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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.

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.

On April 3, 1983, terrorists associated with the Maoist guerilla group Shining Path invaded the small hamlet of Lucanamarca, Peru, and murdered 69 villagers. The slayings, retaliation for the killing of a Shining Path leader, were especially brutal — the victims, including infants and children, were hacked to death with machetes. It would not be the last time that Peruvians were slaughtered en masse, either by the Shining Path or the Peruvian military.

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.

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