The Kenyon Review’s Summer Reading List
What are you reading this summer? Each year, we ask our staff and authors to tell us what books they’d recommend—or are looking forward to reading themselves—as summer comes to Gambier. We hope you’ll include KR in your summer reading, but here are some suggestions of books we think you’ll enjoy.
KR Staff Summer Reading Suggestions . . .
David Lynn, KR Editor
How To Live: Or A Life Of Montaigne In One Question And Twenty Attempts At An Answer by Sarah Bakewell. A WONDERFUL book—I lingered on this, not wanting it to end. Elegant, witty, profound, it creates a biography of the philosopher by showing how intimately connected his work was to his life. It also creates a vivid picture of rural France in the early Renaissance, beset by civil religious wars, by plague, by famine. Yet it also shows how Montaigne managed to savor life, to take joy in the immediate and everyday.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. An astonishing effort of research and creative imagining by any measure, not even accounting for Hillenbrand’s long infirmity. An alternative title might have been “Relentless,” accounting both for the miseries experienced by an American prisoner of war in Japan and the assault on the reader’s sensibilities.
Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd. Boyd is an author capable of writing successfully in several genres, but always with grace, vivid prose, compelling characters. This is a fine mystery set in contemporary London. I didn’t find this quite as mesmerizing as Restless, but still a great read.
Lord Of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon. Came out of nowhere, like the unknown horses it so vividly evokes, to win the 2010 National Book Award. Written with great energy, power, and wit, this novel is a joy.
Swamplandia by Karen Russell. This first novel is quirky, over the top, delightful.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, KR Associate Editor
One of the many ironies of being an English professor is how often I find myself the literary Lantern Rouge, spending my summer catching up on all the books that everyone else seems to have read. For a few brief weeks at the beginning of the summer, I get to set aside Shakespeare, Donne and Nabokov to read the living. So what’s on my bedside table? Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Emma Donoghue’s Room, Ismail Kadare’s The Accident, Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination, Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. But lately two books keep coming up whenever I talk with those who make the time to keep up with the latest: based on these recommendations, my next one-clicks to join that towering pile will be Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live: Or A Life Of Montaigne In One Question And Twenty Attempts At An Answer and Mat Johnson’s Pym. That should keep me busy for the next few weeks. And I’m looking forward to Amit Majmudar’s Partitions, due out next month.
David Baker, KR Poetry Editor
I have been walking around for months with the same three books of poetry in my book bag. I read and read them. They are—from oldest to newest—Emily Wilson’s Micrographia (2009, Iowa), Joanna Klink’s Raptus (2010, Penguin), and Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains (2011, Copper Canyon Press). These are all relatively younger American women poets, and each in her way conducts a tug-of-war with the poetic tradition. It’s a period of such tugs, though, and I have grown weary of the faux innovation and smug writing-program insider-trading of much recent poetry. What these three books offer is—yes—subject matter to go along with each poet’s anxious applications of style. Wilson is a latter-day environmental poet, Klink is fierce in her laying-bare of a ruptured marriage, and Kasischke writes with startling directness about the double perils of her own cancer and her father’s death. But read the books: while the subject matter is the occasion of the work, what sets each book apart is the poet’s distinct voice, style, and treatment. These are real poetry.
These three books are in my bag. At my nightstand, however, is another wonderful new prose book—Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010, Other Press). The book is so original and penetrating that it has inspired me to go back to the source; I have also just got myself Montaigne’s The Complete Works, in Donald Frame’s superior translation. Any one of his 107 little (or not so little) essays is a gem of social meditation and self-invention.
Geeta Kothari, KR Fiction Editor
I’m currently reading the fourth book in Kate Atkinson’s series about Jackson Brodie, Started Early, Took My Dog. Jackson is a reluctant detective who tries to avoid trouble but always finds himself in the thick of it. The writing is elegant and witty, and Atkinson juggles several points of view well.
Earlier in the year, I gobbled up Nick Flynn’s memoir The Ticking Is The Bomb. Using the frame of his girlfriend’s pregnancy, Flynn juxtaposes memories of his childhood and his relationship with his father with interviews with former inmates at Abu Ghraib. This is the kind of memoir I like—one that reaches beyond the personal into a larger world. Flynn’s writing is beautiful and moving.
G.C. Waldrep, KR Editor-at-Large
Some recommendations from the annual spring haul of new poetry titles include Melissa Kwasny’s The Nine Senses, Dana Levin’s superb Sky Burial, and Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains—poems from each of which we first published in KR. Laura Mullen’s Dark Archive, from the University of California Press, is formally challenging, rich in texture, and emotionally engaging, as are the theological divagations of Peter O’Leary’s Luminous Epinoia, from The Cultural Society. Laynie Browne’s Roseate, Points of Gold, from Dusie Press, is the strongest book yet from an innovative poet too few readers know about.
