NPR Staff

The weekend after Christmas has typically been big business for retailers, as people return gifts — and buy new ones for themselves. But some brick-and-mortar retailers are struggling this holiday season, facing the dual problems of overexpansion and an increasingly demanding consumer base that likes the ability to shop online.

It's been a year since the U.S. and Cuba began normalizing relations. Tourism, business and cultural exchanges are booming. And there is another curious benefactor of those warmer ties — Ernest Hemingway, or at least, his legacy. The writer lived just outside of Havana for 20 years, and that house, called the Finca Vigia, has long been a national museum.

Christmas with children usually means lots of toys under the tree. And sometimes those toys aren't quite ready for the kids straight out of the packaging.

The dreaded words "assembly required" can make any post-Christmas day more stressed than relaxed. We asked some of our listeners and readers to share their most memorable — and panicked — experiences putting together toys, with any advice for minimizing frustration along the way.

Clay Crawford, Pensacola, Fla.

The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller, set in contemporary London, with a female protagonist and a female author — Paula Hawkins. It was published this year, and received wide acclaim.

Girl on a Train is a psychological thriller, set in contemporary London, with a female protagonist and a female author — Alison Waines. It was published in 2013, and received almost no attention.

You might be able to predict where this is going.

His resume is unimpeachable and he has great approval ratings. Santa Claus sounds like the perfect candidate — so what if he ran for president? That's the central question in this work of audio fiction by the podcast The Truth

The story begins at the North Pole, where two mysterious strangers have just arrived by sled to Santa's office.

For centuries, Chesapeake Bay oysters were harvested by skipjacks, those tall, sleek, singled-masted sailboats.

The skipjacks are mostly gone now, replaced by more efficient, less majestic ways of fishing. But one skipjack captain refuses to fade away.

Kermit Travers, 78, is one of the first and last African-American skipjack captains. He's been sailing the Chesapeake for most of his life.

Actor Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar last year for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Now he's been nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in another biopic, The Danish Girl. The film tells the story of transgender woman Lili Elbe, one of the first people known to have had gender reassignment surgery.

Cooking gadgets seem to be a solid go-to when you're not sure what to give someone. Who wouldn't be charmed with a laser-guided pizza cutter? A one-click butter dispenser? An electric bacon-bowl maker?

Actor Will Smith says at first he was conflicted about his latest movie, Concussion.

"I'm a football dad," he tells NPR's David Greene. "[I] grew up in Philly with my Eagles, and there was a part of me that did not want to be the guy who said playing football could cause brain damage."

A lone figure on stage, making people laugh: That solitude is what makes stand-up tougher and riskier than other kinds of comedy.

This holiday season, one popular Christmas carol has been raising some questions here at NPR headquarters. Namely:

"Oh, bring us some figgy pudding, oh, bring us some figgy pudding, oh — "

Wait. What is figgy pudding?

First of all, it's "absolutely delicious," says Debbie Waugh, who recently served the dish at a tea at the Historic Green Spring House in Alexandria, Va.

Figgy pudding — also known as plum pudding or Christmas pudding — is a staple of the British Christmas table, she says.

During a sensitive time of global scrutiny surrounding Islam and Muslims, one unexpected image relating to the religion drew a more positive light.

Ali Kadri, a Muslim man living in Brisbane, Australia, posted a picture to his Facebook page last weekend that got the attention of tens of thousands of people. The picture showed Kadri with an imam, taking part in evening prayers at a Mormon church after having been invited to the Christmas program by his Mormon friend Michael Bennallack.

When NBC announced The Wiz -- the African-American version of The Wizard of Oz, presented as a hit Broadway musical and a movie — would be produced as a live television production, some TV watchers may have groaned.

Previous live telecasts of other musicals have gotten attention mainly as a target for hate-watching. But The Wiz Live! seems to have broken that spell: When it aired earlier this month, it earned 11.5 million viewers — and more if you count DVR replays.

Interviewing a sitting president is no small deal. There are the physical logistics of it — getting together the interviewer, editors, producer, engineer, and a five-person video crew, plus all that audio and video equipment. And then, importantly, the preparation that goes into asking timely, tough and interesting questions.

In municipal council races in Saudi Arabia a week ago, 21 female candidates were elected to office. In the country's third-ever elections, the monarchy gave women the right to vote, as well as to seek election to office.

Nearly 1,000 women ran throughout the country, but while there were 1.36 million men registered to vote, according to the Wall Street Journal, only 130,000 women could vote.

Election campaigns are scripted. Every TV ad, every email, every stump speech, every meet-and-greet: It's all planned down to the most minute detail.

And then, there are the debates. The debate stage can create breakout moments that go down in political history — but even the most well-practiced one-liners can fall flat on delivery.

One of the hottest gifts of the season is a little too hot — hot enough to catch fire.

Hoverboards have been burning up because of problems with their lithium-ion batteries.

By the time standup comedian John Mulaney was 30, he'd had a successful comedy special called New In Town, an Emmy nominated turn writing for Saturday Night Live and was on his way to the comedy promised land — his own sitcom.

But in 2013 Mulaney hit a bit of a wall. His self-titled Fox sitcom -- a classic live studio audience show about a young comedy writer living in New York — was panned and canceled.

Pain, grief and emotional loss follow mass shootings in America, and there are also other costs that add up to violence's financial toll. It's Ted Miller's job to crunch numbers on social ills like mass shootings. He's a health economist with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

In August 2014, ISIS released a video showing American journalist James Foley kneeling in a barren desert. Foley wears a bright orange jumpsuit. An ISIS fighter stands behind him, a black scarf masking his face. The fighter wields a long dagger. When Foley speaks, his voice is matter of fact, but resigned. He says he knows he will never see his family again.

The ISIS fighter speaks in a British accent. He addresses the American government. He tells them they are no longer fighting an insurgency. They are fighting an army. He then kills Foley.

Aja Raden's new book, Stoned, is about jewelry, but on the first page she lays out a bold statement: "The history of the world is the history of desire."

"There's no more powerful statement than 'I want,' " Raden tells NPR's Audie Cornish. " 'I want that. I want them.' ... Even if it's an issue of survival, you still are driven by what you want and what you are compelled to take or have or maintain."

Donald Trump has earned headlines — and, in some circles, ire — for incendiary comments throughout his presidential campaign. Recently, Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and a database to keep track of them — comments that other candidates in the GOP have denounced as intolerant and wrongheaded.

But some media commentators and news organizations have taken it a step further, stating that the man himself is racist and that his policies are fueled by racism.

"Usually when you illustrate a book, you're working on something that nobody's read before," notes Jim Kay.

But when you get tapped to add the illustrations to new editions of the entire Harry Potter series, as Kay did, the situation is more than a little bit different.

"It took a long time to get over the sort of terrible panic which grabs you," Kay says, "because you don't want to ruin the most successful children's book franchise in history."

Former Attorney Gen. Eric Holder's career has been a series of firsts.

As the first African-American to serve as this country's top law enforcement official, he came into office in 2009 promising to rebuild the Justice Department's Civil Rights division.

The Manchester, N.H., regional airport put out a special holiday message this year. And no, it wasn't about trying to bring liquids on board or keeping watch for Santa Claus on radar.

It's meant for people who will get drones this holiday season. "Aircraft operating within a five-mile radius of the airport must contact the airport communications center," they wrote.

In the 1970s, Mary Shepherd parked her home (a van) on a street in an artsy London neighborhood. She was cranky, religious, profane and indomitable, and the neighbors muttered about her — but some also brought her gifts. One neighbor, playwright Alan Bennett, took a particular interest in Shepherd and invited her to move her van into his driveway. She stayed there for 15 years.

A new film, The Lady in the Van, tells Shepherd's story. It was adapted from Bennett's memoir and play about his guest, and it stars Alex Jennings as Bennett and Maggie Smith as Shepherd.

Christopher Buckley's new novel is a historical heist caper, the story of a scam: An attempt to counterfeit the Shroud of Turin, believed by some to be the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth. As Jesus himself never said, "Talk about chutzpah!"

The 16th-century Holy Roman schemers include Dismas, a former mercenary who now deals in religious relics, from foreskins to fingerbones, and Albrecht Dürer, the real life artist and engraver. It's a road story, of a kind, that brings the duo to into contact with brothels, damsels, foreplay and swordplay.

How do you make a subject as complicated as the subprime mortgage crisis into a really good movie? That's the challenge director Adam McKay took on when decided to turn The Big Short, Michael Lewis' best-selling book about the people who profited from the crisis, into a film. The result (also called The Big Short) has bad guys and heroes — but even the heroes are kind of jerks.

"She had red hair — it was red hair out of a bottle, but it was still red hair. And she was a spitfire," Chloe Longfellow begins. "If you messed with her and she didn't think it was right, she would tell you."

Longfellow is speaking here of her grandmother, Doris Louise Rolison, on a recent visit to StoryCorps. When Longfellow was just a child, her father died and her mother took up multiple jobs in order to support the family. That left Longfellow with a lot of time to spend at her grandparents' house in Arizona.

Clare Vaye Watkins is an acclaimed writer: Her debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, is a sharp post-apocalyptic tale of drought and survival that won critical raves. And she recently published an essay about how, for all her success, she felt that she wasn't herself on the page, that she was changing her writing to appeal to male readers and critics. She called it "On Pandering."

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