As the longtime editor of the book section in the Alumni Bulletin, I should no longer be surprised by the sheer variety of subjects, genres and styles to be found in books by Kenyon alumni and faculty members. But I am. As I get caught up in a novel, only to be distracted by a cookbook, delighted by a story for kids, intrigued by a scholarly work or fascinated by the journalistic delving into a topic or person I never heard of before, I find myself marveling again and again — at the scope as well as the talent of Kenyon authors. Here’s a short list of Kenyon books that caught my fancy over the past year.
Garden for the Blind, by Kelly (Stanton) Fordon ’89 (Wayne State University Press). The linked stories in this collection follow Alice Townley and her friend Mike from childhood to middle age, accompanied by a cast of characters with interlaced lives. The book begins when Alice, as a young girl growing up in a prosperous suburb, witnesses a tragic accident, and takes Alice into high school, where she and Mike blame a crime on another student, with far-reaching consequences.
Skyscraping, by Cordelia Jensen ’98 (Philomel Books). In this striking young-adult novel — written entirely in free verse — a high school senior named Mira finds that “the constellation of a family / can shift shape / in seconds” when she discovers her father with his male lover. Lyrical and moving, the book realistically captures teen issues, the intensity of family relationships and the feel of Manhattan in the early 1990s, as the AIDS crisis peaked.
The Foundation of Summer: New England Stories, by Eric D. Lehman ’94 (Homebound Publications). A prolific travel and history writer with a passion for all things Connecticut, Lehman here ventures into fiction with a collection of 13 engaging stories. In one, a veteran who lost an arm in Afghanistan wrestles with anger during a late-season stay on Monhegan Island. Another, involving both gourmet cooking and a graduate-test prep business, deals with class resentment and identity in New Haven.
With a Strange Scent of the World, by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (Diálogos Books). The acclaimed Cuban-born poet and professor of Spanish presents a sampling of his work from 1979 to 1999. The poems (all revised) appear in the original Spanish, along with English translations by Katherine M. Hedeen, associate professor of Spanish.
The Last Flight of Poxl West, by Daniel Torday ’00 (St. Martin’s Press). Torday’s engrossing novel weaves together two first-person stories — one is Uncle Poxl’s memoir about how he fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia to become a Royal Air Force pilot in England; the other, framing the first, is told by a suburban Jewish teenager who sees Poxl as a heroic grandfather figure but then has cause to doubt him. Together, these tales explore the force of memory and confession as well as the human need for stories.
A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, by Scott Carney ’00 (Gotham). Digging into the 2012 death of a cult-like figure at a remote Arizona retreat, investigative journalist Carney unearths a gripping story of Buddhism gone disturbingly wrong. The book takes up interesting questions about the American tendency to mix and match Eastern religious traditions, the impact of intensive meditation on the brain and the blurry line between divine revelation and mental instability.
You Can’t Judge a Cookie by Its Cutter: Make 100 Cookie Designs with Only a Handful of Cookie Cutters, by Patti Paige ’74 (Grand Central Life & Style). The premise here: anybody can be a cookie virtuoso. From George Washington in profile to a can of sardines, Paige provides a cookie design for every occasion, mood and whim.
Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, by Jeff Place ’79 and Robert Santelli (Smithsonian Folkways). This comprehensive tribute to a titan of American music includes five music CDs along with a large-format book with essays, rare photos, a discography and memorabilia, much of it published for the first time. Famous for his distinctive sound on the 12-string guitar, Lead Belly (Huddie Ludbetter, 1888-1949) influenced musicians from Bob Dylan to Led Zeppelin.
Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon’s Odyssey, by Bud Shaw ’72 (Plume). With down-to-earth eloquence, a keen eye for detail, and a gift for vivid description, Shaw has written a memoir about his medical coming of age in the pioneering era of transplant surgery. In addition to sharing touching stories about his own life, including memories of his father, a small-town surgeon in rural Ohio, Shaw recounts operating-room dramas and behind-the-scenes conflicts involving doctors’ egos and hospital politics.
Sixty Thousand Sisters: Daughters of the Queen, by Christine Tailer ’76. In simple, vivid words and lovely, informative photos, Tailer — a lawyer turned off-the-grid farmer — recounts the seasonal cycles of honeybees and beekeepers. This children’s book will charm adults as well.