Scott Simon

The dreamscape of California has looked like a hellscape this week. California, America's Golden State — "Warm, palmy air — air you can kiss ..." wrote Jack Kerouac — has had choking air, scalding heat and surreal orange skies.

California has been the dreamland of so many who hope to strike it rich or start over, a state of mind, as well as a state: a place for fresh starts, freeways and free love.

Gifty tells first dates her job is to get mice hooked on cocaine. She's joking — she actually gets mice addicted to a nutrition drink, which is cheaper. Her mother, from Ghana, lives with her, but mostly under the covers.

Punching the Air is a novel in verse about a 16-year-old boy, Amal, with a budding artistic talent and promising future, who is put away in prison for throwing a punch. But in a way, was he put away before that, by an uncaring and prejudiced system?

Yusef Salaam, who has become a noted educator and activist after spending more than six years in prison for his wrongful conviction in what was known as the Central Park jogger case, wrote the book with author Ibi Zoboi.

The new novel A Room Called Earth opens with a young woman as she gets ready for a holiday party in Melbourne, Australia.

Getting ready takes 17 chapters. And every detail has a reason for being. As the narrator tells us, "My inner processes can be visceral to the point of being completely illusory, and absurd."

Kathleen Edwards had devoted fans and a successful career, with hits on the Billboard Top 40 charts and songwriting awards. But after her last album in 2012, she walked away from the music business. In fact, she opened a cafe in the suburbs of Ottawa, Canada, called Quitters Coffee.

The series Upright opens with a man hauling an upright piano in a trailer across the bare Australian landscape. He's frazzled and alone at the wheel, guzzling beer and gobbling pills. He gets a text message: "Mate. Time is running out. Don't duck this up."

Ah, spell-check.

Then he drives into a ditch, hears his piano bleat, and the shouts of an angry, profane 16-year-old he's just run into. Upright is the story of two strangers, Lucky and Meg, who take off across the expanse of Australia, scheming, swearing, pilfering, and becoming vital to each other.

Nate Marshall has a new collection of poems. It's called Finna, and he says the title of this new book comes from the Southern phrase "fixing to, right, which is like 'about to.' One of the things that I love about that, and that is a kind of central thing in the book, is it's all about what happens next. It's this thing that is informed by history, but that is all about looking forward, all about possibility. That's sort of what I hope the poems do, is that they I hope they sort of wrestle with history, but also look forward."

In the first frames of the documentary, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme, you glimpse a group of charming young men at a New York bus stop in 2005; they're beat-boxing and rapping to amuse a little girl. They shout across the street to a friend, Lin-Manuel Miranda. As he dodges cars to dash across the street, you realize: A key figure in show business history almost got run over.

Remember Utopia Avenue? Elf, their keyboardist and singer — a voice from the clouds. Dean, the bluesy Cockney bass virtuoso. Griff on the drums — who didn't love gruff Griff? And of course, the peerless Jasper de Zoet, shredding, I mean shredding the guitar.

Their great hits — "Abandon Hope," "Smithereens," "Mona Lisa Sings the Blues" — propelled Utopia Avenue from seedy Soho clubs to Top of the Pops, and then America in the enchanted times of bell bottoms, the Beatles, drugs, sex, and street protests. Remember?

July 4th is U.S. Independence Day. But D.L. Hughley, the comedian and author, suggests in his new book that all U.S. holidays "be put on a probationary period to ascertain their relevance and value to All Americans, acknowledging that days off are nice and that mattress sales must occur ..."

His book, co-written with Doug Moe of the Upright Citizens Brigade, is Surrender, White People! Our Unconditional Terms for Peace.

Rowing crew got Arshay Cooper away from the gang life on Chicago's West Side in the 1990s.

In A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team, he tells the story of how he, and others from rival neighborhoods, found their way to crew — and each other.

Now, Cooper is an accomplished chef in New York — and he works to convince other kids to find an outlet in crew. His forthcoming book has been turned into a documentary narrated by Common.

When actor Matthew Rhys first found out about plans to reboot the legal drama Perry Mason his first question was: Why?

"Why would you? How can you?" says Rhys, who stars in the new HBO show.

This Perry Mason is no rerun of your grandfather's Perry Mason from the 1960s. He's not a sharply creased L.A. defense lawyer, with a voice that booms in wood-paneled courtrooms.

