Maureen Corrigan

I've been a fan of Kevin Wilson's writing since 2011, when I read his debut novel The Family Fang. That novel delved into the life of a husband and wife pair of performance artists who worked their young children into their pieces. Without being pat about it, Wilson drove home the realization that every family constitutes its own rag-tag troupe of performance artists and that children are mostly at the mercy of their parents' "acts."

R. O. Kwon's pensive debut novel, The Incendiaries, arrives just in time to stoke up "back-to-school" anxieties, especially those of entering college students and their nervous parents.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

It's a rusty old bucket of a plot contrivance: throw a bunch of strangers together on a boat and roil the waters with a big storm or a white whale. But, in her latest novel, The Last Cruise, Kate Christensen demonstrates there's life yet to be found in what may appear to be the creakiest of fictional premises.

Over the years I've called many a novel a snoozer, but this is the first time I'm using that term in tribute. Ottessa Moshfegh's new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a real snoozer, a daring and accomplished tale about a miserable young woman who believes that if she could only sleep long enough, she'd wake up different — refreshed and free of her existential pain.

Deborah Levy opens her new memoir, The Cost of Living, by telling us one of those small stories whose size, like an ant or a virus, stands in inverse proportion to its power.

As Levy recalls, one night, she was sitting alone in a bar in the Caribbean. Near her, a muscled middle-aged guy whose silver hair was gathered into a manbun started chatting up a young woman. Levy comes to refer to him as "Big Silver."

One summer's day a few years ago, my daughter and her friends piled into a car that one of them had recently gotten a license to drive. "Where are you going?" I asked with false calm. "We're driving up Wisconsin Avenue until it turns into Rockville Pike," my daughter said, naming some roads in and around Washington, D.C. "Then," she continued, "we're gonna keep on driving up Rockville Pike. We want to see what's at the end."

Here's the thing about There There, the debut novel by Native American author Tommy Orange: Even if the rest of its story were just so-so — and it's much more than that — the novel's prologue would make this book worth reading.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

On the acknowledgments page of her new short story collection, Florida, Lauren Groff thanks Florida, where she lives and which she calls the "sunniest and strangest of states."

Strange this collection certainly is, but sunny? Not so much. These are Southern Gothic-inflected tales of hurricanes, humidity and sudden sheets of tropical rain that create sinkholes and send snakes, raccoons and palmetto bugs writhing and running into living rooms for shelter.

I didn't know how much I needed a laugh until I began reading Stephen McCauley's new novel, My Ex-Life. This is the kind of witty, sparkling, sharp novel for which the verb "chortle" was invented.

I found myself "chortling" out loud at so many scenes, I even took screenshots of certain pages and started texting them to friends. Some of those friends texted back, "Love this!" or, "Send more, quick!" To which I replied, "Support the arts! Buy the book!"

"I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave." That was one of the first questions that Zora Neale Hurston asked 86-year-old Cudjo Lewis when she traveled from New York to Mobile, Ala., to interview him in the summer of 1927.

This is one weird-but-true story. It's a story that leads readers from 19th century scientific expeditions into the jungles of Malaysia to the "feather fever" of the turn of the last century, when women's hats were be-plumed with ostriches and egrets. And it's a story that focuses on the feather-dependent Victorian art of salmon fly-tying and its present-day practitioners, many of whom lurk online in something called "The Feather Underground."

Patricia Hampl, you had me at your title: The Art of the Wasted Day.

Imagine a book that celebrates daydreaming, that sees it not as a moral failing, but as an activity to be valued as an end in itself. To be clear, this is not a self-help book; nor is Hampl talking about meditation, yogic breathing or mindfulness — those worthy New Age practices that, well, have to be practiced.

One of the two women at the center of Meg Wolitzer's absorbing new novel, The Female Persuasion, is a legendary feminist named Faith Frank. Faith, who's in her 60s when the story begins, seems to be modeled on Gloria Steinem: She's charismatic, sexy and witty. We're told that Faith is not "a firebrand or a visionary; her talent was different. She could sift and distill ideas and present them in a way that made other people want to hear them."

For over 40 years, Jan Morris' admiring readers have followed her wherever she's chosen to go. Perhaps best known for her grand descriptive powers as a travel writer, Morris, now 91, has also written acclaimed works of history and biography.

In 1974, she published a groundbreaking memoir called Conundrum about the other thing she's best known for: her courage in going public about being a transgender woman, at a time when that term wasn't even used. Two years earlier, Jan — then James, a married man and father of five — underwent gender reassignment surgery in Morocco.

Both of the books I'm recommending today are each, in their own ways, about cold cases.

After all, what could be colder than the mysteries surrounding the life of that pre-eminent Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie? Christie, by some calculations, is the second best-selling author of all time (beaten by a hair by Shakespeare). She was a resolutely private person and, so, has teased the legion of biographers who have been chipping away at her sphinxlike silence ever since she died in 1976.

Matt Young enlisted in the Marines in 2005 on impulse. He was 18 years old, and hours before he walked into the recruitment center, he'd gotten drunk and crashed his car into a fire hydrant. Young knew he needed direction in life and thought that becoming a Marine would help him to quickly "man up."

Zadie Smith is justly celebrated for her chameleon-like gifts as a writer. In novels like White Teeth and On Beauty she's ventured deeply into the lives of a multi-racial assortment of immigrants to Great Britain and the United States. Her characters run the gamut from aspirational working-class kids, self-important academics, pensioners, young dancers and, to date, one Chinese-Jewish Londoner with a fixation on Golden Age Hollywood.

The classic coming-to-New-York story was a mashup of a few pleasurably predictable elements: a young person with dreams bigger than his or her bank account, a few roach-ridden apartments and crummy jobs, some eccentric friends and neighbors, and a couple of requisite hard knocks before ... success!

To mark Black History Month, Penguin Classics is reprinting six early 20th century books by African-American writers. The five Harlem Renaissance novels, along with W.E.B Du Bois' 1903 masterwork, The Souls of Black Folk, are much more than a summons to reader-ly duty. Rather, they're a shake up and wake up call, reminding readers of the vigorous voices of earlier African-American writers, each of whom had their own ingenious take on "the race problem" and identity politics.

If you've seen the 1945 film noir Mildred Pierce or the 2011 HBO miniseries of the same name (both made from James M. Cain's novel), you know that story punishes Mildred for being a working mother: Her marriage breaks up, her younger daughter takes ill and dies and her elder daughter ,Vida, turns out to be a murderer — all because Mildred wasn't in the home 24/7 to oversee things.

Denis Johnson's posthumous short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is full of last calls to his readers signaling, "Hurry up please, it's time." Take these eerie sentences spoken by the narrator of a story called "Triumph Over the Grave":

It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.

The audio link above includes an excerpt of Terry Gross' 1989 conversation with Sue Grafton.

I think the last time I reviewed one of Sue Grafton's novels was in 2009. I wrote that U is for Undertow was so good, "it makes me wish there were more than 26 letters at her disposal." Now, of course, that line falls flat.

For a chaotic year, I'm offering a chaotic "Best Books" list — but I think my list is chaotic in a good sense. These books zing off in all directions: They're fresh, unruly and dismissive of the canned and contrived.

You can't go wrong with any of these books. As one of Dashiell Hammett's dangerous dames might have said: They're all the bees' knees.

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