Ari Shapiro

In books and movies, a monster is often more than just a monster. Maybe it represents anxiety, or corruption, or the id — all of which are themes that slither under the surface of Sarah Perry's new book, The Essex Serpent. Set in England at the end of the 19th century, "it's about the return of a mythical beast that's menacing the local villages," Perry tells me.

alt-J has risen to music stardom while playfully disregarding many rules of popular music. Over its past two albums, An Awesome Wave and This is All Yours, the British trio has displayed a taste for the unpredictable and unconventional. And now, the forthcoming album Relaxer features two different songs that include counting in Japanese, a cover of a classic folk song with a veritable orchestra of classical guitarists and hardly any tracks under five minutes in length.

Mike and Amy Mills are a father-daughter team from southern Illinois.

Mike was trained as a dental technician. "I made false teeth — crowns, bridges, partials — this type of thing. It's what I did as a trade," he recalls. "Later on, I started barbecuing just for the fun of doing it."

And that's what made him famous.

A wooden puzzle in the silhouette of a human head might look fun if the stakes weren't so high.

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn each spent time in bands that never made it big. But when the two of them joined up to create Sylvan Esso, everything changed. They started filling up high-profile music venues, became famous internationally and almost immediately started to feel pressure to make magic a second time. Now, three years after the band's debut, Sylvan Esso has a sophomore album, out Friday. The name of the record, What Now, offers some insight into how Meath and Sanborn felt making it.

Two years ago, life was good for Sheryl Sandberg. The Facebook senior executive and mother of two had a best-selling book (Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead) and she and her husband, Dave Goldberg, decided to take a vacation. But on that vacation, Goldberg collapsed at the gym from heart failure and died. He was 47 years old.

Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell met in college, and their friendship grew into a sisterhood. Today they share the stage together as the band Overcoats, singing in tight harmonies with voices that are nearly indistinguishable.

"I think we did feel a magic when we sang together," Mitchell says. "We could tell that our voices just sort of blended in this very crazy way, and kind of cradled one another.

Throughout the day, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff jots down ideas that strike him as funny: A door lies on a couch in a psychiatrist's office, and the psychiatrist says, "You're not crazy, you're just unhinged." Or, two guys crawling through a desert encounter one of those orange cones that says: "Caution Wet Floor."

For a man obsessed with humor, Mankoff found the perfect job — he's served for 20 years as the magazine's cartoon gatekeeper. He's stepping down from his post in May, but will continue to draw his own cartoons.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C, has many artifacts connected to slavery. For one woman, visiting the museum this week was a literal homecoming.

Isabell Meggett Lucas was born and raised in a wooden house in coastal South Carolina. Slaves lived in that house during the 1800s.

The Smithsonian bought the structure and moved it plank by plank to the new African-American museum where it is now on display.

The HBO series The Leftovers explores grief, loss, religion and even the meaning of life. It's set a few years after an event sort of like the rapture, in which 2 percent of the world's population suddenly vanishes. The Leftovers doesn't try to explain why people disappeared; instead, it focuses on those who got left behind and how they try to make sense of the world.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's beloved American novel The Great Gatsby is about the messiness of chasing the American dream. But author Stephanie Powell Watts says something about the book left her unsatisfied.

"I loved it when I was a kid and read it for the first time. ... But subsequent readings, I felt like I'm seeing other things. I'm seeing all of these black characters — never thought about them before. I'm seeing the women and the tiny, tiny roles that they have in the book, and I want them to speak. I want to hear what they have to say."

Here's an update on a story that NPR started following almost two years ago in Izmir, Turkey, a city on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. That's where NPR's Ari Shapiro first met a teacher from Syria — a father in his early 30s named Monzer al-Omar.

Omar had been in Izmir for a week, waiting for a phone call from a human smuggler who would put him onto a crowded raft heading for Greece. Once the call came, Omar said, he would have just five minutes to gather his belongings, run to the beach, get on a raft and go.

Every recent president has promised to innovate the way government works, and this week, the Trump administration announced its plan to do the same.

The initiative is called the White House Office of American Innovation. Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, will lead a team that includes business executives with little or no government experience. The Trump team says its agenda includes "modernizing government services" and "creating transformational infrastructure projects."

