Archive for September, 2012

Read It Then See It: The Hobbit

September 21, 2012

Okay, when hit with the preview for the upcoming movie in front of the IMAX of Raiders of the Lost Ark (still the greatest action adventure film of all time, for my money), I will finally bow and write up my long-promised take on the iconic story.

The Movie
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney, New Line, Release Date December 12. Part 1 of a three film series based on the book and various appendices.

The Book
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien, originally published in 1937.

Children’s Fantasy

Age Appropriate
Six and up. Unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit truly is a piece of children’s literature, told very much like a bedtime story.  Some of the language may be complex for younger children, and there are battles a-plenty, but the levity, song, and general general silliness remove any real feeling of danger or dread from the book.

Book Availability
I actually read this book as my own bedtime story, mostly on my iPhone.  I bought the enhanced version for $11.99 which has links to audio files of Tolkien himself singing some of the songs, and alternative photos.  Frankly, I just wanted to read it, so unless you are a huge Rings-o-phile, save the two bucks and get the regular version that’s available for around $10 on both iBooks and Google Books.  Hardcopy available pretty much everywhere.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Between the Dawn of Faeries and the Dominion of Men lived a group of peaceful, earthy little folk called Hobbits.  But despite their general antipathy toward the complicated and dangerous world of the big folk, a Wizard named Galdalf the Gray chooses a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins to go on the adventure of a lifetime.

Silly Dragon, Rings are for Hobbits!

After reluctantly hosting a band of 13 Dwarves (take that Snow White!), Bilbo discovers that he has been chosen as the “thief” to help them recoup the treasure stolen from head Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield from the dastardly dragon, Smaug.

At Gandalf’s urging, Bilbo reluctantly leaves the comfort of Bag End to join the dwarves on this adventure.  The group is almost immediately beset by danger, from hungry trolls to vicious goblins.  After being lost in a Goblin’s cavern, Bilbo stumbles on a creature called Gollum, and a simple but attractive gold ring.  He tricks Gollum into helping him escape with the added aid of that magical invisibility ring.

Bilbo puts that ring to good use in order to outwit hungry giant spiders, greedy and mistrustful elves, and Smaug himself.  But pride and avarice bring men, elves, and dwarves to the brink of war with one and other.  Only the common enemy of a massive attack from the forces of evil are able to bring them together to defend the treasures of the Lonely Mountain.  Redemption is found, for some, found in death, and Bilbo finds himself back at Bag End, but forever changed by the experience.

Quickie Review
It’s funny, for my own grown-up pleasure I’m currently reading A Dance With Dragons, the latest in the Song of Fire and Ice series (better known as the HBO series Game of Thrones).  You can so easily see Tolkien’s influence on George RR Martin’s writing, everything from the grand descriptions to the breaking out in song.  For when it comes to the fantasy genre, you are hard pressed to find an author who isn’t a Tolkien prodigy in some way, shape or form.

But while Martin’s series is extremely adult, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is an epic work that is also quite adult, The Hobbit is a bedtime story, and is written in that exact way.  He in his style will set up side plots, but dismiss them as “a story for another day.”  He will come out of the narration and made editorial statements about the characters, and he uses poems and song to add the kind of improvisational levity to the story that you would absolutely expect with milk and cookies.

I will admit that I am not a huge Tolkien fan.  I believe that is because he spends a tremendous amount of time giving me the lore of his huge and imaginative world, but I believe it is at the expense of the story (indeed, I find the same fault with Martin’s work).  This is definitely a personal taste, as I know many fans who absolutely adore the rich and insanely imaginative world Tolkien created with Middle Earth.  But I find if you’re not interested in geeking out on the histories of elves and goblins, many of the details can be ponderous and clash with the child-like narrative.

I also have to say that the 13 Dwarves killed me.  I simply could not keep up with which character was which.  Given their names weren’t Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy, etc., they became mix-and-match to me and made me simply not care about any of them.  I also found his use of song, which is even more pronounced here than in the LOTR books, to be extremely heavy-handed and took away from the drama.

Great rendering by illustrator Alan Lee

The one part I did LOVE was Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum.  Extremely well paced and you really feel the sinister, pained character from beginning to end.  The riddle contest which ends up being Bilbo’s salvation is a lot of fun (some of those riddles actually made their way into Gus’s LOTR party).

So if you’re looking for tightly written and gripping fantasy tale, I don’t think this is it.  But as prologue to an epic adventure, helping to establish the iconic world of Tolkien, I believe this is a book worth reading.  Okay, Tolkien fans, flame away…

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Doctoral theses have been written on the meaning(s) contained within The Hobbit.  So I’m going to keep it a bit more simple and invite others to add to the conversation.

Everything Changes: At its essence, Bilbo’s story is about a man who fears change learning to embrace it.  Kids have these feelings all the time, mine most recently when going to a new school.  Bilbo’s story can help you to parallel times when your kids faced a new experience.  This can either add empathy for your kids to the story, or by using Bilbo as a guide help them to see change as a positive.

Fun With Riddles: As I mentioned, I think the most cleverly written part of the book is Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum.  If your kids feel the same, what a wonderful way to get them hooked on riddles.  Brain-stretching riddles are excellent cognitive, social, and linguistic development tools.  From problem-solving, to understanding the art of word play, to the development of that all-important funny bone, Gollum will do your kid a big favor if these get her/him jazzed to riddle me this.  Especially if you are reading to your children, you can take the opportunity to stop at the riddle and work with them to figure out the answer to the riddle before you move on with the book.

Greed Ain’t Good: Perhaps this won’t sit well with the Ayn Rand set, but from Trolls to Dwarves to Dragons to, yes, even the sainted elves, Tolkien tells the tales of comeuppance for those who only want more.  What is good in this is that greed is not the exclusive providence of the wicked.  Thorin Oakenshield himself succumbs to it much to his own downfall, and, yes, even the woodland elves’ leader Thranduil was known for his greed.  It’s a good basis for discussion about how avarice can blind you to more important things in your life.

Big Things… One of the most obvious things, yet still perhaps the best lesson of the Hobbit and the whole LOTR saga is that even the smallest of creatures can have a major impact on the world.  Bilbo’s journey goes from him feeling very small and useless to finding the full extent of his courage and usefulness.  This story is a great gateway for discussion on how everyone can have a voice and an impact on the world, and no one should be underestimated or discounted in that regard.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, you probably know at this point that director Peter Jackson has decided to turn this tale into not one, not two, but three movies.  From the trailers, I think you can see that he is very much attempting to keep with the darker, more adult tone of his LOTR trilogy, though he does say that he has attempted to keep some of the whimsy of this children’s story intact as well.

It seems that the first film, An Unexpected Journey, will be Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain.  The second, The Desolation of Smaug, will focus on the rise and fall of the dragon, and the third, There and Back Again, will climax in the Battle of the Five Armies.  Seems like a reasonable way to split them up.

I actually preferred the LOTR films to the books, as I felt Jackson kept to the spirit of the books but cut a lot of expositional fat that I did not enjoy in Tolkien’s writing style (though I’m still fuming at the removal of the man and the myth, Tom Bombadil).  It will be interesting to see what happens here, as this trilogy seems to be less The Hobbit and more a piecing together of Tolkien’s appendices with The Hobbit’s story meshed in to try and paint a fuller picture and more direct bridge between these films and LOTR.  In many ways, this will likely get compared to Star Wars with a prequel trilogy.  I’m hopeful that Jackson will succeed where Lucas failed, but he is definitely more out on a limb this time from a storytelling perspective than he was with the Rings trilogy.

After all the back and forth about New Line itself, and potential changes in directors, I’m very glad it ended up being Jackson himself that took this on.  It will be fun to see his whole vision played out on screen.  I think Martin Freeman, who is amazing as Dr. Watson in the new Sherlock! series on BBC was an inspired choice, and, especially with the added layers to the story not seen in the book (most notably, the story of the Necromancer) we should see a lot more of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Gray (rather than the more stick-in-the-mud Galdalf the White).  That in itself will be worth the price of admission.

So hit the book, then get that Fandango App warmed up, as I have no doubt this is going to be a great ride, and a lot of fun to compare to the book because there will be a lot of changes.  Happy reading!

The Agony and Joy (Hakim) of Teaching Kids History

September 10, 2012

As my musings on this blog have gone on, I’ve gotten fairly consistent feedback that while my book and movie reviews are somewhat useful, and my tips and occasional missives are okay, what folks like most are my stories.

And that makes sense, right?  I mean, everyone loves a good story.  Something that brings you inside an event.  Makes it meaningful.  Allows you to relate to it on a personal level.

So, on that note, allow me to present to you two versions of the same story.  A true story no less:

The most insightful theory I’ve seen as to how the glaciers parted to make way for homo sapiens in America.

Version 1

Watch that band of people move across the plain.  They look hungry and tired.  The tribe is small, just 20 people in all, and only six are men of hunting age.  But they are brave and their spears are sharp, so they will keep going.  They follow the tracks of a mammoth.

If they can kill the mammoth—a huge, wooly elephant—they will feast for much of the winter.

The trail of the great animal leads them to where no people have gone before.  It leads them onto a wide, grassy earth bridge that stretches between two continents.  They have come from Asia.  When they cross that bridge they will be on land that someday will be called America.  The trail of the mammoth leads them from Asia to a new world.

They don’t realize what a big step they are taking.  They don’t know they are making history.  All they know is that they have lost the mammoth.  He has outsmarted them.  But it doesn’t matter; the new land is rich in animals and fish and berries.  They will stay.

All that happened a long time ago, when families lived in huts and caves and the bow and arrow hadn’t even been invented.  It was a time when ice blankets—called glaciers—covered much of the northern land.  We call it the Ice Age.  Some of the glaciers were more than a mile high.  Nothing man has built has been as tall.

Version 2

The Land-Bridge Theory  Between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago, much of the world was covered by glaciers, or thick sheets of ice.  As more and more of the world’s water froze, the level of the oceans dropped.  Areas that once were covered by water became dry land.  One of these areas stretched between Siberia and Alaska.  It became a bridge of land many miles wide.  The area now lies under a narrow waterway called the Bering Strait.

The land bridge may have appeared and disappeared several times.  However, many scientists believe that people first came to North America between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago.  They were hunters, possibility following the coast of Siberia as they hunted prehistoric mammals such as the woolly mammoth.  Over thousands of years, hunting bands moved over the land.  They eventually spread across North America and South America.

Almost as big and heavy as the monument itself

Pretty much the same information, right?  Right down to highlighting the word “glacier.”  So a question for you.  Which one is a text book, and which one is a story book?  Would you believe that the answer is that they are both text books?  Unfortunately for my son, his text book for his 6th Grade American Studies class is version 2, Pretence Hall’s America: History of Our Nation.

While this may sound familiar from your primary school years slaving through lip-crackingly dry passages as exemplified by #2 above, author Joy Hakim remembered that history is his-story.  She wrote version #1, and what many believe is the best primary-through-middle school textbooks on American history, Oxford’s A History of US.

I was first turned onto Joy Hakim in this interview in Wired Geek Dad (unfortunately the full interview seems to have disappeared from their site).  She is truly understands what our kids, and teachers, are up against:

Well, there was the day a son brought home a new middle school history. I knew that textbooks are rarely page-turners (although they should be), but this book was beyond dull. The writing was barely literate, the page layouts dreary. I was so enraged by it that I actually called his history teacher.

“I hate the book too,” he told me. I shook my head. How could a book so obviously flawed make it into schools? (I would find out.) Anyway, being a journalist, and caring about words and ideas, I decided to see what I could do.

As for storytelling, that’s the classic way civilizations have always passed on their ideas and information. That we have turned away from it in teaching our children has been a tragedy.

With emphasis on “story”

And while I do understand that the primary text book is only one resource a good social studies teacher uses, there is simply no getting around that it is that book that sets the tone with the kids.  That is because the kids are more than smart enough to understand that what is in that primary text book is the content that will be on the holy grail of the year here in Virginia, the lamentable, borderline contemptible state Standards of Learning (SOL) exams.  The “other stuff” may be all well and good, but they know they don’t have to remember it, because, unlike their text book, the supplements don’t have a giant red band with VIRGINIA stamped on top of it. Yet another wonderful way to suck all the joy (pardon the pun) from learning history.

One place where I actually take issue with Hakim’s point is in her notation that “the page layouts so dreary.”  Well, from the first official social studies book Gus got, the error-filled Our Virginia to this one, the layouts are colorful, and vibrant, filled with maps and sidebars.  And I think that’s about the worst idea I can think of.

Yes, when kids are early readers, highly illustrated, colorful books with big pictures and little text are the order of the day.  But these are pre-teens here.  From Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, the books these kids are devouring now have few-to-no pictures.  And yet they love these stories.  Why?  Because they are well written and exciting.  Life and death struggles that they can relate to.

The design of a textbook by its very nature separates it from the books kids love, making it different and alien.  It’s too big, too wide, too heavy.  Cumbersome to get in and out of the backpack.  It reeks of something they have to read.  And I believe that kind of tactile differentiation can have a profound impact in itself.  While Hakim’s series is smaller than the elephantine Prentice Hall tome, it still screams “I’m a school book!”  Even more than adults, that matters to kids.

This icon stew might excite some teachers, but to a kid it just means “here’s more work for ya.”

Once you head inside, the book reads like a bureaucrat with ADD and CD-ROM of clip art put the thing together.  The sidebars are these icon-laden, totally unhelpful notations on exactly where the content connects to the SOLs (yes, this is in the student edition), then adds a notation on what exact learning skill this section teaches.  Incredibly, in the very section I quoted from it actually asks the student to scan all the myriad sidebars before delving into the content as a key learning tool.  This is SO antithetical to the way actual natural reading and learning happens, a student really has no choice but to shut off from the material rather than be turned on by it.  At least with Hakim, the sidebars are interesting, related factoids that add food for thought to the main text rather than burying it in a Technicolor yawn of nonsense.

