Michael Schaub

Louise Erdrich is, without a doubt, one of America's greatest novelists. Her genius was evident early in her career — her 1984 debut novel, Love Medicine, drew considerable critical acclaim and earned her a National Book Critics Circle Award. In the following years, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for The Plague of Doves, and won a National Book Award for The Round House.

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.

It's easy to send thoughts and prayers and move on if you're not among those whose lives were altered by the storms. But natural disasters continue to destroy lives long after the damage is done. In his new book Ghosts of the Tsunami, author Richard Lloyd Parry considers the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, which took thousands of lives, and which haunts its survivors to this day. It's a wrenching chronicle of a disaster that, six years later, still seems incomprehensible.

Irish novelist Roddy Doyle has always had a lot of literary tools in his belt, but the one he's most known for is his sense of humor. His first three novels, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van, were all laugh-out-loud funny, and even his most serious novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, which dealt with alcoholism and spousal abuse, had its (darkly) humorous moments.

There are a lot of things to admire about James McBride: chiefly, his refusal to be pinned down. The journalist and writer took the literary world by storm in 1995 with his memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, then followed it up with three well-received historical novels, the most recent of which, The Good Lord Bird, won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. Between books, he's busied himself with screenwriting, songwriting, and playing his beloved tenor saxophone.

Last month, professional wrestling fans were shocked to hear that Ric Flair, the WWE legend who many consider the greatest professional wrestler of all time, was in a medically induced coma. The outlook wasn't great, the media reported, and stunned fans took to Twitter and Facebook to post memories of "the Nature Boy," who gleefully annihilated his opponents with his signature figure-four leglock and seemingly bottomless bag of dirty tricks.

"Humans cannot live without stories," writes Stephen Greenblatt in his new book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. "We surround ourselves with them; we make them up in our sleep; we tell them to our children; we pay to have them told to us." There's a reason storytelling has endured as a medium — the best stories are never just that; they connect us to something deeper, they explain our most deeply held beliefs. As Joan Didion once wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

Here's a useful rule of thumb: If one of your friends says "I've got to tell you about this weird dream I had last night," run. Otherwise you're in for the most boring ten-minute story you've ever heard, punctuated with phrases like "It was, like, my house, but not my house, you know?"

Just a few pages into My Absolute Darling, Martin Alveston quizzes his 14-year-old daughter, Turtle, on her vocabulary; it's a subject the young girl is having considerable trouble with at her middle school. Frustrated by his daughter's progress, Martin tosses her notebook across the room, and places a semiautomatic pistol in front of her. He holds a playing card in his hand, daring her to shoot it. "You're being a little b----," he says. "Are you trying to be a little b----, kibble?"

For readers all around the world, Orhan Pamuk has become almost synonymous with Turkish literature, to the dismay of the Turkish nationalists who have long held the novelist in contempt. His intricate and sometimes dreamlike novels, including My Name Is Red and Snow, have been widely translated and have won him admirers in several countries, including the United States. (One such admirer, if his 2005 letter to The New York Times is any indication, is Donald Trump.)

In a 2008 episode of the sitcom "30 Rock," the fictional NBC executive Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) proudly promotes the season finale of his new hit reality show, MILF Island. In the shamelessly tawdry program ("25 super-hot moms, 50 eighth-grade boys, no rules"), middle-aged women contestants are kicked off one by one with the show's signature catchphrase: "We no longer want to hit that. Get off MILF Island!" In a culture that objectifies women, older women aren't treated with any more respect than their younger counterparts; they're all equally disposable.

Cape Cod occupies a particular place in the American imagination, especially in the summer. The name alone conjures images of cool breezes, charming cottages and eating lobster rolls on the beach. For New Englanders looking for a weekend getaway, Cape Cod sounds idyllic. But as Patrick Dacey demonstrates in his skillful debut novel, The Outer Cape, every place has its dark side.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."