Maureen Corrigan | WAMC

Maureen Corrigan

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.

Corrigan served as a juror for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Her book So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures was published by Little, Brown in September 2014. Corrigan is represented by Trinity Ray at The Tuesday Lecture Agency: trinity@tuesdayagency.com

Corrigan's literary memoir, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading! was published in 2005. Corrigan is also a reviewer and columnist for The Washington Post's Book World. In addition to serving on the advisory panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, she has chaired the Mystery and Suspense judges' panel of the Los Angeles TimesBook Prize.

I've been reading and reviewing Sue Miller's novels ever since her debut, The Good Mother, became an instant bestseller in 1986. And for all those many years, I've been frustrated by Miller because her novels are so hard to do justice to in a review, especially on radio.

Here's a beaut of a sentence, one of many, from Lisa Donovan's new memoir, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger: "[I]f someone values you only when you're about to walk out the door, you should definitely keep walking."

Back in the heyday of Detroit — from the Great Depression through the 1950s — Joseph "Ziggy" Johnson knew just about everybody who was worth knowing in the shops, bars, churches, theaters and nightclubs that lined the streets of that city's celebrated Black neighborhood, called "Black Bottom."

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Let's cut to the chase: I have two novels to recommend. They have nothing in common apart from the fact that, at first glance, they're easy to underestimate.

The Aunt Who Wouldn't Die is a short 1993 novel by the Benagali writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. Dubbed a modern Bengali classic, it's just been published for the first time in the United States.

Readers are awaiting novels of the pandemic, and Emma Donoghue just may have stumbled into writing one of the first.

Gothic horror tales — from the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe to Jordan Peele's 2017 film Get Out — are almost always about escape. Run away! Run away from demons and haunted houses; from graveyards and ghouls; from racism and sexism.

I always remember how a beloved college professor of mine responded when I told him the news that I'd gotten a fellowship to a Ph.D. program in English. "Well," he said, "at least you'll be able to read Finnegans Wake in the unemployment line."

At the time, I laughed along. I, too, believed literature would be enough of a consolation were I ever to find myself jobless and broke. But no more. The passing years and the present economic crisis make Finnegans Wake seem like cold comfort.

I feel for any author who has a work of literary fiction or non-fiction coming out these days. The world's focus is, naturally, on the pandemic and the protests against racism and police violence. The news seems to change hour-by-hour; no wonder that imaginative literature, a product of silence and slow time, can seem a bit out of step.

One of the characters that comes to the fore in the second half of Brit Bennett's new novel, The Vanishing Half, is a young actress named Kennedy Sanders. She's an attractive blonde pushing 30, who, after years of trying to make it in the serious theater, lands a role on a soap opera.

Bennett writes that when Kennedy calls her parents to tell them about her big break, she assures them that "There was nothing wrong with melodrama, . ... In fact, some of the greatest classic actresses — Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo — trafficked in it from time to time."

I'm feeling so cooped up these days that I sometimes find myself getting in the car and taking aimless rides to nowhere. Maybe that's what prompted me to finally check out an on-the-road novel that came out in February, right before the pandemic brought life-as-we-know-it to a hard stop.

"Imagine what Philip Roth would've made of this."

That's what I said to my husband last month (or was it two months ago?) during our extended family's first-ever Zoom Passover Seder. We were the virtual hosts and so we watched as, in groups or singly, family members materialized in their little Hollywood Squares cubes.

There's a black-and-white photo taped on my office door at school — the office I haven't been inside in almost a month. It shows an American soldier stretched out, reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith's 1943 novel based on her childhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

"It's hard to focus right now."

I've heard versions of that sentence on the phone, in person (at a distance), on email, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, on Zoom and Skype and all the other devices and online platforms we're using to stay connected with each other these days.

It's hard to focus right now.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Lily King's 2014 novel "Euphoria" was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and made most critics' best books list that year. King has just brought out her fifth novel called "Writers & Lovers," and our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's another winner.

Writer's block can be temporary — or it can be massive and long lasting. After her third short story collection, Honey, came out in 1993, Elizabeth Tallent fell victim to a rockfall, avalanche, total-impasse-of-the-imagination writer's block and didn't publish another book for 22 years.

