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Mark Twain was an American author who was born and raised in Missouri. Published in 1884, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn stirred controversy from the start. People felt the subject matter, specifically the portions of the plot that dealt with slavery, and the ethics and hypocrisy surrounding it, was unpleasant and in bad taste. Today, the book is still controversial, primarily because of the narrator’s and characters’ use of the “n” word. Listen to hear different perspectives on whether Huckleberry Finn, or any literature, should be censored.
During Miguel de Cervantes’ life, Spain was at a critical place: It was both at its peak of power and also on the verge of toppling over. At the same time, people began to look inward, to think about who they were as people, and they began to realize that their choices shaped the world around them. “Don Quixote” is a story of two kinds of journeys: the physical journey of Don Quixote and Sancho, but also a psychological journey in which both friends begin to question and learn about themselves as human beings. Listen to hear why “Don Quixote” was such a groundbreaking novel, and why it will continue to influence readers for generations to come.
Charles Dickens was the first literary celebrity of his era. He wrote about the working poor and the dangerous working conditions in England. A visit to the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts served as an inspiration for Dickens to continue writing about these London realities. Listen to this story to learn how Dickens reflected and questioned English society in his work.
In this story Ishmael Beah, author of "Radiance of Tomorrow" and "A Long Way Gone," is interviewed about his experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. He talks about his understanding of the effects of war on his country. Beah describes the lessons of war, the impact fighting has on nature, as well as the resilience of his people. Listen to learn more about Beah’s harrowing but inspirational story.
The Vietnam War has a controversial legacy in United States history and culture. The U. S. was immersed in the conflict in Vietnam for 20 years. The draft of young men to fight far from home in the seemingly endless war led to widespread resistance and protest against the war itself. This discontent led to a disrespect of veterans when they returned. Since then the sacrifice of soldiers has been honored in memorials, movies and books. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built in 1982 in Washington DC. But it was controversial at the start because it honored soldiers by etching the names of the more than 58,000 soldiers killed in polished black granite. Listen to this radio story to learn the history behind this war memorial.
What is heroism? Explore this question through a discussion with author Conn Iggulden who wrote a book about heroes throughout time. From Florence Nightingale to Harry Houdini, and the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, the author analyzes the moments and patterns of courage and bravery that make ordinary people heroes.
The novel “Wonder” tells the story of a fifth grade boy with a facial deformity who enrolls in school for the very first time. In this audio story, the author, Raquel Jaramillo (a.k.a., R.J. Palacio) shares the incident that first prompted her to write the novel. She discusses how the boy, Auggie, struggles to feel ordinary in the face of extraordinary reactions. Listen to learn more about this novel and how the choices we make can have a lasting impact.
Many of the characters in books written for children don’t reflect everyone’s background. One girl became frustrated when she couldn’t connect to the characters. In response, she began to gather books about black girls and then give these books to schools. Now that she has exceeded her original goal and collected almost 4,000 books, the girl has started to consider how to impact schools in an even larger way. Listen to hear what actions this girl decided to take to promote diverse books in schools.
J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye” has long been a staple of high school reading lists, though it has also frequently been banned from them. The story is told by Holden Caulfield, a rebellious 17-year old who has just been expelled from prep school. The novel is considered a classic of American literature, and Holden is thought to be a character every teenager can relate to—but is this still true today? Listen to hear about how this novel earned its status as a classic and the arguments in the debate about whether it should still be required reading for high school students.
Walter Mosley, an African-American writer, is one of the country’s best-known mystery writers. The Los Angeles-based private detective, Easy Rawlins, is his most popular character. Rawlins has been the main character in over a dozen mystery novels that examine the black experience in postwar Los Angeles. In this interview, Mosley discusses Easy Rawlins’ journey and the importance of Los Angeles in his novels. Listen to learn more about how Mosley uses Easy Rawlins to tell the stories of a hidden Los Angeles.
