KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Michael Schaub

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.

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.

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."

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."

"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.

"I am guilty," admits Harold Silver, the protagonist of A.M. Homes' new novel, May We Be Forgiven. "I am guilty of even more than I realized I could be guilty of."

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.

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