The aggressive vibrato of the bandoneon hung in the air. While the tango singer spoke of romantic spats, hopeless drunkards and lonely whores, an elderly Argentine couple clasped hands.
The haunting music would have made for a steamy evening if not for the setting. The celebration of Argentine tango took place not in some hip Latin club on the Lower East Side or in a dark corner of a Buenos Aires cafe, but in a drab basement room with plastic chairs and gray walls in the Jackson Heights branch of the Queens Library.
New York's Queens borough is among the most ethnically diverse counties in the nation, its immigrant-filled neighborhoods teeming with taco joints, Dominican beauty salons and women in headscarves. It's no surprise, then, that the borough's library system has also strived for unparalleled diversity.
The library system's 62 locations boast more than 800,000 foreign language books, thousands of foreign language DVDs and CDs, and six language specialists tasked with finding the most popular materials in Urdu, Polish, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, French and Spanish, among other languages. It also regularly hosts cultural events, such as the tango performance in Jackson Heights, to draw in immigrants unaware of how libraries or library cards work — or at least how they work in Queens.
Chinese romance novels are always popular, as is the Korean version of Twilight. The library system also caters to Albanians, Croatians and Serbians in Ridgewood, Tagalog speakers in Elmhurst, Woodside and Broadway, Farsi in Kew Garden Hills, and Pashto and Dari in Flushing.
"We are the most diverse borough, and we want to celebrate that," said Bridget Quinn-Carey, the library's COO.
Nearly half of all Queens' residents were foreign-born in 2010, according to U.S. census data, with most hailing from Latin American and Asian nations. Among New York City's five boroughs, Queens has the highest number of residents who consider themselves as speaking English less than "very well," at 28 percent. Of those, 42 percent speak Spanish and 31 percent speak an Asian or Pacific Island language.
The library launched its New Americans Program in 1977 to provide services to the area's many immigrants. The staff's most significant challenge, apart from budget limitations and figuring out how to catalog book titles that don't use the Roman alphabet, is keeping up with the breakneck pace of New York real estate trends and demographic shifts. Employees rely on neighborhood clues including ethnic newspapers and produce sold at corner bodegas to keep library shelves stocked with the most useful material.
A decade ago, the library's Corona location demanded materials catering to Dominicans and Italians. Now, the neighborhood is primarily Mexican and Ecuadorean, said Vilma Daza, the Corona library manager. A dedicated following arrives at the library each day to read foreign-language newspapers, including the popular Thikana, a Bangla newspaper circulated in New York.
The library also offers citizenship and basic skills classes designed to help people assimilate more easily.
"It's very important because all those kids are growing up over here, so we need to have better communities, we need to enrich their lives, we need to make changes so this community will be successful tomorrow," Daza said.
Once an immigrant group reaches a mere 2,000 people, the library will attempt to offer services pertinent to that culture. International crises often spur the need for new library material. For example, the system's collection of Haitian Creole books grew to more than 5,000 titles after Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake.
Of all the languages the system offers, one is particularly in demand among foreign-born library patrons. On a recent registration day, more than 100 people lined up starting at 5 a.m. to nab one of 30 classroom slots available in Corona. Thousands of other immigrants flocked to similar classes across the Queens Library system in 2013.
The language they were all so eager to learn? English.
Rachel Howzell Hall is easing her big, laurel green Mercedes sedan through the streets of Los Angeles. A slim woman with big eyes, Hall says this Benz is her dream car, the thing she'd planned to buy for herself once she'd become a successful writer, probably around age 50.
But something happened to speed up her schedule.
"When I was 33 years old," Hall says, "I was diagnosed with a rare type of breast cancer. And I was pregnant. And it was terrifying."
She was two months pregnant with her much-desired first child. And she and her husband, David, were stunned. With Hall's doctors, they worked together to beat the disease.
"I made it through, I survived," says Hall. "And I realized that life is not guaranteed, and that I don't want to wait until 50 to get a car that I want; because I may not make it to age 50. You never know, " she shrugs. "And so now, I'm driving the car I always wanted."
Surviving cancer also freed Hall to write her first mystery. Before that, she had wanted to write a detective novel but was afraid to because she wasn't a cop. What if she got something wrong? Facing her mortality changed everything.
"Having faced that, that's the biggest fear anyone could have," she says. "It's like, 'OK, you're writing a book? That's not scary. I can do that.' And that's when I started Land of Shadows."
The book was published last month in the U.S., and earlier this year in the U.K. Its heroine is Elouise "Lou" Norton, a scary-smart and fiercely ambitious homicide detective — and the only woman and African-American on her Los Angeles police homicide detail.
