Maureen Corrigan

I feel for any author who has a work of literary fiction or non-fiction coming out these days. The world's focus is, naturally, on the pandemic and the protests against racism and police violence. The news seems to change hour-by-hour; no wonder that imaginative literature, a product of silence and slow time, can seem a bit out of step.

One of the characters that comes to the fore in the second half of Brit Bennett's new novel, The Vanishing Half, is a young actress named Kennedy Sanders. She's an attractive blonde pushing 30, who, after years of trying to make it in the serious theater, lands a role on a soap opera.

Bennett writes that when Kennedy calls her parents to tell them about her big break, she assures them that "There was nothing wrong with melodrama, . ... In fact, some of the greatest classic actresses — Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo — trafficked in it from time to time."

I'm feeling so cooped up these days that I sometimes find myself getting in the car and taking aimless rides to nowhere. Maybe that's what prompted me to finally check out an on-the-road novel that came out in February, right before the pandemic brought life-as-we-know-it to a hard stop.

"Imagine what Philip Roth would've made of this."

That's what I said to my husband last month (or was it two months ago?) during our extended family's first-ever Zoom Passover Seder. We were the virtual hosts and so we watched as, in groups or singly, family members materialized in their little Hollywood Squares cubes.

There's a black-and-white photo taped on my office door at school — the office I haven't been inside in almost a month. It shows an American soldier stretched out, reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith's 1943 novel based on her childhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

"It's hard to focus right now."

I've heard versions of that sentence on the phone, in person (at a distance), on email, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, on Zoom and Skype and all the other devices and online platforms we're using to stay connected with each other these days.

It's hard to focus right now.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Lily King's 2014 novel "Euphoria" was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and made most critics' best books list that year. King has just brought out her fifth novel called "Writers & Lovers," and our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's another winner.

Writer's block can be temporary — or it can be massive and long lasting. After her third short story collection, Honey, came out in 1993, Elizabeth Tallent fell victim to a rockfall, avalanche, total-impasse-of-the-imagination writer's block and didn't publish another book for 22 years.

That's not to say Tallent didn't try. Here's one of the many passages in her profound new memoir, Scratched, in which she reflects on the onset of her writer's block and her attempts to break through:

Gish Jen has always had something of a "Frank Capra-esque" view of America. Like Capra, who directed immortal Hollywood films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life, Jen's big theme in her work is the promise of America — imperfect, erratic, but still worth cherishing. Her characters — most of them immigrants or first-generation Americans — are a variant of the "little guys" Capra also loved. They always find themselves up against a rigged system favoring the rich, powerful and white so-called "typical Americans" of her first novel's title.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. You probably wouldn't expect humor to be a key element in a story about child kidnapping and human trafficking in India. But our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says Deepa Anappara's debut novel, "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line," doesn't play to conventional expectations. Here's her review.

In the final pages of The Third Rainbow Girl — a new book about the aftermath of the murders of two young women who were hitchhiking in West Virginia in 1980 — author Emma Copley Eisenberg interviews a friend of the victims. Elizabeth Johndrow parted company with her friends a day before they were murdered; she's the "third rainbow girl" of the title.

Eisenberg asks Johndrow, now in her 50s, why she and so many other young women hitchhiked back then. Johndrow says:

It was over a year ago that I began to hear off-the-charts recommendations from trusted booksellers about a novel called American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. The novel's circle of admirers has since swelled to include the likes of Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, John Grisham and Julia Alvarez.

Such a disparate line-up of blurbs signals what an unusual creature American Dirt is: It's a literary novel, to be sure, with nuanced character development and arresting language; yet, its narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense tale.

Jean Stafford. Generally speaking, it's one of those literary names that readers might find sort-of familiar, without quite knowing why.

That wouldn't have been the case in Stafford's heyday, during the 1940s and 50s. Back then, Stafford's short stories were published in prestigious venues like the Partisan Review and The New Yorker. A collected edition of those stories even won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1970.

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.

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