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Maureen Corrigan

In the "Prologue" to her 2012 autobiography, Country Girl, Edna O'Brien tells readers about being tested for deafness a few years ago at a National Health clinic in London where she lives.

O'Brien was told by the technician there that in terms of her hearing, "she's a broken piano." That dismissive phrase haunted O'Brien and, somewhat in defiance, she wrote what turned out to be a spectacular memoir.

"[T]here was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well."

That fairly familiar line, a mere fleeting perception from The Great Gatsby, is the bedrock wisdom of Charles Bock's beautiful and harrowing new novel, Alice & Oliver. Alice is a new mother in her 20s who, one day, out of the blue, coughs up bloody phlegm, collapses and is diagnosed with leukemia.

Helen Oyeyemi is one of literature's weird sisters. She's kin to the uncanny likes of Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson and Jeanette Winterson, whose names trail down the back covers of her books like a pagan invocation.

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

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

This year, most of the best stories I read came in small-ish packages.

Mary Gaitskill writes tough. Her characters are almost always "users" — users of drugs and other people; they're often mean and manipulative and flooded with self-loathing. In short, to quote the title of her debut short story collection, Gaitskill writes about people who are no strangers to "bad behavior." You have to write tough — and brilliantly — to pull off a novel like The Mare.

I hate to make so much of Roger Angell's age, but he started it. Angell is 95, and he's written decades' worth of books and articles (many of them about baseball), humor pieces, profiles, and poems — some of which are gathered in this new collection called, This Old Man.

Mention Oscar Hijuelos and most people think The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. And why not? It's his gorgeous second novel, the one that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. More novels followed, as well as a memoir, but much of that work carried trace elements of the exuberance and melancholy that made Mambo Kings so distinctive.

Hijuelos' sudden in death in 2013 was one of those literary deaths that genuinely seemed to sadden a lot of readers — his work was beloved for, among other things, its sweet, sad take on the allure of dreaming big in America.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

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Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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