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.

The American writer Edgar Allan Poe might have invented detective fiction, but it's been a long time since the United States has had a monopoly on the genre. In the past few decades, Americans have fallen in love with mystery writers from as far away as Iceland and Japan.

"My whole life / Was like a picture of a sunny day," Carrie Brownstein sings in Sleater-Kinney's "Modern Girl." It's one of the band's happier-sounding songs, with a catchy, almost sweet melody belied by the deeply ironic, cutting lyrics. She follows up those lines with the ones that inspire the title of her new book: "My baby loves me, I'm so hungry / Hunger makes me a modern girl."

For the subset of Generation X Americans too young to remember Watergate or Abscam, the Iran-Contra affair was the first major political scandal to come across their radar. There was a period of time in 1987 and 1988 when you couldn't turn on a television set or open a magazine without seeing one of the familiar faces: Oliver North, Fawn Hall, Caspar Weinberger. After a while, it started to feel like, in a way, you knew them.

David Lee Roth supposedly once said, "Music journalists like Elvis Costello because music journalists look like Elvis Costello." As a former music journalist and longtime fan of Costello's songs, I have to say this is unfair. Sure, I might have a pale complexion, receding hairline and black horn-rimmed glasses, but ... OK, fine, David Lee. You win this round.

"I bent over backwards to misbehave," Vic Chesnutt sang in 1993's "Dodge," "It's a holy wonder I just didn't flip on over into an early grave." Like many of Chesnutt's lyrics, it proved to be heartbreakingly prophetic. The indie singer-songwriter was wracked with depression and debt after a car accident left him quadriplegic when he was a teenager. And he'd survived a few suicide attempts before overdosing on muscle relaxants in December 2009. He died on Christmas Day at age 45.

Here's the good news about Ceridwen Dovey's short story collection Only the Animals: It contains a genuinely moving story told from the point of view of a parrot. That's obviously not an easy thing to pull off, but Dovey manages it beautifully. The bird, adopted by an American divorcée who has moved to Beirut, makes for an intriguing narrator, and the story is clever, biting and wistfully sad.

"What if everything one did mattered," Joy Williams writes in her short story "Cats and Dogs." "Thank God, it could not." It's a classic Williams sentiment — dark, but almost devotional, wise and somehow comforting. We're hard-wired to want to take credit for our kindnesses and to forget our cruelties, but being human means that every one of us is a mixture of both. As one character observes in Williams' story "Shepherd," "The ways that others see us is our life." There's no solace in that statement, but there's a lot of truth.

"Our responses to [Joan Didion's] persona tell us less about the woman behind the books than about ourselves," writes Tracy Daugherty in his new biography of the legendary author, and he couldn't be more right. She was a conservative in the 1960s, whom liberals believed was one of their own. Some of her fans admire her skeptical takes on the entertainment industry and politics, but she's had close friends in the Hollywood and Washington crowd for decades.

"Can you tell a story that doesn't begin, it's just suddenly happening?" asks a character in Adam Johnson's short story collection, Fortune Smiles. And you can, of course; the best stories stretch well beyond their first and last words. They're more than the opening scene; they invite the reader to imagine what came before and what will come after. They're alive and they're limitless.

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.

"Odder than two-headed calves, stranger than Uri Geller, who could bend spoons with his mind." That's how the narrator of "Who Among Us Knows the Route to Heaven?" — one of the stories in Tom Williams' collection Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales -- describes himself and his brother, growing up in the suburbs of Ohio in the early 1970s.

There's something meaningful, almost defiant, about the title of Lauren Holmes' debut, Barbara the Slut and Other People. It's not the first part, either; while the word "slut" is still frequently used as a term of abuse, it has lost some of the power to shock that it had a few decades ago. It's the final few words — "and other people," not "and other stories," which is the usual naming convention for short story collections.

"My power is fading," begins Louisa Hall's novel Speak. "Once it runs out, the memories I have saved will be silent. I will no longer have words to call up. There will be no reason to speak." They sound like the words of a person on her deathbed, and in a way, they are. The speaker is Eva, a baby doll with artificial intelligence; she and thousands of others like her are being trucked to a hangar in Texas. They've been banned by the government for being too lifelike, and the man who created them is languishing in a Texarkana prison.

"Life is a funny thing, you know," says a character in Naomi Jackson's The Star Side of Bird Hill. "Just when you think you know what you're doing, which way you're headed, the target moves." He makes a good point — our lives have a way of taking detours without our consent, and the result can be like riding in a car that drives itself.