The Agony Column

Maureen Corrigan and the Power of Re-Reading

Maureen Corrigan. Photo: Nina Subin

Maureen Corrigan. Photo: Nina Subin

There’s an important implicit assumption at the heart of Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. It is presumed that readers of her book have read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby sometime in the past, and probably not too recently. The title and the book invite us to re-read Fitzgerald, and I’m going to suggest that readers follow my cue, and (re-)read Fitzgerald before reading Corrigan’s work.

It’s not that ‘So We Read On’ does not stand on it’s own. It’s a superbly architected story told with verve, intelligence and wit. But it is a story about reading and re-reading in particular, and re-reading one particular book. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a natural choice for the great American Novel. It’s a tough act to follow. But Maureen Corrigan has managed to write the perfect follow-on, the story of the story, the storyteller, and of every reader in a hall of mirrors to infinity. It is Escher as aesthete, a literary reflection on reflection itself. Once you are in, you won’t ever want to leave. Nor will you need to.

After a gorgeous and fun introduction that meditates on all things Gatsby; the book, the writer, his life, the life of the book and the afterlife of the book, Corrigan takes us to Fitzgerald at a low point in his life, and bottom up, explores all the worlds of Gatsby. The grace and elegance on display here is subtle and elegant.

readonCorrigan has the storytelling knack to wear one guise after another with ultimate ease. One moment, we are with Fitzgerald and Zelda, the next, in the book itself with Gatsby and Daisy. She makes scholarship a sensuous joy as she explores archives, or the places where Fitzgerald lived. She can even duke it out with Fitzgerald himself, pulling a timeless quote from the novel and following up with her own acute insights in a manner that lets each complement the other.

Part of the reason for Corrigan’s success here is her determination to make this a book for every reader, not just critics or academics. She’s entertaining and intelligent, and marries these with an enthusiasm for Fitzgerald and his work that will sweep readers off their feet. She makes a lot of great points in a manner that lets readers share in her discoveries; for example Fitzgerald’s sharp understanding of the class system. She provides a mirror for ‘The Great Gatsby’ that readers can enter and explore at will with a generous guide.

Given that this is a book about a book, it’s surprising and nice that we never feel the presence of the elephant in the room. This may be an impression based on my personal experience. Having read ‘The Great Gatsby’ just before I read Corrigan’s book, I was already suffused with wonder at Fitzgerald’s achievement. But Corrigan’s book is never overwhelmed by its subject. It’s more of a tesseract frame about a perfectly rendered cube. She simply gets the book, and is able to convey just what it is she gets with enthusiasm and expertise.

The book itself is nicely done, with photos and maps that illustrate the life. Part of what Corrigan is creating here is a sort of time machine, one that will take us not just back into the age chronicled by the book, but as well, into the times and places and ways the author lived.

While ‘So We Read On’ is certainly a work of insightful criticism, it’s really more of a story with flourishes of critical thought. Corrigan’s path through ‘The Great Gatsby’ and the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald is idiosyncratic and unique, but her storytelling skills are nonpareil. If you don’t read ‘The Great Gatsby’ before you read ‘So We Read On,’ rest assured that you will read it afterwards. You’ll want to meet this book word by word after reading Corrigan’s stories. And that idea, re-reading a book, has an immense power. Corrigan has the smarts to throw the switch and turn on that power, even as she guides our hands there.

Interview with Lawrence Wright

Author Lawrence Wright

Author Lawrence Wright

You can understand how Lawrence Wright gets the sort of inside stories he tells in ‘Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David’ when you sit down to talk with him. He carries a masterful knowledge of his subject with a disarming ease. And he’s willing to explore not just the histories he’s learned, but his own writing experience.

“…peace is possible…”

Lawrence Wright

Wright is a natural storyteller, and it’s hard not to just let him unravel the complicated set of facts he’s able to make almost absurdly clear. It was fun to ask about the origins of the book, of course, but just as fun to hear him talk with such authority about what he found out. The mark of a great storyteller is that you forget he is present; only the story is there. Wright has the ability to put his stories front and center.


