Arts

Arts and culture

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"Our responses to [Joan Didion's] persona tell us less about the woman behind the books than about ourselves," writes Tracy Daugherty in his new biography of the legendary author, and he couldn't be more right. She was a conservative in the 1960s, whom liberals believed was one of their own. Some of her fans admire her skeptical takes on the entertainment industry and politics, but she's had close friends in the Hollywood and Washington crowd for decades.

Many chefs dream of opening their own restaurant. But Laura Martinez faced an obstacle that many people thought would make that dream impossible to fulfill: The 31-year-old chef is blind.

It took two years for Martinez to open La Diosa, her tiny restaurant in Chicago, this past January. In addition to her white chef's jacket, Martinez wears dark sunglasses when she works.

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One evening last July, Nat Bradford walked along rows of White Bolita Mexican corn at his Sumter, S.C., farm, and nearly wept. All 1,400 of the corn plants had been overtaken almost overnight by corn smut, recalls Bradford, who's also a landscape architect. The smut, from a fungus called Ustilago maydis, literally transforms each corn kernel into a bulbous, bulging bluish-grey gall. It is naturally present in the soil and can be lofted easily into the air and onto plants.

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My grandmother worked all her life cleaning houses and offices, so it's hard for me to resist a short story collection called A Manual for Cleaning Women. Cleaning ladies are rare characters in literary fiction; so, too, are clerical workers, hospital staff and switchboard operators, but they populate Lucia Berlin's stories because Berlin herself held those kinds of jobs. In addition, she was a divorced mother of four and an alcoholic. Unlike cleaning ladies, divorcees and alcoholics are a dime a dozen in fiction, but Berlin puts her own jagged imprint on their tales.

This is one in a series of essays running last week and this week about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters. The entire series is available here.

Since 1971 Sonia Manzano has been one of the lucky residents of Sesame Street. As Maria, she guided Big Bird, Elmo and the rest of the gang through life lessons large and small. After 44 years, Manzano recently announced her retirement, but her dedication to help kids continues.

Manzano's new memoir Becoming Maria is a poignant and difficult book meant for teens and adults. In it, she tells her own story of growing up in a Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx in the '50s and '60s. There was love, but also violence brought on by her father's drinking.

The U.S. has around 800 military bases outside of the nation's borders. They're home to hundreds of thousands of troops and family members, and, in many cases, they're a cause of controversy.

David Vine, an associate professor of anthropology at American University, argues that we've become too dependent on such overseas bases — and that many of them cause serious opposition abroad. He lays out his thinking in his new book, Base Nation: How the U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World.

When Fear the Walking Dead premiers Sunday night on AMC, don't expect to see Sheriff Grimes. There's no Daryl, either. In fact, the streets aren't even overrun yet with those dirty, hungry hoards of the undead that viewers know so well.

Still, something weird is happening — and it's happening in LA, not Atlanta, this time around. Fear, a prequel to the hit show The Walking Dead, swaps the post-apocalyptic Deep South for the West Coast, where that apocalypse still has yet to happen (or is just getting underway).

Of the 85 works nominated for this year's Hugo Awards, one of science fiction's most prestigious prizes, a dozen walked away with wins. Among their number were hit series, household names and repeat recipients — but a day later, the winning entries getting the most attention have no names at all: In several of the categories, voters picked "No Award" instead of bestowing the prize on one of the nominees.

That strange result will be explained — as best it can be — in just a second.

Photographer Tony Gleaton died last Friday at the age of 67 after struggling with a particularly aggressive cancer for 18 months. He was working, signing prints, talking to museums (several have his work in their collections, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Harvard's Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem) and checking in with his friends right up to the last day. I admired his work, but also treasured his friendship.

This summer, NPR is getting crafty in the kitchen. As part of Weekend Edition's Do Try This At Home series, chefs are sharing their cleverest hacks and tips — taking expensive, exhausting or intimidating recipes and tweaking them to work in any home kitchen.

This week: Making mayonnaise that's just as delicious as, if not better than, what comes out of the jar.

'Eileen' Is Dark, Damaged Fun

Aug 23, 2015

Charmingly disturbing. Delightfully dour. Pleasingly perverse. These are some of the oxymorons that ran through my mind as I read Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh's intense, flavorful, remarkable new novel. "Funny awful" might be another one. I marveled at myself for enjoying the scenes I was witnessing, and wondered what dark magic the author had employed to make me smile at them.

