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.

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Book Reviews
6:27 am
Wed April 8, 2015

Memoir, Perfectly Punctuated In 'Between You & Me'

iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 10:22 am

Mary Norris has spent the past 20 years working as "a page OK'er" at The New Yorker, a position she says is unique to the magazine. Essentially, she's a highly specialized proofreader and copy editor on the publication's elaborate author-to-print assembly line. Alternate job descriptions include "prose goddess" and "comma queen."

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Book Reviews
6:03 am
Wed March 11, 2015

'B & Me' Is Intelligent, Immoderate, And A Bit Belabored

Emily Jan NPR

Originally published on Wed March 11, 2015 4:18 pm

J.C. Hallman's audacious B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, is a textbook example of "creative criticism" — a highly personal form of literary response that involves "writers depicting their minds, their consciousnesses, as they think about literature." Hallman, who has championed creative criticism in two anthologies, has written a wildly intelligent, deeply personal, immoderate — and somewhat belabored — exploration of Nicholson Baker's entire oeuvre, reading in general, and the state of modern literature.

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Book Reviews
6:03 am
Tue March 3, 2015

A Life Examined — And Examined And Examined In 'Ongoingness'

Originally published on Tue March 3, 2015 7:09 pm

Ever since Michel de Montaigne hit on the winning mix of frankly personal and broader philosophical reflections in his 16th century Essays, the personal essay has attracted those for whom the unexamined life is — well, unthinkable. In recent years, we've seen a spate of auto-pathologies — minutely observed meditations on the tolls of often strange ailments. A newer trend is the meta-diary — short autobiographical entries that frequently explore the writer's relationship with time, memory and identity.

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Book Reviews
6:03 am
Tue February 10, 2015

Cozy 'Blue Thread' Is Unabashedly Domestic

Originally published on Tue February 10, 2015 8:35 am

You don't read Anne Tyler to have your worldview expanded, or to be kept awake at night anxiously turning pages. You read, instead, for the cozy mildness, the comfort of sinking into each new warmhearted, gently wry book.

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Book Reviews
6:03 am
Tue February 3, 2015

'Funny Girl' Is A Book Made For Binge-Watching

Originally published on Tue February 3, 2015 8:59 am

Leave it to Nick Hornby to produce a smart comic novel that pits light entertainment against serious art and comes through as winning proof of the possibility of combining the two.

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Book Reviews
6:03 am
Tue January 27, 2015

'Mr. Mac' Paints Flowers In A Darkening World

Originally published on Tue January 27, 2015 12:53 pm

Reading Esther Freud's eighth novel — about an English boy's unlikely but life-expanding friendship with Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh — is a bit like watching a watercolor painting take shape. Mr. Mac and Me begins with delicate dabs of color, as 13-year-old Thomas Maggs, the only surviving son of an abusive alcoholic pub proprietor and his long-suffering wife, paints a plaintive picture of life at the aptly named Blue Anchor, in the Sussex village of Walberswick.

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Book Reviews
6:03 am
Tue January 13, 2015

There's Nothing Sketchy About This 'Outline'

Rachel Cusk is better known in England than in America; her sharply satirical books about the tolls of family life play better across the Atlantic than here in our often puritanical culture, with its bias towards domesticity. In her controversially bitter memoirs, including A Life's Work and Aftermath, and in piercing — but always beautifully written — novels like The Lucky Ones, Cusk has examined the difficulties of self-definition in the context of marriage, motherhood and family.

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Book Reviews
5:45 am
Sat December 6, 2014

Playful And Serious? 'How To Be' Is Both

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Pantheon

Can a book be both linguistically playful and dead serious? Structurally innovative and reader-friendly? Mournful and joyful? Brainy and moving? Ali Smith's How To Be Both, which recently won the prestigious, all-Brit two-year-old Goldsmiths prize for being a truly novel novel, is all of the above — and then some.

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Book Reviews
8:44 am
Tue November 11, 2014

Behind The Famous Story, A Difficult 'Wild Truth'

Originally published on Tue November 11, 2014 10:01 am

Jon Krakauer's 1996 book Into the Wild delved into the riveting story of Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old man from an affluent family outside Washington, D.C., who graduated with honors from Emory, then gave away the bulk of his money, burned the rest and severed all ties with his family. After tramping around the country for nearly two years, he headed into the Alaska wilderness in April 1992. His emaciated body was found a little over four months later.

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Book Reviews
6:03 am
Thu October 23, 2014

'Republic Of Imagination' Sings The Praises Of Literature

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Viking

In her surprise 2003 bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Iranian emigré Azar Nafisi made clear why fiction matters in totalitarian regimes. With The Republic of Imagination, she seeks to demonstrate the importance of great literature even in a democratic society, one threatened not by fundamentalist revolutionaries but by the danger of "intellectual indolence."

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Book Reviews
5:07 am
Sun October 12, 2014

The Feathery Saga Of A 'Sucker For Unwanted Birds'

Pandemonium Aviaries

Originally published on Tue October 14, 2014 12:43 pm

Did you know that the collective noun for a flock of parrots — akin to, say, a pride of lions — is a pandemonium? Apparently, Michele Raffin didn't know that either when she founded Pandemonium Aviaries — named instead for the chaotic, noisy nature of her "petulant psittacines" and "feathered vaudevillians." The apt name is characteristic of the serendiptious nature of what has turned out to be her life calling.

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Book Reviews
6:03 am
Sat October 11, 2014

A Slow Simmer Of Grief And Strength In 'Nora Webster'

Colm Tóibín's writing is the literary equivalent of slow cuisine – and I mean that as a compliment. In this age of fast everything, sensational effects, and unremitting violence, he uses only the purest literary ingredients – including minutely focused character development and a keen sense of place — and simmers his quietly dramatic narratives over a low burner.

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Book Reviews
6:03 am
Tue September 23, 2014

A Feisty Writer Spars With Her Young Protege

Originally published on Tue September 23, 2014 6:38 pm

What a treat it is to read Brian Morton's latest novel, populated with the prickly, civic-minded liberal intellectuals we've come to expect from him. Florence Gordon, his fifth book, like Starting Out in the Evening, his best known, is set on Manhattan's Upper West Side and concerns a feisty older writer and a much younger admirer and would-be mentee. Both novels not only feature curmudgeonly characters who insist on living on their own terms but explore questions about what constitutes a successful life.

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Book Reviews
4:36 am
Sat September 13, 2014

'The Dog': Dubious Dealings In Dubai

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One measure of a fine writer is the ability to master new tricks. Joseph O'Neill's new novel, The Dog, is a different animal (so to speak) from Netherland, his remarkable PEN/Faulkner Award-winner about a Dutch financial analyst adrift in New York in the aftermath of 9/11. Though both involve romantic estrangement in a globalized but alienating world, The Dog focuses more narrowly — and sometimes claustrophobically — on one man's hopeless, deluded efforts to live blamelessly in a distressingly mean-spirited, soulless society.

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Book Reviews
6:27 am
Thu September 11, 2014

'Father And Son' Is Part Homage, Part Indictment

Originally published on Thu September 11, 2014 11:29 am

Add Marcos Giralt Torrente's Father and Son: A Lifetime to the shortlist of worthwhile memoirs about mourning a parent — a list that includes Philip Roth's Patrimony, Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude, and Hanif Kureishi's My Ear at His Heart, all of which the author cites as touchstones for his exploration.

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