Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. A native of Texas, he now lives in Portland, Ore.
Originally published on Thu January 22, 2015 11:57 am
On a chilly autumn night in Austin, Texas, three teenage girls are finishing up their shift at an ice cream shop. Two men walk in, and when they leave, the store is on fire, the three girls still in there, naked, bound with their own underwear, murdered. The slayings and the arson take just minutes, but the families and friends of the girls take years to get over it — or to try to get over it; of course, they never do.
Originally published on Tue January 13, 2015 12:58 pm
"They are a perfect, golden couple," Rachel Watson thinks, regarding handsome Jason and his striking wife, Jess. "He is dark-haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blond hair cropped short." Rachel, the main narrator of Paula Hawkins' novel The Girl on the Train, is obsessed with the pair; they represent to her the perfect relationship that she once had, or seemed to, before it imploded spectacularly.
Originally published on Wed January 7, 2015 9:40 am
The first small mammal in Thomas Pierce's short story collection is Shirley Temple Three, "waist-high, with a pelt of dirty-blond fur that hangs in tangled draggles to the dirt." Shirley is a dwarf mammoth, a member of a species that hasn't been around for millennia, cloned for the sake of a television show called Back from Extinction.
"Most things that don't kill us right off, kill us later." Welcome back, Frank Bascombe, failed novelist turned real estate agent turned retiree, and Richard Ford's most famous character. Through three previous novels (The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land), readers have seen Frank lose a child, deal with divorce, and even get shot. Frank is cynical. You would be, too.
Originally published on Fri October 24, 2014 4:59 pm
In less than two weeks, Americans will go to the polls to vote in the midterm elections. At least, some of them will — about 40% of eligible voters, if past elections are any indication. This year's races have already made stars — some rising, some falling — out of Americans hoping to represent their states and districts.
Some, like Kansas Senate hopeful Greg Orman and Georgia governor candidate Jason Carter, may pull off surprising victories. Others, like Wendy Davis in the Texas governor race have seen their once bright lights fade.
Originally published on Tue September 30, 2014 11:43 am
Valentine Millimaki, a sheriff's deputy in central Montana, is the officer who's called upon whenever someone goes missing. In the past, he has found people either safe or clinging to life, if barely. But for over a year, he's only found corpses, dead of exposure or suicide or murder. "Valentine Millimaki did not bring back angels," writes novelist Kim Zupan in The Ploughmen, "No, I did not, he thought. Souls did not aspire on his watch to safety or heaven but came trestled roughly from the dark woods, trapped in the alabaster statuary of rigid flesh."
Originally published on Wed September 17, 2014 12:58 pm
The world has become hard to shock. It's not because evil is a new thing — that's been around since the beginning of time, and it definitely wasn't created by movies, video games and every other popular scapegoat for the decline of society. But it's undeniable that we've all become a little inured to things that might have been considered unspeakably horrifying 50 years ago.
Originally published on Tue August 26, 2014 8:37 am
Not long after we're introduced to John, the protagonist of Katy Simpson Smith's The Story of Land and Sea, he's reflecting on the loss of his wife, who died in childbirth several years ago. John is a former sailor on pirate ships who gave up the privateer's life to take care of his daughter, Tabitha. "The grief, besides, has waned to washes of melancholy," Smith writes, "impressions connected to no specific hurt but to the awareness of a constant. He is in no pain but the pain of the living."
Originally published on Wed August 20, 2014 10:52 am
Even for those of us who despise the heat and are well past school age, it's always kind of sad when summer vacation comes to a close. It feels like the end of an era, every year — goodbye to the swimming pools and water parks, the long days, the late evenings with friends. Those "back to school" sales are a kind of low-grade torment, even for those of us who kind of liked school.
Originally published on Tue August 5, 2014 8:21 am
News becomes history in a second. That's one of the reasons history stays alive — people will always discuss the past as long as there's something to disagree about, and there's always something to disagree about. "A fog of crosscutting motives and narratives," writes Rick Perlstein, "a complexity that defies storybook simplicity: that is usually the way history happens." Beyond the names and dates, history never offers any easy answers. It doesn't even offer easy questions.
Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 9:54 am
For months now the Ebola virus has been wreaking havoc in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. More than 700 people have died, and it seems that doctors are near-powerless to help. With the threat of the disease tearing communities apart, it's hard not to think of a legendary novel from almost 70 years ago.
At some point in the past decade, the word "Brooklyn" became cultural shorthand for a certain type of young, nouveau riche hipster. The borough has a history that goes back centuries, and a huge, notably diverse population, but to many Americans, it's now mainly associated with fixed-gear-bike-riding arrivistes sipping artisanal espresso drinks while they work on their painfully autobiographical novels about escaping suburbia.
Maria Venegas' memoir Bulletproof Vest opens with the story of her father's near death at the hands of would-be assassins in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. He's shot while returning home from a bar, collapses near his house, losing blood, dying, until a neighbor happens upon him during a walk. When Maria's sister calls to tell her the news, the young writer doesn't even look up from her lunch menu. "Oh. So, is he dead?" she asks.
