Fiction and Mindscape: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Posted on May 22, 2013

The 1980s–a magical time to be alive. In my case, I don’t remember much of the decade; I was born in early 1986, and my earliest memories start around ’89. What I do recall is probably heavily influenced by VH1 specials, cartoons (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; G.I. Joe; Transformers), and Sci-Fi flicks (E.T.; Star Wars; RoboCop). Who could forget when Luke discovered Leia was actually his sister (’83), or when the Ghostbusters first encountered ectoplasm (’84)? Some other important things happened during the 80s: Reagan made a few speeches (something about a wall?), Wall Street went gangbusters, and Carl Sagan sagaciously compared our world to a “pale blue dot.” Oh, and big hair was–well–big. I think that about covers it.

If you’re a fan of the 80s, you won’t want to miss Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One.  It reads like a love letter to a decade full of regrettable fashion trends, synthesized music, and corporate blunders–New Coke, anyone?  You’ll also want to check it out if you’re at all interested in video games.

Cline’s novel can best be described as part bildungsroman, part nostalgia-riddled panegyric, and part dystopia.  The protagonist, whose real name is Wade but who goes by Parzival, lives in the year 2044.  Our planet is buckling under the pressures of overpopulation and destructive climate change.  The world’s economy is in shambles, and poverty is rampant.  The only thing that most people can afford to do is plug in to a virtual world known as OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation).  In OASIS, everyone has an avatar that is controlled in the real world with a visor and haptic sensory gloves.  Business, education, and recreation occur within the confines of OASIS.  While the real world burns and people starve, most are pacified by their access to the alternate, virtual reality.

We enter the narrative just as the creator of OASIS (a reclusive genius named James Halliday) passes away.  He leaves behind a cryptic video message containing a final challenge: somewhere in OASIS, Halliday has hidden three keys that open three gates.  Whoever deciphers his riddles, finds the keys, and opens the gates will be awarded a huge sum of money.  Anyone can play.

Like many, Parzival is enchanted by the prospect of finding Halliday’s secret stash.  Halliday was a huge fan of 80s popculture, so Parzival becomes somewhat of a savant concerning films, television shows, video games, and comic books of the 1980s.  This knowledge comes in handy as he relentlessly pursues Halliday’s keys.

I really loved this book, but I’d like to shift from summary to talking a little bit about why I think books like this one have such a strong appeal.  For me, Ready Player One is in the same category of books as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.  These books share a key ingredient: they are all set in richly detailed, fantastical worlds.  Books are naturally vehicles for escape (similar, in some ways, to Clines’s OASIS).  But when books have at their heart a space–maybe, even, a home–for the reader’s mind to inhabit, they become uniquely appealing.  Our imaginative minds love to exist in realms different from the one in which are physical bodies reside.  Harry Potter has Hogwarts.  The Hunger Games has Panem and the arena.  Ready Player One has OASIS.

The massive popularity of certain video games (like Minecraft) might be partially attributable to our minds’ proclivity for playing in a separate space.  Minecraft is a sandbox style game, meaning that much of the game revolves around players altering, building, or destroying their surrounding environment.  It is the quintessential interactive “mindscape” in that it allows players to bend the observable, virtual world to their whims.

For posterity’s sake, here is a screenshot of the Minecraft server on which I occasionally play with a few friends.  We have a constitution, a capitol, private property claims, systems of arbitration, and laws/bylaws to boot.  We might take it a little too seriously.  🙂

Minecraft 1

Good fiction draws us in by enticing our minds with the promise of a new space in which to dwell.  Spend some time in Cline’s, Ready Player One.  You won’t be disappointed.

