The Kenyon Review’s Summer Reading List
Is your bedside table a groaning board of good intentions? Ours certainly is. Each year, we ask our staff to tell us what books they’d recommend—or are looking forward to reading themselves—as summer comes to Gambier. Read on for a concise but intriguing compendium of books we think you’ll savor.
P.S. Don’t forget to slip a copy of KR into your gym duffel, beach bag, or suitcase, too!
David Lynn, Editor
The Hired Man
by Aminatta Forna. An English family buys a house in Croatia which they intend to restore for vacation lets. Told by a local man who works for them, this is really the story of buried histories and hatreds of the civil war. Wonderful short novel.
Likewise short: The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín. To my mind, Tóibín may be the most brilliantly lyrical writer we have in English—and never given to fad in form or ambition—here imagines Mary as an old woman, attempting to deal with the reality, the human gritty aftermath of her son’s crucifixion and the attempts of others to use the memories for their own purposes.
And my usual genre suggestion for beach or exercise: The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer. He’s been likened to le Carré for earlier books, but in this powerful, well written, psychologically complex mix of guilt, honesty, and betrayal, there really are resonances of the master.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor
Having spent some time this year staring at Nicholas Hawksmoor’s strange and enigmatic Christ Church in Spitalfields, East London, I finally picked up Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel, Hawksmoor
, which is as fascinating and wonderful in its hybrid form—part 18th-century meditation on architecture and Satanic ambition, part 20th-century detective novel—as the building that inspired it. As brilliant and disturbing as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose
, Ackroyd’s novel is a reminder that any great city is built as much of whispered stories as it is of stone. Next on my shelf is Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder
(2011), which I’ve been promising myself as a reward when all the teaching and grading is done. Patchett’s prose has a crystalline beauty, and simply reading her lovely sentences inspires in me a state of wonder worthy of the title.
David Baker, Poetry Editor
For months now I have been powerfully affected by Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
for its clarity, accuracy, and awful inevitability. Kolbert’s research into what we smugly call climate change—our smarmy euphemism for, well, human insanity—is thorough in all its manifestations, from global warming to ocean acidification and the horrifying, irrecoverable loss of species. We are living in an age she usefully calls the anthropocene, a period of breakneck extinction entirely our own doing, and undoing.
Kolbert’s book has led me to find other new works on extinction and loss. I’m particularly engaged by Hyperobjects, by Timothy Morton, with its reimagining of ecological paradigms through a postmodernist’s lens. I’ve also come across more idiosyncratic studies like On Extinction by Melanie Challenger, and Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost And Where Did It Go?
I’ve got a stack of about fifty new books of poetry on my desk, too. Among the riches, I might single out Kevin Prufer’s Churches for its polyphonic capabilities in the personal and the political. His rigors aren’t showy or merely technical but are embedded in the difficult social narratives he tells.
Caitlin Horrocks, Fiction Editor
Helen Phillips’ And Yet They Were Happy
is a novel, but also a book of prose poems and a collection of short stories, all at once. The book is built entirely of short, tightly crafted vignettes grouped by themes like the envies, the hauntings, the weddings, the apocalypses. Each chapter is surprising, beautiful, insightful, sneaky. As a reader or writer, I often find very short pieces the most difficult to pull off: here are literally dozens of them with an impressively consistent magic.
Geeta Kothari, Nonfiction Editor
In Widow Basquiat
, Jennifer Clement writes about the relationship between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Suzanne Mallouk, his girlfriend and muse. The single-page chapters of this memoir are lyrical and intense, and Suzanne emerges as a complex and complicated character.
She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me is both memoir and family history. Emma Brockes’ mother was born and raised in South Africa and, when she immigrated to England, she left behind siblings who adored her and the father she once threatened with a gun. When her mother dies, Brockes decides to find out the real story behind the gun. Although the story that emerges is horrifying, Brockes’ tone remains cool and refreshingly unsentimental.
I couldn’t put either of these books down, even though they are completely different in style, tone, and substance. She Left Me the Gun would probably be good for the beach while Widow Basquiat would be best read in a quiet café.
Abigail Wadsworth Serfass, Managing Editor
I’m always a little behind the times—what can I say? I like reading paperbacks. So, none of these recommendations is particularly groundbreaking—you’ve probably already read at least one—but if you haven’t gotten to any of them yet, you’re in for a fun summer of reading:
Life After Life
, Kate Atkinson. Historical fiction that asks some big questions. I liked how Atkinson kept me guessing and slightly off-balance throughout.
