Every year, the Kenyon Review celebrates the holiday season by asking their editors and staff to enthuse about the favorite books — new and old, in any and every genre — that have captured their imaginations. Here, we share their recommendations so that you can put these titles on your own reading list or perhaps find the perfect stocking stuffer for the book lover in your life.
“Improvement,” by Joan Silber, is the quiet, fascinating work of a master of form and substance, of language and character. Silber, an American treasure, here offers a novelist’s marvelous counterpoint of insight and beauty to some of recent and trendy “autofiction” that to me seems so self-satisfied and such a dead end.
Although it’s already received significant attention, “There There” by Tommy Orange deserves it and more. This novel offers a penetrating power and a vision of native experience in our land. It’s captivating and it’s important.
Let me add “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin,” by Terrance Hayes. Not all of these playful, witty, sometimes scorching sonnets are equally successful, but when Terrance Hayes lands a punch, he rocks you.
Kiese Laymon’s “Hey, Mama” (Guernica, March 2014), should have won an award for its honesty and its heart. It’s a good place to get a sense of Laymon’s singular voice before you read “Heavy” (Scribner, October 2018), the book he wrote for his mother. Dariel Suarez (“The American President’s Visit” ran in our Sept/Oct 2018 issue) has a brilliant new story collection set in Cuba, “A Kind of Solitude,” just out from Willow Springs Books. If you don’t trust my word, trust the 2017 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Do you know anyone who loves Sylvia Plath? Buy them Dora Malech’s “Stet” (Princeton, October 2018). Ian Dreiblatt’s new chapbook, “how to hide by showing in the age of being alone with the universe,” is a delight (above/ground press, September 2018). And look out for Micah Dean Hicks’s “Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones” from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 2019.
Michael Ondaatje’s novel “In the Skin of a Lion” begins with a line from John Berger: “Never again will a story be told as though it were the only one.” Sure enough, the story that follows belongs to many characters in the city of Toronto, each memorable in their own way, beginning with the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct and ending at the city’s famed water works facility. This perfect marriage of form and content captures the disparate lives of the invisible immigrants who built Toronto.
Sarah Smarsh’s beautifully written “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” also deals with invisible lives. Smarsh, a fifth-generation Kansan, writes with great compassion about her hardworking family and their failure to thrive in America’s so-called meritocracy. Her struggle to break free from the circumstances that bind the women in her family — early motherhood, lack of education, shame — drives the narrative. Through research and personal stories, Smarsh creates a heartbreaking and compelling story about the working poor in this country.
Johannes Göransson’s collection of essays “Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation” (Noemi Press, 2018) brings to the fore some of the most overlooked debates in poetry and literary translation today, namely a fierce, timely and well-written discussion on the politics behind why the U.S. definition of poetry excludes the art of translation.
I would also recommend “El texto sucio / The Dirty Text,” by Soleida Ríos, translated by Barbara Jamison and Olivia Lott (Kenning Editions, 2018). This is the first book in English translation by the acclaimed Cuban poet Soleida Ríos. Surreal and hallucinatory, these poems break down conventional notions of literary genre as well as Cuban writing. A highlight is Lott’s thoughtful co-translator’s note on the collaborative nature of all art.
Ruth Ozeki, “A Tale for the Time Being” (Penguin 2013). A finalist for the 2013 Man Booker prize, this intriguing novel weaves together the Japanese language with Japanese pop culture, World War II history, Proust, and Zen with quantum mechanics.
Idra Novrey, “Ways to Disappear” (Back Bay Books 2016). This is one of several new novels with translators as fictional characters. This amusing tale takes us to Rio de Janeiro from Pittsburgh as a translator responds to the urgent call to help locate her Brazilian author. In addition to providing a compelling tale, Novrey offers thoughts on translation as art and on the ways language travels imaginatively across borders.
Katja Kettu, “The Midwife,” translated by David Hackston (Amazon Crossing, 2016; winner of the 2012 Runeberg Prize). Katja Kettu’s narrative abilities have been compared to those of Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), in their use of mind-bending imagery and the grotesque. This is a riveting novel about the fate of women in the prison camps of World War II in Finland. The masterful translation by David Hackson captures the raw beauty of the writing, which evokes the harsh fjord landscape.
I’m reading Avram Finkelstein’s “After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images.” It’s an intense and illuminating history of crisis, protest and design. Whether discussing the process by which activist-artists arrived at the particular shade of pink for the triangle on the SILENCE = DEATH poster (Pantone 212 C) or how they hijacked the look of Benetton ads to wage an HIV/AIDS education campaign, this book is consistently insightful and gripping.