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Circle the Wagons: Metacognition and Mega-Confusion

Posted on May 19, 2013

The Oregon Trail


In 1971 Don Rawitsch, a senior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, taught a history class as a student teacher. He used HP Time-Shared BASIC running on an HP 2100 minicomputer to write a computer program to help teach the subject. The Oregon Trail debuted to Rawitsch’s class on 3 December 1971. Despite bugs, the game was immediately popular, and he made it available to others on Minneapolis Public Schools’ time-sharing service. –Wikipedia


If you attended grade school in the late 80’s or early to mid 90’s and were fortunate enough to have a computer lab in your school, you probably played The Oregon Trail.  For the uninitiated, The Oregon Trail was (and, in its 5th incarnation, still is) a computerized simulation of the massive westward migration that pioneering families undertook in the mid 19th century.  Like those brave pioneers, the game has you travel with a cohort of family and friends in a covered wagon.  Your ultimate destination is Oregon, but to get there you must purchase supplies (including animals, clothing, and medicine), cross treacherous rivers, and hunt game for survival.  Dysentery, cholera, and broken limbs are ever-present threats.  In one version of the game, your party even encounters the occasional (and more than a little politically incorrect) “Indian” attack.  As player, you are given the choice of circling the wagons to defend yourself (and thereby sacrificing precious time), or plowing forward with the knowledge that some of your supplies will be liberated from your wagons.

Though it may sound like a bit of a stretch, this conundrum–whether to arrest one’s progress and preserve resources or press on and sacrifice–is an excellent illustration of the problems that exist with prioritizing metacognitive skills in a Secondary Language Arts curriculum.  In the latest issue of the English Journal, author and teacher David Narter discusses how metacognition (thinking about thinking) in an English curriculum can sometimes lead students to an impoverished transaction with literature.  Narter, in his article Pencils Down: Is Mimicking the Behaviors of “Good Readers” Bad for Good Readers?, states,

“Reading literature, especially sophisticated literature, is most certainly a unique activity with particular objectives besides those concerned with the mechanics of doing so.  The effect of metacognitive reading strategies in this context may be analogous to copying the swing of Angels slugger Albert Pujols.  You can model everything that Pujols physically does–and plenty of players and coaches do–but in the end, Albert Pujols is not just a manifestation of those physical steps.”

Narter goes on to identify particular activities–such as text-annotation, t-charts, and SQR3 note taking–as detrimental to students’ ability to reach “the reading zone” (that magical place of total reading immersion).  He even suggests that concentrating too much on our own thinking while reading might lead to the literary equivalent of “Steve Sax Syndrome”:

“Sax was a five-time All Star second baseman who suddenly lost the ability to make the simple toss to first base.  A similar affliction appears in some catchers . . . The simple toss, given the extra time to think and plan their way through the operation, actually inhibits and sometimes obliterates that ability.  Such players become so aware of the external physical process that they lose the feel of the instinct and talent that got them to the majors in the first place.”

As a hobbyist basketball player, I can attest to the truth of this phenomenon.  When I am consciously aware of the motion in my arms, legs, and wrists while shooting, my shooting percentage goes substantially down.  It’s only when I’m in the zone and performing complex visual-spatial calculations on the fly that I achieve “Basketball Nirvana.”

Curiously enough, the metacognitive monster has parallels outside of literature and sports.  Check out this really interesting performance and talk by Andrew Bird (Link).  If you skip to around the 6 minute mark, you’ll hear Andrew talking about the destructive nature of feedback loops in audio.

Andrew Bird

Essentially, when a microphone gets too close its source, a perpetual loop of distortion is created.  Andrew extends and applies this phenomenon to speculate on the dangers of things getting too close to their original source.  It’s conceivable that the same sort of “feedback loop” occurs when our minds get too close to our thinking.

When we “metacognate,” we attempt to understand our thinking through a third-person perspective.  Neuroscientist David Eagleman has done some tremendously exciting research into the mutability of self-perception.  You can find a fantastic radio interview featuring Eagleman Here.

David Eagleman

In one of Eagleman’s experiments, participants reported experiencing a profound sense of disembodiment when they simply observed a live video feed of themselves.  A helmet that blocked out all other visual stimuli was placed on the participants’ heads, and a tiny screen broadcasting the video feed was placed inside of the helmet.  If our sense of self and fundamental connection to our own body is so easily manipulated, then certainly we are capable of metacognition (at least on a limited scale).  I can pretty much guarantee you, however, that learning to play the piano while wearing a helmet similar to those Eagleman uses in his studies would be far more difficult than learning without it.

