The debut novel from writer Anthony Marra happens to be set in a world that most of us only have conjectures about. In "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," Marra transports readers to Chechnya, a war-torn Russian republic that has long sought independence.
The lyrical and heart-breaking novel begins in 2004 when eight-year-old Havaa watches Russian rebels abduct her father, accused of aiding Chechen rebels, in the middle of the night. The little girl is later rescued by her neighbor, who colludes with another doctor to eventually form an unlikely family amid the daily violence.
"It's a novel about people who are trying to transcend the hardships of their circumstances by saving others," Marra tells All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden.
On the inspiration for his novel
"I began reading various histories and journalistic accounts of the region and quickly became fascinated with it. It's a region that's inspired writers like Tolstoy and Lermontov and Pushkin. It was really these stories though of ordinary people trying to retain their humanity despite the vast geopolitical forces attempting to strip them up that really moved me deeply."
On Chechens trying to make sense of the world around them
"I think that one of the natural impulses to destruction is creation. When I was in Chechnya, I met a man there named Adam and he has spent the past 20 years building this replica of the village he grew up in...he dug irrigation canals, he dug a lake, he spent several years searching for the exact boulder to create this strange museum, this salvaged lost world that was partially based on his childhood village and partially based on this idyllic image of a Chechen past he had in his mind."
On the origin of his title
"I was flipping through a medical dictionary and I came across this definition for life, it was a 'constellation for vital phenomenon,' and the sub-entry was organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction and adaption. And as life is structured as a constellation of these six phenomena, the novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters as they run from, and search for, and collide with, and ultimately find one another."
In the classic American story, opportunity is always in front of you. You finish school, find a job, buy a home and start a family; it's a rosy dreamscape.
But that world is one-dimensional. Income inequality is just about as American as baseball and apple pie. And though the economy has improved in the past few years, the unemployment rate for black Americans, now 13.2 percent, is about double that for white Americans.
Persistent unemployment and difficulty getting a job cumulatively impact the so-called wealth gap. Wealth or net worth is defined as a person's total assets — such as bank and retirement accounts, stocks and home value — minus debt. It's what families lean on in a downturn.
In 1984, the wealth gap between blacks and whites was less than $100,000, according to a study out of Brandeis University. That number has since tripled.
"The wealth gap is really where history shows up in your wallet," says Heather McGhee, vice president of policy and outreach at the public policy group Demos. McGhee has spent a lot of time looking at these numbers and what it means for families.
While student loan debt is at record numbers across the board, McGhee says, black college graduates are twice as likely to have student loan debt as their white counterparts, who often use their statistically higher wealth to pay for college and take on less debt.
"It means a difference between the African-American graduate coming out, graduating into a recession ... [and] having to start paying down her student loans," McGhee tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "Whereas her white classmate actually doesn't and is able to get a job faster."
While it is hard for anyone to educate or work their way into the middle class these days, McGhee says, it is twice as hard for blacks.
She says an uptick in GDP growth doesn't mean that working- and middle-class families are struggling to get by any less. She advocates for something more substantial, like going back to a debt-free college system.
"We created the greatest middle class the world has ever seen ... but by saying, 'We as a country are investing in you,' " she says. "That's what we have to do for today's young generation that is more diverse and is less likely to come from inherited wealth."
Tough Times In Great Lakes State
Michigan has the highest rate of unemployment among black Americans in the country. Nearly 1 in 5 blacks there — 18.7 percent — is out of work.
That's about more than twice the rate for whites in the state, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
On a recent day, 58-year-old Joan Knox was at the Urban League of Detroit, taking part in the group's Mature Worker Program. There she gets computer training while earning a small wage.
Even that small wage has been a godsend for Knox, who has been out of full-time work for more than a decade. At one time she ran her own small business, providing housekeeping and catering services. Then the auto industry collapsed and factories started laying off workers and closing.
"I lost a lot of my clients — the majority — so there went my business because they couldn't afford me," Knox says.
Since then, Knox has subsisted on some small jobs here and there, mostly part-time work. Even when she landed a job at one of the local stadiums, she says, she never got more than 20 hours a week.
"It was quite frustrating," she says.
Knox says she gained a lot of weight and her hair started falling out because she was worried she was "going to be on the streets or knocking on the doors of the shelters."
The mature worker program ends soon, and Knox, who lives with her sister, still desperately needs a job. She'd like to be an executive assistant so she can apply her skills.
"I'm great at multitasking [and] I'm great at making people feel good about themselves," she says. "You know I've gone through it. I didn't know I had it in me, so now I'm finding it's something I can market."
Knox has been trying to spread the word to make that happen. Even if she's just chatting with people on a bus, she lets them know she's looking for a job, what she can do and gives them her contact information in the hope she'll hear from them.
"Each time a door gets closed or the phone never rings or you never get a response back to an email, it's quite frustrating," she says. "And emotionally, it does sort of tear you down and keep you down a bit."
Out Of The Network
Even a hustle like Joan Knox's may not be enough to make up the enduring unemployment gap for black Americans.
"Whites disproportionally hold the best jobs, the jobs with the highest incomes, and we still live in a quite segregated society," says Rutgers Business School professor Nancy DiTomaso. She says deep-seated and unconscious favoritism plays a strong role.
