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.

Book Reviews
7:03 am
Thu April 3, 2014

'Empathy Exams' Is A Virtuosic Manifesto Of Human Pain

human heart diagram
iStockphoto

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.

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Book Reviews
10:06 am
Tue September 17, 2013

In 'Sprinkler,' A Wacky Poet Returns With New Obsessions

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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.

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Book Reviews
7:03 am
Thu May 9, 2013

Farm Team Saga 'Class A' Hits It Out Of The Park

Cover of Class A

Is there room for another book about America's favorite pastime? Lucas Mann's Class A earns a position in a lineup that already includes Bang the Drum Slowly, The Natural, The Boys of Summer, Moneyball and The Art of Fielding because, remarkably, it offers a fresh, unexpected angle on this well-trodden game.

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Book Reviews
7:03 am
Tue September 25, 2012

'All Gone' Offers Disappointing Take On Hot Topic

Courtesy of Riverhead Books

The best memoirs transcend the strictly personal. New York Times columnist Alex Witchel's book All Gone, about one of the hottest topics among baby boomers — caring for our aging parents — comes across as boomerish in a bad way: self-absorbed and immature, as if she's the first to suffer this sort of stress and loss.

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Book Reviews
7:03 am
Wed September 5, 2012

How Christopher Hitchens Faced His Own 'Moratality'

Christopher Hitchens, who died in December 2011 from complications related to esophageal cancer, was a columnist for Vanity Fair, and the author of Hitch-22 and God Is Not Great.
Brooks Kraft Corbis

Originally published on Wed September 5, 2012 8:55 am

When a consummately articulate, boundlessly bold journalist stricken with stage 4 esophageal cancer reports from the front lines about facing what he calls, among other things, "hello darkness my old friend," you sit up and pay attention. Mortality, by virtue of its ultimate unavoidability, raises questions about the very meaning of life, making it as challenging a subject as any tackled by Christopher Hitchens in his brilliant career. It is, in fact, one of the subjects, right up there with love, and you can count on Hitchens to eschew weak-kneed sentimentality.

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Book Reviews
8:26 am
Thu August 30, 2012

Haves And Have-Nots In 'NW' London

Zadie Smith is the author of White Teeth and On Beauty.
Dominique Nabokov Penguin Group

Some postal codes encapsulate a socioeconomic profile in tidy shorthand: 10021 for Manhattan's tony Upper East Side, NW6 and NW10 for London's racially mixed, resolutely ungentrified northwest quadrant. Zadie Smith's London birthplace — a major wellspring of her work — is the setting of NW, her ambitious though somewhat dilatory fourth novel, which tackles issues of fortune and failure, class and ethnicity, and the often guilt-inducing and sometimes blurry lines between them.

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Book Reviews
7:03 am
Tue August 21, 2012

'Winter Journal': Paul Auster On Aging, Mortality

Paul Auster is the author of fiction including The New York Trilogy and In the Country of Last Things.
Lotte Hansen Picador

Originally published on Tue August 21, 2012 3:13 pm

"You think it will never happen to you," Paul Auster writes about aging and mortality in Winter Journal, penned during the winter of 2011, when he turned 64. Thirty years ago, Auster followed several volumes of poetry with The Invention of Solitude, an unconventional, profoundly literary meditation on life, death and memory triggered in part by the sudden death of his remote father and in part by the breakup of his first marriage to the short story writer Lydia Davis.

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Book Reviews
7:03 am
Tue August 14, 2012

Screwball Satire With A Warm Heart In 'Bernadette'

What happens when a talented, Type A, hyperachieving woman married to an even more successful man quits working? In former television writer Maria Semple's experience — which she's channeled into her first two novels — the mood swings, loss of bearings, and toxic dissatisfaction aren't pretty, though she plays them for laughs.

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Critics' Lists: Summer 2012
7:03 am
Tue July 17, 2012

Laughing Matters: Five Funny Books With Substance

Harriet Russell

Originally published on Tue July 17, 2012 8:56 am

It's great to laugh, but so much of what is labeled "entertainment" is, well, toothless. I'm a carnivore where my humor is concerned — I want it to have meat and bite. The following books will give you plenty to chew on if you like a bit of nourishment along with your kicks.

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Book Reviews
7:03 am
Thu July 5, 2012

Dethroning The 'Drama Queen Of The Mind'

Originally published on Thu July 5, 2012 1:26 pm

Here's one less thing for Daniel Smith to worry about: He sure can write. In Monkey Mind, a memoir of his lifelong struggles with anxiety, he defangs the experience with a winning combination of humor and understanding.

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Book Reviews
7:03 am
Tue July 3, 2012

'Gold' Offers A Winning Take On Cycling

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You're going to be hearing a lot about Chris Cleave's gold-medal performance in his first novel since his mega-best-seller, Little Bee. That's because Gold is a heart-pounding, winning tearjerker about three elite cyclists fiercely competing through three successive Olympics — including, most topically, the one about to take place in London this summer. If Olympic medals were awarded for dramatic stories about what drives athletes to compete and succeed, Cleave would easily ascend the podium.

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Book Reviews
7:03 am
Wed June 13, 2012

'Red House': A Kaleidoscope Of Family Dysfunction

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Originally published on Wed June 13, 2012 8:03 am

You can get to know people awfully well by spending a week with them on vacation. In The Red House, Mark Haddon brings together two long-estranged siblings and their disjointed families for a shared holiday at a rented house on the Welsh border six weeks after their mother's funeral. Seven days comes to feel like an eternity — for his characters and his readers.

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Book Reviews
1:37 pm
Mon June 4, 2012

'Unknown Man': The Riches Of A Terrible Past

Originally published on Mon June 4, 2012 1:41 pm

Andrei Makine has been hailed as a Russian Proust and a French Chekhov. This isn't as excessive as it sounds, though his new novel shares more with Solzhenitsyn for its vivid depiction of the hardships of war and labor camps and its critical assessment of the triviality of capitalist culture run amok.

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