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.
In the past year, my first in a prestigious Ph.D. program in creative writing and literature, I have often felt conspicuous as a writer of color. I have felt a responsibility to speak up when race is discussed, but I have also resented this responsibility. Lately, I have found myself burying my head. It bothers me to no end that the pressure is beating me, and yet it is.
Like many writers of color, I read Junot Diaz's "MFA vs. POC" on the New Yorker blog, and identified with his anger and sadness at the loss of voices of color to the "white straight male" default of the writing workshop — a group of writers gathering to critique one another's work. I have had "good" and "bad" workshop experiences, but for me whenever race comes up, it feels, somehow, traumatic. While most issues in workshop are presented as universal to story, race can come off as a burden personal to writers of color.
The Burden Of Craft
Here is a not uncommon experience. Writer Emily X.R. Pan was told by the white writers in her workshop that the racism in her story could never happen — though every incident had happened to her.
A writer might object that "it happened in real life" is a poor argument for why something should be depicted in fiction. On a craft level, the story should make it seem possible to ride one's bike 100 miles overnight or help deliver a baby on an airplane. But that is an argument for particular story context: introducing a character who often rides his bike long distances, for example.
A critique of race and racism is more often a case of the class questioning what happens because of the context of their lives. It is a critique that wears the pretense of craft, but what it is really doing is saying that a common experience needs to be treated as particular and unusual. As particular and unusual as the bike or baby example.
A similar but different criticism occurs when a writer is told that her portrayal of minority characters isn't different enough. A woman in my program has been told that her stories need to be more ethnic, that readers should be able to smell the food.
Writer Jackson Bliss describes an experience when a Pakistani writer spoke up in defense of a Desi character Bliss had written, and "the workshop rejected his comments and then spoke over him. Think about that for a second," Bliss writes, "a group of mostly white writers telling a hapa writer and a Pakistani writer what was culturally authentic and culturally permissible ... about nonwhite people."
What happens when the workshop pits a person of color's lived experience against a white perspective of how that experience should read on the page? For a writer of color, the defense of one's work can quickly become a defense of the self.
The Burden Of Speaking Up
Writers of color are also asked to offer up their voices solely because of their race. Another of my fellow Ph.D.s complained to me once about what happened after a talk at her MFA program. The talk included offensive comments about African-Americans. Afterward, one of her professors asked why my friend hadn't spoken up. The [white] professor had been waiting for a black student to say something.
The kind of responsibility that professor called for is not a right, it's a role. And even if my friend had played it, speaking up about race can have real negative consequences.
Author David Mura writes in the Kartika Review that "if the student of color persists in making [race-based] critiques, she will find herself increasingly isolated socially and shunned in various ways by the other students and professors in the department — and this may very well also include other professors of color (who will often feel that their own position in the department is quite precarious and open to challenge)."
More diversity in a workshop does not necessarily change the dynamic. It is difficult for writers of color even to come to each other's defense. In Pan's workshop, the other writers of color stayed silent. I understand this silence. The more I see race become a burden, the harder it is to speak up.
The Burden Of Rules
So what is the solution? xoJane writer Sarah Seltzer suggests: "A writing workshop should always begin with this addition to the rules: 'If you approach a word, a phrase, an idea or a cultural reference that is unfamiliar to you, it's your job as a reader to figure it out from context or look it up.' ... The reader's unschooled ignorance becomes the burden, not the writer's 'exotic' references."
I wonder. Even as an instructor, I have had the experience of having to tread carefully around race. I've had a writer submit a story about an Irish musician pissed off that an Asian musician dare play the fiddle in an Irish bar. The story ended with the Irishman proving himself better by actually touching the audience's hearts. I read this story expecting some moment of empathy when the protagonist would rise above associating fiddle-playing ability with ethnicity, or at least fail spectacularly in a way that was clear to the reader, but neither ever happened. The class waited to see how I would respond. I approached the story on the level of craft.
I hate to use student examples in negative, but I want to say that I have been on the teaching side, and the conversation is no less difficult for workshop leaders of color. The instructor/student power dynamic is set against the minority/majority power dynamic. I felt burdened with speaking up as a person of color, and I fell back on the safer burden of craft.
Being vocal about race in the classroom, with which I am less and less comfortable, often brings to mind bell hooks's essay, "Killing Rage." When hooks speaks out, she's just as easily dismissed as when she doesn't. She's invisible when she cries. People of color often believe that there are safe places and that academia is one of them. But I find that academia is sometimes even more a place where race is dismissed or invisible or regarded with suspicion. In an intellectual arena, the rock and the hard place people of color are put in is the place between silence and killing rage, a place where it hurts to keep quiet and it can hurt your career to speak up. It is a place determined by the majority context, where either choice is self-defense.
Matthew Salesses (@salesses) has written about adoption, race and family for the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Good Men Project, The Rumpus, Hyphen Magazine, and elsewhere. His most recent book is a novel, I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying.
In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird, won the Pulitzer Prize, and overnight became one of America's most beloved writers. But Lee was overwhelmed by the media blitz that followed. She retreated from the public eye, became wary of journalists, and never published another book.
Then, in 2001, a reporter for The Chicago Tribune showed up in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala., to work on a story about the town, which is the model for the fictional setting of Lee's novel.
