A Critic Picks Books You'll Love

Maureen Corrigan talks books, literally. Shes the go-to bookworm on NPRs Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as a critic-in-residence and lecturer at Georgetown University. In 1999, she won the prestigious Edgar Award (for criticism), presented to her by The Mystery Writers of America. In 2005, she published a memoir of her reading life and her passion for books, called Leave Me Alone, Im Reading! She is also a columnist and reviewer for The Washington Posts Book World, and serves on the advisory panel for The American Heritage Dictionary.

Here, Corrigan discusses her passion for books and her current recommendations for you. She also has plenty to say about the scathing-hot controversial bestseller, Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mom.

How did you develop your love of books?

Like a lot of women, I was shy, and as sentimental as it sounds, I looked to books as friends. As an only child, I certainly looked to books for company. But I was lucky to have a father who loved books. My dad didnt have a lot of education. He grew up during the Depression and left school after high school. But I always remember the reverence in his voice when he was talking about A Tale of Two Cities. Thats a good one, he said.

Do you have an all-time-favorite book?
[Charles Dickens] David Copperfield is still my favorite book, still my favorite novel in the entire world. I just taught it to a class on Victorian Lit, and it bombed. They very much disliked all the digression. But I still have to put in a plug for David Copperfield.

I love the way Dickens captures the entire world. Youve got the comedy and the evil in the world, when the child David is put into the blacking factory after his mother dies. Hes pulled out of school and he has to work. Dickens, I think, in a way, like no other author, manages to give us that sense of the infinite possibilities of good and evil in the world. What other books influenced you when you were younger? It was not all high literature. I love Nancy Drew. What a great fantasy. Heres this eighteen-year-old girl who all the adults listen to, and she solves the crime. And I love the 1930s language of Nancy Drew. Shes always driving a roadster, not a car. When I first read it, I loved The Great Gatsby. I think I read it in high school for the first time, and probably misread it as a doomed love story. And again, that voice. I guess I like these voices filled with regret. The voice of Nick Carraway really grabs me. Its still what I look for when Im reviewing books: does the author have a voice? Youre a huge fan of mystery novels. Why is that? They are talking about a world gone wrong; what is wrong with America. And they are also these great metaphysical stories about the presence of evil in the world, and how inexplicable it is. I just got carried away with them. And now I teach courses in hard-boiled American detective fiction at Georgetown and I review mysteries for The Washington Post.
What do you think about the hot new book of the moment, Amy Chuas memoir about parenting, Battle Hymn of A Tiger Mother? I thought it was fascinating. I think she is backtracking from some of the interviews this week, because she is getting death threats, but I thought she had some great points. One thing that she said is that Chinese mothers can get away with stuff that Western parents think is practically illegal. For instance, if you have a kid who is overweight, Chinese parents will say, Hey, fatty, lose some weight! Which is terrible, right? Western parents will tiptoe around it and talk about nutrition and health and, as Amy Chua says, the kids still end up in therapy for self-esteem issues. She follows that anecdote with this point: Chinese parents assume strength, whereas Western parents assume vulnerability and weakness. And thats why we act differently. That part of her argument, I thought, made sense. Maybe because of being a baby-boomer inheritor of that Great Depression generation, where the motto was Suck it up, dont complain, her message is not that far away from the message that I grew up with, for better and worse. What recent books can you recommend to our readers? Happens Every Day, by Isabel Gillies. Its a memoir. She and her husband are at a small college. Shes on the faculty as a poet. He starts having an affair with one of his colleagues. It takes a long time for it to dawn on her that the marriage is falling apart. There is something in her voice and in her innocence thats really compelling. Everybody I know who has picked up this memoir has read it in one day. They cant put it down. Certainly, I think this is a fabulous memoir for any women out there who have been through divorce or any other problems in their love life.
Just Kids, by Patti Smith. For me, growing up in New York, it certainly brought back vivid memories of New York in the 70s. What a great figure she is. When she got her National Book Award, she spoke to the necessity of the physical book and her love for books. There too you have a memoir where shes lost people, and has lived a life, and is smart. Its a wonderful story and wonderful images about taking chances with your life.Eleanor and Franklin, by Hazel Rowley. Its about the Roosevelt marriage. What a great story about a marriage that starts out very conventionally, and then two people are finding their way to a whole other sort of relationship with each other. We dont even have a name for it, for whatever they were to each other. Its terrifically inspiring. Matters of Chance, by Jeanette Haien. Set in New York in the forties and fifties ,this is a wonderful old-fashioned novel about a man losing his wife, and his life going on and opening up again. Shes such an interesting writer because she didnt start writing until she was in her sixties. Its a lovely vision of New York, one of my favorite topics, duringone of its golden ages. The Poison Tree, by Erin Kelly. For readers who like to escape into that Masterpiece Theater type world. Its a wonderful novel and beautifully written. Do books still hold the same satisfaction for you now that reading them is your job? I do feel like I have the best job. If there is a book out there that is not getting enough attention, and I can sing its praises, thats fabulous.Ron Sklar is a New-York-based writer who contributes to a variety of blogs, websites and publications.What book are you reading now? See other suggestions and comment below:
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