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
I’ve encountered a number of books in the last six months that have been better than fine, certainly enjoyable, but not unreservedly great reads (The Swerve
, The Art of Fielding
, The Marriage Plot
); here are four I strongly recommend for the summer:
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. It won the National Book Award and more than lives up to it. One of the most powerful, violent, beautiful, disturbing novels I’ve encountered in years. Jesmyn Ward is an astonishing new talent.
Red Weather by Janet McAdams. A quieter novel, but with strong undercurrents of passion and violence as well, and beautifully written. An excellent novel from a small press.
Sancta by Andrew Grace. Delicate, virtuosic prose poems. Another rising star.
And for the beach, the latest installment of the Tourist spy series by Olen Steinhauer: An American Spy. Gripping, well-written, and eerily similar to some of the bizarre political stories one hears resonating from China today. Steinhauer’s been called a latter-day Le Carre, and I don’t think that’s far off.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, KR Associate Editor
For me, early summer is the season for reading books I could only dream of as I watched the leaves—and the student essays—come in. Among the books I’m looking forward to reading this summer are two new novels:
Padgett Powell’s You & Me. Having grown up in the South, I sometimes think of it the way British cartoonists imagined Australia, as a land where everyone dangles upside down by their ankles from the ground, except, of course, the British visitor, who insists on standing on his head to preserve his dignity. Reading Powell’s brilliant, irascible, and wildly imaginative novels of the American South—most famously, Edisto, Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men, and his wonderful novel in questions, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?—is like seeing a familiar world turned on its head and so, somehow, put right. You & Me consists entirely of a conversation between two old men sitting on a porch talking about everything and nothing. If that sounds familiar, it may be because it’s one of the grand clichés of the South—where sitting on a porch, drinking and talking is as formal an art as ballet—but also because it evokes what one critic has called “a Southern-fried, whiskey-soaked version of Waiting for Godot.” Just the thing, I’m thinking, for long, whiskey-soaked, summer evenings.
Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears. We seem to be in a cultural moment when we’re fascinated by automata, those soulful windup machines that both eerily evoke our own humanity and estrange it at the same time. In his twelfth novel, Carey, a two-time Booker Prize winner for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, evokes the weight of grief and the fascination of old clocks in the figure of a magnificent windup silver swan. Like Scorsese’s Hugo, which retold the early history of cinema through a child’s fascination with the gleaming figure of a mechanical man, Carey’s novel connects machine and story: to reassemble an automaton is to recreate our fascination with the novel itself, an old machine that still strangely works its magic upon us in this digital age.
David Baker, KR Poetry Editor
I am currently reading two superb, and very different, books about poetry and poetics by two elder giants. M. H. Abrams turns 100 this year, and his The Fourth Dimension of a Poem
(Norton) gathers his best essays on poetry from the past thirty years. The prose is lucid and graceful, articulating the stance of a great Romantic humanist. It’s a genuine seminar to follow his extended readings of favorite poets, like Keats and Wordsworth, and his model critics like Kant and especially Hazlitt. He can analyze Foucault alongside Horace, Derrida alongside Goethe, in a book that is generous of mind in ways that current literature departments would be wise to restore. The book’s title comes from Abrams’s reminder of the “dimensions” of a poem: the visible aspect; the sounds of the words “as they are imagined by the reader”; the meaning of the words; and—this is especially important and “almost totally neglected”—the activity of “enunciating the great variety of speech-sounds that constitute the words of a poem.” That is, the important physical, embodied presence of a poem in the act of utterance. This critic loves poetry.
George Steiner, in The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan (New Directions), is another of the great graying critics of our time. His new book wants to remind us of that on every page. Where Abrams’s book is wise, this one is learned, and where Abrams’s prose is clarified, Steiner’s is dense with reference and allusion, an intellectual’s overt architecture of a lifetime of engagement. He out-Blooms the great Harold Bloom: his style here contains aphoristic kickers (like Emerson’s), phrases and citations from many languages, asides within asides, references about references about references, and opinions on seemingly every Western literary, artistic, philosophical, and (often) mathematical writer. The deep thesis is an attempt to locate the necessary poetry, or music, at the heart of the best philosophical writing. That is, great thoughts are great in part because of style, their powerful “poetics of reason.” This critic loves thinking about poetry.
For poetry itself, if you are hungry for intimations of greatness, Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems (Knopf) is a monument. For all his limitations (for instance, the depictions of women at times), these poems seem chiseled from granite, made of confidence and a grand apathy toward the contortions of contemporary poetry and the po-biz from which Gilbert escaped fifty years ago. He’s much like his figure of Icarus in “Failing and Flying”: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.”
If you are eager to follow emerging poets, I might point you to recent books by Dan Beachy-Quick (Circle’s Apprentice), Paula Bohince (The Children), Nikky Finney (Head Off and Split), Matt Hart (Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless), Kathleen Ossip (The Cold War), or Tracy K. Smith (Life on Mars). It’s a busy time.
Geeta Kothari, KR Fiction Editor
The best short story collection I read last year was Orientation and Other Stories
, by Daniel Orozco. It’s brilliant, full of dark humor and surprises, and I didn’t put it down until I’d finished the whole book. No less compelling is Please Look After Mom
, by South Korean novelist, Kyung-sook Shin. The story is simple: a woman disappears at the Seoul train station. The writing is spare and unsentimental, yet the story is deeply unsettling. Told in alternating second and third person chapters, the novel explores a family’s history as they search for their mother and asks: how well do we know the people closest to us?
Finally, for people who like a good crime story, I recommend Denise Mina. Her novels are set in Glasgow, and her main characters are difficult women who demand a lot from the people around them. I read Still Midnight in a couple of days, and I’m saving the next book in the series, The End of Wasp Season, for the beach.
Tyler Meier, KR Managing Editor
, Jack Gilbert. These poems are rendered, time-won, and simply stunning. What a map’s edge of a lifetime’s poetry! There is such wonder here for emotion and the shape emotion makes within the body, particularly deep joy and overwhelming grief. Over and over again, the poems work as a charm for profound attention—and the reward for attention paid couldn’t be any greater.
When All the World is Old, John Rybicki. This is a book of elegy and praise, and in this way, I think it does the most important work that poetry can do. When lightening burns the sky, thunder roars back through the seared absence. This is a type of call and response (perhaps the very first)—and so also song, which is the shape of praise. That’s the arc of this book, and the shape that it so beautifully makes.
G.C. Waldrep, KR Editor-at-Large
Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet
isn’t as conceptually difficult as some of his earlier fictions, like The Age of Wire & String
, but it’s a wrenching, bio-luminescent tale of the apocalypse and its aftermath. It would be a stretch to say I liked it, but it has certainly haunted me. I’m reading Steven Millhauser’s We Others: New & Selected Stories
Some recent recommendations in poetry: Joseph Campana’s Natural Selections, Heather Christle’s What Is Amazing, Pura Lopez Colome’s Watchword (in Forrest Gander’s translation), Joshua Kryah’s We Are Starved (from 2011), and Alice Oswald’s strange—perhaps “estranged” is a better word—“excavation” of The Iliad, which she has titled Memorial. Paula Bohince’s The Children is the most satisfying collection by an American poet in a more conventional lyric idiom that I’ve read in some time.
Anna Duke Reach, KR Director of Programs
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing
by Lydia Peelle. This short story collection includes “Mule Killers,” about her grandfather’s decision to put tractors on his farm, as well as seven other stories about the way in which changes in daily living create changes in people and culture.
Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright chronicles an affair that rips apart two marriages in Dublin. The book is narrated in the selfish first person by Gina, who carefully observes her lover’s daughter as she becomes a victim of this destruction. Enright’s prose flows so beautifully, the dark tale was impossible for me to put down.
Look forward to reading Head Off & Split: Poems by Nikky Finney next to a patch of tiger lilies this summer!
Abigail Wadsworth Serfass, KR Associate Managing Editor
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes. In this jewel box of a novel, Barnes explores memory and perception and the narratives we tell about ourselves. His insights about human nature and self-preservation ring startlingly true.
An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer. The third book in the Milo Weaver trilogy, and they just keep getting better. In this installment, Steinhauer’s increasingly complicated world of “Tourism” expands into China. With compelling characters (Xin Zhu and Erika Schwartz are not your average Hollywood spies) and taut plotting, this is a summer read to savor.
