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:
Reading Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) was an eye-opener for me. I remembered vaguely that when Lord of the Flies was being talked about in the late fifties, some reviewer had commented that Richard Hughes had done all this before. Well, not exactly, but the children in this book do make their pirate captors look like milquetoasts. Yet at the same time as they are able to look without blinking at wonders and horrors, the kids can show the influence of the most hidebound respectability.
In February, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest turns fifteen. Take this opportunity to reconsider/consider for the first time this incredible novel, which follows an elite tennis academy, a halfway house for substance abusers, and Quebecois terrorists. Often heartbreaking and hilarious. Always wise.
Anne Carson’s Nox, an elegy to a brother the author hardly knew, is an accordion book that comes in a box (a box that felt more like a coffin the more I read). Ms. Carson writes from the space between histories personal and ancient, giving us not a memoir of grief but a translation.
As I read so much recently about the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, I am reminded of how much I enjoyed teaching that classic and the tremendous response from sudents. Recently I have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help with its many allusions to historical events that I recall from the early 60s. Both books speak to a pre-civil rights era of man’s inhumanity to man.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. Classical mythology meets contemporary teenage romance in a stunning language and syntax unique to this book.
I recommend Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s Reliquary Fever: New and Selected Poems (New Issues, 2010), which features recent work alongside selections from her five previous poetry books. Although Goldberg’s poetic growth is evident throughout the collection’s trajectory, it’s also clear that her central obsessions endure: the eternal problems posed by time and death, the enigmatic rift between body and spirit, and the imaginative space that hums somewhere between memory and forgetting. Her poems anchor themselves in the concreteness of a private world that blends personal history and myth: fetishized stilettos, Adam in drag, a mother cutting a face onto her daughter’s apple with a knife. Goldberg’s poems often evoke metamorphoses of the richly phantasmagoric sort, particularly when memories resurface in the present dimension. In “Retro Lullaby,” for instance, the poem’s speaker associates “the smell of moist hay” with childhood, figuring her now estranged girlhood self as “a postcard of a little stranger.” “If I drop the card in the hay-smell,” Goldberg writes, “her ear will plump up like a dried apricot in wine. / And her stupid white hands will come up like two / white pages from the bottom of a lake.” Remembrance, in Goldberg’s world, requires a dynamic and dangerous engagement.
Alexander Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Holt). My earliest memory of Oliver Cromwell comes from a movie I saw in the 1970s. This Cromwell had three warts, a huge nose and distinctive sneer that gave me nightmares. I started Wolf Hall, then, with much skepticism—Cromwell was evil, what else is there to say?—and not a whole lot of interest. But Mantel’s intimate portrayal of this fictional Cromwell is so good, once I started it, I couldn’t stop. Mantel imagines a Cromwell quite unlike the one commonly portrayed—a sympathetic family man dealing with a capricious king who is engaged in a protracted battle with the church so that he can marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. You know how this story is going to end, yet the book reads like a thriller because Mantel is just so good with the characters—major and minor—that you want to know what’s going to happen to them.
In my family we have a tradition of reading aloud Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales (in a hot bath with cold champagne) each Christmas Eve. Ideal for a snowy evening. . . . (You can also get a recorded version read by Thomas himself.)
If you don’t know Holly Goddard-Jones’ Girl Trouble, you can start with her wonderful story “Life Expectancy” from KR’s Winter 2007 issue. Taut and heartbreaking, these stories will cut you, and then heal the wound. Beautiful, fierce, and merciless.
David H. Lynn
The Din in the Head, essays, by Cynthia Ozick. Not really a new book—a volume given to me as a gift that I read by chance. (All my free reading is by chance.) A reminder, and a pleasure, that Ozick is a woman of letters in an old and justly honored sense. She reads and writes with passion and elegance and deep insight.
The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer. Smart, nicely written, this latter-day spy novel is gripping. Perfect after a day on the slopes (not that I would know) or as an audiobook while laboring on an exercise machine (more my speed).
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. A novel that inspires passion, e.g.: James Wood can’t stand it. (Like so many other contemporary novels, it deeply offends his sensibilities. And in so many ways he’s right. . . .) Janet Maslin, on the other hand, just loves it. Me? If you could see me I’d be shrugging. It’s part Waugh, part Bellow, a whole lotta Roth. It’s certainly hilarious. But also, if you’re a Jew, all too often it’s cringe-making. Yet this novel is also compelling and important, and it engages important issues of identity and political correctness. What the heck? . . .
To the End of the Land by David Grossman. An immense novel with epic ambitions about love and war and the effect of war on individuals. So however epic its ambitions, the novel’s focus is on nuanced minutiae in the history of intertwined lives. Powerful, deeply moving.
I am a great fan of the Russian writer who lives in France, Andrei Makine, and most especially of his poetic, political, love-story novel Human Love, which I recently reread and then gave to a human rights activist friend who has worked in Angola and other countries the novel touches. She adored it. I just finished and found wonderfully intelligent and very moving the novel What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. The play I absolutely could not even imagine life without is, of course, The Bacchae.
Lighthead, by Terrance Hayes (Penguin Books). A book that is as much about fatherhood and way-finding (in a twenty-first century mode), as it is about the things all poems are about: love, sense (the making and losing of), desire (both oh! and ah), mortality and the art of beauty (or at least the recognition of it—but that too is a making.) Let Hayes be your Virgil for a while.
