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, or books that changed their lives. We’ve made a selection just in time for the holidays:
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, is a lyrical, intensely packed novel of family and sorrow. “I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is a question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage….”
Joan Didion, Blue Nights, following up her almost unbearably beautiful The Year of Magical Thinking with another memoir about damage and death, this time the far too-early death of her daughter Quintana Roo. I admit I don’t much care for memoirs, but this is an example beyond the genre. “When we lose that sense of the possible we lose it fast.”
Roald Hoffmann and Iain Boyd Whyte, Beyond the Finite: The Sublime in Art and Science, have co-edited a powerful book on aesthetics, philosophy, and yes, the sublime. At a time when English departments want to revert to the social sciences and quantitative analysis, losing sight of affective responses to the world, here is a powerful reminder that even the sciences appreciate—and need—the mysterious and awful. “There is some evidence that the sublime still owns us. . . . The sublime cannot be adequately explored unless the writing finds a way to move back and forth from discourse ON to discourse OF.”
T. R. Hummer, Ephemeron, is the new, long-awaited volume of poems by one of KR’s past editors. It’s colloquial and intellectual, pop-culture and fractals, Wittgenstein meets the Dave Clark Five. Read it alongside Hoffmann and Whyte’s book on the sublime and science; Hummer’s lyrics travel the edge, as this couplet shows: “The man with a headache reached into his mind and extracted a bit of / shrapnel, which, examined, was the clone of a passage from Bach.”
Lee Richard Bradbury
I just re-read Dante’s Divine Comedy. It never gets old. I’m old-fashioned, and I prefer Longfellow’s translation.
I’m rereading all the Brontë novels these days, including Charlotte’s (deservedly) less well-known Shirley and The Professor. Wuthering Heights was less shocking to me this time around, and funnier, and even a bit irritating: why wouldn’t anyone listen to warnings about Heathcliff! JANE EYRE still is, and will likely always be, my favorite book: Rochester! Miss Temple! Helen Burns! Grace Poole! Much as I love it, I’m putting off Villette, as I find it one of the saddest, loneliest books I’ve ever read. More recent favorites include the astonishing Room, by Emma Donoghue, and Transit Of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard.
I would wholeheartedly recommend The Selected Poetry and Prose of Vittorio Sereni (The University of Chicago Press 2006). Sereni’s poems, and perhaps most meaningful to me, the poems of his ‘Algerian Diary,’ are precise elegies which always make me want to pull the world a little bit closer than I usually do. Perfect with a glass of Metaxa and small white Christmas lights after everyone else has gone to bed.
I’m not alone in being knocked over sideways by John Jeremiah Sullivan’s writing—guy’s won two National Magazine Awards in the last decade—but even if you’re aware of the majesty of his writing, Sullivan’s Pulphead is still a revelation. If you’ve seen the book advertised, you’ve already seen that Wells Tower noting that it’s the best book of essays since Wallace’s first, and though that’s true, it doesn’t do justice to how funny and good and beautiful a book this is.
Every few years I find myself rereading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 because it both makes me laugh out loud and breaks my heart. As battling bureaucracies increasingly becomes part of our daily lives (I’m thinking of you, Verizon Wireless), I think we can sympathize with Yossarian’s dilemma even if we’ve never been shot at. Heller’s ability to balance the terrible with the humorous is nothing short of astounding.
Given the time of the season, I think it apt to mention Jim Crace’s Quarantine as the best book I’ve read about that enigma: Jesus Christ. Crace’s imaginative re-envisioning of Jesus’ forty day fast is ambitious and captivating.
For history buffs who may have missed it when it was released about a decade ago, Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex may strike just the right note when you are traveling on a plane or train and need something more than a paperback novel to keep you sated.
I recently read Desperate Characters by Paula Fox and was blown away—it’s slim, smart, haunting and brilliantly wrought.
