Lin-Manuel Miranda Reads Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

It's worth taking note of this: In a newly-released audiobook, Lin-Manuel Miranda (the creator and star of Hamilton) narrates Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Above and below, listen to excerpts of an unabridged reading that lasts nearly 10 hours. And also note that Miranda is joined at points by Tony Award-winning actress, Karen Olivo.

If you're tempted to hear the full production, you can purchase the audiobook online. Or you can download it for free by signing up for Audible's 30-day free trial. As I've mentioned before, if you register for Audible's free trial program, they let you download two free audiobooks. At the end of 30 days, you can decide whether you want to become an Audible subscriber (as I have) or not. No matter what you decide, you get to keep the two free audiobooks. Miranda's reading of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao can be one of them.

For anyone who wants free readings of Diaz stories, see our post: 7 Short Stories by Junot Díaz Free Online, In Text and Audio.

NB: We have a partnership with Audible.com. So, if you give their program a try, it will help support Open Culture.

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Hear Classic Readings of Poe’s “The Raven” by Vincent Price, James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee & More

It can seem that the writing of literature and the theory of literature occupy separate great houses, Game of Thrones-style, or even separate countries held apart by a great sea. Perhaps they war with each other, perhaps they studiously ignore each other or obliquely interact at tournaments with acronymic names like MLA and AWP. Like Thomas Pynchon’s characterization of the political right and left, scholars and writers represent opposing poles, the hothouse and the street. That rare beast, the academic poet, can seem like something of a unicorn, or dragon…

…Or like the ominous talking raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous of poems.

The divide between theory and practice is a recent development, a product of state budgeting, political brinksmanship, the relentless publishing mills of academia that force scholars to find a pigeonhole and stay there.... In days past, poets and scholar/theorists frequently occupied the same place at the same time—Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and, of course, Poe, whose perennially popular “The Raven” serves as a point-by-point illustration for his theory of composition just as thoroughly as Eliot’s great works bear out his notion of the “objective correlative.”

Poe’s object, the titular creature, is an “archetypal symbol,” writes Dana Gioia, in a poem that aims for what its author calls a “unity of effect.” In his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe the poet/theorist tells us in great detail how “The Raven” satisfies all of his other criteria for literature as well, such as achieving its intent in a single sitting, using a repeated refrain, and so on.




Should we have any doubt about how much Poe wanted us to see the poem as the deliberate outcome of a conceptual scheme, we find him three years later, in 1849, the year of his death, delivering a lecture on the “Poetic Principle,” and concluding with a reading of “The Raven.”

John Moncure Daniel of the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner remarked after attending one of these talks that “the attention of many in this city is now directed to this singular performance.” At that point, Poe, who hardly made a dime from “The Raven,” had to suffer the indignity of having all of his work go out of print during his brief, unhappy lifetime. Moncure and the Examiner thereby furnished readers “with the only correct copy ever published,” previous appearances, it seems, having contained punctuation errors.

Nonetheless, for all of Poe’s pedantry and penury, "The Raven"'s first appearances made him semi-famous. His readings were a sensation, and it's a sure bet that his audiences came to hear him read the poem, not deliver a lecture on its principles. Oh, for some proto-Edison in the room with an early recording device. What would it be like to hear the mournful, grief-stricken, alcoholic genius—master of the macabre and inventor of the detective story—intone the raven’s enigmatic “Nevermore”?

While Poe’s speaking voice has receded irretrievably into history, his poetic voice may live close to forever. So mesmerizing are his meter and diction that many great actors known especially for their voices have become possessed by “The Raven."

Likely when we think of the poem, what first comes to the mind’s ear is the voice of Vincent Price, or James Earl Jones, Christopher Lee, or Christopher Walken, all of whom have given “The Raven” its due.

And so have many other notables, such as the great Stan Lee, Poe successor Neil Gaiman, original Gomez Addams actor John Astin, and venerable Beat poet/scholar Anne Waldman (listen here). You will find those recitations here at this round-up of notable “Raven” readings, and if this somehow doesn’t satiate you, then check out Lou Reed’s take on the poem, the Grateful Dead’s musical tribute, "Raven Space," or a reading in 100 different celebrity impressions.

Finally, we would be remiss not to mention The Simpsons’ James Earl Jones-narrated parody, a worthy teaching tool for distracted young visual learners. Is it a shame that we now think of “The Raven” as a Halloween yarn fit for the Treehouse of Horror or any number of enjoyable exercises in spooky oratory—rather than the theoretical thought experiment its author seemed to intend? Does Poe rotisserie in his grave as Homer snores in a wingback chair? Probably. But as the author told us himself at length, the poem works! It still never fails to excite our morbid curiosity, enchant our gothic sensibility, and maybe send a chill or two down the spine. Maybe we never really needed Poe to explain it to us.