“Your Duck Is My Duck,” by Deborah Eisenberg (Ecco), is this extraordinary writer’s first story collection since 2006. Each of these six stories has a novel’s worth of inventive situation, story and complexity. Her characters are strange yet deeply knowable. How does she manage, on every page, such an uncanny representation of the sensibility of passing moments of consciousness? Eisenberg, one of the great short story writers of our time, can spend a year writing one story, and this powerful collection is abundant evidence that her work is always worth the wait.
Spencer Wise’s first novel, “The Emperor of Shoes” (Hanover Square Press), is a charming and witty tale of a Jewish family business in crisis. Alex Cohen is the Bostonian 26-year-old heir apparent to the family shoe business. Their factory is in China, where Alex is confronted by his heritage: worker exploitation and corruption. Part “Kinky Boots,” part “American Pastoral,” it’s a provocative and entertaining read.
A year ago I never knew that Herman Melville wrote poetry, let alone that he wrote one of the most important — and stunning — books of poetry about the Civil War. “Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War” feels especially important now, with lines like “the rebel is wrong, but human yet.”
Lindsey Alexander’s debut collection, “Rodeo in Reverse,” is marvelous. The final poem, “Homestead, Sure” is worth the cover charge alone. Does anyone else feel like they need a few more chuckles this year? This poet’s wit and wonder will get you there.
The book in my stack that I’m most looking forward to spending time with is Philip Metres’s “The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance.” I’ve read and taught his Kenyon Review essay on documentary poetry many times, and this new collection of essays will surely be just as brilliant and big-hearted, and just as necessary.
I’m recommending Preti Taneja’s debut novel “We That Are Young,” Hala Alyan’s Dayton Peace Prize winning novel “Salt Houses,” and Svetlana Alexievich’s excellent first book (newly translated by the celebrated Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), “The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II.”
Alexievich’s book is as necessary today as it was when it was published in 1985. It records the stories of Soviet women who fought during World War II, asking the question of how and why women continue to write themselves out of history, why they have not stood up for their rightful place in history. These are incredible human stories that take us through a war we think we know, but not like this, not through these voices.
Both Taneja’s and Alyan’s novels, powerfully written, are family sagas that span generations, taking one across continents into worlds both familiar and strange. And like Alexievich’s book, they explore the essential stories of women through brilliantly plotted and addictive storylines.
“Suicide Club,” by Rachel Heng. An overachiever, Lea Kirino is 100 years old but barely looks 35 thanks to rigorous juicing, low-impact exercise and biological enhancements. She’s a successful trader in a futuristic New York exchange where human organs are bought and sold. Lea will never die if she continues to do everything right. When she accidentally runs into her estranged father, she becomes skeptical of her sanitized, monitored longevity. She meets rebels in a mysterious suicide club and explores living (and dying) on her own terms. An extraordinary debut novel that critiques our contemporary obsessions with youth and immortality.
“Would Everybody Please Stop?,” by Jenny Allen. In these observant, conversational, laugh-out-loud essays, Allen rambles about the messes of middle age, in ways simultaneously personal and philosophical.
Layli Long Soldier’s incredible debut poetry collection “Whereas” is a response to the unacceptable apology given to Native Americans by the U.S. government via a Congressional resolution in 2009. She organizes her response like an oral argument, using the language and structure of government documents to expose their inadequacies in addressing the atrocities done to Native Americans by the U.S. government over the course of our country’s history. She writes, “My response is directed to the apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting and arrangement of the written document.” Her resulting document is an important and brilliantly poetic work wherein language, craft and arrangement are offered with the utmost care.
My niece Dorothy put me onto Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” over the summer, and I’ve been recommending it to countless people ever since. With great care, DiAngelo pulls back the veils that keep white people, and especially white liberals, from recognizing their own role in perpetuating the established racist systems from which they (we) profit. “White Fragility” equips its reader with two essentials: more ammunition to enter daily battle with the inner racist and more humility to bring to each step moving forward.