I love We The Animals by Justin Torres, which was released earlier this fall. Torres captures the strangeness and beauty and terror of childhood in gorgeous, incredibly inventive prose.
One of my favorite story collections is The Collected Stories of Grace Paley. She was a genius of dark-to-black comedy, and her stories are among the most piercing and original I’ve ever read.
Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.
Ben Lerner’s new book, Mean Free Path, from Copper Canyon is an astonishing and moving fusion of love poem, elegy, collage, and radical investigation of linguistic resistance and continuity. I know that sentence sounds like a self-conscious blurb, but the book was riveting in both its formal fragmentation and lyric vectors. Most interesting book of poems I’ve read this year.
When I was a young poet in graduate school, I remember digging through used books and finding Clouded Sky by Miklos Radnoti, translated by Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, and S. J. Marks. Most of the poems were written when the Hungarian Jewish poet Radnoti was in forced labor camps during the World War II, dismayed at how his neighbors had turned bitterly against him, and all the time he wrote poems on paper scraps, even one poem accurately describing his own execution. His wife recovered his poems from his jacket pocket after she found him in a mass grave. But it was a revelation to me that these short, often fragment-like poems were such a stunning celebrations of his love for his wife, of nature, and of people near him even amid extreme terror.
Agatha Christie: An English Mystery, biography by novelist and journalist Laura Thompson. Highly sympathetic, evocative, shrewd and lyrically written biography that makes very imaginative use of all Agatha’s novels, poems, letters and notebooks to tell a very touching story. She even takes umbrage when Christie’s agents don’t appreciate the late books!
The novel Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell—powerful and breathtaking in its brutality and simplicity. It’s dark, real, and heartbreaking.
Geeta Kothari, KR Fiction Editor
I still have a faded and worn copy of Best American Short Stories 1995, in which Daniel Orozco’s story, “Orientation” appeared. It wasn’t the first second-person story I’d read, but it was the one my friends and I talked about and taught, not just that year but for several years following that. It was that good—ironic and funny yet humane. Orozco’s new collection, Orientation and Other Stories, is a slim volume of equally memorable stories. Each story is “a surprise and a delight” (to quote David Lynn), pitch perfect in structure and tone. I have already reread “Only Connect,” which starts with a murder and ends with a love story, and “Temporary Stories,” which is about a temp who really wants to be invisible to the rest of the office, but inadvertently makes friends. I can’t say enough about this book. Just read it.
In the winter, with a long break from teaching, I am looking forward to John Ashbery’s Collected Poems: 1956-1987. This 2008 volume collects the first 12 books from Ashbery, whom I’d rank among the very best living poets I’ve read. With an Ashbery poem, one sometimes has the sense of eavesdropping on a private conversation that has been going on a very long time, whose strange rhetoric and motivations are enough to keep one interested—and there is much more in there.
I also recommend Angela Shaw’s debut book of poems, The Beginning of the Fields, from Tupelo Press. This is quite a good book, and I suppose it reminds us that spring is just around the corner, especially in the beautiful “Children in a Field.” Along these lines, I also recommend Kenneth Koch’s Hotel Lambosa, which has many beautiful short stories in Koch’s typical light tone, my favorite of which is “The Allegory of Spring.”
I am tearing through Justin Torres’s We The Animals right now. It’s 125 pages long, the sort of book that I started on the train this morning and know I’ll finish before I go to sleep. Is it a novel? Is it connected stories? I don’t really care, I just want to stay in the empty bathtub, the wrecked vegetable garden, the leaf-slick lake with these small wild brothers. This is a dreamy book about being little and loved by dangerous parents.
Caitlin Horrocks writes short stories that make me want to quit writing and just read hers. Her collection, This Is Not Your City, is so good I read it twice in a row, the second time to try to figure out how she did it. The stories—about the heartbroken, the confused, the makers of really questionable choices—happen in a zoo, in Amish country, in Finland, on a cruise ship held hostage by Somali pirates. From the first page, you feel like she’s holding your hand, pulling you from one gasping story to the next, and you’re afraid to blink because you know you’ll miss something.
