It’s 10:30 a.m. and hot already. Prospero’s Books co-owner Will Leathem opens the door to the West 39th Street cornerstone and quickly works to get the shop in order. He pushes the metal sales racks outside, answers the phone and gives recommendations to the day’s first customers.
“Kansas City is a great place for literature. You can be a writer here, you can be a painter here, you can be a musician here and have a great life,” says Leathem, sweat pooling on his forehead. “There’s a great tradition here.”
It’s a rich literary culture that has supported independent bookstores like Prospero’s and Rainy Day Books for decades. So we asked Leathem, Rainy Day’s owner Vivien Jennings and former Kansas City Star arts editor and an author himself, Steve Paul, to help curate a list of essential Kansas City summer reading: both Kansas City authors and books set here.
Who are your favorite KC authors and books? Tweet @jacobgedetsis to keep the conversation going.
Kansas City authors
▪ Daniel Magariel: In just 168 pages, Daniel Magariel’s debut novel, “One of the Boys” (2017), gives an unflinching portrayal of a father’s abuse and addiction. The story opens in Kansas but quickly shifts out west to Albuquerque, N.M., where the family spirals further downward. A New York Times book reviewer wrote, “Magariel’s gripping and heartfelt debut is a blunt reminder that the boldest assertion of manhood is not violence stemming from fear. It is tenderness stemming from compassion.”
▪ James Tate: The late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Shawnee Mission East grad captures readers with his surreal imagery, colloquial style and dark humor. He published more than 20 books of poetry in his life, including “The Oblivion Ha-Ha” (1970), “Viper Jazz” (1976) and “Selected Poems” (1991), which won the Pulitzer. His poems often feature simple-minded narrators both stupefied and deeply engaged with the strange worlds that Tate plops them into. He’s one of this reporter’s favorite poets. His poems knock the wind out of you, first with laughter, then with pangs of heartbreak.
▪ Whitney Terrell: In his most recent novel, “The Good Lieutenant” (2016), Terrell delivers a realistic and emotionally packed look at the Iraq War. Written in reverse chronological order, the story traces a young woman’s experience from the battlefield to her upbringing in Kansas. “A very human take on a woman bringing her own issues into a difficult situation,” said The Star’s review. Also recommended: Terrell’s first novel, “The Huntsman” (2002), which explores issues of race and class in Kansas City.
▪ Martha McCarty: McCarty’s memoir, “Five Island Diaries: Stories of Love, Lost and Found,” focuses on the details and never lets the readers go. Its language is acrobatic as it explores McCarty’s emotionally stirring early life near Five Island Lake in Iowa. “This is so well written it is ridiculous,” Leathem says. “It makes you think of Mitch Albom. It’s a nice gentle memoir that, like all good memoirs, has a turn.”
▪ Nancy Pickard: Pickard has written 18 novels that include the popular Jenny Cain and Marie Lightfoot mystery series. She is known for her intense crime and mystery novels and often tops best-seller lists. Her 2011 thriller “The Scent of Rain and Lightning” was adapted into an indie film that featured Maika Monroe, Maggie Grace, Mark Webber and Justin Chatwin. After debuting in March at the Atlanta Film Festival, it will be shown at 7 p.m. July 1 at the Lawrence Arts Center as part of the Free State Film Festival.
Other recommended novels by KC authors:
▪ “Navigating a Life: Henry Bloch in World War II” by John Herron
▪ “POP! Poetry”: Prospero’s Spartan Press releases a monthly chapbook from a local Kansas City poet. The bookstore has a monthly reading where admission includes the pocket book of poems.
Set in Kansas City:
▪ “Mrs. Bridge” by Evan S. Connell (1959): Kansas City native Connell’s debut novel, “Mrs. Bridge,” examines the life of an upper-middle class Kansas City family during the 1930s and ’40s. The story is told in 117 brief episodes from the perspective of Mrs. Bridge, who is dissatisfied with her mundane life. In a 2009 NPR piece, mystery novelist James Patterson wrote, “The Bridge family’s material needs are all met — and yet confusion and futility close in and suffocate them.” Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward brought the novel, and its companion book, “Mr. Bridge,” to life in a 1990 film adaptation.
▪ “Finding Zen in Cow Town,” edited by Jason Ryberg and Jeanette Powers (2017): The 53-page poetry collection features 30 poems by 30 Kansas City writers. The poems are wide-ranging in form and voice but share a common KC thread: the state line divide, late night barbecue and the “buttercup yellow boots” walking down Broadway Street. “It is a who’s who of poets in Kansas City that are publishing,” Leathem says.
▪ “Such Sweet Thunder” by Vincent O. Carter (2003): This novel places readers in the mind of an African-American boy growing up in the Jazz Age. The 537-page book is a deep dive into the racial segregation of the time and is a stirring portrait of the daily struggles of its titular character. It explores the importance of family and community. In a 2003 book review for The New York Times, Whitney Terrell wrote, “The Kansas City that he describes is in its bustling, bloody heyday, a town where gangsters are gunned down in the streets, Joe Turner plays on the radio, and schoolchildren wander home past overrun soup kitchens…”
▪ “The Devil’s Ticket: A Night of Bridge, a Fatal Hand, and a New American Age” by Gary Pomerantz (2009): This true story follows the dramatic murder trial of Myrtle Bennett. The book traces the journey of a glamorous Kansas City housewife who kills her husband over a game of bridge in their Plaza apartment in 1929. U.S. senator and presidential candidate James A. Reed comes to her defense in a captivating tale of love and murder.
Other recommended books with Kansas City connections:
▪ “The Mafia and the Machine” by Frank Hayde
▪ “The Island House” by Nancy Thayer
▪ “Woe to Live On” by Daniel Woodrell
Jacob Gedetsis: 816-234-4416, @jacobgedetsis