Heller McAlpin

If you think the social pressures in high school are brutal, they're a cakewalk compared to what goes on among the parents in an exclusive Manhattan private nursery school, the setting for Caitlin Macy's withering new novel, Mrs.

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.

Jeffrey Eugenides' first short story collection reminds us, during the long wait between novels, what we like so much about his writing. These ten stories, written over nearly 30 years, showcase his ability to write convincing female characters, his sensitivity to spouses and artists under duress, and his compassion for people who disappoint themselves as much as each other. Although not thematically linked, a recurring concern is what happens when basically good people succumb to temptations and pressures and behave badly.

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.

Richard Powers, whose novels combine the wonders of science with the marvels of art, astonishes us in different ways with each new book. His 11th, Orfeo, is about a 70-year-old avant-garde composer who has sacrificed family and fortune to his relentless pursuit of immortal, transcendent music.

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