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.

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.

Kate Christensen's sixth novel, The Astral, charts the long and whining road toward a new life for Harry Quirk, a down-and-out poet whose fierce, staunchly Catholic wife of 30 years has thrown him out of their home in the legendary Astral apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Convinced that Harry has been cheating on her with his recently widowed best friend, Luz has gone ballistic. She destroyed his laptop and the notebooks containing his latest poems, a cycle of sonnets about imaginary lovers she's convinced are real.

Ann Patchett, who held readers captive with Bel Canto, her 2001 novel about a famous opera singer and a group of international dignitaries taken hostage by Latin American terrorists, is back in form with her mesmerizing sixth novel, State of Wonder. Set in the Amazon rain forest, Patchett's new book is a dramatic, transportive adventure story that takes on issues of medical ethics, cultural respect, friendship, love and loyalty.

Literary wags love to point out the blunders of short-sighted editors of yore who, failing to recognize genius, took a pass on such later-acknowledged masterpieces as James Joyce's Ulysses, Dr. Seuss' And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. What we hear less about are the initially — and perhaps deservedly — rejected manuscripts that later ride into print on the coattails of their author's renown. Gertrude Stein's To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays falls squarely into this group.

"Love is a kind of comfortable pretense ... muffling everyone's separation from one another, which is absolute." So thinks the disenchanted 35-year-old woman who has left her stalwart, workaholic older husband in the second half of Tessa Hadley's diptych of a novel, The London Train.

In Julian Barnes' last book, essays on death called Nothing to Be Frightened Of, he wrote of fearing the nothingness or oblivion of death. In Pulse, his understated but stealthily moving third collection of stories, Barnes' main focus is on love and intimacy — how it starts, and what accounts for its endurance or failure to thrive. Many of his characters suffer the loss of one of their five senses, or of a close relationship.

American literature is full of earnest, heartfelt novels about the immigrant experience. Often, as in Ha Jin's A Free Life and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, these books shed light on what it means to be American by focusing on families awkwardly straddling two cultures, the old one left behind and the new, bewildering melting pot into which the younger generation are more rapidly assimilated than their parents.