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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.

Beauty can be a beast. That's one message from Shocked, Patricia Volk's smart, fascinating book about her complex relationship with her beautiful, elegantly attired, hypercritical mother.

Amid a literary landscape increasingly rife with metafictional and postmodern high jinks, Jill McCorkle's sixth novel, Life After Life, is as resolutely down to earth and unpretentious as the hot-dog franchise owned by one of her characters. For her first novel in 17 years, McCorkle has dared to write a heartwarmer that takes place largely in a retirement home and stresses the importance of good old-fashioned kindness.

What's a reader to believe, especially when confronted with an unreliable narrator? Which of the many versions spun by the self-confessed liar and aspiring writer in Kristopher Jansma's far-flung, deliberately far-fetched, hyper-inventive first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, should we buy? Does the seductive actress he pines for marry a) an Indian geologist on the edge of the Grand Canyon; b) a Japanese royal; or c) a Luxembourg prince?

Do you remember those school assignments where you were asked to make up a story based on a picture? With Mary Coin, Marisa Silver looks long and hard at an image that has been seared into our nation's consciousness — Dorothea Lange's iconic Depression-era photograph "Migrant Mother" — and compassionately imagines the lives behind it. The result is a fresh angle on the Great Depression and a lesson in learning how to really look and see.

By the time Wendy Plump learned from a friend that her husband had a longtime mistress and an 8-month-old son living just a mile away, their union was already pockmarked with the scars of adultery — both his and hers. She divulges all this and more in Vow, her at times jaw-droppingly frank but ultimately instructive post-mortem on their 18-year marriage.

On one level, See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid's first novel in a decade, is a lyrical, interior meditation on time and memory by a devoted but no longer cherished wife and mother going about the daily business of taking care of her home and family in a small New England town. But it is also one of the most damning retaliations by a jilted wife since Nora Ephron's Heartburn. See Now Then reads as if Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf had collaborated on a heartbroken housewife's lament that reveals an impossible familiarity with Heartburn and Evan S.

Part of a book critic's challenge is to sift through piles of new publications, panning for literary gold. In a way that makes us what one of my favorite children's book heroines, Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, called a "turnupstuffer" — "Somebody who finds the stuff that turns up if only you look." Or like Dickens' optimistic Mr. Micawber, who was always sure something good would turn up.

You would think, wouldn't you, that the man who created such heartrendingly sympathetic children as Oliver Twist, Pip, Tiny Tim and poor Little Nell would be a stupendous father. Well, the Charles Dickens who emerges from Robert Gottlieb's Great Expectations, a compulsively readable if occasionally repetitive account of what happened to the great writer's brood of seven sons and three daughters, is not so wonderful.

Ian McEwan's 15th book of fiction, Sweet Tooth, is a Tootsie Roll Pop of a literary confection — hard-boiled candy enrobing a chewy surprise at its core. The novel is set 40 years ago, when communism was still perceived as a threat, and takes its title from a fictional clandestine mission by Britain's MI5 intelligence service to sponsor writers espousing the Cold Warrior cause.

Barbara Kingsolver's commitment to literature promoting social justice runs so deep that in 1998 she established the Bellwether Prize (now the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction) to encourage it.

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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