Michael Schaub

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.

"No matter how long they've been there, the people who live out here believe that whatever life demands of them they can meet it on their own," writes Larry Watson in his new novel, As Good as Gone. "Here" is the badlands of eastern Montana, a famously desolate and unforgiving region; those who inhabit it tend to learn self-reliance quickly, and by necessity.

On the first page of Girls on Fire, author Robin Wasserman asks us to imagine a group of teenage girls on a bus. "Give in: Pick a pair of them, lost in each other, a matched set like a vision out of the past," she writes. "Nobody special, two nobodies. Except that together, they're radioactive: together, they glow."

If you're reading this section of the site, there's a better than good chance that at one time, you've read a book that changed your life. For literature lovers, that's not hyperbole — occasionally, books have a way of finding you when you most need them; they really can alter the way you look at things, the course of your life. It can feel a lot like magic.

Everybody makes mistakes, but some people manage to turn it into an art form. Take the characters in John Jodzio's new short story collection, Knockout. There's the young man who lets himself be talked into stealing a tiger and selling it for meth. There's the guy who moves into a duplex and discovers, too late, that his new roommate is a sadistic kidnapper. And then there's the woman whose boyfriend talks her into letting him pick up women at a speed-dating event, then tying them up until they give him their ATM codes.

Most writers would give everything they own to have just one masterpiece to their name. British author Helen Oyeyemi is barely 31, and she already has at least three of them. That includes her last two novels, Mr. Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird, both of which received extensive critical acclaim in the U.S. and around the world.

It also includes her latest book, the short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. The book contains the same sly humor, gorgeous writing and magical characters as her previous efforts. It is, in a word, flawless.

The total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to approach $6 trillion, but it will be decades before we know what we've truly lost. We have a generation that's never really known peacetime, and thousands upon thousands of service members who have returned to the country wounded in ways the rest of us might never understand. The wages of sin might be death, but the wages of war could be something even worse.

There's no shortage of contemporary writing about New York. While that's not surprising — it's the largest city in the country, and has always had a special hold on the American imagination — it sometimes seems like it's hard to find new fiction not set in the five (but usually just two) boroughs. That's a problem for aspiring novelists who couldn't care less about the city, but it's also one for New York writers struggling to find something new to say about their hometown.

It's the dead of winter in a small town in northern Michigan, and Carletta James is missing. Again. Her 16-year old daughter, Percy, isn't exactly surprised — it's not unusual for Carletta, a meth addict, to disappear for stretches of time, strung out and unconscious somewhere. But Percy's more worried than usual this time; there's a winter storm on the horizon that's threatening to bury Cutler County under a blanket of snow. "I missed her and I was tired of my waiting-around, worried-sick life," Percy thinks. "Carletta had to be got."

On the edge of a town called St. Nils sits the Burrow. It's a low mound of earth, just like any other burrow, but with a front door and six windowless apartments inside. It's not clear when it was constructed; some speculate it was built as a secret bunker, others think it was put up as an entrance to a tunnel used by drug smugglers. The townspeople can't agree on its origins; they can't even agree on how to pronounce the name of their town.

"Twenty-seven may be too young to die," muses Tim Sunblade, the narrator of Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel. "But it isn't too young to die like a man." Tim has death on his mind frequently — he's an escaped prisoner determined to do whatever it takes to stay out of jail. He'll kill if he has to, and he'd much rather wind up in a coffin than in a prison cell. This, of course, makes him very, very dangerous.

On Nov. 30, 1999, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization conference being held at the city's convention center. It didn't take long for the situation to deteriorate; after some protesters started smashing windows and occupying intersections, police officers began to use tear gas and pepper spray in an effort to disperse the crowd.

Herman Wouk's new memoir opens with two stanzas from "The Wreck of the Old 97," the famous ballad about a 1903 train crash in Virginia that killed 11 people. Initially, it seems an odd choice — while Wouk's most famous novels have dealt with tragedy, they've been mostly focused on war, not locomotives careering down the tracks at unsafe speeds. But Wouk explains, with his trademark droll humor: "Gentle reader, that railroad folk tune is sure haunting your durable storyteller, aged ninety-seven."

The American writer Edgar Allan Poe might have invented detective fiction, but it's been a long time since the United States has had a monopoly on the genre. In the past few decades, Americans have fallen in love with mystery writers from as far away as Iceland and Japan.

"My whole life / Was like a picture of a sunny day," Carrie Brownstein sings in Sleater-Kinney's "Modern Girl." It's one of the band's happier-sounding songs, with a catchy, almost sweet melody belied by the deeply ironic, cutting lyrics. She follows up those lines with the ones that inspire the title of her new book: "My baby loves me, I'm so hungry / Hunger makes me a modern girl."

For the subset of Generation X Americans too young to remember Watergate or Abscam, the Iran-Contra affair was the first major political scandal to come across their radar. There was a period of time in 1987 and 1988 when you couldn't turn on a television set or open a magazine without seeing one of the familiar faces: Oliver North, Fawn Hall, Caspar Weinberger. After a while, it started to feel like, in a way, you knew them.

