We've all had the experience of watching a great athletic performance — from gymnast Mary Lou Retton defying gravity to Michael Jordan sinking a mind-blowing turnaround jumper — and wondered: Were they born with that talent or can you get there with hard work and practice?

Finding Redemption In The Karaoke Bar

Aug 4, 2013

Sixteen years ago, Rob Sheffield had everything going for him. He was young, ambitious, working as a music critic in Charlottesville, Va., and married to the woman he thought he'd spend the rest of his life with.

All that changed suddenly when his wife died of a pulmonary embolism. Sheffield was a widow and not yet 30 years old.

There were many factors that helped him dig himself out of the deep depression that followed: moving to a new city, the simple passage of time. But the most unexpected antidote for his grief came in the form of karaoke.

In the summer of 1969, all eyes were on Los Angeles, where nine people had been murdered. Among the dead was Sharon Tate, a movie star and wife of movie director Roman Polanski. Police said a cult called "The Family" was responsible.

The leader of The Family was the charismatic, ruthless and manipulative Charles Manson. America was captivated by him, and by the young women who, under his spell, had snuck into two houses in Los Angeles to murder people they had never met. The trial was nationally broadcast, and Manson became a household name.

When writer Chris Grabenstein plots his mysteries, the murders happen in the corny nooks of New Jersey's Jersey shore. After all, there's something delightfully cheesy about a beach town.

"I guess I'm a cheesy guy. I like this kind of stuff," Grabenstein says. "Ever since I was a kid I loved tourist towns."

The author points out shop names as we walk along his stretch of the shore. There's the Sunglass Menagerie, an ice cream shop called Do Me A Flavor, Shore Good Donuts and How You Brewin' coffee. I'll spare you the rest — Long Beach Island has 18 miles of this stuff.

There's nothing soothing or easygoing about this massive novel, which was first published obscurely in Italy in the late 1990s. Goliarda Sapienza, a novelist and actress who worked with the likes of Pasolini and Visconti, spent more than a decade writing The Art of Joy, and on balance, she must have felt it a massive disappointment, given that no publisher wanted to go near its chaotic, handwritten blend of ambisexuality, religion, feminism, and politics.

Author Michael Walker says that by the end of the 1960s, you could fairly say there were two generations of baby boomers: those who had experienced that decade's peace-and-love era of music firsthand, and those who learned about it from their older brothers and sisters.

William Masters and Virginia Johnson became famous in the 1960s for their groundbreaking and controversial research into the physiology of human sexuality. Instead of just asking people about their sex lives, Masters and Johnson actually observed volunteers engaging in self-stimulation and sexual intercourse. Changes throughout their bodies during arousal were measured with medical equipment.

The novel I've been recommending this summer to anyone, female or male, who's looking for the trifecta — a good story that's beautifully written and both hilarious and humane — is Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead's debut novel from last summer. I was about to go all old-school and excitedly add that Seating Arrangements is now out in paperback, except since more and more readers are instantly downloading new books at a discount, paperbacks are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

The nation's first black public high school, Paul Laurence Dunbar High, opened its doors in Washington, D.C., in 1870. But more than 140 years later, Dunbar — like many urban schools — has fallen on hard times. The crumbling, brutalist-style building is often described as a prison, and graduation rates hover around 60 percent.

But it wasn't always that way. Once upon a time, the yearbook read like a Who's Who of black America.

Kimberly Rae Miller grew up among piles of junk. Doors wouldn't close, stacks of paper turned to sludge, and the pool was filled with brown muck. Her father was an extreme hoarder, a condition that threatened her safety and even her life.