Michael Schaub

"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."

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.

"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."

The long string of horrors that took place at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys wasn't a secret, but it might as well have been. Former students of the Florida reform school had spoken out for years about the brutal beatings that they endured at the hands of sadistic employees, but it wasn't until 2012, when University of South Florida anthropologists began to uncover unmarked graves on the school's campus, that the world began to care.

For several decades in the 20th century, the Los Angeles metropolitan area was known as the bank robbery capital of the world.

The area's abundance of freeways made it easy for robbers to quickly put distance between themselves and the banks they targeted, escaping into other jurisdictions before the police even knew what was happening.

There are some trials that naturally lend themselves to dramatic recounting in books or movies. They're usually the same ones that get called "trials of the century." Cases, for example, involving John T. Scopes, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Adolf Eichmann and O.J. Simpson all captured the public imagination and inspired writers and filmmakers to take a shot at depicting the courtroom drama that ensued.

If the past nine years have had you feeling on edge, Jared Diamond has good news and bad news for you.

The good news: You're not alone. "Even when I tell myself that we should be suspicious because every decade has seemed at the time to be the one offering the most cause for anxiety," Diamond writes in his compelling new book, Upheaval, "I still have to agree: the current decade of the 2010s really is the one offering the most cause for anxiety."

David McCullough is best known to most readers for his popular biographies of some of the most prominent names in American history — Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John Adams and the Wright Brothers have all been subjects of his meticulously researched volumes.

The problem with first love is that it's almost always followed quickly by first heartbreak. While it's true that some high-school romances endure for decades, for the most part, today's teenager in love is tomorrow's emotionally destroyed young person. Teenage love is bittersweet, but the bitter has a way of overwhelming the sweet.

The title of Michael Croley's debut short story collection, Any Other Place, evokes a kind of desperation that's familiar to anyone who's longed to escape their hometown. It's not a universal sentiment, but it's undoubtedly a common one: For some people, whether they grew up in a sprawling metropolis or a claustrophobic small town, the idea of pulling up stakes and moving somewhere — not even one place in particular, just something that's not here — is a seductive one.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

It remains one of the oddest coincidences of American history. On July 4, 1826, the 50th birthday of the Declaration of Independence, former President Thomas Jefferson died in his Virginia home. Five hours later, John Adams, his predecessor as president, passed away in Massachusetts; word of his longtime friend's death hadn't yet reached him.

If you ever want to make a group of Southerners groan, just ask them how they feel about kudzu. The now-ubiquitous vine was introduced to the United States from Japan in the late 19th century, and widely publicized as a miracle plant: it could be used as food for cattle; it made a nice ornamental addition to porches. But it didn't take very long for "the vine that ate the South" to go out of control, smothering Dixie and suffocating its other plants.

There's a moment in Peter Ho Davies' novel The Fortunes in which a Chinese immigrant to America, a teenage boy named Ling, experiences a painful epiphany. He's been working as a valet to Charles Crocker, the 19th-century business magnate who first began employing Chinese workers as railroad workers. (Crocker's colleagues initially thought him crazy; they believed the Chinese were ill-suited to such backbreaking labor.)

"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.

"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.

"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.

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