KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Michael Schaub

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.

Even those with the most casual familiarity of American history know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated just weeks after his second inauguration as U.S. president.

But not many are aware that if a group of Maryland white supremacists had their way, he would have been killed before he ever had the chance to set foot in the White House.

These are deeply weird times, and especially so for Emily St. John Mandel. The Canadian novelist is publishing her latest book just as the literary world has again become obsessed with her last one: Station Eleven, her 2014 novel about a world devastated by a deadly virus. It's a brilliant book (and one that even Mandel thinks you should wait a few months to read).

Northern Irish author Anna Burns published her first book in 2001, but she wasn't well known outside of the U.K. until 2018. That's when her third novel, Milkman, hit bookstore shelves to near universal acclaim. Critics were impressed by her unusual narrative technique and dark sense of humor, and the novel went on to win the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

There are countless books about World War II, but there's only one Erik Larson.

The author is known for his fascinating nonfiction accounts of subjects ranging from guns to hurricanes; his best-known work, The Devil in the White City, told the story of the 1893 World's Fair and notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes. Over his career, he has developed a reputation for being able to write about disparate subjects with intelligence, wit and beautiful prose.

Rachel, a librarian in Brooklyn, hasn't had the best luck with men. "I'd dated inadvisably before," she admits, "the long-distance architect, the married whiskey distiller, the homeless freegan." But when she sees a beautiful young man lingering at her bus stop, she's hopeful he might be the one to reverse her string of bad luck. Thomas, it turns out, is her perfect match — or he would be, if only he weren't dead.

In a fairer ⁠— or at least weirder ⁠— literary world, Stephen Wright would be as famous as Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo. He's has only written five novels since his debut in 1983 with Meditations in Green, but two of them, M31: A Family Romance and Going Native, are among the best of the last century. Wright is an unpredictable author with an unwavering commitment to the surreal; you get the feeling he couldn't write a straight story even if he wanted to. And it's pretty clear he's never wanted to.

Tightrope, the latest book from New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and former Times business editor Sheryl WuDunn, starts off with a horror story.

Dee Knapp, an Oregon woman, is awakened by her drunken husband, who demands that she make him dinner. Angry that she's not moving fast enough for him, her husband punches her, then chases her out of the house with a rifle. She's forced to spend the night in the fields around their house, hoping her husband doesn't hurt any of their five children.

When 15-year-old Natasha first arrives at her new boarding school, she has no idea what to expect. The daughter of a nouveau-riche Russian oligarch, she's been sent to continue her education in England. It doesn't take her long to learn the rules: The girls at the school can only use the Internet for an hour a day. YouTube is strictly off limits. And, most crucially, they must remain thin or risk becoming a social pariah: "Your thighs should not touch each other anywhere, not even if you were born like that."

It's not what anyone who plans to get married soon wants to hear, but there are a million ways a wedding can go wrong. Missing rings, late-delivered cakes, drunken relatives: the potential for disaster is always there, just a slip of the mind or a bad decision away. But for Evie, the narrator of Crissy Van Meter's Creatures, there are two problems with her upcoming ceremony: A dead whale has washed up on the island where she lives, and the smell is less than ideal. Also, her fiance, a fisherman, has gone to work on a boat in a storm, and is presently unaccounted for.

It's about time that disaffected teenagers get the credit they've long deserved and never wanted. Sure, they can be kind of frustrating, with their hair-trigger eye-rolling reflex and grunted monosyllabic responses to any possible question, but they're also likely single-handedly keeping the French-poetry-collection and black-coffee industries alive. (And if there's a thriving black market for now-banned clove cigarettes — a staple of depressed and pretentious teens back when I was one of them — they're probably responsible for that, too.)

"Your everlasting summer, you can see it fading fast," sang Steely Dan in their 1973 hit "Reelin' in the Years," "So you grab a piece of something that you think is going to last."

If you believe that 1973 marked the real end of the 1960s as a cultural era, it's a fitting sentiment — the year was the last gasp of an age of possibility, when sunny idealism gave way to economic recession and cynical disillusionment.

Or as Andrew Grant Jackson writes in his fascinating new book, 1973: Rock at the Crossroads:

College and professional sports have a way of dominating the national headlines. But in some parts of America, high school athletics have become local obsessions.

In Pennsylvania, fans flock to school wrestling matches, while in Texas, high school football teams routinely sell out some of the state's biggest stadiums.

Take it from someone who's lived in the capital of Texas for 15 years: There are worse places to spend Christmas than Austin. You don't have to worry about getting snowed in; there's never too much distance between you and a bar; and you can always amuse yourself by playing games like "Is that guy walking down Guadalupe Street dressed like an elf because it's Christmas or just because this is Austin?"

If you ask a college basketball fan to name the best squads of all time, chances are you'll hear some of the same names: the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, the 1990-91 Duke Blue Devils, the 1966-67 UCLA Bruins.

Somewhat forgotten to younger basketball aficionados, though, are the 1949-50 City College of New York Beavers, who became the first and only team to win both the National Invitation Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

In 1973, psychologist and Stanford University professor David Rosenhan published a journal article that shook the world of psychiatry to its core.

