KWIT

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.

In her autobiography, My Life, the legendary American dancer Isadora Duncan wrote, "The finest inheritance you can give to a child is to allow it to make its own way, completely on its own feet." She would never have the chance to give any kind of inheritance to her three children; they all died before she was killed in a freak accident in 1927. She was either 49 or 50.

Go into any semi-hip coffee shop and you'll find the regulars: people who spend hours there, day after day. Some of them are college students studying for exams, some are workers telecommuting to their jobs. (The nervous-looking ones with their noses in books, checking Twitter every three minutes? Those would be critics.) And some of them just really have nothing better to do.

"The land was drained." That's the first sentence in Daisy Johnson's haunting short story collection, Fen, and she wastes no time in establishing a setting. The Fens of eastern England are marshlands — or they were, until the 17th century when Parliament ordered them drained and converted into farmlands. One environmental expert has called the draining of the Fens "England's greatest ecological disaster."

Speeches in book form have become a reliable cash cow for publishers. The usual formula is this: Find a commencement speech that's gone viral on YouTube, publish it with illustrations in a small hardcover format, and watch as it gets snapped up by the target demographic (in this case, that would be "people who realized they forgot to buy a present while driving to their nephew's high school graduation").

About 50 pages into Pajtim Statovci's debut novel, the protagonist Bekim meets a cat in a Finnish gay bar. The cat is wearing human clothes and singing along to Cher's "Believe," and Bekim, for reasons that are not quite adequately explained, is immediately attracted to him. "The cat was such a wonderful, beautiful, gifted interpreter that I took him in my arms without waiting for any indication to do so, and straightaway I noticed that his silky smooth fur smelled good and that his body was muscular from top to tail," Bekim gushes.

The first short story in a collection functions the same way the first track on an album does — it sets the tone for what's to come, and works as a de facto introduction, displaying the range of tools the creator has decided to work with. That's not to say authors never deviate from the tone of the initial story; they usually do, and when they know what they're doing, the effect can be bracing, even shocking.

It sounds unbelievable to a lot of us, but for some people, their early 20s are the age when things start to come together. They graduate college, find a fulfilling job, marry their sweetheart and start a family.

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.

The story of American popular music plays out the same way so much of American culture does: black people make innovations, and white people take the credit. Jazz, blues, soul, rock and roll, disco and hip-hop all came from the minds of African-Americans. None of them existed for long before being co-opted by whites who realized they could make big money by watering down the music and selling it to a mass audience.

Despite what you may hear from alarmists, it's not easy for refugees to get to the United States — or really anywhere, for that matter. If they're even able to escape their own country, they face constant roadblocks and long waiting lists before they're able to establish themselves, however precariously, in another country. There are no magic doorways they can walk through that will just bring them to another land.

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