Monday, February 29, 2016

Observations on the 2016 Oscars

Another Academy Awards are in the books, and it's time to look back on the night and the awards race that ended with the festivities. I'll start with the telecast itself, which had quite a few highlights (and some lowlights) before moving onto the awards themselves and what we have learned. Chris Rock was direct but not mean throughout his opening monologue, and he called out Hollywood's racism in an effective way. At first, I thought that he did not go far enough with his commentary, but as I rewatched it and read some reviews, I realized that he did what he could, given the circumstances. There was only one joke for which he lost the crowd (about the "in memoriam" segment just featuring pictures of black people shot by cops on the way to the movies), but he managed to balance the need to keep the crowd onside and to make some valid points for consideration at the same time.

He did not do nearly as well for the rest of the show. The Girl Scout bit seemed a little too "Ellen-y" for him (it was almost an exact replica of the pizza ordering from two years ago), the Stacey Dash joke didn't work, and the Asian accountants joke - whether he was responsible for it or not - was not okay under any circumstances. Rock had the opportunity to do something legendary here, and although he was good, I think he dropped the ball a bit, especially because two of his friends really upstaged him. The highlights of the presenters were Kevin Hart's inspirational speech and Louis C.K. riffing on the Documentary Short ("this award is going home in a Honda Civic"), either of whom would make a fine host someday. I give Rock a B+ and the telecast a B- overall.

In terms of the awards themselves, I was legitimately surprised three times by the awards when they were given out, a revelation which I would expect would be echoed by many fellow Oscar prognosticators: when Ex Machina won for Visual Effects over Mad Max: Fury Road; when Sam Smith beat Lady Gaga for Original Song; and when Spotlight triumphed over The Revenant and The Big Short for Best Picture. That last pick ruined my chance at my best year ever (well, of the last twelve that I have publicly picked the winners, anyway), so I ended up at 9/10 on the big awards and 15/21 overall (I didn't pick the short film categories this year).

It's a significant improvement on last year and marks a return to form for me, as well as validation of some of my instincts about the way the awards work. It does, however, mean that I have picked only half of the Best Picture winners correctly over the past twelve years, so I have improvements to make in regard to predicting that category. After last year's Birdman debacle, when I ignored the Guilds almost entirely to my detriment, I created five rules to follow in my prognostications for the future that I then used to guide my picks this year.

1. Don't be contrarian in your picks and trust the Guilds.
2. Don't choose subtlety.
3. Never underestimate the power of "the narrative" for the year.
4. Don't overestimate the possible long term ramifications.
5. Don't overthink it.

Rethinking the Rules

Since this was the first time that I really tested those rules, I decided to use this (mostly successful) experience to revise those rules for next year in my quest to finally get 100% of the major nominees right. I have italicized my additions to last year's rules, and I have also decided to consider the order of the rules more carefully, as I think now that some rules are more significant than others, with the most important coming earlier in the list.

1. Trust the Guilds, which matter more than other precursors. The major guilds - SAG (Screen Actors' Guild), the DGA (Directors' Guild of America), the WGA (Writers' Guild of America), and the PGA (Producers' Guild of America) - have significantly more power as a predictive tool than the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, as demonstrated by the performance of The Revenant this year, which won both of the latter but was not nominated for either the SAG or the WGA. The real wrench this year was the PGA choosing The Big Short over either Spotlight or The Revenant; had they chosen Spotlight, I imagine that the conversation would have been a lot more active about its chances.

2. Don't underestimate the power of the acting branch. The acting branch is the largest segment of the Academy, so its influence should not be taken too lightly, particularly in determining Best Picture. Spotlight won the SAG award for Best Cast - the SAG equivalent of Best Picture - which is arguably as significant a predictor as the PGA Award (for which 19 of 27 winners have lined up, and no Best Picture winner has not been previously nominated by the PGA). In the 21 years that SAG has given the Best Cast award, eleven winners have gone on to win Best Picture, which marks a high correlation on its own. But what is perhaps more telling is that the eventual Best Picture winner has only once not been nominated for Best Cast with SAG: Braveheart, which won Best Picture the first year in which the SAG gave out the award and exists as an avowed exception to most of the guidelines in choosing the Best Picture at the Oscars. So that means for twenty years that the Best Picture winner has at least been nominated for the SAG Best Cast award, which is an incredibly potent correlation and perhaps the best indicator that The Revenant - which was not nominated by SAG - was not going to win.