David Lee Roth supposedly once said, "Music journalists like Elvis Costello because music journalists look like Elvis Costello." As a former music journalist and longtime fan of Costello's songs, I have to say this is unfair. Sure, I might have a pale complexion, receding hairline and black horn-rimmed glasses, but ... OK, fine, David Lee. You win this round.

"I bent over backwards to misbehave," Vic Chesnutt sang in 1993's "Dodge," "It's a holy wonder I just didn't flip on over into an early grave." Like many of Chesnutt's lyrics, it proved to be heartbreakingly prophetic. The indie singer-songwriter was wracked with depression and debt after a car accident left him quadriplegic when he was a teenager. And he'd survived a few suicide attempts before overdosing on muscle relaxants in December 2009. He died on Christmas Day at age 45.

Here's the good news about Ceridwen Dovey's short story collection Only the Animals: It contains a genuinely moving story told from the point of view of a parrot. That's obviously not an easy thing to pull off, but Dovey manages it beautifully. The bird, adopted by an American divorcée who has moved to Beirut, makes for an intriguing narrator, and the story is clever, biting and wistfully sad.

"What if everything one did mattered," Joy Williams writes in her short story "Cats and Dogs." "Thank God, it could not." It's a classic Williams sentiment — dark, but almost devotional, wise and somehow comforting. We're hard-wired to want to take credit for our kindnesses and to forget our cruelties, but being human means that every one of us is a mixture of both. As one character observes in Williams' story "Shepherd," "The ways that others see us is our life." There's no solace in that statement, but there's a lot of truth.

"Our responses to [Joan Didion's] persona tell us less about the woman behind the books than about ourselves," writes Tracy Daugherty in his new biography of the legendary author, and he couldn't be more right. She was a conservative in the 1960s, whom liberals believed was one of their own. Some of her fans admire her skeptical takes on the entertainment industry and politics, but she's had close friends in the Hollywood and Washington crowd for decades.

"Can you tell a story that doesn't begin, it's just suddenly happening?" asks a character in Adam Johnson's short story collection, Fortune Smiles. And you can, of course; the best stories stretch well beyond their first and last words. They're more than the opening scene; they invite the reader to imagine what came before and what will come after. They're alive and they're limitless.

In the realm of office work, there's nothing quite so soul-crushing as data entry, a job that combines the joy of carpal tunnel syndrome with the fun of being in a room that's either air-conditioned to Arctic levels or heated to a degree that is only technically survivable by humans. Add to that the anodyne preachiness of those ubiquitous motivational posters, and you've got, essentially, a fever dream of unpleasantness.

On the morning of March 11, 2004, ten bombs exploded on four commuter trains in Madrid. By the time the smoke had cleared, nearly 200 people had been killed; more than 1,800 were wounded, many gravely. It was one of the worst terrorist attacks in history; years later, several Islamists of North African heritage were convicted of the bombings.

"Odder than two-headed calves, stranger than Uri Geller, who could bend spoons with his mind." That's how the narrator of "Who Among Us Knows the Route to Heaven?" — one of the stories in Tom Williams' collection Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales -- describes himself and his brother, growing up in the suburbs of Ohio in the early 1970s.

There's something meaningful, almost defiant, about the title of Lauren Holmes' debut, Barbara the Slut and Other People. It's not the first part, either; while the word "slut" is still frequently used as a term of abuse, it has lost some of the power to shock that it had a few decades ago. It's the final few words — "and other people," not "and other stories," which is the usual naming convention for short story collections.

"My power is fading," begins Louisa Hall's novel Speak. "Once it runs out, the memories I have saved will be silent. I will no longer have words to call up. There will be no reason to speak." They sound like the words of a person on her deathbed, and in a way, they are. The speaker is Eva, a baby doll with artificial intelligence; she and thousands of others like her are being trucked to a hangar in Texas. They've been banned by the government for being too lifelike, and the man who created them is languishing in a Texarkana prison.

"Life is a funny thing, you know," says a character in Naomi Jackson's The Star Side of Bird Hill. "Just when you think you know what you're doing, which way you're headed, the target moves." He makes a good point — our lives have a way of taking detours without our consent, and the result can be like riding in a car that drives itself.

In "The Miracle Worker," one of the nine stories that make up Mia Alvar's debut collection In the Country, a wealthy Bahraini woman hires a Filipino special education teacher to try to coax some communication from her daughter, a profoundly disabled girl with extensive physical deformities. The mother wants nothing more than for her daughter to be "normal." She explains to the teacher: "Often people do not love difference."

Early in Lisa Gornick's Louisa Meets Bear, not long after the title characters run into each other at a Princeton University library in 1975, Louisa tries to explain her father's job to her schoolmate. She can't quite articulate what it means to be a geneticist: "I can't explain what it is that my father researches, only that I think about it as unveiling the machinery in the magic."

Warren Duffy is having a bad year. The comic book store he opened in Cardiff, Wales, has shut down, leaving him in debt to his angry ex-wife. He habris come home to Philadelphia to claim the inheritance left to him by his late father — a roofless, possibly haunted mansion that's only inhabitable in the most technical sense of the word. And he's basically broke, forced to make pocket money by drawing pictures at a comic book convention, where, because he's biracial, he's shunted into the "urban" section.

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