These three books by masters of narrative nonfiction are a godsend to aspiring writers looking for an inexpensive alternative to a costly MFA degree.

Elijah Cummings's We're Better Than This is part memoir, part behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of American democracy and part call to action. That last piece is, perhaps, the most crucial concept readers can take from the life Cummings dedicated to public service.

When I was a boy, my dad would sometimes pick me up from school on "bad speech days" and take me down to the river. On those days, my mouth would just stop working. Every word was painful, the laughter from classmates unbearable. I just wanted to be quiet.

As readers, we sometimes have the complicated task of loving stories that disappoint us. Early on in the wildly imaginative Lovecraft Country, both the novel by Matt Ruff (Harper Perennial, $16.99) and the HBO adaptation, comes the observation, "Stories are like people.... Loving them doesn't make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though.... Sometimes, they stab me in the heart."

The intricacies of connection, and disconnection, between siblings have been on my reading mind lately.

As a university instructor, I'm used to having students in my office on campus. But this year, like so many other teachers, I've gotten used to having students in my home office: able to see the messy bookshelf behind me, how my houseplants are faring and whether my cat is vying for my attention (thus theirs, too) on my desk. My students are likewise aware that many of us are now peering into a slice of their lives, whether they're Zooming from a dorm room, kitchen table or childhood bedroom. 

I'm always intrigued by sophomore novels by authors whose debuts I loved: Will they live up to my expectations? Will they feel the same or different--and which do I prefer?

I was so young when Marilyn Monroe died in 1962 that she was almost like a mirage to me. Marilyn was not just a movie star but a mood, a mystery and a mirror to mid-century America. Though typecast as a blonde bombshell, Marilyn was so much more: a producer, poet, painter, gardener, avid reader and the brains behind her brand. 

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