NPR Staff

Emmanuel Jal was only 8 when he was dragged into Sudan's long civil war. Like 12,000 other children, he was recruited as a soldier, fighting and killing alongside South Sudanese armed groups.

Only a few, like Jal, have managed to escape.

Over in Park City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival is in full swing. Critic Kenneth Turan tells NPR's Renee Montagne about some of the festival's must-see films, including documentaries about Scientology, rape on college campuses and Nina Simone, and a romantic drama based on a novel by Colm Tóibín.


Interview Highlights

On the festival's stand-out documentaries

In the State of the Union this week, President Obama noted that crime in America is down. "For the first time in 40 years," he said, "the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together."

Facing a Republican-controlled Congress in his sixth State of the Union speech, President Obama took credit Tuesday for an improving economy and focused on proposals aimed at advancing the middle class.

After years of recession and war, Obama claimed "the shadow of crisis has passed." In its place, he asserted, is a future marked by "a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production."

Here's what Obama proposed on the policy front:

Economy

This past week, more than 2,000 mental health workers for the HMO health care giant Kaiser Permanente in California went on strike.

The strike was organized by the National Union of Healthcare Workers. The union says Kaiser Permanente patients have been the victims of "chronic failure to provide its members with timely, quality mental health care."

Google announced this week they're ending individual sales of the much celebrated, and maligned, Google Glass. And as we reported last week, a recent Fortune study found relatively low interest in wearable gadgets.

Today, the World Health Organization issued a 14-part report on Ebola, from the moment it started until now.

We asked our team of Ebola correspondents to look at the sections and pull out the points that seemed most interesting — that may have been overlooked or forgotten, stories that show how the virus turned into an epidemic.

Where it all began

Our current cultural obsession with food is undeniable. But, while the advent of the foodie may be a 21st century phenomenon, from an evolutionary standpoint, flavor has long helped define who we are as a species, a new book argues.

In Tasty: the Art and Science of What We Eat, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John McQuaid offers a broad and deep exploration of the human relationship to flavor.

"Flavor is the most important ingredient at the core of what we are. It created us," McQuaid writes.

The International Consumer Electronics Show has wrapped up its showcase of the latest in high-tech, from wearables to curved-screen phones to extremely high-definition 4K televisions.

But according to a survey from the magazine Fortune, many Americans have a simpler wish: better batteries.

Across the Hudson River in Newark, N.J., the murder rate is down, but the new mayor there says that's just a small step in a very long effort to make Newark a safer place to live.

The state of race relations in the United States has captivated the country for months. But a group of Northeastern University law students is looking to the past to a sometimes forgotten, violent part of American history.

As the new year begins, the Ebola virus continues its deadly spread in West Africa. More than 20,000 are infected and nearly 8,000 have died throughout the region. The number of victims keeps climbing in Guinea and Sierra Leone, and dozens of new Ebola cases in Liberia this week mark a setback after recent improvements.

NPR's David Greene enjoyed a little time in the kitchen just before the holidays with Brooks Headley, a punk-rock musician and award-winning pastry chef at New York's Del Posto. Other chefs may revel in fancy technique, but Headley prefers keeping things simple. He says he never wanted to be so obsessed with presentation that the conversation at the dinner table stopped when dessert arrived.

More than 360 African health workers died of Ebola this year. Some of them made headlines around the world, such as Dr. Umar Sheik Khan, the Sierra Leonean physician who treated more than 100 Ebola patients before contracting the disease himself.

But most of the fallen health workers didn't get that degree of attention. They were doctors, nurses, midwives, lab technicians. They didn't have the proper protective equipment. As they tried to save the lives of others, they sacrificed their own.

In an interview this week with NPR, President Obama asserted that the country is less racially divided than when he took office:

As a boy, Daniel Majook Gai fled the civil war in Sudan, running miles by himself to safety and leaving his family behind. He was one of the so-called Lost Boys — a name given to children separated from their families during that conflict.

After years in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, Gai landed in the United States, reunited with his family and got an education. In 2011, he returned home to the newly independent country of South Sudan.

