Heller McAlpin | WYPR

Heller McAlpin

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.

Caryl Phillips' latest novel, based on the troubled life of the writer Jean Rhys, is a lush exploration of the costs of colonialism, the limited possibilities for non-conformist women, and egregious power imbalances between genders and races. Rhys' life — she was born in the British colony of Dominica in 1890 and sent to school in England at 16 — is a fitting canvas for Phillips' perennial themes of displacement, alienation and muddled identity.

The title of Michael Ondaatje's atmospheric new novel — Warlight — refers most directly to the dimmed lights that guided emergency traffic during wartime blackouts, but it applies equally to the cloak of secrecy and uncertainty that blankets this haunting tale.

No one writes about close friendships and unconventional domestic arrangements between gay men and straight women with as much charm and flair as Stephen McCauley. When his first novel, The Object of My Affection, was published 31 years ago, same-sex marriage was somewhere over the rainbow, but his characters, gay and straight, banded together to create a new-fangled family.

In a year that hasn't exactly been full of joyful tidings, Julian Barnes' latest novel struck me as one of the saddest books I've read in some time. Beautifully done, but heartrending. It isn't about belligerent politicians, refugees fleeing for their lives, or schoolchildren being gunned down, but it's a tragedy nonetheless — albeit on a much smaller scale. The Only Story concerns the pained recollections of an aging Englishman's life-changing only love.

What do I love about this book? For starters: Dorothy Parker. Rebecca West. Hannah Arendt. Mary McCarthy. Nora Ephron. Janet Malcolm. With Sharp, Michelle Dean has essentially gathered ten 20th century literary lodestars for an all-female intellectual history party thrown between the covers of a single book. The price of admission to this critical gala: "the ability to write unforgettably," and being labeled "sharp."

One of the most frequently hailed signs of social progress in the last 50 years is the growing acceptance and mainstreaming of homosexuality in the Western world. No novelist has chronicled this salubrious sea change in cultural attitudes more beautifully than Alan Hollinghurst. Beginning with The Swimming-Pool Library in 1988 and continuing through The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst's grand literary project has been nothing less than to convey the changing status of homosexuality in British society in the last century.

Fathers and sons. You could fill a library with books about the paternal ties that bind — or fray: Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Philip Roth's Patrimony, Mario Puzo's The Godfather, and so on. And now there's Mark Sarvas' second novel, Memento Park. Dedicated to his father, who died in 2009, and his two grandfathers, who died decades earlier, it's an absorbing drama about a first generation Hungarian-American rooting around in his family's buried past in the hopes of fathoming his legacy.

John Banville, the notoriously self-critical Irish writer known for his elegant precision and icicle-sharp wit, has reached the age of nostalgia and redress. In Time Pieces, a lovely quasi-memoir and multi-leveled portrait of Dublin, Banville makes up for the short shrift he feels he's given his adopted city in his novels, which include The Sea, Ancient Light, and Mrs. Osmond, his recent sequel to Henry James' Portrait of a Lady.

About halfway through her first book of nonfiction, Edinburgh-based author Maggie O'Farrell explains her latest project to her mother: "I'm trying to write a life, told only through near-death experiences," she says. It's not exactly an autobiography, more like "snatches of a life. A string of moments."

One of the great joys of reading is discovering a new writer whose work speaks to you — whether an unknown debut novelist or a seasoned author whose many books you've somehow missed. Case in point: Sigrid Nunez. I was drawn to her sixth novel as a fresh addition to the literature of grief, but within pages realized The Friend has as much to say about literature as about grief, and was wondering how she'd slipped below my radar.

Jillian Medoff's new novel is an office dramedy involving an elaborate coverup in a corporate HR department that has nothing to do with financial or sexual transgressions. In other words, it isn't ripped from the headlines. Set at a New York-based market research firm that's been cut to the bone by layoffs in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, This Could Hurt is an ultimately heartwarming entertainment about the ways "the work/life firewall" breaks down when a formidable boss — a 64-year-old glass-ceiling-breaker who's both Hispanic and a woman — starts to slip.

Ali Smith is flat-out brilliant, and she's on fire these days. Writing in the heat of outrage following England's divisive Brexit vote, she opened a seasonal quartet of novels last year with Autumn, a moving requiem for an unusual friendship between two unlikely kindred spirits, a young art historian and her singularly cultivated old neighbor, whose waning days coincide with an alarming erosion of civility and compassion in the not-so-United Kingdom. Deservedly, Autumn landed on the Booker Prize shortlist.

When Alan Bennett's whopping 700-page omnibus of picked-up pieces landed on my desk, I considered giving it a pass. But how could I resist after happening upon this diary entry from 2005, which reads in its entirety: "Robert Hanks, the radio critic of the Independent, remarks that personally he can have too much of Alan Bennett. I wonder how he thinks I feel."

Tom Hanks has heart. It's no news to his fans that empathy fuels his acting — including his back-to-back Oscar-winning portrayals of an AIDS victim in Philadelphia and the endearing hero of Forrest Gump. So it should come as no surprise that empathy also drives his first collection of fiction. While all of the 17 stories in Uncommon Type feature a different antique manual typewriter (Hanks is an avid collector), they are linked by something greater than typewriter ribbons: a decidedly benign, humane view of people and their foibles.

