Maureen Corrigan

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.

In the winter of 1949, a group of judges — including poets T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell — met to decide the winner of the prestigious Bollingen Prize for the best book of poetry published in the United States the previous year. They gave the prize to Ezra Pound for his collection The Pisan Cantos. Then all hell broke loose.

Before I finally picked up and read Louise Erdrich's new novel, called Future Home of the Living God, there was a mighty obstacle that had to be faced — an obstacle called The Handmaid's Tale. After Margaret Atwood's magisterial achievement, is there really room for another dystopian feminist novel about the overthrow of democracy by a Christian fundamentalist regime that enslaves fertile women and reduces them to simple vessels of procreation?

The somewhat unsettling answer is "Sure!"

So, is it any good?

That's the question everybody asks whenever a celebrity writes a work of fiction. No one expects much from debut novels written by rhinestone-in-the-rough wordsmiths like Fabio or Snooki from Jersey Shore, but the work of other Hollywood stars like James Franco, Lauren Graham and Steve Martin has garnered some serious attention.

Which brings us to Tom Hanks' debut collection of short stories called Uncommon Type. So, is it any good?

Nicknames like a real "peasouper" or a "London Particular" make the quintessential foggy day in London Town sound so quaint — an impression that's been intensified in art and literature.

Certainly, the London of Sherlock Holmes would be a lot less mysterious without that obscuring fog. Impressionist painter Claude Monet, who famously depicted the Houses of Parliament shrouded in mist, said that: "Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It is the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth."

It's a commonplace these days to say that real life has become so unpredictable that it outstrips anything anyone could dream up in fiction. I think I'm guilty of having made that banal observation a few times.

But that was before I read The Obama Inheritance, a collection of 15 stories so sly, fresh and Bizarro World witty, they reaffirm the resiliency of the artistic imagination.

So many great writers have given us so many great quotes in an attempt to capture New York, but I think my favorite is by the legendary New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling: "Before it was anything else," Liebling says, "New York was a seaport, and before anything else, it still is."

Jennifer Egan clearly shares Liebling's view in her latest novel, Manhattan Beach. Egan is known for the edgy tone of her work and for her fragmented storylines that require some self-assembly by readers.

Fall is when the publishing industry gets serious, when it leaves beach books in the sand and turns to weightier topics. And what could be weightier than the greatest question of all: the meaning of life. Two new books — one a novel; one a (sort of) memoir — tackle that ultimate question through experimental forms of writing.

I know, I know: "Experimental writing" is surely one of the least enticing literary terms. But don't be put off, because both of these odd new books offer something special, something that more "broken in" forms of writing can't provide.

About halfway through Claire Messud's new novel The Burning Girl, our narrator, a 12-year-old girl named Julia, makes this pronouncement:

Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theater or the fire escape in a hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn't as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.

Back in the late 1980s, when I was first starting out as a critic for The Village Voice, one of the books I was assigned was Laura Shapiro's Perfection Salad, a social history of the home economics movement during the turn of the last century.

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