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Kenyon Review Newsletter December 2014
The Kenyon Review’s Holiday Reading Recommendations
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
          —Groucho Marx

As the nights grow long and holiday gift lists ever longer, we at KR often ask each other to recommend titles for cozy winter reading and inspired giving. Perhaps you, too, crave trustworthy suggestions at this most cool and festive time of year. Here’s our selection of books that enriched our days, kindled our imaginations, reached in and grabbed us and didn’t let us go. Enjoy!


David Lynn,Editor
You’ve read and studied Joyce. You think you know everything about Ulysses. But The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham is a potent, fascinating narrative of Joyce’s personal battles of all sorts, along with a picture of the forces and culture arrayed against him.

Over the summer I belatedly read Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, and it may well be her best, her most moving and mature. An extraordinary novel from one of our finest authors.

Then there’s a book that’s received a fair bit of attention but deserves a shout-out anyway: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, about a French girl who becomes blind and struggles to survive WWII. Wonderful.

Dreamers of the Absolute: A Book of Hours by Anna Sun. A spare, meditative debut novel, both austere and yet scorching in its passions. A quick read that demands savoring—and an exquisite physical publication (wonderful gift) as well.

Finally, I always try to mention some easy genre reading for the treadmill or car trips. This time, however, it’s nonfiction that rivals the best spy tales and may well outdo them: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre with a fine afterward by John Le Carré. Amazing story.


David Baker, Poetry Editor
My first suggestion is not a new book. Galway Kinnell died recently, and I want to recommend his poetry again to readers. The Book of Nightmares is, to my mind, one of the dozen or so greatest individual volumes of poetry ever published in this country. From the joys of new fatherhood to the absolute horror of napalm in Vietnam, these twelve poems are prayers, discoveries, indictments, songs, all in the most remarkable form and language.

Sadly, another great poet and friend, Mark Strand, died just two weeks ago. His Collected Poems have just appeared, and again it is a landmark in the poetry terrain. Virtually all of Strand’s poems are here—from those haunted, severe early lyrics to his longer narratives to his recent prose poems and his widening humor. His precision, care, and shadowy self-portraits are part of our collective poetry imagination.


The Children Act, Ian McEwan’s new novel, has delighted me. So it’s still possible to believe in character and plot, and yet to be artful and inventive in style and language? You bet. McEwan’s investigation into his main character’s psyche (and her marital problems) parallels his splendid knowledge of legal strategy and the fallout of legal decisions on individual people, families, their faith and fate.


Caitlin Horrocks, Fiction Editor
Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven
is a magical story collection that expands the reader’s understanding of what not-so-short stories can do and contain. Each story spans years, often nearly an entire life, and while the narrators pop up in each other’s stories, the real linkage in the book is the conversation the stories create about longing, love, faith, life itself. There is huge ambition, compassion, and deep wisdom in any of the stories individually—taken as a whole, this is a powerful collection that has a lot to offer even readers who usually prefer the sprawl of novels. Silber’s “Ring of Stories,” as the subtitle calls it, was a National Book Award and Story Prize finalist in 2004—if you missed out on the book then, as I did, pick it up now.

Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor
One of my favorite books this season was Sharona Eve Muir’s Invisible Beasts, a fantastical bestiary that began as a game played with biologists: invent an animal with outlandish properties, describe it to them, and then discover as they name the animals that possess these strange characteristics that whatever the mind of the writer can concoct, nature already has. Muir’s novel is at once a celebration of the power of imagination and a requiem for the species we’re losing every day. Both moving and often surprisingly funny, it’s a seductive work of speculative naturalism that has its hands in the dirt and its head in the clouds.

Natalie Shapero, Associate Editor
“My animal, my age. Who alive can gaze / Into those eyes without becoming you?” In anticipation of another uncalled-for winter, I recommend doubling down with the gorgeous bleakness of Osip Mandelstam’s Stolen Air, translated by Christian Wiman. I’ve also been really feeling Carrie Fountain’s domestic poems, alternately glassy-eyed and roaring, in Instant Winner. Finally, seeing as the best strategy for being funny is often to let someone else do the heavy lifting, I recommend Michael Robbins’s The Second Sex. I’ve recited the opening five lines to a number of people and never not gotten a laugh. I won’t spoil it here.