Eddie Huang is an American chef, lawyer, and author. Both of Huang’s parents are Taiwanese immigrants. Huang’s father owned a number of restaurants when Huang was growing up, where Huang would often work after school. As an adult, Huang visited China to reconnect with his roots, and, while there, he cooked and served food to locals. Following this trip, Huang wrote his second memoir, Double Cup Love (his first, Fresh Off the Boat, was turned into a popular television series). Listen to learn more about why Huang went to China, what he learned while there, and how he views the connection between food, culture, and identity.
Edgar Allan Poe, poet and American master of the macabre, was recently celebrated in Baltimore, Maryland where he sometimes lived. It was the 200th anniversary of his birth, and it was celebrated with readings of his works. Hear from actor John Astin, who played Gomez Addams in a television series, about his lifetime appreciation for Poe. Listen to find out why Baltimore played such an integral part in Poe’s life, and what types of items are left at his grave each year.
Author Edgar Allan Poe was a master of the creepy and macabre, with a focus on death and grim topics. His famous poem, “The Raven,” concerns a heartbroken man who is visited by a talking raven who begins to drive him mad. Despite the poem’s fame, including its catch phrase “Nevermore,” fans and historians are not sure what inspired Poe or how he wrote the poem.
Jane Austen wrote a new type of female character. Emma Woodhouse of "Emma" and Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice" are two memorable characters. They were charming but normal, flawed but winning. The legend of Austen is that she wrote her novels exactly as they were published, but the release of her original manuscripts suggests she had an active editor. Does it matter that an editor helped clean up Austen’s prose or is it her genius that shines through?
The United States declared war on Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But Afghanistan had already been a troubled and war torn country for many, many years. In 1996, the Taliban seized control of the country, imposing strict rule over all of its citizens. This story focuses on how the strict rules of society in Afghanistan continue to affect its people--especially children and girls. Listen to this interview with the author of “The Kids of Kabul” and learn more about the challenges faced by Afghan children and women, especially in the area of education.
“Death of a Salesman” has been one of the most enduring plays on the American stage. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 when it was first produced and has been described as the first great American tragedy. The success of Arthur Miller’s play is in no small part due to the fascination Americans of every generation have had with its main character, Willie Loman. In many ways, Loman is a metaphor for the human condition in 20th century America. Listen to find out why this story of Willie Loman and his family has fascinated so many Americans for so long.
American author and journalist Ernest Hemingway exemplified his literary style with novels like, “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway’s adventurous life inspired these stories. From running with the bulls in Spain to fighting in World War II, Hemingway was a larger than life celebrity known for his machismo and literary skill. Hemingway’s talent was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. His writing style, which consists of short sentences that describe the external world, changed American literature forever.
In recent decades, Afghanistan has been a country plagued by war. Author Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, “The Kite Runner,” is set in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s through the 2000s. The book tells the story of two young friends, Amir and Hassan, who are from very different classes and ethnic groups. The story follows them as they navigate life before and after the coup that toppled the Afghan king in 1973, the Russian occupation in the 1980s, and the rule of the Taliban in the 1990s. Listen as the author Afghan-native Hosseini describes how his life experiences are significant to his novel and how he has set out to change the public perception of this Middle Eastern country.
Since World War II, fast food has been central to American food culture. Hamburgers and fries have come to be at the very center of many Americans’ diets. But fast food changed the way we raise and process beef and grow potatoes. It’s also added to the problem of obesity. The growth in fast food culture over the past fifty years has changed many fundamental things about culture, health, and the economy. Listen to hear how fast food has affected life in America by listening to this interview with the author of the book “Fast Food Nation”.
In Ernest J. Gaines’s 1993 novel "A Lesson Before Dying," the central character, Jefferson—a young black man living in the segregated South in 1948—is accused of murder and faces the possibility of the death penalty. Readers learn that Jefferson is illiterate, and that, as a result, he lacks confidence and self-worth. To spare him the pain of facing death without dignity, his family hires a teacher to help him learn to read and write. Listen to the audio story to learn how Gaines’s character develops “pride through learning.”
The novel The Book Thief is narrated by Death. He tells the story of a young German girl saving books from Nazi bonfires to read to the Jewish man hiding in her home. Listen to this audio story to hear an interview with author Markus Zusak, who explains his choice of Death as the narrator and the message he hopes teenage readers get from the novel.
Our food supply is considered safe today thanks in large part to a movement to improve safety following the publication of the novel in 1906, "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair. It was a vivid portrayal of the lives of immigrant families who worked in a meat-packing plant in Chicago. Americans were shocked and disgusted. This public radio story tells of how "The Jungle" galvanized public support to improve the safety of our food system.
Looking back in time, it’s hard to imagine a time when there were next to no food safety regulations in the United States. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there were no laws stopping food producers from selling food that endangered the health of their customers. This all changed at the turn of the twentieth century. Listen to hear how one American chemist conducted daring experiments to publicize the damage that tainted food could cause, and how this transformed food safety regulations forever.
This story features an interview with author Jay Cantor about his 2014 story collection, "Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka." In this work, Cantor fictionalizes the lives of several friends of renowned Czech writer Franz Kafka’s in order to examine the influence Kafka had on them. In the interview, Cantor explains what drew him to Kafka, the dilemma Kafka created for his close friend Max Brod, and the meaning of the term Kafkaesque. Listen to the story to learn about one writer’s inspiration and his thoughts on a literary giant.
Consumer culture in the United States has been a fixture of the holiday season for years, particularly on the Friday after Thanksgiving–also known as “Black Friday.” That’s the inspiration for the title story in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s latest book of speculative fiction, Friday Black. In it, he addresses the topics of race and class as they relate to American consumer culture. Listen to hear an interview with the author as he discusses how his experience of these factors influences his work.
The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has published collections of poetry, short stories and essays, books for children, numerous novellas, and—the works for which she is best known—fifteen novels. Atwood’s early novels were mainly works of realistic literary fiction, the sort of novels that literary critics and academics distinguish from “genre fiction” such as mysteries and thrillers, romance novels, and science fiction and fantasy novels. Atwood has written several novels that some critics and readers would call science fiction, but which she prefers to call “speculative fiction.” In this audio story, Atwood discusses her most recent novel, "The Heart Goes Last" and explains why she feels this is not a time for realistic fiction.
In a real-life case that has shades of George Orwell’s "1984," the United States Supreme Court must weigh the public good against privacy. Does putting a GPS monitoring device on the car of suspected criminals violate their privacy? Or does it protect society? Listen to this audio story which addresses the issues in the novel "1984," as you discuss this recent case.
A series of young-adult novels called “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”, by Rick Riordan, has struck a chord with millions of readers. In the novels, Percy goes to Camp Half-Blood to train with other demigods (the children of gods and humans). He then goes on various adventures involving Greek mythology mixed in with the modern world. Recently, independent bookstores have been running day camps for children, inspired by the fictional camp from Riordan’s novels. Listen to hear about how an actual Camp Half-Blood harnesses Greek mythology to create learning experiences for kids, and about Greek mythology’s continued appeal today.
Cassandra Gonzalez is a very young single mother. She had her daughter while she was still a teenager, and as she approaches her early twenties she is struggling to balance her desire to enjoy her life with the responsibilities and expectations of motherhood. Listen to learn more about the challenges she faces, and what she does to confront them.
Author Marjane Satrapi created the graphic novel “Persepolis”—later adapted as a movie—about her experience growing up during the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Satrapi was a rebellious teenager, fighting to maintain her beliefs and individuality while living under a government that dictated how its people should live—for example, mandating that women must wear veils. Listen to hear about the Iranian government’s reaction to the movie and how others reacted to it.
What defines your identity? Is it what you believe? Where you were born? Or what you look like? In this audio story, African American poet, writer, and artist Claudia Rankine talks about her exploration of the connections between race and blonde hair. Rankine’s initial response to the question, “Why might a person choose to go blonde?” was that people simply wanted to lighten their hair. But she soon wondered if there might be more to it. To find out, she interviewed and photographed women of all skin tones who chose to dye their hair blonde. The result was a gallery exhibit entitled “Stamped.” Listen to hear about what the artist discovered when she explored the connections between race, identity, and blondeness.
In 1928, Ernest Hemingway began writing "A Farewell to Arms," a novel with big themes: the horrors of war, the power and pain of love, the inescapable cycle of life and death. The novel is set in World War I era Italy and tells the story of an American ambulance driver who falls in love with an English nurse. Although unmarried, the two conceive a baby and escape together to Switzerland, where tragedy strikes: the woman dies in childbirth. The heartbreaking ending—famous for bringing the most stoic readers to tears—is a major discussion point of this audio story, as it was discovered in recent years that Hemingway wrote over forty endings for the novel. Listen to hear why Hemingway wrote so many endings and why, ultimately, he chose to stick with his original, heart-wrenching conclusion.
Herman Melville’s classic American novel “Moby-Dick” tells the story of whaling captain Ahab’s quest to kill the white whale Moby-Dick. This somewhat simplistic plot retelling misses the thematic and historical undertones of this massive novel. The novel was a critical and commercial failure when it was released in 1851 but experienced a resurgence after World War I. Listen to learn about the writing of “Moby-Dick” and how Melville was influenced by the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Shakespeare, as well as the tensions of pre-Civil War America.
Serving in the military during a war can lead men and women to experience events that affect them for the rest of their lives. Laura Hillenbrand wrote a best-selling book, Unbroken, which tells the story of one such veteran, Louis Zamperini. It is set in World War II where Zamperini fought for survival on a life raft in the Pacific Ocean, was held as a POW by Japan, and later struggled in civilian life to deal with his war memories. In this interview with Hillenbrand, she recounts Zamperini’s story of survival during the war and his struggle to find closure in the decades following his return home. Listen to hear this extraordinary story of courage, despair and redemption.
Homer’s poetry has been read both in translation and its original Greek for thousands of years. “The Iliad“ and “The Odyssey“ contain many of the most enduring images and characters in literary history. As time passes, the original texts become more and more distant and the language, even with updated translations, become more daunting. One woman translated these stories, some into music, so that the language is accessible. Listen to hear how a new translation of Homer’s works aim to bring those characters to life for a new generation.
Two men imprisoned in Somalia began tapping messages to each other through a thick wall. One man had Leo Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenina”. Because they were forbidden to talk, one man tapped the story out on the wall, letter by letter, to the other man. The more the other man heard of the novel, the more he understood his own situation and feelings and ultimately, how to get through one of the most difficult experiences of his life. Listen to this story about how a book can inspire empathy and change your life.
Published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed the way Americans viewed slavery and was a driving force that steered the political direction of the country during the 1850s as well. For many Americans, the characters in the novel are familiar, although their names have taken on new and unexpected meanings, and the novel’s theme still resonates today. Listen to learn more about the cultural impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in America and discover Harriet Beecher Stowe’s inspirations for writing the novel as well as how the novel still reminds us of what “freedom” means today.
Adults have a wide range of opinions about teenagers and other youth, positive and negative. Often, these are based on stereotypes, not necessarily experience. Regardless of how these opinions were formed and what they are, they certainly have an impact on young people everywhere. In Baltimore these opinions and the reactions to them may have a lot to do with the social unrest that has built up in the city. Listen to learn about how a group of teenagers from Baltimore feel they are viewed by adults, and how they feel about those views.
Storms and cold weather play an important role in Mary Shelley’s famous horror novel “Frankenstein.” Apparently, the bad weather in her story may reflect the weather at that time. When Shelley was writing the novel, the world was enduring a particularly cold and gray few years. Scholars hypothesize that the weather influenced Shelley to write about the weather for the novel. Listen to hear more about how true-life conditions affected this writer, and consider how climate change may influence future works of literature and art.
Writing college application essays can be stressful. Some companies are trying to help applicants through the process by analyzing essays of admitted students, gathering data, and offering targeted advice. But one college counselor cautions that sometimes, trying to follow these tips can lead students astray. Instead, she hopes that students will look to themselves for inspiration and write essays using their own voice. Listen to hear more about how students can stay true to themselves as they write college essays.