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. So We Read On, her forthcoming book on the extraordinary "second act" of The Great Gatsby, will be published by Little, Brown in September 2014.

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.

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.


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.

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.

The disaster began on a day shift around lunchtime at a mine in Chile's Atacama Desert: Miners working deep inside a mountain, excavating for copper, gold and other minerals, started feeling vibrations. Suddenly, there was a massive explosion and the passageways of the mine filled up with a gritty dust cloud.

A new Hilary Mantel book is an Event with a "capital "E." Here's why: The first two best-selling novels in Mantel's planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, each won the Man Booker Prize — that's a first.

Last year, the big debate in the world of books was over the question of whether or not a novel has to feature "likeable" main characters in order for readers to identify with them or make us want to stick with their stories. The debate had a sexist tinge to it: Female characters seemed especially burdened with the need to be pleasing.

Sarah Waters' new novel, The Paying Guests, is a knockout, which isn't a word any of her characters would use.

The book opens in 1922: The Edwardian Age, with its high collars and long skirts, is dead; the Jazz Age is waiting to be born — at least, that's the case in the suburban backwater of London where Waters' main character, a 26-year-old spinster named Frances Wray, lives with her mother.

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I admired Ben Lerner's last novel a lot; in fact, I ended my review of Leaving the Atocha Station by saying that "reading it was unlike any other novel-reading experience I've had for a long time." I could say the very same thing about Lerner's brilliant new novel, 10:04, which leads me to wonder: Just how many singular reading experiences can one novelist serve up? And if every one of Lerner's novels is singular, doesn't that make them, in a way, repetitive?

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For all you teachers out there contemplating the August calendar with dismay, watching, powerless, as the days of summer vacation dwindle down to a precious few, I have some consolation to offer: a hilarious academic novel that'll send you laughing (albeit ruefully) back into the trenches of the classroom.

Most sports novels are about the aspiration to excel physically: to run faster, stretch out one's arms farther. The really cool thing about Ride Around Shining, a debut novel by Chris Leslie-Hynan, is that it doesn't stick to that familiar rule book. Even though it's set in the world of pro basketball, our narrator here is not the guy who aspires to be a great player; rather, he's the guy who aspires to be a great suck-up to the great player.

There's a wonderful 1982 memoir called An Orphan in History by the late Village Voice writer Paul Cowan. It's about Cowan's search for his European Jewish roots, and in it he says something about the sacrifices of older generations of immigrants that's always stayed with me. Cowan says: "Millions of immigrant families . . . left the economically and culturally confining Old World towns where they were raised, and paid for the freedom and prosperity this country offered with their pasts."

It's probably the most oft-cited literary fantasy of all time: I'm talking about that passage in Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield says: "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."

If you asked mystery fans to name the most important novel of the past decade, most would say The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — and they'd be right. In fact, Stieg Larsson's complete Millennium series, flanked by hordes of Nordic noirs by the likes of Henning Mankell, Camilla Lackberg and Jo Nesbo, have overrun the ranks of hard-boiled detective fiction, imbuing it with their distinctive strain of brittle dialogue and chill fatalism.

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Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review of the new novel "Friendship" by Emily Gould who made her name in the blogosphere. A recent profile in the New York Times Sunday style section described Gould as a forerunner to Lena Dunham and other confessional female bloggers, writers and filmmakers or whom over-sharing has become an art form.

There are many heroes in the tale of how James Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses, which was banned for over 10 years throughout the English-speaking world, finally won its long battle to be legally published, sold and read. Kevin Birmingham tells that extraordinary story in his new book about Ulysses, called The Most Dangerous Book.

Any novel that opens on a young American woman running a bookshop in a small town nestled in the Welsh countryside promises a glimpse into a life lived far from the madding crowd. That's the quaint plotline Tom Rachman's new novel tells uninterruptedly for the length of one brief chapter. Thereafter, Rachman returns only occasionally to the World's End bookshop and its shelves sporting idiosyncratic labels like: Artists Who Were Unpleasant to Their Spouses; History, the Dull Bits; and Books You Pretend to Have Read but Haven't.

