Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
Originally published on Tue January 27, 2015 11:53 am
Reading Esther Freud's eighth novel — about an English boy's unlikely but life-expanding friendship with Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh — is a bit like watching a watercolor painting take shape. Mr. Mac and Me begins with delicate dabs of color, as 13-year-old Thomas Maggs, the only surviving son of an abusive alcoholic pub proprietor and his long-suffering wife, paints a plaintive picture of life at the aptly named Blue Anchor, in the Sussex village of Walberswick.
Rachel Cusk is better known in England than in America; her sharply satirical books about the tolls of family life play better across the Atlantic than here in our often puritanical culture, with its bias towards domesticity. In her controversially bitter memoirs, including A Life's Work and Aftermath, and in piercing — but always beautifully written — novels like The Lucky Ones, Cusk has examined the difficulties of self-definition in the context of marriage, motherhood and family.
Originally published on Sat December 6, 2014 4:45 am
Can a book be both linguistically playful and dead serious? Structurally innovative and reader-friendly? Mournful and joyful? Brainy and moving? Ali Smith's How To Be Both, which recently won the prestigious, all-Brit two-year-old Goldsmiths prize for being a truly novel novel, is all of the above — and then some.
Originally published on Tue November 11, 2014 9:01 am
Jon Krakauer's 1996 book Into the Wild delved into the riveting story of Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old man from an affluent family outside Washington, D.C., who graduated with honors from Emory, then gave away the bulk of his money, burned the rest and severed all ties with his family. After tramping around the country for nearly two years, he headed into the Alaska wilderness in April 1992. His emaciated body was found a little over four months later.
In her surprise 2003 bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Iranian emigré Azar Nafisi made clear why fiction matters in totalitarian regimes. With The Republic of Imagination, she seeks to demonstrate the importance of great literature even in a democratic society, one threatened not by fundamentalist revolutionaries but by the danger of "intellectual indolence."
Originally published on Tue October 14, 2014 11:43 am
Did you know that the collective noun for a flock of parrots — akin to, say, a pride of lions — is a pandemonium? Apparently, Michele Raffin didn't know that either when she founded Pandemonium Aviaries — named instead for the chaotic, noisy nature of her "petulant psittacines" and "feathered vaudevillians." The apt name is characteristic of the serendiptious nature of what has turned out to be her life calling.
Colm Tóibín's writing is the literary equivalent of slow cuisine – and I mean that as a compliment. In this age of fast everything, sensational effects, and unremitting violence, he uses only the purest literary ingredients – including minutely focused character development and a keen sense of place — and simmers his quietly dramatic narratives over a low burner.
Originally published on Tue September 23, 2014 5:38 pm
What a treat it is to read Brian Morton's latest novel, populated with the prickly, civic-minded liberal intellectuals we've come to expect from him. Florence Gordon, his fifth book, like Starting Out in the Evening, his best known, is set on Manhattan's Upper West Side and concerns a feisty older writer and a much younger admirer and would-be mentee. Both novels not only feature curmudgeonly characters who insist on living on their own terms but explore questions about what constitutes a successful life.
One measure of a fine writer is the ability to master new tricks. Joseph O'Neill's new novel, The Dog, is a different animal (so to speak) from Netherland, his remarkable PEN/Faulkner Award-winner about a Dutch financial analyst adrift in New York in the aftermath of 9/11. Though both involve romantic estrangement in a globalized but alienating world, The Dog focuses more narrowly — and sometimes claustrophobically — on one man's hopeless, deluded efforts to live blamelessly in a distressingly mean-spirited, soulless society.
Originally published on Thu September 11, 2014 10:29 am
Add Marcos Giralt Torrente's Father and Son: A Lifetime to the shortlist of worthwhile memoirs about mourning a parent — a list that includes Philip Roth's Patrimony, Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude, and Hanif Kureishi's My Ear at His Heart, all of which the author cites as touchstones for his exploration.
