My Autobiography of Carson McCullers

By Jenn Shapland. (Tin House Books, 266 pages, $22.95.)

This winter, if you read just one book that seems to be a biography but turns into an autobiography and is really about the writer clarifying her identity as a lesbian, I don't know what to tell you because "Why Fish Don't Exist" is sensational but so is "My Autobiography of Carson McCullers."

Jenn Shapland stumbles upon McCullers' papers at the University of Texas and intends to write about the "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" novelist while staying at the famous Yaddo retreat for artists, where McCullers also did multiple stints. In particular, she becomes obsessed by evidence McCullers was, like Shapland, a lesbian — evidence that previous biographers ignored.

The neat trick this National Book Award finalist pulls is to balance the stories of McCullers and Shapland. Each is an outsider who is fascinating on her own but, together, they form a provocative look at what we reveal to the world and to ourselves. The more Shapland learns about the legendary writer, the more she learns about herself and the more readers are apt to question the labels we impose on one another.

Here's how Shapland puts it: "I've started making my own clothes in the years since I began this project, frustrated that clothes in stores don't really look or fit or feel the way I want to look and feel. Which is: not masculine, not feminine, but a both that becomes other."