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.

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.

Jonathan Safran Foer's doorstop of a third novel takes its title from Abraham's response when God tested him by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. Here I Am — much of which is about fathers and sons — interprets these three words as indicative of "who we are wholly there for, and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity."

A friend reported gleefully that his small daughter had asked him, "What's the difference between litter and literature anyway, Dad?" He knew I'd relish both her question and his answer: "Sometimes, alas, not all that much."

I'll bet Amy Krouse Rosenthal would enjoy the partial homonym, if not the distinction. The author of more than 30 children's picture books, she loves wordplay. Her latest book for grownups, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, makes clear that she is on a mission to extend the playfulness of kid lit to adults.

Maggie O'Farrell writes novels in which you can happily lose yourself. She is fascinated by women who refuse to conform, by the secrets withheld even from our nearest and dearest, and by the unpredictable, serendipitous nature of life, the way a chance encounter can change everything and come to feel inevitable. Her lushly emotional books are filled with strong characters and unexpected convergences and revelations that unfurl across decades and continents.

The unassuming hero of Jonas Karlsson's clever, Kafkaesque parable is the opposite of a malcontent. Despite scant education, a limited social life, and no prospects for success as it is usually defined, he's that rarity, a most happy fella with an amazing ability to content himself with very little. But one day, returning to his barebones flat from his dead-end, part-time job at a video store, he finds an astronomical bill from an entity called W.R.D. He assumes it's a scam. Actually, it is more sinister-- and it forces him to take a good hard look at his life and values.

Despite its ever-controversial sexism, The Taming of the Shrew remains one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies — in both the original and its many modern adaptations, including Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate. And now Anne Tyler, as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of novels based on the major plays, has tamed the Bard's shrewish battle of the sexes into a far more politically correct screwball comedy of manners that actually channels Jane Austen more than Shakespeare. It's clear that she had fun with Vinegar Girl, and readers will too.

There's a possibly inadvertent but telling double-entendre in the title of Alain de Botton's new book. The Course of Love is his first novel since On Love (1993), which inventively tracked the trajectory of a love affair from the ecstasy of infatuation to the utter despair of its demise. Half his lifetime and more than a dozen nonfiction titles later, this followup about the 14-year rocky road to romantic reality of a couple living in Edinburgh reveals the constancy of de Botton's concern with the arc of relationships.

During my parents' last winters in Florida, each time I visited I would stealthily vanquish the ghosts of meals past from their refrigerator and run all their smudged glassware through the dishwasher and their stained clothing through the wash. They no longer saw the spots, and my mother, leached by Alzheimer's, no longer cared — though she was still with it enough to take umbrage at my interference.

What is it with poets and birds? Edgar Allan Poe had his raven. Ted Hughes had his crow. Wallace Stevens his blackbird. Keats his nightingale. Helen MacDonald her hawk. For Emily Dickinson, hope was the thing with feathers.

For connoisseurs of literary profiles, Joseph Mitchell's two New Yorker stories, "Professor Sea Gull" and "Joe Gould's Secret," set a gold standard. Joe Gould was an eccentric bohemian from an old New England family who bummed around Greenwich Village for decades and claimed to be writing the longest book ever, a monumental "Oral History of Our Time." When he died in a Long Island mental hospital in 1957, the manuscript of his magnum opus was nowhere to be found.

What role should art play in society, and who's to say? These are just two of the questions Julian Barnes ponders in his slim but by no means slight new novel, which chronicles the tribulations of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich during his decades under the successive thumbs of Stalin and Khrushchev. Like his Booker Prize-winning The Sense of An Ending (2011), The Noise of Time is another brilliant thought-provoker which explores the costs of compromise and how much confrontation and concession a man and his conscience can endure.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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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