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. 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 (paperback forthcoming May 2015). 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.

About two-thirds of the way through Jonathan Franzen's big new novel, Purity, we're told about an "ambitious project" conceived by a young artist named Anabel. Anabel finds it strange that people can go through their lives without "having made the most basic acquaintance with [their bodies] ...

My grandmother worked all her life cleaning houses and offices, so it's hard for me to resist a short story collection called A Manual for Cleaning Women. Cleaning ladies are rare characters in literary fiction; so, too, are clerical workers, hospital staff and switchboard operators, but they populate Lucia Berlin's stories because Berlin herself held those kinds of jobs. In addition, she was a divorced mother of four and an alcoholic. Unlike cleaning ladies, divorcees and alcoholics are a dime a dozen in fiction, but Berlin puts her own jagged imprint on their tales.

Lots of us are afraid to confront the things lurking in our basements. In mine, it's the spider crickets; in Denise Inge's, it was the bones, piles of human bones that reached almost to the ceiling of the stone cellar beneath her house.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

A just-published literary noir called "Dragonfish" puts a new spin on the old formula. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has fallen hard for this tale of gamblers, dark alleys and dangerous dames. Here's her review.

Talk about opening with a bang: at the beginning of Julia Pierpont's debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, an 11-year-old girl named Kay Shanley enters the lobby of her New York City apartment building. We readers have already been clued into the fact that Kay is the kind of awkward, shy, pre-teen other girls ridicule. We just want her to get safely into her family's apartment and back to watching the Harry Potter movies she loves. But, just as the elevator doors are closing, the doorman signals for her to hold up.

As another Southern writer once said, "You can't go home again." In Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, which takes place in the mid-1950s, a 26-year-old Scout Finch takes the train from New York City home to Maycomb, Ala., and finds the familiar world turned mighty strange.

TV and air-conditioning have changed the landscape, and beloved childhood friends like Dill and her brother Jem have vanished. Others, like Calpurnia, look at Scout, here called by her grown-up name of "Jean Louise," as though she were, well, a white lady.

I've just spent much of the past two weeks on my couch, reading suspense fiction. The result of all that heavy lifting is this list of recommendations — four thrillers, very different in style and MO, but all deadly accurate in their aim to entertain.

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Since it opened in 1911, the building has become a New York City landmark, praised not only for its beauty but also for its functional brilliance. In the words of one contemporary architect, the main branch of The New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street is "a perfect machine for reading." The grand Reading Room sits atop seven levels of iron and steel books stacks whose contents could, at one time, be delivered to anybody who requested a book within a matter of minutes via a small elevator. Those stacks also support the floor of the Reading Room above.

The initial "selling point" of Mia Alvar's debut short story collection, In the Country, is its fresh subject matter: namely, Filipinos living under martial law in the 1970s in their own country and in exile, working as maids, engineers, teachers, health care workers and hired hands in the Middle East and the United States.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Travel near and far, literary souvenirs and the cruise ship companionship of an animal are the subjects of the novels and works of nonfiction on Maureen Corrigan's list of early summer book recommendations.

In 1946, reeling from the death of his wife and seeking an escape from the demands of London literary life, Eric Blair, aka "George Orwell," moved to a cottage on the isle of Jura off the west coast of Scotland. What the place lacked in modern conveniences like electricity and running water, it perhaps made up for in misty views of the Atlantic and samplings of the local whiskey.

When the news of Ruth Rendell's death broke last weekend, I searched for some of her novels on my mystery bookshelves. Rendell, 85, wrote more than 60 novels, so I should've been able to find a few, but no dice. I'm forever giving Rendell's novels away to people who need a good book.

Columbine; Port Arthur, Australia; The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin; Newtown — the list goes on and on. And, by now, the elements of this type of massacre have become ritualized: usually one, but sometimes more than one, deeply disaffected person, almost always male, who is heavily armed with guns and/or explosives, targets the innocent. In the aftermath, which sometimes includes a trial, the crucial question of "Why?" is never really answered. Instead, most of us are left to wonder how any human being, however twisted, could be capable of such horror.

Ross Macdonald had a smart answer to the tedious question of why he devoted his considerable talents to writing "mere" detective stories: Macdonald said that the detective story was "a kind of welder's mask enabling writers to handle dangerously hot material." Like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (the great hard-boiled masters whom he revered), Macdonald set out to excavate the dark depths of American life, but to find his own "dangerously hot material" Macdonald descended into uncharted territory.

