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Arts/Life

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In A Monster Calls, a preteen boy in a rambling English countryside manor is visited several times by a beast of his imagining as his mother battles terminal cancer. This is a rough yet kindly monster, not here to feed off the boy's grief or make it disappear but rather to help him harness and manage it. But he certainly looks scary, emerging as he does from the gangly tree that rests near the grave plot at the top of the hill, with bright-red eyes and a towering height, walking on roots that creak and crumble with every step.

Standing across from each other at City Hall, each wearing an outfit that barely passes for "dress casual," Dianne (Olivia Thirlby) and Henry (Ben Feldman) cannot make it through their wedding vows with giggling and rolling their eyes a little. It's not that they don't care for each other — though they're in a rough stretch — but for two people so allergic to convention, the institution of marriage is like a pollen bomb. Their instinct is to duck-and-cover when it detonates.

The Ardennes forest is best known as the site of the Battle of the Bulge, although one of the sibling protagonists of The Ardennes associates it with idyllic family vacations. But by the time Kenny (Kevin Janssens) prevails on Dave (Jeroen Perceval) to revisit the rugged Belgian woods, another war has erupted.

We meet Dave first, as he dives, fully clothed and masked, into a pool. The camera is below the plunging figure, which makes for a dynamic and disorienting image.

Director Damien Chazelle's La La Land is an unapologetic musical that hearkens back to Hollywood's glory days of song and dance. The passion and grandeur of the musical numbers might make you believe that Chazelle had always imagined himself working in the genre, but he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that's not the case.

More than four decades ago, when NPR was still in its infancy, the network had a little idea: How about we ask listeners to write ads for the finer things in life — the things money can't buy?

The results, the "Commercials For Nicer Living," were produced by NPR in 1972 and voiced by Susan Stamberg and Linda Wertheimer — and so delightful that we decided to revive the series.

It's been 23 years since Tad Williams wrapped up his staggering fantasy saga, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Originally planned as a trilogy, it eventually grew to comprise four huge novels and — by Williams' own count — a total of a million words. Shockingly, it became a bestseller, and along with Robert Jordan's vast Wheel of Time series, Williams' books helped pave the way in the '90s for George R. R. Martin's equally ambitious fantasy opus, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Dorlyn Catron's cane is making its radio debut today — its name is Pete. ("He's important to my life. He ought to have a name," she says.)

Catron is participating in one of the America InSight tours at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum offers twice-a-month tours, led by specially trained docents, to blind and visually impaired visitors.

They call it "The Leaning Tower of San Francisco."

But it wasn't always that way. The luxury skyscraper was billed as "state of the art" when it opened a few years ago. People paid millions for condos there.

"Difficult woman" is a loaded term, but writer Roxane Gay isn't afraid of taking on ideas with baggage. (A few years ago, she wrote a book of essays called Bad Feminist.) Her new short story collection, Difficult Women, explores women's lives and issues of race, class and sex.

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Between Fidel Castro's death and the new American president, it's hard to know what's next for U.S.-Cuba relations. But partnerships are already underway, including one involving Cuba's first independent video game design company and a U.S. foundation that helped it get started.

Empty Head Games is the company started by two young Cubans, Josuhe Pagliery and Johann Armenteros. In November, the duo launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for their game, Savior. In just six days, the campaign hit its $10,000 goal.

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"Dogs are better than human beings," wrote Emily Dickinson, "because they know but don't tell." That sentiment comes to mind when considering Emily Bitto's debut novel, which showcases a dazzling, gabby and ultimately doomed collection of stray human beings. Assembled under one bohemian roof in 1930s Australia, most of these characters tell all to a fault. But one, an adolescent girl named Lily, sees all but keeps her mouth firmly shut — until she comes to narrate this book.

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In India people worship many gods. Aravind Adiga's new novel is about one of the most powerful ones.

