Listen

Maureen Corrigan

It's pretty rare for a writer to produce a novel that wins the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and, then, a scant three years later, bring out another novel that's even more extraordinary. But, that's what Colson Whitehead has done in following up his 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, with The Nickel Boys.

Jessup Collins wants out. The main character of Alexi Zentner's tough new novel, Copperhead, Jessup is a 17-year-old high school football star with a decent shot at getting a college scholarship. That scholarship is essential because Jessup, his mom and his kid sister live paycheck-to-paycheck in a trailer on the outskirts of an upstate New York town that sounds a lot like Ithaca.

Mary Beth Keane's new novel is called Ask Again, Yes.

What's it called again?

That's what everyone I've raved to about this book has said to me a couple of minutes after I've told them the title. It's one of those delicate titles that instantly goes poof! into the air; but that's the only strike there is against Keane's novel which is, otherwise, one of the most unpretentiously profound books I've read in a long time.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Two new novels of crime and suspense have our book critic Maureen Corrigan traveling to some dark places in her imagination this summer. Here's her review of James Ellroy's "This Storm" and Denise Mina's "Conviction."

Jill Ciment is one of those just-under-the-radar writers. Probably her biggest moment of popular recognition came a few years ago, when her novel, Heroic Measures, was made into a film called 5 Flights Up; it starred Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a married couple living in New York City who struggle to get their elderly dog to the vet in the midst of a terror alert. They wind up carrying the dog on a cutting board through the panicked city.

Here's an SAT word for you: "aptronym." An aptronym is a proper name that's especially "apt" for describing the person who bears it. Take Usain Bolt, the bolt-of-lighting Jamaican sprinter, or the poet William Wordsworth. Now, add to the list Ocean Vuong.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author Tony Horwitz died Monday unexpectedly at the age of 60. He was in the middle of a book tour promoting his new book, "Spying On The South." He's survived by his wife, the journalist Geraldine Brooks, and their two sons. Before becoming a full-time author, Tony Horwitz covered wars and conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq for The Wall Street Journal. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his stories about working conditions in low-wage America.

Editor's note: This review includes racial epithets that appear in the book.

In her foreword to America Is in the Heart — Carlos Bulosan's classic 1946 novel about Filipinx and Mexican migrant workers on the West Coast — the Filipina American novelist Elaine Castillo asks readers, "Do you remember how old you were when you first read a book that had a character who looked and lived like you in it?"

I've been waiting for Tony Horwitz to write another big on-the-road book that crisscrosses the American cultural divide ever since his bestseller, Confederates in the Attic, came out in 1998.

Many years ago, I worked as an academic day laborer on Philadelphia's Main Line. For those unfamiliar with it, the Main Line — developed in the late 19th century along a railroad route west of the city — was, for decades, a quietly grand stretch of lavish estates, private schools, and cricket and golf clubs catering to Philadelphia's old money. The classic 1940 romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story, starring Katharine Hepburn as a snooty socialite, was set on the Main Line.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The heroine of Nell Freudenberger's new novel "Lost And Wanted" is a physicist who finds her rational understanding of the universe challenged by the death of a friend. Here's our book critic Maureen Corrigan's review.

Laila Lalami's new novel is called The Other Americans and it's likely to jump start some timely book group discussions about the American experiment; specifically, about how different types of people feel less visible in this country because of their ethnicity, class, race or citizenship status.

One of the most joyous, true life, "on-the-road" adventures in literary history took place in the summer of 1927. It began in Mobile, Ala., when a young Langston Hughes, who was traveling in the South, stepped off the train from New Orleans and ran smack into Zora Neale Hurston.

"Lost Hollywood." The phrase conjures up starlets in silver lamé and lunchtime gimlets at The Brown Derby; it does not bring to mind slimy swamp creatures or screwball surrealists starring in movies featuring walking melons. But two new books that retrieve forgotten moments in Hollywood history expand our sense of La La Land's long legacy of magic and bad behavior.

It was a cold December night in 1972 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A 38-year old widowed mother of 10 named Jean McConville was with her children in their apartment in the Divis Flats, a labyrinthine public housing project that one critic described a "slum in the sky."