The book opens when Lou is called to a new condominium complex in South LA to investigate a teen Jane Doe who was found hanging in a closet. Lou suspects the real estate mogul building the complex is involved, and may also have ties to the unsolved disappearance of Lou's own sister two decades earlier. Whether she can detach herself from her personal past to effectively investigate the current murder drives the plot.
'The Tall, Black Girl From The Jungle'
During a reading at Eso Won, a well-regarded bookstore in the cultural heart of black LA, Hall tells the audience that Lou reminded her of a character from the 1991 movie Silence of the Lambs. She says Jodie Foster's FBI agent, Clarice Starling, and Lou are both poised and confident, but they come from hard beginnings, which can be a sore spot.
Hall says that, while she was writing Lou, she kept thinking of a scene from the film in which Hannibal Lecter quickly deconstructs Starling while she's trying to profile him: "You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes?" he says. "You look like a rube. ... Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you Agent Starling?"
"I wanted ... [Lou] to have some of that 'Yes, you overcame ... but you're still the tall, black girl from the Jungle,' " Hall says.
The Jungle, as both residents and cops sardonically call it, is the neighborhood Lou comes from, and the name has myriad meanings. Hall reads from Lou's description of the Jungle for her audience, as they nod in recognition:
Baldwin Village was the government name for my old neighborhood. But regular people knew it as the Jungle, a used-to-be-nice-place-to-live back in the Sixties, a neighborhood boasting twisty streets lined with banana palms, roomy apartments and swimming pools.
Hall is able to describe Lou's childhood neighborhood so accurately because it was her neighborhood, too. She grew up in a second-story Jungle apartment across the street from sunny Jim Gilliam Park. She says the neighborhood was nicknamed "the Jungle" in the '60s because of the lush tropical foliage that surrounded each of the area's apartment buildings. "And then [in the] late '70s came PCP and gang members, and it took on a whole new, different name of Jungle. And it got a little wild because of drug dealing and gang banging and all the rest of it."
Hall's parents kept a very close eye on her and her three siblings, filling their time with church, music lessons and academic competitions. They were the Cleaver family, only black and in a Section Eight neighborhood — the same neighborhood Lou patrols.
"Lou has that same kind of duality," Hall says. "She's very much from the neighborhood, but she's not of the neighborhood." Not anymore, at any rate.
There Are Heroes In South LA, Just As There Are Villains
Hall knows people think certain things when they think of South LA: black, poor, crime-ridden. One of the main reasons she wanted to write about the area is to show it has more facets than outsiders commonly assume.
"I want people to realize that, one, there's a story in this part of Los Angeles and that there are heroes in this world, just as there are villains," she says. "And a lot of times, [in] LA, you see Echo Park, you see Hollywood; but you don't see Southwest Los Angeles, and you don't see cops who have great compassion, like Lou does, and cops who come from the areas in which they patrol. So I want people to not make assumptions about this city and about the people who live here."
Hall herself lives in South LA, about a 10-minute drive away from the Jungle in the mostly unknown neighborhood of View Park. Here, large houses nestle in the hills just above her childhood home. She says she used to look up at them through her kitchen window and dream while she washed the dishes.
"I grew up in the Jungle looking at, you know, very big homes on the hills," she says. "And l knew black folks lived there and I knew that they were wealthy and I aspired to that. I wanted to be up that hill."
And now she is. Her butter-yellow living room is hung with family portraits — her siblings, her parents, her wedding pictures and a photo of her and her husband, David, in the delivery room, beaming as they display their just-born daughter, Maya. There's a piano she plays when she wants to relax and a window seat she likes to sit in when she writes.
"I start my drafts in longhand; I write on legal pads," Hall says. "I love pencils and pens."
Rachel Howzell Hall never gets writer's block — she knows better than most that time is not a given. Instead, she spends her time on what she thinks counts, like enjoying her family and her friends, and writing novels that show a more complete view of her beloved Los Angeles — the city that people often drive by on the freeway, but have never bothered to investigate.
"I love Los Angeles and everything that it has to offer. The houses, the weather, the diversity," Hall says, making a big arc with one arm. "And I'm looking forward to sharing it with anyone who wants to read about it in my books."
Romanée-Conti — a legendary French vineyard — produces one of the most elegant and extravagantly-priced wines in the world. In January 2010, proprietor Aubert de Villaine received a threat to his livelihood, if not his life: Pay more than 1 million euros in ransom, or his Burgundy vines would be poisoned.
Maximillian Potter first wrote about this plot for Vanity Fair and has now authored a book called Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine.
