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
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. An in-your-face, break-all-the-rules literary tour de force. Atkinson, a British writer known for her terrific mysteries, writes a beautiful, moving, constantly surprising novel. One of the best I’ve read in a long time.
That said, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, a KR Award winner, is pretty dazzling. Full of spies and deceit and a marvelously unreliable narrator, it’s a joy. Not to mention the mentions, several, of The Kenyon Review.
Julian Barnes has long been a writer I admire. Never more so than in Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story. His prose is exquisite, his intellect penetrating, always prying up surprises and unexpected insights, his sensibility wise and reasonable. Another very strong recommendation.
Finally, for those looking for some sheer fun, sweep-you-away mysteries, here are two: The Holy Thief by William Ryan features Captain Alexei Korolev, a detective in Stalin’s Moscow. The historical and cultural settings are wonderful! And Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman works against the grain of mystery expectations.
Oh, to be in England. Since I will be this coming year, I plan to spend the summer taunting David with that fact. The books I’m carrying around the KR offices, titles carelessly displayed, include Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography, a roaring Dickensian novel of a history, Zadie Smith’s NW, which unravels that history into its contemporary voices, Michael Moorcock’s Mother London, and Dart, Alice Oswald’s lovely collection of poems about the river that flows through Devon, where I’ll lazily cast my line, drawing up the envy of all my friends.
Caitlin Horrocks, KR Fiction Editor
Two books that recently made my head, like the Grinch’s heart, grow three sizes:
Two other books that are swifter, but no less effective, reads: Derek Palacio’s novella How to Shake the Other Man is a treat, and Louise Krug’s Louise: Amended is an illness memoir that avoids all the traps of the genre: Krug resists both self-pity and easy enlightenment, and offers instead impressive honesty, insight and great writing.
I devoured Nancy Zafris’ new collection of short stories, The Home Jar, in a couple of days. Full of unexpected and surprising turns, each story reads like a poem—dense, deeply moving and compelling. A primer on the short story, The Home Jar has much to offer. And please don’t ask me what a home jar is—I’m not telling.
Equally moving is Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s new nonfiction book, The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in Italy. Difficult to categorize, this meditation on place and art delves deep into Italian culture and Wilde-Menozzi’s experience as an American expat who found her voice as a writer and her home in Italy. The book includes photographs, but it’s the writing that made me want to board a plane for Rome.
Tyler Meier, KR Managing Editor
Here are the two books I’ve read recently and loved:
Volt (Graywolf) by Alan Heathcock. I am late to the party: lots have loved this book already. I’m happy to join them—there are characters in the stories in Volt that are hard to forget: the train man, half-apparition/half-prophet from “The Staying Freight,” or joy-riding kids in “Fort Apache.” What would it take to change your life? What would it take to redeem it? These stories are edge-runners, they exist in the space where things are distinct and knowable on either side, and Heathcock deftly weaves the action across the between space, blurring the definitions, testing limits and thresholds, shifting the facts of the world and how his characters relate to it.
Ethical Consciousness (Canarium) by Paul Killebrew. I’m getting ready to move, and packing up all the books that I own to drive across the country. It’s a lot of books. This is the one I most want to keep out right now and read again. I love the long and rangy logic, and the hard-to-come-by feeling that all in the poems is simultaneously vital and incredibly necessary, while also associatively present, all things counter, original, spare, strange. Reading the poems feels like you’re working toward something by working with everything as your materials. The book reminds and teaches me about the occasion for poetry. It made my spring.
I’m looking forward to settling down with Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses (Omnidawn) this summer, along with the new (and long overdue) Joseph Ceravolo Collected Poems, from Wesleyan. I just finished Peter O’Leary’s Phosphorescence of Thought (The Cultural Society) and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s Hello, the Roses (New Directions). At some point Flood Editions is going to release a new edition of Ronald Johnson’s ARK—maybe this summer, if we’re lucky?
Anna Duke Reach, KR Director of Programs
The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman (McSweeney’s) brilliantly balances grief over her father’s death with her longing to conceive a child of her own. Her paragraph thought bursts evocatively connect the mysteries of life at beginning and end. This book is a two-for-one; flip it over and you’ll continue reading about her memories of childhood sexual abuse and the challenges of raising her own children.
Familiar: A Novel by J. Robert Lennon is a literary puzzle, still on my mind weeks after finishing it. A mother visiting the grave of her son suddenly slips into an alternate life where both her sons are alive again, for better and worse. There is deep spiritual questioning as well as page-turning tension in the parallel play of what is or what might be.