3. A film's other nominations matter. Much has been written about the correlation between a film's chances for Best Picture and certain other nominations, especially Acting, Writing and Editing. Films rarely have a chance without at least achieving nominations in each of those three categories, regardless of whether they end up winning or not, so The Revenant's lack of a nomination for Writing should have been a stronger clue as to the Academy's true leanings toward the film. There are historical exceptions, of course, such as when Titanic won Best Picture without a nomination in Writing, but those are not very common. This one fact wasn't enough to convince me on its own that The Revenant would not win, but I should have considered it more carefully with all of the other factors.

4. Historical precedent matters...unless it doesn't. We Oscar prognosticators love to trot out all kinds of statistics and precedents as we make our picks. Films rarely win Best Picture without at least two other wins - but Spotlight did (though it was the first time in over six decades that it had happened). Films usually do not win Best Picture without a nomination for Best Editing - until Birdman did last year; for reference, the previously most recent examples were The Godfather Part II, Annie Hall, and Ordinary People between 1975 and 1981. Then again, it is still the case that no director has ever directed two consecutive Best Picture winners - another shot against The Revenant. The challenge is to know which historical trends will continue, and which will not, which is why this rule ranks a bit lower down.

5. Never underestimate the power of "the narrative" for the year...but don't overestimate it, either. This awkwardly worded rule essentially just means that we need to properly consider the place of a film's narrative. The Revenant seemed unstoppable after its incredible box office run and its wins at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the DGAs, and its place in Oscar history seemed to be cemented before the ceremony. So what happened? We collectively overestimated the power of its narrative, and we did not see that voters would see its narrative as complete with its other victories.

6. Avoid the "interlopers", particularly in the acting categories. I properly picked Mark Rylance to defeat Sylvester Stallone despite the fact that Sly was seemingly the overwhelming favourite to win. I made my decision based primarily on the Academy's attitude as established by thwarting nominations previous comebacks (Burt Reynolds, Mickey Rourke), late career resuscitations or nominations (Lauren Bacall, Peter O'Toole), or pre-established fame outside of the Oscars (Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy). Sure, there are some examples in recent history that might indicate otherwise - Jeff Bridges and Christopher Plummer come to mind - but the difference is that those awards were given to previous nominees who were not seen as interlopers at the Oscars - which Stallone clearly was - but to long-standing members of the Academy community who had earned their keep. The closest to a violation of this rule that I can think of would be Mo'nique winning for Precious, but every rule has to have an exception. I'm sure this rule could apply in other fields, though it's likely the strongest in the acting branch.

7. Don't be contrarian in your picks unless you have a good reason to do so. I had good reasons to pick against Stallone, so I did, and I was successful. I had some good reasons to go against the leading pick - The Revenant - but I ultimately chose to trust the reasons against choosing Spotlight, which now represents a shortsighted decision. In this case, I weighed out the possibilities of being contrarian for each and I decided that going against Spotlight made more sense; hence, I have rethought these rules.

8. Don't choose subtlety, particularly regarding the crafting of a film. Spotlight's win might seem to be a reason to discard this rule entirely, but I think it still generally applies, with the small caveat of applying it more directing to the craft of the film than to the content. Spotlight, although subtle in its craft, is anything but subtle in its content (sexual abuse in the Catholic Church) or its message (the power of investigative journalism). I think it still holds that the Academy tends not to value subtlety, so I'm keeping this rule here, albeit lower in the list.