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This is FRESH AIR. Ellen Willis was the first rock critic for The New Yorker is. She was also a radical feminist writer and activist. Her work appeared in the Village Voice, where she was a columnist, as well as in Rolling Stone and The Nation.

Even the most restrained plot summary of Francine Prose's latest novel sounds like a teaser for a late night Lifetime TV movie. Here goes: In the Paris of the late 1920s, a butch lesbian race car driver named Lou Villars has her license revoked by the French government for daring to dress as a man in public. Lou goes on to become a performer in a risque review at the Chameleon Club, a smoky nightclub where threadbare artists and thrill-seeking aristocrats mingle in the half-light.

There's something romantic about biographer Amanda Vaill's device of making the Hotel Florida in Madrid the hub of her new book about the Spanish Civil War, called Hotel Florida; but, then again, there's always been something romantic about the Spanish Civil War itself. For the Spanish loyalists — who were supported by Russia and Mexico as well as the International Brigades of civilians from Europe and the Americas — the Spanish Civil War was a gallant stand against fascism.

A Bintel Brief and The Harlem Hellfighters are two New York Stories. That's why I'm combining them in this review; not because — as some purists still think — they're lesser works of literature because they're graphic novels. If Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Bayeux Tapestry, and Art Spiegelman's 1991 classic, Maus, haven't yet convinced the high-art holdouts of the value of stories told in visual sequence, nothing I say now about these two books is likely to.

The title of Maggie Shipstead's second novel is: Astonish Me. She did just that --astonish me -- with her debut novel of 2012, called Seating Arrangements. After reading that novel, I likened the then 20-something-year-old Shipstead to "Edith Wharton with a millennial generation edge." The comparison remains sound.

Let's get the negative stuff out of the way first. Teju Cole's Every Day Is For The Thief is not much of a novel. Forget plot or character development: This is a piece of writing that's all about setting. If you take what Cole is offering here and value it on its own terms, you'll probably appreciate the curious magic at work in this slim not-quite-a-novel. In chapters that stand as separate, short vignettes, Every Day Is For The Thief describes a young New York doctor's visit back to his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria.

Picture this. You're a young girl, living in a remote town in Connecticut in 1825. You've taken refuge in a neighbor's house and, as night falls, you peek out a window to see your friends and family members assembling outdoors around two crude paintings: One is of a young white woman (you); the other painting is of a man, a Native American.

Beginning in 1952, and running through 1968, there was a legendary radio show called Klavan And Finch that was on WNEW in New York City. It was a four-hour live program featuring music and antic conversation between handsome, straight man Dee Finch and his live-wire counterpart, Gene Klavan.

Lorrie Moore isn't quite a household name. This was news to me, because I thought that, given that she's the kind of writer who's published in The New Yorker and profiled in The New York Times, most culture vultures would know who she is. But, over the past couple of weeks when I mentioned her new book, Bark, in conversations, both in the halls of academe and over meals with friends, I mostly got blank stares. (One smarty confused her with that other great literary "Lorrie" — the late Laurie Colwin — whose short stories and novels are also essential reading.)

Every year, students come into my office and say, "I don't know what I want to do with my life." Of course, plenty of people in the world don't have the luxury of such cluelessness, but my students don't look like they're enjoying their privilege; they look scared and depressed, as though they've already failed some big test of character. They might find some comfort in Michael Sims' new biography of the young Henry David Thoreau called, simply, The Adventures of Henry Thoreau.

In the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, Ishmael tells us he takes to sea whenever he feels the onset of "a damp, drizzly November in [his] soul." I know how he feels. Whenever the frigid funk of February settles in, I, too, yearn to get out of town. This year I have, thanks to two exquisite vehicles of escape fiction. Both Rachel Pastan's Alena and Katherine Pancol's The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles are smart entertainments perfect for curling up with on a winter's night.

The second best quality Diane Johnson has as a writer is that she's so smart. Her first best quality — and one that's far more rare — is that she credits her audience with being smart, too. Whether she's writing fiction, biography or essays, Johnson lets scenes and conversations speak for themselves, accruing power as they lodge in readers' minds.

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