History is such an amazing tool to show kids that some of the best stories in the world are the ones we have live and are living right now, and that we are the main characters.  From critical and independent thinking, to problem solving, to civic participation, history is a genuine gift that we can pass onto our children.  And while great teachers can overcome bad textbooks, wouldn’t it be better if they were actually aided by great ones?  Especially if those tools are already at our disposal?

If this doesn’t change radically, the history we give to our children is nothing but a tale told an parrot, full of sidebars and icons, signifying nothing.

“Young. I feel…Young.”

September 4, 2012

Don’t tell me the guy can’t act

Spock’s body was jettisoned out of the Enterprise toward the pulsating light of a newborn planet.  Kirk stood there on the bridge, arms resting on the railing, his face expressing the impossible contradiction of the profound sadness of loss and the wonder of renewal.

“Are you okay, Jim?  How do you feel?” Bones queried, hand reaching to his old friend’s shoulder.

His voice cracked as he fought back the tears that refused to reveal if they were of pain or joy.  “Young,” he said.   “I feel…Young.”

And this is precisely how I feel each Tuesday after Labor Day as the cocoon of summer splits open and my children remove the “rising” from their grade monikers.  This year, the feeling is particularly strong, as both boys changes are profound.

For Gus, it is the thrill and terror of the big pond that is Middle School.  Last week, when we went successively to Gus’ 6th Grade orientation, then back to his old Elementary School to meet Gunnar’s 2nd Grade teacher, you could not help but be overwhelmed by the sheer difference in size.  And it wasn’t that Gus seemed the guppy in the ocean while at his new digs, but rather when we went back, he seemed more to me like a blonde Godzilla kind enough to avoid stomping on the good citizens of Tokyo.  He had literally outgrown his old school.

Click pic to find out more about the artist. Best representation of Adam West Batman I’ve ever seen

But, of course, the joyous contradictions of adolescence remained.  We spent his final day prepping his new notebooks with printed artwork of his new obsession, Batman, in the varied guises he adores (including the Adam West variant—how awesome is that for an 11-year-old?).  Once we were done decking out the new school supplies, we relaxed with some TV.  He, of course, asked for Batman (Begins), then Batman (Beyond), and then Batman (The Animated Series).

Normally the 11-year-old inside of me would have jumped at any of these options, but the old-grouch version of Dad was out.  I was admittedly having the back-to-school blahs, and was saying “no” to all choices more out of the fact that it was the most convenient outlet for me to be a jerk at the moment.  “I’m tired of watching the same thing a thousand times!” I barked, booting up Netflix on the iPad to see what new options might be around.  Gus groused but acceded, and Kirsten was smart enough to let the grumpy boy (that’d be me) have his way.

As we scrolled through the options, I quickly thumbed past all live action Nickelodeon shows Gus desired.  As I fumbled for any decent choice, under “Family Drama” up popped Friday Night Lights.  I’ve seen the show, and I loved it.  But it deals with some pretty adult topics, not to mention the very real and serious issue of a high school kid becoming a paraplegic.  I wasn’t sure he was ready, but my wife in her wisdom said, “Gunnar’s not home, and I think this is a perfect family show.”

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

And so the three of us watched the pilot, and discussed everything from serious sports injuries to teen drinking.  And, indeed, it was a great vehicle for us to start addressing some more grown up issues with our all-too-grown up boy.  Perhaps even more than with that farewell to the carpool the next morning, it was this moment that made me realize we had arrived at the next stage in his—and our—lives.

That feeling was cemented as I walked Gunnar to his school all alone this morning.  For him, this was perhaps an even more historic moment.  Glebe Elementary School now, for the first time in his academic life, had only one Nathanson.  And because of the four academic year split between them, Gunnar will never be in the same school with his brother again.  He sill held my hand as we walked to school, but when I told him to sit in front of the line for his class, he exasperatedly told me, “No, Dad, it’s boy-girl-boy-girl” as he squeezed behind one of his female friends.  He had this.  No big blonde brother or old salt-and-pepper Dad required.  This was his school now.

And so, here I sit in a house empty of school kids but surrounded by the memories of what they were.  The signed baseball from The Grays championship year.  Gunnar’s snowman ruler he made me in Kindergarten.  The Sepia-toned vision of my bride before this adventure even began.

And I feel old.

And young.

Ready to rule the school!

Old because I realize so much has past.  But young because the new experiences for our children—first steps, first tooth, first hit, first date (oh, dear lord)—keep revitalizing me.  Indeed, for all the different experiences I have had in my life, nothing is quite akin to parenting that combines that feeling of familiarity with a sense of genuine renewal.  I guess that’s the difference between the “new” of doing it yourself for the first time and the “renew” of seeing it through the eyes of your children.  And it is a most powerful and wondrous difference indeed.

And so to all you parents out there experiencing these swirling emotions with me, I wish you good luck, safe carpooling, and, of course, that you Live Long and Prosper.