Zach Savich, KR Book Review Editor
The narrator of Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station
(Coffee House, 2011), is hilariously self-aware: much of the plot depends on his attempts to compose his face. This self-consciousness is fitting for an American poet in Madrid who, enthralled by John Ashbery, wonders if he can acquire more than “the experience of experience.” Swift and smart, Lerner’s novel revels in the ambition and folly of its young artist, but it also offers a vision for authenticity in contemporary art. Prefer Greece to Madrid in your summer reading? I was happy to recently be pointed to John Berger’s To The Wedding
(Vintage, 1995), a gorgeous and deftly constructed novel of love and myth among characters whose voices blend like “snowflakes falling, so close together they touch one another.” I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know about Berger’s fiction until now. His sentences are lovely and luminously spare: “If one of her feet is hurting, a goose limps like I do when my foot hurts,” one of the narrators of his novel reports. Finally, let me recommend another novel I was slow to read: Kate Bernheimer’s The Complete Tales Of Ketzia Gold
(FC2, 2001). Forget Spain, forget Greece. Bernheimer’s novel travels through the wilderness of folklore and fairy tales to offer a contemporary coming-of-age story rife with magic and terror. A singular book. It will make you wonder what’s living in the sand castles on the beach.
Dan Torday, KR Book Review Editor
It doesn’t sound like summer reading, but I’m starting my summer with Joseph Frank’s five-volume life of Dostoevsky. First up, Dostoevsky: Seeds of Revolt: 1821-1849
. Way more exciting than it sounds. Then I’m going to re-read the two short novels I was excited by this year: Justin Torres’s We the Animals
and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams
. Genius, both. Then two more—by two of my favorite writers: first, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars
. I’ve loved each of his books, and I think of him as a YA writer the way I think of, say, Salinger. Finally, Marilynne Robinson’s new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books
. I’d read Robinson describe paint drying. Can’t wait.
Kascha Semonovitch, KR Book Review Editor
I am just starting Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock at the Door
, a collection of playful short stories. Meanwhile, I’m challenging myself with Jorie Graham’s forthcoming Place
which is full of more of the same (good stuff) in Sea Change
, and perhaps best of all, my husband and I are reading aloud E.E. Nesbit’s classic Five Children and It
, a pre-Harry Potter fantasy tale rich in Britishisms and boys named Cyril.
Hilary Plum, KR Consulting Editor
I began this year stunned by and in awe of Rosmarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction
, which somehow, extraordinarily, unites a history of the present war—from the earliest days of “West” and “East”—with a history of abstract thought in Western culture. Resoundingly recommended. I also read for the first time Danielle Dutton’s beautifully singular, strange and adventuresome Attempts at a Life
, and I look forward to reading her novel SPRAWL
this summer. Matthew Kirkpatrick’s first collection of stories, Light Without Heat
, just out this spring, is also one to track down: funny, unsettling, formally ambitious and commanding stories. And I recently read my first work by Polish writer Magdalena Tulli, the fantastic Moving Parts
(trans. Bill Johnston), and look forward to reading the other three of her novels which Archipelago Books has released in translation.
Erick Gordon, KR Trustee
The Cat’s Table
, Michael Ondaatje. I pre-ordered this book and was counting days until it came, and while fully surprised, I was not disappointed. There is a kind of youthful vision at play in The Cat’s Table
that I haven’t encountered in Ondaatje’s work. The world is painted through the eyes of a pre-teen boy and a motley crew of unsupervised youths as they adventure though the world of an ocean liner in the 1950s. Nostalgic and filled with wonder, it’s a perfect book for summer.
But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer. A book “about” jazz is what the subtitle says, but it reads at times in the style of jazz itself. There’s a musicality to each of Dyer’s historical fiction vignettes that blows life into artists like Lester Young, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. It’s my single favorite book about music, and I return to it in whole or part again and again (Chet Baker is a never-ending affair). Chapters are interwoven with glimpses of Harry Carney and Duke Ellington riding through the night as Duke scratches notes onto a page in the light of the car’s glove box, a perfect device to tie all the potentially disparate pieces together.
Understories by Tim Horvath. Understories is a wild ride. It’s a highly inventive short story collection that interweaves absurdity with a deep understanding of what makes people tick. In “The Discipline of Shadows,” the strongest story in the collection, the author imagines a new academic field called umbrology, or, the study of shadows, where puppeteers and physicists alike contribute knowledge. It pokes fun, is well-crafted, completely bizarre and at times laugh out-loudable.
Alva Greenberg, KR Trustee
Just finished The History of Love
by Nicole Krauss. What a great book! One of those books where I can’t imagine how the writer maintains all the voices and the stories. Just terrific. Other books I have enjoyed recently are We The Animals
by Justin Torres and The Cat’s Table
by Michael Ondaatje.