Maureen Corrigan

My best books of the year list for 2019 is a mix of literary fiction and true crime and memoirs and essays. There are acclaimed authors here, as well as some brand new voices. The only thing that unites all these books is that, in my opinion, they are unputdownable.

Some writers search for their signature subjects; Susannah Cahalan had her subject thrust upon her. In 2009, she was a young reporter for the New York Post when, one day, she began feeling like she had the flu. Shortly thereafter, she was hospitalized, in the throes of full-blown hallucinations and paranoia.

This past summer, I made time to catch up on a book I'd missed when it was published two years ago. Ever since, I've been telling friends, students and random strangers on a train that they must read Daniel Mendelsohn's memoir called An Odyssey. In it, he recalls teaching a seminar on Homer's Odyssey that his then 81-year-old father sat in on as an auditor.

Editor's note: This book review cites a passage containing a homophobic slur.

One could say that Saeed Jones' new memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, is a classic coming-of-age story. A boy grows up in Texas; he's black, gay and isolated; he's raised by a single mom; he struggles with identity, goes off to college and, eventually, achieves a wobbly sense of self-affirmation.

It's one of those poems people reach for in times when it feels like the sky is falling. It's also generally regarded as one of the great poems of the 20th century.

"September 1, 1939," as its title signals, was written by W.H. Auden in the days immediately following Germany's invasion of Poland, which marked the start of World War II. Auden had left his native England and moved to New York City some nine months earlier, and the famous opening lines of the poem are rooted in the dingy geography of his new home:

Now that it feels like we're living in a society that I find myself thinking of as "Gilead lite," how could The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, possibly convey the same degree of shock as its predecessor? The answer is, it can't.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, writer Sarah M. Broom was living in New York City, far away from her hometown and her family. In her extraordinary debut, a memoir called The Yellow House, Broom quotes from interviews with her mother and some of her 11 siblings to piece together the story of what happened when "the Water" roared into their neighborhood of New Orleans East and rose, up, up, up until it edged the tops of the houses.

Essayist Margaret Renkl writes about what she calls "backyard nature," which, to those of us who live in crowded cities, might call to mind creatures to trap or squash, like rats, squirrels, mice and water bugs. Renkl, however, grew up in Alabama and now lives in Tennessee, so her catalog of all creatures great and small is, at once, more expansive and accepting, and includes chickadees, red-tailed hawks, rat snakes, rattle snakes and crawdads.

Talk about chutzpah. Two female mystery writers have just helped themselves to the titles of two novels written by canonical male authors, without even a please or a thank you.

It's pretty rare for a writer to produce a novel that wins the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and, then, a scant three years later, bring out another novel that's even more extraordinary. But, that's what Colson Whitehead has done in following up his 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, with The Nickel Boys.

Jessup Collins wants out. The main character of Alexi Zentner's tough new novel, Copperhead, Jessup is a 17-year-old high school football star with a decent shot at getting a college scholarship. That scholarship is essential because Jessup, his mom and his kid sister live paycheck-to-paycheck in a trailer on the outskirts of an upstate New York town that sounds a lot like Ithaca.

Mary Beth Keane's new novel is called Ask Again, Yes.

What's it called again?

That's what everyone I've raved to about this book has said to me a couple of minutes after I've told them the title. It's one of those delicate titles that instantly goes poof! into the air; but that's the only strike there is against Keane's novel which is, otherwise, one of the most unpretentiously profound books I've read in a long time.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Two new novels of crime and suspense have our book critic Maureen Corrigan traveling to some dark places in her imagination this summer. Here's her review of James Ellroy's "This Storm" and Denise Mina's "Conviction."

Jill Ciment is one of those just-under-the-radar writers. Probably her biggest moment of popular recognition came a few years ago, when her novel, Heroic Measures, was made into a film called 5 Flights Up; it starred Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a married couple living in New York City who struggle to get their elderly dog to the vet in the midst of a terror alert. They wind up carrying the dog on a cutting board through the panicked city.

Here's an SAT word for you: "aptronym." An aptronym is a proper name that's especially "apt" for describing the person who bears it. Take Usain Bolt, the bolt-of-lighting Jamaican sprinter, or the poet William Wordsworth. Now, add to the list Ocean Vuong.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author Tony Horwitz died Monday unexpectedly at the age of 60. He was in the middle of a book tour promoting his new book, "Spying On The South." He's survived by his wife, the journalist Geraldine Brooks, and their two sons. Before becoming a full-time author, Tony Horwitz covered wars and conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq for The Wall Street Journal. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his stories about working conditions in low-wage America.

