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Kenyon Review Newsletter December 2013
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, books that linger with them, or books that changed their lives. We’ve made a selection, just in time for the holidays:
David Lynn, Editor
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. Beautifully written, vivid, and deeply moving, this novel traces not just the bildungsroman of an Afghan boy, but the series of calamities that have devastated that culture over several decades.

For those who listen to audio books (as I do while driving or exercising), I’d strongly recommend John Le Carre’s A Delicate Truth for the considerable pleasure of hearing the author read his own novel. He’s absolutely terrific on the voices.

Silverchest: Poems by Carl Phillips. The latest from this year’s winner of the KR Award for Literary Achievement, these poems are artful and beautiful and wrenching. One of our major younger poets.

And a blast from the past: Last year I read State of Wonder by Ann Patchett and was truly mesmerized. So I’ve now belatedly enjoyed Bel Canto. One of those rare and beautiful novels that one never wants to end.

Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor
I’m spending a year teaching in England, so most of my reading these last few months has been devoted to products of this green and pleasant land. John Lanchester’s Capital: A Novel, a novel about the citizens of one London street stumbling into the financial crisis of 2008, manages the neat trick of being both sharply written satire while also striking a tone of profound empathy for its characters’ fading illusions. In poetry, I’ve been rereading Alice Oswald’s Dart, which traces the length of a Devon river, recording the voices of the people who live and work along its banks to form what Oswald has described as “a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea.” And since one joy of this year is to wallow shamelessly in great theater—excuse me, theatre—let me end by recommending David Greig’s astonishing play Dunsinane, which imagines the English occupation of Scotland after the fall of a king named Macbeth: a brilliant, lyrical meditation on what happens after regime change, bold enough to sweep aside Shakespeare’s tragic ending and bring back a certain terrifying Lady as a captive, and captivating, queen.
David Baker, Poetry Editor
My desks and reading tables and bookshelves are crowded with new books, and I’m glad to pass along some recommendations. I’m halfway through with Norman Rush’s new novel Subtle Bodies and find it rich and deepening—a combination of political, philosophical, and erotic narratives threading in and out of each other. For poetry just now, I’m reading every day in Maureen McLane’s forthcoming volume This Blue: Poems. As with her previous two books of poetry, I’m impressed with her capabilities—playful rhymes, disarming intimacy in voice and story, fabulous turns of image, a wide literary sense there for the discovering (a riff on Sappho or Dickinson or Dante, without showing off, often without signaling the source). She writes with ease and depth, both. And a surprise to me is Gottfried Benn’s Impromptus, a full selection of his poems (and some prose) in German and with English translations by Michael Hofmann. I had known Benn’s poems but this book opened my eyes widely. Benn lived from 1886-1956, and he writes through the wars and horrors, with poems of great range, sometimes in terror, sometimes in very contemporary-sounding delight. Hofmann’s sense of Benn’s idiom makes these fleet translations especially powerful. And finally, one of my favorite poets, Ellen Bryant Voigt, has published Headwaters: Poems, a compressed new volume of work that accomplishes two opposite things: she lets go of some of the fundamental structures of her earlier work (meter and measurement of line, a perfection of traditional syntax and punctuation, a kind of rigorous stability) and yet, in doing so, she seems to locate her most authentic narrative voice to date. As she writes less “like” herself, she sounds more like herself in these poems about illness, the family, and a natural world dense with animals that provide a totem of accompanying lore. The result feels both raw and daily, newly discovered but rich with experience and mastery—the speaking voice singing.
Caitlin Horrocks, Fiction Editor
Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Written in 1959 and 1969, these two novels are difficult to write a proper recommendation for, because what makes them so special seems, on the surface, like an unappealing proposition: the books unfold in short, numbered vignettes covering several decades of family life in which not a great deal actually happens, and the characters steadfastly avoid discussing matters of personal or emotional importance. Connell explores emotions like boredom and bewilderment while somehow keeping the novels themselves taut, deeply moving, and often funny. I still have no idea how he did it, but these are extraordinary books.
Geeta Kothari, Nonfiction Editor
Part elegy, part memoir, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped examines the deaths of five young men Ward grew up with, including her younger brother. The book covers two stories, the story of the young men, told in reverse chronological order, and Ward’s story of growing up in a poor, but close-knit community. Ward manages to find a balance between grief and joy, and what emerges is a love story to the community she grew up in, left, and chose to return to as an adult.

The book I’m currently enjoying is the story of a different kind of community. Sherill Tippins’ meticulously researched Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel chronicles the history of Manhattan’s infamous Chelsea Hotel. The book is a tribute to the hotel and its inhabitants, as well as a social and cultural history of the city.

Abigail Wadsworth Serfass, Managing Editor
Here are two wonderful books to give as gifts: Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will by Judith Schalansky. Infinite City illuminates San Francisco’s beauty, lost past, diverse communities, and more through gorgeous maps that pair unexpected elements, e.g. Monarchs and Queens: Butterfly Habitats and Queer Public Spaces; Death and Beauty: All of 2008’s Ninety-Nine Murders, Some of 2009’s Monterey Cypresses. (Solnit has also just released a new book: Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas.) Schalansky’s Atlas combines intricate, hand-drawn maps with brief reflections on the history, nature, or mythology of each island. As the author herself writes: “What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated.” The end product is something of a picture storybook for adults.
Anna Duke Reach, Director of Programs
The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, Marta Werner, and Jen Bervin. A photographic collection of 52 late, compressed poems by Emily Dickinson drafted on leftover envelopes. The editors suggest interpretations of the words, as well as transcriptions of Dickinson’s slanted, loopy script atop the outlines of corresponding envelopes so the multi-directional layout is maintained. For readers who want more, there is a corresponding exhibit in Chicago as well as an online library at www.emilydickinson.org.

