Maureen Corrigan

In my family, we referred to them as "the brisket brigade" — those single ladies of a certain age who began bombarding my brother-in-law with casseroles and commiseration soon after my sister-in-law died. It's a cruel fact of life that nobody plies widows with months of home-cooked meals and baked goods; as Jonathan Swift might have modestly proposed, widows might as well eat each other — there's a surplus supply of them, anyway. But, a new widower gets the Crock-Pots and the romantic fantasies all fired up.

Years ago, when my daughter was a toddler, my husband and I were friendly with another couple who had a child the same age. The friendship came to an end when the wife of the couple let slip that her husband had dressed their daughter as JonBenet Ramsey for Halloween. "He has an offbeat sense of humor," the wife explained to me. That's one way to look at it. Or else, as I thought, maybe hubby's "humor" wasn't funny at all — just perversely detached from the horrific death of an actual 6-year-old.

Most everyone's spirits are a bit deflated after the holidays. So, as a literary antidote, I recommend a just-published anthology called New York Diaries: 1609 – 2009. Editor Teresa Carpenter has collected four centuries worth of diary excerpts written by people, great and small, who've lived in or just passed through one of the greatest cities in the world.

This was a terrific year for fiction and a particularly strong year for first-time novelists. Some of the literary debutantes who glide through this "10 best" list are so young, their wisdom teeth probably haven't had time to become impacted yet. Majestically bringing up the rear of the procession are some much-decorated veterans whose sustained achievements in fiction should ensure that the young 'uns don't rest too comfortably on their laurels.

I'll admit, it's kind of hokey to be talking about a novel called The Pilgrim right before Thanksgiving. What's even more quaint is the fact that The Pilgrim is one of those straightforward works of historical fiction the likes of which we don't see so much anymore.

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