LEAVE ME ALONE, I'M READING
Finding and Losing Myself in Books
By Maureen Corrigan
Random House. 201 pp. $24.95
Reading Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading was for me like the uncanny experience of looking into a mirror and seeing someone else's face. Like Maureen Corrigan, I too have reviewed countless books. Like her, I have an adopted child from another country. Perhaps most powerfully, both she and I are outspoken fans of Charlotte Bronte's Villette, which Corrigan calls "Bronte's greatest novel." Jane Eyre has stolen the limelight of history, but Lucy Snowe is more complex and empathetic. Corrigan cites the truly agonizing scene in the novel where the heroine, Lucy, alone in Brussels, is overcome by crippling depression. She wanders about the city in the dark, "weak and shaking" with the "insufferable thought of being no more loved, no more owned." There is no more powerful portrait of utter loneliness in our literature, and Corrigan exactly captures its power when she says she can't reread it often because "it scares me too much."
For those who love books, the temptation to write a book about books is almost irresistible, and there is no doubt about Corrigan's passion. For 16 years she has been book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air" (four minutes per book, she tells us: "keep it short") as well as a mystery columnist for this newspaper. Her approach here is to mix autobiography and books, interweaving scenes from her own life with the books that have accompanied her every step of the way.
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading is full of discoveries and lists -- readers love lists. Under the heading "Fiction and Nonfiction That Make a Reader Believe in Possibility," she lists "Almost anything by M.F.K. Fisher," as well as Laurie Colwin's collected novels, short stories and essays, and the arcane News From Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest: Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance, by William Morris. The latter, she candidly admits, is perhaps a rather special taste.
Corrigan is particularly irresistible when writing about mysteries, and she has done a great deal to get the genre the credit it deserves. "After twenty years of reading and studying detective fiction," she writes, "I feel like I've only begun to probe the mysteries of the genre itself and how it has investigated American life over the past century." However, she feels these novels "are still regarded as the junkyard dogs of literature." I think she's wrong about that and is too modest about her own contribution to the growth and popularity of the mystery novel. By the time I finished her book, I wanted to run out and buy Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and was asking everyone I knew if they had read it -- many already had.
Corrigan's enthusiasm for the novels of Susan Isaacs reflects her winning openness to popular fiction. She calls Isaacs "Jane Austen with a schmear" and judges her "one of our great underappreciated contemporary writers." I am delighted to imagine all the listeners of "Fresh Air" enjoying Isaacs's Shining Through, one of Corrigan's favorites, starring a legal secretary from Queens who finds herself in Nazi Germany as an agent for the OSS. All the same, I wish Corrigan could avoid undercutting her own fine taste by adding that Isaacs "works in the low-rent genres of mystery and suspense." Months on the bestseller lists and headline-grabbing advances for writers such as Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton are surely not "low rent"! She singles out Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, as "the funniest novel in the English language." And among the 14 novels she selects for her "Books I Never Get Tired of Rereading" list are: Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym; The Book of Daniel, by E.L. Doctorow; Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott; and The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Charles Dickens is the only writer who gets multiple mentions on this roll of honor, for David Copperfield, Bleak House and Great Expectations.
Unfortunately, the book runs into trouble when the relatively tedious autobiographical chapters interrupt the flow of the passionate and seductive choices for her personal bookshelf. For the powerful endorsements of some of my all-time favorite pieces of fiction, especially the under-appreciated Villette, I am prepared to forgive Corrigan some slow-moving sections when she takes us through her rediscovery of the assigned reading of both her childhood and her student days. She devotes more than 40 pages to the experience of rereading books she read in the 1960s at her Catholic school in Sunnyside, Queens. On the curriculum for all the girls at St. Raphael's was a series of novels featuring a virtuous Catholic girl nicknamed Beany. Corrigan now feels this fictional series of "secular-saint stories" was used by the nuns to inculcate the precept that "good women simply serve and submit."
Despite devoting a lot of space to her Irish Catholic roots, Corrigan is clearly ambivalent about her cultural heritage. As a result she fails to make a convincing connection between her mandatory childhood reading and her adult love of the written word and ends up making the books of her youth sound dull.
The less successful retrospective parts of this book are a pity because Corrigan has some truly wonderful insights. I wish she'd said more about books she loves and less about Catholic school and her disenchantment with graduate education, but anyone who loves Charlotte Bronte, Dorothy Sayers and the poems of Stevie Smith is for me "a kindred spirit" (as Little Women's Jo March would say). Book lovers will be busy checking her lists, searching for new "leave me alone" titles. As Corrigan tells us, "Unforgettable books take us to places we didn't even suspect existed, places we may not even have wanted to go." And she's right. *
Brigitte Weeks is a former editor of Book World.