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
12:23 pm
Thu March 12, 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
1:08 pm
Wed March 4, 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
3:02 pm
Tue January 13, 2015

There's Nothing Sketchy About This 'Outline'

Originally published on Tue January 13, 2015 6:03 am

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
4:50 pm
Wed June 25, 2014

'Delicious!' ... Isn't

Originally published on

The exclamation point in its title is a clear tipoff: Delicious!, Ruth Reichl's first novel, is about as subtle as a Ring Ding. It's an enthusiastic but cloyingly sentimental story about a 21-year-old who finds happiness by making peace with her past — namely, her crippling, self-deprecating hero-worship of her older sister. After much angst, she comes to realize that "it was finally time to stop running from the best in me."

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Books
4:58 pm
Mon June 16, 2014

Full Of Warmth And Wisdom, 'Vacationers' Is A Frothy Beach Read

cover detail
Riverhead Books

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 6:03 am

Meet the Posts — no relation to Emily and her rules of etiquette. The stressed family of New Yorkers in Emma Straub's breezy summer read, The Vacationers, are the kind of people who pack their troubles on top, for easiest access, when they head off on a trip together.

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Book Reviews
6:03 am
Thu April 3, 2014

'Empathy Exams' Is A Virtuosic Manifesto Of Human Pain

human heart diagram
iStockphoto

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.

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Book Reviews
3:16 pm
Sun March 16, 2014

Comedian Ages With Humor — And Effort

Courtesy of Blue Rider Press

Originally published on Wed February 26, 2014 9:28 am

What is it about comedians itching to get between the covers — book covers, that is? Annabelle Gurwitch's I See You Made An Effort, a seriously funny collection of essays about teetering over the edge of 50, makes it clear that the draw isn't strictly literary. To tweak Peter Steiner's classic New Yorker cartoon: On the page, nobody knows how old you are.

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Book Reviews
8:28 pm
Sun February 23, 2014

'One More Thing' Has A Few Too Many Things, But It's Still Funny

Dimitrios Kambouris Getty Images

Originally published on Tue February 11, 2014 10:25 am

How entertaining is B.J. Novak? With One More Thing, the standup comic, scriptwriter and actor (best known for his work on The Office), takes his talents to the page in 64 fresh, short, offbeat and often hilarious stories, many of which involve updating classics for satirical effect — whether with a rematch between the tortoise and the hare, or by replacing detective Encyclopedia Brown from children's literature with Wikipedia Brown, who is hopelessly distracted by tangential subjects.

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Book Reviews
9:22 pm
Thu February 6, 2014

Anna Quindlen Is (Still) The Voice Of Her Generation

Courtesy of Random House

Originally published on Wed January 29, 2014 12:04 pm

Back in the 1980s, Anna Quindlen's New York Times column, "Life in the 30s," delineated — with humor and grace — what so many of her fellow newly liberated female Boomers were going through: the complications of using your maiden name after you have children. Check. The challenges of balancing a career with parenting. Check. Grocery shopping with small children in tow, "an event I hope to see included in the Olympics in the near future." Check again.

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Book Reviews
11:55 pm
Thu January 30, 2014

Music And Chemistry Are An Explosive Combination In 'Orfeo'

W.W. Norton

Originally published on Thu January 23, 2014 1:47 pm

Richard Powers, whose novels combine the wonders of science with the marvels of art, astonishes us in different ways with each new book. His 11th, Orfeo, is about a 70-year-old avant-garde composer who has sacrificed family and fortune to his relentless pursuit of immortal, transcendent music.

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