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.

Pick up Nora Krug's reverberant graphic memoir, Belonging, and be prepared to lose yourself for hours in this unstinting investigation into her conflicted feelings about being German and her family's role in the Holocaust.

Philosophy professor John Kaag's 2016 book, American Philosophy, was a heady mix of memoir and intellectual history wrapped up in a romantic story of a lost library and new love. In Hiking with Nietzsche, he tries to repeat this feat by chronicling his return — with his second wife and their toddler daughter — to the scene of his near-fatal teenage attempt to follow Nietzsche's trail and thought processes through the Swiss Alps.

Sarah Weinman, an editor and writer of true crime stories, doubles up on her literary sleuthing in The Real Lolita, investigating the 1948 kidnapping and rape of 11-year-old Sally Horner by a convicted pedophile.

For decades, Bill Cunningham trained his eye — and camera — on New York City's constant fashion parade for his New York Times "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" style columns.

Clad in his distinctive royal blue French worker's jacket and often straddling a bicycle, the nonpareil people-watcher snapped outfits — some might say getups — that delighted him. Each week, he highlighted a different trend with a spectacular collage of photographs: black and white stripes, men's ankle length furs, splashes of hot pink or bursts of yellow.

Patrick deWitt's novels don't so much skewer genres as turn them askew. His latest is the third of a trilogy of literary hijinks that began with The Sisters Brothers (2011), a gleefully gruesome, wonky western set during the Gold Rush. This was followed by Undermajordomo Minor (2015), a sort of fairytale adventure for adults. French Exit, aptly billed as a "tragedy of manners," is a mother-son caper, a sparkling dark comedy that channels both Noel Coward's wit and Wes Anderson's loopy sensibility.

Jessie Greengrass' Sight is one of those books that critics rave about, yet many readers wonder why. Here's why: Shimmering sentences and long paragraphs that unspool like yellow brick roads, winding toward emerald cities of elusive, hard-to-express insights. A definition of love as an "encumbrance of minutiae" which both anchors and defines you. Observations like this: "The price of sight is wonder's diminishment."

Kate Walbert's most powerful novel yet is a case study in the perversities of power imbalances. This slim but by no means slight novel continues Walbert's explorations of how society's sexual biases and constraints have hampered women, a theme that has driven all six of her books, including A Short History of Women (2009) and her most recent, The Sunken Cathedral (2015). But with a timeliness so acute it feels ripped-from-the-headlines, His Favorites amps up the outrage and packs a punch far greater than its weight class.

Meet the charmer of the summer, an epistolary novel about two strangers dismayed by where their lives have taken them. Dissatisfied farmer's wife Tina Hapgood and lonely museum curator Anders Larsen initially connect over a shared fascination with the miraculous Iron Age archaeological find known as the Tollund Man, but their relationship soon deepens as they begin to excavate their own chosen life paths in a series of letters.

Imagine taking a sabbatical, not just from your job, but from your life. How about going even further and taking a yearlong break from yourself and the world, courtesy of an extended nap? That's the desperate plan of the unnamed 24-year-old narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh's bizarrely fascinating second novel.

Here's one advantage to discussing Rachel Cusk's trilogy of conversational novels: Because they're essentially plotless, there's little need to worry about spoiler alerts. The surprises and rewards of reading these books comes not from finding out what happens, but from getting pulled deep into their labyrinthine tête-à-têtes.

When my brother, sister, and I were growing up, our dinner conversation would inevitably turn scatological at some point, the grosser the better: A kid puked on the teacher's desk, another tracked in dog poop. "Must we talk about this at dinner?" our mother would protest. To which we would answer, "When else are we supposed to talk about it?"

Caryl Phillips' latest novel, based on the troubled life of the writer Jean Rhys, is a lush exploration of the costs of colonialism, the limited possibilities for non-conformist women, and egregious power imbalances between genders and races. Rhys' life — she was born in the British colony of Dominica in 1890 and sent to school in England at 16 — is a fitting canvas for Phillips' perennial themes of displacement, alienation and muddled identity.

The title of Michael Ondaatje's atmospheric new novel — Warlight — refers most directly to the dimmed lights that guided emergency traffic during wartime blackouts, but it applies equally to the cloak of secrecy and uncertainty that blankets this haunting tale.

No one writes about close friendships and unconventional domestic arrangements between gay men and straight women with as much charm and flair as Stephen McCauley. When his first novel, The Object of My Affection, was published 31 years ago, same-sex marriage was somewhere over the rainbow, but his characters, gay and straight, banded together to create a new-fangled family.

In a year that hasn't exactly been full of joyful tidings, Julian Barnes' latest novel struck me as one of the saddest books I've read in some time. Beautifully done, but heartrending. It isn't about belligerent politicians, refugees fleeing for their lives, or schoolchildren being gunned down, but it's a tragedy nonetheless — albeit on a much smaller scale. The Only Story concerns the pained recollections of an aging Englishman's life-changing only love.

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