The same, I think, is true of reading.  When we “circle the wagons” in our thinking about reading, we master meaning without going anywhere.  In this context, our understanding is window dressing because it is not contributing, aiding, or facilitating a deeper purpose.  Let’s try, as Narter puts it, to consider literature as “first and foremost an art form.”  Only then will we be able to transact, think, ponder, wrestle, and build fruitful meaning from texts.  And only then will we help make life-long readers of our students.

 

Speaking Dumb and Other Perks

Posted on May 15, 2013

Too much writing can lead to aphasia, or the inexplicable loss of verbal agility.  When aphasia is absent, words become sentences, and sentences make paragraphed-meanings that march, like battalions in battle, toward victorious communication.  But in the crafting of meaning–through the weaving of words–we spend our capacity for eloquence, which, like most things, is a finite gift.  I have not written (seriously) in a while, so my storehouses are full, my thread spooling, and my desire to be understood palpable.

Though I have yet to mention it on this blog, I have a stutter.  My speech impediment expresses itself through oral disfluencies (blocking, saying “Uh” frequently, and repeating the initial vowel/consonant sounds of words).  Stuttering is not something I consider central to my personality, but I do believe it has shaped me.  I am more likely to be empathetic, far less likely to interrupt or talk over others, and more practiced at listening, which, contrary to what others might have you believe, is a skill.

In my listing of the benefits I believe stuttering has had on me, it sounds as though I have a very high opinion of myself.  Although I’m pretty self-actualized and comfortable in my own skin, I wouldn’t consider myself an egomaniac.  (Side question: Do egomaniacs ever consider themselves egomaniacs?)

Most days, I would trade all the “virtues” that have been forcibly instilled in me by stuttering for honest, genuine, and fluent oral communication with others.  My desire to connect with other people and participate in meaningful dialogue is primary.  Stuttering hampers, hinders, interferes, and redirects this desire.  This is why I love to be surrounded by extroverted individuals.  They initiate.  Once conversations are initiated, I can happily bumble right into them, heedlessly tripping over my words.

If you don’t have a stutter, there are several examples from literature which–I think–come close to providing an accurate simulacrum of what stuttering feels like.  At the beginning of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant novel, Infinite Jest (of which I have thrice read the first 200 pages), the protagonist, Harold Incandenza, faces an inquisitive college admissions board. Although Harold is brilliant, he has serious issues communicating with others; his body seizes up and his limbs flail about.  While looking at the expectant faces of the college faculty, Harold thinks to himself, “I’d tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear.”  Like Harold, stutterers sometimes feel that no matter how urgently they want to communicate with others, the meaning they want to express will be lost in its garbled expression.

In his short story, Metamorphosis, Kafka does a good job of depicting the anxiety that stutterers feel about being misunderstood.  Like Gregor Samsa–who, in Metamorphosis, is strangely and suddenly transformed into a giant bug–a person who stutters sometimes feels great apprehension about being understood as something or someone they are not.  Insect transmogrification is obviously a more extreme condition than occasional verbal disfluency, but the two branches of experience share the same root of anxiety.  Gregor continues to feel like a person throughout much of the story even though he is very much arthropod on the outside.  Similarly, stutterers occasionally feel as though their true selves are being masked by a veneer of verbal sidestepping, hopscotching, and alteration.

Lest you think that stuttering is all gloom and anxiety, I’d like to also discuss the benefits of stuttering.  In the category of moral virtues that stuttering may or may not help to engender is acceptance; stuttering is an excellent lens through which to understand and accept human frailty.  There is no cure for stuttering, just as there is no cure for old age and eventual death.  Some things are meant to be and be accepted.  Acknowledging your frailty is different from accepting it.  I have spent much of my life acknowledging my inadequacies, but I am still learning how to accept them.  My stutter forces me, daily, to encounter and accept my infinitely limited self.

Stuttering is also a great tool for learning how to be vulnerable around others.  Vulnerability is not weakness.  Trust me on this one.  My immediate vulnerability around and with others gives others the freedom to be vulnerable as well.  Real dialogue happens in a place where everyone involved is safe and risking something.  Vulnerability is a means to achieving real dialogue.

Being a teacher with a stutter is challenging.  The stereotype of teachers is that they are fonts of knowledge, generously and fluently articulating their wisdom in lectures and discussions.  This is not me.  Certainly I lecture (one has to drop the knowledge), and certainly I participate in and guide class discussions.  But I am more facilitator than professor–more participant than patriarch.  I love my teaching approach and think it’s effective.  And I teach as I do because of, not in spite of, my stutter.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Posted on May 8, 2013

I’m fresh off a stint of long-term substituting for a 7th/8th grade English class, and boy am I eager to get back into the classroom.  It has only been two days since I handed the reigns back to the teacher I was covering for (out on maternity leave), but I already miss the curious and enthusiastic minds I had the privilege of teaching.  So I’m doubling down on the application bonanza that is my life and searching (high, low, and in-between) for a full-time teaching job.

But before I resume résumé-ing or continuing my coverage of cover letters, I though I’d take a moment and share with you all a fantastic book.  How I went through my childhood, teenage-hood, and young-adult-hood without once cracking the cover of Ellen Raskin‘s The Westing Game, I’ll never know.  I’m just glad I finally had a chance to experience it–at least partially–through the wonder-struck eyes of middle school students.

The Westing Game is a mystery.  This is apparent from page one (no mystery there).  Its tone is playful, clever, and–it needs to be said–mysterious.  Sixteen heirs to a massive fortune are invited to live in Sunset Towers (an apartment complex on the shore of Lake Michigan).  Sunset Towers faces East, even though–as we all know–the sun sets in the West.  Curiouser and curiouser.

The heirs soon discover that the man from whom they stand to inherit the massive fortune–Sam Westing–has recently died.  In his will, Mr. Westing reveals that one of the heirs is guilty of murdering him.  Gasp!  The heirs are paired up and given sets of different clues (along with $10,000).  The heirs who correctly decode their clues and find the answer win the Westing Game!

There soon ensues a madcap race to decipher, discover, and sabotage.  Along the way, Raskin sprinkles in tidbits of slapstick humor and puns.  Every character detail is presented as a potential clue.  Consequently, the inquisitive reader is left chasing leads that sometimes dead end in irrelevance.  But, if one is astute, careful, and alert the mystery can be solved before the final reveal (some of my students were able to correctly predict the “answer” to the Westing Game several chapters before it came to light).

I really loved teaching this book.  As an extra credit option, several of my students chose to build a replica of Sunset Towers in Minecraft.  I started up a server, provided some ground-rules, and left the rest up to them.  The results were kind of amazing.  You can check out a very small portion of their efforts here: Video of Minecraft Sunset Towers.

Another extra credit opportunity for my students had them designing a Glogster (an online poster) police bulletin board on which they posted clues and information about the mystery.  You can see an example of what one of my students created here: The Westing Game Glogster.

I also started off several of my classes with anagram challenges.  The students had to work in teams to decode a list of 5 anagrams and tell me how they were all related.  For instance, one day I had a list of scrambled professions.  Another day, I had a list of jumbled animals.

Finally, I let my students choose from a list of papers and projects that I designed for their final assignment.  You can look over what I put together here:

If you haven’t read The Westing Game, drop whatever you’re doing (as long as it’s not fragile) and READ IT.  That is all.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Posted on February 7, 2013

Let’s keep this “old-made-new book review” ball rolling.  There’s a definite “academic” edge to all these old grad school papers–an unavoidable result of their being written with a different audience in mind.  I liken the impression you’re left with after reading someone’s school papers to a metallic aftertaste: it masks authorial voice through affected use of whiz-bang vocabulary.  I hope my “academese” doesn’t decrease your enjoyment of these.  (If you didn’t to begin with, please read the preceding as a sing-songy rhyme).  Next up–Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Review

One of the hardest things in writing to define is the property of “voice.” The other building blocks of writing–be it grammar, form, or even metaphorical language–all operate on well-defined formulas that can be learned and taught by methods of rote memorization. Voice, however, defies easy classification and simple pedagogical approaches. It is the Holy Grail of good writing.

The challenging nature of voice made it very pleasant for me to read Sherman Alexie’s, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. “Junior” Arnold Spirit, the protagonist, has one of the most vivid, well crafted voices that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. It is a voice that frankly–some would say bluntly–explores the awkward, frustrating, heart-wrenching, and triumphant experiences of a teenage boy. In addition, Arnold presents the rather unique perspective of growing up poor on an Indian reservation with an alcoholic father, dealing with a community that openly disdains him for wanting to better his life, and coping with a barrage of several senseless and sudden personal tragedies.

Though Arnold meditates on social injustice, feelings of despair, and deeply existential questions, his voice never becomes self-pitying or histrionic. There is a tone of self-deprecating humor that runs throughout the book, and is seen especially clearly in the wonderful illustrations with dead-pan captions. Arnold claims that drawing pictures helps him to make sense of the world around him, and we are invited to witness the fruits of this intimate process first hand.

Perhaps what struck me most after my reading of the book was an appreciation for the resiliency that Arnold displays. After being abandoned by his best friend, Rowdy, experiencing the deaths of both his grandmother and sister, and dealing with the grim realities of having an alcoholic father, Arnold still manages to do well in school, become a star basketball player, and make new friends at a nearly all white school. These are significant accomplishments, especially when we consider the context in which they occurred.

Near the end of the book, Arnold is reminiscing about a time when he and Rowdy climbed the tallest pine tree on the reservation. This pine tree is located near Turtle Lake, which Arnold explains has mythical and ghostly stories associated with it. When Arnold and Rowdy reach the top of the pine tree, they marvel at the beauty surrounding them and their ability to see it all at once. This is, in my opinion, the perfect analogy for what Arnold has experienced in the book up to this point. As an Indian going to a nearly all white school, Arnold never feels truly at home at school or on the reservation. Like being at the top of a pine tree, suspended between the heavens and the earth, Arnold is somewhere between the two cultural worlds of Whiteness and Indian-ness. Though this is often a lonely position for Arnold to be in, it is important to note that Rowdy climbs the tree with him. The implication is that Arnold doesn’t have to leave his cultural roots behind him when striving to better his life. It is also important to note that what eventually tears Arnold and Rowdy from their tree-top reverie is Rowdy’s fart. This comical event parallels Arnold’s struggle to transcend his environment while constantly being drug back down to it by personal tragedy and cultural/familial loyalties.

Although this book broaches some controversial topics in a casual, almost flippant tone, I would absolutely have my students read it. In my opinion, the best way to develop a distinctive writing voice is to experience powerful voices in writing, and learn from their example.

Teaching Ideas

  1. This idea is inspired by the wonderful illustrations found in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. As a homework assignment, I would have my students pictorially describe an event that occurred in their lives within the past month. They would have to draw a depiction of the event, write a few captions (humorous or serious), and then write a paragraph explaining their experience in using this medium as a means of communicating an experience and associated feeling(s). This assignment would hopefully positively engage members of my class less comfortable with pure, written expression.
  2. This classroom activity would hopefully start my students thinking about cultural diversity and how we define culture. I would split the class up into small groups of four students. I would then ask these groups to consider and discuss the following question: What are 3 essential aspects of American culture that define what it means to be an American? After allowing for discussion time, each group would present the results of their discussions, backing up their choices with solid arguments. The more varied the choices, the better, because after each group presents we would discuss as a class the heterogeneous nature of American culture.
  3.  As a choice for an end-of-unit project, I would offer my students the option of researching a sub-culture in America and presenting their findings to the rest of the class. A prerequisite for this project would require whatever subculture chosen to be “school appropriate”, i.e. no profanity, sexual content, references to substance abuse, etc. The students’ presentations would answer the following questions:* How is this a subculture? * How does this subculture interact with surrounding sub-cultures/cultures. * What are the qualities/characteristics/practices of this sub-culture that distinguish it from others? * How is this subculture like your own culture? This assignment would hopefully further my students’ critical thinking processes regarding defining what culture is.
  4. This teaching idea would take advantage of a supplementary text: the documentary, “Black Indians: An American Story.” The students would watch the documentary in class, and then write a short one page paper responding to its depiction of the interplay/intermixing of cultural identities toward a common purpose. The documentary would be especially pertinent to our reading of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because it depicts the injustice done to both African American and Native Americans by European culture during the early portion of U.S. history.

Lady Macbeth’s Daughter by Lisa Klein

Posted on February 6, 2013

I recently stumbled upon backlog of YA book reviews and accompanying teaching ideas that I compiled for a Young Adult Fiction class.  I’ll occasionally include some of them on this blog to spice things up.  Feel free to steal/alter/transmogrify any of my teaching ideas.  First Up–Lady Macbeth‘s Daughter.

Review

Lady Macbeth’s Daughter is an example of how the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain of learning—synthesis—is best applied to the understanding and creation of literature. In the book, Lisa Klein imagines a vivid back-story to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. She both allows the reader insight into the motivations and interior psychological processes of the characters, and creatively weaves new characters into the framework of Shakespeare’s play. By doing so, she deepens our understanding of the play, explores the richness of its characters, and creates a fantastic work of fiction all her own. As a former professor of English, I imagine Klein grew tired of simply analyzing works of literature through a critical lens, and wanted to engage them in a more authentic way. This is a terrific book for high school students to read because it offers a pristine example of how engagement with a text does not have to stop at an explicatory essay, but can extend to inspiring unique creative works.

Having read many Shakespeare plays—including Macbeth—I can appreciate Klein’s mining the characters’ motivations. Often, Shakespeare writes incredibly three dimensional characters that are nonetheless enigmatic. They speak and act from well defined emotional stances, but we are left to suppose what has led them to their particular words or actions. Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters, and while we know she is cruel and essentially the architect of much of the mayhem in the play, we are not completely aware of the circumstances that led her to be so power hungry. Klein, by presenting Grelach as a primarily sympathetic character who has been unwillingly married off twice, forced to give up her only daughter, has miscarried three times, and is ridiculed for her bareness, allows us to reclaim Lady Macbeth. She is no longer simply power hungry and crazed with ambition. Rather, she is the product of grief, fatigue, and incessant patriarchal pressure.

I really enjoyed Klein’s description of landscape in the book. By combining elements of mythology and history, she paints the landscape of Scotland a murky, magical, wet gray. Her imagery often reminded me of Tolkien’s, especially when Albia encounters the boar on the mountain top, and in her description of Geillis and Helwain’s roundhouse in Wychelm Wood. The perpetual winter brought on by Macbeth’s ascendance to the throne was reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Additionally, the fledgling romance between Albia and Fleance, counterpoised by Albia’s nostalgia for her companionship with Colum, reminded me of Katniss’ conflicting emotions in The Hunger Games.

Although I was hoping for more of a happily ever after ending than I got (it is Macbeth, after all), I was pleased with way the book concluded. Albia did not agree to marry Fleance immediately and thereby become debased as a trophy or political bartering chip. Though we are left wondering whether Grelach and Albia will be truly reconciled, they have taken the necessary first step. This potential for forgiveness and healing among women is contrasted sharply with the warring vengeful nature of men. This would be a good book to read shortly before or after Macbeth, and then introduce the critical perspective of feminism.

