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NPR Arts & Life

This Week's 5 Must-Read Stories From NPR Books

shelves of books

Once A Cheater...

One of the most interesting books I've read so far this year has been This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz. And there's a reason it's such a well constructed read — as NPR's Steve Inskeep pointed out — it took Diaz 16 years to write.

The book is made up of interconnected short stories, and the protagonist of most of them is Yunior — a young man who Diaz describes as "longing for love." But his tendency to cheat on girlfriends is making lasting relationships impossible. Each breakup is excruciating, and we ache with Yunior. It's Diaz's way of representing heartbreak, he tells Inskeep.

And Yunior can't stop. Over the course of the book, he's unfaithful multiple times, once with as many as 50 other women. It's a strange exercise in feminism, but as Diaz puts it, for men, "part of our journey, is... growing in a way that allows us not only to imagine women as fully human, but to imagine the things that we do to women, that we often do blithely, without thinking... as actually deeply troubling and as hurting another human being."

Girl Power

Junot Diaz's characters struggle with the minutiae of relationships — they have problems on a personal scale. Author Hanna Rosin is also focused on men and women, but her argument is much wider in scope.

"Men are at their lowest labor force participation rate since 1948," Rosin says, and those jobs that were lost have been added in the health care and service industries. That means that it's increasingly women supporting their families.

It's a "tragedy" for men, she says. What will they do now that it's so much harder to make a living doing "brawn jobs?" While she was researching the book she recognized how hard the changes were going to be — she said she wished the factories could just come back.

To survive in the changing economic climate Rosin explains that men will have to answer "the million dollar question:" "why women have heard the call of the changing economy? Why it is that they've been more flexible than men have been?"

If any men can figure that one out — let the rest of us know. We'll be waiting.

Revisiting Iraq

There is a group of men — three at least — who have found a way to deal with a difficult situation. In this piece NPR correspondent Quil Lawrence profiles three soldiers who have written about their experiences in Iraq.

Brian Castner was part of a bomb-diffusing squad, and the title of his book, The Long Walk, references the moment "when you put on the bomb suit, and a single person has to walk up to the IED alone," he says. It's an impossibly tough job, but he found that coming home wasn't much easier. Paranoia overwhelmed him. Eventually he started writing down his experiences. "I just knew I had a story that needed to come out," he explains.

Castner wasn't the only soldier who felt troubled when he came home. In Kevin Powers' book, The Yellow Birds, he "stitches together scenes from the war and an uneasy homecoming." This book is fiction, but that allows Powers to "[make] the story more intense than anything he experienced in Iraq."

It's possible to feel a whole range of emotions coming home from a war — but one of the strangest that I've ever heard of is "fobbit guilt." That's what David Abrams had after a relatively cushy tour at a Forward Operating Base, or FOB. Abrams "was on the Liberty-Victory complex" in Baghdad, where he often thought to himself, "well, I'm sitting here at the desk, I'm comfortable, I'm in air conditioning, and they're out there in those conditions." Abrams adds, "it really creates some conflict inside you."

Finding Franz

Let's get away from the real world for a minute. We can let Tom Coraghessan Boyle, better known as T.C., be our guide.

For our series, PG-13, we've been asking authors to tell us about that moment when they made the jump from kid stories to adult literature, and about the novels that pushed them there.

For Boyle, who says his reading had been "largely confined to liner notes," the magical moment was when he found Kafka. Those stories with their "hint of sadomasochistic titillation," were revelatory for him. They were "so far out there they seemed to speak directly to my teen impulse to shatter every window and crash through every wall."

It's a lesson that many kids learn at this age – that books can be rebellious, sexy, and even "subversive."

Magic And Wizards And Dragons, Oh My

From the "far out" we move on to the just plain wacky. In this exclusive excerpt from Jasper Fforde's new novel, The Last Dragonslayer, we are introduced to 15-year-old Jennifer Strange and her world of wizards, beasts and rapidly-fading magic.

Jennifer is a competent teenager, and since the disappearance of her boss, she's been running Kazam Mystical Arts Management, and managing the outsized personalities of the witches and wizards who work there. That includes Lady Mawgon, who used to be a Master Sorceress, "once-venerable Dennis Price" and Wizard Moobin — all of whom have reduced to making ends meet with odd jobs since magical power is draining away from their world.

Read the excerpt, not only for its sense of imagination, but for the inventive way it portrays the magical economy on the brink of collapse. After a while it starts to feel like a scenario we're familiar with.

Rosie Friedman is a member of the NPR Books team.

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