Part history, part travel narrative, part literary criticism, and part cultural analysis, Maureen Corrigan‘s lively tell-all and academically rigorous biography, So We Read On (Little, Brown, $26), reveals the rich and occasionally fraught rise of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Corrigan, NPR book critic and author of Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, braids Fitzgerald’s inspirations and struggles into the storied print history of his novel and its continuing cultural impact. Corrigan’s wit, intelligence, and appreciation of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece make her analysis as enjoyable as it is informative.
Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, her story of secretly teaching a literature class for women students in her Tehran living room when Iran became a repressive theocracy, has remained an international bestseller since its publication in 2004. With that book Nafisi emerged as a forceful and eloquent voice challenging the suppression of free speech and the free exchange of ideas in Iran and other countries. In her newest book, The Republic of Imagination, she continues to make the case that classical literature is a weapon against tyranny and subjugation. She argues that the stories written by Mark Twain, James Baldwin and other Americans are foundational to strengthening democratic principles and building tolerant and inclusive societies. Nafisi is a brilliant, courageous, and inspiring writer—and her message is much-needed antidote to the assault on free thought and speech in too many parts of the world.
Sometimes you read a biography as much for its author as for its subject. That’s true for the masterful Hermione Lee; following rich portraits of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, Lee brings her insight to the life, times, and work of Penelope Fitzgerald (Knopf, $35). Daughter of a Punch editor who grew up amid thinkers and artists, Fitzgerald (1916-2000) said she was born “dipped in ink” and expected to become a writer herself. Early contributions to her father’s magazine, writing and editing for World Review journal, and scriptwriting for the BBC put her on track to fulfill her promise. But writing was interrupted by decades of poverty. Fitzgerald’s husband was an alcoholic and spectacularly lost his position as a barrister. The family moved into a converted coal barge. After it sank, they spent eleven years in council housing. Fitzgerald raised three children, taught school, and stayed with her husband. Only in 1975 did she become the Penelope Fitzgerald we know, turning out three biographies and nine short, elegant novels, four of them short-listed for the Booker Prize, which she won for Offshore in 1979 (beating out V.S. Naipaul). It was an amazing career, and Lee has delved into Fitzgerald’s notebooks and letters to show how this distinctive writer created her unique fictions.