Maureen Corrigan

I knew from all the buzz about The Final Revival of Opal & Nev that it's a work of fiction by first-time novelist Dawnie Walton. But after I started her book, I had to stop and double check to make sure that this wasn't a true account of a real-life rock duo from the 1970s. That's how authentic this odd novel feels, composed, as it is, out of a pandemonium of fictional interviews, footnotes, talk-show transcripts, letters and editor's notes.

Libertie, a new novel by Kaitlyn Greenidge, is inspired by the life of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, the third African American woman to earn a medical degree in this country.

After the Civil War, McKinney-Steward opened her own practice in Brooklyn and co-founded the Brooklyn Women's Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary. McKinney-Steward was an exceptional woman, a pioneer. But, of course, it can be hard living in the shadow of such a pathbreaker, especially when you yourself are drawn to the simpler pleasures of the conventional.

The opening scene of Christine Smallwood's sharp debut novel, The Life of the Mind, finds her main character, Dorothy, locked into the stall of a public bathroom. Dorothy spends a lot of time locked in bathrooms. She's having a prolonged miscarriage, and is spending long intervals every day sitting and thinking on the toilet.

A year ago this week, I sent my students off on Spring Break: That was the last time we were physically present in a room together. We returned after break, reconstituted as pixels on a laptop screen, each of us in our own little Zoom frames, Nietzsche's "prison house of self" for the digital age.

This is unbearable.

I wrote that one-sentence review to myself about half-way through reading Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro's just published eighth novel.

Lest you think that doesn't sound like much of an enticement, know that I've probably written something like that sentence about every Ishiguro novel I've read. He is the master of slowly deepening our awareness of human failing, fragility and the inevitability of death — all that, even as he deepens our awareness of what temporary magic it is to be alive in the first place.

I'm obsessed with tales of obsession. Chances are, you are too, judging by the unflagging popularity of true crime stories presented in podcasts, documentaries, movies and books.

What sets Ellen McGarrahan's just-published true crime book, Two Truths and a Lie, above so many others I've read is the moral gravity of her presence on the page and the hollow-voiced lyricism of her writing style.

The year is probably too young to make this kind of pronouncement, but the new novel I know I'm going to be rereading in the coming months and spending a lot of time thinking about is Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides. It's a tough and exquisite sliver of a short novel whose world I want to remain lost in — and at the same time am relieved to have outgrown.

I'm always curious about what Chang-rae Lee is up to, even if I don't always love the result. Lee captivated me — and a multitude of other readers — with his 1995 debut, Native Speaker, about the insider-outsider situation of that novel's first-generation Korean American main character.

When Nadia Owusu was 7 years old and living in Rome with her father, stepmother and younger sister, two events occurred on the same day that upended her world.

The first was a disaster she didn't experience personally, but heard about on the radio: a catastrophic earthquake in Armenia, where her mother's family had lived before they sought refuge in America. The second was the sudden appearance of her mother, standing nervously at the front door, gripping a pair of red balloons in her hands.

Talking to friends this past week, I've described Anna North's new novel, Outlawed, as The Handmaid's Tale meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That's a glib tagline, but there's some justification for it.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

There's an underlying quality of solitude about this pandemic experience. Sealed into our little Zoom boxes, masked when we're in contact with others, many of us feel separated from the world by split-second time delays and a thin layer of lint.

Books break through. They enter directly into our heads, occasionally our hearts. Here are 10 of the books that broke through for me during this tough year.

Books have always gone to war, serving as comfort and distraction. And oftentimes, the most unexpected books have struck a chord in wartime.

For instance, who would've guessed that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith's 1943 semi-autobiographical novel, would become one of the most popular books among servicemen in World War II, who received it as part of a massive book distribution program?

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Rumaan Alam's Leave the World Behind is a slippery and duplicitous marvel of a novel. When, deep into the night, a vacationing couple hears a knock at the door of their remote Airbnb rental in the Hamptons, as a reader you think, "Oh, this is a suspense story." Then, when that couple, who are white, opens the door to a couple outside who are Black and conversational awkwardness ensues, you think, "Oh, this is a comedy of manners about race, a kind of edgy riff on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

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."

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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.

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