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Kenyon Review Newsletter December 2012
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:
From KR Editors, Staff, and Trustees . . .

David Lynn, Editor
Thanks to old friend and KR re-founding editor, Ron Sharp, I’ve discovered the Australian author Alex Miller. Lauded both Down Under and in Europe, Miller has largely been ignored by American publishers. This mystifies me. I started with the novel Landscape of Farewell, and it is an astonishing achievement. Something of J. M. Coetzee, mixed with Patrick White, and yet entirely his own voice as well. I strongly recommend getting your hands on one of his novels, somehow.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. A remarkable first novel. I hesitate, our culture still recovering from Harry Potter immersion, to recommend a book full of magic, but this is wonderful fun aimed at grown ups.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Overwhelming—reminds you of how great Russian novels convey a sweep across history and continents, but then swoop to the smallest gesture in a dacha, a pungent odor in a village, the gallop of Cossacks attacking protestors on a city street.

The Yellow Birds: A Novel by Kevin Powers, Little Brown. Recommended to me by inveterate reader Bob Hallinan, this extraordinary first novel paints a vivid and disturbing picture of a common soldier’s experience fighting in Iraq. Beautifully written and harrowing, it shifts back and forth between the horrors of brutality and casual death in a desert city and the lush but alienating splendors of rural Virginia after he returns home spiritually broken.

Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor
At this time of year, I find myself anticipating the pleasures of spending the holidays with new books, rather than recommending books it seems everyone has already devoured. This year, I’m looking forward to Louise Erdrich’s new novel, The Round House, which recently won the National Book Award for Fiction, along with another nominee, This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz. Also on my shelf, Alice Munro’s Dear Life: Stories and Carl Phillips’ Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems 1986-2006. I’m also looking forward to books coming out early in the new year from poets whose work I’ve come to love: Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, due out from Graywolf in February, along with first books by KR’s two poetry fellows, Natalie Shapero’s No Object, due out this winter from Saturnalia, and Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers’ Chord Box, coming out from University of Arkansas Press in February.
Tyler Meier, Managing Editor
Bluets by Maggie Nelson (Wave Books, 2009). A lyrical essay that is alternately abstract and razor sharp, the 240 entries in Bluets are not unlike a meadow bloomed blue: concentrated and diffuse, scatter-shot and teeming. Like any field, it works both at a distance and up close, with the intensity of nearness. The entries span the spectrum of emotions, from the ecstatic to a fierce and lonely sadness. A coterie of color-thinkers helps orient: Wittgenstein, Gertrude Stein, and Goethe all make appearances. Bluets is both a field report and an experience. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, and I’m happy that I did.
David Baker, Poetry Editor
So many excellent new books of poetry and so little time. But I have been reading and returning to Linda Gregerson’s The Selvage for the past month, grateful for both her social sense and lyric sense—her family and neighbors alongside Dido and Masaccio, the beautiful dense textures of her language and lines. Dean Young’s Bender: New & Selected Poems takes me, page after page, as he says, to “a new place!” But the most powerful and thrilling books to me, just now, are Adrienne Rich’s Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 and Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012. In these two books we have the work of truly essential poets, gathered in volumes that feel nearly eternal. Glück’s book in particular seems like an achievement equal in stature to Lowell, even to Stevens. It may be one of the most significant collections of American poetry in the last fifty years.

Caitlin Horrocks, Fiction Editor
T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty is an incredibly smart book, but I don’t want to make it sound airless. The essay unfolds in prose poems, revealing a web of connections between various places, lovers, identities, and art works. Surprising, beautiful echoes and juxtapositions keep emerging on reading and re-reading.

I’ve been on a Margaret Atwood kick recently, for a course I’m teaching this semester; I’ve enjoyed revisiting her novels, but I’ve fallen in love with her poetry. There are a dozen books and fifty years of it, but I began with her Selected Poems 1965-1975.

Geeta Kothari, Nonfiction Editor
Even though I’m allergic to cats and prefer dogs, I will be reading Peter Trachtenberg’s Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons, which appears to be about his search for his missing cat, Biscuit, but is really about love in its various forms. I heard him read from the book the other night, and it’s witty, smart, and elegant. That’s the new book; the old book will be The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. I like most of the books in the Wolves series, but this is the one I return to regularly. Snow, wolves, a wicked stepmother, and orphans on the run make this the perfect Christmas morning read.
Anna Duke Reach, Director of Programs
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg centers around Edie, the family matriarch who is eating herself to death. As she moves from comfort eating to obesity, family members react differently to her. Attenberg captures these differences by moving between family members revealing the love, pain, humor, and compassion of ordinary life. I ate up every word, especially the plans for a themed B’nai Mizvah with a choreographed dance routine.

A classic I adore is Anna Karenina. Tolstoy captures my attention in new ways with each reading. At age eighteen, I was wholeheartedly devoted to Anna’s romantic imagination and Levin’s spiritual rants. Ten years later, I read it after getting married and the relationships between couples most intrigued me. A decade and three children later, my mother’s heart cried for Anna’s loss in a way I’d not known before. My next rereading was with a book group (pre-Oprah’s selection of this title), and each person in the group had a different favorite character. If only I’d used a different highlighter color with each rereading. Time to return to my battered book and brace myself for the new movie.