9. Don't really even consider the possible long term ramifications. I think this rule holds up in the wake of Spotlight's victory, as I think most voters picked Spotlight not because of its issues, but because they legitimately thought it was the best film of the year. I used this rule to justify picking The Revenant, but if anything, this rule worked against me, as I considered that The Revenant seemed to fit the canon of Best Picture winners more than The Big Short or Spotlight. I got caught up by thinking of the overall narrative and long term ramifications in a different way, and I need to learn not to do that at all.

10. Don't overthink it; after all, sometimes the best choice wins. I know that "best choice" is subjective, but I think it is true that occasionally critical, commercial, and Academy choices coalesce and the eventual winners are deemed "worthy" regardless of the politicizing and campaigning and whatever else goes into. This seems to happen most often in the craft categories (Writing, Directing, Editing), but it does happen in Best Picture every decade or so. It seems to happen more often that the winners are not necessarily the "best choice" (The King's Speech or Shakespeare in Love come immediately to mind), but there are times in which the "best choice" wins - like Spotlight.

Reevaluating Spotlight's win

So, with these revised rules in place, Spotlight's win and The Revenant's loss make more sense; then again, I'm not sure I would have rethought the rules as clearly if The Revenant had persevered. You could still make a case for The Revenant with my new rules, but Spotlight seems to fit just a bit better. If nothing else, it seems like the rules for Best Picture might be a little different than the rest anyway, and here's why. For each category, the nominees come from each particular guild and are voted on by the Academy in a "first-past-the-post" system in which the winner receives the most votes, period. Best Picture is nominated by everyone in the Academy, and the winner is determined by a process called "instant run-off voting" that is explained here by FiveThirtyEight in an article using last year's nominees.

Here's what I think happened: The Revenant had a devoted following as the number one pick, but it did not have enough love outside of those core votes to win. It may have received a plurality of first place votes, but it did not get enough to win outright, meaning that movies started to be eliminated from the ballot from the bottom up. That means that the second place votes for some nominees (perhaps Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn or Room) came into play, and I think it is more likely that Spotlight was named second-best on more ballots (and perhaps more of those ballots) than The Revenant was; it would be interesting to see someone (like FiveThirtyEight) do some analysis of which voters were more likely to vote which way, but alas, the Academy does not release the vote totals. The votes for Spotlight kept adding up, and it earned the majority it needed in order to win. I'm still very surprised, as I did not think that it would actually pull it off; I assumed that we would add Spotlight to the list of superior movies that should have won like The Social Network or Saving Private Ryan instead of adding it to the canon of Best Picture winners.

Why this all matters

This whole discussion brings us to the final question of why this all matters in the first place, as I have many friends who have cynically disavowed any interest in the entire enterprise. I can totally understand why they might do so, much in the same way that I have tended to be more cynical toward professional sports. The Oscars and the entire awards show industry features a lot of the same kinds of conversations and prejudices and cheesy jokes and snubs year after year, not to mention making a lot of money for rich white people, so it makes sense to become cynical about it. The funny thing for me is that I treat most other awards shows that way - with a passing interest in the Emmys or Grammys when nominations or awards are announced - but I continue to see the Oscars as more meaningful both personally and in terms of culture, even though more people likely watch more TV and listen to more music than watch movies.

There is something transcendent about the Oscars that creates a more universal validation of the films in question, whereas there seems to be more variation and room for personal taste in wake of the Emmys and the Grammys, and the awards themselves are not nearly as tied into intrinsic artistic worth. Perhaps it is the exclusivity of the Oscars, or the fact that they remain woefully out of touch at times, or even that they actually get it right often enough to justify their reputation, but the Oscars still mean something on a broader scale.

I know that part of the appeal is that the Oscars and movies have always appealed to me personally. I have been a fan of movies and of the Oscars in particular since I was nine largely because movies were a huge part of my childhood. I remember picking Unforgiven with my dad to beat my mom's pick of Howard's End in 1993, and I have been picking ever since. I enjoy watching the movies themselves, and I do find that my own tastes do line up with the actual nominees on a regular basis, but I also love the exercise of sifting through the data and the history and trying to pick the right winners. The Emmys and the Grammys often seem too arbitrary, whereas the Oscars are just predictable enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

I think that part of the appeal is also tautological - the Oscars matter to me because they have mattered to me in the past. I have made picks publicly and staked some of my reputation as a cinephile on those picks. I have chosen to make them mean something, and so they do. I have been doing this long enough that I have a genuine excitement when the nominations are released and in the lead up to the awards, regardless of how many of the films I have managed to see by either point (which, by the way, remains at two for this year: Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian; three if you include Ex Machina).

