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Maureen Corrigan

Utopian communities don't fare much better in fiction than they do in real life. As the plot usually unfolds, a brave new world loses its luster fast when the failings of its founder are exposed, or when the community itself begins to morph into a cult.

Ayelet Waldman is a real handful; as people would have said once upon a time in my old New York neighborhood, "she's got a mouth on her."

She's one nasty woman, that Betty Fussell. Now 89, Fussell came of age in the heyday of bright and breezy Bettys — Betty Grable, Betty Hutton, Betty Crocker — but she clearly gravitated toward the one dangerous dame of the bunch, Bette Davis.

An essayist and author of some 20 books on food and travel, as well as the acclaimed memoir, My Kitchen Wars, about her marriage to and divorce from the late cultural historian Paul Fussell, Betty Fussell doesn't mince words.

I hesitate to say it, but the one word that characterizes my best books of 2016 list is "serious." These books aren't grim and they're certainly not dull, but collectively they're serious about tackling big, sometimes difficult subjects — and they're also distinguished by seriously good writing. Here are 10 that you shouldn't miss.

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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.

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

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The 18-year-old Jane Jacobs picked a lousy time to leave her hometown of Scranton, Pa., and move to New York City.

It was the fall of 1934 and New York was dragging itself through The Great Depression. During that first year in the city, Jacobs, who'd gone to secretarial school, scrounged for work, riding the subway from the Brooklyn apartment she shared with her older sister, Betty, into Manhattan.

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

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Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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What first grabs a reader about Mary Mann Hamilton's memoir, Trials of the Earth, is its backstory. Hamilton was born in Arkansas around 1866; her family ran a boarding house and at 18 she married one of the guests, an older Englishman named Frank Hamilton who claimed to have an aristocratic past.

Copyright 2016 American Public Media. To see more, visit American Public Media.

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