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.

Mental illness has long been a mainstay of literature, from Don Quixote and Jane Eyre to Mrs. Dalloway and Madame Bovary. And why not? It's interesting. Novels like Crime and Punishment and The Catcher in the Rye find cultural insights in the tumult of nonconforming, besieged minds. Others, like Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot and Walker Percy's The Second Coming explore the devastating toll of mental illness on loved ones.

Graham Swift's slim, incantatory new book is one of those deceptively spare tales (like Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending) that punch well above their weight. Mothering Sunday, more novella than novel, zeroes in on a time of seismic change in English society and a turning point in the life of a woman who against all odds becomes a famous author.

Two funeral directors, one American and the other Italian, get together in Rome and share undertaker stories. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but there's nothing funny about the situation in the title novella of Robert Hellenga's new book, which confronts death matter-of-factly. "No fairy tales for us," the Italian says — and no consoling metaphors like final journeys or peaceful sleep, either. "Death breaks the back of metaphor," he adds, as the two men prepare the body of a close relative who has been killed in a hit-and-run accident.

There are books that keep you turning pages to find out what's going to happen, and others to find out how it happened. Elizabeth Poliner's beautiful first novel falls squarely into the please-tell-us-all-about-it group.

What would the United States be without its immigrants? Imagine no pizza, no New York City Ballet, no Saul Bellow — and no new waves of talented émigré authors helping us to see American culture from fresh angles. With his first novel, A Replacement Life, Boris Fishman (who came to the United States from Belarus in 1988 when he was nine) staked himself a spot in the impressive lineup of immigrant writers born in the former Soviet Union.

Belinda McKeon's new novel takes the prize for having one of the most exquisite endings I've read in some time — but first, you have to get there. McKeon has followed her debut, Solace (which won an Irish Book Award in 2011) with a microscopically examined tale of lopsided, obsessive love between two college-aged, fledgling adults who meet in Dublin just as they're starting to define themselves apart from their provincial parents.

What's the last novel you read that revolved around a translator? I couldn't think of any, though a Google search reminded me that Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov sometimes worked as a translator, and the narrator chasing his elusive muse in Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl was an interpreter at UNESCO.

Elizabeth McKenzie's clever, romantic comedy broadcasts quirkiness right on its cover, with its potentially off-putting title and its illustration of a squirrel instead of the interlocked wedding rings you might expect. In the tradition of Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House and Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, The Portable Veblen is a smart charmer about a brainy off-center couple who face up to their differences — and their difficult, eccentric families — only after they become engaged. Although plenty whimsical — the squirrel has opinions!

Too bad there are more than 340 shopping days till Christmas, because if it were just around the corner, I'd be urging you to buy Helen Ellis' off-the-wall stories for anyone on your list who loves satirical humor as twisted as screw-top bottles — and more effervescent than the stuff that pours out of them. Since it's January, let me just assure you that American Housewife is a better cure for winter blahs than hot chocolate, Ellis' hyper-housewife's "gateway drug to reading."

Three sisters — and their brother — converge on their late grandparents' dilapidated cottage for what's likely to be a valedictory summer holiday together as they decide the old homestead's fate. Yes, Tessa Hadley's sixth novel is unabashedly Chekhovian. But The Past also channels those delicious English country house dramas in which characters thrown together under one roof unpack some of the psychological baggage they tote everywhere, airing out old resentments, disappointments, secrets and affinities.

There are books you need to slow down for in order to appreciate fully. Like Family, Italian physicist-turned-writer Paolo Giordano's third novel, demands to be savored. Race through this short meditation on family, marriage, and devotion – set in motion by the death of a beloved housekeeper — and you'll miss its point: The importance, in our numbingly busy, propulsive lives, of pausing to fully experience the present.

I'm a sucker for charming personal essays, those seemingly casual, anecdotal confessionals in which writers essentially dine out on themselves. My favorites (Nora Ephron, David Sedaris) make light of their own foibles and shortcomings (a sagging neck, an inability to master a foreign language) in ways that both reassure their similarly challenged readers and highlight what's really important.

A recent column in the New York Times Book Review posed the question, "Whatever Happened to the Novel of Ideas?" Et voilà: Few will disagree that Michel Houellebecq's Submission, smoothly translated from the French by Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, is a novel of ideas — even though most of them are deeply discomfiting if not downright offensive.

I was a big fan of Sloane Crosley's pert personal essay collections, How Did You Get This Number and I Was Told There'd Be Cake, so I was primed to love her first novel. Billed as "part comedy of manners, part madcap treasure hunt," with a debt to Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," I was looking forward to a smart, sassy romp of a book. But while The Clasp delivers plenty of snappy lines, it unfortunately hinges on three rather uninteresting old college friends whose litany of disappointments alternate in 50 short chapters.