Trickster Makes This World, by Lewis Hyde. I am about to teach this book once again; I never tire of revisiting it. Hyde’s examination of the Trickster figure across time and cultures, from Native American Coyote stories to the art of Duchamp and Ginsberg, is a tour de force of mythology and cultural analysis. It vividly reminds me that the world ever renews itself, against all odds: a message for our moment.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, KR Associate Editor
Like Jess, I’ve been enjoying Caitlin Horrocks’ wonderful and surprising collection of stories, This Is Not Your City. These are stories that inspire envy and joy, loving portraits of our worst impulses.
I’ve also been wandering through Gretchen E. Henderson’s strange and beautiful metabook, Galerie de Difformité, past “exhibits” such as the Members Directory for Ye Ugly Face Clubb and The Destruction Room (“a room full of interesting Books, or at least when cut up will be so”), along with warnings to proceed no further for fear of discovering my own monstrosity and invitations to deform the book with marginalia or razors. A chimera with “the head of a novel and the body of a poem,” this luminous undertaking of literary forms will confuse and amuse.
David Lynn, KR Editor
The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje. Beautifully written, quiet, a beautiful whisper of a novel.
Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann. Widely read, of course, but for me it lived up to its reputation—powerful, dazzling, a technical tour de force, and also deeply moving.
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett. The fact that it’s a kind of feminist or feminized and Amazonian reworking of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness is, at first, rather off-putting. But once a reader forgets all that, the detail of the deep Brazilian jungle is glorious. A wonderful book.
Any Human Heart, William Boyd. I’m becoming quite the Boyd fan (and, I confess, have published him in KR). His novels are aimed, perhaps, at a more general reader, but I find them absolutely delightful. My favorite remains Restless, but Any Human Heart, which was made into a fine BBC series, traces the life of the narrator through much of the British-oriented history of the 20th century. Great fun.
Partitions, by Amit Majmudar. Other novels have told the great sweeping drama, spectacle, and tragedy of India’s partition into two countries. Majmudar keeps a tighter focus on a vivid handful of characters on both sides of, and struggling to cross, the new border. It’s lovely, tender, brutal, and evocative. I strongly recommend it.
I recently finished Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang, one of the strangest and funniest and most engrossing novels I’ve come across in a while. Centered on a family of performance artists, it poses provocative questions about the nature and morality of art. Also, it’s howlingly funny.
Tyler Meier, KR Managing Editor
Andy Grace’s Sancta will be out early in the new year from Ahsahta Press (preorder on Amazon now), and it might be the only New Year’s resolution you’ll need. In over eighty prose poems, each exactly seventy words long, Grace narrates by image a linked narrative of loss and renewal told by texture, whose method would make Pound proud, and whose lyrical dexterity within the tight formal constraints generates a pleasure by compression worthy of the price of admission many times over. This is a book for readers who delight in the astonishing sentence, in images that ghost their own desire. Grace asks “Am I a citizen of these images? Or an interloper? Or just a voice?” The answer is yes.
Some terrific books of poetry have really captured my attention in the last few months. I’ve been enjoying Something in the Potato Room by Heather Cousins for its stunning language and creepy premise, and for the fact that its gripping narrative would not let me put it down, as well as Your Father on this Train of Ghosts by John Gallaher and G.C. Waldrep for lines like “Our dark toys blink up into the sun.” I’m also loving Underdog by Katrina Roberts and Birds for a Demolition by Manoel de Barros (translated by Idra Novey).
And one book that changed my life is Lorca’s Poet in New York; it taught me the degree to which either side of a metaphorical equation could be pushed while keeping each comparison itself intact and exactly right, lending comparison an arc to resonate along that could extend meaning beyond my wildest dreams.