This wine, he tells NPR's Scott Simon, is really something special: "Without being overly hyperbolic, it's definitely the finest flavor I've even had in my mouth," he says. "I drank it and ... I was immediately filled with an incredible warmth. It just seemed like something that was alive and wonderful and warm."
On vineyard proprietor Aubert de Villaine
Before I went to Burgundy and I had the opportunity to meet him, in my mind's eye, I saw, you know, a soft palmed, ascot-wearing French aristocrat who probably didn't spend too much time in the vines and delegated the real work. And, when I met him, within a very short period of talking to him, it was abundantly clear to me just how wrong I had been. He's one of the first to work in the morning, he's one of the last to leave. He drives the French version of a very economically priced station wagon. I thought of him at different times as a kind of Sam Walton almost in terms of his work ethic and demeanor.
On de Villaine coming home one night to find a cardboard cylinder addressed to him - with a map and a note inside
Well, first he looks at the map and he recognizes it immediately to be a map of Romanée-Conti, the crown jewel of France's vineyards, and certainly his crown jewel of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. He sees a very detailed drawing of the vineyard, every single vine is marked. And then he opens a note and it informs him that there's a plot underway that is attacking his vines and that if he wants his vines to live, to stay tuned for another note ... [that would] make clear their demands and how those demands could be met.
On calling French law enforcement for help
After Monsieur Aubert de Villaine received the first note, his initial reaction was to dismiss it as a joke in horribly bad taste. When he received the second note, which laid out, in its certain terms just exactly what was going on and foreshadowed the possibility of the devastation in a way that Monsieur de Villaine could not ignore. Then he began to think about: How do I deal with this.
And so he didn't mess around; he called the French version of the FBI, which was the Police Nationale and within minutes of talking with Monsieur de Villaine the inspector on the other end knew right away how serious this was. And he went to the head of the Police Nationale who at the time, was a fellow by the name of Christian Lothion. And he dispatched his best investigators from Paris to Burgundy to oversee this investigation.
On a few wild goose chases
The investigators had quite a few wild goose chases. And the first one was ... the police were tracing one of the packages through the French version of Federal Express. And there was a coding mistake that was made and they descended on this one poor fellow who was coming home from work at a plumbing supply shop. And it turned out that he was ordering ... a PlayStation. And just when the police were starting to get demoralized is when they had their breakthrough.
On setting up a sting operation
The investigations after several goose chases were reaching a point where they really were beginning to turn their attention toward the serious possibility that there was an inside job. At that moment, they received the final of several notes from the bad guys. And it directed them to place 1 million Euro, in cash, in a suitcase and deliver to a cemetery in the town of Chambolle-Musigny, which is a small hamlet just to the north of Vosne-Romanée. The plan was that because Monsieur de Villaine was out of town, Jean-Charles Cuvelier, his right hand man, volunteered to be the bag man. He carried in a bag of counterfeit cash into the cemetery. And shortly thereafter, one of the bad guys emerged to come and collect it. And that was the beginning of the end.
On the man who was ultimately arrested
He wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. His name is Jacques Soltys. The plan that he enacted really wasn't his idea. He had been a career criminal [or rather] he was a career prisoner ... and during his last stint inside, someone gave him the idea: Hey, in Burgundy they treat their vineyards as sacrosanct. And most of them are French noblemen and aristocrats, they don't like gossip. They are wealthy; you could probably extort them, threaten them and get them to pay you just to have [you] go away.
Once basically the plan became his, he undid himself and he's the guy who planned the bag drop-off in the cemetery in the middle of the night. ... They could have done a digital transfer. He set himself up for failure, for sure.
On the value of Romanée-Conti today
I think there's a renewed appreciation for what it represents — and for the philosophies and spirituality and tenderness and care and history that are all tangled in the vines of Romanée-Conti.
When most people hear about NPR's Book Your Trip series (about transit-themed summer reading) they suggest book titles. But when movie critic Bob Mondello heard about it, he started humming show tunes. And that's what you'll be doing too, after you listen to this story about "trip" musicals — shows that transport you by car, boat, train, plane or surrey with a fringe on top. Click the listen link at the top of this page, and then watch the musical numbers below. Enjoy the journey!
We couldn't possibly fit all the travel-themed show tunes into six minutes. We hope you'll leave your favorites in the comment section below.
Mississippi's past looms large in Greg Iles' best-selling thrillers. His latest book, Natchez Burning, is the first in a trilogy that takes readers back 50 years to chilling civil rights-era murders and conspiracies all set in Iles' hometown — the antebellum river city of Natchez, Miss.