Of course, there are a lot of fun bits that don’t make it into the book, and Wright shared some of these with me in the interview. But hearing him tell some of hearing the history he has discovered told aloud brings a very different feel to the proceedings.

I have to admit, I was really enjoying the sense of humor that Wright brings to his world history. It’s very low-key, but to my mind very funny. These are stories that, when told aloud, take on new meanings. You discover new implications that you might not have found had you just read the book.

There are also those questions that are entirely outside the book, that you as a reader ask, and in person, I took the time to ask some, mostly about how all this history is still so much with us. At the time when we spoke, there was a bit of a foofaraw, just winding down. Another will return, one must presume, sooner rather than later.

But the primary fact remains, one that Wright took pains to point out. Impossible things have happened in our lifetimes. I am of an age such that I was certain that in this year and day, the US and the USSR would still be poised with nukes waiting, unless the world had become a post-nuclear wasteland (always possible). The nukes are still there, but the threat is very different. The unimaginable becomes the ordinary faster than we can possibly realize.

Rebecca Alexander, on ‘Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found’


Rebecca Alexander

Rebecca Alexander

At the age of 12, Rebecca Alexander was diagnosed with Retinitis pigmentosa; at the age of nineteen, she was told that she had Usher Sydrome type 3, and that she’d be blind and deaf by the age of thirty; now she’s 34, a psychotherapist and a spin instructor with a cochlear implant and a ten-degree visual range. KUSP’s Rick Kleffel spoke with Alexander about her new book, Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found.

“… like your hands are, and their arms are, engaged in this poetic dance…”

— Rebecca Alexander

Rebecca Alexander is dressed for the radio when I meet her in the lobby at KQED. She’s wearing a great shirt (Lettuce Turnip the Beet), and looks like she’s ready to teach spin to a class of bicyclists who can’t possibly be in as good shape as she is. With her are her aunt, who drove, and her 97 year-old grandmother from Capitola. With a crew like this, it’s clear that ‘Not Fade Away’ will live up to its title.

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Lisa See “China Dolls” and Lawrence Wright “13 Days in September”


On this week’s Agony Column, the legendary Walter Mosely on his latest story whose protagonist is a former porn star. And Lisa See, the renowned author of novels and nonfiction centering on the lives of Chinese and Chinese American characters discusses her new novel about performers in San Francisco’s night clubs in the middle of the last century.

chinadollsChina Dolls
Lisa See’s books include the best selling crime novel “Flower Net” and the personal family history “On golden Mountain: The 100 Year Odyssey of My Chinese American Family.”

From Lisa See’s Web site: “It’s 1938 in San Francisco: a world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.”

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Author Nick Harkaway Discusses the Impact of Parenthood


Nick Harkaway

Nick Harkaway

Nick Harkaway is as delightful in person as he is on the page. We sat down in London to talk about his latest book, ‘Tigerman,’ and how he managed to craft a novel that reads like a big-screen adaptation of a great comic book. If you like the voice you hear in the interview, then you’ll love the book.

“…we do a lot of policy-based evidence making here…”
—Nick Harkaway

For a novel that might well and accurately be described as a comic-book novel or a crime thriller, there’s actually quite a bit to discuss in ‘Tigerman.’ Harkaway has crafted an ingenious setting in Mancreu Island, one that had me trying to look it up to see if it existed. He manages to crank up the atmosphere to the point where most readers will eel that the setting is a character, and his means of doing so make for a fun discussion.

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Jane Pauley Talks About Her Book: Reimaging the Rest of Your Life


This program was originally broadcast on February 9, 2014.


Jane Pauley.