Originally published on Wed September 10, 2014 9:26 am
Be prepared to be blown away by this raw, visceral, brutally intense neomodernist first novel. There's nothing easy about Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, from its fractured language to its shattering story of the young unnamed narrator's attempt to drown mental anguish with physical pain.
Originally published on Thu September 4, 2014 7:00 am
"The truth is I've been something of a bifurcated, high/low girl from the very start," Daphne Merkin declares in The Fame Lunches, her first collection of essays since Dreaming of Hitler in 1997. This new anthology gathers 45 wide-ranging essays that straddle the high/low cultural faultline with aplomb, weighing in on subjects as diverse as W.G. Sebald, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Courtney Love, lip gloss, kabbalah and handbags as "the top fashion signifier."
You've heard this story before. You may even have experienced it, or thought about it: A woman who apparently has it all — loving, financially successful spouse, posh home, wonderful, healthy kids, great job — still feels something is missing from her life. Could it be passion? Adventure? Risk? She throws herself at an old high school boyfriend. What's love got to do with it? Dismayingly little.
Lena Finkle is a 37-year-old, twice-divorced Russian immigrant and a self-described "toddler of relationship experience" — when a friend asks how many guys she's "been with" in her life, she can only hold up three fingers. Anya Ulinich's new graphic novel, Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel is her account, told in expressive dark-inked drawings and hand-printed all-caps dialogue, of her quest to find true love — and good sex — and resuscitate what she depicts as her freeze-dried heart.
Joel Dicker's breakneck thriller The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair lands stateside trumpeting international sales figures that are the stuff of a writer's wildest dreams: nearly a million copies in France alone. Naturally, our curiosity is roused. Could this be another surprise charmer like Muriel Barbery's quirky The Elegance of the Hedgehog? Or, as the publicity materials tout breathlessly, a "broadly comic" mashup of Twin Peaks, In Cold Blood, The Hotel New Hampshire and more?
The exclamation point in its title is a clear tipoff: Delicious!, Ruth Reichl's first novel, is about as subtle as a Ring Ding. It's an enthusiastic but cloyingly sentimental story about a 21-year-old who finds happiness by making peace with her past — namely, her crippling, self-deprecating hero-worship of her older sister. After much angst, she comes to realize that "it was finally time to stop running from the best in me."
Elizabeth McCracken is a former public librarian best known for her quirkily endearing 1996 novel, The Giant's House, about an unlikely romance kindled at the circulation desk between a petite librarian and a freakishly tall boy. Over time, her work — filled with misfits, giants, and oddballs — has become darker. Loss dominates the triple-trinity of stories in her new collection, Thunderstruck, though she continues to slyly celebrate resilience and unlikely connections.
Twenty years after the publication of Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen's excoriating memoir about the nearly two years she spent in a psychiatric institution at the end of her teens, she's written a sort of prequel. Cambridge, her unflinching, elegiac, quasi-autobiographical new novel, takes us back to the mid-to-late 1950s with a portrait of Susanna as a difficult, contrary 7-to-11-year-old miserably at odds with her family, her teachers and herself. The result is both fascinating and heartbreaking, because we know where her abiding unhappiness is going to land her.
Meet the Posts — no relation to Emily and her rules of etiquette. The stressed family of New Yorkers in Emma Straub's breezy summer read, The Vacationers, are the kind of people who pack their troubles on top, for easiest access, when they head off on a trip together.
A boyfriend once called Leslie Jamison "a wound dweller." This is one of many personal morsels she shares in her virtuosic book of essays, The Empathy Exams, in which she intrepidly probes sore spots to explore how our reactions to both our own pain and that of others define us as human beings. Jamison notes with concern that ironic detachment has become the fallback in this "post-wounded" age that fears "anything too tender, too touchy-feely." The Empathy Exams presents a brainy but heartfelt case for compassion even at the risk of sentimentality.
