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Heller McAlpin

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."

Tom Hanks has heart. It's no news to his fans that empathy fuels his acting — including his back-to-back Oscar-winning portrayals of an AIDS victim in Philadelphia and the endearing hero of Forrest Gump. So it should come as no surprise that empathy also drives his first collection of fiction. While all of the 17 stories in Uncommon Type feature a different antique manual typewriter (Hanks is an avid collector), they are linked by something greater than typewriter ribbons: a decidedly benign, humane view of people and their foibles.

Ellen Stern's biography of theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld reads more like a gossipy 300-page article in New York magazine (where Stern has worked) than the biography of record suggested by the definite article modifying its subtitle. And in fact, Hirschfeld: The Biography grew out of Stern's juicy interview for a 1987 GQ magazine profile of the artist.

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.

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.

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