The Irrationalist by Suzanne Buffam (Canarium Books). What a lithe, elegant, flexible book. Often hilarious and yet full of the urgency of conviction, her poems can be the envelope a note from your love comes in, then a flock of butterflies carrying your mailbox away. The “Little Commentaries” section is not to be missed.
Dinty W. Moore
I was lucky enough to visit Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, recently and picked up a copy of the wonderful novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, a compelling mystery and a deeply beautiful look at male friendship and rural Mississippi. Another recent favorite is Kim Dana Kupperman’s book of crisp, radiant essays, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives From the Other Side of Silence.
Anna Duke Reach
The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. A young Dutchman, Jacob De Zoet, arrives in Dejima (near Nagasaki) in 1799. His fastidious personality is affronted by the teeming city streets but he knows he must serve a five-year post as a retail trading clerk in the Far East before he can save enough money to marry Anna back in Rotterdam. Jacob soon meets a Japanese midwife named Orito Aibagawa who is studying with a Dutch doctor. His love for her becomes more present than his love for Anna, but it is forbidden as he is a Westerner. Another competitor for Orito’s affections, a translator named Uzaemom, also wants to marry Orito but has been denied by his father as her family is in debt. Orito is shipped off to work as a midwife and earn money for the family and the plot races. This work of historic fiction is dense and magical, so that even when it stoops to some cliches, there is always surprise and delight in the next paragraph.
Tinkers by Paul Harding. The art of mending seems almost forgotten in these disposible days, so the voice of George Washington Crosby greatly intrigued me in this novel. George spent his working days repairing clocks, but he is is now on his deathbed surrounded by family as well as timepieces in the house he built in Massachusetts. The methodical measurement of ticking clocks during this deathwatch contrasts with George’s blurry memories of past and present in drifting dreams. Stories of his father, Howard, who was a tinker and a mystic who struggled with epileptic seizures seem more vivid to George than his own grandchildren in the room. The forces of nature and science are presented with an equal balance of order and mystery; even the process of building a bird nest is lyrically described. A rare and tender read.
I’m a ridiculously unsystematic reader, so even though you’d probably prefer a poet to recommend a book of poetry, or at least something in a literary field, I would instead like to recommend Bloodlands: Between Hitler And Stalin, a recent book by Timothy Snyder. Though it’s about the madness of a historical tragedy everyone knows something about, it captures the scale of that tragedy in ways I hadn’t imagined.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This novel has been around for a few years now, but I just recently discovered it and was enthralled from beginning to end. The prose is absolutely beautiful—it is finely crafted and minutely tuned, but never overshadows or detracts from the story and its characters. It is a quiet tale which unspools slowly and in keeping with the meandering reminiscences of its aging narrator, but at the same time every page demands full and careful attention from the reader. What a pleasure to place oneself in the hands of such a skillful author and live within her creation for even a little while.
Adam Levin’s 1,000-page novel The Instructions is the perfect enormous novel worthy of all the hard-to-believe comparisons to Roth and David Foster Wallace.
I’d always heard tell of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. Now I’ve read it, and it’s pure genius—156 taut pages that are basically just about a Brooklyn woman who gets bitten by a cat in the opening scene, and either does or doesn’t (no spoilers here!) get the bite checked out at the ER by the end. And is somehow wholly compelling.
The debut short story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, by Robin Black, was short-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize, the recipient of lavish praise, and the best story collection I read all year.
Two new translations deserve to be in every lover of poetry’s mushroom basket this brumal season: Mahmoud Darwish’s If I Were Another (translated by Fady Joudah, from FSG) and Adonis’s Selected Poems (translated by Khaled Mattawa, from Yale University Press). Mattawa’s own Tocqueville—his third collection (from New Issues)—is worth your time. Also recommended: The Bark of the Dog by Merrill Gilfillan (Flood Editions); John Taggart’s Is Music: Selected Poems (U. of California Press); and, just in case you missed the New Yorker piece a few weeks ago (or in spite of that), Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books).
Our own Zach Savich’s Annulments, which won the Colorado Prize, is a lovely collection and belongs on the living room settee of every American household beginning with the letters “A” through “E” and containing at least one of the following items: a cat, a canary, a thaumatrope, and/or a prosthetic device (wooden leg, iPod, etc.).
Otherwise, I have mostly been thinking about the art of Sigmar Polke and the music of Henryk Gorecki, both of whom we lost earlier this year. What I want is more time to reread Gustaf Sobin’s Collected Poems, from midsummer. And to read, for the first time, C.D. Wright’s new collection, One with Others (Copper Canyon).
Please Come Back To Me, Jessica Treadway. Talk about defamiliarizing the familiar. . . . This collection of stories, with it recognizable, domestic set-ups, lures the reader in for safe enjoyment. A little twist here, a subtle turn in thought there gradually takes the reader to haunting terra incognito. The writing here is so modest and expert, the insights so profound, that I’m reminded of Joyce’s understated masterpiece, Dubliners.
Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women, Mary Rechner. Proof that New York’s refudiation (top word of the year by New Oxford American Dictionary) of the short story collection is the small press’s gain. Featuring a story first published in the Spring 2005 issue of The Kenyon Review (“Teeth”), Nine Simple Patterns is cockeyed smart, sharply written, and very funny. A much-needed new voice for women and men has arrived in this debut collection.
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