Maureen Corrigan

At the end of his new novel, Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford describes how he was inspired by a London plaque:

[F]or the last twelve years, I've been walking to work at Goldsmiths College past a plaque commemorating the 1944 V-2 attack on the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths. Of the 168 people who died, fifteen were aged eleven or under. The novel is partly written in memory of those South London children, and their lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century.

It sounds like the premise for one of those classic screwball comedies of the 1930s: Thousands of out-of-work writers are hired by the United States government to collaborate on books. What could possibly go wrong?

But as Scott Borchert reveals in his new book, Republic of Detours, the amazing thing about the Federal Writers' Project was just how much went right.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

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You fall in love with a person, but you get a package deal. That's one of the big messages of two new novels that ruminate on love and family, particularly the family that's thrust upon you when you happen to mate with one of their kith or kin.

The heroine of Katherine Heiny's buoyant new novel, Early Morning Riser, is a young second grade teacher named Jane who lives in Boyne City, Mich. On the very first page of the novel, Jane locks herself out of her house, calls a locksmith, and winds up spending the night and, eventually, her life with him.

The chicken made me read it.

It's not often that I can pay tribute to a book in those words, but Nives, a short novel by Italian writer Sacha Naspini newly translated into English, won me over in its opening pages where a freshly widowed older woman living on a remote farm in Tuscany decides to soothe her loneliness by bringing a chicken into the house for company. The hen, called Giacomina, settles into bed with the widow, whose first name, "Nives," also gives this novella its title.

I knew from all the buzz about The Final Revival of Opal & Nev that it's a work of fiction by first-time novelist Dawnie Walton. But after I started her book, I had to stop and double check to make sure that this wasn't a true account of a real-life rock duo from the 1970s. That's how authentic this odd novel feels, composed, as it is, out of a pandemonium of fictional interviews, footnotes, talk-show transcripts, letters and editor's notes.

Libertie, a new novel by Kaitlyn Greenidge, is inspired by the life of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, the third African American woman to earn a medical degree in this country.

After the Civil War, McKinney-Steward opened her own practice in Brooklyn and co-founded the Brooklyn Women's Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary. McKinney-Steward was an exceptional woman, a pioneer. But, of course, it can be hard living in the shadow of such a pathbreaker, especially when you yourself are drawn to the simpler pleasures of the conventional.

The opening scene of Christine Smallwood's sharp debut novel, The Life of the Mind, finds her main character, Dorothy, locked into the stall of a public bathroom. Dorothy spends a lot of time locked in bathrooms. She's having a prolonged miscarriage, and is spending long intervals every day sitting and thinking on the toilet.

A year ago this week, I sent my students off on Spring Break: That was the last time we were physically present in a room together. We returned after break, reconstituted as pixels on a laptop screen, each of us in our own little Zoom frames, Nietzsche's "prison house of self" for the digital age.

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