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.

"Twenty-seven may be too young to die," muses Tim Sunblade, the narrator of Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel. "But it isn't too young to die like a man." Tim has death on his mind frequently — he's an escaped prisoner determined to do whatever it takes to stay out of jail. He'll kill if he has to, and he'd much rather wind up in a coffin than in a prison cell. This, of course, makes him very, very dangerous.

On Nov. 30, 1999, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization conference being held at the city's convention center. It didn't take long for the situation to deteriorate; after some protesters started smashing windows and occupying intersections, police officers began to use tear gas and pepper spray in an effort to disperse the crowd.

Herman Wouk's new memoir opens with two stanzas from "The Wreck of the Old 97," the famous ballad about a 1903 train crash in Virginia that killed 11 people. Initially, it seems an odd choice — while Wouk's most famous novels have dealt with tragedy, they've been mostly focused on war, not locomotives careering down the tracks at unsafe speeds. But Wouk explains, with his trademark droll humor: "Gentle reader, that railroad folk tune is sure haunting your durable storyteller, aged ninety-seven."

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.

Pages