KTEP - El Paso, Texas

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.

Everyone knows at least one dream couple: two charming people with magnetic personalities who complement each other perfectly. Their perfect relationship draws admiration, and not a little envy, from their friends; their joint charisma makes them the envy of every dinner party.

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.)

Ann Beattie is one of the best writers of her generation, although it's unclear whether the author would take that as a compliment. In books like the novel Love Always and the short story collection Where You'll Find Me, Beattie employed her dry wit and sometimes chilly cynicism to paint a less than flattering picture of her fellow baby boomers. The books were never cruel, but they established Beattie as a writer unwilling to act as a cheerleader for her generational cohort.

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.

Fans of Amy Hempel have gotten used to waiting. In the 34 years since her debut book, Reasons to Live, was published, the short story writer has released just four books, one of which was a collection of her previous volumes. Her last book of new material, the critically acclaimed The Dog of the Marriage, hit bookstore shelves 14 years ago. In terms of literary output, she's basically the anti-Joyce Carol Oates.

New York and Los Angeles tend to get all the ink, but you could make an argument that Houston is the most uniquely American big city there is. Sprawling and diverse, the Bayou City shows us how a variety of cultures can coexist and band together after hardships, such as the hurricanes that have battered the city over the past several years.

It's hard to believe that things could get much worse for young Hans, the protagonist of The Club. As the book opens, the German boy recounts his childhood in a house in a forest, the awkward son of two loving parents. In short order, his father is killed in a car crash, and his mother dies of an allergic reaction to a bee sting. His only living relative has no interest in raising him, so he's sent to a Catholic boarding school where he's teased by his new schoolmates.

British author Helen Oyeyemi wants you to know that you're never too old for fairy tales. She's made a career out of writing books that draw on the folklore that we all read as children — her 2011 novel Mr. Fox drew on the British fairy tale of the same name, while her 2014 book Boy, Snow, Bird found its inspiration in the story of Snow White.

At some point in their careers, all authors have heard some variation on the advice "Grab the reader from the front page." For some writers of literary fiction, this translates to "Describe the sun shining on a New England lake in very exacting detail," or something of that nature.

Han Kang has been a familiar name to Korean readers for two decades, but it's only recently that English-speaking audiences have been able to read her work. She made her major American debut in 2016, when the English translation of her novel The Vegetarian was released in the States; the horrifying story of a woman who comes undone after giving up meat became an unlikely breakout hit. A year later, her novel Human Acts followed; while the subject matter wasn't similar to The Vegetarian, the critical praise it received was.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad's novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, opens with a woman of indeterminate age ("She is a child or a few thousand years old. Would it ever matter?") approaching "the building she thinks of as home." She enters the building's lobby, contemplates taking the elevator upstairs to see her parents, but she's suddenly hit with an unsettling feeling, and leaves. "Some uproar above compels her to look up," Sudbanthad writes, and "her instincts command her to cross her arms overhead, turn away, and brace."

On the very first page of American Spy, narrator Marie Mitchell, a former FBI agent, hears a noise in her house. Deciding it's best to be cautious, she grabs her handgun, right before her worst fear is confirmed — a man with a gun enters her bedroom. There's a struggle; Marie ends up with a few broken blood vessels in her cheeks, and the stranger ends up with a bullet in his head.

When a loved one dies, so does part of our language. Conversations we've had with the dead start to fade and eventually get lost to memory; our idiolects change when part of our audience is gone. And words become insufficient and unreliable, inadequate to convey the love we had for the ones we've lost or the void created by their absence.

The unnamed narrator of Maurice Carlos Ruffin's We Cast a Shadow has two great loves. The first is wife, Penny, with whom he enjoys a playful, passionate relationship. The other is their young son, Nigel, a sensitive, intelligent 11-year-old boy with a sweet nature and a childlike sense of curiosity. Nigel, the narrator thinks, is perfect.

There's a lot to recommend life in a large town or small city, but there's no doubt it can get claustrophobic — familiar faces can get too familiar, and it's hard to blend into the crowd when everyone in the crowd knows who you are.

It's hard to think of a more aptly named recent novel than Fever Dream, Argentine author Samanta Schweblin's 2017 book about a woman and boy who find themselves together in a country hospital. The novel, Schweblin's first to be translated into English, was haunting and nightmarish, and evoked a world where everything is distorted, unfamiliar and, above all, frightening.

In 1776, the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City conspired to assassinate George Washington. And it might have succeeded if it weren't for a would-be counterfeiter and an iron mill foreman.

It sounds like the plot of a mildly implausible historical thriller, but it actually happened and it's one of the more remarkable stories to come out of the American Revolution, even if it's not one you learned in history class.

When college football championship time rolls around each year, you're not likely to encounter the names Harvard or Yale.

The legendary schools play in the Football Championship Subdivision, which in recent years has been dominated by teams like North Dakota State and James Madison. When an Ivy League school does manage to crack the Top 25, it's usually Princeton or Dartmouth.

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.

Lucia Berlin first became a literary superstar in 2015, 11 years after her death from cancer at the age of 68. During her remarkable life, she'd published her short stories in literary magazines and in small-press collections, but she never quite broke through to the larger literary scene. That changed three years ago with the publication of a posthumous collection of her selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, which drew ecstatic reviews from critics and made several year-end best lists.

Even if you don't know his name, you're probably familiar with the work of Edward Gorey.

His art formed the basis of the animated introduction to the PBS show Mystery!, and he was the twisted mind behind The Gashlycrumb Tinies, the dark alphabet book that gleefully listed the names of doomed children and how they met their ends ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears"). Gorey, with his gloomy sensibility and defiantly retro art style, was the man who launched a thousand goths.

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has good timing.

That's not because his new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal, comes at a time when prospective presidential candidates are starting to publish arguments for their potential 2020 bids (the Nebraska Republican hasn't ruled out a run, but he's said it's unlikely.)

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."

Pages