We often hear the story of the Second World War through the experiences of American and British soldiers pitted in battle against Germany and Japan.

But the largest volunteer force in the world then was the Indian Army: More than 2 million Indian men fought for Britain, even as Indian citizens struggled to be free of the British Empire.

Everyone's Likely To Be Sad At This Year's Hugos

Aug 22, 2015

The annual World Science Fiction Convention is happening now in Spokane, Wash., packed with the usual discussion panels, author readings and autograph sessions. In most ways, it's like any other WorldCon — five days of mingling between fans and creators of genre-related media from novels to paintings to music to podcasts. WorldCon has been held nearly every year since 1939 (World War II necessitated a break), rotating through different cities around the globe.

To say I was not excited about this assignment would be an understatement. An NPR piece about vegetable broth? It seems like a parody — like an NPR piece about Birkenstocks or lattes or, um, knitting. But then Bren Herrera threw open the door to her house in suburban Virginia, and suddenly a radio story seemed possible.

A beautiful ballerina and a handsome prince are at the heart of the world's most famous ballets. Sleeping Beauty. Swan Lake. The Nutcracker, of course.

And at training grounds for future dancers, plenty of girls hope to someday wear the prima ballerina's tutu.

But it's become a challenge to find the boys who will one day form the other half of the pas de deux.

'Cooties And Stuff'

Every so often, a genuine publishing phenomenon emerges. The latest one is no Harry Potter, but the reason for its meteoric rise to the top of Amazon's best-seller list is self-evident. On the cover of Carl- Johan Forssen Ehrlin's self-published The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep there's a sign that reads, "I can make anyone fall asleep" — and that's a promise sleep-deprived parents can't resist.

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We always like a good radio romance, and we caught one last weekend in the Vows section of The New York Times.

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The most talked-about novel written in French recently is not by a Frenchman, but by an Algerian, newspaper editor Kamel Daoud. It's called The Meursault Investigation, and it's a response to the most famous novel ever written by a French Algerian, a mainstay of the 20th century canon: The Stranger, by Albert Camus.

The documentary Meru charts the attempts of a trio of American climbers to be the first to scale Meru Peak, a 21,000-foot Himalayan mountain that begins near the headwaters of the Ganges River in India.

It's the sort of movie that's frequently called "inspiring" for its depiction of humans testing themselves physically, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually against the elements, and I get that. But I wasn't inspired. I was nearly out of my mind with terror.

An abandoned castle looming above a scummy moat; a dead Cinderella hanging limply from her crashed pumpkin carriage; a grim reaper hunched over in a bumper car — these are just a few of the highlights of a new "bemusement park" in England.

The park, an art exhibit called Dismaland, was commissioned by the mysterious British graffiti artist known as Banksy and opens Saturday in the coastal city of Weston-super-Mare. He calls it a "festival of art, amusements and entry-level anarchism."

This is one in a series of essays running this week and next about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters.

Though Larry Wilmore had always hoped to be a performer, his early career was as a comedy writer. He wrote for shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and In Living Color, and created The Bernie Mac Show. He moved in front of the camera as The Daily Show's "senior black correspondent" in 2006. So when Stephen Colbert ended The Colbert Report last year, Comedy Central tapped Wilmore to host the replacement show.

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Midway through Peter Bogdanovich's enjoyably giddy romantic comedy, a smitten Manhattan playwright (Will Forte) treats a pretty young woman (British actress Imogen Poots) to a lesson in ancient history, when "women were treated like chattel" but "prostitutes were sacred." You'll have to see the movie to learn whether the scribe knows that he's talking to an aspiring actress who moonlights as a lady of the night.

Driving, stunned mainstream-media accounts of Gen-Y tastes report, is becoming less popular. But learning how to operate a car still serves as a straightforward metaphor for accepting responsibility and acquiring new skills. So straightforward, in fact, that Learning to Drive is barely capable of a left turn.

Within the mishmash of influences on the stoner action/comedy American Ultra — namely, Repo Man, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Pineapple Express, and a pile of pointless hyper-violent comic books — the film nearly finds itself in the cognitive dissonance of a pothead who discovers his inner badass. There's something funny about Jesse Eisenberg, that sentient bundle of nerves, standing over the bodies of government agents he's just dispatched with a spoon and a piping hot bowl of ramen noodles.

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