Winter Reads

The editors and staff of the Kenyon Review mark the holiday season with an irresistible reading list dedicated to the joy of turning the page.

Date

We at the Kenyon Review mark the holiday season every year by asking our editors and staff to recommend great books that they’ve discovered. The tradition provides both a gift guide and an irresistible reading list. It’s also a way of sharing wonder and inspiration — gifts that we value in all seasons, of course, but that seem especially needed as 2020 comes to an end. Think of this December’s edition as a holiday toast: Here’s to the joy of turning the page.

Nicole Terez Dutton, Editor

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Randall Kenan’s last book of short stories, “If I Had Two Wings,” returns us to the lush fictional stomping ground of Tims Creek, North Carolina, and brings us into the company of a memorable, stubborn and often misguided cast of characters. They’re flawed, but they’re familiar, and given the electricity and — I want to say love — in Kenan’s portraiture, these folks certainly feel like family. This book, a parting gift from a masterful storyteller, is deeply generous in the way it considers lives and entanglements, the ways we’re haunted and predisposed to visions of all kinds. And, within the spell and music and blues humor of these stories, Kenan quietly insists that Tims Creek is not so much a place, but an American circumstance. This book maps exactly where we are: restless, searching and awaiting the reckoning.

David Baker, Poetry Editor

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I urge readers to find two brand new poetry anthologies. The current poet laureate, Joy Harjo, has edited “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry.” Harjo arranges this much needed book by chronology, region and tribal nation, and gathers poets ranging from the 17th and 18th centuries to many contemporary voices. I promise you’ll find many poets here new to your reading, as I have found. I’m also delighted to rediscover so many personal favorites among younger poets like dg nanouk okpik and Orlando White.

The influential curator and editor Kevin Young has offered an equally essential anthology, “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song.” This Library of America collection ranges from the colonial period to the present, and, like Harjo’s book, Young’s is both inclusive and visionary. He starts with early poets like Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton and takes us to today, attending to individual poets and also to important movements like the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and the more recent Cave Canem and Dark Room Collective.

Geeta Kothari, Nonfiction Editor

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The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” by Deesha Philyaw. This charming and entertaining collection of short stories focuses on Black women at various stages of their lives: mothers, daughters, siblings, lovers. Philyaw finds the right balance between humor and sorrow as her characters navigate their relationships.

Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood,” by Maureen Stanton. Set in the 1970s in the prison town of Walpole, Massachusetts, Stanton’s coming-of-age memoir follows her narrator’s path to self destruction during a time of great social change. I particularly admired Stanton’s ability to look back on this period of her life with compassion rather than judgment.

The Body Papers,” by Grace Talusan. This memoir about the body and identity reads like a detective story as Talusan, a first generation Filipina-American, investigates the effects of  racism, illness and childhood trauma on her life. The heaviness of her subject matter is offset by beautiful yet spare writing.

Kirsten Reach, Fiction Editor

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What a year to read about friendship, and caring for one another. “The Death of Vivek Oji” by Akwaeke Emezi asks: when someone you love dies, what do you owe the ones they loved? There’s real tenderness here: delicate, warm and irresistible.

Nathalie Léger’s “Suite for Barbara Loden” was one of the best books I read in early quarantine. “The White Dress,” translated by Natasha Lehrer, is third in Léger’s triptych about the lost narratives of women artists. Piercing and gorgeous.

“We don’t choose what haunts us”: last line of the first story in Chris Haven’s “Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds.” Let Haven’s work haunt you, beginning with “The Marks.”

In the Cheever Room on Kenyon’s campus, in February 2016, Danielle Evans read an incredible story and left off before the end. You better believe I’m checking the mailbox for my preordered copy of “The Office of Historical Corrections.”

Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor

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What book could more accurately capture this year of grief than Victoria Chang’s “Obit”? Chang reimagines the form of the newspaper obituary to express the way grief requires that we surrender everything to its erasures. One by one, the familiar things of the world vanish, and Chang writes their obits in prose poems of merciless beauty. Grieving, we die many times, an endless series of small deaths that sweep the world clean of everything that once seemed so solid. Chang wrote these poems in a fever, then spent years revising them. That writing process — first sudden and then slow — reflects the way that we process any trauma: a bright flash of pain, followed by a settling darkness. But the process of grieving also restores the world. Hope is the wildest bird, Chang writes, the one that flies so fast it will either disappear or burst into flames. We can learn to see by that terrible light.

Andrew Grace, Associate Poetry Editor

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Bruce Snider’s “Fruit” is one of the books I’m most excited about this year. No poet has written about queerness in the Midwest more movingly than Snider.

I’m a little late to Vievee Francis’s “Forest Primeval” but I’m grateful that it made it to the top of my book stack. Francis constantly twists and flips the pastoral and makes it new. Check this out: “the word grows from a note a hello a salutation / and plants itself like a spring dandelion seed that by / afternoon is full grown and blowing more seeds, / lightly, sweetly, a coloratura of delight, and I / feel as if I were both the plucked and the child / plucking the stem and twirling.”

Katherine Hedeen, Translations Editor

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Paul Celan, “Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry,” translated by Pierre Joris.

What a privilege to read Paul Celan, one of the great voices of contemporary poetry, through Pierre Joris. This volume follows the 2014 publication of Celan’s later work, “Breathturn Into Timestead” (also translated by Joris. If you don’t have it, get it, too!) and brings us his first four collections dating from 1952 to 1963. Joris’s fine work as a translator is complemented by his impressive (and exhaustive) research and notes. Celan and Joris give their readers those “encounters with / single words like:/ rockfall, hardgrass, time” and, in so doing, have much to tell us about language: its power to break down, its capacity for expansiveness. 

Elizabeth Lowe, Translations Editor

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The Cheffe, A Cook’s Novel,” by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump.

Cooking has been a solace for many during the pandemic. This translation by Jordan Stump deservingly won the National Translation Award for Prose for 2020. Marie NDiaye continues to write provocative fiction about interesting women (she was nominated for the Booker Prize for “Three Strong Women”) with this story of a great female chef in a world dominated by men. The story is told by her former assistant and rejected lover, now an aging chef, who recounts her obsession with discovering  the essence of taste and the sometimes destructive pursuit of pleasure that made her a legend of the kitchen.

Adam Clay, Book Reviews Editor

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Admittedly, reading hasn’t been easy for me this year. I’ve started countless novels but haven’t finished one in a while. I’ve been reading many more poems simply because I can read a few at the end of a long day and sit with them before I fall asleep.

Lately I’ve been spending time with Sara Lupita Olivares’s “Migratory Sound,” a wonderful debut containing compressed, lyrical poems that do so much in such a small space. I’ve also been reading Michael Robins’s “People You May Know,” his fourth collection. Each poem in the book is a world all to its own; reading one before bed each night has been a joy I look forward to each day.

The one collection of prose I’ve read this year is Natasha Trethewey’s “Memorial Drive.” The New York Times describes it best as “a controlled burn of chaos and intellection ... it is a memoir that will really lay you out.”

Richie Hofmann, Book Reviews Editor

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Composed variously of dreams, fragments, memories and letters, Dan Chiasson’s new collection, “The Math Campers,” shows us teenagers coming of age and poems themselves — fresh and lucid and alive — coming into being. It’s so much more than a gathering of new poetry; the structure of the book, which accumulates meaning and power, is one of its absorbing features. After the exhaustion of quarantine, “The Math Campers” is the book of poems from this year that made me want to be a reader and a writer again.

Eavan Boland, who died in April, has left us with “The Historians,” a masterful final collection — attuned to the rich and difficult lives of those who struggled between public and private history. The poems, characteristically precise and authoritative, urge me to be a sharper reader and a more engaged citizen. They are all the more poignant for being her last words to us.

