KRWG

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.

For 40 days in the beginning of 2016, the eyes of the world were focused on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, in "the remotest corner of the lower forty-eight" states. The refuge had been occupied by a ragtag group of militia members and angry ranchers, outraged by what they considered heavy-handed tactics by the federal government, at the hands of the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

Towards the end of Kevin Powers' second novel, A Shout in the Ruins, a young man wandering the country in the days of the Civil War comes across a boy his own age dressed in a Confederate uniform. The stranger, in a paranoid fit of rage, slashes the boy's neck and shoots and kills his dog. The stunned boy wraps his pet's corpse in a Union blanket, and comes to a sad realization: "The simple fact was this: it was hard to find a soul left anywhere on earth who believed that there was dignity in death."

Romy Hall has run out of time and hope. The protagonist of Rachel Kushner's third novel, 29 years old when we first meet her, has resigned herself to the likelihood that she'll die in prison; she's been sentenced to two life sentences for beating to death a man who stalked her. "I don't plan on living a long life," she says. "Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not, until you don't exist, and then your plans are meaningless."

Near the beginning of The Red Caddy, Charles Bowden's slim tribute to the author and environmental activist Edward Abbey, Bowden makes an interesting observation about his late friend's career: "He created a fairly unusual readership — either people have never heard of him or have read everything he ever wrote." It's an exaggeration, of course — plenty of people read his most famous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, but never become Abbey completists.

If you grew up in Texas, chances are you've heard the old joke about the man teaching his son about good manners. "Never ask a man if he's from Texas," the father said. "If he is, he'll tell you. And if he's not, there's no use in embarrassing him."

On the evening of Oct. 17, 2013, Sadiq Juma received an email from his two teenage daughters, Ayan and Leila. The girls were late coming home to the apartment they shared with their family in the Oslo suburb of Bærum, which was unlike them; they were generally responsible young women. When Sadiq opened the email, "everything went black."

In the first few pages of Let's No One Get Hurt, the second novel from poet Jon Pineda, a man asks his 15-year-old daughter to shoot and kill her beloved dog (who's named Marianne Moore, after the modernist master from the 20th century. Pearl, the teenager, can't bring herself to do it — she sees the ailing mutt, perhaps as a link to her past, when she lived with both her parents, before one of them disappeared.

Some crime novelists are famously prolific, publishing a novel every year to the delight of fans who can't get enough of their favorite crime-fighting heroes. And then there's Kent Anderson. The New Mexico author burst onto the literary scene in 1987 with Sympathy for the Devil, a Vietnam War novel that drew praise and controversy for its unflinching depiction of savage violence. A decade later, Anderson followed up with Night Dogs, which found Hanson, the antihero of his first book, working as a police officer in Portland, Ore.

Of all the vague terms that journalists love to apply to mostly unwilling celebrities, one of the slipperiest is "public intellectual." It's hard to define, but with apologies to Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it. To be one, you have to be smart about more than one thing, you have to be able to translate academic jargon into something approaching English, and most importantly, you can never define yourself as one.

Nobody ever wrote like Denis Johnson. Nobody ever came close. The author of books like Jesus' Son and Tree of Smoke was a hardcore minimalist who could say in one sentence what other writers wouldn't be able to say in a whole chapter. His stories and novels embraced the dark, but reluctantly; he refused to shy away from the brutal, the violent and the desperate. He was the last of his breed, and it was a breed of one.

There's no kind of anguished desperation that feels quite like the desire to communicate with loved ones who we've lost. It can turn even the most rational person into a believer in the supernatural — to the bereaved, even if there's just a small chance of connecting with a dead friend or family member, isn't it worth the three dollars for the first minute and 99 cents for each additional minute?

Some writers believe that they have to ease their readers into darkness. It's a popular gambit, and to an extent, it makes sense — you don't want to lose the reader by plunging them instantly into misery; there has to be some glimmer of hope at the beginning, even if you plan to extinguish it eventually.

Louise Erdrich is, without a doubt, one of America's greatest novelists. Her genius was evident early in her career — her 1984 debut novel, Love Medicine, drew considerable critical acclaim and earned her a National Book Critics Circle Award. In the following years, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for The Plague of Doves, and won a National Book Award for The Round House.