Iles' hero, Penn Cage, is a former prosecutor and widowed single father who has returned to his childhood home. Once there, he finds himself confronting killers, corruption and dark secrets.
"Penn Cage I think of as annoyingly righteous sometimes," Iles says. "He's almost too good."
The author says he wanted to create a character who reflected the Southern men he knew growing up in Natchez.
"He is not, in any way, a traditional hero," Iles explains. "He's not always the actor who's committing all the things to make the story happen. In some ways, he's almost an observer sometimes. He is trying to figure out the 'why' of things."
A Lasting 'Sense Of Place'
The Penn Cage series began with 1999's The Quiet Game, a book Iles considers a valentine to his hometown. There are still elaborate, antebellum mansions in Natchez because — unlike the city of Vicksburg, to the north — Natchez surrendered to Union troops during the Civil War without a shot fired.
Iles says Natchez has a more European feel than other Southern towns. "It's not like Atlanta, where they just put up a town because that's where the railroads crossed and it grew into a city. It really grew organically out of the land, the climate, the topography. And it just gives you a sense of place that you just never get out of you."
That sense of place permeates the Penn Cage novels. Iles even takes the titles of his books from famous Natchez landmarks: He named Turning Angel (2005) after a statue in the city cemetery that appears to turn around and follow you with her gaze, and The Devil's Punchbowl (2009) was named after a jungle-like ravine below the cemetery.
'Shaking Hands With Death'
In Natchez Burning, Iles plumbs both place and history. The book's first pages set the scene:
Let us begin in 1964, with three murders. Three stones cast into a pond no one had cared about since the siege of Vicksburg, but which was soon to become the center of the world's attention. A place most people in the United States like to think was somehow different from the rest of the country, but which was in fact the very incarnation of America's tortured soul.
The book pulls from the true stories of unspeakable racial violence that gripped Mississippi 50 years ago, and their legacy today.
"I hope it throws a little bit of light on how complicated relations are between black and white," Iles says. "In Mississippi, black and white live cheek by jowl, day in and day out. It's not some remote problem and it never has been."
In the book, Penn Cage discovers long-buried family secrets when he's forced to defend his idolized father — Tom Cage, the city's favorite doctor — when he's accused of killing his African-American nurse.
Tom Cage is based on Iles' own father, a Natchez doctor he describes as Atticus Finch with a stethoscope. Iles' father died several years ago. Then, in 2011, fate dealt Iles another blow.
"I pull out on the highway, and a truck hit my driver's door going 70 miles an hour," Iles says. "Took off my right leg from the knee down; broke 20 something bones. But [the] worst thing was it tore my aorta — which, you're shaking hands with death then."
He awoke from a coma eight days later with a different outlook on life — and his work.
"You go along in sort of a blur. You know, we're all 42, 43 years old. You're doing the same thing every day. You blink your eyes and you're 53, 54 years old. You don't even see the passage of time," he says. "But when fate reaches down and just about kills you, you realize: You know what? I don't have an infinite number of books left to write."
A Lens To View One Southern Town, And Race In America
Natchez Burning debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list when it came out in the spring, and it's getting a warm reception in Natchez.
Iles recently spent hours signing books at the white-columned Dunleith mansion, where locals remember the author's younger days playing in a rock band. Iles' friend Rod Givens says when the author first started setting his thrillers in Natchez, there was some consternation.
"One of the classic examples is ... Turning Angel," Givens explains. "And you want to talk about controversial in the town — there you go."
Turning Angel is about the murder of a popular high school senior and her affair with a married, middle-aged doctor. Givens says Iles' plots certainly get folks talking: " 'Did that really happen?' 'Well, who is it?' ... 'Is he really writing about so and so?' You know, classic Southern gossip."
But in Natzchez Burning, a key character was based on a real person — Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel. In Iles' novel, the Concordia's editor is fixated on solving the civil rights-era murder of a black music shop owner. In real life, Stanley Nelson tackled the unsolved murder of Frank Morris, who was killed when his shoe shop was set ablaze in 1964.
"Frank Morris was the kind of person in the community that we should embrace, that we should care about," Nelson says. "If we don't fight for justice for those kinds of people, who do we fight for?" He says he hopes that Natchez Burning can spark candid conversations about the Klan violence that went unpunished 50 years ago.
As for Iles, he's still focused on figuring out the "why" of things: "All my books are an inquiry into the nature of evil. Why do good people do bad things? Are any human beings completely evil? Do we all have good within us? That's what I'm interested in."
And he says Mississippi is a fitting lens through which to view how race shapes the American identity.