The reporter, Marja Mills, struck up a friendship with Lee's older sister Alice, who was then 89 years old. The sisters lived together and, through Alice, Mills eventually met Harper Lee (or Nelle Harper, as she's known in town).
In 2004, Mills moved into a rented house next door to the Lees and got to know the sisters and their friends in town over the course of 18 months.
Now, Mills has published a book about her time with the Lees, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.
However, Lee, now 88, has issued a statement saying she did not willingly participate or authorize it, as she said in 2011 when the publisher bought the book. Mills says the book was reported with the full knowledge and agreement of both sisters and says she was surprised by the resistance.
"Things have been happening around them, I would say. I just know that [the book is] true to the spirit of the time that I spent with them," Mills tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "These are smart women who were clear with me."
Mills emphasizes that her book is a memoir, not a biography.
"So this doesn't examine every part of [Lee's] life beginning to end," she says. "It's really more a chance for readers to have this extraordinary experience, which was what it felt like to sit at the kitchen table having coffee with Nelle Harper and talking about Truman Capote and literature."
On first meeting Harper Lee
The phone rang in my little room at the Best Western motel on the outskirts of Monroeville, and I picked it up. "Hello?"
"Miss Mills, this is Harper Lee. You've made quite an impression on Miss Alice; I wonder if we might meet."
She had said this will be for a visit, not an interview, so I knew this was not this interview with Harper Lee that people had been seeking all those years. ...
It was thrilling and ... it was just unnerving not knowing what to expect.
And I remember it was a bright day and it was dark in this little motel room, and just kind of blinking into the light and seeing a woman who I thought looked practical in every regard. She had short hair, kept it trimmed straight across her forehead, big glasses. Looked very sort of sturdy and practical, and welcoming.
On whether the nature of the book changed when Harper Lee denounced it as unauthorized
Well, this was never gonna be a biography, but this is the book that [the Lee sisters] very much helped me shape. And [Harper Lee] was very clear. She would say to me, "Now you put that in there," meaning put that in the book. Or, "Now that's off the record," and she knew I would respect that. ...
I didn't feel entitled to more than she wanted to tell me.
Where would you go, if you had a time machine? Ancient Egypt? Tang Dynasty China? The Globe Theater, in 1599? Or maybe to the 25th century, because who knows, Buck Rogers might actually be there.
Sadly, no one's likely to invent a working time machine any time soon. But that hasn't stopped the legions of writers who've been exploring time travel ever since H. G. Wells described his first Morlock. Slips and drops and nets and projections and paradoxes — writers have thought up a hundred ways to travel backwards and forwards in time. And that's one of the great things about literary time travel: the way every writer seems to invent the mechanism all over again, every time they put pen to paper.
"We can actually do whatever we want," says science fiction author Connie Willis. She's won all kinds of awards for her tales of time-traveling historians — like Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. Willis says the best thing about time travel is no one's invented it yet — so it can be whatever you want.
"You know, you can change history or not change history, you can go as an observer, you can go where you actually become part of the past and help fulfill history, it's pretty limitless."
Well, within reason — don't go stepping on any ancient butterflies, or accidentally shooting your own grandfather. You don't want to cause a paradox. "The trickiest part of writing time travel is the paradoxes," Willis says, "because the truth is, you know, we can't go back in time, one of the reasons is, just by being there we would change things, you know, so that's what you spend most of your time doing!"
Avoiding paradoxes is especially tricky for Willis, who's generally keeping track of multiple characters jumping around to different points in time. "And I have to remember, that happened earlier, but later, and hasn't happened yet — and I usually end up writing angry notes to myself at the head of every page: she still thinks he's a murderer!"
Unlike Willis's historians, I can't go back in time — but I can do the next best thing, which is to visit Readercon, a speculative fiction convention that happens every year in Boston. If anyone knows about time travel literature, it's these folks. In fact, this year they held an entire panel devoted to time travel. Panel moderator — and occasional NPR contributor — K. Tempest Bradford is working on a time travel novel herself, "basically doing Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with time travel instead of shipwrecks," she says.
Part of the appeal of time travel, Bradford adds, is the lure of experiencing other times and places. But it's also a chance for a cosmic do-over. "I know that if I were to travel back in time, I might warn some people that they shouldn't do this or that thing, or they should maybe be careful who they trade blankets with."
Writer, bookseller and Readercon attendee Leah Bobet says the past is fascinating because it's the one place we can't go, "and there are so many ways time travel stories both question and reinforce the past-is-past paradigm. And so it's grappling with regret, it's learning to emotionally deal with the consequences of the one thing we can't really undo."
It tends to be the past that people talk about, when they talk about time travel. "And that's interesting," says Bobet, "because the future is always coming. The future's coming whether you like it or not, second by second by second — the past is never coming again."
Unless, of course, you have a time machine — and that brings us to the quintessential time traveler's dilemma: Assuming you could get to Berlin in 1937, should you kill Hitler? "Oh yeah," says Connie Willis. "That's the dilemma of time travel, is that no event is unconnected to every other event. And so you could bring about something much worse. Except that Hitler was so bad and so unique, I have a tendency to think that given the chance, yeah. You betcha."
Personally, I might go back to Sarajevo in 1914 and slip Gavrilo Princip a knockout drop instead. If I had a time machine.