In research for her book The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism, DiTomaso began by interviewing several hundred white people from across the country about their job histories.
She found that about 70 percent of the jobs they had held over their lives were obtained thanks to some kind of inside edge or outside help, like a friend tipping them off to an open position or putting in a good word for them.
"It raises questions about people who may not be part of those kinds of networks," DiTomaso tells Lyden. "So when there are opportunities to pass along they are passed along primarily to whites."
DiTomaso says that one of the consequences of people finding a job this way is that they do not think of themselves as participating or contributing to the reproduction of racial inequality. Many of those whom she interviewed, despite receiving significant help in their careers, felt they'd gotten where they were from hard work alone.
"It does seem that there is a public policy issue to be addressed when people are passing along jobs that really don't belong to them," she says.
The Economic Policy Institute finds that the black unemployment rate in every state is projected to remain higher than the overall rate at least through the end of the year.
The Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody wasn't your typical Broadway musical; It was about a group of Texans trying to win a new truck at a local dealership.
Actor Keith Carradine played JD Drew, one of the contestants. Though the show closed in April after just 56 performances, Carradine received rave reviews and a Tony nomination for best actor.
It's not the first nomination for the 63-year-old, who's been acting on Broadway for decades in shows like Hair, and The Will Rogers Follies.
Carradine is a part of acting royalty; his father John and his brother David were both famous actors. He's been acting steadily for decades, both on film and on TV. One of his most famous TV roles in recent years was as Wild Bill Hickok on the HBO TV show, Deadwood.
But Carradine is also a musician. He won an Academy Award for best original song for "I'm Easy," a song that he wrote for Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville - at age 19.
He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden that winning the award was a life-changing event.
How winning the Academy Award changed his career
"Well, I was on the A list. For about six months. One has to understand that in our business, that kind of bright, shining moment tends to fade rather quickly. It can be a shock to the system when you suddenly realize how quickly people might forget, but it put me into a position to be introduced to and be in the room with some extraordinary people. And some of those encounters led to a lot of what I'm proudest of about the career that I've had and the kinds of people with whom I've had the opportunity to work."
What it was like to play Wild Bill Hickok on Deadwood
"It was an actor's gift. You know, it was one of these things that we actors, this is what we crave. All I want is to be able to speak words of poetry and those occasions are rare and when you get a chance to be involved in something like that, you soak up every second."
How he was drawn to the role of JD Drew by a song
"That's the first thing I heard when I was introduced to this show ... I heard that song, and I said, 'Ah, yeah, I have to do this. I just have to do this.'
"That song so spoke to me when I heard it, because it's kind of my experience of America. As I've driven across this country over the years, you know, I've watched this kind of homogenization of our culture take place. We're losing the individual feeling for places because of everything becoming the same, everywhere you go. And there's that beautiful line: 'If it looks the same everywhere you go, how do you know when you've gotten home?' It's a great song."
A massive storm system has dumped more than 10 inches of rain over San Antonio, leaving the Texas city flooded and at a standstill.
Texas Public Radio's Ryan Loyd reports the area is still under a flash flood emergency. Ryan filed this report for our Newscast unit:
"Some people didn't have time to make it to safety in rain drenched San Antonio. A woman died when raging flood waters swept her away in her car. So much rain fell that it floated a city bus. Major highways are completely submerged.
"Lightning strikes started home fires, and an apartment roof collapsed because of water on top of the building.
"Mayor Julian Castro is urging people to stay inside because more rain is expected.
"'We want folks to stay home, if at all possible, and if they do drive, then to observe these low water warnings and to use common sense,' Castro said.
"Even though San Antonio is no stranger to flash flooding, this is the second wettest rain event in a single day, with only the flood of 1998 topping it."
"No one was injured but the losses are likely to be great as residents described water levels that poured through their house windows, swallowed up trucks and was chin-high," the paper reports.
It was cold and rainy today in Boston. Still, thousands of runners laced up their shoes and headed to Kenmore Square.
That's the site of the final mile marker for the Boston Marathon. On April 15, when two bombs exploded near the finish line, thousands of runners could not finish the most illustrious road race in the world.
Today, thousands tried to remedy that with a one-mile run that covered the final stretch of the Boston Marathon. J. Alain Ferry, who organized the One Run, told New England Cable News, it was their chance to "to run that final mile, stolen from us."
That means athletes joined spectators, runners, the injured and those who didn't have the opportunity to finish in a do-over of the final mile of the Boston Marathon.
Kyle Shade, 26, crossed the finish line carrying the Chinese flag. He told us the before the race began, race organizers were asking for a volunteer to run with the flag in honor of Lu Lingzi, one of the three spectators who were killed in the blasts.
"I walked up and volunteered to help show that she is just as part of Boston as anyone else," Shade said.
He said people were moved by today's run. But it wasn't all sadness. He said that as he got closer to Copley Square, the street got louder. Spectators — "probably more spectators than runners" — shouted their support and they banged on their cow bells.
"It was a mixed emotion," Shade said, "some sadness and a lot of relief. I think it brought a lot of closure to a lot of people."
Shade did get to finish the Boston Marathon on April 15. He finished at 3:36:51, a good 30 minutes before the first blast. But he wanted to be there today to support others and find some closure himself.
He said the run also sends a message.
"We'll keep running," he said. "There's nothing they can do to stop Boston."