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter. A creative investigation of recycling American trash into China’s tech market and more. Minter shows that going green also means earning green . . .

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson. A subtle family portrait of four Iowa-bred siblings and a cousin, from 1973 to 2003, told through connected stories with overlapping memories, traits, and tragedies.

Hilary Plum, Book Review Editor
It’s never hard to recommend books, since I have always just fallen in love again and have always still not recovered from books loved in recent months and years. But it’s hard to glance at my shelves or the Post-its that surround this desk and see all those books passionately recommended to me but which I have not yet read. I like to think that by sitting near each other for a year or two we may still be getting acquainted, and our time will come. So I offer these recommendations in that spirit, of hope and passion that persist in spite of the limits of daily life (can we call this a holiday spirit?). First, two novels that have wholly reoriented me and which disprove those who claim contemporary American literature lacks innovation, isn’t ferocious enough: those folks just haven’t read Peter Dimock. In the first two of what will be a trilogy, A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family and George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, Dimock confronts the failures of American democracy and its rhetoric in the face of its imperial ventures: first the war in Vietnam, then the legacy of state-sanctioned torture under the Bush administration. This is work of commanding scope and great ethical force, and it is electrifying fiction.

Two recent works of poetry I loved and already anticipate rereading: Don Mee Choi’s vibrant, violent, playful, and profoundly intelligent The Morning News Is Exciting!, which investigates postcolonial experience and imperial power—the US’s involvement in Korea—in stunning poetry. And Andrew Zawacki’s extraordinary Videotape, a book I could read aloud for hours, and which performs wonders in mysterious regions of the brain.

Daniel Torday, Book Review Editor
I want to read a lot of short stories this holiday season. First I want to read two books by young woman story writers published this year by FSG: Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me and Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth. You should probably check out both of their small-press debuts, too: Hunter’s Daddy’s, published in a beautiful edition by the terrific Featherproof Books, and van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, put out a couple years back by the always-terrific Dzanc Books. Finally, there’s a beautiful new edition (in both paper and limited-edition hardcover) of Gary Lutz’s Partial List of People to Bleach, put out this year by Future Tense Books, that I can’t wait to dig into. Lutz writes sentences that sound like no one else’s, the way Barry Hannah and Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley used to, and I want to read each, slowly.

I’m also in need of a nonfiction fix, and this season I’m looking forward to two great-looking books of narrative nonfiction. The first is Wil Hylton’s Vanished, a thoroughly reported story of MIA soldiers from the Pacific Theater in WWII whose remains have been discovered. The other is Jason Fagone’s Ingenious, about teams vying to win a privately-funded prize to make a car that can get 100 miles to a gallon. Really looking forward to both.

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, Fellow
I haven’t been reading nearly enough this semester, with my teaching and other work. But Alice Munro’s latest book, Dear Life, is a wonderful mix of fiction and memoir. I’ve also been revisiting Garbage by A.R. Ammons—it was a National Book Award winner for poetry twenty years ago, and this book-length, ragged rhapsody still seems relevant to our current era.
Natalie Shapero, Fellow
This year, I’ve been drawn in by books that look at once forward and back. I highly recommend Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World, a chronicle of Ensler’s recovery from cancer, her work with Congolese rape survivors, and the arresting convergences between the two experiences. I was also lately gripped by Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust: A Memoir, a lyrical and circuitous memoir of war, art, and family. And for a different kind of multiple-mindedness, I recommend the wild ghazals of Anthony Madrid’s I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say, which feel like poems from the future that traveled back in time to teach us a lesson.
Katharine Weber, Contributing Editor
2013 has been a terrific year for books. I was knocked out by some extraordinary writing by four authors whose previous books I know well and one author I clearly should have been reading before now. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, is a sly, subversively brilliant novel. Meg Wolitzer’s big, fun, moving novel The Interestings has lingered in my mind since the summer. Life After Life was the title of two utterly marvelous and completely different novels published in the same season, and I recommend both Kate Atkinson’s and Jill McCorkle’s books. And I discovered with regret that I am late to the Lee Sandlin party. His memoir The Distancers is a gothic American multi-generation family story. It’s a wonderful piece of writing.
Bonnie Levinson, Trustee
In the middle of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt right now. Can’t put it down.
Stella Ryan-Lozon, Administrative Assistant
David Rakoff’s novel Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish shook up my reading routine this year. Composed entirely in couplets, this story is at once witty, beautifully written, satirical, and honest. It chronicles a variety of characters that are all linked in some way as the author navigates America over several decades. I plan to read it again and again.

The past few months I’ve also spent a lot of time reading children’s literature. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman sparked this venture. The story follows Nobody Owens, or Bod, a normal boy being raised by ghosts. Creepy and wise, the book is a great read and would be even better read out loud to children before bedtime!

I also plan to revisit an old favorite this holiday season: A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. A nineteenth-century Russian novel by a young man who died in a duel and left behind very few works, this book reveals a fascinating place in time and mentality. While the Byronic main character (I hesitate to say protagonist) Pechorin charges through the Caucasus, the reader gets the chance to navigate a structurally engaging tale that is, at its core, a psychological journey. There is something new for me to realize each time I return to it.

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