Illustrating the Machine. It haunts the voice and the voice is haunting, without artifice.
Samuel Amadon’s Like a Sea (University of Iowa Press). I forgot how blown away I could be by a poet’s work. Given the distance of the voice and the intricacy of the language, one doesn’t expect Amadon’s poems to be easily accessible, or heartbreaking, but they are. They are heartbreaking, and dumbfounding, precisely because their complexity (and so their wonder) so perfectly captures the way the mind work. Amid a flurry of younger poets trying to sing a similar song, Amadon’s voice rises above the rest, singing truer, recreating not only the complexity of life, language and mind, but also of sorrow, strangeness and joy.
Hunger by Elise Blackwell: A short gem of a novel on an epic subject (the Siege of Leningrad) told in spare, stunning prose. A grand piano is traded for half a loaf of bread. “Children were fed hair oil, petroleum jelly, glue.” Survivors faced torturous moral choices. “The bravery to survive is a ruthless one. Martyrdom leads, by its very definition, only to the cold ground.”
The Swimmer by Zsuzsa Bank, translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo: After Soviet troops entered Hungary in 1956 to quell the rebellion, Hungarians by the hundreds of thousands fled for a better life, a young mother among them. This evocative novel tells the story of the abandoned children and husband. Hope is fueled by lies to themselves and others. Father rents a summer cottage, the landlady asks the children if their mother is near, “and Isti said, ‘Yes, on the other side of the lake. She’s waiting for us there.’”
The poignant, evocative way in which these stories are told reminds us why we write, and why we read. They are set in times of enormous upheaval but focus on ordinary lives, and the daily struggle to survive amid the horror, to find grace, to retain our humanity.
a. been reading the Patrick O’Brian sea novels—O. My. Gawd. That man was a superb novelist, period. The 20 novels are a “roman fleuve,” I discover, which I didn’t know what that was, a string of linked books that really comprise in the end one Huge Honking Novel.
b. books I couldn’t live without, in no order:
Collected Poems of Blake
Collected Essays of Stevenson and Orwell
Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being
Barry Lopez: The Rediscovery of North America
Robert Gibbings: Lovely is the Lee
King James Bible
E.B. White: The Points of My Compass
Flannery O’Connor’s short stories
Andre Dubus: Meditations from a Movable Chair
c. Probably E.B. White and Stevenson are the writers who changed my life: White for his easy conversational talking tone in which he delivers a lotta hammer, and Stevenson for the sheer dash and verve and energy of his telling—the former made me want to write like we talk, and the latter made me a story addict forever.
I’ve just completed my annual reading of The Dog of the South, the comic novel by Charles Portis, and once more I laughed aloud as I accompanied Ray Midge from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Belize in search of his runaway wife. The plot is sketchy, the motivations of characters are obscure, confused and contradictory, but I’m amazed again by Portis’ creation of Ray Midge, a man who can never find a stool on which to sit in a bar because he must wait until the body heat of previous sitters has cooled, thus losing out to some new and insensitive sitter who claims the seat before him. Or Dr. Reo Symes, the unlicensed physician who declares that nobody will pay to see one or two monkeys on display, since people always want to see a lot of monkeys. The Dog of the South is absurd, restful, and always new. Anyone who doesn’t read it at least once in this life will die unfulfilled.
Daniel Mark Epstein
I don’t know if there is a book that changed my life, but there are books (and plays) that have continued to influence my thinking over the course of a lifetime. I am continually referring to King Lear for its illumination of the perception of time; The Odyssey as a guide to survival; A Hundred Years of Solitude for its map of human archetypes.
The Collected Poems of Sylvia Townsend Warner, published by Carcanet Press, Fady Joudah’s new translation of Mahmoud Darwish, If I Were Another (Farrar Straus and Giroux), Marie Ponsot, Easy, George Szirtes, The Burning of the Books.
A Catalogue of Everything in the World by Yelizaveta P. Renfro (Black Lawrence Press)
Here are a couple of books that I’ve got a real kick out of in the last year or so:
True Crime, ed by Harold Schecter and Classic Crimes, written by William Roughead. Roughead’s wry recounting of Scottish murders offers a fascinating counterpoint to the boisterous American ways of murder.
The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch, which opens with an account of Virgil carrying his Aeneid from ship to the shore of a deteriorating Rome is a masterpiece that ranks easily with works by Proust or Virginia Woolf. Stylistically and philosophically it’s one of the most beautiful and rewarding books that I know, though it seems somewhat neglected and rarely taught.
The Girls by Lori Lansens (fiction)
Hands of My Father by Myron Uhlberg (nonfiction)
Man’s Fate by Andre Malroux (masterpiece/classic fiction)
I’ve recently reread three brilliant but little known modern masterpieces: André Malraux’s The Walnut Trees of Altenburg (1943); L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), also made into a superb film; and J.F.Powers’ Morte D’Urban (1962). I would also recommend Alison Lurie’s memoir of James Merrill, Dangerous Spirits (2009).
I recently read, and loved, Country People, a short lyric novel by Ruth Suckow, originally issued by Alfred A. Knopf in 1924. The story concerns a large farming family in central Iowa during a period of increasing mechanization, and the hale efforts of successive generations to achieve happiness, often at the expense of their heritage. Suckow well captures a restless element in the American character, milling cryptic and echoing musicality from startling conjunctions of the simplest details.
Mine are both a little depressing:
Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering
C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.
Rereading A Secret Garden, which is great.
I gave myself thirty seconds to write down what came to mind, either old favorites or new:
Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia, Anne Raeff
The People I Know, Nancy Zafris
Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles
A Distant Episode and Other Stories, Paul Bowles
You Are Not a Stranger Here, Adam Haslett
Song of the Lark, Willa Cather
Olive Kittredge, Elizabeth Strout
Two books come to mind: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. From these two books, once as a child and again as a grown-up, at two key moments in my artistic development, I learned and learned again that what we imagine is real.
Kenyon Review Holiday Subscription Offer
Take care of your holiday shopping this season with one click! Subscribe today to give the gift of The Kenyon Review—not only will your gift recipient receive a four issue, full-year subscription to the finest work the literary world has to offer, but they will also receive seventy years of it! For the 2009 holiday season, a one year subscription to The Kenyon Review includes a one year subscription to The Kenyon Review archive via JSTOR—all for just $30! Save 25% off the newsstand price, and get access to the digital and fully searchable KR archive free! That’s over 200 issues for the price of four! Celebrate the possibilities of digital publishing while reveling in the continuing joys of the printed page—this offer has it all!
Here’s how it works: subscribe online today by clicking the link below. When we process the gift—typically within four weeks—we’ll begin the subscription with our Winter 2010 issue. Additionally, JSTOR will send an e-mail to the gift recipient at the address you’ve provided with log-in information to the KR archive—be sure to alert him/her to watch for it! Once users register with JSTOR, they will have immediate access from any internet connection to 70 years of the KR archive, a digitized treasure trove of the storied literary history of The Kenyon Review.
Looking to make a more lasting impression? A four year print subscription for $90 will include a free copy of Readings for Writers, the new anthology from The Kenyon Review. View the table of contents for this handsome new volume here. That’s four years for the price of three, and Readings for Writers, an $18.95 value—free!
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The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop Application Site to Open in January
Applications will be available January 4, 2010 for The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, an intensely creative week-long series of writing workshops held June 19-26, 2010 on the campus of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop focuses on the generation and revision of new work. Instructors employ challenging exercises and lead the groups in close readings and discussions of participants’ work. In addition, the instructors schedule personal meetings to discuss workshop assignments and other projects. This year’s session includes workshops in fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction. Workshop leaders include David Baker (poetry), Linda Gregerson (poetry), Rebecca McClanahan (literary nonfiction) Dinty W. Moore (literary nonfiction), Ron Carlson (fiction), Tara Ison (fiction) and Nancy Zafris (fiction).
Whether you’ve been writing for years, recently graduated from an MFA program, or have just now decided to take the leap out of your private notebooks and into a classroom, you’ll find a workshop here to help you accomplish your literary goals.
The Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest
The Kenyon Review will begin accepting submissions for the third annual Kenyon Review Short Fiction Prize on February 1, 2010. The contest is open to all writers under 30 years of age. Submissions must be 1,200 words or less to qualify for the contest.
The contest winner will be receive a full scholarship to attend the 2010 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, June 19-26, in Gambier, Ohio. In addition, the winning story will be published in a special section in the Winter 2011 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Submissions will be accepted beginning February 1, 2010, and concluding February 28, 2010. Entries must be submitted through the Review’s website, where an entry form will be available. Find the full contest guidelines here.
Application site for The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop Opens in January
The Kenyon Review will start accepting applications for its Young Writers workshop, a creative writing adventure for 16-18 year olds in Gambier, Ohio in early January. Two sessions will be offered this summer: June 27-July 10 and July 18-31, 2010. Young Writers is an intensive two-week workshop for intellectually curious high-school students who value writing. KR’s goal is to help students develop their creative and critical abilities with language—to become better writers and more insightful thinkers.
Scholarships are available for those who demonstrate financial need.
The deadline for submitting applications for the Young Writers workshop is March 1. Because of the large number of applications, admission is highly selective, based primarily on the student’s application essay and a teacher’s recommendation.
For more information and an application, please visit the Young Writers workshop page on our web site or contact Anna Duke Reach, Program Director, at (740) 427-5207.
KR Holiday Reading Recommendations Continued . . .
My favorite book this year—the one that I bought multiple times for friends and even people I didn’t know that well—was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Lyrical, funny, politically incisive—it is perfection.
I’m just wild about Eleanor Ross Taylor’s Captive Voices: New & Selected Poems, 1960-2008 just out from LSU Press. Her work is deft, dry, sonically complex, and often very funny. The more I read of this book, the more I take away from it. And, because the book covers fifty years, one gets the sense of the development of this remarkable, under-appreciated poet over a full career. It’s definitely one I’ll be giving to friends for the holidays.