One classic not to miss for a moment longer is Stanley Crawford’s 1972 novel The Log of the SS the Mrs. Unguentine, recently reissued by Dalkey Archive. The Unguentines live upon a glorious and monstrous barge, as the years pass ceasing to set foot on land at all and creating a civilization of their own. The novel is a perfect work of enchantment, of wonderful and sinister wizardry, and a true masterpiece.
In 2011, I’ve had the great pleasure of reading Anne Germanacos’s In the Time of the Girls, in which the form of the short story is taken apart and reassembled with a mischievous, stunning intelligence: each story is a singular investigation, and the collection a debut to celebrate. I’ve also loved Daniel Khalastchi’s debut Manoleria, a haunting and unsettling collection of poems that speak to our political times with fierce wisdom. Lastly, I recommend Philip Metres’s chapbook “abu ghraib arias,” a collage of testimony, erasures, and spare, brutal poems that together are devastating.
Anna Duke Reach, KR Director of Programs
Why aren’t the National Book Awards televised like the Oscars? This year offered plenty of excitement, with new voices honored and a powerful acceptance speech by poet Nikky Finney. John Ashberry also offered witty words as he accepted the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters suggesting his work was “in fact a lot too difficult, ranking somewhere near root canal on the pleasure principle scale.” The fiction award went to Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward and offered a poignant, painful portrait of a family just trying to survive in rural Mississippi before the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina hit. I might have missed this book if the NBA hadn’t nominated it, so I’m grateful for these nominations. I highly recommend this book, as well as The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, which was also nominated.
For literary laughs after dark pages of fiction, I turned to Hark a Vagrant by cartoonist Kate Beaton, who manages to skewer writers, revolutionaries, suffragists, and others as she reinvents them in modern times. Yet the book that offered me colorful pleasure was Maira Kalman’s Principles of Uncertainty which is filled with visual treats (such as a collection of waterfall postcards and “things that fall out of books”) as she documents her musings on death, love, and candy. It is bound joy!
Zach Savich, KR Book Review Editor
Poetry readers, may I recommend Rusty Morrison’s Book of the Given (Noemi Press, 2011)? In this book-length meditation inspired by Georges Bataille, close observation extends the body into the world, illuminating “the space between memory and meaning.” Morrison is expert at depiction that flourishes into thought, making a rapt “parade” of the “eye’s narrow perception”; her poems are astonishing. For astonishment that’s closer to “using tweezers to pull diamonds out of your girlfriend’s tear ducts,” check out Mark Leidner’s Beauty was the Case that They Gave Me (Factory Hollow, 2011). In poetry that “has gone / nowhere / but too far,” Leidner shows that comedy (“crystal chowder,” he calls water) can generate offhand splendor that is “strong as gossip.”
The book that changed my life is The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I found it early on, and I still hear the poet’s passionate rhythms beating against the meter, lifting my heart with its resonant praise of life even on dark days. As for your second question, I read recently, on the suggestion of Jacqueline Osherow, Don Juan by Lord Byron. It had me laughing out loud. He has and conveys a range of knowledge, is hilarious, gossipy, caustic, bitchy, and through it all urges reform and asserts the rights of the common poor over the gains of the rich and powerful. We need Lord Byron in our time.
Abigail Wadsworth Serfass, KR Associate Managing Editor
I’ve been progressively re-reading my Jane Austen for about a year—actually, to tell the truth, I’ve mostly been listening to the free podcast recordings at LibriVox.org by my favorite reader Karen Savage (LibriVox can be hit or miss, but Ms. Savage is a wonderfully expressive and precise narrator)—and the biggest surprise, other than that Emma is much more adult and sad than I ever gave it credit for, is that Persuasion is a masterpiece of small observations, missed opportunities, and real growth. If you haven’t read it recently, I highly recommend it.