As for me, I plan to spend the summer reading William Carlos Williams, seriatim, alongside two novels I never had time for when they first came out: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital. Also recent monographs on Anselm Kiefer and outsider artist James Castle.
Tyler Meier, KR Managing Editor
New Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel (translated by Mark Ford, Princeton University Press) A language knot of the first order—both an act of binding and of tangling—this poem is a tonal chimera: by turns devastating, hilarious, contingent, associative, and beautiful. Roussel might suggest that all the world (or at least his world) is more aptly a parenthetical than a stage—a bouquet of sideways thought, a surface below the surface, whereby “Impressions” becomes the artifact that shows the brain moves like a fistful of flung maple seeds. In this poem, every road diverges into a woods. It’s a chance to take them all.
The Selected Levis (selected by David St. John, Pittsburgh University Press). This is a ten year old book, and by no means a rescuing of someone forgotten—Levis has a growing cult of admirers. (A documentary on his life is in production; you can watch the trailer here.) But Levis’ work is some of the most important I know; his later long poems from his posthumous book Elegy are works of pure magic. If Levis is new to you, or peripheral, make this the summer where you change that. This collection is a good start.
Anna Duke Reach, KR Director of Programs
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.
The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard.
Abby Wadsworth Serfass, KR Associate Director of Programs and Production
One of the recent highlights of my reading life has been discovering Kate Atkinson’s wonderful mystery novels centered around ex-cop Jackson Brodie. While I’ve enjoyed all of the books (there are four), the first (Case Histories) and the third (When Will There Be Good News?) are my favorites. Atkinson has a gift for creating characters with intricately but often obscurely linked lives, which inevitably crash up against each other with dramatic consequences.
Another delight this spring was reading Julia Child’s My Life In France. Her exuberance and wide-eyed curiosity sings through each page.
Zach Savich, KR Book Review Editor
I keep buying, reading, then giving away Shane McCrae’s first collection of poetry, Mule—I want all my friends to have it. McCrae’s gorgeous, sharp, thrillingly poised poems veer between stutter and song, making the aches of marriage, divorce, parenthood, and race as vivid as “the body of the cardinal in the sunlight in the day.” I’m also enthralled by Stephen Graham Jones’ Ledfeather, a gripping and formally astonishing novel about memory, myth, and mistakes on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana.
James Flaherty, KR Assistant Director of Programs
Moby-Dick, or The Whale. You may find yourself reclined and sun-bronzed in a chaise lounge this summer, thirsty for a book of high adventure and philosophical import, a book equal parts marvel and morality. The two go hand-in-hand in Moby-Dick, whose prose glows off the page, each sentence like a whale’s rib, revelatory and remarkably hewn. Its high art stature, net weight, and mileage in high school English classes may dissuade you, but persist! An ocean-scape of disastrous will and foolish desire awaits. This is the proverbial fun read. And yes, you will think.
And from our Authors . . .
Christopher Feliciano Arnold
The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles (2008, Harper Collins). A historical saga set in northeast Brazil, The Seamstress follows two sisters through a turbulent era that is rarely written about in English. Hope, heartbreak, and bloody feuds, all rendered in gorgeous prose. This is not your ordinary debut novel.
The Raven by Lou Reed and Lorenzo Mattotti (2011, Fantagraphics). In 2003, rocker-poet Lou Reed released The Raven, a cycle of songs that channeled the demons of Edgar Allen Poe. This summer, Fantagraphics will publish The Raven in book form, with Reed and Poe’s words accompanied by the dark visions of Italian illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti. Perfect if you happen to find yourself in a dark mood this summer.
I read a book of poetry earlier this year called Mule by Shane McCrae, published by Cleveland University Press. It’s a wonderful book of poems that is distinct in its voice. I love the book in how there’s still a narrative thread throughout the poems, but that narrative is bent and reinvented. I highly recommend it.
I recommend two (or four) novels: The Balkan Trilogy, by Olivia Manning, which can be found in a single paperback volume, and Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Falluda. The Manning trilogy takes place mostly in Romania and Greece just prior to WWII; it’s enthralling, beautifully written, and Manning is a master of dialogue. Every Man Dies Alone is based on a true story about Germans who attempted to derail Nazism; Falluda’s book is every bit as enthralling as Manning’s and manages to be both comic and desperately tragic. These books are among my favorites of all time.
I also recommend What Is Owed the Dead, a collection of poems by R.H.W. Dillard, published by Factory Hollow Press, in which canonical histories trace fascinating interlinkages. After you read this book, you will know a lot more about poetry than you know now, whoever you are.
