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Maureen Corrigan

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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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

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

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

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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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?

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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."

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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.

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