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.

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!

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.

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.

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.