Corey Van Landingham, Book Reviews Editor

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Bruce Snider’s “Fruit” is virtuosic in its approach to form (no surprise here, for Snider fans). Sonnet crowns, sestinas, prose poems. Odes and elegies. And an approach to the series that feels indivisible from the collection’s overarching concerns — we’re called back, again and again, to procreation’s interpellations and distortions, to how one remains autonomy, identity and power while navigating its thrall.

In general, I tend to dislike poetry readings. (Eek, I said it.) But each time I read Jennifer Habel’s “The Book of Jane,” I think that I would like it read to me from cover to cover. It’s exquisite and bold, and it makes the domestic absolutely unavoidable, makes it — through cutting-yet-tender portraits and miniatures — quite huge.

Molly McCully Brown, Kenyon Review Fellow

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One of my greatest pleasures in this complicated season has been co-curating KR’s online series On Books and Their Harbors, which highlights writers publishing new books during the pandemic. Really, what I want to do in this recommendation is write about every single one of the extraordinary books we’ve been lucky enough to feature, but I’ll compromise and say that I’ve been particularly grateful for the poems in Cameron Awkward Rich’s “Dispatch,” Phillip Metres’s “Shrapnel Maps,” Christopher Kondrich’s “Valuing” and Sumita Chakraborty’s “Arrow” these last months. (And, really, do go put your hands on all the books in the series!)

Lately, I’ve also found myself seeking out books that are especially awake to the joy and power inherent in observation and discovery; the essays in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “World of Wonders” and in Leslie Jamison’s “Make It Scream, Make It Burn” have, in different ways, kept me attuned to awe and devotion when those feelings have felt hard to come by.

Misha Rai, Kenyon Review Fellow

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This holiday season I would like to recommend two debut novels while encouraging readers to access a treasure trove of new books the Kenyon Review has celebrated during the pandemic.

Let me begin with the latter. In co-editing On Books and Their Harbors, I found immense joy in supporting new work in a time when traditional avenues of book promotion dried up. For this project authors wrote about their new books and highlighted the spaces in their communities that have been vital to their reading life and have helped their books find readers. So, if you look at our project page you will find not only a variety of books to choose from but also a list of independent and used bookstores devoted to the art of storytelling.

The first book I would like to recommend is Avni Doshi’s 2020 Man Booker Prize-nominated novel, “Burnt Sugar.” A family drama, this book is deliciously unsettling and a window into an India rarely seen before. Karen Tucker’s debut novel, “Bewilderness,” is a poignant and beautifully written tale about flawed female friendship. Funny, insightful and oh-so-honest, Tucker’s novel isn’t out until June 2021, but I strongly urge that you go ahead and preorder it.

Janet McAdams, Editor at Large

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Marlen Haushofer’s extraordinary novel “The Wall” was out of print in English for many years. I was fortunate to have a friend who loved the book so much she searched out copies to give away. But it is now (thankfully) available again, following Julian Pölsler’s 2012 film version of the book. In Haushofer’s apocalyptic tale, a woman vacationing in the Alps awakes one morning to discover that an invisible wall divides her from the rest of the world, a world that has stopped, its inhabitants vanished or fallen. The book is gorgeous, troubling, profound, an extended meditation on the nature of isolation, its essence, its material reality. I can’t think of a better novel to reflect upon the peculiar stasis of our moment.

Katharine Weber, Editor at Large

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In these endless days of pandemic sheltering and the ongoing post-election drama, many of us find ourselves with more time to read yet less than our usual ability to stay focused and engaged with words on the page of a book, when doom-scrolling reports of current events has become chronic. I can’t contemplate re-reading “Jude the Obscure” right now, but I was able to immerse myself completely in these two engrossing books.

I don’t have enough adjectives for Namwali Serpell’s stunning, prize-winning debut novel “The Old Drift.” It’s a magical Zambian epic richly populated with extraordinary characters. Comparisons to Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable, but limiting, as this historical science fiction narrative is in an intoxicating genre all its own.

