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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.

In a year that hasn't exactly been full of joyful tidings, Julian Barnes' latest novel struck me as one of the saddest books I've read in some time. Beautifully done, but heartrending. It isn't about belligerent politicians, refugees fleeing for their lives, or schoolchildren being gunned down, but it's a tragedy nonetheless — albeit on a much smaller scale. The Only Story concerns the pained recollections of an aging Englishman's life-changing only love.

What do I love about this book? For starters: Dorothy Parker. Rebecca West. Hannah Arendt. Mary McCarthy. Nora Ephron. Janet Malcolm. With Sharp, Michelle Dean has essentially gathered ten 20th century literary lodestars for an all-female intellectual history party thrown between the covers of a single book. The price of admission to this critical gala: "the ability to write unforgettably," and being labeled "sharp."

One of the most frequently hailed signs of social progress in the last 50 years is the growing acceptance and mainstreaming of homosexuality in the Western world. No novelist has chronicled this salubrious sea change in cultural attitudes more beautifully than Alan Hollinghurst. Beginning with The Swimming-Pool Library in 1988 and continuing through The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst's grand literary project has been nothing less than to convey the changing status of homosexuality in British society in the last century.

Fathers and sons. You could fill a library with books about the paternal ties that bind — or fray: Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Philip Roth's Patrimony, Mario Puzo's The Godfather, and so on. And now there's Mark Sarvas' second novel, Memento Park. Dedicated to his father, who died in 2009, and his two grandfathers, who died decades earlier, it's an absorbing drama about a first generation Hungarian-American rooting around in his family's buried past in the hopes of fathoming his legacy.

John Banville, the notoriously self-critical Irish writer known for his elegant precision and icicle-sharp wit, has reached the age of nostalgia and redress. In Time Pieces, a lovely quasi-memoir and multi-leveled portrait of Dublin, Banville makes up for the short shrift he feels he's given his adopted city in his novels, which include The Sea, Ancient Light, and Mrs. Osmond, his recent sequel to Henry James' Portrait of a Lady.

About halfway through her first book of nonfiction, Edinburgh-based author Maggie O'Farrell explains her latest project to her mother: "I'm trying to write a life, told only through near-death experiences," she says. It's not exactly an autobiography, more like "snatches of a life. A string of moments."

One of the great joys of reading is discovering a new writer whose work speaks to you — whether an unknown debut novelist or a seasoned author whose many books you've somehow missed. Case in point: Sigrid Nunez. I was drawn to her sixth novel as a fresh addition to the literature of grief, but within pages realized The Friend has as much to say about literature as about grief, and was wondering how she'd slipped below my radar.

Jillian Medoff's new novel is an office dramedy involving an elaborate coverup in a corporate HR department that has nothing to do with financial or sexual transgressions. In other words, it isn't ripped from the headlines. Set at a New York-based market research firm that's been cut to the bone by layoffs in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, This Could Hurt is an ultimately heartwarming entertainment about the ways "the work/life firewall" breaks down when a formidable boss — a 64-year-old glass-ceiling-breaker who's both Hispanic and a woman — starts to slip.

Ali Smith is flat-out brilliant, and she's on fire these days. Writing in the heat of outrage following England's divisive Brexit vote, she opened a seasonal quartet of novels last year with Autumn, a moving requiem for an unusual friendship between two unlikely kindred spirits, a young art historian and her singularly cultivated old neighbor, whose waning days coincide with an alarming erosion of civility and compassion in the not-so-United Kingdom. Deservedly, Autumn landed on the Booker Prize shortlist.

When Alan Bennett's whopping 700-page omnibus of picked-up pieces landed on my desk, I considered giving it a pass. But how could I resist after happening upon this diary entry from 2005, which reads in its entirety: "Robert Hanks, the radio critic of the Independent, remarks that personally he can have too much of Alan Bennett. I wonder how he thinks I feel."

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