'Bambi' Artist Tyrus Wong Dies At 106

Jan 3, 2017

The Hollywood artist and calligrapher who designed Disney's Bambi has died at age 106. Tyrus Wong, a Chinese immigrant, survived Angel Island, the Chinese Exclusion Act and racial bias, before receiving acclaim for his work, late in his career in the 1990s. NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Pamela Tom, who made the documentary, Tyrus.

When Lin-Manuel Miranda was a teenager in the 1990s, he liked to make eclectic mixtapes for his friends. In those cassettes, he experimented with the rise and fall of energy in music: A musical theater number might play after a hip-hop song, only to be followed by an oldie or an obscure pop song. It was through mixtapes that he could bridge the gap between two seemingly opposing passions — Broadway and rap.

It's 1968 in New Bordeaux, La. On the surface all looks tranquil as you drive through the bustling city in your red Pontiac, tapping your foot to Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang."

But as you take a sharp left down a winding back alley, an alarming sight gives you pause. Behind you, trucks painted with the Confederate flag begin to appear, the white men behind the wheel angry and visceral as they shout racial slurs.

Your name is Lincoln Clay. You're a 23-year-old biracial man — but in this place, this time, you're black, and instances of racism and bigotry are commonplace.

There's a reason that some readers view contemporary coming-of-age novels with suspicion. Too many play out the same way: An odd but winsome young person goes on some kind of journey of discovery, either literal or figurative, and learns something about himself or herself in the process. Often, there's an awkward romance. And the ending, whether happy or otherwise, can usually be described as bittersweet.

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Lake Superior State University has released its annual list of banished words for 2017. John R. Shibley, who curates the list, talks to NPR about the bete noires that made the bigly listicle of guesstimates.

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Erica Abad glides down the ancient canals of Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City, on her gondola-like boat. Her cousin, Efren Lopez, steers their boat — called a chalupa — by pushing against the canal floor with a long wooden pole, while Abad flips a sizzling quesadilla on a steel griddle fitted into the boat. When a group of people on a nearby barge signal to them to order some quesadillas, Lopez navigates the boat toward them. And Abad places a few more quesadillas on the griddle for their customers.

William Christopher, an actor best known for his role as Father Mulcahy on the sitcom M*A*S*H, has died at the age of 84. Christopher's agent, Robert Malcolm, told The Associated Press he died early Saturday morning at home in Pasadena, Calif., after a battle with lung cancer.

It's the most aspirational time of year, as people cast about for their resolutions — often resorting to the same old standbys they've tried, and abandoned, before.

This year, why not try something new? We happen to have a few suggestions on hand ...

For the Ads for Nicer Living project, NPR listeners are writing short ads pitching life's little joys, five of which will be produced by NPR.

Most of the submissions so far are about appreciationfor children's laughter, dogs, sunsets, warm socks, balmy breezes.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

TIM WATTERS: (Imitating Bill Clinton) My name is Bill Clinton. I was the 42nd president of the United States, and I am married to my lovely wife and fantastic woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for 41 years now.

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If you find yourself at a loss to name even one Native American food dish, you're not alone. But a growing number of Native chefs are trying to change that.

Freddie Bitsoie is one of those chefs, working to bring back indigenous foods from centuries ago, and adapting them for today's palate so people can learn not just about their cuisines, but their cultures too.

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Women Who Count: 3 Smart STEM Romances

Jan 1, 2017

When Octavia Spencer first read the script for Hidden Figures — based on a book about the African American women who did the math for our early space launches — she thought it was fiction because it seemed too good to be true. Her disbelief reveals how conditioned we are to think that only white men make notable contributions to science, technology, engineering and math — and how important it is that we celebrate stories of the women who do.

On New Year's Day, Portland restaurant Ava Gene's will be serving brunch to the hungry and hung-over masses. And amidst the frittatas, French toast, and grits, there will be Chef Josh McFadden's own favorite: pasta carbonara.

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