You can find other literary readings in our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

 

54 Cats Riding Out Hurricane Irma in Ernest Hemingway’s Key West Home

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum provides a sanctuary to 54 polydactyl (six-toed) cats.  According to the museum, a ship captain once gave Ernest a white six-toed cat, and now some of its descendents live in the Hemingway Home and Museum located in Key West--precisely where Hurricane Irma is now making landfall.

As curator David Gonzales explains above, he and the 54 Hemingway cats have no plans to evacuate. They're going to ride out the storm and protect the novelist's historic home. We wish them all the best. The same goes to all of our friends in Florida. We'll see you when the storm passes.

You can see some of the Hemingway polydactyl cats here.

via Metafilter

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Three Charles Bukowski Books Illustrated by Robert Crumb: Underground Comic Art Meets Outsider Literature

Think of the artists you know who, especially in the 1960s and 70s, portrayed an often sordid reality in detail, just as they saw it, garnering acclaim from enthusiasts, who perceived a high artistry in their seemingly rough-hewn work, and cries from countless detractors who objected to what they saw as the artists' lazy crudity. In the realm of poetry and prose, Charles Bukowski should come to mind sooner or later; in that of comic art, who fits the bill better than Robert Crumb? It makes only good sense that the work of both men should intersect, and they did in the 1980s when Crumb illustrated two short books by Bukowski, Bring Me Your Love and There’s No Business.

"Crumb’s signature underground comix aesthetic and Bukowski’s commentary on contemporary culture and the human condition by way of his familiar tropes — sex, alcohol, the drudgery of work — coalesce into the kind of fit that makes you wonder why it hadn’t happened sooner," writes Brain Pickings' Maria Popova.




"In 1998, a final posthumous collaboration was released under the title The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship — an illustrated selection from Buk’s previously unpublished diaries, capturing a year in his life shortly before his death in 1994." As one student of the graphic novel summarizes Bring Me Your Love, "the main character is a man whose personality resembles the main character of most Bukowski stories. He goes through life rather aimlessly, killing time by drinking and having sex. His wife is in a mental hospital."

"Crumb’s illustrations give the already gritty storylines a visual context — such as a man who looks much like Buk wrestling on the floor with his 'wife' after a dispute involving answering the phone or various barroom skirmishes depicting a Bukowski-looking character running amok," says Dangerous Minds. "He was a very difficult guy to hang out with in person, but on paper he was great," Crumb once said of Bukowski, and his illustrations also reveal that he understands Bukowski's own awareness of the difference between his page self and his real one. "Old writer puts on sweater, sits down, leers into computer screen, and writes about life," Bukowski writes, in their third and final collaboration, above a Crumb illustration of just such a scene. "How holy can we get?"

See more Crumb illustrations of Bukowski at Brain Pickings.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover the Paintings, Drawings & Collages of Sylvia Plath: Now on Display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Sylvia Plath was a study in contrasts. Her popularization as a confessional poet, feminist literary icon, and tragic casualty of major depression; her middle-class Boston background and tortured marriage to poet Ted Hughes—these are the highlights of her biography, and, in many cases, all many people get to know about her. But “she was much more than that,” Dorothy Moss tells Mental Floss. As Vanessa Willoughby puts it in a stunning essay about her own encounters with Plath’s work, “this woman was not the sum of a gas oven and two sleeping children nestled in their beds.”

Moss, a curator at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery has organized an exhibit featuring many more sides of the poet's divided, yet purposeful self, including her work as a visual artist. Readers of Plath’s poetry may not be surprised to learn she first intended to become an artist. Her visual sense is so keen that fully-formed images seem to leap out of poems like “Blackberrying,” and into the reader’s hands; like the “high green meadows” she describes, her lines are “lit from within” by a deep appreciation for color, texture, and perspective.

Blackberries / Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes / Ebon in the hedges, fat / With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.

The blackberries come alive not only in their personification but through the kind of vivid language that could only come from someone with a painterly way of looking at things. Plath “drew and painted and sketched constantly as a child,” says Moss, and first enrolled at Smith College as an art major.

The exhibition, the National Portrait Gallery writes, “reveals how Plath shaped her identity visually as she came of age as a writer in the 1950s.” Unsurprisingly, her most frequent subject is herself. Her visual art, like her poetry, notes Mental Floss, “is often preoccupied with themes of self-identity.” But as in her eloquently-written letters and journals, as well as her published literary work, she is never one self, but many—and not all of them variations on the sly, yet brooding intellectual we see staring out at us from the well-known photographs.

