Maureen Corrigan

One of the two women at the center of Meg Wolitzer's absorbing new novel, The Female Persuasion, is a legendary feminist named Faith Frank. Faith, who's in her 60s when the story begins, seems to be modeled on Gloria Steinem: She's charismatic, sexy and witty. We're told that Faith is not "a firebrand or a visionary; her talent was different. She could sift and distill ideas and present them in a way that made other people want to hear them."

Both of the books I'm recommending today are each, in their own ways, about cold cases.

After all, what could be colder than the mysteries surrounding the life of that pre-eminent Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie? Christie, by some calculations, is the second best-selling author of all time (beaten by a hair by Shakespeare). She was a resolutely private person and, so, has teased the legion of biographers who have been chipping away at her sphinxlike silence ever since she died in 1976.

Matt Young enlisted in the Marines in 2005 on impulse. He was 18 years old, and hours before he walked into the recruitment center, he'd gotten drunk and crashed his car into a fire hydrant. Young knew he needed direction in life and thought that becoming a Marine would help him to quickly "man up."

Zadie Smith is justly celebrated for her chameleon-like gifts as a writer. In novels like White Teeth and On Beauty she's ventured deeply into the lives of a multi-racial assortment of immigrants to Great Britain and the United States. Her characters run the gamut from aspirational working-class kids, self-important academics, pensioners, young dancers and, to date, one Chinese-Jewish Londoner with a fixation on Golden Age Hollywood.

The classic coming-to-New-York story was a mashup of a few pleasurably predictable elements: a young person with dreams bigger than his or her bank account, a few roach-ridden apartments and crummy jobs, some eccentric friends and neighbors, and a couple of requisite hard knocks before ... success!

To mark Black History Month, Penguin Classics is reprinting six early 20th century books by African-American writers. The five Harlem Renaissance novels, along with W.E.B Du Bois' 1903 masterwork, The Souls of Black Folk, are much more than a summons to reader-ly duty. Rather, they're a shake up and wake up call, reminding readers of the vigorous voices of earlier African-American writers, each of whom had their own ingenious take on "the race problem" and identity politics.

If you've seen the 1945 film noir Mildred Pierce or the 2011 HBO miniseries of the same name (both made from James M. Cain's novel), you know that story punishes Mildred for being a working mother: Her marriage breaks up, her younger daughter takes ill and dies and her elder daughter ,Vida, turns out to be a murderer — all because Mildred wasn't in the home 24/7 to oversee things.

Denis Johnson's posthumous short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is full of last calls to his readers signaling, "Hurry up please, it's time." Take these eerie sentences spoken by the narrator of a story called "Triumph Over the Grave":

It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.

The audio link above includes an excerpt of Terry Gross' 1989 conversation with Sue Grafton.

I think the last time I reviewed one of Sue Grafton's novels was in 2009. I wrote that U is for Undertow was so good, "it makes me wish there were more than 26 letters at her disposal." Now, of course, that line falls flat.

For a chaotic year, I'm offering a chaotic "Best Books" list — but I think my list is chaotic in a good sense. These books zing off in all directions: They're fresh, unruly and dismissive of the canned and contrived.

You can't go wrong with any of these books. As one of Dashiell Hammett's dangerous dames might have said: They're all the bees' knees.

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