It remains one of the oddest coincidences of American history. On July 4, 1826, the 50th birthday of the Declaration of Independence, former President Thomas Jefferson died in his Virginia home. Five hours later, John Adams, his predecessor as president, passed away in Massachusetts; word of his longtime friend's death hadn't yet reached him.

It's easy to send thoughts and prayers and move on if you're not among those whose lives were altered by the storms. But natural disasters continue to destroy lives long after the damage is done. In his new book Ghosts of the Tsunami, author Richard Lloyd Parry considers the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, which took thousands of lives, and which haunts its survivors to this day. It's a wrenching chronicle of a disaster that, six years later, still seems incomprehensible.

Irish novelist Roddy Doyle has always had a lot of literary tools in his belt, but the one he's most known for is his sense of humor. His first three novels, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van, were all laugh-out-loud funny, and even his most serious novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, which dealt with alcoholism and spousal abuse, had its (darkly) humorous moments.

If you spend enough time talking with your most cynical friend about politics, you're likely to hear this quotation from the 19th-century British historian Lord Acton: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It's a memorable axiom, but one that's been a little bit mangled by time — Acton actually wrote that "Power tends to corrupt." The misquoted version still pops up, however, thanks to pessimists who think that history has removed the need for Acton's original hedge.

On Feb. 6, 1967, Muhammad Ali stepped into a boxing ring in the Houston Astrodome to take on then-heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell. Ali was nursing a serious grudge against Terrell, who kept referring to his upcoming opponent as "Cassius Clay," the birth name that Ali had abandoned years before. In the eighth round, after battering Terrell with a series of hard punches, Ali started taunting the fighter: "What's my name?" he shouted, over and over again. "What's my name?"

There are a lot of things to admire about James McBride: chiefly, his refusal to be pinned down. The journalist and writer took the literary world by storm in 1995 with his memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, then followed it up with three well-received historical novels, the most recent of which, The Good Lord Bird, won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. Between books, he's busied himself with screenwriting, songwriting, and playing his beloved tenor saxophone.

Last month, professional wrestling fans were shocked to hear that Ric Flair, the WWE legend who many consider the greatest professional wrestler of all time, was in a medically induced coma. The outlook wasn't great, the media reported, and stunned fans took to Twitter and Facebook to post memories of "the Nature Boy," who gleefully annihilated his opponents with his signature figure-four leglock and seemingly bottomless bag of dirty tricks.

"Humans cannot live without stories," writes Stephen Greenblatt in his new book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. "We surround ourselves with them; we make them up in our sleep; we tell them to our children; we pay to have them told to us." There's a reason storytelling has endured as a medium — the best stories are never just that; they connect us to something deeper, they explain our most deeply held beliefs. As Joan Didion once wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

Here's a useful rule of thumb: If one of your friends says "I've got to tell you about this weird dream I had last night," run. Otherwise you're in for the most boring ten-minute story you've ever heard, punctuated with phrases like "It was, like, my house, but not my house, you know?"

Just a few pages into My Absolute Darling, Martin Alveston quizzes his 14-year-old daughter, Turtle, on her vocabulary; it's a subject the young girl is having considerable trouble with at her middle school. Frustrated by his daughter's progress, Martin tosses her notebook across the room, and places a semiautomatic pistol in front of her. He holds a playing card in his hand, daring her to shoot it. "You're being a little b----," he says. "Are you trying to be a little b----, kibble?"

For readers all around the world, Orhan Pamuk has become almost synonymous with Turkish literature, to the dismay of the Turkish nationalists who have long held the novelist in contempt. His intricate and sometimes dreamlike novels, including My Name Is Red and Snow, have been widely translated and have won him admirers in several countries, including the United States. (One such admirer, if his 2005 letter to The New York Times is any indication, is Donald Trump.)

Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire opens with a scene that will likely be familiar to any Muslim who lives in, or has traveled to, the West. Isma Pasha waits in a British airport while security officers check her luggage, go through the browser history on her laptop, and demand "to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, The Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites."

In a 2008 episode of the sitcom "30 Rock," the fictional NBC executive Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) proudly promotes the season finale of his new hit reality show, MILF Island. In the shamelessly tawdry program ("25 super-hot moms, 50 eighth-grade boys, no rules"), middle-aged women contestants are kicked off one by one with the show's signature catchphrase: "We no longer want to hit that. Get off MILF Island!" In a culture that objectifies women, older women aren't treated with any more respect than their younger counterparts; they're all equally disposable.

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."

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