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.

"The truth is I've been something of a bifurcated, high/low girl from the very start," Daphne Merkin declares in The Fame Lunches, her first collection of essays since Dreaming of Hitler in 1997. This new anthology gathers 45 wide-ranging essays that straddle the high/low cultural faultline with aplomb, weighing in on subjects as diverse as W.G. Sebald, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Courtney Love, lip gloss, kabbalah and handbags as "the top fashion signifier."

You've heard this story before. You may even have experienced it, or thought about it: A woman who apparently has it all — loving, financially successful spouse, posh home, wonderful, healthy kids, great job — still feels something is missing from her life. Could it be passion? Adventure? Risk? She throws herself at an old high school boyfriend. What's love got to do with it? Dismayingly little.

Lena Finkle is a 37-year-old, twice-divorced Russian immigrant and a self-described "toddler of relationship experience" — when a friend asks how many guys she's "been with" in her life, she can only hold up three fingers. Anya Ulinich's new graphic novel, Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel is her account, told in expressive dark-inked drawings and hand-printed all-caps dialogue, of her quest to find true love — and good sex — and resuscitate what she depicts as her freeze-dried heart.

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."

Elizabeth McCracken is a former public librarian best known for her quirkily endearing 1996 novel, The Giant's House, about an unlikely romance kindled at the circulation desk between a petite librarian and a freakishly tall boy. Over time, her work — filled with misfits, giants, and oddballs — has become darker. Loss dominates the triple-trinity of stories in her new collection, Thunderstruck, though she continues to slyly celebrate resilience and unlikely connections.

Twenty years after the publication of Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen's excoriating memoir about the nearly two years she spent in a psychiatric institution at the end of her teens, she's written a sort of prequel. Cambridge, her unflinching, elegiac, quasi-autobiographical new novel, takes us back to the mid-to-late 1950s with a portrait of Susanna as a difficult, contrary 7-to-11-year-old miserably at odds with her family, her teachers and herself. The result is both fascinating and heartbreaking, because we know where her abiding unhappiness is going to land her.

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.

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.

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.

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.