G.C. Waldrep, Editor-at-Large
I’ve been rereading Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, which I continue to find dazzling, unlike anything else out there in contemporary American poetry—and ditto, in a very different lyric sense, Gennady Aygi’s Field-Russia, which has become for me one of the essential books, a desert island book. In terms of new releases, the two that have most interested me lately are Claudia Keelan’s O, Heart and Bin Ramke’s Missing the Moon. Lunar obsessions aside, Ramke is one of the few contemporary American poets who effortlessly—or so it seems—incorporates scientific ideas and vocabularies into his poems, which makes this collection a dense and nettling read. It’s also, however, one of Ramke’s best.

Katharine Weber, Editor-at-Large
I am just back from five weeks in London, where I succumbed to these temptations at Hatchards, the oldest bookshop in the UK.

Kingsley Amis named her “one of the best English novelists born in this century.” Anne Tyler has compared her to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, and Elizabeth Bowen, calling them “soul sisters all.” Yet Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor) remains obscure to most American readers. The Soul of Kindness, published in 1964, now reissued in the most recent wave of interest in Taylor’s novels and stories, is definitely one of the stand-outs among hers dozen novels. Cool, unsentimental, elegant, witty, and often sharply observed to the edge of cruelty, it’s a superb novel, and a perfect starting point for discovering her work.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
by Hilary Mantel is a vivid new story collection by the always surprising author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The stunning title story, quite controversial in Britain, leads the reader to some startling sympathies. In these ten extraordinarily varied stories, most of them brilliant, Mantel, at the top of her game, conjures personalities and situations that are as rich and strange as any of her novels.


Abigail Wadsworth Serfass, Managing Editor
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend was the book that I couldn’t stop talking about all fall. The setting is post-World War II, a small town outside of Naples, where corruption lurks at every corner. The characters are two young girls who grow apart as they grow up. They are surrounded by a cast of townsfolk and relatives many of whom play outsized roles in the girls’ imaginations. What I liked best about the book was the way Ferrante captured the nature of young female friendship—at times loving, at times mean-spirited, at times competitive—these characters were brought to such vivid life.

Anna Duke Reach, Director of Programs
The Neapolitan novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) by the mysterious “Elena Ferrante” and translated by Ann Goldstein are gripping and addictive. Get all three novels, so you can read the chronicle nonstop through the holidays.

Autobiography also inspires Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis. The b/w illustrations of this graphic novel present the politics of the Iran/Iraq war through the eyes of an adolescent, and manage to capture many shades of gray between classes, families, religion, and cultures.

If your new year’s resolution is to write more, dive into Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively. She offers poetic examples, as well as writing exercises to sharpen the power of your pen.


Hilary Plum, Book Review Editor
First I should say that I have a professional connection to my recommendations this winter, but that makes me lucky, not insincere: how fortunate when labor and literary love coincide. Two novels in translation by the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha have just come out in English, and this will, I believe, prove to have been a real event. I’ve had the pleasure—inspiration, incitement, years of conversation—of helping shepherd Rakha’s debut, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars, into publication in English, in phenomenal translation by Paul Starkey: a novel of Cairo, city of post-9/11 Islam, a revolutionary re-envisioning of Ottoman and Arab history, a profoundly affecting work of postmodern fiction. Read this, and then his second novel The Crocodiles. I won’t go on too long, but for the curious, The Kenyon Review offers wonderful examples of Rakha’s work—his essay “In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo,” his story “Thus Spoke Che Nawwarah: Interview with a Revolutionary,” and an interview here in KR Conversations. I hope I’ll get to hear what you think.

