Archives For Fiction

The English I Honors teacher in my department recently suffered a serious concussion; no reading or writing for several weeks. Her classes must go on, however, and the new unit on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is next in the curriculum.  A long term substitute is scheduled for next week, and the students could easily read the novel before her arrival.

Moreover, there is a packet of information and worksheets in the file cabinet with background information on the 1930s and the author, John Steinbeck. The practice of providing such a lengthy introduction, however, is associated with “over-teaching”, a practice now discouraged in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. In statewide tests students will have to meet the standards of the Common Core, and they will encounter texts from many different sources. The recommendation is that students should practice “close reading” where they can independently mine the language of the text for meaning:

“Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally” (ELA Common Core)

The 9th graders could be staggering indeed; they have just completed a unit on Greek tragedy using Oedipus the King. Some students might suffer whiplash in the jump from 5th Century BCE Ancient Greece to 20th Century California in the Salinas Valley. There needed to be a powerful “bridge” to prepare students for this leap in time and ensuing debate between free will and fate.  What could be accomplished without the teacher directed lecture, especially if the teacher is not available? What format could saturate students in an environment of the 1930s?

A few minutes of research on YouTube provided an answer; I could have a substitute show students several versions of the Bing Crosby’s song recording of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s anthem for the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

The historical accuracy of some of the photos in this first rendition may be questionable, but the message of an average man’s struggle to find employment in the early 1930s is made very clear. The second version below is a sing-a-long-version that is particularly good as a karaoke opportunity. After watching the first version, all students sang along, some with more gusto than others, following Crosby’s cadence in the second version:

After singing, the students reviewed the lyrics:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”

lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

These lyrics provided students an opportunity to “close read” the context of the Great Depression, particularly in the lyrics “Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell” and “Half a million boots went slogging through Hell.” While they understood that after the stock market crash there were unemployed men who had helped in the building of railroads and towers, more than one student made the connection that there are currently soldiers who have returned from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan who have not found employment either. Their brief discussion was enough to set up Steinbeck’s tale of Lennie and George, who share a dream of finding employment to be independent farmers raising rabbits.

Once the background was established, students could then read the novel independently, the way the Common Core recommends in the reading standards. Additionally, the long-term substitute can now complete the leap from classical to contemporary tragedy without having to dwell on historical context. The only downside might be getting rid of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”… a song-worm now in their brains!

The end of each year is always marked by a roundup or ranking of the year’s most memorable stories. 2013 was no exception. For example, CNN.com ran a poll on the top 10 news stories of 2013 which were then ranked by CNN.com readers:

  1. NEW POPE
  2. BOSTON MARATHON ATTACKS
  3. MANDELA DIES
  4. EDWARD SNOWDEN LEAKS NSA
  5. FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN
  6. OBAMACARE ROLLOUT DEBACLE
  7. PHILIPPINES TYPHOON
  8. SYRIA CIVIL WAR
  9. CLEVELAND KIDNAPPINGS
  10. SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

All of these stories showed up on other news websites, perhaps ranked differently, but there was remarkable consistency nationally and internationally on how we will remember the year 2013. Pope Francis, the Boston Marathon, and the conflict in Syria dominated the top of most lists.

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 2.46.50 PMMany of these stories will soon be, or are already, the subject of non-fiction books, and some of these stories could be retold with such excellence as to be considered for the Samuel Johnson Prize. This prize is an award given annually for the best writing in current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts. This prize, named for the 18th Century English author Samuel Johnson is associated with the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) and awards author(s) of any nationality “whose work is published in the UK in English.” The most striking quality of the Samuel Johnson Prize is its motto that “All the best stories are true.”

There is truth in fiction as well. For example, even 2013’s most outlandish film Sharknado, has a degree of truth. The film detailed a supernatural phenomenon where thousands of sharks, scooped from their watery environment, twisted into another force of nature. The film generated waves of chatter on social media sites, so much so that the website Deepseanews.com speculated about the film’s implausibilities and calculated the physics of tornados holding great white sharks aloft. Researchers concluded in a post titled “Recipe for a Sharknado” that, “Winds in the most intense tornadoes are strong enough to keep a shark airborne.” Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Physics suggests how.

The year 2013 provided many true stories that also lend themselves to possible re-tellings. The following three true stories of 2013 get my votes as the best potential candidates for future re-tellings, either as fiction or non-fiction:

1. NY TimesDiscovery of Art Looted by the Nazis:
The upcoming film The Monuments Men (February 2014,) where “a World War II platoon is tasked to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves,” is a timely example of the storytelling potential about looted art. This past November, Bavarian authorities arrested an art dealer in his  Munich apartment uncovering a horde of art stolen during WWII. The recovered 1,500 works by Pablo Picasso, Max Liebermann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marc Chagall, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustave Courbet, Auguste Renoir and Canaletto are estimated to be worth $1.4 billion. Since the discovery was made public, there are suspicions as to when authorities first knew about the stockpile. The intrigue abounds in this latest episode of Nazi treachery that continues to today.

2.Amazon.com:  Commercial Delivery using Drones:
While today’s science fiction writers may scoff at so pedestrian an example of technology, delivery drones could be fictionalized as key characters, featured perhaps in dystopian literature. While Hedwig, Harry Potter’s delivery owl, was a fantasy, a writer may consider that the possibility for pet drones has potential. The CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, demonstrated that drones could be used for delivery purposes, in 30 minutes or less, and what better audience in a consumer culture motivated by immediate gratification than an audience of young adults? Storytelling or story-commercials…or both?

3. NYTimes: Richard III Rediscovered
My favorite story this year was the discovery of the bones of Britain’s medieval monarch, Richard III, paved over in a parking lot. He had been killed in 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last king of England killed on a battlefield. This archaeological find, also dubbed the “King in a Car Park” in the video from the British Channel 4, put an end to the search for remains of the former king of York. A shorter version of the discovery is available from the University of Leicester:

Richard III had been characterized as a brutal tyrant by Shakespeare in the historical play Richard III, but an organization known as the Richard III Society  has tried to clear his reputation. The remains found so ingloriously buried were identified by his hunchback and the bones that bore the scars of the battle that killed him, including eight wounds on his skull.

Richard IIIThe subject of Richard III has already been fictionalized by the great writer Josephine Tey in her 1951 detective story The Daughter of Time. In this novel, she directly confronted Richard III’s sordid reputation in an attempt to clear him of any misdeeds. This latest archeological find is also ripe with storytelling possibilities.

In the end, though, how we will remember 2013 will be through the stories that we created ourselves. We will remember the births, deaths, accomplishments, failures, celebrations, and losses we experienced over the past 365 days of 2013. We will remember because we have, individually and collectively, made the stories of 2013, and the best stories are true.