In the literary parlor game of What Will Last, writers debate which books will stand time’s test, what’s popular versus truly great. I felt lucky this year to discover three great, lesser-known memoirs. Rebecca Brown’s essays in “American Romances” (2009) refract its author’s coming of age through the lens of American culture and art — from Hawthorne to Stein, Laura Ingalls Wilder to Brian Wilson to Oreos — a dazzling, irreverent precursor to Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts.” Kathleen Finneran’s “The Tender Land” (2000) recounts the aftermath of her brother’s suicide, seeking to understand it, even as Finneran’s portraits raise her dead with prose whose incandescent beauty redeems lives fractured by loss. Huda al-Marashi’s unexpectedly delightful memoir of arranged marriage, “First Comes Marriage,” is what Jane Austen might have written had she been born a first-gen Iraqi Muslim, raised in California in the 1990s. Hilarious, heartbreaking, grippingly honest, it’s tonic in an age of rampant Islamophobia.
I am reading, and re-reading, Greg Delanty’s “Collected Poems 1986-2006,” published by Carcanet in England and Louisiana State University Press in America. Delanty, an Irish-born poet who lives and teaches in the United States, is among the five greatest poets writing in English today. He has a poem called “The Ink Moth” on the occasion of introducing his friend Seamus Heaney at a lecture. He describes his pregnant wife in the audience, “her belly a spinnaker / swelling with the wind, the zephyr, / of our first miteling fluttering in her . . . ” Delanty is the rightful heir of Yeats and Heaney. More readers should know his work.
I’ve nearly finished reading George Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss,” for the first time. As Virginia Woolf put it so boldly, Eliot is one of the few English novelists who wrote for grown-up people. This book, not quite as good as “Middlemarch,” is nevertheless a very great novel.
Fiction: Richard Powers, “The Overstory.”
Nonfiction: Santanu Das, “India, Empire, and First World War Culture.”
I’ve been a fan of Maurya Simon’s poetry for decades, so when I discovered “The Wilderness: New & Selected Poems” (Red Hen Press, 2018) I knew I had to have it. Shaped from nine previous books and several new poems, and including an astute introduction by B. H. Fairchild, this collection showcases the depth and range of Simon’s work. Her musical ear is pitch perfect, her language lush, and her metaphors so stunning that they remake the world as we once knew it. Or thought we knew it. (Additional gifts for this reader — as if the collection required more gifts! — are the beautiful reproductions of paintings that accompany the 15 ekphrastic poems from “Weavers.”)
In “Florida,” Lauren Groff’s exquisitely disturbing story collection, each sentence is honed to perfection and every metaphor is a surprise. The stories move seamlessly between realism and fantasy, and between terror and humor, to plumb the mysteries of the human heart. (Riverhead Books, 2018.)
My favorite book this year is Kevin Wilson’s short story collection, “Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine.” Months after reading it I can still remember each vivid and startling story perfectly. Does that ever happen? No. Please don’t miss this one.
“Heavy: an American Memoir” by Kiese Laymon is as personal as Roxane Gay’s “Hunger” and as political as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” which is another way of saying it is both brilliant and essential.
And just in case there’s someone in your life who’s looking for a book to chew on, Sandra Boynton’s “But Not the Armadillo” is a board book about a soulful armadillo who isn’t like anyone else, a good lesson for small people and big people alike.
Two by admired former students. The first is “Sorority” (ScoutPress/Simon & Schuster), by Genevieve Sly Crane, my student at Stony Brook. A first book, this collection of short stories about sorority sisters scrapes young womanhood down to the hard wood beneath the paint. The prose glows dark: “What a legacy we have! Ruby will exclaim, and Twyla will light a blunt and pass it, pull up her hair into a pony, and I will see during my turn that the bottom layer of her hair is not quite brown — almost purple/almost red — a hidden mauve.”
The second is “Paris in the Present Tense” (The Overlook Press), by Mark Helprin. I’d say Mark studied with me at Harvard, but it was closer to the other way round. Here is his story of cellist Jules Lacour, a widower in his 70s, about to fall in love. As in “Winter’s Tale,” “A Soldier of the Great War,” and all things Helprin, big matters are at stake — love, guilt, courage, morality. His writing is as clear as a bell you never heard before: “At dusk, the streetlights had begun to come on over the bridges and along the boulevards, and the restaurant was warm and dark, with islands of light.”
The Kenyon Review adult summer workshops have consistently attracted accomplished professionals in other fields who soon become accomplished in creative writing. Enter Ruvanee Pietersz Vihauer, a professor of psychology who came to Kenyon a few years back, and who this year won the prestigious Iowa Award for Short Fiction for her collection “The Water Diviner and Other Stories.” From impoverished immigrants to high school basketball players, the stories dazzle with a variety of characters and cultural domains but remain uniform in their wisdom and kindness. And one of the stories was written right in workshop.