Kascha Semonovitch, Book Review Editor
If I can make a fiction recommendation as a poet, then I’d like to recommend The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. As a philosopher, I usually flinch when someone mentions a “philosophical novel.” But The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August just might be one. Like the popular Kate Atkinson novel Life After Life, this book is premised on the notion that some people live cyclically, again and again. But it’s a horror story. How horrifying to relive—and never perfect—this life! This isn’t a perfect book—the ending frustrates me—but the conceit is beautiful. The slipstream world shows too much we don’t want to see about the difficulties of this world.

Daniel Torday, Book Review Editor
I just read the best book of poems I’ve read in a long time: Sailing the Forest, selected poems from the Scottish poet Robin Robertson. Concise, tough-nosed, imagistic. Beautiful. The two books of fiction I’ve felt most excited about are short story collections: Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans and Kathleen Founds’ When Mystical Creatures Attack! The former was long-listed for the National Book Award. The latter won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. And I’m loving Linda Leavell’s definitive and idiosyncratic biography of poet Marianne Moore, Holding On Upside Down.

Rebecca McClanahan, Advisory Board
Although Brad Watson’s The Heaven of Mercury was a 2002 National Book Award Finalist, I only recently discovered this novel, which surprised and delighted on every page; the obits alone are worth the price of admission. A vivid portrait of a fictional Mississippi town over the span of eighty years, the book is at once hilarious, tough, unsentimental, and heartbreaking, revealing the dignity of even the most minor and flawed characters. I believed it all, that “This was a paradise, once . . . . It was an innocence.” David Huddle’s recently published novel The Faulkes Chronicle is told in first-person plural, a rare and idiosyncratic literary choice that in the hands of a lesser writer might prove disastrous but which proves the perfect choice for Huddle. Narrated by an innumerable group of young siblings witnessing their mother’s year-long journey through cancer and toward death, it acts as an extended eulogy as well as a meditation on the power of communal storytelling. Fleda Brown’s newest book of poems, No Need of Sympathy, illustrates the Robert Creeley quotation from which its title is taken, that “{p}oetry stands in no need of any sympathy, or even goodwill.” Brown is not out to charm us or win our approval but rather to ignite our curiosity by turning our attention to the “little world” of ordinary experience that, through her witty, brilliant, and unexpected leaps of thought, grows to extraordinary proportions.

Joyce Carol Oates, Advisory Board
Two new, wonderfully diverse and engaging anthologies of contemporary American writing are The Best American Short Stories 2014 edited by Jennifer Egan, and The Pushcart Prize XXXIX: Best of the Small Presses 2015 Edition (The Pushcart Prize) edited by Bill Henderson. These are collections to read at leisure, containing many surprises and rewards. Highly recommended!

Ann Patchett, Advisory Board
Love is tricky in the book business. I love a lot of books. But then along comes Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Héctor Tobar, and I find myself trying to come up with a new word, one that transcends love and goes into a whole other level of worshipful appreciation, because this is the book for me. I more-than-love this book.

Maybe it’s the story, which somehow manages to be a gut-wrenching cliffhanger even though we know exactly how it’s going to end, and maybe it’s the writing, which is clear and spare and endlessly beautiful even though there is no beauty to relate. Maybe it’s the willingness to take on all the big issues—the value of a human life, the tests of character, the persistent hopes for God. Simply put, Deep Down Dark is my favorite book of the year, even as I continue to love several others and like many more.

Make sure you’re in a comfortable place when you start reading because it’s going to be very hard to stop.


Nancy Zafris, Advisory Board
Faulty Predictions
by Karin Lin-Greenberg. Featuring a story published in KROnline, this collection of diverse short stories by an emerging young writer will surprise, entertain, and sometimes sadden and shock you. The opening tale will have you laughing out loud as high school lit mag editors discuss their superior use of the semi-colon until the object of their snobbery turns on the school in a most upsetting way. In another story, two Chinese grandmothers argue over the value of their treasures at a filming of Antiques Roadshow. The KRO story features a lonely city bus driver who has to deal with a squealing pig brought onboard by rowdy college students. Faulty Predictions, the most recent co-winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, will leave you marveling at its breadth of vision and empathy while furthering your appreciation of the formal craft of the short story.

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