On the decline of America.
A mysterious figure appears to early settlers in Wisconsin.
"t would make sense to Tellie later, after she'd hear it at the mill, after she'd race back the four miles in her bare feet to the home of the family where she'd just that morning left her babies, that it had happened to Adele Brise in the woods. The Lady, the Queen of Heaven, showing herself."
Diary entries concerning innocent Americans abroad.
"Our conversation continues! He is come to tell me I may lunch with him, the progress of my new composition permitting—but immediately he sees I have not moved, not even to dress myself, or put pen to paper. You have a look of puzzlement on your face, little Lotte! he says, and again, I fear he is about to laugh. Indeed, sir, I do! I said. Because I am puzzled! Greatly puzzled! Look! he cried. She gesticulates! You are perhaps at heart una italiana!"
This year's National Book Award winner looks at the life of a preacher's son in the Kansas Territory.
"Now, it's true there was a movement in town to hang my Pa, on account of his getting filled with the Holy Ghost and throwing hisself at the flood of westward pioneers who stopped to lay in supplies at Dutch Henry'sspeculators, trappers, children, merchants, Mormons, even white women. Them poor settlers had enough to worry 'bout what with rattlers popping up from the floorboards and breechloaders that fired for nothing and building chimneys the wrong way that choked 'em to death, without having to fret 'bout a Negro flinging hisself at them in the name of our Great Redeemer Who Wore the Crown. In fact, by the time I was ten years old in 1856, there was open talk in town of blowing Pa's brains out."
The opening of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom; the complexities and relationships of a wholly American couple.
"For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee. She was one of the few stay-at-home moms in Ramsey Hill and was famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else. She said that she expected to be 'beheaded' someday by one of the windows whose sash chains she’d replaced. Her children were 'probably' dying of trichinosis from pork she’d undercooked. She wondered if her 'addiction' to paint-stripper fumes might be related to her “never” reading books anymore. She confided that she’d been 'forbidden' to fertilize Walter’s flowers after what had happened 'last time.'"
Greek heroes and gods roam suburban America.
The goddess hiked her gowns and climbed as softly as she could the creaky wooden steps into his house. She had snuck into a home a million times, and the hardest part was carrying the shield through the door with it hitting anything, or not knocking overcoat trees or a vase. Or keeping on her helmet without its tall purple that got nudged off in low doorways. All of this and more had happened many times, and it was never not embarrassing; there were instances when people thought that she was not a god, but just an oddly-dressed intruder. She’d stopped wearing metal combat boots a hundred years ago and now she wore her flip-flops, though she made sure her father saw her in the boots when she was leaving Mount Olympus.
A writer and a spacefarer discuss time travel, the symmetry of the universe, and the conquest of America.
"Don't forget what I was in the middle of. I had to recount my adventures again, silently invoking Marco Polo, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Italo Calvino, and the annals of geography. It turned out very well: they were all hanging on what I said, they were scared when they were supposed to be scared and they laughed when they were supposed to laugh."
A set of instructions about how to handle culture clashes in modern dating.
"You’ll exchange names. His will be something like John or Jack or Jim — something with a J, something typical and boring. If he’s smart, he’ll make a joke about this. Not like your name. So beautiful. He’ll ask for its meaning. Give it to him. Land of the Canyons. Bringer of Hope. Gazelle Returning From Water. Your people have such a way with words. It’ll excite him. He’ll tell you (you were right!) he’s a writer. You’ll be impressed. He’ll say you’re prettier than anything he’d write. When he goes outside for a smoke, go with him."
A collection of hilarious shorts imagining American celebrations in other lands.
"In Nigeria they send emails telling you that if you help them move millions of dollars to the US you can keep a hefty percentage of that and they would be extremely thankful."
A Bosnian immigrant in Chicago undertakes some ramshackle detective work.
"Office 909 had a sign that read GREAT LAKES EYE and a black-and-white eye with long, upward-curling eyelashes. Pronek hesitated for a moment before knocking at the door--his fingers levitated, angled, in front of the eye. Pronek knocked using three of his knuckles, the glass shook perilously, then he opened the door and entered an empty waiting room. There was another door, closed, and there were magazines strewn on the few chairs, even on the musty floor, as if someone had searched through them all. The waiting room was lit by a thin-necked lamp in the corner, leaning slightly as if about to snap. A picture of an elaborate ocean sunset--somebody lit a match under the water--hung on the opposite wall. 'Acapulco,' it said in the lower right corner, 'where you want to dream.' Pronek stood in front of the picture, imagining Acapulco and all the pretty, tawny people there. It would be a good place to disappear for a while."
Future historians review the fantastic legacy of John Adams: Lincoln Michel's contribution to Melville House's forty-four stories about out forty-four Presidents.
"John Adams appears to have originally been conceived as a familiar or minion of George Washington, the first of the hundred tyrants that are said to have ruled the country until its infamous, self-inflicted demise."
A clown's harrowing, distorted journey through towns, roads, and memories.
"Now, long days along the roads, back roads and highways, roads of dust and concrete, roads bent and vibrating in the heat and the letter taped to the windshield, a membrane browning in the sun. Long days tangled in the station wagon, legs and heads flopped from windows, the back window kicked out and exploded into dust for the bulges and ruffles of a hundred Pierrots, their long red shoes and polka dots. Long days now hurtling along, lost in the vibrations of gestures, lost within the vibration of minds. These days hurtling along roads in an endless gesture, the only gesture Pierrot once knew. The gesture Pierrot never forgot."
A family, headed to Florida, encounters a gang of criminals in this grim classic.
"The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now. She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right. The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree. He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy."
The man behind Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, and his "Ghostly Appendage."
"If an Appendage may be allowed an opinion, here is mine: Given an era of less anxiety and more discretion, take away the Great Depression and two World Wars, and Ripley might have been your run of the mill suburban crackpot. A plastic bag sorter, hoarder of stoppers and snaps, jam jars, jawbreakers, broken ping pong paddles, push mowers, racially inspired lawn ornaments, waffle irons. He was simply a man at ease with bizarre objects, weird bibelots, fantastic freaks of nature who made him feel, by association, less odd."
A fictionalized account of a moment in baseball history from a contemporary master of detailed Americana.
"Russ wants to believe a thing like this keeps us safe in some undetermined way. This is the thing that will pulse in his brain come old age and double vision and dizzy spells -- the surge sensation, the leap of people already standing, that bolt of noise and joy when the ball went in. This is the people's history and it has flesh and breath that quicken to the force of this old safe game of ours. And fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren -- they'll be gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened."