Picks and Pans Review: Listening to America
National Public Radio, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, may be the closest thing we have to hearing stories whispered round the campfire or to ambling down to the town square for gossip and a word of breaking news. So it's no surprise that this collection of stories, culled by Wertheimer, the host of NPR's All Things Considered, from the past quarter century of NPR reportage, offers a vivid, informal history of American culture. Beginning with a chaotic report from a May Day 1971 clash between police and students protesting the Vietnam War, Listening to America explores such subjects as Watergate, Patty Hearst, Jonestown, the rise of feminism, Cabbage Patch dolls, the Reagan years, AIDS and Prozac.
What makes these pieces feel fresh are the honest human responses captured at moments of crisis. For example, a woman upon hearing of John Lennon's 1980 murder says, "I feel like a friend of mine has died." Or the anguished conversations with Morton Thiokol engineers who had repeatedly warned NASA that their rocket seals could malfunction if the space shuttle Challenger tried to lift off in 30-degree weather. (Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, killing everyone on board. NPR broke the engineers' story nearly a month later.)
But all is not tragedy, and mixed into the collection are wonderful comic reports like cartoonist Lynda Barry's discussion of love: "Cupid is a monster from hell...if a red baby flew into the room and aimed an arrow at you, you would know instantly that there is some kind of malicious intent." And how. So keep your head down but buy this wonderful book. (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95)