But war came back in 2013 and split the new nation.

Herman Travis, 55, lives in Holly Courts, a low-income housing complex in San Francisco.

Every Tuesday, Travis fills a shopping cart with groceries from a local food bank and makes home deliveries to his elderly and disabled neighbors. He started doing it in 2007 and says when he first started, people were skeptical.

"When I first started doing it. People was cautious. They didn't let me in their house, but after they got to really know me they would just be happy to see me," says Travis.

It's hard to believe, but there has never been a major motion picture that centers on one of this country's most iconic figures: Martin Luther King Jr. But that's about to change, with Selma, which opens Christmas Day.

The film explores the tumult and the tactics of the civil rights movement, from King's tense relationship with President Lyndon Johnson to the battle for voting rights for black Americans — a battle that reached a climax on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, as state police beat peaceful protesters trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

Shannon Johnson, a researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, found that when she talked to youngsters about sea snails, she communicated a little more effectively if she skipped the technical description and called them "punk-rock snails."

"Their entire shells are covered in spikes," Johnson explains. "And then the spikes are actually all covered in fuzzy white bacteria."

It's a story almost too strange to be true: Throughout much of the 1960s and '70s, the wistful, wide-eyed children of painter Walter Keane were absolutely everywhere.

Paintings and posters of the big-eyed waifs, often in rags, their hair unkempt, brought fame and fortune to the charming, smooth-talking artist — along with widespread critical disdain.

But years later, it emerged that the art was actually the work of Walter's wife, Margaret Keane. She painted in secret, behind closed doors, and he publicly claimed the work as his own.

We are well into the Christmas season, and if you live in Japan, that means sponge cake.

The traditional Japanese Christmas dish is served with strawberries and cream, and it is rich, thanks to lots and lots of butter. But the Japanese have been using even more butter for their Christmas cakes this year, exacerbating what was already a national butter shortage.

Earlier this month, after the events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y, the White House announced the creation of what it's calling a Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

The group's job is to find ways to strengthen the relationship between police and the public, and to share recommendations with the president by late February.

Dr. Kent Brantly considers himself a lucky man.

He was diagnosed with Ebola five months ago while working with Christian aid group Samaritan's Purse at a hospital in Liberia's capital, Monrovia. He became so sick that he thought he was going to "quit" breathing.

Journalist Paul Salopek is on a seven-year trek around the world, retracing early humans' first great migration, out of Africa.

We first spoke to him two years ago, when he was in Ethiopia, at the very beginning of his odyssey. Since then, we've reached him in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Cyprus. Eventually, he plans to walk 21,000 miles in total — and make it all the way to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

On this last leg of his trip, he has faced all manner of obstacles — both natural and man-made.

Every year since 1896, Los Angeles County has held a somber ceremony for the men, women and children who die there, but whose bodies are never claimed.

Some of those buried are unidentified; they are buried as Jane and John Does.

Many others have been identified, but for a variety of reasons, family and friends never picked up their cremated remains.

This year, in an interfaith ceremony on Dec. 9, the county buried the ashes of 1,489 people in a mass grave in the County Cemetery in LA's Boyle Heights.

Welcome to the first meeting of the Morning Edition Reads book club! Here's how it's going to work: A well-known writer will pick a book he or she loved. We'll all read it. Then, you'll send us your questions about the book. And about a month later, we'll reconvene to talk about the book with the author and the writer who picked it.

Ready? Here we go:

Many plants we eat today are a result of genetic modifications that would never occur in nature. Scientists have long been altering the genes of food crops, to boost food production and to make crops more pest-, drought- and cold-resistant.

"Product of Mexico" — it's a label you see on fruit and vegetable stickers in supermarkets across the U.S.

It's also the name of an investigative series appearing this week in the Los Angeles Times.

There's been a dramatic drop in oil production, but it's not barrels of light sweet crude. It's olive oil.

Curtis Cord, publisher of the Olive Oil Times, tells Audie Cornish on All Things Considered there are many reasons why production has fallen so much in Italy and Spain this year.

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