, Donna Tartt. A totally immersive experience. Tartt has a way of instantly drawing you into her story and making you never want to leave.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette
, Maria Semple. Laugh-out-loud funny. The skewering of modern parents, private schools, tech companies, and more couldn’t have been more wittily accomplished.
G.C. Waldrep, Editor-at-Large
Katharine Weber, Editor-at-Large
I was dazzled by Thunderstruck & Other Stories
, Elizabeth McCracken’s new collection. Her precisely acerbic wit propels these nine stirring narratives to majestic heights. “The grandmother was a bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person: sweet, but not necessarily what a child wanted,” is the first sentence of one story. McCracken will seduce you with hilarious images and turns of phrase only to deliver you to the next moment that will stab you in the heart.
Muriel Spark was one of the great original minds of the 20th century. Her sublime first novel, The Comforters, can teach you how to write your own first novel, if you read it hard enough. The Informed Air is a wonderful new collection of Dame Muriel’s essays, reviews, and other occasional writing from a lifetime of commentary and pondering on a vast range of subjects. Every page has something to delight the browser.
Dreamers of the Absolute: A Book of Hours by Anna Sun is an elegant novella set in a Kentucky monastery, where the main character has gone in search of her brother, though from the outset it is clear that what she will find is herself. Inspired on several levels by T. S Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” Sun approaches the English language with a graceful, nearly lapidary concern for what can be conveyed of the tension between this world and that which is not of this world.
Anna Duke Reach, Director of Programs
In Bobcat and Other Stories
, author Rebecca Lee pounces, with graceful language and sharp insight, on people at their most vulnerable. Hard to forget Lee’s descriptions, but if I do, Anthony Doerr offers solace in his beautiful collection of stories, Memory Wall
. According to Doerr, every hour an infinite number of memories disappear (many of mine among them!), yet children simultaneously are creating new memories to recreate the world. This book reminds me how dazzling life is in our complex universe. In nonfiction, Nikil Saval presents an evolution of the white-collar world in Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace
. He moves from clerks in counting-houses to “Bartleby the Scrivener” to The Office
—very entertaining, even if you must read this history under your desk in a cube.
Hilary Plum, Book Review Editor
This winter I read two extraordinary works of fiction set in Iraq and offering portraits of life there since the 2003 U.S. invasion, through years of occupation, civil war, and aftermath: Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer
(translated by the author) and Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
(translated by Jonathan Wright). Despite this framing—similar titles and subjects—the two books are quite different, and each is to be highly recommended. In radiant, brief fragments, Antoon’s novel narrates the life of a Shi‘ite corpse washer; together these lyrical scenes create an enormously moving whole. Blasim’s stories are ferocious, light-swallowing creations: in each, in a few wrenching pages the rules both of realism and everyday life are remade.
I was late to read Lance Olsen’s 2010 novel Calendar of Regrets, and fortunate finally to have done so. Here’s a riveting, untamed novel of great ambition, striking in its insight into our present moment.
Daniel Torday, Book Review Editor
I have a precariously balanced stack of new books on my bedside table, and they’re all beckoning. First, great-looking new novels I can’t wait to crack. Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California
, about a couple in post-apocalyptic, well, California. I’m lucky to have read Robin Black’s debut novel Life Drawing
; her story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This
was genius, as is this book. Both are due out in July. I can’t wait to read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See
, set in France during WWII. His stories have become staples on the syllabi for my short story workshops. And then there are, of course, stories! My pile right now consists of two books I’ve read much of in magazines and can’t wait to read as books: Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations
and Adam Wilson’s What’s Important Is Feeling
. And making the pile nearly topple are two new Stuart Dybek collections (two!) just out from FSG: Paper Lantern
and Ecstatic Cahoots
, the former love stories, the latter short-shorts. Dybek is one of the living masters of the short story, and two books of his at once is what we used to call a “publishing event.” Let’s call it that now, too. So . . . sounds like a good start to a summer, doesn’t it?
Natalie Shapero, KR Fellow
For anyone interested in combat narratives and cultural memory, I recommend A Lakota War Book from the Little Bighorn
, by Castle McLaughlin, which reproduces and traces the history of a compendium of Plains Indian drawings depicting battle and heroism in the era of Custer’s Last Stand. I’ve also been recently obsessed with Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog
, a brilliant and cutting meditation on women, nature, and subjugation. Finally, if you want to feel extra-sad about living in modern times and/or just generally being a human, try Mark Neely’s Beasts of the Hill
. Neely is a master of the kind of chilling economy that makes for really, really good poems.
Andrew Grace, Contributing Editor