Ann Packer's new novel, The Children's Crusade, opens in California, on a scene that's so bedrock American, it's borderline corny.

Clive James' most anthologized poem is commonly known by its first two lines: "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered/And I Am Pleased." Those lines tell the uninitiated almost all they need to know about the pleasures to be found in reading James: chief among them, his wit and his appreciation of the underlying absurdity of so much literary effort — including his own.

Who doesn't love a good ghost story? The unseen hand moving a cup or the shadow climbing a staircase promises an existence beyond our mundane realities. Hannah Nordhaus' new book, American Ghost, is an offbeat mishmosh of memoir, cultural history, genealogical detective story and paranormal investigation, but it opens in the classic manner of spooky tales — with a sighting.

Loss is the rough tie that binds two memoirs that, otherwise, are as different as day and night. What Comes Next and How to Like It is a sequel of sorts to Abigail Thomas' best-selling 2006 memoir, A Three Dog Life, which chronicled the one-two punch death of her husband — by her account, a sweetheart of a guy who took their dog out for a walk one afternoon in New York and was hit by a car. He suffered brain injuries and lingered for five years. Even after that catastrophe, more losses now loom for Thomas.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Here's only a partial list of great American writers whose names came to mind as I was reading T. Geronimo Johnson's new novel, Welcome to Braggsville: Tom Wolfe, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, H.L. Mencken, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Norman Mailer and Ralph Ellison, Ralph Ellison, Ralph Ellison. Johnson's timely novel is a tipsy social satire about race and the oh-so-fragile ties that bind disparate parts of this country into an imperfect and restless union.

A climb "to the top of a greasy pole" are the immortal words coined by 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to describe his rise to political power. Disraeli was two-time prime minister under Queen Victoria, as well as a novelist and famous wit whose way with a catchy phrase was rivaled in the 19th century only by his younger admirer, Oscar Wilde. But when he entered politics in the 1830s, Disraeli was burdened by debt and, even more seriously, by his Jewish parentage.

"Does this obituary make me look fat?"

The narrator of Rachel Cusk's new novel Outline is a novelist and divorced mother of two who has agreed to teach a summer course in creative writing in Athens. The novel itself is composed of some 10 conversations that she has with, among others, her seatmate on the plane flying to Greece, her students in the writing class, dinner companions and fellow teachers.

Almost Famous Women is the kind of "high concept" short-story collection that invites skepticism. These stories are about 13 historical women whose names you mostly might sort-of recognize. Beryl Markham, Butterfly McQueen and Shirley Jackson are slam-dunks, but Romaine Brooks and Joe Carstairs are a bit blurrier. While the family names of Allegra Byron, Dolly Wilde and Norma Millay betray their relation to important figures, we don't know what they did. And who the heck was Hazel Eaton or Tiny Davis?

No, it's not a posthumously published mystery novel by the late, great composer and conductor. Rather, Death by Pastrami by Leonard S. Bernstein is a collection of short stories mostly about life in the garment district of New York City. This Leonard Bernstein knows whereof he writes: He owned and managed a garment factory; now, in his 80s, he's published his first work of fiction, making him a veritable Grandma Moses of the garment district.

For this year's Best Books of the Year list, I reject the tyranny of the decimal system. Some years it's simply more than 10. Here, then, are my top 12 books of 2014. All of the disparate books on my list contain characters, scenes or voices that linger long past the last page of their stories. In fact, The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin, which is my pick for Book of the Year, came out in January and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

Expect to be good for nothing for a long time after you read Ron Rash. His writing is powerful, stripped down and very still: It takes you to a land apart, psychologically and geographically, since his fiction is set in Appalachia.

Many years ago, Laurie Colwin began an essay she wrote about the magic of roast chicken like this: "There is nothing like roast chicken. It is helpful and agreeable, the perfect dish no matter what the circumstances. Elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper, it will not let you down." Substitute the phrase "Laurie Colwin's writing" for the words "roast chicken," take some poetic allowances with the word "dish," and you'll have an approximate description of Colwin's own elusive magic.

It's such a goofy title. Let Me Be Frank with You is the latest installment in the odyssey of Frank Bascombe, the New Jersey Everyman Richard Ford introduced almost 30 years ago in his novel, The Sportswriter. Two more Frank Bascombe novels followed, and now this: a brilliant collection of four interconnected short stories of about 60 pages each in which Ford is indeed "being Frank" Bascombe with us once again, as well as being "frank" about all sorts of touchy topics in America, such as race, politics, the economy, old age and the oblivion that awaits us all.

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