WCSU

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.

If you've spent much time reading personal essays on the Internet, then (a) you're a masochist, and (b) you've probably noticed a subgenre of the form that involves the author explaining why they left New York. The pieces are usually bittersweet and elegiac; seldom, if ever, do they say "My company transferred me to the Denver office" or "I just got tired of paying $20 for a hamburger."

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."

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.

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.

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.

Toward the beginning of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, an actress reflects on her decision to leave West Virginia for New York City. Her first few days in the city are disastrous; she moves from bad job to bad job while living in a basement apartment with a dirt floor. "I felt like I'd come to a place for people who didn't know how to be people," she says, "and if I was there I must not really know how to be a person either."

Pages