Teaching Ideas

  1. As I mentioned in my review, I feel as if this text is a perfect one to read concurrently, or shortly before/after reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is also perfect to introduce the critical lens of feminism. As a means to broaden my students’ perspective regarding both the play and this text, I would briefly introduce the feminist critical lens with a reading from A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. After this, I would have my class read an article from the feminist perspective dealing with Macbeth. The article, called “Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England,” deals with the historical situation of women and the pressure put upon them to produce male heirs for their husbands in early England.
  2. As I mentioned in my review, I feel as though Lisa Klein has done an incredible job of imaginatively playing with and extending the text of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This technique fits nicely into the educational approach of Writing to Learn, whereby the student analyzes a text by creating something new with the text’s component parts. As a means to emphasize this educational approach, and to stretch my students’ “analytical creativity,” I would have them participate in their own Writing to Learn activity. They could complete the assignment in one of two ways- they could either imagine themselves as the pen pal of a central character in the play or book and write that character a letter, or they could take up where the book left off and write an additional chapter describing the future of Albia and Grelach’s relationship and Scotland’s monarchy.
  3. Lady Macbeth’s Daughter, while a very accessible and readable text for adolescents, nevertheless includes much arcane and regionalized vocabulary. Words like sheiling, cairn, and wold are not commonly encountered in modern, American English. Additionally, it might be hard for students to understand exactly where the action takes places, as the book mentions several names of nations, regions, and cities whose geography is probably unfamiliar to many high school students. To aid my students’ understanding of these specifics, I would have them read excerpts from Magnus Magnusson’s book, Scotland: the Story of a Nation. I would then create a list of 25 to 30 difficult or unusual words presented in the book and assign one word to each student. The students would then be responsible for looking up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, writing one sentence using the word, and presenting their definitions and sentences to the rest of the class.
  4. As a means of extending my students’ knowledge of Scotland’s cultural heritage, I would offer them the option of writing a short, 3 to 4 page paper on Scottish history and culture as an end-of-unit project. In this paper, they would be required to compare and contrast modern American society with Scottish society during the events of the book. I would ask them to play close attention to government, family structure, the arts, and education in their papers. This paper, while primarily being an historical exploration, would also be an opinion piece, as I would require my students to choose which society they would most like to live in, and back up their choice with historical and modern evidence.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Posted on February 5, 2013

I first saw the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, when I was in high school.  Say what you will about its faults (the actors were melodramatic, at times poorly dubbed, and frequently defied the laws of physics), but its philosophical treatment of martial arts and ill-fated love warmed the cockles of my adolescent heart.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is probably best described as an epic tale of adventure and love, but it borrows from numerous film genres: ethnography, action movie, fable, etc.  While its cinematography is nothing short of breath-taking, I would characterize director Ang Lee’s overall style as “soothingly sumptuous.”  The fight scenes–full of aerial gymnastics and frenetic drums–are counterbalanced by peaceful conversations passing between Master Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (played by Michelle Yeoh).  Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien function as Jedi Master archetypes–contemplating virtue, truth, and beauty while immersed in a world both lush and dangerous.

Two scenes stand out in my mind.  The first occurs when Li Mu Bai is attempting to instruct a precocious young protege in the art of armed combat.  They have a bit of a falling out and decide to settle their grievances with a sword fight atop bamboo trees.  You can view the full scene (un-subtitled and non-dubbed) Here.  The swaying of the bamboo boughs, slow motion closeups, and pulsing background strings–the scene’s heartbeat–lend this portion of the film a dreamlike beauty.  The second scene, found Here, occurs at the conclusion of the film.  Don’t watch it unless you’ve already seen the movie or don’t mind having the ending spoiled.  All I’ll say about it is Yo-Yo Ma is the Yo-Yo Man.

While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is certifiably great,  it’s not my favorite Ang Lee film.  That honor belongs to Hulk, Lee’s masterful retelling of a comic book classic.  Never before (or since) has computer animation been able to so vividly portray the primal power of rampant anger.

I am, of course, kidding; Hulk is far from my favorite Ang Lee film.  Life of Pi–Lee’s movie adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel of the same name–is. And it just received 11 Oscar nominations, so, you know, no big deal.

