Maureen Corrigan

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.

In the winter of 1949, a group of judges — including poets T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell — met to decide the winner of the prestigious Bollingen Prize for the best book of poetry published in the United States the previous year. They gave the prize to Ezra Pound for his collection The Pisan Cantos. Then all hell broke loose.

Before I finally picked up and read Louise Erdrich's new novel, called Future Home of the Living God, there was a mighty obstacle that had to be faced — an obstacle called The Handmaid's Tale. After Margaret Atwood's magisterial achievement, is there really room for another dystopian feminist novel about the overthrow of democracy by a Christian fundamentalist regime that enslaves fertile women and reduces them to simple vessels of procreation?

The somewhat unsettling answer is "Sure!"

So, is it any good?

That's the question everybody asks whenever a celebrity writes a work of fiction. No one expects much from debut novels written by rhinestone-in-the-rough wordsmiths like Fabio or Snooki from Jersey Shore, but the work of other Hollywood stars like James Franco, Lauren Graham and Steve Martin has garnered some serious attention.

Which brings us to Tom Hanks' debut collection of short stories called Uncommon Type. So, is it any good?

Nicknames like a real "peasouper" or a "London Particular" make the quintessential foggy day in London Town sound so quaint — an impression that's been intensified in art and literature.

Certainly, the London of Sherlock Holmes would be a lot less mysterious without that obscuring fog. Impressionist painter Claude Monet, who famously depicted the Houses of Parliament shrouded in mist, said that: "Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It is the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth."

There's a tendency to approach a posthumous collection of work by an esteemed "writer's writer" with respectful courtesy, but Stanley Elkin's essays demand a rowdier response from readers. They're weird and spirited, full of literal piss and vinegar. Pieces of Soap is the name of this collection and writer Sam Lipsyte, in his introduction, rightly says that reading Elkin makes you realize "how lazy most writing is."

Last things first. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the third volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's monumental biography of Eleanor Roosevelt is the way it ends. I don't think I've ever read another biography where the death of the subject is noted in an aside of less than 10 words, on the second to last page of the book.

I need a moment away from unceasing word drip of debates about the election, about whether Elena Ferrante has the right to privacy, about whether Bob Dylan writes "Literature." I need a moment, more than a moment, in the steady and profound company of Mary Oliver and I think you might need one too.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

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