Abigail Wadsworth Serfass, KR Associate Managing Editor
One book I eagerly anticipate reading this summer is Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson. By all accounts this is a meticulously researched yet eminently readable guide to everything we might ever have wanted to know about our kitchens and our eating habits. I can’t wait to dig in.
Two fun, quick reads for the summer: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane. The former explores life on a slowly (and somehow beautifully) self-destructing earth through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl. The latter is a literary mystery that careens from secret book societies to the Google campus to a giant storage facility in the Nevada desert; the ending will make all book-lovers smile.
Kascha Semonovitch, KR Book Review Editor
I stumbled on CAConrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics (Wave Books, 2012) in a small press bookstore in the SF Mission district. The hand-drawn cover pages and magazine size book tell you this isn’t an ordinary poetry book. The words inside are as pleasurable and surprising as the words in the title. I hope someone else gives this a good read and sends a proper review.
Dan Torday, KR Book Review Editor
The next thing I’m going to read is Derek Palacio’s novella, How to Shake the Other Man. I checked out an excerpt in Electric Literature
Hilary Plum, KR Consulting Editor
This winter I lived for a few weeks in Susan Steinberg’s debut collection The End of Free Love: her hypnotic inexorable sentences, the worlds she creates story by story, resonant and so disquieting, the friable lives within them. I’m anxious to read her newest, Spectacle: Stories, to see where she next takes the short story, how she makes it so commandingly her own.
I’ve also just read Nathaniel Mackey’s astonishing Nod House. Its rhythms still move through me, and I suspect that lately all my sentences are merely tributes to him. What depth and breadth of myth he explores, no, more than explores, conjures into new existence; how fortunate we are to have his work. And how is this only the second book of his I’ve read? This summer I’ll begin his prose, the multi-novel project From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.
Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss. These essays are some terrific meditations on race, landscape, and gentrification in urban America.
Sacrilegion by L. Lamar Wilson is a stunning poetry debut. These raw, beautiful poems weave the landscape of northern Florida in with the experiences of growing up black, gay, religious, and in a town haunted by the history of racial violence. There are echoes of Carl Phillips, Jericho Brown, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon here, but Wilson’s voice is wholly his own.
Natalie Shapero, KR Fellow
Easily annoyed by corporate satire, I didn’t anticipate listing one here. But Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, a wild and thoughtful novel about a disaster actuary of the near future, won me with its mix of taut prose, weird jokes, and math. Along these lines, I also recommend two poetry collections that are similarly concerned with precariousness and clever in their unease: Lesley Jenike’s Ghost of Fashion and Ida Stewart’s Gloss. Finally, if you have summer travel plans and want to pack light, you can’t go smaller than Tomas Tranströmer’s pocket-sized Memories Look at Me. This memoir chronicles the poet’s childhood and adolescence, including an intense bout of teen angst: “I was trapped by a searchlight that radiated not light but darkness.” Whoa.
Dinty W. Moore, KR Writers Workshop Instructor
Despite the fact that I spend hours of each day juggling words, choreographing sentences, composing rhythm, and divining metaphor, the writing of poetry has always somehow eluded me. This prose writer just can’t seem to find his way successfully into that rather mystical way of speaking on the page, but now, at least, I have a better understanding of why. Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures is showing me not just how a poet writes, but how she thinks, how she feels, how she balances idea, emotion, language, and mystery; poetry is not just another language, it is a different sort of logic, an altered way of experiencing one’s life. Ruefle’s articulate, surprising, sometimes funny, and always human approach is the opposite of academic theory, and entirely refreshing. I’m balancing Ruefle with a work of scientific nonfiction, Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, by Virginia Morell. I’ve always been fascinated by elephants, crows, apes, and other thoughtful members of the animal world, but what interests me as well is how good storytelling—characters, setting, action—can make scientific discovery as compelling as a mystery story. On my shelf for later in the summer is another writer who does this well: Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Let’s hope she hasn’t bitten off more than we can swallow.
Nancy Zafris, KR Writers Workshop Instructor
River of Dust, by Virginia Pye—This literary novel is also a good old-fashioned read, one that will keep you in your chair. It follows an increasingly disturbed missionary in China before World War I as he searches for the tribe that kidnapped his son. This beautifully written book has a twenty-year back story as its author struggled to get it published, a tale in itself that should offer encouragement to the emerging writer.