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'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 Times Book Prize.

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There's a tendency to approach a posthumous collection of work by an esteemed "writer's writer" with respectful courtesy, but Stanley Elkin's essays demand a rowdier response from readers. They're weird and spirited, full of literal piss and vinegar. Pieces of Soap is the name of this collection and writer Sam Lipsyte, in his introduction, rightly says that reading Elkin makes you realize "how lazy most writing is."

Last things first. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the third volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's monumental biography of Eleanor Roosevelt is the way it ends. I don't think I've ever read another biography where the death of the subject is noted in an aside of less than 10 words, on the second to last page of the book.

I need a moment away from unceasing word drip of debates about the election, about whether Elena Ferrante has the right to privacy, about whether Bob Dylan writes "Literature." I need a moment, more than a moment, in the steady and profound company of Mary Oliver and I think you might need one too.

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The 18-year-old Jane Jacobs picked a lousy time to leave her hometown of Scranton, Pa., and move to New York City.

It was the fall of 1934 and New York was dragging itself through The Great Depression. During that first year in the city, Jacobs, who'd gone to secretarial school, scrounged for work, riding the subway from the Brooklyn apartment she shared with her older sister, Betty, into Manhattan.

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What first grabs a reader about Mary Mann Hamilton's memoir, Trials of the Earth, is its backstory. Hamilton was born in Arkansas around 1866; her family ran a boarding house and at 18 she married one of the guests, an older Englishman named Frank Hamilton who claimed to have an aristocratic past.

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The middle of summer is when the surprises in publishing turn up. I'm talking about those quietly commanding books that publishers tend to put out now, because fall and winter are focused on big books by established authors. Which brings us to The Dream Life of Astronauts, by Patrick Ryan, a very funny and touching collection of nine short stories that take place in the 1960s and '70s around Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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In 2004, Susan Faludi stepped off a plane in Budapest, Hungary, to visit her father, a sometimes violent man with whom she'd barely spoken in over 25 years.

The reunion was prompted by an email she'd received from her then 76-year-old father announcing that "after years of impersonating a macho man" he, or rather, she, had undergone sex reassignment surgery. Faludi's father, "Steven," was now "Stefanie." Here's how Faludi describes their airport reunion:

After two half sisters are separated, we follow their family lines over the course of two centuries through a series of short stories. Some of their descendants are in Africa, some are in America; some are free, some are enslaved. In the end, the two separate family sagas merge into one, back in the place where it all began.

Henry James famously said that "summer afternoon" were the two most beautiful words in the English language. With apologies to The Master, I'd tweak that sentiment to suggest that maybe "summer suspense" are two even more beautiful words. Surely, on a sunny summer day, few pleasures can be greater than reading outside in the shade cast by a first-rate thriller.

Pamela Erens' new novel, Eleven Hours, is what traditionally would be called a "small story." It's less than 200 pages, features only two main characters and focuses primarily on events that take place over the span of, well, 11 hours. It's also a novel about the ultimate female adventure of childbirth.

The book is fierce and vivid in its depiction of the exhaustion of the spirit and the rending of the flesh during childbirth. So much so, that it makes that boy adventure aboard Herman Melville's Pequod almost seem like a Carnival cruise.

"More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath." That's a line Jennifer Haigh places at the beginning and the end of her latest novel, Heat & Light.

As America's population ages, we're going to be seeing a lot more of these kinds of books: I'm talking about memoirs, written by adult children, about the extreme adventures of caring for and reconnecting with their elderly parents.

I'm about to rave about two audacious works of historical suspense fiction: I say "audacious" because you have to have some nerve to tackle the subject of whaling after Melville, or to structure your story around a painting, after so many other novelists — most recently, Tracy Chevalier and Donna Tartt — have kick-started their own tales with the same device.

In the "Prologue" to her 2012 autobiography, Country Girl, Edna O'Brien tells readers about being tested for deafness a few years ago at a National Health clinic in London where she lives.

O'Brien was told by the technician there that in terms of her hearing, "she's a broken piano." That dismissive phrase haunted O'Brien and, somewhat in defiance, she wrote what turned out to be a spectacular memoir.

"[T]here was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well."

That fairly familiar line, a mere fleeting perception from The Great Gatsby, is the bedrock wisdom of Charles Bock's beautiful and harrowing new novel, Alice & Oliver. Alice is a new mother in her 20s who, one day, out of the blue, coughs up bloody phlegm, collapses and is diagnosed with leukemia.

Helen Oyeyemi is one of literature's weird sisters. She's kin to the uncanny likes of Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson and Jeanette Winterson, whose names trail down the back covers of her books like a pagan invocation.

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