Eula Biss’s No Man’s Land: American Essays (Graywolf). It is not surprising Biss’s book won a National Book Critic’s Circle Award in 2010; it is more than deserving of all kinds of praise and publicity. NPR calls it “personal yet dazzlingly eclectic,” then goes on to say “Biss’ pairings of ideas, like those of most original thinkers, have the knack of seeming brilliant and obvious at the same time.” I heartily concur.
Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (WW Norton). I am only on page 16 and already hooked. Flynn has a knack for writing beautifully about the unthinkable: a homeless father he cannot welcome into his home because “the drowning man would pull me under.” I give it six stars.
Dean Young’s Fall Higher. When it comes to risking sentimentality, Young is the consummate tightrope walker. And yet he walks that thin line poem after poem, never falling flat on his face on the sappy side of the rope. His poem “Lucifer” is worth the price of the book.
Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Because this genius of the language-for-the-fun-of-it school never goes out style. “All the standards have steamers and all the curtains have bed linen and all the yellow has discrimination and all the circle has circling”: what’s not to rollick and revel in?
Kelli Russell Agodon’s Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room (White Pine Press). There are poems in this collection that will make you laugh, such as “Coming Up Next: How Killer Blue Irises Spread” and “In the 70s, I Confused Macrame and Macabre,” and, “What the Universe Makes of Lingerie” (three of my personal favorites), but the cool thing about Agodon’s work is how often pain/sadness and humor/joy appear side by side, just as they do in real life. I don’t know about you, but I prefer poems that alternately leave me guffawing or about to burst into tears; poems, in other words, that remind me that I am alive.
Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life. (Wave Books) Though I know I am late to the party, Lasky is my favorite find of 2011. Lasky can be droll as a sulky teenager one minute (“Atheists are all over the world and they are such idiots”), then sharp as Sappho the next. She is also effusively expansive and loving of the world as a Neruda or O’Hara, and she can do the surreal dance as well as the best of them, including Andre Breton (“Like a carrot I will be everything God can’t see). From the moment I opened this book, I was a smitten devotee. She is also funny, irreverent, and says things in poems that would make the average poet blush, wince, and/or grab their eraser/pound the delete key. Thank goodness for us she does neither.
Hope Maxwell Snyder
Alexandra Harris’s Virginia Woolf is brief, but smart and passionate.
I have also read Wendy Guerra’s two novels, Nunca fui primera dama, and Todos se van (my favorite), which was awarded First Bruguera prize in 2006 in Barcelona. Her book of poetry, Ropa interior, is terrific. Wendy lives in Habana, Cuba. I discovered her work during a trip to Bogotá and have translated her poems. Both her prose and her poetry capture a world we rarely have the opportunity to observe. Guerra paints an intimate portrait of growing up in Habana during the 70’s. Her books have not been published in Cuba, or translated into English.
Next on my list: Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.
Daniel Torday, KR Book Review Editor
Iain Haley Pollock’s Spit Back a Boy. Selected by Elizabeth Alexander as this year’s winner of the Cave Canem Prize for a first book of poems. Widely varied in form and tone, always precise and brimming with complicated emotion, these poems are uniformly impressive. A remarkable debut.
Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances. I’ve been meaning to read this novel since the day it came out, and see what all the fuss was about. The fuss was about the fact that it’s a beautiful and strange book.
Bruce Smith’s Devotions. I’ve always loved Smith’s poems, but every time one of these new poems came out in a magazine in the past couple years, I’ve said, Whoa, that’s the best poem I’ve read in a long time—by Smith, or by anyone. Reading them all in one volume is awe-inspiring. I’ll eat my New Balances if he doesn’t win the National Book Award.
The Call by Yannick Murphy. A potentially devastating novel about a family holding together in the wake of a hunting accident that puts the youngest son in a coma, The Call offers an engrossing rumination on social and domestic responsibility, and the threats to our contemporary American social fabric under the stress of economic recession. An engrossing, smart book that captures a unique family dynamic.