Considering magic in more concrete terms: Whatever you think you know about legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is probably wrong. “Houdini: The Elusive American” is Adam Begley’s elegant and revealing contribution to the growing shelf of the Jewish Lives series of short biographies from Yale University Press. In every sense, Begley’s portrait of the driven, Hungarian-born Ehrich Weiss is a perfect escape read for the season.

Caitlin Horrocks, Advisory Board

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Three new story collections, two by KR contributors: “Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds” by Chris Haven includes his story “The Marks” (KRO Jan/Feb 2019), and “Until We Have Faces” by Michael Nye includes “Beauty in the Age of Chaos and Savagery” (KR, Spring 2014). Both writers are assured storytellers with a careful ear for language and structure, and a deep, compassionate sense of character. Thirdly, I’ve been awaiting “The Office of Historical Corrections” by Danielle Evans since devouring her previous collection “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.” Written with fierce humor and intelligence, Evans’s stories contain both the complexities of individual lives, and the complexities of our historical moment.

Kathleen Aguero, Consulting Editor

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So many good poetry books have been published this year, it’s hard to single out a few. Among my favorites are “The Ice Storm” by Meg Kearney. This crown of sonnets detailing the failure of a marriage skillfully demonstrates the flexibility of the traditional sonnet form. Two other books that stand out are Frannie Lindsay’s “The Snow’s Wife,” a book of lyrical elegies for her husband notable for the power of their restraint, and Christopher Jane Corkery’s “Love Took the Words,” a collection I will re-read and study for its mastery of craft and ability to embed large questions in familiar details. On the lighter side, I’ve enjoyed dipping in and out of “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” by Mason Currey, a collection of brief nonfiction entries alternately inspiring and amusing.

Oliver de la Paz, Consulting Editor

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One of the books that I’ve read over and over and have taught in my classes is Rick Barot’s “The Galleons.” It’s exquisite. His incisive couplets and deep inquiry into the connections to be made across landscapes, personal histories and millennia always leave me wanting to write. I’ve also enjoyed Shira Ehrlichman’s “Odes to Lithium” for its multi-modal inquiry into neurodiversity, marveling at the way the work combines lyricism, art and hybrid forms. Finally, the harrowing book “A Nail The Evening Hangs On” by Monica Sok is beautiful and painful in its contemplation of family and the not so distant past.

 Jennifer Jean, Consulting Editor

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Art making is choice making. And translators are artists with specialty choices leading them closer to, or further from, a source. Translators have to ask themselves whether they value absolute content over absolute resonance. As a poet new to co-translation, I find these choices fascinating! Contemplating each implication has improved my poems. A cardinal resource, showcasing these delicious dilemmas, is “Into English” edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer. I love the longways, landscape design which allows readers to consider multiple translations, side by side. This setup invited me to form an opinion about which translation I preferred and to suss out: why? Each section is followed by an essay readers are free to butt up against. I might be weird, but this whole enterprise is super fun! It’s also a great flex for writers seeking: insight into humanity’s greatest poets, as well as ways to enliven their own (possibly habitual?) work.

E.J. Levy, Consulting Editor

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Two domestic dramas about class and race, refracted through young women in New York, sustained me this strange season: Raven Leilani’s “Luster” and Lee Conell’s “The Party Upstairs.” Each is a debut novel; both are masterful — taut with tensions (erotic, emotional) — as they lay bare fundamental qualities and inequalities of our time. Conell’s darkly funny tale unfolds in a single day, as it follows a recent college grad’s return home to her family’s basement apartment in an Upper West Side co-op, where her father is the super, and her friend in the penthouse upstairs is throwing a party. A portrait of aspiration, class immobility, love and rage, it’s a gem. Leilani’s novel, about an aspiring painter employed in publishing who takes up with a married white man and moves into his family’s home with his white wife and black daughter, dazzles: its luminous prose is as stunning as its heroine’s insights.

