Maureen Corrigan

There's something audaciously old-fashioned about Kevin Birmingham's biographies of great novels.

The Sentence: It's such an unassuming title (and one that sounds like it belongs to a writing manual); but, Louise Erdrich's latest is a deceptively big novel, various in its storytelling styles; ambitious in its immediacy.

My Monticello, by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, is a striking debut collection of fiction that resists categories. There are five short stories that are sort of realistic, plus the superb title novella, which I'd label "dystopian lite," because it's too close to present day racial realities in America to be quarantined within the realm of fantasy.

"Control Negro," the standout short story, is about a Black college professor who still finds himself mistaken for the janitor. So the professor decides to conduct an experiment:

I approached the package with caution. The book inside could be trouble, big trouble. Literary collaborations usually are and this one by two women of achievement gave off warning signs of being a high-profile gimmick gone wrong.

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In the spring of 2020, the British newspaper The Guardian asked a group of prominent novelists, including Hilary Mantel, Marlon James and Kazuo Ishiguro to

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Once in a while, in the torpid weeks of late summer, a new writer appears whose voice has so much zest and authority, they pre-emptively steal some of the spotlight from the big Fall books. Skinship, a just-published short story collection by Yoon Choi, is in that magical category of debuts.

Something strange is afoot in mystery and suspense fiction. The plot of almost every thriller I've read in the past six months has had something to do with one character stealing the story of another character and passing it off as their own.

I was a Catholic schoolgirl during a strange moment in the 1960s when Catholicism infiltrated American popular culture. For a brief time, nuns, in particular, were everywhere.

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Dana Spiotta's new novel, Wayward, is about a 53-year-old woman named Samantha — Sam — Raymond, who's going through menopause and becomes a little unhinged. She leaves her husband and her teenage daughter in the suburbs of Syracuse and impulsively moves into a dilapidated Arts and Crafts-style bungalow in a crumbling downtown neighborhood of that city.

The year was 1983. Alice Walker's The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award; Gloria Naylor's debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, won the National Book Award for first fiction.

At the end of his new novel, Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford describes how he was inspired by a London plaque:

[F]or the last twelve years, I've been walking to work at Goldsmiths College past a plaque commemorating the 1944 V-2 attack on the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths. Of the 168 people who died, fifteen were aged eleven or under. The novel is partly written in memory of those South London children, and their lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century.

It sounds like the premise for one of those classic screwball comedies of the 1930s: Thousands of out-of-work writers are hired by the United States government to collaborate on books. What could possibly go wrong?

But as Scott Borchert reveals in his new book, Republic of Detours, the amazing thing about the Federal Writers' Project was just how much went right.

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You fall in love with a person, but you get a package deal. That's one of the big messages of two new novels that ruminate on love and family, particularly the family that's thrust upon you when you happen to mate with one of their kith or kin.

The heroine of Katherine Heiny's buoyant new novel, Early Morning Riser, is a young second grade teacher named Jane who lives in Boyne City, Mich. On the very first page of the novel, Jane locks herself out of her house, calls a locksmith, and winds up spending the night and, eventually, her life with him.

The chicken made me read it.

It's not often that I can pay tribute to a book in those words, but Nives, a short novel by Italian writer Sacha Naspini newly translated into English, won me over in its opening pages where a freshly widowed older woman living on a remote farm in Tuscany decides to soothe her loneliness by bringing a chicken into the house for company. The hen, called Giacomina, settles into bed with the widow, whose first name, "Nives," also gives this novella its title.

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.

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