From Rick Kleffel:

Pauley’s book is a step aside from what you might expect. She weaves in her own post-career experiences with those of the people she’s interviewed for her segment on Today. She teaches by story, not sermon, embracing mutually exclusive notions. What works for one person might not work for another. ‘Your Life Calling’ does not offer all of the answers; but it does offer examples of answers that worked.

Pauley’s book is anything but simple, though it’s quite easy to read. She starts out with the story of Meg, a woman stricken with cancer, who recovers and then asks the pertinent question; “What am I going to do for the next 40 years?” Pauley is part of all that question implies, and she follows up with a variety of answers, including her own.

As ‘Your Life Calling’ unfolds, readers will find a mixture of Pauley’s colorful life, played lightly, and mixed with the stories she’s found for her TV series. The prose trends to the reportorial, and she’s clearly influenced by the styles required for TV. She works fast, and cuts time to suit the story and the point. Readers will be surprised by both her interest in and perspective on the future. In one segment, she offers visionary prose as she imagines how she might live some years down the road. Her grounded, low-key style keeps it all together.

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An Interview with Ex-CIA Attorney John Rizzo



Note: This program was originally broadcast February 2, 2014.

Rick Kleffel speaks with the man who was once the CIA’s top lawyer – John Rizzo, about the torture tapes, enhanced Interrogation techniques, dirty assets, drone strikes and about his new book, Company Man.

“Even inside the bubble, you find yourself fairly alone…” — John Rizzo

Rick Kleffel wrote:
I was most interested in the historical aspects of the story, and that’s where I took much of our conversation. There’s a very nice JFK connection in the book, and a scene that is impeccably described. We talked about Iran-Contra, and the part he would have willingly played had he been in the wrong place at the right time. All through the conversation, I have to say that John Rizzo was right there. I think that he was relieved to talk with someone who had read the book, and he was clearly happy to discuss events in the book that were not the focus of recent media attention.

Fantasy Writer Tad Williams


Tad Williams’ newest books are hard-boiled detective stories with a fantasy twist; the detective is angel Bobby Dollar.

By Rick Kleffel

Attitude is everything in the Bobby Dollar books by Tad Williams. The Angel Doloriel, aka Bobby Dollar, tells the story in some of the most enjoyable, hilarious, smartest prose you can find in this particular veil of tears. Following hot on the heels of ‘The Dirty Streets of Heaven,’ ‘Happy Hour in Hell’ follows the narrative model of the first book. We start in the middle, in this case as Bobby crosses a bridge into hell, then whip back to the beginning and take the story straight up, no chasers.

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Author Roz Chast, “The Beginning of the End” to “The End”



By Rick Kleffel

Roz Chast Asks ‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’


You’d think that living here in the 21st century, we’d be comfortable with death. It’s not as if we haven’t seen enough of it. But everyday, natural, he-lived-a-long-life-and-then-dropped-dead death gives us the heebies to the point where we’ve let ourselves be convinced that anything is better. Plus, there’s a healthy profit in tending to those who might otherwise have died but can be kept alive long enough to cash out every penny they had ever scrimped, saved and hidden away for that rainy day. If only it were just a day.

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Interview with Alan Furst



While Alan Furst’s current novel is ‘Midnight in Europe,’ at this point in his career, you can’t really talk about a single novel. Make no mistake. You can read ‘Midnight in Europe’ by itself, having never read anything else by the man, cold, and it will knock you out. It’s a superb novel. But Furst is working on a unique literary form, a multi-volume version of a story in the style of a huge Russian novel.

“..but it was as nothing compared to the noise of planes landing…”
—Alan Furst

In conversation about his latest, I definitely wanted to open it up, to explore how Furst builds this detailed world, novel by novel. He told me some very interesting secrets that took me back to my time as a child, reading the Compton’s Encyclopedia. In retrospect, it seems that the hardbound encyclopedia has much more worth than one might presume, as it captures the world in a moment. It may give you some valuable information about the world, to be sure, but is certain to offer invaluable and un-reproducible information about the moment.

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