Heller McAlpin

David Leavitt's new novel, a comedy of manners with the timely title Shelter in Place, comes festooned with blurbs, all of which mention how amazingly funny it is. I never lost my sense of taste with COVID, but I'm beginning to think I may have lost my sense of humor — or, perhaps, my patience with the sort of deliberately, mockably tendentious conversations Shelter in Place is filled with.

Don't be fooled by the deceptive simplicity of Graham Swift's latest short novel. Here We Are, which at first appears to be a light little story about a love triangle between three variety show performers in seaside Brighton, England in 1959 — a song-and-dance man, a magician, and the magician's alluring assistant — turns out to be about nothing less than life's frequently baffling illusions and transformations.

Sigrid Nunez is on a roll. She's tapped into a smart, wry voice which feels right for our times, as do her concerns with friendship, empathy, loss, and loneliness.

Deep into Summer, the fourth installment of Ali Smith's highly topical seasonal quartet, the author slyly inserts a charged question: "Should the Artist Portray His Own Age?" It's the subject of a debate that takes place at an internment camp for British "enemy aliens" on the Isle of Man during World War II — which speaks not just to the erudition of the detainees but also to the audacious literary mission Smith set for herself five years ago: To write four novels that weigh in on current events as they unfold.

In the 20 years since the publication of her first novel, After You'd Gone, Irish-born Maggie O'Farrell has wooed readers with intricately plotted, lushly imagined fiction featuring nonconformist women buffeted by the essential unpredictability of life, which can turn on a dime.

Gail Caldwell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former book critic for the Boston Globe and author of the 2010 Let's Take the Long Way Home, a gorgeous elegy of a special friendship, has become what is known as a serial memoirist.

It's a term that smacks of crime or perhaps narcissism — but the most serious charge against Caldwell might be repetitiveness concerning her boundless love of dogs.

Even more than usual during these past few months of confinement, I have been on the lookout for books that will transport readers to another time and place. Icelandic novelist and playwright Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir's atmospheric sixth novel, Miss Iceland, is just the ticket. But be forewarned that another time and place doesn't necessarily mean a rosier time and place.

Brit Bennett's first novel, The Mothers, was the sort of smashingly successful debut that can make but also possibly break a young writer by raising expectations and pressure. Four years later, her second, The Vanishing Half, more than lives up to her early promise. It's an even better book, more expansive yet also deeper, a multi-generational family saga that tackles prickly issues of racial identity and bigotry and conveys the corrosive effects of secrets and dissembling.

Reading may not be the opiate of the masses, but it sure is my anti-anxiety elixir of choice. Whether you're quaking in fear of the dreaded coronavirus (as I was), relieved to be recovering from it (as I am), or worried about the world and feeling restlessly cooped up (as we all are), here are a trio of delightful new books that can transport you to a happier place for hours at a time.

Anne Tyler's latest novel is heartwarming balm for jangled nerves. Once again, she burrows so convincingly into the quotidian details of her main character's life, home, and head that you have to wonder if she's some sort of Alexa-gone-rogue.

Redhead by the Side of the Road has a lot going for it, beginning with its alluring title. But I'm not going to give away anything about that roadside presence except to say that the redhead is a lovely metaphor for the protagonist's inability to see clearly, which causes him to misread the relationships in his life.

Not surprisingly, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been a spate of new novels exploring the long term damage of sexual abuse. In the past two years, predatory high school teachers have factored into two of the best of these — Kate Walbert's His Favorites and Susan Choi's Trust Exercise. Kate Elizabeth Russell's explosive debut now joins the line-up.

Lily King's new novel, her fifth, won't transport you to an exotic locale the way her last one did, but oh my, it's a good read. After Euphoria (2014), a richly researched and imagined tragic love triangle inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead's life, King returns to her comfort zone: a distressed young woman finding her way in late 20th century New England.

Some people, my mother used to say, look for trouble. In her most personal book to date, Katie Roiphe — frequently a lightning rod for her inflammatory, unpopular stances on issues such as date rape — probes questions raised by the turbulence in her private and professional life.

Teddy Wayne's fourth novel is written in the key of Edward Hopper. Apartment is a portrait of loneliness and male insecurity set against the backdrop of the hyper-competitive world of Columbia University's graduate writing program, where ambition and self-doubt go hand in hand, and the workshops seem designed to separate the anointed from the hacks — or, in this case, the men from the boys.

Want a great antidote to distress over current events? Julian Barnes found it in his immersive plunge into the incredible flowering of sexual and artistic expression in Belle Epoque France, and into one man's mostly admirable life in particular. His 24th book (and eighth volume of nonfiction), The Man in the Red Coat, is a wonderful demonstration of the sort of free-range intellectual curiosity Barnes feels has been stymied by the xenophobia and national chauvinism behind Brexit.

Jenny Offill broke through the funk of a 15-year gap between her first and second novels with Dept. of Speculation (2014), a wonderful series of witty, plangent short dispatches about marriage, motherhood, and thwarted aspirations from an unnamed female writer whose life ventures dangerously close to the brink.

Offill's new novel, Weather, takes a similarly clever diary-like tack, but it's even better — darkly funny and urgent, yet more outwardly focused, fueled by a growing preoccupation with the scary prospect of a doomed earth.

If the chances of dying in a plane crash are pretty slim, being the sole survivor is even less likely. Slighter still, one would think, are the chances that two American novels published in the same month would feature sole plane crash survivors — but that's what we have here.

You knew it was bound to happen: the pushback against the #MeToo movement, the arguments for nuance. Not just from accused men proclaiming their innocence, but from a wave of novels (including Mary Gaitskill's This Is Pleasure, and Sally Rooney's Normal People) reminding us that relationships and female desire can be complicated and quirky.

Temper tantrums and meltdowns. They're a bane of parenting. Often at the most inconvenient moment possible, your kid — tired, hungry, beyond reason — just loses it. And it's your job to keep your cool and calm them down. After all, you're the grownup.

With her sixth novel, Jami Attenberg, best known for The Middlesteins (2004), secures her place as an oddly sparkling master of warped family sagas. All This Could Be Yours, mostly set on a single, stifling August day in New Orleans following the heart attack of 73-year-old Victor Tuchman, is an autopsy of the considerable, lasting damage this toxic man has inflicted on his family.

Gail Collins warns us upfront in her robust social history of America's changing attitudes toward women past the first blush of youth that "This is not going to be a tale of steady progress toward an age-indifferent tomorrow."

No Stopping Us Now makes clear, for example, that two particularly challenging times to be an older woman in America were the youth-obsessed 1920s and 1960s. Take heart, though: As its title indicates, the general trend chronicled in Collins' new book is encouraging.

Ten years after Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer Prize for her eponymous collection of linked stories about Olive Kitteridge, a difficult but endearing, retired but not retiring middle school math teacher, she returns to coastal Maine with an update — which is just as wonderful as the original.

Deborah Levy is a risk-taker — in both her life and work. Her recent memoir, The Cost of Living, offered a gutsy take on finding her footing and voice in a world in which women are often relegated to supporting roles. With her new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, she pulls off something even trickier, plunging us into a sometimes-confusing narrative that involves a man who actually sees nothing clearly.

There are several ways of looking at a story collection as wide-ranging and variable as Grand Union, Zadie Smith's first book of short fiction.

You could say it shows off her range — realist, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, quasi sci-fi, political and social satire, historical — and in doing so, provides something for everyone.

You could say it sheds light on her longform work — novels that include White Teeth, NW, and Swing Time — and that it animates ideas she explores in her essays, most recently collected in Feel Free.

In her new book of essays, Leslie Jamison reminds us more than once that the Roman playwright Terence's Latin motto, "I am human: nothing is alien to me" is tattooed along her arm.

The declaration, also the epigraph of The Empathy Exams, Jamison's first essay collection, is a mission statement for this intense writer who is drawn to strange stories that feed "the human hunger for narrative" — but also test the boundaries of her compassion and her openness to "mystery and wonder."

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