That's not to say Tallent didn't try. Here's one of the many passages in her profound new memoir, Scratched, in which she reflects on the onset of her writer's block and her attempts to break through:

Gish Jen has always had something of a "Frank Capra-esque" view of America. Like Capra, who directed immortal Hollywood films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life, Jen's big theme in her work is the promise of America — imperfect, erratic, but still worth cherishing. Her characters — most of them immigrants or first-generation Americans — are a variant of the "little guys" Capra also loved. They always find themselves up against a rigged system favoring the rich, powerful and white so-called "typical Americans" of her first novel's title.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. You probably wouldn't expect humor to be a key element in a story about child kidnapping and human trafficking in India. But our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says Deepa Anappara's debut novel, "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line," doesn't play to conventional expectations. Here's her review.

In the final pages of The Third Rainbow Girl — a new book about the aftermath of the murders of two young women who were hitchhiking in West Virginia in 1980 — author Emma Copley Eisenberg interviews a friend of the victims. Elizabeth Johndrow parted company with her friends a day before they were murdered; she's the "third rainbow girl" of the title.

Eisenberg asks Johndrow, now in her 50s, why she and so many other young women hitchhiked back then. Johndrow says:

It was over a year ago that I began to hear off-the-charts recommendations from trusted booksellers about a novel called American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. The novel's circle of admirers has since swelled to include the likes of Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, John Grisham and Julia Alvarez.

Such a disparate line-up of blurbs signals what an unusual creature American Dirt is: It's a literary novel, to be sure, with nuanced character development and arresting language; yet, its narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense tale.

Jean Stafford. Generally speaking, it's one of those literary names that readers might find sort-of familiar, without quite knowing why.

That wouldn't have been the case in Stafford's heyday, during the 1940s and 50s. Back then, Stafford's short stories were published in prestigious venues like the Partisan Review and The New Yorker. A collected edition of those stories even won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1970.

My best books of the year list for 2019 is a mix of literary fiction and true crime and memoirs and essays. There are acclaimed authors here, as well as some brand new voices. The only thing that unites all these books is that, in my opinion, they are unputdownable.

Some writers search for their signature subjects; Susannah Cahalan had her subject thrust upon her. In 2009, she was a young reporter for the New York Post when, one day, she began feeling like she had the flu. Shortly thereafter, she was hospitalized, in the throes of full-blown hallucinations and paranoia.

This past summer, I made time to catch up on a book I'd missed when it was published two years ago. Ever since, I've been telling friends, students and random strangers on a train that they must read Daniel Mendelsohn's memoir called An Odyssey. In it, he recalls teaching a seminar on Homer's Odyssey that his then 81-year-old father sat in on as an auditor.

Editor's note: This book review cites a passage containing a homophobic slur.

One could say that Saeed Jones' new memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, is a classic coming-of-age story. A boy grows up in Texas; he's black, gay and isolated; he's raised by a single mom; he struggles with identity, goes off to college and, eventually, achieves a wobbly sense of self-affirmation.

It's one of those poems people reach for in times when it feels like the sky is falling. It's also generally regarded as one of the great poems of the 20th century.

"September 1, 1939," as its title signals, was written by W.H. Auden in the days immediately following Germany's invasion of Poland, which marked the start of World War II. Auden had left his native England and moved to New York City some nine months earlier, and the famous opening lines of the poem are rooted in the dingy geography of his new home:

Now that it feels like we're living in a society that I find myself thinking of as "Gilead lite," how could The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, possibly convey the same degree of shock as its predecessor? The answer is, it can't.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, writer Sarah M. Broom was living in New York City, far away from her hometown and her family. In her extraordinary debut, a memoir called The Yellow House, Broom quotes from interviews with her mother and some of her 11 siblings to piece together the story of what happened when "the Water" roared into their neighborhood of New Orleans East and rose, up, up, up until it edged the tops of the houses.

Essayist Margaret Renkl writes about what she calls "backyard nature," which, to those of us who live in crowded cities, might call to mind creatures to trap or squash, like rats, squirrels, mice and water bugs. Renkl, however, grew up in Alabama and now lives in Tennessee, so her catalog of all creatures great and small is, at once, more expansive and accepting, and includes chickadees, red-tailed hawks, rat snakes, rattle snakes and crawdads.

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