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.

Cape Cod occupies a particular place in the American imagination, especially in the summer. The name alone conjures images of cool breezes, charming cottages and eating lobster rolls on the beach. For New Englanders looking for a weekend getaway, Cape Cod sounds idyllic. But as Patrick Dacey demonstrates in his skillful debut novel, The Outer Cape, every place has its dark side.

Scott McClanahan has built his career on defying expectations and blurring genres. The West Virginia author has been an indie-lit favorite for years, earning fans who admired his bizarre and often funny short fiction. In 2013, he gained something of a national profile following the publication of Crapalachia, a memoir, and Hill William, a novel. Though the genres were different, both critically acclaimed books drew from McClanahan's own sometimes troubled life.

Over the course of more than three decades, Percival Everett has written almost 30 books. They've included mysteries (Assumption), Westerns (Watershed) and biting political satire (the hilarious and memorably titled A History of the African-American People [Proposed] by Strom Thurmond as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid). It's impossible to predict what the next Everett book will bring, but it's always a safe bet that it's going to be great.

Who is Stephen Florida? It's a little hard to say. He's an orphan who maybe hasn't yet come to terms with the death of his parents in a car crash. He's an obsessive with poor impulse control. He's possibly the best college wrestler in the state of North Dakota. He's an unapologetic megalomaniac. Or maybe he's not really any of these things: "There is no real Stephen Florida," he says. "I am only a giant collection of gas and light and will."

In her autobiography, My Life, the legendary American dancer Isadora Duncan wrote, "The finest inheritance you can give to a child is to allow it to make its own way, completely on its own feet." She would never have the chance to give any kind of inheritance to her three children; they all died before she was killed in a freak accident in 1927. She was either 49 or 50.

Go into any semi-hip coffee shop and you'll find the regulars: people who spend hours there, day after day. Some of them are college students studying for exams, some are workers telecommuting to their jobs. (The nervous-looking ones with their noses in books, checking Twitter every three minutes? Those would be critics.) And some of them just really have nothing better to do.

"The land was drained." That's the first sentence in Daisy Johnson's haunting short story collection, Fen, and she wastes no time in establishing a setting. The Fens of eastern England are marshlands — or they were, until the 17th century when Parliament ordered them drained and converted into farmlands. One environmental expert has called the draining of the Fens "England's greatest ecological disaster."

Speeches in book form have become a reliable cash cow for publishers. The usual formula is this: Find a commencement speech that's gone viral on YouTube, publish it with illustrations in a small hardcover format, and watch as it gets snapped up by the target demographic (in this case, that would be "people who realized they forgot to buy a present while driving to their nephew's high school graduation").

About 50 pages into Pajtim Statovci's debut novel, the protagonist Bekim meets a cat in a Finnish gay bar. The cat is wearing human clothes and singing along to Cher's "Believe," and Bekim, for reasons that are not quite adequately explained, is immediately attracted to him. "The cat was such a wonderful, beautiful, gifted interpreter that I took him in my arms without waiting for any indication to do so, and straightaway I noticed that his silky smooth fur smelled good and that his body was muscular from top to tail," Bekim gushes.

The first short story in a collection functions the same way the first track on an album does — it sets the tone for what's to come, and works as a de facto introduction, displaying the range of tools the creator has decided to work with. That's not to say authors never deviate from the tone of the initial story; they usually do, and when they know what they're doing, the effect can be bracing, even shocking.

It sounds unbelievable to a lot of us, but for some people, their early 20s are the age when things start to come together. They graduate college, find a fulfilling job, marry their sweetheart and start a family.

If you ever want to make a group of Southerners groan, just ask them how they feel about kudzu. The now-ubiquitous vine was introduced to the United States from Japan in the late 19th century, and widely publicized as a miracle plant: it could be used as food for cattle; it made a nice ornamental addition to porches. But it didn't take very long for "the vine that ate the South" to go out of control, smothering Dixie and suffocating its other plants.

The story of American popular music plays out the same way so much of American culture does: black people make innovations, and white people take the credit. Jazz, blues, soul, rock and roll, disco and hip-hop all came from the minds of African-Americans. None of them existed for long before being co-opted by whites who realized they could make big money by watering down the music and selling it to a mass audience.

Despite what you may hear from alarmists, it's not easy for refugees to get to the United States — or really anywhere, for that matter. If they're even able to escape their own country, they face constant roadblocks and long waiting lists before they're able to establish themselves, however precariously, in another country. There are no magic doorways they can walk through that will just bring them to another land.

