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. He lives in Austin, Texas.

For several decades in the 20th century, the Los Angeles metropolitan area was known as the bank robbery capital of the world.

The area's abundance of freeways made it easy for robbers to quickly put distance between themselves and the banks they targeted, escaping into other jurisdictions before the police even knew what was happening.

Riots I Have Known, the debut novel from journalist Ryan Chapman, opens with the unnamed narrator confronting his imminent death. He's in a prison that's currently in the midst of a bloody riot, the direct result of a piece published in The Holding Pen, the literary magazine the narrator edits. "The tenor of my own shuffling off this mortal coil will be determined by whoever first breaks down my meager barricade here in the Will and Edith Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts," he sadly reflects.

There are some trials that naturally lend themselves to dramatic recounting in books or movies. They're usually the same ones that get called "trials of the century." Cases, for example, involving John T. Scopes, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Adolf Eichmann and O.J. Simpson all captured the public imagination and inspired writers and filmmakers to take a shot at depicting the courtroom drama that ensued.

Cillian Eddowis, the 15-year-old protagonist of Karen Russell's short story "Bog Girl: A Romance," has a crush. No surprise there: There's a certain kind of teenager who's prone to fall in love hard and fast, and sweet, sensitive Cillian — whose aunts "had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay" — is definitely that type.

A mention of the Secret Service today might conjure up images of unsmiling men and women wearing sunglasses and dark suits, surrounding the president, perhaps discreetly touching their earpieces once in a while.

Or if you're a history buff, your thoughts might turn to 19th-century lawmen hot on the trail of counterfeiters. (Investigating financial crimes is still part of the agency's purview.)

American history, as it exists in the popular imagination, has often tended toward the self-congratulatory.

Events of the past are frequently filtered through a majority lens, focusing on the perceived heroics of, for example, white abolitionists and civil rights activists. To hear some tell it, the civil rights struggle of the 1960s ended when President Lyndon B. Johnson, having indulgently listened to Martin Luther King Jr., signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, after which racism was solved and everything was better forever.

For centuries, people have used mythology to try to make sense of the fact that the people of the world speak so many different languages.

One example of the origin story of the "confusion of tongues" comes from the Old Testament — God confounded the language of the people as punishment for trying to build the Tower of Babel, the story goes, which they did in attempt to physically reach heaven.

The end of the summer is bad news for students, teachers and masochists who enjoy feeling like they're literally on fire whenever the sun is out. But it's good news for football fans, who have had to endure seven long, gridiron-free months.

That wasn't always the case, though.

For three years in the mid-1980s, sports fans could enjoy football in the Spring, thanks to the United States Football League — which featured colorful players and uniforms, and put an emphasis on fun.

Ohio, the debut novel from author Stephen Markley, begins with a parade, but it's not a happy one. The town of New Canaan has gathered to salute Rick Brinklan, a native of the city who was killed in action in Iraq. The novel then jumps in time to 2013, six years after that parade: "It's hard to say where any of this ends or how it ever began, because what you eventually learn is that there is no such thing as linear," Markley writes. "There is only this wild ... flamethrower of a collective dream in which we were all born and traveled and died."

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.

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