Keija Parssinen, Consulting Editor

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I recently finished three books that astounded me: “Everywhere You Don’t Belong,” by Gabriel Bump, which read like “The House on Mango Street” given the George Saunders treatment — hilarious, absurd and revealing the gaps between what America aspires to be and what she actually is; “Animal Wife,” by Lara Ehrlich, a collection of fairy tales that turn up the volume on the quiet desperation in the lives of women and girls until the characters scream, rage, screw and otherwise manifest their discontents, and that crackle and pop with such imagination and innovation that I was left roiling with jealousy and love; and “Such a Fun Age,” by Kiley Reid, a breakout debut deserving of every bit of its lavish praise! I found myself giggling over the dialogue, and all of the characters are richly rendered, none reduced to cliche, so that the reckoning delivered at the end is all the more heartbreaking. Oh, and finally, on my walks I’ve been listening to “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” by Manning Marable, a transportive biography that captures Malcolm Little’s remarkable, complicated, heroic life with verve and compassion.

Jamie Lyn Smith, Consulting Editor

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Booker Prize nominee Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age” is satire at its finest: Emira, a young Black woman falsely accused of kidnapping the child she nannies, is caught between her white partner and her white employer, whose power struggle uncloaks the gratuitousness of performative wokeness. Victor LaValle’s “The Changeling” weaves a cautionary tale in absolutely stunning prose, layered with folklore, horror, fantasy and technological noir all set against the backdrop of an average African American couple in contemporary New York. Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” wrestles with magic, sainthood, patriarchy, lust and colonialism during the Mexican Civil War. The story is rich in idiom, humor, fatality and absurdity — near-perfect pathos. I could not put down “All This Could Be Yours” by Jami Attenberg, the contemporary story of a family shrouded in secrecy, violence, shame — and ultimately, survival.

Orchid Tierney, Consulting Editor

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I recently finished “Not Written Words” by Xi Xi (西西), who is one of the most significant and daring writers to have emerged from Hong Kong. Jennifer Feeley’s translation is stunningly beautiful, capturing Xi Xi’s rogue articulations of the quotidian that boil with inventive word play, music, and defamiliarization of the everyday. Lines like

Mama asks
What do you wanna be
when you group up?
I say
I’d like to be
a water heater (15)

and

It was probably
after the establishment
of the desalination plant
that a crowd
of wrongly treated clouds
came to town
and took up residence (37)

pulled me into a world of the extraordinary ordinary and disconnected signifiers. Feeley’s translation has left me with wanting more, desiring to read more of this amazing writer.

Anna Duke Reach, Director of Programs

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In these dark days of winter, Jazmina Barrera’s “On Lighthouses” (translated by Christina MacSweeney) enlightens our pandemic state of isolation. In genre-bending essays, Barrera explores literal and literary lighthouses and their keepers, discovering light and spiritual insight. Her prose often turns abruptly — like an on/off lighthouse beam, which challenged me to read slowly and think deeply.

Memorial Drive,” by Natasha Trethewey, is an urgent memoir of a daughter dealing with sudden loss and grief after the murder of her mother. Growing up in the South, her mother often confronted racism and domestic abuse. This book is a testament to fierce love, as this tragic loss forged Trethewey into the writer she became.

Found poems by Sarah J. Sloat in “Hotel Almighty” are mixed-media collages that pair constraint and possibility. Sloat’s brilliant erasures (found poems that were created from the pages of Stephen King’s novel “Mercy”) are visual delights that transcend confinement.

Elizabeth Dark, Associate Director of Programs

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Jack” by Marilynne Robinson. A prequel of sorts to “Gilead,” Robinson’s newest novel, “Jack” grants her readers access, finally, into the mind of prodigal son Jack as he struggles with his love for Della, his aspirations toward harmlessness and his own worst deviances. Building on themes from her other novels, Robinson, through her characters, reveals how conversations about grace and redemption, two favorite topics of hers and her readers, amount to very little if the fact of racism is not confronted within them.

Intimations” by Zadie Smith. Smith’s most recent essay collection is a slender book of six pieces written toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her essay collections always draw from her life, but here, during a lockdown, the scope of her daily experience slows and narrows, and her writerly gaze does the same. All royalties from this collection go to the Equal Justice Initiative and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.