From New York State: Science, Fiction and Bar Yarns

Bill Jaker

Off the Page host Bill Jaker is co-author of The Airwaves of New York, the first comprehensive history of radio in the New York City area. hide caption

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We polled NPR member stations, looking for shows and personalities with a passion for the writers in — and the writing about — their home territories. When we found them, we asked what they were reading.

From first-time, self-published authors to Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, Off the Page celebrates the writers in the upstate New York area served by WSKG-FM — a region that stretches from the Catskills to the Finger Lakes and into northeastern Pennsylvania.

Launched in January 2000, the live call-in program is produced and hosted by Bill Jaker. The broadcast historian and 22-year WSKG veteran reports that so far, his audience has responded most enthusiastically to a show on The Wrong Word Dictionary, a compendium of confusable terms from Owego, N.Y., author Dave Dowling. It was "a solid hour of literate listeners concerned about matters exceptional and exceptionable," Jaker says.

As summer's shadows lengthen, Jaker looks to these books, all of them by authors who've been featured on Off the Page:

Arguing for Evolution, Without Being a Beast About It

Evolution for Everyone: Book Cover
Evolution for Everyone, by David Sloan Wilson, hardcover, 400 pages

Darwin's Theory of Evolution has been provocative ever since it was propounded, even as it provided a framework for fuller understanding of the natural world. Debate in our own time over the apparent conflict with certain religious beliefs has brought evolution back into the spotlight. A new book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, sets forth basic evolutionary principles in clear terms while striving to harmonize evolution and religion in a noncontroversial manner. (Read an excerpt and listen to a passage.) The author is Dr. David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University. It is a follow-up to his book Darwin's Cathedral and an outgrowth of an interdisciplinary university program that brings together science and the humanities.

'Later, at the Bar': Lonely, Lusty and Slightly Soused

Later at the Bar: Book Cover
Later, at the Bar, by Rebecca Barry, hardcover, 240 pages

Later, at the Bar is a novel-in-stories, a literary genre of growing popularity in which the chapters can stand on their own but are unified by character, theme and setting. In this case, the characters are forlorn men and women — even some children, though they don't hang out at the local tavern, yet — and the theme is the search for enduring love among individuals shackled to their own faults and foibles.

The setting isn't just Lucy's Tavern; it's clearly the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, with its farms, small towns, colleges and bracing natural landscapes. So there is, at least, that background of beauty in the unfulfilled pub-crawler lives that Rebecca Barry describes. (Hear an excerpt.) Her characters are lonely, lusty and often slightly soused, but in vino veritas — and even if their attempts at partnering are clumsy and ill-fated, Barry obviously loves these people. Later, at the Bar is a mixed brew of laughter and tears.

Coming of Age, and Taking a Chance, on Another World

Alysa of the Fields: Book Cover
Alysa of the Fields, by Tina Field Howe, paperback, 320 pages

Corning, N.Y., author Tina Field Howe conjures a planet called Xunar-kun, populated by rival tribes divided by history but forced — by a common enemy and by an intrepid, open-hearted young woman — to rediscover their common heritage and common interests.

Millennia ago, Xunar-kun suffered a cataclysmic event; now the Field Folk, including adolescent Alysa, live in a society that is peaceful, primitive and authoritarian. The only contact with the foreign Trailmen is through trade conducted once a year in silence and by sign language, since the isolated tribes are thought to have no common language.

But after her father's murder, Alysa makes a hard, forbidden journey to discover comfort and communication with the Trailmen. Despite differences of religion and social practice, Alysa alerts both people to the greater danger from creatures rendered fierce and sterile by the Cat'clysm. (Listen to a reading.) Alysa of the Fields is sci-fi/fantasy intended for young people, but it has also attracted a grown-up readership. The book begins a series by the multi-talented Howe, whose artwork for the cover is a finalist for the 2007 Dream Realm Award.

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