"On Being Sane in Insane Places" was the result of a study in which eight people without mental illness got themselves admitted to psychiatric institutions — Rosenhan wanted to see whether mental health professionals could actually distinguish between psychologically well people and those with mental illnesses.

It's always election season in America, which means that even people who only casually keep up with politics are bound to know the names of some of the organizations that influence our democracy.

You don't have to be a political junkie to know the names of the NRA, Institute for Legislative Action, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, American Civil Liberties Union or the Club for Growth PAC.

The title story of Mimi Lok's short story collection, Last of Her Name, opens with Karen, a 12-year-old British girl, lying battered on the floor of her bedroom. She's attempted to recreate a stunt from her favorite martial-arts television program, but failed to intuit the role that special effects played in the scene. "It seemed so effortless, so elegant," Lok writes. "How was Karen supposed to know that her slight, ninety-pound self would be enough to send the wardrobe crashing to the floor?"

Girl, the newest novel from Edna O'Brien, starts out with one of the most powerful passages the legendary Irish author has ever written. "I was a girl once, but not any more," the narrator, Maryam, says. "I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass. Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school."

"The fire you like so much in me / Is the mark of someone adamantly free," Liz Phair declared in her 1993 song "Strange Loop."

The song, which appeared on her debut studio album, Exile in Guyville, was a fitting introduction to the Chicago-raised singer-songwriter ⁠— Phair was serving notice that she was unwilling to be anyone other than herself, and if people didn't approve of her sexually frank and defiantly profane lyrics, or her lo-fi sensibility, they were more than welcome to listen to something else.

It's hard to think of another writer with as much Lone Star credibility as Stephen Harrigan. The Austin-based writer contributed to Texas Monthly magazine for decades, and his best-known book, The Gates of the Alamo, is widely considered to be the best novel about the epic battle ever written.

Harrigan, essentially, is to Texas literature what Willie Nelson is to Texas music.

Maaza Mengiste's The Shadow King opens with a woman, Hirut, sitting on the floor of a train station in the Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa, holding an old metal box. She's traveled here, the reader is told, "to rid herself of the horror that staggers back unbidden. She has come to give up the ghosts and drive them away." She's awaiting the box's owner, an Italian photographer she hasn't seen in decades. "It has taken so long to get here," Mengiste writes. "It has taken almost forty years of another life to begin to remember who she had once been."

The Spanish port city of Algeciras boasts a long and rich history, and is home to some of the country's most beautiful parks, plazas and churches. But Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, the two aging Irish men at the heart of Kevin Barry's Night Boat to Tangier, aren't interested in any of that. They're spending all their time in the city's dingy ferry terminal, along with a mass of weary travelers and a handful of bored employees.

The narrator of "One Gram Short," the second story in Israeli author Etgar Keret's new short story collection, Fly Already, is desperate for some weed. He's not much of a smoker himself, but the woman he has a crush on — a coffee-shop waitress named Shimka — is a fan, and he's hoping he can impress her by offering to share a joint with her.

In her 2017 book, The Art of Death, Edwidge Danticat recalls a Haitian Creole phrase her late mother used to repeat: "Nou tout a p mache ak sèkèy nou anba bra nou." It can be translated one of two ways, Danticat wrote: "We're all carrying our coffins with us every day," or "We are all constantly cheating death."

New York is bigger, St. Augustine is older and Las Vegas draws more tourists, but it's undeniable that Cross River, Md., is one of the most fascinating cities in America. The town is known as the home of Freedman's University, the birthplace of Riverbeat music (made famous by beloved prodigy Phoenix Starr) and, of course, "the only successful slave uprising in this country — ever."

"Sometimes, I feel I got to get away," sang the Who in their 1965 single "The Kids Are Alright," and no wonder the song became an instant classic for the youth of Townshend and Daltrey's g-g-g-generation — teenagers of every age tend toward the restive, longing to experience life beyond whichever town or city they were raised in.

Sheila, the narrator of Kimberly King Parson's story "Guts," can't run away from bodies: not her own, not others'. Ever since she started dating Tim, a medical student, "all the sick, broken people in the world begin to glow." She imagines tumors and incipient heart attacks in strangers, all the while remaining conscious of her own body, which fails to bring her joy: "I should love my body more," she reflects, but she doesn't.

Of all the emotions that can arise following the loss of a sibling, one of the most painful is guilt. Once a brother or sister passes away, there's frequently a string of intrusive thoughts that pummel the surviving sibling: I should have visited them more often; I should have told them how I felt while I had the chance. The feelings might be irrational, but there's nothing rational about grief.

"Vertical," the first story in Jordi Puntí's new short story collection, This Is Not America, opens with the narrator smoking cigarettes and walking the streets of Barcelona late at night. His route seems aimless at first, but his motivation is clear: he's haunted by the memories of Mai, his late girlfriend, which have been "gently fading away ... very slowly dispersing, and the days go by and you keep seeing it even though it's no longer there, and you reach a point when you can see it only because you imagine it, because you've seen it before and you know it was there."

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