Heller McAlpin

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.

Nicole Krauss' fourth novel, a cerebral, dual-stranded tale of disillusionment and spiritual quest, proves heavy going for its characters — and its readers. Her two protagonists, a powerful, 68-year-old Manhattan attorney and philanthropist named Jules Epstein, and a celebrated novelist on the cusp of 40 named Nicole, have come to question the aridity of their lives. Both believe they'll find relief and transformation in Israel, a land of "never-ending argument" that also offers them abundant time and light in which to examine things more deeply.

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.

Max Winter's powerful but bleak debut novel is about missing people: people who are missing, and the sons, brothers, friends, lovers, and classmates who feel their absence and miss them. Exes is propelled by the efforts of its troubled principal narrator, Clay Blackall, to piece together the last ten years of his younger brother Eli's life — which he missed because they were estranged.

Jim Harrison lived as he wrote, vividly. When his overtaxed heart finally gave out last year, he left a trail of 40 books, mainly fiction and poetry, in which he conveyed his untamed passions for booze, botany, sex, hunting, fishing and literature. His deep empathy for America's disenfranchised was matched by his overarching intolerance of small-minded "nit-wit authorities." He has been compared to Hemingway and Faulkner, and called the American Rabelais, a Mozart of the Prairie, and a force of nature.

When Nell Stevens, then a newly minted MFA, was offered the possibility of a three-month grant to go anywhere in the world to write, she pounced. Eager to avoid distractions and desperate to find something to write about, the 27-year-old Brit chose the weather-lashed, aptly named Bleaker Island, in the Falklands. "I do not want to have a nice time," she explains. "What I want — what I need — is to have the kind of time that I can convert into a book."

Keggie Carew dives deep into her father's world in this extraordinary blend of personal memoir, biography, and World War II military history. Recently awarded UK's Costa Book Award for biography, Dadland brings to mind Helen MacDonald's H is for Hawk in the way it soars off in surprising directions, teaches you things you didn't know, and ambushes your emotions. It's a similarly fierce and unconventional book that defies categorization to explore mortality, loss, life decisions and influences through a daughter's intense bond with her father.

I got carsick reading Stephen O'Shea's The Alps, much of which involves navigating one "neurotic noodle of a road" after another as he twists his way up and down mountains in pursuit of the highs and lows of Alpine history. Reading about his umpteenth hairpin turn, I found myself whining, "Are we almost there?"

Even before cracking Bill Hayes' mixed-media memoir, you know it's going to be special: This is the man who enabled neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks to do what a lifetime of therapy hadn't — connect intimately and openly with another man, ending three and a half decades of celibacy. Sacks finally came out about his thwarted sexuality and joyful late awakening in his memoir, On the Move, which was published just a few months before his death from cancer in 2015. Insomniac City is Hayes' valentine to Sacks, New York City, and life itself.

Could Scottish writer Ali Smith be J.D. Salinger's natural heir? It's not as preposterous as it sounds. Not since Salinger's plucky English orphan, Esmé, soothed an American sergeant's no-longer-intact faculties at the end of World War II has a writer so artfully and heartrendingly captured the two-way lifeline between preternaturally wise children (mainly girls) and young-at-heart gentle souls (mainly men) who forge special friendships that have nothing predatory or Lolita-ish about them.

What price love? Lara chronicles the horrifically steep costs for Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak's mistress, muse, and model for Yuri Zhivago's lover in Doctor Zhivago (alluringly played by Julie Christie in David Lean's 1965 movie adapation). Olga's connection with the persecuted author and her role in ushering his novel into print made her "a pawn in a highly political game" that landed her in the brutal Soviet gulags — twice.

Transit, the second installment of Rachel Cusk's cumulatively affecting post-divorce trilogy that began with Outline, is a reading journey you wish didn't have to end — so it's a good thing there's a third volume on the itinerary. This isn't to say these subdued, meandering novels are a joyride, at least not in the usual sense. They offer little in the way of plot thrills.

Dava Sobel is as adept at spotting promising subject matter as the extraordinary women astronomers she writes about in The Glass Universe were at spotting variable stars. By translating complex information into manageable bites sweetened with human interest stories, Sobel makes hard science palatable for the general audience. Even more than her 1999 book Galileo's Daughter, this new work highlights women's often under-appreciated role in the history of science.

Michael Chabon turns out more beautiful sentences in a single novel than some writers produce in a lifetime. But he is far more than just an elegant stylist: Chabon is an adventurous writer who wields his gorgeous — and occasionally over-the-top — prose in the service of lively narratives that channel various genres — comics, detective, picaresque, historical — often in combination, as in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policeman's Union.

Sex is a fraught subject in April Ayers Lawson's impressively polished debut collection of stories. The audacious but vulnerable young Southerners who populate these five tales live in a world where the ordinary uncertainties of relationships and physical intimacy are amplified and distorted by their devout, fundamentalist Christian upbringing, and in several cases, a history of childhood sexual abuse. Despite her limpid, supple prose, there's a creepy cast to Lawson's vision, with shades of Flannery O'Connor's dark humor and Southern Gothic sensibility.

Is Francine Prose just monkeying around? Is she taking a comic break after the much weightier exploration of creeping xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and right-wing proto-fascism in her last novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932?

Mister Monkey, her 22nd book of fiction, is a dark comedy about the mainly sad, disappointing lives of everyone involved in a woeful way-off-Broadway revival of a painfully bad musical based on a made-up classic children's book called Mister Monkey — itself an unlikely success — written by a Vietnam veteran.

John Kaag hits the sweet spot between intellectual history and personal memoir in this transcendently wonderful love song to philosophy and its ability "to help individuals work through the trials of experience." Kaag, a young philosophy professor questioning the meaning of his life, finds answers — and a soul mate with whom to share them — in a neglected library hidden deep in the New Hampshire woods.

Are you a different person when you speak a foreign language? That's just one of the questions New Yorker writer and native North Carolinian Lauren Collins explores in this engaging and surprisingly meaty memoir, about her strenuous efforts to master French after marrying a Frenchman whose name — Olivier — she couldn't even pronounce properly.

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