Originally published on Wed February 26, 2014 8:28 am
What is it about comedians itching to get between the covers — book covers, that is? Annabelle Gurwitch's I See You Made An Effort, a seriously funny collection of essays about teetering over the edge of 50, makes it clear that the draw isn't strictly literary. To tweak Peter Steiner's classic New Yorker cartoon: On the page, nobody knows how old you are.
Originally published on Tue February 11, 2014 9:25 am
How entertaining is B.J. Novak? With One More Thing, the standup comic, scriptwriter and actor (best known for his work on The Office), takes his talents to the page in 64 fresh, short, offbeat and often hilarious stories, many of which involve updating classics for satirical effect — whether with a rematch between the tortoise and the hare, or by replacing detective Encyclopedia Brown from children's literature with Wikipedia Brown, who is hopelessly distracted by tangential subjects.
Originally published on Wed January 29, 2014 11:04 am
Back in the 1980s, Anna Quindlen's New York Times column, "Life in the 30s," delineated — with humor and grace — what so many of her fellow newly liberated female Boomers were going through: the complications of using your maiden name after you have children. Check. The challenges of balancing a career with parenting. Check. Grocery shopping with small children in tow, "an event I hope to see included in the Olympics in the near future."Check again.
Originally published on Thu January 23, 2014 12:47 pm
Richard Powers, whose novels combine the wonders of science with the marvels of art, astonishes us in different ways with each new book. His 11th, Orfeo, is about a 70-year-old avant-garde composer who has sacrificed family and fortune to his relentless pursuit of immortal, transcendent music.
Originally published on Fri January 17, 2014 1:00 pm
E.L. Doctorow's 19th book, Andrew's Brain, is a real head-scratcher. This short, perplexing but occasionally potent novel presents particular challenges to a critic, as it's difficult to discuss its enigmas without giving away its odd twists. What I can say is that what starts out as a tale of lost love ends up taking a baffling political turn into rather biting commentary on post-Sept. 11 America.
There's a difference between ruminating and rambling, and Roger Rosenblatt crosses the line in The Boy Detective, his dilatory, meandering new memoir about his New York boyhood. I was a big fan of Kayak Morning, Rosenblatt's meditation on the tenaciousness of grief published in early 2012, four years after the sudden death of his 38-year-old daughter, a pediatrician and mother of three small children. But his latest, while less melancholic, more playful, and occasionally endearingly quirky, ambles at a pace that makes rush hour traffic down Second Avenue seem speedy.
Roth Unbound, Claudia Roth Pierpont's aptly titled study of Philip Roth's evolution as a writer, unleashes a slew of memories — including my eye-opening first encounter with Portnoy's Complaint as a naive 14-year-old. It also stokes a strong desire to re-read his books, which I suspect will be the case for many.
He's a socially inept scientist who's tone deaf to irony. She's an edgy young woman whose fallback mode is sarcasm. Put them together, and hilarity ensues in Australian IT consultant Graeme Simsion's first novel, The Rosie Project. It's an utterly winning screwball comedy about a brilliant, emotionally challenged geneticist who's determined to find a suitable wife with the help of a carefully designed questionnaire, and the patently unsuitable woman who keeps distracting him from his search.
"Every love story is a potential grief story," Julian Barnes writes in Levels of Life, a quirky but ultimately powerful meditation on things that uplift us — literally, as in hot air balloons, and emotionally, as in love — and things that bring us crashing to earth: to wit, that great leveler, the death of a loved one.
Originally published on Tue September 17, 2013 8:06 am
Nicholson Baker has become a sort of poet of the particular and the peculiar. His books are filled with people who focus minutely on what captivates them – in other words, obsessives. A positive way of looking at obsession is as passion taken to an extreme. The danger, of course, is that the object of one person's intense fascination — such as the broken shoelaces in his unforgettable first novel, The Mezzanine, or the disquisitions on Debussy, dance music, and drones in his latest, Traveling Sprinkler — may spell another's total snore.