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.

Pages

Book Reviews
5:03 am
Tue July 14, 2015

Equal Parts Sarcasm, Silliness And Smarts In 'Let's Be Less Stupid'

Lydia Thompson NPR

Originally published on Tue July 14, 2015 2:43 pm

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
8:15 am
Wed June 17, 2015

Too Much 'Word,' Not Enough 'Nerd' In This Scrabble Story

Courtesy of Liveright Publishing Corporation

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Wed June 10, 2015

Mama's Still Alive Today: 'Meursault' Investigates A Literary Murder

Courtesy of Other Press

Originally published on Wed June 10, 2015 10:25 am

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Tue June 9, 2015

Coping With Calamity In Shimmering 'Cathedral'

Lydia Thompson NPR

Originally published on Tue June 9, 2015 9:08 am

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.

Read more
Home Page Top Stories
8:03 am
Tue June 2, 2015

You'll Be Caught Fast By This Delightful 'Fly Trap'

Emily Bogle NPR

Originally published on Tue June 2, 2015 12:57 pm

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Wed May 13, 2015

Remembering A Troubled Brother In 'Lord Fear'

Emily Bogle NPR

Originally published on Wed May 13, 2015 11:05 am

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Mon May 4, 2015

'I Take You' Is Madcap Marital Mayhem

Originally published on Mon May 4, 2015 12:00 pm

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Tue April 28, 2015

What Luck! 'Early Warning' Continues Smiley's Farm Family Saga

Originally published on Tue April 28, 2015 1:43 pm

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Wed April 8, 2015

Memoir, Perfectly Punctuated In 'Between You & Me'

iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 9:22 am

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."

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Wed March 11, 2015

'B & Me' Is Intelligent, Immoderate, And A Bit Belabored

Emily Jan NPR

Originally published on Wed March 11, 2015 3:18 pm

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Tue March 3, 2015

A Life Examined — And Examined And Examined In 'Ongoingness'

Originally published on Tue March 3, 2015 6:09 pm

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Tue February 10, 2015

Cozy 'Blue Thread' Is Unabashedly Domestic

Originally published on Tue February 10, 2015 7:35 am

You don't read Anne Tyler to have your worldview expanded, or to be kept awake at night anxiously turning pages. You read, instead, for the cozy mildness, the comfort of sinking into each new warmhearted, gently wry book.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:28 am
Tue February 3, 2015

'Funny Girl' Is A Book Made For Binge-Watching

Originally published on Tue February 3, 2015 7:59 am

Leave it to Nick Hornby to produce a smart comic novel that pits light entertainment against serious art and comes through as winning proof of the possibility of combining the two.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Tue January 27, 2015

'Mr. Mac' Paints Flowers In A Darkening World

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Tue January 13, 2015

There's Nothing Sketchy About This 'Outline'

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
4:28 am
Sat December 6, 2014

Playful And Serious? 'How To Be' Is Both

cover crop
Pantheon

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:44 am
Tue November 11, 2014

Behind The Famous Story, A Difficult 'Wild Truth'

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Thu October 23, 2014

'Republic Of Imagination' Sings The Praises Of Literature

cover crop
Viking

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."

Read more
Book Reviews
4:07 am
Sun October 12, 2014

The Feathery Saga Of A 'Sucker For Unwanted Birds'

Pandemonium Aviaries

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Sat October 11, 2014

A Slow Simmer Of Grief And Strength In 'Nora Webster'

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Tue September 23, 2014

A Feisty Writer Spars With Her Young Protege

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
3:36 am
Sat September 13, 2014

'The Dog': Dubious Dealings In Dubai

iStockphoto.com

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Thu September 11, 2014

'Father And Son' Is Part Homage, Part Indictment

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.

Read more
Book News & Features
5:03 am
Wed September 10, 2014

Challenging, Shattering 'Girl' Is No Half-Formed Thing

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Thu September 4, 2014

Lip Gloss, Handbags And Margaret Drabble In 'The Fame Lunches'

Photographe : Louise Brien iStockphoto.com

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."

Read more
Book Reviews
5:03 am
Tue August 19, 2014

You Would Think 'Adultery' Would Be A Little More Tantalizing

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
8:03 am
Thu July 31, 2014

Where Love's Concerned, This 'Magic Barrel' Is No Magic Bullet

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.

Read more
Book Reviews
3:20 pm
Sat June 28, 2014

Sorry, Europe. 'Quebert Affair' Plot Thrills, But Prose Lacks Substance

iStockphoto

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?

Don't get your hopes up.

Read more
Book Reviews
5:21 am
Tue May 27, 2014

'Delicious!' ... Isn't

Originally published on

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."

Read more
Books
4:59 am
Mon May 26, 2014

Stories Of Loss, Brightened By Luminous Language

iStockphoto

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.

Read more

Pages