Arts and culture

Out of 1,032 books, only 18 remain.

Judges for the Kirkus Prize have whittled a vast list of eligible entrants down to just six finalists each in three categories: fiction, nonfiction and young readers' literature. The shortlists for the literary award, now in its second year, boast a healthy mix — between Americans and writers in translation, second-timers and old hands, headline-grabbers and small presses.

And that's not to mention the picture books.

'Gold Fame Citrus' Holds Fear In A Handful Of Dust

Sep 30, 2015

"Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That's why no one wants them now. Mojavs."

That's Ray, talking to Luz, on the day they first met, explaining the draw of California, the curse of it. What drew down generations of wanderers and seekers and, eventually, brought the world to what it is today.

People often ask dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance when she knew she wanted to become a professional dancer. Her answer is simple: "I just knew I would never stop tap dancing," she tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "I knew it was possible because our masters die with their shoes on. ... You dance until your '90s."

The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, two federal grant-making agencies aimed at investing in American culture, turn 50 on Tuesday. There will be a yearlong celebration commemorating the agencies' history — and future.

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On Tuesday, the MacArthur Foundation awarded 33-year-old photographer and video artist LaToya Ruby Frazier a MacArthur Genius Grant. Frazier's work is set in Braddock, Pa., the small town outside Pittsburgh where she grew up. Built on steel, today Braddock is struggling to get by. Frazier tells NPR's Ari Shapiro why she chose to focus her lens on her hometown.

Interview Highlights

On why she chose Braddock as her subject

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As a doctor who provides medical care to Boston's homeless population, James O'Connell and his colleagues are used to working in unusual locations. "We are basically visiting them in their homes, which are often under bridges, down back alleyways [and] on park benches," O'Connell tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It's been an education for us over these years."

Anthony Marra's first book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, painted a portrait of Chechnya so real and compelling, readers might have felt they'd actually visited that war-torn land. His new collection follows a real painting, a mysterious image of a dacha, and all the lives it touches over seven decades of Russian history.

Music has been used an untold number of times in fantasy, both as part of the backdrop and as a central component of the plot. And there's a very good reason for that perpetual fascination: Music is, in its own way, a form of magic. Ilana C. Myer takes that idea to a compelling extreme in Last Song Before Night. Her debut novel is set in an invented, pseudo-medieval world where musicians play a vital role in culture — although the magic once summoned by their music has long been lost.

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After five weeks, Banksy's "bemusement park" art exhibit, Dismaland, is closing permanently. What's more, the anonymous artist announced on Dismaland's website that the structures and material from the park will be sent to a refugee camp in France.

The short announcement read, "All the timber and fixtures from Dismaland are being sent to the 'jungle' refugee camp near Calais to build shelters. No online tickets will be available."

Palliative care nurse Theresa Brown is healthy, and so are her loved ones, and yet, she feels keenly connected to death. "I have a deep awareness after working in oncology that fortunes can change on a dime," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Enjoy the good when you have it, because that really is a blessing."

Brown is the author of The Shift, which follows four patients during the course of a 12-hour shift in a hospital cancer ward. A former oncology nurse, Brown now provides patients with in-home, end-of-life care.

Ruth Reichl is in her green-tiled kitchen on the Upper West Side, stirring pungent fish sauce into a wok of sizzling pork. Perhaps you remember her as a highly influential restaurant critic for the LA Times and the New York Times (15 years), or from her best-selling books about food (three, including her memoir Tender At The Bone) or that she ran Gourmet magazine for 10 years.

"I bent over backwards to misbehave," Vic Chesnutt sang in 1993's "Dodge," "It's a holy wonder I just didn't flip on over into an early grave." Like many of Chesnutt's lyrics, it proved to be heartbreakingly prophetic. The indie singer-songwriter was wracked with depression and debt after a car accident left him quadriplegic when he was a teenager. And he'd survived a few suicide attempts before overdosing on muscle relaxants in December 2009. He died on Christmas Day at age 45.

When Mikhail Baryshnikov says, "I'm really afraid to get bored with myself," he means it.

