Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books
Maureen Corrigan (2005, Vintage)
I've missed her radio work, but Maureen Corrigan is the book reviewer for NPR's Fresh Air; she's also a professor of Literature at Georgetown University. She gives us here a neat weaving together of memoir and book-talk, describing how she got to be someone who reads for a living. Corrigan earned a doctorate from Penn, a high achievement but in some ways a dreadful experience. Her reviewing work, and these essays, apply critical insights to some books that fall outside the academy's interest, in a way that I found useful.
Her first useful point is to name the genre of the female extreme-adventure story. The male version is typified by tales of Everest and Antactica, or hazardous weather at sea; Corrigan draws a thread from the Brontes to Anna Quindlen of books in which women persevere in the labor and patience of caregiving. "Blinding blizzard and numbing frostbite, such as Jon Krakauer describes, last for a few hours, maybe days, and then, one way or another, the nightmare is over. In contrast, the torments particular to women's extreme-adventure tales continue year after year." That description is apt to Corrigan's graduate school trek, and to her later attempts to start a family with her husband (and, although the little girl they brought home from China is still small, to parenthood itself, I should think.)
Another thing Corrigan says that I had not thought about before is that she had to look outside the walls of Literature for books that talk about daily work in a tangible way. But she did find it: "I was immediately sold on hard-boiled detective fiction because of its focus on smart characters who spent the bulk of their days plugging away at work that gave them identity and purpose." She also found in Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane other versions of the social criticism of the 19th-century moralists she was studying for her dissertation. In their successors, she finds descriptions of life in the United States richer in detail and social perception than is common in other kinds of novels. The murder plots, in many cases, could be regarded as window-dressing.
Corrigan gives close re-reading to her Catholic girlhood in Queens by looking again at Marie Killilea's books about her disabled daughter, Karen. The books were assigned by parochial schools as examples of selfless, devoted Catholic family life, but Mrs. Killilea's voice contains a streak of determination that amounts to contentiousness: however much Karen's cerebral palsy is a gift from God, to be accepted without whining, it's also something to be struggled with. These books are another fine example of the female extreme-adventure story, where perseverance is the relevant form of toughness.
I'm always attracted to books about books, without necessarily wanting to go where the author wants to send me. In combining memoir with criticism, Corrigan has struck a very nice balance; even if I am not moved to follow her suggested choices exactly, I've been given new tools with which to view my own.
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