Michael Schaub

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.

"Omi-Ala was a dreadful river," explains Ben, the young narrator of Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen. "Like many such rivers in Africa, Omi-Ala was once believed to be a god; people worshipped it." But everything changed when Europeans colonized and Christianized the part of Nigeria where the river lay. "[T]he people, now largely Christians, began to see it as an evil place. A cradle besmeared."

It's difficult to pin down the exact day when post-racial America was born. Maybe it was when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, or when Thurgood Marshall was appointed the first African American member of the Supreme Court. Maybe it was when Barack Obama was elected president, or the first time a white person claimed to be "colorblind." It's honestly hard to tell, because as we keep seeing proved again and again, "post-racial America" is completely indistinguishable from what came before.

A handful of purist holdouts aside, most readers these days realize that "genre fiction" and "literary fiction" aren't mutually exclusive. That's not to say that every paperback on the supermarket shelf is high art, but the list of respected literary genre writers — Poe, Verne, Chandler, Le Guin, to name just a few — is a long one, and it's growing every year.

"They are a perfect, golden couple," Rachel Watson thinks, regarding handsome Jason and his striking wife, Jess. "He is dark-haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blond hair cropped short." Rachel, the main narrator of Paula Hawkins' novel The Girl on the Train, is obsessed with the pair; they represent to her the perfect relationship that she once had, or seemed to, before it imploded spectacularly.

The first small mammal in Thomas Pierce's short story collection is Shirley Temple Three, "waist-high, with a pelt of dirty-blond fur that hangs in tangled draggles to the dirt." Shirley is a dwarf mammoth, a member of a species that hasn't been around for millennia, cloned for the sake of a television show called Back from Extinction.

In less than two weeks, Americans will go to the polls to vote in the midterm elections. At least, some of them will — about 40% of eligible voters, if past elections are any indication. This year's races have already made stars — some rising, some falling — out of Americans hoping to represent their states and districts.

Some, like Kansas Senate hopeful Greg Orman and Georgia governor candidate Jason Carter, may pull off surprising victories. Others, like Wendy Davis in the Texas governor race have seen their once bright lights fade.

For months now the Ebola virus has been wreaking havoc in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. More than 700 people have died, and it seems that doctors are near-powerless to help. With the threat of the disease tearing communities apart, it's hard not to think of a legendary novel from almost 70 years ago.

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