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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.

Editor's note: This review includes a brief account of a character's suicide attempt.

Americans like to think of our country as the land of the free — but that's not the case for everyone: More than 2 million Americans are in jails or prisons in the U.S.

The title of Jill Lepore's new history of the United States should be instantly recognizable to all Americans.

It comes from, of course, the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It's hard to think of a single passage more emblematic of the American ethos.

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."

If you're sick of reading about the midterm elections, there's some good news: It will all be over in just a couple of months.

Then you can bask in the period of time between Election Day and the start of the 2020 presidential campaign, which sometimes can last as long as 15 minutes. And over the next two years, you can look forward to a slew of memoirs by, and biographies of, politicians who are considering running for president in 2020.

JM Holmes has a lot of questions: the title of his debut short story collection, for one, as well as the name of its first story: "What's Wrong with You? What's Wrong with Me?" And then there's the first line of that story, posed by a young African American man to one of his friends: "How many white women you been with?" The query leads to a fight — in Holmes' world, the questions aren't easy, and the answers are even harder.

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."

Gustavo, the Brazilian professor and narrator of Beatriz Bracher's I Didn't Talk, has found himself with a lot of time to think about stories. He's recently retired from his job, and as he goes through years of accumulated papers, he finds himself constantly being transported back in time, remembering his past. "Stories are the shape we gave things to pass the time in line at the bank, on the bus, at the bakery counter," he reflects.

In "The Baby," the first short story in Simon Rich's collection Hits and Misses, two expecting parents anxiously await the results of a sonogram. Ben and Sue are both thrilled to learn they're having a boy, but the father-to-be is less stoked when the doctor informs them that the fetus is holding a pencil. "It means you have a writer!" the obstetrician announces happily.

Ever since the election of Donald Trump as president, pundits have written obituaries for just about every virtue there is. The president's victory and the policies he's enacted, some commentators have argued, has marked the death of civility, tolerance, dignity, freedom and the American dream itself.

Somewhere toward the end of the last century, American cultural tastemakers decided that the 1950s were emblematic of the best this country had to offer. Young people dressed in bowling shirts and poodle skirts to go to neo-swing concerts and started unironically smoking unfiltered cigarettes and using retro slang. For a lot of reasons — not least of which being that the good old days were just the old days if you didn't happen to be a straight white man — it was awful.

For the Hall family, the country house called Hamdean was supposed to be a retreat, a suite of well-appointed rooms where they could escape their busy London lives. Buying the front part of the manor in southeast England was the idea of Michael, who works in real estate, although his wife, Catherine, was wary of her husband's "folie de grandeur." Her skepticism, sadly, proves to be right — although not in a way either of them could have predicted.

A Place for Us, the debut novel by author Fatima Farheen Mirza, opens with a kind of homecoming. Amar, the youngest child of an Indian American Muslim family, has returned after a three-year absence to attend his oldest sister Hadia's wedding. Layla, the young man's mother, has been looking forward to finally seeing her son, but is worried about how Amar's father, Rafiq, will react: "The only men she had left in this world to love and neither of them knew how to be with one another."

In a 2000 essay for The New Republic, literary critic James Wood coined a term that's become familiar to lovers of fiction: "hysterical realism." Wood's target was Zadie Smith's "White Teeth," along with novels by Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace and others. "The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity," he wrote.

Energy, the new book from acclaimed author and journalist Richard Rhodes, starts off not with a scientist or inventor, but with a notable name from a different field: William Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon isn't usually associated with physics or power generation — but he was present when his business partners, Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, ordered the razing of the Theatre in London, with the salvaged wood being used to open the now legendary Globe. (Whether their actions were strictly legal is unclear.)

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.

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