Scott Simon

Mary Gauthier is no stranger to the gut punch. The lyrical precision on the folk singer's first eight studio albums is testament to her ability to transform her own trauma into a purposeful and communal narrative.

Violent crime is down in America's big cities.

It may not seem so if you watch crime dramas like CSI, NCIS or Chicago P.D., but homicide, assault and rapes have decreased in big cities since the 1970s. Even Chicago had a 16 percent decline in murders last year, to 650. (In 1974, the city had 970 homicides.)

It's New York City in 1896. Young boys are being brutally murdered, and a team of outsiders assembles to hunt down the killer. On that team is a doctor with some unconventional views, a newspaper illustrator haunted by his past, and a police secretary who upsets the status quo: Miss Sara Howard, who's played by Dakota Fanning in the new television series, The Alienist.

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Leni Zumas' new novel, Red Clocks, imagines a time in which something called the Personhood Amendment has made abortion and in vitro fertilization a crime in the United States; Canada returns women who slip across the border to seek those services. The novel is set in an Oregon town and it invites inevitable comparison to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Is it also a parable for our time? Zumas says the story started out with "some personal anxiety and anguish of my own," but grew into something larger.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Benya Golden is a Jewish Cossack. Which is not the setup for a Mel Brooks movie, but the new novel Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Golden is a prisoner in a Soviet gulag during World War II, and he ends up pressed into a kind of Dirty Dozen battalion of horse-riding Cossacks and convicts who detest Stalin — but revile the Nazis even more.

The U.S. foster care system is overwhelmed, in part because America's opioid crisis is overwhelming. Thousands of children have had to be taken out of the care of parents or a parent who is addicted.

Indiana is among the states that have seen the largest one-year increase in the number of children who need foster care. Judge Marilyn Moores, who heads the juvenile court in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, says the health crisis is straining resources in Indiana.

There's a big, green, tinsel warning label across the cover of Martha Brockenbrough's new book, Love, Santa, illustrated by Lee White. It reads: "The beautiful truth about Santa."

Brockenbrough's book is written as a series of letters between her and her daughter, Lucy, who begins to write Santa Claus when she's 7 years old.

"Dear Santa, how do you get down all the chimneys?" Lucy writes in the book. "What happens when people live in homes without fireplaces? Why does your handwriting look like my mom's?"

Ben Shirley's story is one of redemption. He'd been playing bass in bars, clubs and arenas in the Los Angeles area since he was 15 when he fell down a path of drugs and alcohol. Four bottles of vodka and $360 worth of heroin a day brought him down hard on Skid Row.

It was at the non-profit The Midnight Mission where Shirley turned his life around in 2011. Now, at 53, he's an undergrad in The San Francisco Conservatory of Music's program of Technology and Applied Composition. He debuted an original piece, "We Need Darkness to See the Stars," earlier this month.

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