Abigail Serfass, Associate Managing Editor
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies rocketed to the top of my best-books-ever list after I discovered it this fall. This swashbuckling, rip-roaring tale of disparate souls drawn together by loss, love, hope, and the call of adventure, is both a fascinating history lesson and, quite simply, a thrilling story, well told. His follow-up, the second in the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke, is wildly different in tone and topic. Ghosh explores the city of Canton in the year 1838 from seemingly every angle at a fleeting moment in history. This book did not enthrall me like Sea of Poppies while I was reading it, but the city of Canton and its colorful inhabitants stayed with me for days and weeks after I finished. I can’t wait to see how Ghosh will end the trilogy.
G.C. Waldrep, Editor At Large
Marosa di Giorgio’s Diadem: Selected Poems (BOA Editions), translated by Adam Gianelli, is one of the most unapologetically oneiric volumes of poetry I have ever encountered. It shimmers between moments of half-perceived beauty and terror, but what abides (in subtle, disquieting ways) is its sheer lyric strangeness. I’ve also been enjoying Bruce Beasley’s Theophobia, Craig Morgan Teicher’s To Keep Love Blurry, and Mary Ruefle’s superb Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. And anyone who missed Cole Swensen’s Gravesend earlier in the year should check it out: even if you’ve not loved Swensen’s other work, this one might delight you.
Zach Savich, Book Review Editor
Oni Buchanan’s third collection of poetry, Must a Violence (University of Iowa Press, 2012), vividly illuminates the “quality of air surrounding the brink.” Its rapt flashes of humor (“A cupcake will not solve this”) and supple formal alternations support Buchanan’s singular vision. “Somebody could build your house / with both ends open,” Buchanan writes; her poems provide a similarly hospitable and capacious view. For a vantage that is equally urgent, if more nonchalant, the luminous conjectures in Emmanuel Hocquard’s The Invention of Glass (Canarium Books, 2012) turn formal logic into a form of wonder. Hocquard’s poetry is clever—he insists that poetry offers a variety of physics—but it also takes intent pleasure in noting “peacocks / and bags near the fountain,” in the sensual recognition of “beyond the windshield / yellow fields even.” His collection is translated by Rod Smith and Cole Swensen. This year, I was glad to also have Cole Swensen’s Gravesend (University of California Press, 2012) as a companion, along with Elizabeth Robinson’s Counterpart (Ahsahta, 2012), Stanley Plumly’s Orphan Hours (Norton, 2012), S. E. Smith’s I Live in a Hut (CSU Poetry Center, 2012), and the essays and tales in Dan Beachy-Quick’s Wonderful Investigations (Milkweed Editions, 2012). 2013, I happily await your books.

Daniel Torday, Book Review Editor
I’ve been on a big ol’ nonfiction reading kick of late. To that end, I’ve sure been enjoying Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, which is what its subtitle says it is, while also being whip-smart and whip-funny. Then I recently started Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. Again—see the subtitle. Finally, because I have a penchant for the strange, I’ve been digging into Albert Goldbarth’s essay collection Great Topics of the World. I’ve long taught his masterpiece of an essay, “Delft”—which I’ve only just discovered was first published in KR—and finding time to read more of Goldbarth’s essays has been hugely rewarding. Great Topics is out of print, but you can find Goldbarth’s essays now in Many Circles: New and Selected Essays, published by Graywolf. Worth every cent.
Hilary Plum, KR Consulting Editor
Noy Holland has been essential to me throughout my life as a reader and writer, or life aspiring to be reader and writer, I should say, since I don’t know in what form I’d be either without her work. I’m thrilled to say that she has a new collection of stories just out this fall, Swim for the Little One First, and it’s one to spend years with. Holland’s fiction excavates that deep place in mind and marrow where the impulse toward sound and the impulse toward story are not yet distinct. No one writes sentences like she does; no one writes people like she does. This is a book to keep close, to let under your skin.

This fall I also for the first time read Etel Adnan’s classic The Arab Apocalypse, as relevant and wondrous and harrowing now as it was when first published twenty years ago. If you don’t know it yet, track down a copy. I’ve also been happily losing myself in the collection of five Fanny Howe novels, Radical Love, which Nightboat Books published a few years back—wonderful to have so many rich years of her work in one volume.

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, KR Fellow
Published several decades ago and recently re-released, Stephanie Vaughn’s Sweet Talk (Other Press, 2012) is THE best book of short stories I’ve read in years. I think Vaughn is one of the semi-secret geniuses of her generation. The stories are laughing-out-loud hilarious as well as exquisitely crafted. Vaughn has a deftness of language that makes a poet like me jealous; I wish I could steal all of her similes! “Dog Heaven,” the final story in the book, has been anthologized a number of times, but every story in this collection is a gem. I also plan to use the book for my students next semester, as these stories present endless teaching possibilities.
Natalie Shapero, KR Fellow
If you’re interested in performance art and the story of the American avant-garde, pick up The Journals of Spalding Gray, my favorite book of the past year. These diaries span four decades and three love affairs, and offer a sharp, self-critical account of Gray’s struggle with debilitating depression as he strove to stay honest and engaging on the page and the stage. Plus, no pesky handwriting interpretation controversy (Notebooks of Robert Frost, I’m looking at you). Also, speaking of, I just finished Tamara Plakins Thornton’s Handwriting in America, a nifty overview of penmanship trends and the ideological and technological forces behind them. Finally, for poetry types, winter is a good time for poems suspicious of love. Try the tight, disquieting sonnet sequence about weddings in Carrie Jerrell’s After the Revival, or Rachael Wetzsteon’s angry and astonishing Home and Away.

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