Maureen Corrigan

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is a critic-in-residence and lecturer 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.

Corrigan served as a juror for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. So We Read On, her forthcoming book on the extraordinary "second act" of The Great Gatsby, will be published by Little, Brown in September 2014.

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.

"Difficult" is probably the most tactful word one could use in characterizing Lillian Hellman. If ever there were an author safer to meet through her art rather than in real life, she was the one. Born in New Orleans into a Jewish family, Hellman came of age in the Roaring '20s, liberated by flappers and Freud. Hellman drank like a fish, swore like a sailor and slept around like, well, like most of the men in her literary circle, chief among them Dashiell Hammett, with whom she had an open relationship spanning three decades. She was, recalled one observer, a "tough broad ...

Nadine Gordimer's trademark characters live for politics, the Struggle. You get the feeling they would be sick to their collective stomachs if they ever even tried to bite into a gourmet cupcake.

Some years ago I was visiting Disneyland and had a culture-clash encounter there with my one of fellow Americans. I was standing with my daughter on the miles-long meandering line for "It's a Small World After All" and I fell into a conversation with another mom; when this woman found out I was a native New Yorker, she treated me to her verdict on the city: "It's so dirty there!"

I was in my local independent bookstore last week, enjoying the endangered pleasure of wandering around and snuffling through interesting-looking books, when I overheard two women talking in front of the new releases section. "I need a new British novelist," one of them said. Ladies, I should have spoken up, but the moment passed and, besides, it was too awkward to explain that one of the best British novelists writing today was born in New Jersey.

"Linsanity" is the magical byword of this basketball season. As anyone who is even semi-conscious knows, Jeremy Lin, the NBA's first Taiwanese-American player by way of Harvard, was passed over for college athletic scholarships and ignored in NBA drafts. Then, he landed with the New York Knicks and has since proved to everybody that athletic prejudice against Asians is Lincredibly stupid. Except, as journalist Jim Yardley points out in his new book on basketball fever in China, Chinese players and coaches happen to endorse that prejudice.

The Brits: You've got to hand it to them. The Empire may be long gone, but they still reign supreme when it comes to effortlessly exuding mordant wit. For anyone who savors the acerbic literary likes of Evelyn Waugh or the Amises, father and son, Helen Simpson is just the ticket.

In my family, we referred to them as "the brisket brigade" — those single ladies of a certain age who began bombarding my brother-in-law with casseroles and commiseration soon after my sister-in-law died. It's a cruel fact of life that nobody plies widows with months of home-cooked meals and baked goods; as Jonathan Swift might have modestly proposed, widows might as well eat each other — there's a surplus supply of them, anyway. But, a new widower gets the Crock-Pots and the romantic fantasies all fired up.

Years ago, when my daughter was a toddler, my husband and I were friendly with another couple who had a child the same age. The friendship came to an end when the wife of the couple let slip that her husband had dressed their daughter as JonBenet Ramsey for Halloween. "He has an offbeat sense of humor," the wife explained to me. That's one way to look at it. Or else, as I thought, maybe hubby's "humor" wasn't funny at all — just perversely detached from the horrific death of an actual 6-year-old.

Most everyone's spirits are a bit deflated after the holidays. So, as a literary antidote, I recommend a just-published anthology called New York Diaries: 1609 – 2009. Editor Teresa Carpenter has collected four centuries worth of diary excerpts written by people, great and small, who've lived in or just passed through one of the greatest cities in the world.

This was a terrific year for fiction and a particularly strong year for first-time novelists. Some of the literary debutantes who glide through this "10 best" list are so young, their wisdom teeth probably haven't had time to become impacted yet. Majestically bringing up the rear of the procession are some much-decorated veterans whose sustained achievements in fiction should ensure that the young 'uns don't rest too comfortably on their laurels.

I'll admit, it's kind of hokey to be talking about a novel called The Pilgrim right before Thanksgiving. What's even more quaint is the fact that The Pilgrim is one of those straightforward works of historical fiction the likes of which we don't see so much anymore.

Ben Lerner's debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station is one of the most compelling books about nothing I've ever read.

Ordinarily, I'm not a fan of this kind of spinning-one's-wheels-in-the-sand fiction. Austen and Dickens and Hammett got to me early and spoiled me: I like plot. But Lerner's offbeat little novel manages to convey what everyday life feels like before we impose the structure of plot on our experience.

To quote the immortal title of her 1965 collection of movie reviews, Pauline Kael may have "lost it at the movies," but she infinitely renewed her wide-eyed wonder as a moviegoer in her essays for The New Yorker magazine. Kael was no virgin as a critic when she started writing for The New Yorker in 1967 — but when she loved a movie, she always wrote like she was being touched for the very first time.

Sometimes the stories that stay with us aren't the classics or even all that polished. They're what some critics call "good-bad" stories: the writing may be workmanlike and the characters barely developed, but something about them is so potent that they're unforgettable, so unforgettable they can attain the status of myth.

This review was originally broadcast on September 9, 2010. Freedom is now available in paperback.

You've got to hand it to Russell Banks: He's certainly not writing with an eye to please readers or to be taken up by book clubs across the land. Lost Memory of Skin is not aiming to be a "crossover" literary stealth hit. If you're going to read it, you're the one who will have to "cross over" to Banks' world, and it ain't very pretty on his side of the social divide.

The latest distress signal being sounded on the chat sites I share with my bookish friends is that IKEA is about to introduce an updated version of its classic BILLY bookcase — some 10 of which totter to overflowing in my own basement. Anticipating "the death of the book," IKEA has redesigned the good old BILLY with deeper shelves and glass doors, thus transforming it from a bookcase into a tchotchke cabinet.

The Submission is a gorgeously written novel of ideas about America in the wake of September 11th. It tackles subjects like identity politics, undocumented immigrants and the stress fractures of democracy. Maybe the most audacious question that's posed by Amy Waldman's debut novel, however, is the implicit one that lingers long after a reader finishes it: Namely, could it be that a decade after the attacks, America finally has the 9/11 novel — one that does justice, artistically and historically, to the aftershocks of that day?

I've been on a roll this summer reading and reviewing good novels about family crises — Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small, Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia, Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang.

There's a temperature at which water boils and there's a temperature at which the brain melts and we've reached it. It's August, and almost everywhere in the country, it's hot. The will to think has oozed out in millions of droplets of forehead sweat. That's why it's such a minty fresh delight to open up Kevin Wilson's debut novel, The Family Fang, and feel the revitalizing blast of original thought; robust invention; screwball giddiness.

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