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Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan. Random House, 2005; $24.95; 201 pages


For the past 16 years, Maureen Corrigan has reviewed books for NPR's Fresh Air. Now she talks about the books and authors that have influenced her life, from the female adventure novels of Charlotte Brontë and Anna Quindlen, to the gumshoe-detective novel, the martyr narratives of her Catholic girlhood. Corrigan assembles a rich literary feast, delighting readers and fans of the Brontës, P.D. James, Kingsley Amis, Bobbie Ann Mason, Louisa May Alcott, Philip Roth, Maxine Hong Kingston, and more. As Corrigan explores the unpredictable magic of reading and how books have helped her to understand her life, we experience with her the growing pains in school as books drew her simultaneously closer to and farther away from her parents, the mixed messages of Catholicism, and the journey from working-class Queens to the Ivy League, and, finally, the complications and satisfactions of marriage and motherhood. Corrigan reflects upon how our lives are both enriched and confused by the stories we love -- and how the books we invite into our lives help us to become the people we are.


From Publishers Weekly: Corrigan, the book reviewer for NPR's Fresh Air and mystery columnist for the Washington Post... , is obsessed with reading books. Her compulsion is a bit far reaching, however: she offers books as the reason why she delayed getting married and why she adopted her daughter in China. She intersperses lengthy descriptions and analyses of her favorite books, like Jane Eyre, Lucky Jim, and Karen (Marie Killilea's memoir of her daughter), with stories from her own life. At times, the book reads like a feminist diatribe against the injustices female authors (and graduate students) have endured and the stereotypical portrayal of female characters. In its favor, the book allows readers to re-experience some perennial favorites, such as Pride and Prejudice and The Maltese Falcon. Corrigan does speak to the ability of books to provide escape and solace, and for the creation of characters we can relate to, but these few gems are buried deep in text so thick and analytical that the reader is often left gasping for air.


Born in 1955 in Long Island City, New York, Ms. Corrigan grew up in Queens, close to the 59th Street Bridge. "It was a great place to grow up," said Ms. Corrigan. "because I had the skyline of Manhattan spread out before me. Basically, I lived there throughout my childhood and young adulthood until I went off to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania."


A plethora of books similar to that by Ms. Corrigan have been published in the past five years -- books that celebrate books their authors have read. I asked Ms. Corrigan if she would explain the focus of her book. She laughed. "Your question makes me think of that anecdote I tell in this book's introduction about one of the awful academic job interviews I went on at Columbia University, and Steven Marcus asking me if I had 'any methodology in my dissertation.'

"Yes, the methodology for my book was me finally sitting down a year after I had the contract from Random House. In that year I'd become a mother, so hence the delay. I was overwhelmed.

"One thing that was freeing for me, not to sound too therapeutic about this, but one thing that got me going was to think about 'What if I could write a book just about books that, for some reason or other, I loved, or liked, or that had stayed in my mind?'

"Reviewing books as I have for 16 years for Fresh Air and teaching for 16 years at Georgetown, a certain amount of the literature I deal with is out of obligation. In this book I felt that burden was lifted. I don't have to talk about 'x, y, and z' if I don't want to. I can talk about Susan Isaacs and not be apologetic about liking Susan Isaacs. I don't have to prove that I'm smart, that awful lingering burden that I think anybody who's been to grad school still is plagued by. So that was one of the things. And another was a focus on women. That focus was a surprise to me. Because in grad school, my area of interest had been the great Victorian sages. Those were the people I read, and even in teaching, most of the books that I teach are books written by men. It surprised me that so much of what I was talking about was literature that either was written by women or that had something to say to women.

"The hard-boiled detective fiction classics I loved, Chandler and Hammett and all those tough guys. But what also excites me about those stories is the vision of work that I talk about, that idea that you're calling your own shots, you're autonomous, you've got a sense of mission in the world. I love to think about those utopian work novels. I think that that's one of its attractions that the genre holds.

"What I began to notice too is the female extreme adventure story. That carried through in terms of a theme throughout the book -- that there's this body of literature that preaches a stiff upper lip, whether it's the Catholic martyr stories, the hard-boiled detective stories, or the female extreme adventure stories. For whatever reason, probably a lot to do with my background, I seem to gravitate toward stories of this kind.

"I'm not saying that they're all of equal value. I'm not in that school of critics or theorists. But we've got these tales, whether it's Jane Eyre or a novel by Sue Grafton, that's giving us a female spin on a story about endurance and danger, whether it's psychological danger or physical danger. These stories are telling us something about women's lives that we don't usually recognize."

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