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.

Bad stand-up comedy is, for everyone involved, a special kind of hell. There's really nothing worse than the awkwardness that ensues when a comic bombs in front of a restive audience at an open-mic night, half of whom have been dragged there against their will in the first place. Great comedians have made enduring art and even changed society; all bad comedians have ever done is made people hurry out of a bar with their gin-and-tonics half finished.

Margaret Drabble's new novel The Dark Flood Rises opens with its protagonist, Francesca Stubbs, tensely driving her Peugeot on an English highway. Fran is an expert on housing for senior citizens; she's herself in her seventies, and lately, she's been obsessed with mortality. Here's the first sentence of the novel: "She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in this world will prove to be 'You bloody old fool' or, perhaps, depending on the mood of the day or the time of the night, 'you ...

Even if you've read the news reports or seen the horrifying photographs, it's hard to fathom the terrible extent of the Syrian refugee crisis. The United States has accepted more than 10,000 Syrians fleeing the country's civil war, but that's a drop in the bucket — millions of Syrians have been forced out of their home country, hoping other nations will take them in. Some have, some have since closed the door.

Toward the middle of Paul Auster's new novel, 4 3 2 1, young Archie Ferguson, recovering from a car accident that could have killed him, quotes the satire Candide to his optimistic girlfriend. "You're beginning to sound like Dr. Pangloss," he complains. "Everything always happens for the best — in this, the best of all possible worlds."

In 1996, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton published a book that drew its title from a proverb of indeterminate origin: "It takes a village to raise a child." The aphorism, which was embraced by Clinton's fans and mocked by her detractors, suggests that it's in the interest of everyone for all adults to look after the children of the world.

It's become a common joke that the Germans have a word for everything (and that many of them are comically long and impossible to pronounce). But there's a grain of truth to it — take Sehnsucht, a German term that's hard to explain in English. It's sometimes translated as "longing," but it carries a series of specific connotations, among them, a yearning for a faraway land that may or may not actually exist.

For a lot of writers, crafting fiction can feel like an exercise in trying to describe something — a concept, a sensation, an emotion — that really doesn't want to be described. It's a problem that can be solved by sticking to obvious themes and well-worn story arcs, but the best writers would rather put down their pens forever before surrendering to cliché.

There's a reason that some readers view contemporary coming-of-age novels with suspicion. Too many play out the same way: An odd but winsome young person goes on some kind of journey of discovery, either literal or figurative, and learns something about himself or herself in the process. Often, there's an awkward romance. And the ending, whether happy or otherwise, can usually be described as bittersweet.

Rabih Alameddine's novel The Angel of History begins with a conversation between Satan and Death. The two are sitting in the home of Jacob, a poet in the midst of a mental breakdown; long after the death of his partner from AIDS, he's begun hearing voices (again), and is currently trying to check himself into a mental hospital.

When 49-year-old artist Eleanor Flood wakes up one weekday, she makes herself a promise. "Today will be different," she vows. "Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I'm capable of being. Today will be different."

Here is what happens in the first 100 pages of The Wonder: Lib, an English nurse in the mid-19th century, is sent to a small town in Ireland, a country whose people she instantly hates, to keep watch over a young girl who claims she has lived without food for four months. Lib watches the girl and thinks unkind things about the Irish. The girl does not eat. That is it.

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.)

With all due respect to Marco Rubio, Pitbull and Tim Tebow, the most famous export from the Sunshine State these days is Florida Man. He's not a real guy, of course, but the subject of a popular Twitter account that compiles news stories about the sometimes bizarre antics of certain assorted oddballs living in America's third-largest state.

In 2008, the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in American history. It took just hours for the catastrophic effects of the company's failure to become apparent to ordinary people all across the world, even ones who had never before heard terms like "subprime mortgage" and "collateralized debt obligation."

Editor's note: This review contains language some may find offensive

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