Maureen Corrigan

"Make the other person feel important." "Let the other fellow feel that the idea is his." "Make people like you." Those are some of the peppy commands that have sent generations of Americans out into the world, determined to win friends and influence people — oh, and make big bucks.

"Dickensian" is one of those literary modifiers that's overused. But before I officially retire this ruined adjective (or exile it to Australia, as Dickens himself would have done), I want to give it one final outing, because no other word will do. Here goes: Donna Tartt's grand new novel, The Goldfinch, is Dickensian both in the ambition of its jumbo, coincidence-laced plot, as well as in its symphonic range of emotions.

Dizzy dames don't age well. An attractive young thing doing prat falls is disarming; an older woman stumbling around for laughs spells hip replacement. Sad to say, Bridget Jones has hung on to her once-endearing daffiness, self-deprecation, and wine dependency far past their collective expiration date. That's one of the big reasons why her latest outing, called Mad About the Boy, is painful to read.

"Her days were days of flesh." That's just one of a multitude of striking observations that Jill Lepore makes about Jane Franklin, the baby sister of Ben. What Lepore means by that line of near-poetry is that Jane Franklin's life, beginning at age 17 when she gave birth to the first of her 12 children, was one of nursing, lugging pails of night soil, butchering chickens, cooking and scrubbing.

Geography is destiny in Jhumpa Lahiri's new novel, The Lowland. Her title refers to a marshy stretch of land between two ponds in a Calcutta neighborhood where two very close brothers grow up. In monsoon season, the marsh floods and the ponds combine; in summer, the floodwater evaporates. You don't need your decoder ring to figure out that the two ponds symbolize the two brothers — at times separate; at other times inseparable. But there's still more meaning lurking in this rich landscape.

Ten years ago, literary scholar Carla Kaplan released an acclaimed edition of the letters of Zora Neale Hurston. In the course of researching Hurston's life, Kaplan became curious about the white women who were in Harlem in the same period as Hurston, women who risked family exile and social ostracism to be part of the artistic and political movements of the Harlem Renaissance. Now, Kaplan has published a cultural history of those women called Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance.

Endurance, going the distance, sucking up the solitude and the brine: I'm not talking about the glorious Diana Nyad and her instantly historic swim from Cuba to Key West, but of the ordinary heroine whose life is the subject of Alice McDermott's latest novel, Someone. "Ordinary" is a word that's used a lot to describe McDermott's characters, mostly Irish and working class, mostly un-heroic in any splashy way.

In the world of book publishing, ravaged though it may be, the name Farrar, Straus & Giroux still bespeaks literary quality. It's a publishing house that boasts a roll call of 25 Nobel Prize winners and heavyweights like Susan Sontag, Carlos Fuentes, Joan Didion, Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen. A lot of writers, past and present, have turned down higher advances for their books from other publishing houses for the honor of being an FSG author.

Before I read Adelle Waldman's brilliant debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., I had about as much interest in reading about the hip, young literary types who've colonized Brooklyn as I do in watching Duck Dynasty, that reality show about a family of bearded Luddites who live in the Louisiana swamps. Both clans are ingrown and smug, each, in their own way, disdainful of the American mainstream.

The novel I've been recommending this summer to anyone, female or male, who's looking for the trifecta — a good story that's beautifully written and both hilarious and humane — is Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead's debut novel from last summer. I was about to go all old-school and excitedly add that Seating Arrangements is now out in paperback, except since more and more readers are instantly downloading new books at a discount, paperbacks are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

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