Ellen Stern's biography of theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld reads more like a gossipy 300-page article in New York magazine (where Stern has worked) than the biography of record suggested by the definite article modifying its subtitle. And in fact, Hirschfeld: The Biography grew out of Stern's juicy interview for a 1987 GQ magazine profile of the artist.

Jeffrey Eugenides' first short story collection reminds us, during the long wait between novels, what we like so much about his writing. These ten stories, written over nearly 30 years, showcase his ability to write convincing female characters, his sensitivity to spouses and artists under duress, and his compassion for people who disappoint themselves as much as each other. Although not thematically linked, a recurring concern is what happens when basically good people succumb to temptations and pressures and behave badly.

In one beautifully observed, quietly absorbing novel after another, Alice McDermott has made the insular world of New York's Irish Catholic immigrants in the first half of the 20th century her own, much as Anne Tyler has laid claim to Baltimore's middle class. And, like Tyler, in focusing tightly on a close-knit community of ordinary people, she leads us to a deeper understanding of the human condition.

Back in 2006, Minna Zallman Proctor was hit by a landslide of woes that left her reeling. Heavily pregnant with her first child, she was going through a divorce from the child's father while her own mother was dying after 15 years of fighting various cancers. What made matters more painful was that some of her troubles were of her own making: She'd had an affair with another man, and had chosen to leave her husband for him.

Although I was put off by the Hitlerian title and massive self-absorption of Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume, 3,600-page confessional novel, My Struggle, accolades from trusted colleagues convinced me to set it aside for a rainy day — which, truthfully, might mean the next Flood. In the meantime, I picked up Autumn, the first in a planned seasonal quartet of meditative reflections, with hopes that it would provide a more modest, accessible introduction to Knausgaard's work. More modest, yes.

Writers are drawn to oddballs and outsiders, in much the way that dogs out for a walk veer toward fellow canines. The endearing pre-adolescent narrator of Camille Bordas' novel, How To Behave in a Crowd, is the youngest of six siblings growing up in a small French village. He's the odd man out because he's the most normal of the lot: All of his older sisters and brothers have skipped multiple grades, and three of them earn PhDs during the course of this book.

"Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so." That's how Laurent Binet opens his audacious second novel, an intellectual romp about the many ways language exerts power, particularly in politics and fiction.

Don't let Tamara Shopsin's Thurberesque cover drawing of a helmeted girl in cleats kicking right through a football mislead you. Arbitrary Stupid Goal is not about football. It isn't about any sport — except, perhaps, smashing grand life goals to smithereens.

Feeling hot? Ashley Shelby's debut novel, set among an appealing assortment of nerds and oddballs at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica — where 50 below zero is considered downright balmy — is a refreshing diversion from a heat wave.

Allegra Goodman's characters tend to become obsessed with whatever belief systems they espouse, and for nearly 20 years, her novels have followed them into their cultural bubbles — whether it's the separatist Orthodox Judaism in a small Catskills community in Kaaterskill Falls, the secular faith in science in a tight-knit medical research laboratory in Intuition, or the adrenaline-fueled, competitive Silicon Valley startup culture in The Cookbook Collector. In The Chalk Artist, her sixth novel, Goodman, who holds a PhD.

Years ago, when my mother-in-law was fighting what would turn out to be a losing battle with breast cancer, she was riding in a golf cart with my two small children when her wig blew off, briefly exposing her head, as bald as a golf ball. My daughter's eyes grew wide with alarm, but my mother-in-law quickly defused the moment with extraordinary aplomb: "Bet you can't do that with your hair, can you?"

The stories Katherine Heiny collected in her appealing 2015 debut, Single, Carefree, Mellow, were mainly about that many-splendored thing called love and the often baffling, complicated forms it can take — including blithely indulged-in adultery. Her warmhearted and even funnier first adult novel (she's published dozens of young adult novels under assorted pen names) also explores the complexities and ambivalences that color even our most central relationships.

This spring brings a bumper crop of short story collections, some introducing distinctive new writers, others strategically timed to tide us over the wait between an established author's novels. I've been enjoying a stack of these books, most notably by Haruki Murakami, Joshua Ferris, Penelope Lively, and Tessa Hadley. They're all worthwhile, but if pressed to recommend just one, it would be Hadley's Bad Dreams. Her meticulously observed, extraordinarily perceptive stories are as satisfying as Alice Munro's. Yes, Hadley is that good.

Colm Tóibín has ventured to ancient Argos — far from the decorous, restrained worlds of Henry James, coastal Ireland, and mid-20th century Brooklyn we've seen in his earlier books — in this heart-stopping novel based on Clytemnestra's family tragedy.

Joshua Ferris has a bead on the insecurities that run beneath our quotidian exchanges, a shadowy subtext always threatening to spill into the open, like a sewage system overflowing with storm runoff. His typical protagonist is a man in his 30s who goes off the deep end in a darkly humorous way when his anxieties — usually about his wife or work — overwhelm him.

Writing good fiction is hard, and doesn't necessarily get easier with practice. Some writers improve over time, others burn brightly but flame out early. Case in point: F. Scott Fitzgerald, who produced most of his best work — This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tales of the Jazz Age — in his 20s.

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