I am ashamed to admit that, yes, I saw Life of Pi the movie before I read the book.  According to the binding resolutions established during the 5th annual English Teacher Symposium (1968), it is incumbent upon me to immediately relinquish my teaching credentials and find another line of work.  I know, I know.  But before I do, let me go out in a blaze of glory and admit that I also saw film adaptations of The Wizard of Oz, Coriolanus, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory before ever reading their respective book/play predecessors.  I handled all the Harry Potter books appropriately–reading before seeing.  Luckily, the Twilight series will never present a seeing or reading temptation for me.  Feels good to get that off my chest.

It wasn’t for lack of effort effort on my friends’ part that I neglected to read Life of Pi before seeing the movie.  During college, a good friend lent me the book for approximately 2 years (actually, I’m not sure I ever gave it back to him).  I started it, read to the part where Pi Patel and his family are about to set off on their voyage across the Atlantic, and then, for some inexplicable reason, stopped.  In retrospect, I think I needed to discover the book on my own schedule and according to my own terms.  Sometimes, books/movies are sooo popular that you chafe against the very idea of acceding to popular consensus and giving them an audience.

It’s hard to pinpoint a single thing that makes Life of Pi (the movie) great.  I saw it in 3D in the theaters.  When the end credits began to roll, my mouth was as dry as a cotton ball from having watched, slacked-jaw in wonderment, the visual tour-de-force.  It is a movie that irresistibly convinces you that film can be a powerful story-telling medium–almost on par with books.  And it is a movie that is aesthetically pleasing beyond all measure.

Having seen the movie, I was now (finally) ready to delve into the book.  I had the weird experience of hoping a book was as good as its movie.  How many times does that happen?  I took off my 3D glasses, plopped on my regular spectacles, and read.

The first thing you will notice upon reading Life of Pi is how beautifully layered the story is.  It is a frame story, a bildungsroman, an allegory, a spiritual treatise, and a good ole’ fashioned adventure tale.  While the movie is able to faithfully render the veneer of the story, it fails to adequately capture the multivalent wisdom of Pi Patel’s narrative voice.  Patel is a relentless philosopher, casting seemingly chance events in meaning’s light.  Especially admirable is his ability to reconcile and embrace the religious traditions of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.  While most people adopt the religious practices of their family, Patel unaffectedly learns about and admires Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.  He is the uber-guru-prophet-monk.

The second thing you will notice about the novel, Life of Pi, is how deftly Martel is able to suspend your disbelief.  Of course Patel is trapped on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a tiger.  Of course he is able to tame the lion (humorously named Richard Parker) and survive on the desolate sea for hundreds of days.  Of course Patel, after going blind from lack of food and water, bumps into another survivor in another lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.  All of these events, considered in the cold, clear light of reason, would appear fantastical, but Martel makes you believe them.  At the very least you want to believe them.  In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, time and gravity seem to be temporarily suspended.  In Life of Pi, it is reality itself that is unseated.

The final thing you will observe about this book is how true to the human experience it is.  We tell stories about ourselves and our lives to survive.  These stories, when composed in response to the doldrums of daily life, are often nothing but harmless half-truths.  “I lead a healthy lifestyle (even though I ate 3 doughnuts for breakfast)”.  “I am a dedicated worker (even though I enjoy taking 45 minutes to 1 hour for lunch)”.  “I am a good friend (even though I never send my friends Christmas cards or write on their Facebook walls for their birthdays)”.  We rationalize away the parenthetical elements of our lives.

But what happens–as is the case in Life of Pi–when those parenthetical elements are dire, disturbing, and bleak?  Our rationalizations must compensate; they must become inflated and grand.  Grave circumstances require brave stories.  Life of Pi does a fine job of demonstrating this somewhat depressing truth in a beautiful way.

Whether you don 3D or reading glasses, I urge you to experience Life of Pi.  It’s a story you won’t soon forget.

P.S. – Here’s hoping Bill Watterson comes out of retirement to make this parody: