Monthly Archives: September 2015

‘Gold Fame Citrus’ Holds Fear In A Handful Of Dust


“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.

Or tomorrow, really. Maybe the day after. Because that’s when Claire Vaye Watkins’ new dystopia-du-jour novel, Gold Fame Citrus, is set: Just over a too-near horizon where everything is drought and lack and death. Where the water is gone and the people are gone and the southwest has become a wild, weird, rolling apocalypse that, sure, is a fiction today but might be history by next year.

Luz and Ray and Ray and Luz — the former model with her bad memories and hatbox full of cash and the AWOL soldier-turned-surfer wracked by nightmares. They’re the ones who stuck, refusing evac, dodging the law, living in the “laurelless canyon,” in a former million-dollar mansion of some forgotten starlet. Luz spends all day trying on left-behind dresses from the cavernous closets. Ray is building a half-pipe in the backyard because the bone-dry pool isn’t suitable for skating.

They don’t want to run. To be evacuated to Connecticut or Pennsylvania or the greener east. And they’re not the only ones. A ragged society of dribs and dregs has remained behind in Los Angeles. The illegal, the broken — those too weird or too wanted to face scrutiny from the National Guard, too useless for Washington or Oregon, where the borders are patrolled by armed men and no Mojavs are welcome; those who are having too much fun watching the world burn. Luz and Ray are all of those things put together — a species uniquely suited to scraping through the apocalypse.

But then one day, at a bonfire party down in the berms and culverts, they see a child being taken care of (poorly) by a gang of drunken teenaged gutter punks. A toddler. Two years old maybe. Neglected in a filthy sagging diaper, knowing no other world than this desiccated one. So they kidnap it.

It’s one of those things that seems like a good idea at the time.

The baby is called Ig. Luz and Ray have nothing to offer her but their love, their enthusiasm at the thought of life that is not their life, their ridiculous attempts at protection. They use maxi pads and a hundred of the starlet’s silk Hermes scarves as diapers. Arrange her modular furniture into a playpen. Give Ig a taxidermied turtle to play with. All of it is goofy and beautiful and heartbreaking, even when Luz and Ray decide that their life of ration colas, bottles of capers and boxes of crackers scavenged from the starlet’s pantry is no longer enough. Ig needs more, and the two of them set off into the wild.

At which point post-apocalyptic L.A. suddenly feels like civilization. Feels like a safe place that they are leaving behind with a child and a dream of finding a green and better world that will have them. After all, there were blueberries in L.A. (even if they cost $200 for a handful and tasted terrible). A roof. All those scarves.

When Luz and Ray strike out, Watkins’ world opens, becomes more shattering, more starkly beautiful, exponentially more deadly. Gold Fame Citrus is a dreamy story with a mystical streak and a core of juvenile irresponsibility that does not go unpunished. But Watkins’ vision — not just of a world broken by ecological disaster, but of the sorts of people who would thrive in that world — is mercilessly sharp. She’s got a knife eye for details, a vicious talent for cutting to the throbbing vein of animal strangeness that scratches inside all of us. Religious fanatics, doomsday prophets, survivalists — they make their way on the ragged edges of the Dune Sea, the new dustbowl. Luz and Ray and Ig fold in among these groups, break away, pass by. They are our witnesses to the new world, to this slow apocalypse becoming.

And if what they say is true, that all our disposable dystopias are just thinly-disguised fantasies — safe playgrounds (without jobs, without bills, without calls to return or soccer games to attend) into which we can imagine our best or worst selves — then Watkins’s fantasy is a particularly dark one.

First, because it is so terribly current, so terribly believable.

And last, because not everyone we love is going to make it out alive.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Michelle Dorrance: ‘I Just Knew I Would Never Stop Tap Dancing’


Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since she was 4.i
Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since she was 4.

Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since she was 4.



Christopher Lane/John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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.”

Dorrance was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship on Tuesday. Each of the 24 fellows receives $625,000 over five years to pursue his or her work without conditions. Dorrance is the founder of the Dorrance Dance/New York Troupe.

“I think tap dance is the ultimate art form, at least for me,” Dorrance says. “To be able to be a dancer and a musician at the same time, there’s nothing like it. … There’s something that’s really organic in your footfall. There’s something organic in your biorhythms, your heartbeat. And to be able to demonstrate that inside of a moving form is phenomenal.”

Interview Highlights

On when she decided to become a tap dancer

My mother was a professional ballet dancer. … My father — who’s a soccer coach — I knew I had his very tight leg musculature. So I wasn’t flexible and I did not have the feet. But I immediately excelled and gravitated towards tap dancing I think, in part, because of its musicality.

So I studied ballet, played soccer, studied tap dance, studied a little bit of jazz. Did as many things as I could for as long as I could at the level that I could be at my best. But there was I point where I had to choose to focus — really, truly focus on tap. And it wasn’t really a choice. I just wanted to do it all the time, every day.

On how she improvises with jazz musicians

That’s truly the tradition, the great tradition of tap. … In its roots it is improvisational. That’s the way it was innovated and the way it was communicated.

On how her troupe worked creatively at St. Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery in Lower Manhattan, where they were not allowed to use metal taps [Click here to see video from that performance]

I worked there before and we had put a few wooden tap mats, if you will, on top of the beautiful wooden floor that we were not allowed to use metal taps on. And after doing that, I decided no, we need to explore this space as an instrument. And we used bare feet, we used socked feet, we used wooden taps that we made ourselves. We used a leather-soled shoe, which was the original tap shoe before wooden taps were made and then later aluminum taps.

On the associations between tap dancing and minstrel shows

It’s very interesting. It’s such an important part of the tradition — and I say important in part because it reflects the great oppression and racism present in our culture and is of course reflected in the form. And the history of the form really reflects a history of the United States in a very strong way. And if you think of a performer in a minstrel show owning some element of their artistry — even though part of what they’re doing is having to belittle themselves — the one thing you can own inside of that is your innovation, your rhythm.

Your artistry lives inside of that form purely even if what your affectation is is not something that feels right in your spirit, or that is right in the world. … I think tap dance is an incredibly transcendent form. It is born of some of the most oppressed people our country and culture has known and, you know, finds its way to joy.

Michelle Dorrance: ‘I Just Knew I Would Never Stop Tap Dancing’


Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since age 4.i
Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since age 4.

Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since age 4.



Christopher Lane/John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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.”

Dorrance was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship on Tuesday. Each of the 24 fellows receives $625,000 over five years to pursue his or her work without conditions. Dorrance is the founder of the Dorrance Dance/New York Troupe.

“I think tap dance is the ultimate art form, at least for me,” Dorrance says. “To be able to be a dancer and a musician at the same time, there’s nothing like it. … There’s something that’s really organic in your footfall. There’s something organic in your biorhythms, your heartbeat. And to be able to demonstrate that inside of a moving form is phenomenal.”

Interview Highlights

On when she decided to become a tap dancer

My mother was a professional ballet dancer. … My father — who’s a soccer coach — I knew I had his very tight leg musculature. So I wasn’t flexible and I did not have the feet. But I immediately excelled and gravitated towards tap dancing I think, in part, because of its musicality.

So I studied ballet, played soccer, studied tap dance, studied a little bit of jazz. Did as many things as I could for as long as I could at the level that I could be at my best. But there was I point where I had to choose to focus — really, truly focus on tap. And it wasn’t really a choice. I just wanted to do it all the time, every day.

On how she improvises with jazz musicians

That’s truly the tradition, the great tradition of tap. … In its roots it is improvisational. That’s the way it was innovated and the way it was communicated.

On how her troupe worked creatively at St. Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery in Lower Manhattan, where they were not allowed to use metal taps [Click here to see video from that performance]

I worked there before and we had put a few wooden tap mats, if you will, on top of the beautiful wooden floor that we were not allowed to use metal taps on. And after doing that, I decided no, we need to explore this space as an instrument. And we used bare feet, we used socked feet, we used wooden taps that we made ourselves. We used a leather-soled shoe, which was the original tap shoe before wooden taps were made and then later aluminum taps.

On the associations between tap dancing and minstrel shows

It’s very interesting. It’s such an important part of the tradition — and I say important in part because it reflects the great oppression and racism present in our culture and is of course reflected in the form. And the history of the form really reflects a history of the United States in a very strong way. And if you think of a performer in a minstrel show owning some element of their artistry — even though part of what they’re doing is having to belittle themselves — the one thing you can own inside of that is your innovation, your rhythm.

Your artistry lives inside of that form purely even if what your affectation is is not something that feels right in your spirit, or that is right in the world. … I think tap dance is an incredibly transcendent form. It is born of some of the most oppressed people our country and culture has known and, you know, finds its way to joy.

Michelle Dorrance: ‘I Just Knew I Would Never Stop Tap Dancing’


Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since age 4.i
Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since age 4.

Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since age 4.



Christopher Lane/John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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.”

Dorrance was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship on Tuesday. Each of the 24 fellows receives $625,000 over five years to pursue his or her work without conditions. Dorrance is the founder of the Dorrance Dance/New York Troupe.

“I think tap dance is the ultimate art form, at least for me,” Dorrance says. “To be able to be a dancer and a musician at the same time, there’s nothing like it. … There’s something that’s really organic in your footfall. There’s something organic in your biorhythms, your heartbeat. And to be able to demonstrate that inside of a moving form is phenomenal.”

Interview Highlights

On when she decided to become a tap dancer

My mother was a professional ballet dancer. … My father — who’s a soccer coach — I knew I had his very tight leg musculature. So I wasn’t flexible and I did not have the feet. But I immediately excelled and gravitated towards tap dancing I think, in part, because of its musicality.

So I studied ballet, played soccer, studied tap dance, studied a little bit of jazz. Did as many things as I could for as long as I could at the level that I could be at my best. But there was I point where I had to choose to focus — really, truly focus on tap. And it wasn’t really a choice. I just wanted to do it all the time, every day.

On how she improvises with jazz musicians

That’s truly the tradition, the great tradition of tap. … In its roots it is improvisational. That’s the way it was innovated and the way it was communicated.

On how her troupe worked creatively at St. Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery in Lower Manhattan, where they were not allowed to use metal taps [Click here to see video from that performance]

I worked there before and we had put a few wooden tap mats, if you will, on top of the beautiful wooden floor that we were not allowed to use metal taps on. And after doing that, I decided no, we need to explore this space as an instrument. And we used bare feet, we used socked feet, we used wooden taps that we made ourselves. We used a leather-soled shoe, which was the original tap shoe before wooden taps were made and then later aluminum taps.

On the associations between tap dancing and minstrel shows

It’s very interesting. It’s such an important part of the tradition — and I say important in part because it reflects the great oppression and racism present in our culture and is of course reflected in the form. And the history of the form really reflects a history of the United States in a very strong way. And if you think of a performer in a minstrel show owning some element of their artistry — even though part of what they’re doing is having to belittle themselves — the one thing you can own inside of that is your innovation, your rhythm.

Your artistry lives inside of that form purely even if what your affectation is is not something that feels right in your spirit, or that is right in the world. … I think tap dance is an incredibly transcendent form. It is born of some of the most oppressed people our country and culture has known and, you know, finds its way to joy.

With Her Camera, MacArthur ‘Genius’ Tells An African-American Rust Belt Story


  • LaToya Ruby Frazier has been taking pictures of her hometown and family for two decades. Pictured here: Huxtables, Mom and Me, 2008.


  • Grandma Ruby And Me, 2005.


  • Aunt Midgie And Grandma Ruby, 2007.


  • Gramps On His Bed, 2003.


  • Grandma Ruby's Installation, 2002.


  • Mom Relaxing My Hair, 2005.


  • Mom's Friend Mr. Yerby, 2005.


  • Momme (Shadow), 2008.


  • Mr. Jim Kidd, 2011.


  • Rally To Protest UPMC East, July 2, 2012.


  • United States Steel Mon Valley Works Edgar Thomson Plant, 2013.


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

LaToya Ruby Frazier teaches photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.i

LaToya Ruby Frazier teaches photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


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Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

LaToya Ruby Frazier teaches photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

LaToya Ruby Frazier teaches photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

On why she chose Braddock as her subject

There’s a large African-American history in our contribution to the town and the steel industry that has been overlooked and ignored and erased from the history pages. … I got a book [from the library] … and I turned through that book and by the time I got to the end of it, I realized that all African-Americans had been omitted from the history. …

All the questions — you know, wanting to understand, you know, why did I live in this dilapidated house with my grandmother on this shrinking street? … I would come out [of] that house and the first thing I would see is the railroad tracks and then to my left is the steel mill hovering over me, and this area was known as “The Bottom.” And because I had so many questions about my displacement and my plight and the disenfranchisement we were facing, I turned to the camera to try to get a little bit of distance to really look at it and understand head-on what was actually occurring. Like, what was the crisis that was affecting my family socially, economically and politically? And the only way I knew how to do that was through the visual arts.

Related NPR Stories

On why she chose to focus so much on her own family

I’m retelling the history of Braddock and the collapse of the steel industry and the subsequent 30 years of disinvestment through the bodies and the perspective[s] and voices of my grandmother Ruby, my mother and myself. And my grandmother grew up in Braddock in the ’30s and the ’40s, when it was prosperous and a melting pot — a city. And my mother grew up there in the ’50s and the ’60s during segregation and the beginning of white flight and the start of the collapse of the steel industry. And I grew up there in the ’80s, once the steel mills had downsized and they began to demolish them. And so because this type of narrative and perspective has never been told or seen, I felt obliged to, you know, use my camera to document what was actually happening to us.

On a particularly intimate photo she took of her grandmother in her recliner

It was just one of those powerful, stoic, transcending moments. My grandmother Ruby was a woman of very few words, was very serious, didn’t like to talk about the past. … So I’m leaning over her, she’s in her recliner. She really didn’t like me to make photographs, she only cooperated on maybe five or six, and this was one of them. And so it’s a Saturday afternoon where I’m leaning over her with my 35 mm camera and we just pause and she actually looks into the lens, but she’s really looking, gazing through the lens directly at me, almost like she’s transferring some type of history without speaking a word. And as she looks at me intensely with that pensive stare, I clicked the shutter.

Frazier's grandmother grew up in Braddock in the 1930s and '40s, when "it was prosperous and a melting pot," Frazier says. She took this photograph of her grandmother in 2002.i

Frazier’s grandmother grew up in Braddock in the 1930s and ’40s, when “it was prosperous and a melting pot,” Frazier says. She took this photograph of her grandmother in 2002.

Courtesy of artist LaToya Ruby Frazier


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itoggle caption

Courtesy of artist LaToya Ruby Frazier

Frazier's grandmother grew up in Braddock in the 1930s and '40s, when "it was prosperous and a melting pot," Frazier says. She took this photograph of her grandmother in 2002.

Frazier’s grandmother grew up in Braddock in the 1930s and ’40s, when “it was prosperous and a melting pot,” Frazier says. She took this photograph of her grandmother in 2002.

Courtesy of artist LaToya Ruby Frazier

On whether it makes her feel powerless to document a crisis she can’t change

I actually feel the opposite; I feel very empowered by it because when you can take a strong look at a crisis head-on and be able to understand all the different layers of how this is stratified and how it’s structured, it helps you to deal with the loss and the struggle and the pain. And it also helps you to create a human document, an archive, an evidence of inequity, of injustice, of things that have been done to working-class people. It’s a testament, you know; this is my testimony and call for social justice. And it’s also a way of me writing people who were kept out of history into history and making us a part of that narrative, making us a part of Andrew Carnegie’s story and the story of the steel industry.

New Host Trevor Noah Puts His Own Spin On ‘The Daily Show’




TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Last night, seven weeks after Jon Stewart stepped down as the long-time host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” the new host stepped in, Trevor Noah, a 31-year-old biracial comedian from South Africa. Here’s our TV critic David Bianculli with his first impressions of the new “Daily Show” era.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE DAILY SHOW”)

TREVOR NOAH: First of all, this is surreal for me. I’m not going to lie. Growing up in the dusty streets of South Africa, I never dreamed that I would one day have – well, two things, really – an indoor toilets…

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: And a job as host of “The Daily Show.” And…

(APPLAUSE)

NOAH: And now – and now, I have both.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: And I’m quite comfortable with one of them, so…

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: That was how Trevor Noah introduced himself to “The Daily Show” audience last night. And he could have stopped there, with a genial and general opening joke. But he kept going. He got more specific, more personal and intensely and impressively honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE DAILY SHOW”)

NOAH: You know, but the truth is now I’m in the chair. And I can only assume that this is as strange for you as it is for me. You know, Jon Stewart was more than just a late-night host. He was often our voice, our refuge and, in many ways, our political dad. And it’s weird because dad has left.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: And now – and now it feels like the family has a new step dad.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: And he’s black.

BIANCULLI: As I’ve said before, whenever reviewing one of these new late-night shows the morning after, what you get from the opening installment is a broad first impression, an overall sense of the new tone, the new direction and the new host. It’ll take a month or two to get a true idea of what “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” will become. But right off the bat, we get a clue about what it wants to be. It doesn’t appear that Trevor Noah is as intent on changing “The Daily Show” format wholesale as Jon Stewart was when he took over from Craig Kilborn in 1999. There’s still an emphasis on current events and lots of funny visuals, as in the lead story report on the pope’s visit to the U.S. and his often progressive positions and messages.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE DAILY SHOW”)

NOAH: Yeah, hates inequality and climate change, loves immigrants… He’s like a young Bernie Sanders.

(APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: It’s clear that Noah has good comic timing as well as a good sense of when and how to surprise. Both of his pieces last night with “Daily Show” correspondents scored big with the studio audience and veered off into unexpected, clever directions. One of the show’s best holdover correspondents from the Stewart era, Jordan Klepper, was reporting on last week’s sudden retirement announcement by Speaker of the House John Boehner. Klepper and Noah were discussing how Boehner’s successor might be received. And it quickly devolved into an allusion to another John entirely.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE DAILY SHOW”)

NOAH: And I guess more importantly, Jordan, what are you hearing about who will replace Boehner? I mean, wow, those are big shoes to fill.

JORDAN KLEPPER: Oh, well, I’m sure they’ll find someone extremely qualified.

NOAH: Yeah, Jordan, but this is John Boehner. I mean, whoever takes that job will probably fall flat on their face in front of the entire nation.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: Yeah, I get how you’re feeling. You know, taking over for John – Boehner – is hard.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: You know, it doesn’t have to be a disaster.

NOAH: I don’t know about that, Jordan. I can already hear everyone saying the thing, John, please come back; please come back.

KLEPPER: Well, yeah, sure, yes. OK, yes. Everyone’s feeling nostalgia for the old leader. But maybe the new guy will surprise us and just crush it, you know?

(APPLAUSE)

KLEPPER: I feel like he’s going to kill it. I bet he’ll bring a new, like, global perspective to things.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: I’m sorry, global? What are you talking about?

KLEPPER: I just keep hearing global. I don’t know what the [expletive] it means, global. I hear viral and youth. I mean, everything’s just so [expletive] new.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: The desk is different. There’s a new font. I mean, nobody asked me.

NOAH: OK, Jordan, Jordan…

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: Jordan…

(APPLAUSE)

NOAH: Jordan…

BIANCULLI: Then, introducing one of the show’s brand-new correspondents, Roy Wood Jr., Noah discussed what he considered the very exciting discovery of water on Mars. But Wood, who like Noah is black, was much less enthusiastic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE DAILY SHOW”)

NOAH: This about this. Doesn’t this raise the possibility that one day people could live on Mars?

ROY WOOD JR.: People like who?

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD: Like me and you? How am I going to get there? Brother can’t catch a cab, and you think we can catch a spaceship?

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

NOAH: No, no, Roy… Roy, that’s wrong. That’s wrong. We’re deserving as anyone.

WOOD: Black people ain’t going to Mars.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD: And that includes you, Trevor. Oh, oh, oh, you think ’cause you’re on TV they’re going to take you to Mars.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD: You’ve only had “The Daily Show” for one commercial break. These white folks ain’t decided that they like you yet.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: The first night interview segment with fellow comic Kevin Hart didn’t really go anywhere. All it did was talk about how good Kevin Hart was. But interviewing is a skill that builds over time and is helped by a broad variety of guests and topics. There’s reason to hope that very quickly, Trevor Noah will get the hang of that portion of the show as well. He’s smart. He’s quick. And unlike, say, Jimmy Fallon, he doesn’t seem overly eager to please. Meanwhile, his first show gave viewers plenty of reasons to tune in again tonight and for days and weeks to come. He’s young, attractive, funny and not afraid to be honest, even if it unsettles his viewers a bit. And that, more than any other reason, is why I think Trevor Noah should settle in just fine.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Joby Warrick, author of the new book, “Black Flags: The Rise Of ISIS.” He says in Syria…

JOBY WARRICK: They have Army bases. They’ve got banks. They’ve got the whole apparatus of a state. And that’s really unique in the history of modern terrorism. There’s never been a terrorist organization that is a de facto state.

GROSS: Warrick is a Washington Post reporter who has covered national security and the Middle East. I hope you’ll join us.

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House Calls To The Homeless: A Doctor Treats Boston’s Most Isolated Patients


Cover detail from Stories from the Shadows, by James O'Connell.i
Cover detail from Stories from the Shadows, by James O'Connell.

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.”

O’Connell is president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which provides health care services at over 65 sites, including adult and family soup kitchens, detoxification units and corrections facilities. He writes about his practice in a new memoir, Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor.

O’Connell has been caring for Boston’s “rough sleepers,” or homeless, since 1985. He says that homeless patients suffer from the same chronic and acute illnesses as the general population — with one crucial difference. “What we see … frequently, are regular issues that have been neglected for years and years,” he says. “So we see the natural history of illness that is usually interrupted by good preventive care.”

Over the years, O’Connell has seen the ravages of untreated frostbite, AIDS and diabetes, as well as the effects of profound isolation and extreme loneliness. But he has also witnessed a courage and resourcefulness in his patients.

“These are people who are nameless and faceless when they are sitting out in the street,” he says. “But when you get to know them, they are stories of great courage, of struggles against unbelievable adversity. … I think I probably would’ve been a broken person had I lived through what they lived through.”

Interview Highlights

James O'Connell is the president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. He is also an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.i

James O’Connell is the president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. He is also an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Roger Farrington/BHCHP


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Roger Farrington/BHCHP

James O'Connell is the president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. He is also an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

James O’Connell is the president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. He is also an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Roger Farrington/BHCHP

On suspending judgment

I remember what came across is that whatever I thought of someone, when I first met them or first walked by them, it rarely panned out once I got to know them, and the stories that emerged from these people, what they have lived through and as you learn, each one is very different from another, but each one has a remarkable story. … I hope in these stories what emerges is the real resilient spirit of people who have really, really been dealt a bad hand in life and suffer from all those social determinants of poverty.

On the result of homeless people not receiving good preventive health care

We … see the end stage of many things. We often see pneumococcal pneumonia, for example, which probably should’ve been treated on Day 1 or Day 2; by Day 7 or Day 8 it can be very, very devastating. …

As we learned the hard way … these are people who were struggling to survive outside on the streets. They’re interested in just being safe today or just getting the next meal or just getting a bed for the night. Taking care of an infection in their foot or diabetes or their hypertension is way down the list of priorities, which, of course, is really difficult for us doctors who think that should be the top of the list.

On the extreme illnesses he’s seen

We see dramatic things that I never saw in medical school or often even in the textbooks. During this past year [we] have watched a man who had been outside for a very long time who has a pretty difficult psychotic disorder who got frostbite on both feet, really severely, came into our respite facility where we cared for him and he elected to not do surgery, and we spent the past year watching his feet fall off from auto-amputation, which is what happens at the end stages of frostbite. Most of our staff, including our nurses, had never seen anything as dramatic as that.

We will also see tuberculosis, things that you would be used to seeing in a Third World country much more than an inner city of a very medically rich world. We see all of the end stages of AIDS neglected because people were not able to get to treatment. … If you are caring for a homeless population, you are really seeing the really both exotic illnesses as well as the end stages of chronic, common illnesses.

On hidden homeless communities

Even after I had been doing this job for almost 15 years thinking I knew every nook and cranny of the city of Boston, somebody pointed out to me that there were 20 people living in a tunnel under Copley Square. …They came out only at nighttime; they spent their days down in the tunnels. And I remember going down there and meeting all these people for the first time and being stunned that most of them had been there the whole 20 years that I had been out. We always think we know a lot, but we keep our minds open to finding there’s always a new place where someone can be.

On trauma homeless women face

For women to get to the streets we know that the journey is one that is very complex and almost always full of unspeakable trauma — sexual, physical and emotional trauma — and, so, by the time women are on the streets, they are really suffering, and those who become pregnant often feel despair, discouraged, feel they have no place to go, and feel very attached to having the baby safely and in a good way.

So we found that pregnancy often is not only alarming for the women, but it’s a place where they can actually take stock of their lives and try to come in, so we always try to provide as much service … gentle service as we can to anyone who is pregnant on the street, so they can deliver a good baby and hopefully hang on to that baby.

Unfortunately, many of the women, if you speak to them on the street, have had many children, all of whom they’ve lost to social services, because they were unable to stop using or they had no place to bring the baby once the baby was born. There’s an awful lot of trauma among the women on the streets about the children they have lost and mourn.

‘Last Song’ Is A Beautifully Orchestrated Fantasy Debut


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.

Tamryllin is a glittering, southern city full of cosmopolitan pageantry; Lin is in exile from the cold northern lands, a disgraced noble who wishes to join the ranks of the poets — that is, the singing, harp-plucking songwriters who hold social and ceremonial power in the city. The problem is, the profession’s Academy bars women from becoming poets — and Lin’s increasingly perilous quest to recover music’s lost magic gets tangled up in the intricate machinations of merchants, politicians, relatives, lovers, and an innocent young woman named Rianna whose sheltered life is destined to be ripped apart.

Myers’ depiction of Tamryllin and the land it inhabits is shadowy and lush, a tapestry of gossamer wonders as well as theocratic oppression and brutality. But the core of Last Song‘s strength is its characters. Bound by enmities, rivalries, lust, sacrifices, and ancient tragedies, the novel’s sizeable cast forms a dizzying chemistry. Even when the book dwells on its elaborate, Regency-romance web of seductions and star-crossed suitors — which Myers weds to her setting with a deft, sure hand — that game of musical beds has haunting, profound consequences. The villains, with Lin’s treacherous, predatory brother Rayen being a particularly juicy example, are painted in broad strokes, but there’s plenty of nuance, dimension, and empathy to Myers’ timeless myth-spinning.

If there’s one music-themed fantasy novel that Last Song Before Night owes a debt to, it’s A Song for Arbonne, Guy Gavriel Kay’s 1992 book that traffics in a vaguely similar High Medieval setting, north-south political conflicts, religious clashes, and the role of the troubadour in culture — right down to a female musician struggling to be heard in a male-dominated field. But Last Song Before Night is no retread. Instead it’s an intoxicating mix of the familiar and the fresh, from the Academy that puts poetry at odds with politics to the exploration of cultural misogyny that’s both otherworldly and frighteningly recognizable.

Not every theme that’s introduced in the book winds up getting its due; at points in Last Song, it seems that Myers is setting herself up to make a deep point about the nature of metaphor, and the way it relates to both music and magic. But those dots are never satisfyingly connected. And while a trinity of gods — male and female — is mentioned by name throughout the book, they wind up being more window dressing than anything else, despite the fact that Last Song tackles issues of both gender and religion. The book’s subtlety sometimes works against it; luckily its breathtaking, beautifully orchestrated sense of adventure and mystery drowns out the occasional off-note. Last Song Before Night is about music, but it’s also a work of music itself: Lyrical, dynamic, and winningly melodic.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.