Editor's note: This review includes racial epithets that appear in the book.

In her foreword to America Is in the Heart — Carlos Bulosan's classic 1946 novel about Filipinx and Mexican migrant workers on the West Coast — the Filipina American novelist Elaine Castillo asks readers, "Do you remember how old you were when you first read a book that had a character who looked and lived like you in it?"

I've been waiting for Tony Horwitz to write another big on-the-road book that crisscrosses the American cultural divide ever since his bestseller, Confederates in the Attic, came out in 1998.

Many years ago, I worked as an academic day laborer on Philadelphia's Main Line. For those unfamiliar with it, the Main Line — developed in the late 19th century along a railroad route west of the city — was, for decades, a quietly grand stretch of lavish estates, private schools, and cricket and golf clubs catering to Philadelphia's old money. The classic 1940 romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story, starring Katharine Hepburn as a snooty socialite, was set on the Main Line.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The heroine of Nell Freudenberger's new novel "Lost And Wanted" is a physicist who finds her rational understanding of the universe challenged by the death of a friend. Here's our book critic Maureen Corrigan's review.

Normal People, Sally Rooney's second novel, opens in 2011 in a small town in the west of Ireland, where two teenagers, improbably, hook up.

Marianne is a social pariah: She's really smart, lightly contemptuous and weird — a judgment bestowed on her by the cultural gatekeepers at her high school because "she wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn't put make-up on her face."

Laila Lalami's new novel is called The Other Americans and it's likely to jump start some timely book group discussions about the American experiment; specifically, about how different types of people feel less visible in this country because of their ethnicity, class, race or citizenship status.

One of the most joyous, true life, "on-the-road" adventures in literary history took place in the summer of 1927. It began in Mobile, Ala., when a young Langston Hughes, who was traveling in the South, stepped off the train from New Orleans and ran smack into Zora Neale Hurston.

"Lost Hollywood." The phrase conjures up starlets in silver lamé and lunchtime gimlets at The Brown Derby; it does not bring to mind slimy swamp creatures or screwball surrealists starring in movies featuring walking melons. But two new books that retrieve forgotten moments in Hollywood history expand our sense of La La Land's long legacy of magic and bad behavior.

It was a cold December night in 1972 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A 38-year old widowed mother of 10 named Jean McConville was with her children in their apartment in the Divis Flats, a labyrinthine public housing project that one critic described a "slum in the sky."

There was a knock at the door and a gang of masked intruders burst in. They ordered Jean to put on her coat and began pulling her out of the apartment. The children went nuts, screaming and grabbing.

Valeria Luiselli is on to readers like me, readers with a skeptical attitude toward novels ripped from today's headlines. I always wonder whether the social commentary in such fiction will be its big selling point, compensating for a thinly imagined, overly reportorial narrative.

Luiselli's latest novel is called Lost Children Archive and it focuses on the migration of thousands of unaccompanied minors who've crossed from Central America and Mexico into the U.S., seeking asylum.

Before I talk about individual essays in Emily Bernard's new book, Black Is the Body, I want to pay it an all-inclusive tribute. Even the best essay collections routinely contain some filler, but of the 12 essays here, there's not one that even comes close to being forgettable.

Here's a sentence of critical praise I never expected to utter: The descriptions of basketball games in this novel are riveting.

The novel that's elicited this aberrant compliment is The Falconer, by Dana Czapnik. It's a coming-of-age story set in early 1990s New York about an athletic 17-year-old girl named Lucy Adler.

Last fall, a slim and eerie novel came out in Britain that tells a story about the lingering force of walls. That novel, which has just been published here, is called Ghost Wall, and its author, Sarah Moss, possesses the rare light touch when it comes to melding the uncanny with social commentary.

Ghost Wall is set in the 1970s in the rugged countryside of the far north of England. Our narrator is a sheltered 17-year-old girl named Silvie, who has accompanied her parents on a summer field trip of sorts with some university students and their professor.

My taste doesn't naturally gravitate toward feminist dystopian fiction, but such stories are ubiquitous these days. Their influence seeps far beyond the classic novel and Hulu series of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, as well as the literary fiction it's inspired like Naomi Alderman's The Power and Leni Zumas' Red Clocks.

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