Tuesday, February 19, 2008

All I Did Was Ask by Terry Gross

In the early 70s, when I first discovered NPR, I was fascinated by the depth and breadth of interviews and news reports. When WHYY in Philadelphia, dropped all its music programming and went to a 24-hour talk station, I was disturbed, but only because I had no idea what was coming. The news expanded and stretched both itself and my mind. Thirty some years later I am still an avid fan of NPR, and we are lucky to have a local public radio outlet with a spectacular line-up of programs (KWBU 103.3 FM).

That line up includes Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I first listened to Terry a few days after her arrival in Philly from Buffalo, I believe. A review of her show in The Philadelphia Inquirer was intriguing to say the least. I tuned in, and boy oh boy did she make me mad. They had some call-in segments then, and I wanted to challenge her on several issues. I did some digging (not easy in the days before computers), and consistently found no credible evidence to dispute her guests or her questions. She changed my mind on so many issues that, I am ashamed to say, I had never really thought about or studied. She opened my mind on women’s rights, gay rights, religion, politics, music, and literature. Her show became the focal point of my afternoons. I bought a tape recorder and a clock radio and devised an elaborate plan to tape the shows when I could not listen live. I even had the opportunity to work for her on one of the fundraisers for the show and the station.

On a recent visit to Philadelphia, I called her and talked to her about my transformation, and she invited me on my next visit to come in to the studio and witness a show. Somehow my infrequent short visits have not allowed that to happen, but I still have her number in my wallet. One of these days…

When I saw this book at Books-a-Million, I snatched it up. I skipped some of the interviews (hip-hop artists and a couple of actors I do not like), but there are some real gems: John Updike, Carol Shields, Andre Dubus, Andre Dubus III, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Conan O’Brien, Eric Clapton, Samuel L. Jackson, and James Baldwin.

Terry has a way of bringing out the deepest thoughts of her subjects. I can’t begin to count the number of times a guest has said, “Wow, that’s a great question!” or “Hmmm, I’ve never been asked that before.” The touching interview with the desperately ill Carol Shields, who died about 14 months after the interview, covers her illness and impending death with sensitivity and genuine affection.

Of course, my favorite is the interview with John Updike. It is truly amazing that this writer can speak as poetically and wonderfully as he writes. His discussion of the Rabbit Angstom novels was enlightening, and will drive me back for a third, or maybe it is a fourth read.

I only wish the interview with G. Gordon Liddy was included. I remember him calling her “sweetie,” which didn’t phase Terry at all, but the audience really let him have it for his chauvinistic and condescending manner.

The Introduction by Terry is a fascinating look inside the show and how each segment is put together. If you have never listened to Fresh Air and Terry Gross, you are missing out on an American treasure.
6 stars out of five. --Chiron, 2/18/08

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