I just read Mrs. Ames, an E. F. Benson novel from 1912, just published in paper by the Bloomsbury Group. As with the Mapp and Lucia books Benson began to write eight years later, Mrs. Ames deals with the struggle of two women to be the dominant social maven in their little town. E. F. Benson’s subject is always the petty concerns of petty people, but his talent is to make those concerns nearly as important to us as they are to his characters. For us, what happens to Benson’s people is also much funnier than it is to them. When Mrs. Ames begins to read suffragette tracts, as Benson writes, “the fumes of an idea, to one who had practically never tasted one, intoxicated her as new wine mounts to the head of a teetotaler.”
I’m eager to read America Pacifica by Anna North. It’s a literary post-apocalyptic mystery with a heart, and the parts I’ve read are strange and lovely and original.
I would nominate anything by Stefan Themerson, the avant-garde Polish film-maker who was exiled to Britain in the Second World War, and who transformed himself into a brilliant prose-writer in English of satirical, philosophical, picaresque narratives comprising an extraordinary oeuvre that is one of the best-kept secrets of European postmodernism.
I’d like to recommend a couple of novels for their eccentricity and the pleasure they gave me. Charles Portis has become best known for True Grit because of two films made from the novella, but skip that and read Dog of the South, an oddly comic novel that follows the voice and journey of an isolated and lost American worth knowing for all his arrogance and futility. When you finish that and want more, try the odder Masters of Atlantis. The other novel is David Guterson’s Our Lady of the Forest—be prepared to hear people ask if you have read Snow Falling on Cedars. This is much the better book, again set in the Northwest and told through the lives of people that grow there naturally, like the mushrooms the main character picks before her visions begin. Then try The Other, an engaging faux biography of the narrator’s wealthy and eccentric best friend.
T. J. Clark, The Sight of Death (Yale University Press, 2006) is a deeply absorbing “experiment” in watching (at close range) two paintings by Poussin. This is marvelous instruction in inductive looking and microscopically acute descriptive writing.
Ed Roberson, To See the Earth Before the End of the World (Wesleyan University Press, 2010) is a voluminous gift of 120 new poems by a master of idiosyncratic voice and visual perspicuity.
Right now, I’m really into Thomas Savage and his incredible but under-read Western novel The Power of the Dog. I’m also re-reading Independent People by Halldor Laxness, and looking forward to Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule.
Twin Cities by Carol Muske-Dukes, (Penguin). What strikes me is the tone—colloquial, tough, lyrical—and the largeness of its concerns, powerful insights into life and death.
The novel I’ll be reading—quite soon, I hope—is called Pym, by Mat Johnson. It concerns a Poe-loving professor of African American studies, Chris Jaynes, whose tenure is denied after he refuses to become his university’s token black dude. Not long after receiving this crushing news, Jaynes finds a missing manuscript proving that Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, is, in actuality, a book of non-fiction. What follows (or so I’ve read in reviews) is a genre-bending voyage to Antarctica, where, among other things, Jaynes encounters the truth behind Poe’s narratives, including the colonies of albino humanoids that carry out their lives below the Antarctic ice. Described as both scholarly and weird, “racially important” and “blisteringly funny,” Pym promises to be one of the best reads I have lined up for the summer.
Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, by Brian Boyd—The first of a two-part biography about the author of Lolita, this book covers the first forty years of Nabokov’s life, up to his emigration to America. The excellent research provides a nuanced account of Nabokov’s childhood and early adulthood, and Boyd demonstrates his skills as a literary critic as he describes Nabokov’s early works, but it is Boyd’s writing—his language has all the intelligence, precision, and exuberance of his subject’s best novels—that really carries the 523 pages.
I look forward to reading Rahul Mehta’s collection of short fiction, Quarantine, this summer, which centers amidst the lives of openly gay, Indian-American men. There’s so much conflict inherent in these intersecting cultures—the several layers of them—that I’m not surprised the book aroused some controversy when it was released in India last year. The stories are supposedly highly readable and funny, too, which is appropriate for summer. And the title story, I believe, was previously published in The Kenyon Review, so good for you guys.
I recently finished Dean Bakopoulos’ My American Unhappiness and enjoyed it. The writing is consistently interesting and often very good. The novel may reignite some of the debates from last summer about unlikeable lead characters, as the narrator is quite glib and he seems to enjoy crossing moral lines. Of course, it’s all in good fun for those who enjoy unreliable narrators and somewhat despicable heroes.
I have four recommendations. I’m not sure they’re “summer reading,” but they are great books. I was really impressed by Dan Chaon’s novel Await Your Reply. I like the unexpected way he combines the three storylines, and the book has a wonderful sense of atmosphere and pacing. I’m currently reading Elizabeth Strout’s linked story collection Olive Kitteridge, which is excellent. I can literally feel myself becoming a better writer with each story I read. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go is deceptively simple, and it definitely changed the way I look at the world. And finally, I recommend Gary Lutz’s story collection I Looked Alive. It’s a challenging book, but I love the way he uses language to create strange and unsettling landscapes.
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