As one of the greatest ballet dancers in history, he's captivated audiences around the world. He was also the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, has danced to his own heartbeat, had a run as Carrie Bradshaw's part-time lover on HBO's Sex and the City, and so much more. (His list of credits and awards is long and eclectic.)

Sunday is my last broadcast as host of Weekend All Things Considered at NPR West. I'm moving back to Boston, and with packing well underway, after the broadcast I'll be sleeping between piles of hastily labeled boxes.

Weirdly, a couple of weeks ago I experienced a nightmare version of this very scene, when I attended a show called The Object Lesson at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif.

"This is not respectable theater. I don't even know if it is theater," jokes Geoff Sobelle, the creator and star of the show.

Some pretty horrible things befall astronaut Mark Watney in the new movie The Martian: sandstorms, explosions, extreme isolation, even frustrations growing potatoes. It's a series of unfortunate events that's at once highly scientific and very entertaining.

The Martian is the brainchild of author Andy Weir, who wrote the blockbuster novel that inspired the film. As Weir tells it, he'd always longed for some science fiction with greater emphasis on the science.

Whatever the old adage might warn, there is a bit of merit to judging a book by its cover — if only in one respect. Consider the blurb, one of the most pervasive, longest-running — and, at times, controversial — tools in the publishing industry.

For such a curious word, the term "blurb" has amassed a number of meanings in the decades since it worked its way into our vocabulary, but lately it has referred to just one thing: a bylined endorsement from a fellow writer — or celebrity — that sings the praises of a book's author right on the cover of their book.

Devoted Fans Cross The Country For 'Gunsmoke' Reunion

Sep 27, 2015
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This is how Lizzie Velasquez remembers kindergarten while growing up in Austin, Texas.


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'Baru Cormorant' Will Catch You Unawares

Sep 27, 2015

This book is a tar pit, and I mean that as a compliment.

To read The Traitor Baru Cormorant is to sink inexorably into a book that should not be anywhere near as absorbing as it is — to realize that the white-knuckled grip with which you hold it was provoked by several consecutive pages of loans, taxes and commodity trading. It seems impossible that the economics of a fantasy world should be so viscerally riveting, but they are, and it's incredible: You think you're on solid ground right up until you feel that ground closing around your throat.

If anyone has the credentials to write a book called The Art Of Language Invention, it's David J. Peterson.

He has two degrees in linguistics. He's comfortable speaking in eight languages (English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Esperanto, Arabic and American Sign Language) — plus a long list of others he's studied but just hasn't tried speaking yet. He's also familiar with fictional languages — both famous ones like Klingon and deep cuts like Pakuni (the caveman language from Land Of The Lost).

Years ago, in the small town of Maiden, N.C., a man named Shannon Whisnant bought a storage locker, and in it he found a grill. When he took both of them home and opened the grill, he discovered something he hadn't been expecting: a mummified human leg.

Most people — one presumes — would've have wanted to get rid of the leg as soon as possible. Whisnant, however, wanted to keep it. Trouble is, the original owner of the limb, John Wood, wanted it back. He'd had to have that leg amputated years earlier.

Before she hit it big with her first album, Pieces of You in 1995, Jewel was living out of her car. Her big break came at Inner Change, a struggling San Diego coffee shop where she played a weekly show. She's written a memoir called Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story.

We've invited Jewel to play a game called "We hope you sleep in a safe" — because when you're named Jewel, you have to watch out for jewel thieves.

A children's television program that ran for only five seasons in the U.S. 20 years ago has gone on to enthrall kids around the world in reruns. The show was Beakman's World and its star was a wacky pseudo-scientist in a neon green lab coat and a Don King wig. The show is still beloved in Latin America, where the performance artist who played Beakman tours a stage version of the show to audiences of thousands.

The children of admired, famous people can have a tough time becoming their own person despite — and even because of — all of their advantages. But what does life hold for the sons and daughters of tyrants and dictators whose very names become synonyms for evil? Does the name they bear sentence them too?

When Sherry Turkle came into the studio for her interview with NPR's Scott Simon, she left her cell phone outside. "I gave my iPhone to someone ... out of my line of vision," she says, "because research shows that the very sight of the iPhone anywhere in your line of vision actually changes the conversation."