It was 50 feet high and 70 feet long, more than 37 million pounds of granite and concrete. It dominated Letná Park in Prague for the seven years it stood. But in 1962, the biggest monument to Josef Stalin in the world was destroyed, after the dictator fell out of ideological favor in Czechoslovakia.
"There is no such thing as conversation," wrote Rebecca West in her story "The Harsh Voice." "It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all." The same could be said for books, as well — even the best histories and biographies are necessarily filtered through the sensibilities of the author and reader, and some of the best literature is the result of those monologues, those stories, intersecting.
It's probably a little too pat to say that all successful political careers are marked by contradiction and compromise, though you're not likely to hear many objections to that characterization. Politics is a game of survival, and with a few sadly notable exceptions, unyielding purists seldom make it to the top.
"Love is not all," warned the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. "It is not meat nor drink / Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain." She was right, of course, but if there were ever any advice destined to fall on stubbornly deaf ears, this is it. Love is not all, but it always feels like it is, whether you're happily partnered or bereft.
It was no less than the master of dystopian fiction, George Orwell, who noted in a 1946 essay that "political language has to consist largely of euphemism. ... Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air ...
There's a popular misconception that literary fiction is supposed to be staid, boring, realistic to a fault. Like all stereotypes, it's deeply unfair, but it endures, perhaps because readers keep having traumatic flashbacks to novels, like Sister Carrie, that they were forced to read in high school.
"More than anywhere else," writes Rosie Schaap, "bars are where I've figured out how to relate to others and how to be myself." It's the same for a lot of us, though many won't admit it. Americans tend to have a weirdly puritanical view of drinking, and a lot of people see bars as nothing more than havens for lowlifes and alcoholics. But as Schaap points out in her new memoir, they're missing out. "You can drink at home. But a good bar? ... It's more like a community center, for people — men and women — who happen to drink."
Since the publication of George Saunders' 1996 debut story collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline, journalists and scholars have been trying to figure out how to describe his writing. Nobody has come very close. The short story writer and novelist has been repeatedly called "original," which is true as far as it goes — but it doesn't go nearly far enough. Saunders blends elements of science fiction, horror and humor writing into his trademark brand of literary fiction.
Originally published on Fri December 28, 2012 4:26 pm
It's probably not true that truth is stranger than fiction, but in the hands of a great biographer, it can be just as compelling. Novelists can create unique and unforgettable characters — there's never been anyone quite like Jane Eyre or Ignatius J. Reilly — but there's no shortage of fascinating literary protagonists who just happened to exist in real life.
Originally published on Wed November 14, 2012 1:14 pm
It's a cold March night in New York, and journalist Susannah Cahalan is watching PBS with her boyfriend, trying to relax after a difficult day at work. He falls asleep, and wakes up moments later to find her having a seizure straight out of The Exorcist. "My arms suddenly whipped straight out in front of me, like a mummy, as my eyes rolled back and my body stiffened," Cahalan writes. "I inhaled repeatedly, with no exhale. Blood and foam began to spurt out of my mouth through clenched teeth."
Originally published on Fri November 16, 2012 6:07 pm
Richard Russo sits in his elderly mother's home, holding her hand. She's just been diagnosed with dementia, one more illness to add to the long list of ailments she's been battling for years. She wonders aloud whether she'll ever be able to read again, plainly scared at the prospect of a life without her favorite hobby. She takes a look around her small apartment, and tells her son that she hates it.
"I just wish you could be happy, Mom," he says, heartbroken. "I used to be," she responds. "I know you don't believe that, but I was."
Originally published on Thu October 18, 2012 7:56 am
"The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie," admits Binx Bolling, the hero of Walker Percy's 1961 novel The Moviegoer. It's the same for a lot of us — cinema affects us in ways we don't always understand, and even the worst films appeal to our nostalgia and sense memories in manners that defy the normal rules of taste and logic. (Currently, on my DVR: La Dolce Vita, a classic I know I should see at some point, and Gymkata, a truly terrible 1985 martial-arts flick I've watched a dozen times.
It's been five years since the Amazon Kindle started one of the most enduring literary controversies of recent times: the fight between e-books and printed books. If you're a devoted reader, you're probably already sick of the back and forth between the excitable technophiles and the stubborn Luddites. The proponents of e-books rave about the unexplored avenues, the hypertext, the entire world of literature accessible with just one click. The rest of us — well, we like the way books feel and smell, OK? It might seem sentimental, but that's falling in love for you.
On Feb. 17, 1970, physician Jeffrey MacDonald called the police to his Fort Bragg, N.C., home. He told the responding officers that he had been assaulted by a group of "hippie" intruders, who had also bludgeoned and stabbed his wife and two young daughters — ages 2 and 5 — to death. MacDonald suffered a concussion and collapsed lung but survived.
Meet God, according to Simon Rich. He's a mostly nice dude — compassionate, though he gave up on listening to prayers and intervening in the lives of humans years ago. ("[H]e's really more of an ideas guy, you know?" explains an angel.) He loves golf and the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he's not averse to enjoying a beer or two during the workday. He's easy to like, except for two things: He's planning to destroy all of humanity so he can focus on opening an Asian fusion restaurant in heaven; and even worse, he's a Yankees fan.