Heller McAlpin

In one beautifully observed, quietly absorbing novel after another, Alice McDermott has made the insular world of New York's Irish Catholic immigrants in the first half of the 20th century her own, much as Anne Tyler has laid claim to Baltimore's middle class. And, like Tyler, in focusing tightly on a close-knit community of ordinary people, she leads us to a deeper understanding of the human condition.

Back in 2006, Minna Zallman Proctor was hit by a landslide of woes that left her reeling. Heavily pregnant with her first child, she was going through a divorce from the child's father while her own mother was dying after 15 years of fighting various cancers. What made matters more painful was that some of her troubles were of her own making: She'd had an affair with another man, and had chosen to leave her husband for him.

Nicole Krauss' fourth novel, a cerebral, dual-stranded tale of disillusionment and spiritual quest, proves heavy going for its characters — and its readers. Her two protagonists, a powerful, 68-year-old Manhattan attorney and philanthropist named Jules Epstein, and a celebrated novelist on the cusp of 40 named Nicole, have come to question the aridity of their lives. Both believe they'll find relief and transformation in Israel, a land of "never-ending argument" that also offers them abundant time and light in which to examine things more deeply.

Although I was put off by the Hitlerian title and massive self-absorption of Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume, 3,600-page confessional novel, My Struggle, accolades from trusted colleagues convinced me to set it aside for a rainy day — which, truthfully, might mean the next Flood. In the meantime, I picked up Autumn, the first in a planned seasonal quartet of meditative reflections, with hopes that it would provide a more modest, accessible introduction to Knausgaard's work. More modest, yes.

Writers are drawn to oddballs and outsiders, in much the way that dogs out for a walk veer toward fellow canines. The endearing pre-adolescent narrator of Camille Bordas' novel, How To Behave in a Crowd, is the youngest of six siblings growing up in a small French village. He's the odd man out because he's the most normal of the lot: All of his older sisters and brothers have skipped multiple grades, and three of them earn PhDs during the course of this book.

"Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so." That's how Laurent Binet opens his audacious second novel, an intellectual romp about the many ways language exerts power, particularly in politics and fiction.

Don't let Tamara Shopsin's Thurberesque cover drawing of a helmeted girl in cleats kicking right through a football mislead you. Arbitrary Stupid Goal is not about football. It isn't about any sport — except, perhaps, smashing grand life goals to smithereens.

Feeling hot? Ashley Shelby's debut novel, set among an appealing assortment of nerds and oddballs at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica — where 50 below zero is considered downright balmy — is a refreshing diversion from a heat wave.

Allegra Goodman's characters tend to become obsessed with whatever belief systems they espouse, and for nearly 20 years, her novels have followed them into their cultural bubbles — whether it's the separatist Orthodox Judaism in a small Catskills community in Kaaterskill Falls, the secular faith in science in a tight-knit medical research laboratory in Intuition, or the adrenaline-fueled, competitive Silicon Valley startup culture in The Cookbook Collector. In The Chalk Artist, her sixth novel, Goodman, who holds a PhD.

Years ago, when my mother-in-law was fighting what would turn out to be a losing battle with breast cancer, she was riding in a golf cart with my two small children when her wig blew off, briefly exposing her head, as bald as a golf ball. My daughter's eyes grew wide with alarm, but my mother-in-law quickly defused the moment with extraordinary aplomb: "Bet you can't do that with your hair, can you?"

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