My choice is Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, which was both researched—involving, among other arduous tasks, climbing the steepness of Mann Gulch in Montana where 13 young Smokejumpers 30 years earlier had been overtaken by flames—and written at a near-Sophoclean age. I’ve been rereading this astonishing dirge and celebration every three years or so since its publication in 1992. When passages I’ve taken to memory return unbidden I know it’s time to turn and face the fire once more. I always enter at the last paragraph: “I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature.” A book that harrows and blesses the reader.
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake taught me that compression of language and length can be inversely related to the emotional output of a story. Pancake’s fiction is taut yet fully alive. Also powerful are the foreword and two afterwards included in the collection.
Not exactly an apt Christmas choice. I have just finished Andrew Roberts’ new book on World War II, The Storm of War, as yet not published in the US. It is difficult to say anything new in general hisories of the war but Roberts manages to do so. The book is long but very well written. It is worth reading for his description of the not well known Eastern Front. A must for WW II buffs.
A book that changed my life was George Orwell’s A Collection of Essays first published in the US in the early 1950s. I read those essays when I was a sophmore in college and they made me want to become a writer. I still use this collection in my graduate class in History and find students are as blown away by Orwell’s writing and insights as I was 50 years ago.
Three books that are favorites and I think not widely known are The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, a novel about San Francisco set in the 1980’s, written totally in verse. Another is A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines a powerful story of older black men showing their strength. The third is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the story about the Nigerian civil war and the intersecting stories of three people.
If I had to recommend one book, it would be Ron Carlson’s Five Skies. I like all of Ron’s work, but this one stayed with me for a long time. I’ve given it as a gift to many people. It’s just that good.
I tend to go a little old school; books are cheaper when they are a couple years old. They’re even cheaper when I steal and borrow them. Lately, I’ve loved Perfume (Patrick Suskind) and The Reader (Bernhard Schlink). Germany, represent! I loved Dave Cullen’s Columbine and Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides). Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants also got me—and got me good.
I want to recommend A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley. Sometimes the holiday season can be a sad, endless, mind-numbing few fortnights for people, and this “fictional memoir” will make everyone feel better about their lives.
I think everybody should read Pliny the Elder, Natural History.
Steven Ray Smith
I recommend One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s a dreamy chronicle about a huge family and its diverse personalities surviving history. I think we’ll all experience some of that this holiday season.
Though it is a very old memoir, I love Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Winter in Taos. Just read it a second time, and made be want to be there all over again. Also all of Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun) and WG Sebald—my most favorite novelists.
I just finished reading Holly Goddard Jones’ Girl Trouble, which was easily the best book of stories I read this year. Her stories are hard-nosed and wise and a pitch-perfect Christmas gift for your uncle, if your uncle is Raymond Carver.
I think Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is excellent holiday reading, insofar as it offers a wonderfully complex and honest look at the dynamics of the American family.
Three recent poetry debuts are well worth your time: Ed Skoog’s Mr. Skylight (Copper Canyon), Robin Ekiss’s The Mansion of Happiness (VQR/Georgia), and Jennifer Militello’s Flinch of Song (Tupelo). (While I’m at it, a gratuitous, enthusiastic plug for John Cross’s new Tupelo chapbook, Staring at the Animal. John was my housemate in Iowa City. I love his work. He is also a very good cook.)
In the wake of Keith Waldrop’s National Book Award win for Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, it might be easy to miss his other triumph of 2009: Several Gravities, a beautiful, full-color retrospective of his collage work, with poems by Waldrop and an essay by Robert Seydel. It’s from Siglio Press of Los Angeles, an outfit I’ve never heard of before. It’s gorgeous. If you can’t afford it for yourself or that very special person in your life, ask your library to order a copy.
I would recommend Peter Trachtenberg’s The Book of Calamities. A breathtaking if harrowing meditation on loss.
Great novel: Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida
Great memoir: Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas
Great (strange) short story collection: Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler
Great (quirky) short story collection: Big World by Mary Miller
Great (whimsical) short story collection: The Complete Collection of People, Places, and Things by John Dermot Woods
For fiction I would recommend The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund. These short stories are often set in exotic locales, but the most exotic places of them all might be the small American towns these characters find themselves in. Reviewers have called this book “remarkable,” “stunning,” and “sublime.” Philosophically and emotionally, these stories pack a punch as couples, usually women, explore their bonds in relationship to the larger world.
“Sublime” also characterizes my non-fiction choice, Goat Song, by Brad Kessler. The author and his wife move from New York City to a farm in Vermont. There they experience the joys both literary and visceral of raising goats. An amazing book that culminates in a lovely, riveting chapter of cheese-making.
As far as a classic, look no further than Dickens. “A Christmas Carol” is a rare treat and it might tempt you to revisit a book I couldn’t live without, David Copperfield.