Scott Simon

Paul Thorn Revisits His Gospel Roots

Mar 17, 2018

Paul Thorn is a natural-born Southern storyteller with humble stage banter and musical delivery that's gritty and gruff.

The Merry Spinster is one of the most anticipated books of the spring. Author Daniel Mallory Ortberg has recast classic tales, including "The Little Mermaid," The Velveteen Rabbit, "Beauty and the Beast," and even parts of the Old Testament, to make them resonate with new takes on romantic love, property rights, abusive relationships, gender roles and the stuffed animals we hold dear — and their unsparing lack of sentimentality.

Writer Stephanie Wittels Wachs got a phone call from her loving and accomplished brother Harris just three days before her wedding, in which he shared some surprising news.

What was it? "He told me he was a drug addict," Wachs says. He died two years later, of an overdose. Harris Wittels was a hilarious and respected Hollywood comic writer, who had become co-executive producer of NBC's Parks and Recreation by the time he was 30, and worked on award-winning shows like Master of None.

Chicago. David Mamet.

Maybe that's all that needs saying to introduce the first novel in more than 20 years by the celebrated and controversial playwright and screenwriter, who has so often made the city a signature in his works. It's a story of the mob era: hits ordered and adversaries iced; hooch in trucks which winds up in teapots; gunsels, madams, made men and molls.

Writer Michelle McNamara was fascinated by true crime. She created the website True Crime Diary and became mesmerized by a series of crimes from the 1970s and '80s: 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 brutal murders committed in Northern California by a violent psychopath who she called "The Golden State Killer."

McNamara was at work on a book she hoped might deliver the killer to justice — or at least comfort the victims' families — when she died suddenly in her sleep in 2016. She was 46.

Renée Watson's young adult novel Piecing Me Together tells the story of Jade, a Portland, Ore., high school student with "coal skin and hula-hoop hips." Jade has won a scholarship to St. Francis, a private school that's mostly white. She makes friends and does well, but she also feels the school sees her as some kind of project — and she doesn't like it.

A mentor named Maxine comes into her life with a program called Woman to Woman. Maxine is black too, and once lived in her neighborhood, but Jade wonders if Maxine just sees her as someone who needs to be saved.

Akwaeke Emezi's debut novel, Freshwater, is the lyrical, nonlinear story of a woman named Ada, born in Nigeria with, as she puts it, "one foot on the other side." Several "selves" exist inside of Ada, and they identify themselves as "we." When Ada comes to America for college, a traumatic event causes the "we" to take over, and Ada struggles to control her own body.

The author, who won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa, says she pulled from her own experiences.

Michael Korda's new book Catnip: A Love Story is drawn from scribbles that amused in a time of anxiety. Korda's wife, Margaret, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She went riding most days of what turned out to be the last year of her life, and each day, he sketched cartoons of their cats on the back of old manuscripts in the tackroom.

A dog named Abby is back from the dead.

Abby, a black Lab mix, wandered away from her home in Apollo, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, 10 years ago. Abby's owner, Debra Suierveld, and her children looked for their dog but couldn't find her, accepted her loss and had her declared deceased.

And then, 10 years later, they got a call from an animal shelter.

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Candide is a show with a classy pedigree. Voltaire wrote the 1759 novella. It became an operetta in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman, contributions from Dorothy Parker and Richard Wilbur, the noted poet — and some gorgeous music by Leonard Bernstein. The original production lasted just two months on Broadway, but the score is still a popular favorite — and the show has been revived many times over the years, with Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler, John Mauceri, and Bernstein himself adding material.

Tamora Pierce is a fantasy author who has been beloved for so long that both our books editor and producer — 12 years apart in age — kept her books in their school lockers.

Pierce started out as one of J.R.R. Tolkein's heirs — but over the last few decades has expanded the realms of high fantasy to consider issues of gender, race, war and violence. Fellow fantasy writers cite her as an influence, too, as you can see if you flip through the blurbs at the front of her new book, Tempests and Slaughter.

Mary Gauthier is no stranger to the gut punch. The lyrical precision on the folk singer's first eight studio albums is testament to her ability to transform her own trauma into a purposeful and communal narrative.

In Arvin Ahmadi's debut novel Down And Across, 16-year-old Scott Ferdowsi hasn't quite figured out what he wants to do with his life. That worries his Iranian-American parents, who believe their son lacks grit and doesn't take advantage of the opportunities they work hard to give him.

"He's tried every club at school, switches his future path every five seconds, [and] he can't quite nail down what that future path will look like," Ahmadi says.

Violent crime is down in America's big cities.

It may not seem so if you watch crime dramas like CSI, NCIS or Chicago P.D., but homicide, assault and rapes have decreased in big cities since the 1970s. Even Chicago had a 16 percent decline in murders last year, to 650. (In 1974, the city had 970 homicides.)

Leni Zumas' new novel, Red Clocks, imagines a time in which something called the Personhood Amendment has made abortion and in vitro fertilization a crime in the United States; Canada returns women who slip across the border to seek those services. The novel is set in an Oregon town and it invites inevitable comparison to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Is it also a parable for our time? Zumas says the story started out with "some personal anxiety and anguish of my own," but grew into something larger.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Benya Golden is a Jewish Cossack. Which is not the setup for a Mel Brooks movie, but the new novel Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Golden is a prisoner in a Soviet gulag during World War II, and he ends up pressed into a kind of Dirty Dozen battalion of horse-riding Cossacks and convicts who detest Stalin — but revile the Nazis even more.

Ben Shirley's story is one of redemption. He'd been playing bass in bars, clubs and arenas in the Los Angeles area since he was 15 when he fell down a path of drugs and alcohol. Four bottles of vodka and $360 worth of heroin a day brought him down hard on Skid Row.

It was at the non-profit The Midnight Mission where Shirley turned his life around in 2011. Now, at 53, he's an undergrad in The San Francisco Conservatory of Music's program of Technology and Applied Composition. He debuted an original piece, "We Need Darkness to See the Stars," earlier this month.

There's a big, green, tinsel warning label across the cover of Martha Brockenbrough's new book, Love, Santa, illustrated by Lee White. It reads: "The beautiful truth about Santa."

Brockenbrough's book is written as a series of letters between her and her daughter, Lucy, who begins to write Santa Claus when she's 7 years old.

"Dear Santa, how do you get down all the chimneys?" Lucy writes in the book. "What happens when people live in homes without fireplaces? Why does your handwriting look like my mom's?"

The U.S. foster care system is overwhelmed, in part because America's opioid crisis is overwhelming. Thousands of children have had to be taken out of the care of parents or a parent who is addicted.

Indiana is among the states that have seen the largest one-year increase in the number of children who need foster care. Judge Marilyn Moores, who heads the juvenile court in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, says the health crisis is straining resources in Indiana.

The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist established their community more than 20 years ago in Ann Arbor, Mich. where music is a daily part of the Catholic nuns' lives in the Motherhouse. With the holiday season looming, the sisters joined NPR's Scott Simon for an in-studio performance and discussion of their latest album, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring: Christmas with The Dominican Sisters of Mary.

Here's an idea for a musical: The end is near, and there's just one day for the inhabitants of Bikini Bottom to figure out how to save themselves from a powerful volcano that's about to explode. Who can we count on to come through?

Well, who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Absorbent and yellow and porous is he!