Patti Smith is a survivor whose dreams prod her to "redeem the lost" by writing about them with "some sliver of personal revelation." In Just Kids, her 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, she rued the loss of so many friends and colleagues to drugs, suicide, cancer, AIDS and "misadventure." (Mapplethorpe, whom she memorably called "the blue star in the constellation of my personal cosmology," succumbed to AIDS in 1989.)

Quirky doesn't begin to capture the wacky inventiveness of Valeria Luiselli's second novel. The Story of My Teeth is a playful, philosophical funhouse of a read that demonstrates that not only isn't experimental fiction dead, it needn't be deadly, either. Luiselli's elastic mind comfortably stretches to wrap itself around molars, Montaigne, fortune cookies and various theories of meaning.

When he's not playing neurotic, antisocial nerds in movies like The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg channels his jittery talent into writing clever comic plays and stories that often feature neurotic, antisocial nerds and insecure or downright delusional teens. The wonder is the empathy he brings to these jerks, losers and sad sacks, both on the stage and the page.

New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford's ambitious debut novel, Everybody Rise, about a young social climber desperately trying to claw her way to the top of New York's Old Money society, takes its title from the last lines of Stephen Sondheim's bitter toast of a song, "The Ladies Who Lunch." But its inspiration (like that of Sophie McManus' The Unfortunates, another much buzzed first novel this summer) springs from Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.

My perennial quest for smart, fun summer reads landed me on Two Across, Jeff Bartsch's debut romantic comedy about a brainy couple whose on-again-off-again relationship begins at age 15, when they tie in the 1960 National Spelling Bee. During their recurrent off periods, they send hidden messages to each other in the clever crossword puzzles they compose for major newspapers.

Question: What do holiday shopping and staving off cognitive loss have in common?

Answer: Both are ordinarily earnest endeavors in which Patricia Marx has found unlikely sources of hilarity.

Here's one way to attract readers: Spell out your title in Scrabble tiles. It worked for Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak in 2001, though that's not all that worked for that wonderful book, which remains the best about the game of Scrabble and its obsessed competitors.

Some ideas are so clever it's a wonder no one has thought of them before. Case in point: Algerian writer Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation, a response to Albert Camus' The Stranger, written from the point of view of the brother of the nameless Arab murdered by Camus' antihero Meursault.

Back when I was losing sleep over various scenarios that could befall my aging parents, a friend would try to calm me with assurances that at most one of those things would happen, so they weren't worth worrying about in advance.

Write brilliantly and readers will follow you anywhere — even into a swarm of hoverflies. That's one takeaway from The Fly Trap, a charming, off-the-beaten track, humorously self-deprecating memoir by Fredrik Sjöberg, a biologist who muses and amuses about his baffling passion for hoverflies. "No sensible person is interested in flies, or anyway, no woman," he writes. His book may change that: It is a paean to some of the tiniest wonders of the natural world, but even more to the benefits of intense focus.

Lucas Mann's genre-bending first book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, was about an Iowa farm team, a dying Midwestern factory town, and his own anxieties about success, and it heralded an impressive new talent in narrative nonfiction. Mann's second book, Lord Fear, reaffirms that talent. A memoir about his much older half-brother, Josh, who died of a heroin overdose when Mann was 13, it's a less alluring, more difficult book — but clearly one that Mann needed to write.

Are some people "constitutionally unsuited" to marriage? That's the question the free-spirited narrator of Eliza Kennedy's saucy first novel, I Take You, keeps asking herself between drinks, seductions and a mess of complications during the frenetic week leading up to her Key West wedding.

It's a good thing we only had to wait six months for Early Warning, the second volume of Jane Smiley's ambitious Last Hundred Years trilogy. Why? Because we were eager to follow up on the members of the Iowa farm family she introduced in Some Luck — while we still remembered all of them.

Mary Norris has spent the past 20 years working as "a page OK'er" at The New Yorker, a position she says is unique to the magazine. Essentially, she's a highly specialized proofreader and copy editor on the publication's elaborate author-to-print assembly line. Alternate job descriptions include "prose goddess" and "comma queen."

J.C. Hallman's audacious B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, is a textbook example of "creative criticism" — a highly personal form of literary response that involves "writers depicting their minds, their consciousnesses, as they think about literature." Hallman, who has championed creative criticism in two anthologies, has written a wildly intelligent, deeply personal, immoderate — and somewhat belabored — exploration of Nicholson Baker's entire oeuvre, reading in general, and the state of modern literature.

Ever since Michel de Montaigne hit on the winning mix of frankly personal and broader philosophical reflections in his 16th century Essays, the personal essay has attracted those for whom the unexamined life is — well, unthinkable. In recent years, we've seen a spate of auto-pathologies — minutely observed meditations on the tolls of often strange ailments. A newer trend is the meta-diary — short autobiographical entries that frequently explore the writer's relationship with time, memory and identity.

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