Bad stand-up comedy is, for everyone involved, a special kind of hell. There's really nothing worse than the awkwardness that ensues when a comic bombs in front of a restive audience at an open-mic night, half of whom have been dragged there against their will in the first place. Great comedians have made enduring art and even changed society; all bad comedians have ever done is made people hurry out of a bar with their gin-and-tonics half finished.

Margaret Drabble's new novel The Dark Flood Rises opens with its protagonist, Francesca Stubbs, tensely driving her Peugeot on an English highway. Fran is an expert on housing for senior citizens; she's herself in her seventies, and lately, she's been obsessed with mortality. Here's the first sentence of the novel: "She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in this world will prove to be 'You bloody old fool' or, perhaps, depending on the mood of the day or the time of the night, 'you ...

Even if you've read the news reports or seen the horrifying photographs, it's hard to fathom the terrible extent of the Syrian refugee crisis. The United States has accepted more than 10,000 Syrians fleeing the country's civil war, but that's a drop in the bucket — millions of Syrians have been forced out of their home country, hoping other nations will take them in. Some have, some have since closed the door.

Toward the middle of Paul Auster's new novel, 4 3 2 1, young Archie Ferguson, recovering from a car accident that could have killed him, quotes the satire Candide to his optimistic girlfriend. "You're beginning to sound like Dr. Pangloss," he complains. "Everything always happens for the best — in this, the best of all possible worlds."

In 1996, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton published a book that drew its title from a proverb of indeterminate origin: "It takes a village to raise a child." The aphorism, which was embraced by Clinton's fans and mocked by her detractors, suggests that it's in the interest of everyone for all adults to look after the children of the world.

It's become a common joke that the Germans have a word for everything (and that many of them are comically long and impossible to pronounce). But there's a grain of truth to it — take Sehnsucht, a German term that's hard to explain in English. It's sometimes translated as "longing," but it carries a series of specific connotations, among them, a yearning for a faraway land that may or may not actually exist.

For a lot of writers, crafting fiction can feel like an exercise in trying to describe something — a concept, a sensation, an emotion — that really doesn't want to be described. It's a problem that can be solved by sticking to obvious themes and well-worn story arcs, but the best writers would rather put down their pens forever before surrendering to cliché.

There's a reason that some readers view contemporary coming-of-age novels with suspicion. Too many play out the same way: An odd but winsome young person goes on some kind of journey of discovery, either literal or figurative, and learns something about himself or herself in the process. Often, there's an awkward romance. And the ending, whether happy or otherwise, can usually be described as bittersweet.

On April 3, 1983, terrorists associated with the Maoist guerilla group Shining Path invaded the small hamlet of Lucanamarca, Peru, and murdered 69 villagers. The slayings, retaliation for the killing of a Shining Path leader, were especially brutal — the victims, including infants and children, were hacked to death with machetes. It would not be the last time that Peruvians were slaughtered en masse, either by the Shining Path or the Peruvian military.

Rabih Alameddine's novel The Angel of History begins with a conversation between Satan and Death. The two are sitting in the home of Jacob, a poet in the midst of a mental breakdown; long after the death of his partner from AIDS, he's begun hearing voices (again), and is currently trying to check himself into a mental hospital.

When 49-year-old artist Eleanor Flood wakes up one weekday, she makes herself a promise. "Today will be different," she vows. "Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I'm capable of being. Today will be different."

Here is what happens in the first 100 pages of The Wonder: Lib, an English nurse in the mid-19th century, is sent to a small town in Ireland, a country whose people she instantly hates, to keep watch over a young girl who claims she has lived without food for four months. Lib watches the girl and thinks unkind things about the Irish. The girl does not eat. That is it.

There's a moment in Peter Ho Davies' novel The Fortunes in which a Chinese immigrant to America, a teenage boy named Ling, experiences a painful epiphany. He's been working as a valet to Charles Crocker, the 19th-century business magnate who first began employing Chinese workers as railroad workers. (Crocker's colleagues initially thought him crazy; they believed the Chinese were ill-suited to such backbreaking labor.)

With all due respect to Marco Rubio, Pitbull and Tim Tebow, the most famous export from the Sunshine State these days is Florida Man. He's not a real guy, of course, but the subject of a popular Twitter account that compiles news stories about the sometimes bizarre antics of certain assorted oddballs living in America's third-largest state.

In 2008, the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in American history. It took just hours for the catastrophic effects of the company's failure to become apparent to ordinary people all across the world, even ones who had never before heard terms like "subprime mortgage" and "collateralized debt obligation."

Editor's note: This review contains language some may find offensive

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