The Altruists By Andrew Ridker. (Viking, 320 pages, $26.)

To enjoy "The Altruists," you will need to get past the disgusting fact that the wise, witty book was written by someone who was about 27 when he completed it (Ridker was born in 1991). In the tradition of Stephen McCauley and Elinor Lipman, "The Altruists" is a comic novel about a family whose members are not just stuck in ruts but have fallen into ruts and then piled mounds of stuckness on top of themselves.

Arthur Alter is the patriarch, a widower and failing professor who is about to lose the family's St. Louis home. Son Ethan has squandered the potential he showed when he graduated from college eight years earlier, and daughter Maggie, a more recent graduate, is following Ethan's non-career non-path. Both resent their father's behavior before and after the death of their beloved mother, so there's lots to unpack when Arthur invites them home for an awkward reconciliation attempt.

Ridker is preternaturally smart about the traps that even bright people set for themselves, he loves his all of his messed-up characters and he finds hopeful-but-not-unrealistic ways for them to live their better, if not best, lives.


Woman at 1,000 Degrees By Hallgrimur Helgason. (Algonquin Books, 400 pages, $16.95.)

This rollicking novel by Icelandic writer Hallgrimur Helgason (newly released in paperback, with an English translation by Brian FitzGibbon) is as delightful as it is dirty.

Inspired by a real-life old lady whom Helgason telephoned by chance during political canvassing, "Woman at 1,000 Degrees" is colorfully narrated by the singular Herra Bjornsson, alone on her deathbed in a Reykjavik garage.

She's plotting her cremation, running catfish schemes on her laptop and keeping an old hand grenade by her side. "But before I explode, permit me to review my life," she says.

The granddaughter of Iceland's first president, Herra has lived a life full of heartbreak, betrayal and World War II horrors, yet she tells it so bawdily and so crankily that "Woman" is both a fun and funny read.

She hits on the historic highs and lows of the 20th century, as her father fights on the side of the Nazis, forcing the family to leave Iceland for Denmark and then Germany, where she ends up separated from her parents, alone in a terrible time. After the war, she follows her father to Argentina before her exploits bring her to New York and Hamburg (in time to kiss a young John Lennon).

Through it all she survives, racks up many marriages, becomes a "rotten mother and an even worse granny" and apologizes for nothing.

"I just say: if anyone is God, it's got to be me," she says. "Someone who has survived eighty years without losing her wits and has woken up in four different continents, on top of hundreds of men, who's had and lost children and created an entire solar system of problems, but managed to solve most of them with perseverance and above all stoicism, plus the drop of generosity I managed to squeeze out of my grandma's desiccated corpse."