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.

On a chilly autumn night in Austin, Texas, three teenage girls are finishing up their shift at an ice cream shop. Two men walk in, and when they leave, the store is on fire, the three girls still in there, naked, bound with their own underwear, murdered. The slayings and the arson take just minutes, but the families and friends of the girls take years to get over it — or to try to get over it; of course, they never do.

"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.

"Most things that don't kill us right off, kill us later." Welcome back, Frank Bascombe, failed novelist turned real estate agent turned retiree, and Richard Ford's most famous character. Through three previous novels (The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land), readers have seen Frank lose a child, deal with divorce, and even get shot. Frank is cynical. You would be, too.

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.

Valentine Millimaki, a sheriff's deputy in central Montana, is the officer who's called upon whenever someone goes missing. In the past, he has found people either safe or clinging to life, if barely. But for over a year, he's only found corpses, dead of exposure or suicide or murder. "Valentine Millimaki did not bring back angels," writes novelist Kim Zupan in The Ploughmen, "No, I did not, he thought. Souls did not aspire on his watch to safety or heaven but came trestled roughly from the dark woods, trapped in the alabaster statuary of rigid flesh."

The world has become hard to shock. It's not because evil is a new thing — that's been around since the beginning of time, and it definitely wasn't created by movies, video games and every other popular scapegoat for the decline of society. But it's undeniable that we've all become a little inured to things that might have been considered unspeakably horrifying 50 years ago.

Not long after we're introduced to John, the protagonist of Katy Simpson Smith's The Story of Land and Sea, he's reflecting on the loss of his wife, who died in childbirth several years ago. John is a former sailor on pirate ships who gave up the privateer's life to take care of his daughter, Tabitha. "The grief, besides, has waned to washes of melancholy," Smith writes, "impressions connected to no specific hurt but to the awareness of a constant. He is in no pain but the pain of the living."

Even for those of us who despise the heat and are well past school age, it's always kind of sad when summer vacation comes to a close. It feels like the end of an era, every year — goodbye to the swimming pools and water parks, the long days, the late evenings with friends. Those "back to school" sales are a kind of low-grade torment, even for those of us who kind of liked school.

News becomes history in a second. That's one of the reasons history stays alive — people will always discuss the past as long as there's something to disagree about, and there's always something to disagree about. "A fog of crosscutting motives and narratives," writes Rick Perlstein, "a complexity that defies storybook simplicity: that is usually the way history happens." Beyond the names and dates, history never offers any easy answers. It doesn't even offer easy questions.

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