KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Michael Schaub

Willa Chen, the narrator of Kyle Lucia Wu's novel Win Me Something is an unlikely nanny. The 24-year-old Brooklynite, by her own admission, doesn't even like children; she's spent her early adulthood working in bars and coffee shops. But she longs for a job "where I didn't have to talk to ninety people per shift who all said the same things. I wanted to stop forcing myself to laugh. I wanted peace."

It's the summer of 1926 in Nashville, Tenn., and a young Cherokee woman named Two Feathers is living something like her best life. She's working as a horse diver at the Glendale Park Zoo, jumping with her mare, Ocher, 40 feet into a pool, to the delight of amazed onlookers. It's hard work, but it enables her to send money back to her family in Oklahoma — all things considered, she doesn't have too many complaints.

Every family is a group of unreliable narrators. That's not to say that your parents lied when they told you, say, how they met, but time has a way of distorting memories, and fiction replaces fact in our minds seamlessly and subconsciously. Or as the narrator of Joshua Ferris' dazzling new novel puts it: "Every story we tell ourselves is some version of make-believe."

Bueno, gut, nzuri, joh-eun: If you're an English speaker learning another language, one of the first things you'll be taught is the word for good. In Chinese, that word is hao; like its English counterpart, it can also mean fine or OK, an assurance that nothing's awry, that everything's going to be all right.

Ask any book-loving central Californian which author they associate with the city of Watsonville, and they'll probably mention the name of Golden State legend John Steinbeck. The town was reportedly the inspiration for Steinbeck's novel In Dubious Battle, and was the longtime home of his sister, Esther Rodgers. (Her house is still there, on Santa Cruz County's fairgrounds.)

Life isn't exactly working out for Edwina, a quality assurance analyst at a New York City startup. She's sick of her co-workers, worried about her soon-to-expire work visa, and weary of her mother criticizing her weight and urging her to move back to Malaysia. But at least she has her husband. Until she doesn't.

Edwina's struggles form the basis of Edge Case, the debut novel from YZ Chin. It's an excellent book that tackles a number of topics — misogyny, racism, love and estrangement — and does so beautifully.

The past 4 1/2 years have been a fever dream in American politics.

Donald Trump's administration was marked by unprecedented chaos and drama, with major stories crowding one another out of the news on a daily basis.

If you ask 100 Americans how they define freedom, you'll get 100 different answers — and there might be fewer similarities than you'd think.

The concept seems simple enough, but there are so many competing values and priorities in our polarized political climate that reaching anything approaching a consensus seems impossible.

In the middle of the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles, there's a monument dedicated to the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, which was composed of Nisei, second-generation Japanese American soldiers in World War II.

Named after the regiment's motto — "Go For Broke" — the inscription on the monument reads in part, "Looked upon with suspicion, set apart and deprived of their constitutional rights, they nevertheless remained steadfast and served with indomitable spirit and uncommon valor, for theirs was a fight to prove loyalty."

More than 50 years after it was released, shocking moviegoers across the U.S., Midnight Cowboy has endured as one of the most original and heartbreaking films in American history.

The John Schlesinger drama made Jon Voight a star and solidified Dustin Hoffman's status as one of his generation's greatest actors, and it became the first and only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for best picture.

You don't have to be a full-on Luddite to have a healthy fear of technology. Anyone who's seen movies like Ring or Videodrome, or television shows like Westworld or Black Mirror, might find themselves a little creeped out by the gadgets, programs and apps that have taken over our lives, especially over the last year. (Zoom has entered the chat.)

Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Sadly, mass murders at American schools have been so common that it's all too easy for people to instantly name several that have happened in the last few decades alone.

One that has been largely forgotten, however, is the Bath School disaster, which took the lives of 38 children and six adults in 1927. It remains the deadliest mass murder in a school in American history.

"We go out to get some," writes Jeremy Atherton Lin in his new book, Gay Bar. "We go out because we're thirsty. We go out to return to the thrill of the chase ... We go out for the aroma. Some nights just smell like trouble."

The subtitle of Atherton Lin's book is Why We Went Out, and the London-based author offers plenty of reasons in this remarkable debut. Gay Bar combines memoir, history and criticism; it's a difficult book to pin down, but that's what makes it so readable and so endlessly fascinating.

For decades, Mike Nichols was one of the most recognized names in theater and film, but very few people really knew the legendary director — even, it seems, himself.

Floyd McKissick had a beautiful dream — and he almost pulled it off.

In 1969, the civil rights activist, tired of seeing Black people shut out of politics and business, made a bold proposal: He wanted to found a new city, one where Black people would have power and opportunity. As Thomas Healy writes in his new book, Soul City, the town would be "a model of Black economic empowerment, bringing money and jobs to a region that had been left behind by the twin forces of industrialization and urbanization."

There aren't too many American authors for whom the publication of a new book is a bona fide literary event, but Allan Gurganus is one of them. The North Carolina author took the book world by storm in 1989 with his debut novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which became a massive bestseller and spawned an Emmy-winning television miniseries adaptation. Only four books followed after that.

Doubleday

Kevin Barry has never shied away from the dark side.

The narrator of Manuel Vilas' novel Ordesa wastes no time telling the reader what kind of psychological space he inhabits. "I've been a man of sorrows," he says on the book's first page. "I've failed to understand life ... It pained me to talk to others; I could see the pointlessness of every human conversation that has been and will be."

"I believe in expecting light," says the unnamed narrator of Ellen Cooney's new novel. "That's my job." More specifically, the 36-year-old woman's job is as a chaplain at a medical center, offering solace and a friendly ear to the patients in the hospital, some in grave condition, some not.

It didn't take Bryan Washington long to become a literary star. The Houston author took the book world by storm last year with his debut short story collection, Lot, a love letter (or something like it) to his hometown of Houston that received rave reviews from critics — including former President Obama, who called the book one of his favorites of the year.

In "Smartening Up," the first story in Aoko Matsuda's collection Where the Wild Ladies Are, the narrator reflects on her dissatisfaction with the way she looks. She has too much body hair, she thinks, and that's why her boyfriend left her. In her estimation, the breakup "happened because my arms, my legs, and other parts of my body were not perfectly hairless — because I was an unkempt person who went about life as if there was nothing wrong with being hairy."

Anyone who's even vaguely familiar with Jimmy Carter has heard the assessment of his career that's become something of a political cliché: His presidency was largely a failure, but he's the best ex-president the country's ever had.

Like many well-worn bromides, there's a grain of truth to it: He left the Oval Office with dismal approval ratings, but in the 40 years since, he's developed a reputation as one of the country's most beloved humanitarians.

If you're of a certain temperament, it's tempting to think that the only people who aren't going to lose hope in the world by the end of the year are the people who lost hope in the world long ago.

The pandemics of coronavirus and hate show no signs of abating, and it's becoming increasingly obvious that we'll be unable to repair the damage we've done to our environment. For many of us, 2020 is the ultimate year of despair.

When civil rights activist and U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia died last month, so did a big piece of America.

Kazu, the narrator of Tokyo Ueno Station, had hoped that his death would bring him some rest, some sense of closure. The man led a life marked with hard work and intense pain; he spent his final years homeless, living in a makeshift shelter in a Tokyo park. But when he dies, he finds the afterlife — such as it is — is nothing like he expected.

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