No, this is "a very dark Perry Mason to which I was instantly very attracted," Rhys says.

Novelist Roddy Doyle is not an autobiographical writer, but he does acknowledge: "The characters have been getting older as I get older."

In his latest novel, Love, Joe and Davy are two old friends who meet at a Dublin pub for a night of reconnecting and hard drinking. Joe has a burning secret; Davy has a concealed sorrow.

Writing older characters, means "the angle at which I'm looking at the world changes," Doyle says. "There's a lot more looking back than looking forward."

Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee's new film, follows five friends who shed blood, sweat, and tears together in the 1st Infantry Division during the Vietnam War — and who return, after 50 years, to bring home the body of a fallen friend, and perhaps a treasure buried with him.

But is the treasure true riches, just reparations, or a curse?

Ted Turner and Daniel Schorr: Doesn't sound like a likely match, does it?

The Mouth of the South, as Ted Turner was called, and Murrow Boy Dan Schorr — one was on President Nixon's Enemies List when he covered the Watergate investigations for CBS. The other made some of his own worst enemies with, well, intemperate remarks.

Megha Majumdar's debut novel, A Burning, is set in modern-day Kolkata, India, and suddenly sounds breathlessly contemporary in the United States, too — a landscape of lockdowns, curfews, fires, and anguished posts on the internet.

It begins with a young woman named Jivan, scrolling through social media accounts of a gruesome terrorist attack near her neighborhood: flaming torches thrown into the windows of a halted train, its doors locked from the outside.

Rutger Bregman begins his new book Humankind: A Hopeful History with what he calls this "radical idea" that most people deep down are pretty decent.

Bregman is a historian and writer for The Correspondent in the Netherlands and author of the previous bestseller Utopia for Realists.

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Jerry Seinfeld says he's "adjusted pretty comfortably" to his new life in quarantine.

"I think there's something to be said for not socializing," he tells Weekend Edition. "It's kind of a rest for your face and your fake emotions and your repeating the same stories."

Seinfeld's new standup special, 23 Hours to Kill, starts streaming May 5 on Netflix.

He jokes in the special: "I could be anywhere in the world right now. Now you be honest. If you were me, would you be up here hacking out another one of these?"

Author and bookstore owner Emma Straub's new novel reminds us how lives can change in an instant — not that we may need that reminder too much right now.

All Adults Here is a modern family saga of three generations thrown together, whether they like it or not — and a lot of the time, they don't. It begins with a bang, when Astrid Strick sees a lifelong friend she'd never much liked get hit and killed by an empty, speeding school bus. And at the age of 68 she realizes — as she tells her children — that "there are always more school buses."

Humans came from dust, says Ecclesiastes.

But writer Bonnie Tsui reminds us that humankind also once sprang from — and still seeks — water.

Why do we swim? Tsui takes us from ponds to pools to surfers, racers and a few who have survived icy currents, seeking the answer in her new book, Why We Swim.

Interview Highlights

On the story of Iceland's Guðlaugur Friðþórsson

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Lots of writers have said, in lots of ways, that an unhappy childhood made them writers.

Sopan Deb had a childhood in suburban New Jersey that doesn't sound unhappy — more like he was often unhappy with his parents: Bishakha, his mother, and his father, Shyamal. And his parents were almost always unhappy with each other. They had an arranged marriage, but Deb calls them mismatched souls.

Our world has problems.

But have you heard about the planets of the Interdependency? The collapse of the Flow is at hand — that interstellar pathway of commerce between those inhabited orbs governed by the Interdependency.

Emperox Grayland II has to fight off a coup while her inamorato — or however it's said in the Interdependency — eminent physicist Lord Marce Claremont, tries to figure out how to halt the collapse of a whole system of planets and save the worlds. Note the "s."

Julia Alvarez has written what she calls her first novel as "an elder."

"It took a while to sort of process this stage of life that I'm in," she says. "And you know, what are the stories that I can tell now, from the hindsight and the insights that I've gained that is different. And you have to, you know, learn that."

The author of beloved and bestselling novels for adults and children, including How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, has brought out her first novel for adults in a decade and a half.

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Let's ask Samantha Irby to introduce herself, with a passage from her new book, Wow, No Thank You: "I occasionally write jokes on the Internet for free because I'm the last person on Earth who still has a blog," she reads.

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