We’ve previously featured some of Plath’s drawings and self-portraits here, but the Smithsonian exhibit offers a considerably richer selection than has been available online. The ink and gouache portrait at the top, for example, seems to draw from Marc Chagall in its materials and swirling lines and colors. It also recalls language in a diary entry from 1953:

Look at that ugly dead mask here and do not forget it. It is a chalk mask with dead dry poison behind it, like the death angel. It is what I was this fall, and what I never want to be again.

The hands thrown up in defense or surrender, the black lifeless eyes… Plath emerges from the ring of dead trees behind her like a suffering saint. Another portrait, further up also resembles a mask, calling to mind the ancient origins of the word persona. But the style has totally changed, the tumult of brushstrokes smoothed out into clean geometric lines and uniform patches of color. Three masks combine into one face, a trinity of Plaths. The poet always had a sense of herself as divided, referring to two distinct personalities as her “brown-haired” and “platinum” selves. The brown-haired young girl made several charming sketches of her family, with humorous commentary. (Her troubling father is tellingly, perhaps, absent.)

Hers was an epitome of standard-issue 50s white, middle class American childhood, the kind of supposedly idyllic upbringing which no small number of people still remember today in a glowing, nostalgic haze. In Plath's excavations of the identities that she cultivated herself and those she had pushed upon her, she gazed with radical intensity at America’s patriarchal social fictions, and the violence and entitlement that lay beneath them. The collage above from 1960 presents us with the kind of layered, cut-up, hybrid text that William Burroughs had begun experimenting with not long before. You can see more highlights from the Plath exhibit, “One Life: Sylvia Plath,” at the National Portrait Gallery. Also featured are Plath’s family photos, books, letters, her typewriter—and, in general, several more dimensions of her life than most of us know.

“One Life: Sylvia Plath” runs from June 30, 2017 through May 20, 2018.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Ralph Steadman’s Surrealist Illustrations of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1995)

As a novelist, George Orwell did not traffic in subtleties, but then neither did the authors of Medieval morality plays. The allegorical Animal Farm performs a similar, if secular, function, giving us unambiguous villainy and clear didactic intent. Orwell noted in his essay “Why I Write” that he meant the book to “fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.“ Originally published with the subtitle A Fairy Story, the novel caricatures Stalinism and the Russian Revolution, and Orwell left no mystery as to his intent when he commented in the preface to a 1947 Ukrainian edition that he meant the book to “end on a loud note of discord” meant to signify what he saw as the instability of the Tehran Conference.

Leaden statements like these aside, Orwell swore he “did not wish to comment on the work,” writing, “if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure.” The book does indeed speak, in two especially particular ways: its vividly grotesque characterizations of the humans and animals on the farm and its indelible collection of propagandistic slogans.




These are the features best captured by gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman, famous for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson and Pink Floyd. Published in 1995—with the Fairy Story subtitle restored—the Steadman-illustrated 50th anniversary edition realizes another previous variation on the book’s title: Animal Farm: A Contemporary Satire.

These images draw out the exaggerated absurdities of the novel as only an artist with Steadman’s twisted, surrealist sense of visual humor could. They are profoundly effective, though there’s no telling what Orwell would have thought of them. Steadman’s caricatures universalize the book’s drama, providing the kind of stock characters we find in folklore, “fairy stories,” and religious allegory. But Orwell wrote that he wished us not to mistake his express political intent: “It was of the utmost importance to me that people in Western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was…. I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.”

Steadman, to his great credit, felt no need to literalize Orwell's stated intentions in his illustrations, but rather took the book's bizarre world on its own terms. You can read more quotes from Orwell’s earnest, intended preface for the book, restored in the Steadman edition, at Brain Pickings, where you’ll also find a good number of the illustrations as well. Copies of the out-of-print book can be purchased on Amazon and Abe's books.

Steadman not only applied his skill as a caricaturist to Orwell’s fictional farm denizens, we should note, but also to the author himself. He made several sketches of Orwell, such as that below of the writer with a cage of rats around his neck. You can see several more of Steadman’s drawings of Orwell at The Guardian.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

New BBC Dramatization of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children Now Streaming Free for a Limited Time

FYI: The BBC is now streaming a dramatization of Salman Rushdie's Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight's Children. This free stream will only last for a limited time (the next 29 days). So dive in.

Here's how the BBC briefly describes the production:

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India, an ambitious new dramatization of Salman Rushdie's dazzling novel of love, history and magic. Saleem Sinai is born on the stroke of midnight on 15th August 1947, at the exact moment that India and Pakistan become separate, independent nations. From that moment on, his fate is mysteriously handcuffed to the history of his country. The story starts with Saleem's grandfather, Aadam, in Kashmir in 1915. Dramatised by Ayeesha Menon. Starring Nikesh Patel, Abhin Galeya and Meera Syal.

You can find the seven individual episodes here. Each is about an hour long. Find more free literary delights in our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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