NPR Staff

In an interview this week with NPR, President Obama asserted that the country is less racially divided than when he took office:

As a boy, Daniel Majook Gai fled the civil war in Sudan, running miles by himself to safety and leaving his family behind. He was one of the so-called Lost Boys — a name given to children separated from their families during that conflict.

After years in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, Gai landed in the United States, reunited with his family and got an education. In 2011, he returned home to the newly independent country of South Sudan.

But war came back in 2013 and split the new nation.

Growing up in 1970s England, Salena Godden stood out. Her mother was Jamaican and her father was an Irish jazz musician who mysteriously disappeared from her life when she was very young.

In her memoir, Springfield Road, the writer, poet and musician tells the story of finding her personal identity, beginning with the word she made up to describe her race: Jamish.

"It's kind of ... a mix of being Jamaican, Irish, English," she tells NPR's Arun Rath. "It's the name I gave myself."

John McNeil may be the most important trumpet player you've never heard of.

Many aspiring musicians know him as an educator, through his many instructional books like The Art of Jazz Trumpet. But getting to know McNeil as a performer or recording artist hasn't always been easy: his records could be tough to find.

In her memoir Lady Parts, comedy star Andrea Martin writes that in the 1970s, comedians weren't as easy to come by as they are now. "Comedians were much more rare," she tells NPR's Arun Rath. They were "like rock stars, really celebrated."

Over the course of her career, Martin has appeared on-stage and on screens both big and small — she won a Tony for her role in Pippin, performed in the films My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and stars in the NBC TV series Working the Engels.

Herman Travis, 55, lives in Holly Courts, a low-income housing complex in San Francisco.

Every Tuesday, Travis fills a shopping cart with groceries from a local food bank and makes home deliveries to his elderly and disabled neighbors. He started doing it in 2007 and says when he first started, people were skeptical.

"When I first started doing it. People was cautious. They didn't let me in their house, but after they got to really know me they would just be happy to see me," says Travis.

It's hard to believe, but there has never been a major motion picture that centers on one of this country's most iconic figures: Martin Luther King Jr. But that's about to change, with Selma, which opens Christmas Day.

The film explores the tumult and the tactics of the civil rights movement, from King's tense relationship with President Lyndon Johnson to the battle for voting rights for black Americans — a battle that reached a climax on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, as state police beat peaceful protesters trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

Once a pop artist has been working long enough, the Christmas album feels like an inevitability. Soul singer Anthony Hamilton wanted to try it out, but he was wary of falling into cliché and repeating the formulas that have shaped holiday records for years.

Here's an experiment: take a bite of whatever food you have nearby and listen to some music, something with high notes. Now, take another bite, but listen to something with low notes.

Notice anything?

Researchers at the University of Oxford have been looking for a link between sound and taste. They've found that higher-pitched music — think flutes — enhances the flavor of sweet or sour foods. Lower-pitched sounds, like tubas, enhance the bitter flavors.

If the bars of Los Angeles could talk, they'd have an awful lot of tales to tell — old Hollywood was full of famously hard drinkers. And while LA's watering holes are keeping their secrets, one author, Mark Bailey, has uncorked a slew of stories from the city's plastered past.

Shannon Johnson, a researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, found that when she talked to youngsters about sea snails, she communicated a little more effectively if she skipped the technical description and called them "punk-rock snails."

"Their entire shells are covered in spikes," Johnson explains. "And then the spikes are actually all covered in fuzzy white bacteria."

This Christmas Eve people all over the world will log on to the official Santa Tracker to follow his progress through U.S. military radar. This all started in 1955, with a misprint in a Colorado Springs newspaper and a call to Col. Harry Shoup's secret hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, now known as NORAD.

Shoup's children, Terri Van Keuren, 65, Rick Shoup, 59, and Pam Farrell, 70, recently visited StoryCorps to talk about how the tradition began.

It's a story almost too strange to be true: Throughout much of the 1960s and '70s, the wistful, wide-eyed children of painter Walter Keane were absolutely everywhere.

Paintings and posters of the big-eyed waifs, often in rags, their hair unkempt, brought fame and fortune to the charming, smooth-talking artist — along with widespread critical disdain.

But years later, it emerged that the art was actually the work of Walter's wife, Margaret Keane. She painted in secret, behind closed doors, and he publicly claimed the work as his own.

We are well into the Christmas season, and if you live in Japan, that means sponge cake.

The traditional Japanese Christmas dish is served with strawberries and cream, and it is rich, thanks to lots and lots of butter. But the Japanese have been using even more butter for their Christmas cakes this year, exacerbating what was already a national butter shortage.

Earlier this month, after the events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y, the White House announced the creation of what it's calling a Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

The group's job is to find ways to strengthen the relationship between police and the public, and to share recommendations with the president by late February.

Dr. Kent Brantly considers himself a lucky man.

He was diagnosed with Ebola five months ago while working with Christian aid group Samaritan's Purse at a hospital in Liberia's capital, Monrovia. He became so sick that he thought he was going to "quit" breathing.

Race is at the forefront of the current debate over the police use of deadly force. But one shooting in Wisconsin highlights another factor at play when police shoot civilians — the lack of outside investigation. And the decade-old death has led to real reform in the state.

Journalist Paul Salopek is on a seven-year trek around the world, retracing early humans' first great migration, out of Africa.

We first spoke to him two years ago, when he was in Ethiopia, at the very beginning of his odyssey. Since then, we've reached him in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Cyprus. Eventually, he plans to walk 21,000 miles in total — and make it all the way to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

On this last leg of his trip, he has faced all manner of obstacles — both natural and man-made.

Writer and illustrator Cece Bell has been creating children's books for over a decade, but in her latest, she finally turns to her own story — about growing up hearing-impaired, after meningitis left her "severely to profoundly deaf" at the age of 4.

The book, a mix of memoir, graphic novel and children's book, is called El Deafo. It's a funny, unsentimental tale that follows Cece from age 4 through elementary school, as she transforms from mild-mannered little girl into full-fledged superhero — the "El Deafo" of the title.

Every year since 1896, Los Angeles County has held a somber ceremony for the men, women and children who die there, but whose bodies are never claimed.

Some of those buried are unidentified; they are buried as Jane and John Does.

Many others have been identified, but for a variety of reasons, family and friends never picked up their cremated remains.

This year, in an interfaith ceremony on Dec. 9, the county buried the ashes of 1,489 people in a mass grave in the County Cemetery in LA's Boyle Heights.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is expected to announce its latest group of inductees this coming week. As usual, fans are shouting about the bands they're not even considering.

All Things Considered presents a medley of the following snubbed rockers:

The Shangri-La's

Dick Dale

Steppenwolf

The Zombies

Ben E. King

Joan Baez

Deep Purple

Jethro Tull

Yes

King Crimson

Ozzy Osbourne

Warren Zevon

Dire Straits

Dolly Parton

Willie Nelson

Cheap Trick

Roxy Music

In 1995, Glenn Close won her third Tony Award for her role the Broadway musical Sunset Boulevard. Now, after 20-year hiatus, Close is back on Broadway. She's starring alongside John Lithgow in A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee's 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The story follows Agnes (Close), a suburban matron striving to keep the peace in a household she her husband (Lithgow) share with her sister, who's an alcoholic; their daughter, who's a serial divorcee; and their best friends who have fled their own home in an inexplicable terror.

Welcome to the first meeting of the Morning Edition Reads book club! Here's how it's going to work: A well-known writer will pick a book he or she loved. We'll all read it. Then, you'll send us your questions about the book. And about a month later, we'll reconvene to talk about the book with the author and the writer who picked it.

Ready? Here we go:

Many plants we eat today are a result of genetic modifications that would never occur in nature. Scientists have long been altering the genes of food crops, to boost food production and to make crops more pest-, drought- and cold-resistant.

"Product of Mexico" — it's a label you see on fruit and vegetable stickers in supermarkets across the U.S.

It's also the name of an investigative series appearing this week in the Los Angeles Times.

This song may take you back a ways — say, about 43 years.

That's Joni Mitchell, back when her voice was high and light. It's "a helium voice," as she describes it in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition.

Language advisory: Quotes in this story contain language some find offensive.


Many people are familiar with the big stories of racial integration in sports — Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers, Althea Gibson at Wimbledon. But after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many lesser-known African American athletes became "firsts" — whether they liked that distinction or not.

Most books about President Richard Nixon focus either on his foreign policies or on the crimes and misdemeanors that forced his resignation under threat of impeachment.

Not Stephen Hess's new book, The Professor and the President.

Hess, who has been writing about government for decades out of Washington's Brookings Institution, witnessed a rare partnership inside the White House.

The president — Nixon — was a Republican who felt obliged to do something about welfare.

Katherine Paterson is the winner of two Newbery Medals and two National Book Awards. Her best-sellers include The Great Gilly Hopkins, Jacob Have I Loved, and her most famous book, Bridge to Terabithia.

Paterson was born in China to missionary parents. She tells NPR's Arun Rath that she had an idyllic childhood until about the age of 5, when Japan invaded China. "Those years were very scary years," she says.

In Beijing, even the tiniest apartment can cost a fortune — after all, with more than 21 million residents, space is limited and demand is high.

But it is possible to find more affordable housing. You'll just have to join an estimated 1 million of the city's residents and look underground.

Below the city's bustling streets, bomb shelters and storage basements are turned into illegal — but affordable — apartments.

Claustrophobic Living Quarters

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