Jerry Miller spent more than 25 years behind bars for kidnapping, rape and robbery — crimes he didn't commit.

Miller was released from prison in 2006. In 2007, after decades of insisting he was innocent, Miller was finally vindicated: He became the 200th American to be cleared by DNA evidence of a wrongful conviction. Today, that number is closer to 350.

La Vida Boheme plays upbeat music on somber themes. The Venezuelan rockers' last album, Será, came as student protests were erupting in their home town of Caracas. The band's booking agent was murdered; their tour manager was kidnapped. The four members of the group locked themselves inside their apartments. They would later describe the record, which won a Latin Grammy, as "the soundtrack to an apocalypse."

When it comes to depictions of grief, comedian Patton Oswalt says pop culture failed him. Just look at super heroes, he says — their motivation is often rooted in loss that "leads them to travel the world learning martial arts and doing CrossFit and getting really cut," Oswalt says. "And that's not been my experience."

Oswalt experienced his own tragic loss on April 21, 2016, when his wife, writer Michelle McNamara, died unexpectedly, leaving behind Oswalt, and their young daughter, Alice.

Georgetown, Texas, is a conservative town in a conservative state. So it may come as something of a surprise that it's one of the first cities in America to be entirely powered by renewable energy.

Mayor Dale Ross, a staunch Republican who attended President Trump's inauguration, says that decision came down to a love of green energy and "green rectangles" — cash.

Keggie Carew's father, Tom Carew, was once known as "Lawrence of Burma" and "the Mad Irishman," and in her new book, Dadland, we find out why:

Carew's father was part of the Jedburghs, an elite British unit established during World War II. Carew had heard stories about her father's war years, but she was never sure how much to believe until she went to a Jedburgh reunion with him. There, she learned that they were trained in everything from setting mines and neutralizing booby traps to silent killing and night parachuting.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Sweeney Todd is a piece of theater that should make you lose your appetite. The grisly musical by Stephen Sondheim tells the story of a demonic barber whose clients become the filling for meat pies. Many productions leave the stage soaked in blood.

In the waning years of the Civil War, advertisements like this began appearing in newspapers around the country:

"INFORMATION WANTED By a mother concerning her children.

All Things Considered co-host Ari Shapiro is on a road trip leading up to the inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20. He is driving through North Carolina and Virginia, on the way to Washington, D.C. These are two swing states that went in opposite directions in November, each by a close margin: North Carolina for Trump, Virginia for Hillary Clinton. As the country faces dramatic changes, we're asking people what they want from that change — and what concerns them.

Last year, NPR's Ari Shapiro visited Toledo, Ohio, to talk to refugees settling there from Syria's civil war. Recently, he returned to Toledo to check in on the community.

Mohammed Al Refaai is a 23-year-old butcher who fled Syria. He lives in Toledo, Ohio, with three other guys, who are also in their 20s, who decided they wouldn't mind having a refugee for a roommate.

Last year, NPR's Ari Shapiro visited Toledo, Ohio, to talk to refugees settling there from Syria's civil war. Recently, he returned to Toledo to check in on the community.

When we first met Omar Al-Awad and his family in the fall of 2015, they were among the newest refugee families from Syria settling in to life in Toledo, Ohio.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Solange Knowles created an album of self-healing, family healing and ancestral healing, but it ended up being her most commercially successful to date. A Seat At The Table is NPR Music's No. 1 album of 2016, which is a good reason to hear her November interview with Ari Shapiro again.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In this season of indulgence (and overindulgence), some people will turn to the treadmill, while others turn to the Pepto-Bismol. Author Brad Thomas Parsons will reach for the bottle — specifically, a bottle full of a liqueur called amaro, which people have used as a digestive aid for centuries.

It's an herbal recipe, and "it's actually bittersweet," Parsons says.

"The bittering agents in it are actually helping your digestive system," he explains. "Four out of five doctors may not agree with everything that's working in there, but trust me."

By the time a group of high school students showed up at Richard Moss' home in 1980, he was an old man in his 80s.

He was a master of shape-note singing — a remarkable old style of music he learned from his elders, who learned it from their elders in the mountains of northern Georgia.

The students wanted to document the tradition for their magazine, Foxfire.

Pages