There was a knock at the door and a gang of masked intruders burst in. They ordered Jean to put on her coat and began pulling her out of the apartment. The children went nuts, screaming and grabbing.

Valeria Luiselli is on to readers like me, readers with a skeptical attitude toward novels ripped from today's headlines. I always wonder whether the social commentary in such fiction will be its big selling point, compensating for a thinly imagined, overly reportorial narrative.

Luiselli's latest novel is called Lost Children Archive and it focuses on the migration of thousands of unaccompanied minors who've crossed from Central America and Mexico into the U.S., seeking asylum.

Here's a sentence of critical praise I never expected to utter: The descriptions of basketball games in this novel are riveting.

The novel that's elicited this aberrant compliment is The Falconer, by Dana Czapnik. It's a coming-of-age story set in early 1990s New York about an athletic 17-year-old girl named Lucy Adler.

Last fall, a slim and eerie novel came out in Britain that tells a story about the lingering force of walls. That novel, which has just been published here, is called Ghost Wall, and its author, Sarah Moss, possesses the rare light touch when it comes to melding the uncanny with social commentary.

Ghost Wall is set in the 1970s in the rugged countryside of the far north of England. Our narrator is a sheltered 17-year-old girl named Silvie, who has accompanied her parents on a summer field trip of sorts with some university students and their professor.

My taste doesn't naturally gravitate toward feminist dystopian fiction, but such stories are ubiquitous these days. Their influence seeps far beyond the classic novel and Hulu series of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, as well as the literary fiction it's inspired like Naomi Alderman's The Power and Leni Zumas' Red Clocks.

The Great Internet Novel. Like the great white whale, it's rumored to be out there somewhere beyond the horizon. So far, the novelists who've been hailed as coming closest to writing it have done so in dystopian doorstoppers even longer than Herman Melville's Moby Dick; I'm thinking of The Circle, by Dave Eggers, and Book of Numbers, by Joshua Cohen, both of which tell sweeping cautionary tales about the wired life within Facebook-type cult compounds.

Take Meg Wolitzer's novel (now also a film) called The Wife, about a brazen case of literary ghostwriting, and cross it with Patricia Highsmith's classic Ripley stories, about a suave psychopath, and you've got something of the crooked charisma of John Boyne's new novel, A Ladder to the Sky.

"Let the people see what they did to my boy." Those were the words spoken by Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, after viewing the brutalized body of her son.

During his night of torture near the Delta town of Money, Miss., 14-year-old Till's right eye had been dislodged from its socket, his tongue choked out of his mouth, the back of his skull crushed and his head penetrated by a bullet. At the insistence of his family, Till's body was shipped back home for burial in Chicago, and Till-Mobley specifically called for an open casket.

"Advice columnist" is not a role that is usually listed under Eleanor Roosevelt's long list of achievements, but for over 20 years she wrote a popular write-in column, first for Ladies Home Journal and then McCall's magazine.

Roosevelt wasn't especially witty or psychologically acute in the role; unlike many of today's inspirational "life coaches," Roosevelt didn't invite her readers to accompany her on extended journeys of introspection.

Esi Edugyan's new novel, Washington Black, opens on wretched terrain: The year is 1830; the location is a sugar plantation in Barbados. Our narrator, an enslaved 11-year-old boy named George Washington Black — "Wash" for short — tells us that the old master has recently died.

Wash is now standing to attention as a carriage carrying his new master arrives; he's a pale sinister-looking man named Erasmus Wilde. Looking at him, Wash comments, "He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much."

Sarah Smarsh is a daughter of the white working class. Born in rural Kansas, Smarsh traces her lineage back through five generations of family farmers. She also traces herself back through generations of teenage pregnancies; Smarsh's mother was just 17 when she had her.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

There's life in the old road trip saga yet. That's just one of the many things that Gary Shteyngart's spectacular, sprawling new novel, Lake Success, affirms.

Throughout his career, Shteyngart has proven himself a cheeky comic daredevil, but never more so than in this novel. More than "just" an artistic tour de force, Lake Success aims — and succeeds — in saying something big about America today.

There's a sentence at the beginning of Ling Ma's standout debut novel, Severance, that stopped me cold: "When you wake up in a fictitious world," one character tells another, "your only frame of reference is fiction."

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.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Pages