Maureen Corrigan

"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 and 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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This is FRESH AIR. Dana Spiotta's last two novels, "Stone Arabia" and "Eat The Document," cemented her reputation as a novelist of ideas and attitude. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says Spiotta's new novel "Innocents And Others" will only crank up the acclaim.

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This is FRESH AIR. In her 2013 book, "The Trip To Echo Spring," Olivia Laing wrote about the complex relationship between drinking and writing in the work of writers like Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Her new book, "The Lonely City," explores a more elusive subject, the connection between loneliness and art. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

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This is FRESH AIR. Ethan Canin first caught the attention of the literary world with his 1985 short story collection, "Emperor Of The Air," and because for a time after its publication he simultaneously pursued literary and medical careers. Since then he's published acclaimed novels like "For Kings And Planets" and "America America." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that three decades later Canin is still a master of the unexpected. Here's her review of Canin's latest novel, "A Doubter's Almanac."

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This is FRESH AIR. Murder and madcap adventures come together in Paul Goldberg's unconventional debut novel "The Yid," which is set in Stalinist Russia. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

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This is FRESH AIR. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Elizabeth McKenzie, whose short stories have appeared in the New Yorker, has the kind of imagination that discovers hidden pockets of weirdness within the conventional marriage plot. Here's her review of McKenzie's new novel, "The Portable Veblen."

DAVE DAVIES (HOST): This is FRESH AIR. British writer Tessa Hadley has published many of her short stories in the New Yorker, and she's also written six novels. Her latest novel is called "The Past." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says readers shouldn't be misled by that rather bland title.

This year, most of the best stories I read came in small-ish packages.

Mary Gaitskill writes tough. Her characters are almost always "users" — users of drugs and other people; they're often mean and manipulative and flooded with self-loathing. In short, to quote the title of her debut short story collection, Gaitskill writes about people who are no strangers to "bad behavior." You have to write tough — and brilliantly — to pull off a novel like The Mare.

I hate to make so much of Roger Angell's age, but he started it. Angell is 95, and he's written decades' worth of books and articles (many of them about baseball), humor pieces, profiles, and poems — some of which are gathered in this new collection called, This Old Man.

Mention Oscar Hijuelos and most people think The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. And why not? It's his gorgeous second novel, the one that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. More novels followed, as well as a memoir, but much of that work carried trace elements of the exuberance and melancholy that made Mambo Kings so distinctive.

Hijuelos' sudden in death in 2013 was one of those literary deaths that genuinely seemed to sadden a lot of readers — his work was beloved for, among other things, its sweet, sad take on the allure of dreaming big in America.

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This is FRESH AIR. In this season of witches, a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff re-examines the most famous witches tale of them all. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of "The Witches."

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This is FRESH AIR. Garth Risk Hallberg has been living every aspiring novelist's dream - a reported $2 million book contract with a major publisher for his debut novel. Hallberg's novel, "City On Fire," started generating serious literary buzz well before it was published last week. Here's what our book critic, Maureen Corrigan has to say about it.

In Patti Smith's new memoir, the "M Train" figures as a Magical Mystery line. She rides it far off into Memoryland, and her snaking Mental trains of thought carry her into reveries on subjects as wide-ranging as her passionate appetite for detective stories and her surprising membership in an elite scientific society devoted to the subject of continental drift.

Writer Jojo Moyes has a name that lacks gravitas. To be honest, I even feel a bit silly saying her name when I recommend her novels to people — which I do, often and energetically. It's hard to imagine a "Jojo" ever winning the Nobel Prize for Literature; but Moyes has already won a pretty good consolation prize — that is, the kind of staunch, adoring readership that will follow her novels anywhere they go.

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This is FRESH AIR. Lauren Groff is a young writer who's already garnered serious acclaim for her novels, "The Monsters Of Templeton" and "Arcadia." Her third novel, "Fates And Furies," has just been published, and book critic Maureen Corrigan has more words of praise for Groff's writing, with some qualification. Here's her review.

If you don't know Elena Ferrante — and judging by conversations I've had, many readers still don't know her books — it's partly because Ferrante herself doesn't want to be known.

"I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors," Ferrante declared in a letter to her publisher in 1991 when her first novel, Troubling Love, was about to come out. "If [books] have something to say," Ferrante continued, "they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won't."

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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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.

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.

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