I am excited to see how the canon grows and what kind of movies are part of the conversation, and I continue to persist in my quest for the year of perfect picks. Maybe I will be satisfied once I finally do it, but I imagine that I will continue to prognosticate after that time anyway - if it ever comes. For now, I have a number of films to see over the next few months before summer blockbuster season hits, not to mention the excitement of Super Tuesday and eight months of American politics to observe, at the conclusion of which we will be in the middle of the next Oscar season, in which I personally hope that #Oscarssowhite will be a thing of the past.

Friday, February 26, 2016

2016 Final Oscar Picks

I have been prognosticating the Oscars since 2005 (the year of Million Dollar Baby), and I'm usually really quite good at it, if I do say so myself. In the past eleven years, I have had three instances in which I came within a Penn, a Streep, or a Jonze of sweeping the main nine categories; I have, however, also had two instances in which I have missed half of them, including my worst performance last year thanks to my disbelief in Birdman's impending success. Here is a quick recap of my results over my time picking the Oscars.

2015: 4/9, missed Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, and Animated Feature
2014: 8/9, missed Original Screenplay
2013: 6/9, missed Director, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature
2012: 8/9, missed Actress
2011: 7/9, missed Director and Original Screenplay
2010: 6/9, missed Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay
2009: 8/9, missed Actor
2008: 6/9, missed Actress, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay
2007: 5/9, missed Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature
2006: 7/9, missed Picture and Supporting Actress
2005: 7/9, missed Picture and Original Screenplay

I have decided this year to add Editing to the nine categories I have tracked each year to finally make it an even ten major awards I'm picking from here on out. Editing has a strong correlation with Directing and Writing in terms of cinematic craftsmanship, and its nominations are eerily predictive of Best Picture, so I think it's worth incorporating now (and probably should have been there all along). I'm still going to pick the other awards for posterity (except for the three short film categories), but I'm not placing as much of my reputation on those picks.

If you break it down by category, here are my percentages in those major categories over the years:
Best Picture: 6/11 (missed 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2015)
Best Director: 8/11 (missed 2011, 2013, 2015)
Best Actor: 9/11 (missed 2007, 2009)
Best Actress: 9/11 (missed 2008, 2012)
Best Supporting Actor: 9/11 (missed 2007, 2013)
Best Supporting Actress: 9/11 (missed 2006, 2008)
Best Animated Feature: 8/11 (missed 2007, 2013, 2015)
Best Original Screenplay: 6/11 (missed 2005, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015)
Best Adapted Screenplay: 8/11 (missed 2008, 2010, 2015)
Total: 72/99 for 72.7% accuracy.

As you can clearly see, my worst categories are Picture and Original Screenplay, despite the fact that Picture has lined up with the PGA award for the past eight years and Original Screenplay also has a high correspondence with the WGA award. I did, however, place little emphasis on the Guilds in the past (to my detriment, obviously), so in the wake of my performance last year, I reevaluated some of my prognosticating practices and I wrote a post analyzing my mistakes in which I came up with the following five rules to govern my future picks:

1. Don't be contrarian in your picks and trust the Guilds.
2. Don't choose subtlety.
3. Never underestimate the power of "the narrative" for the year.
4. Don't overestimate the possible long term ramifications.
5. Don't overthink it.

But here's the problem for this year: in order to make some of my picks, I need to contravene at least one of those rules, if not more. So I'm making my final picks with the caveat that I may need to amend these rules after the results on Sunday night, and that my rules may perhaps have to be governed with a hierarchical view in which some are more trustworthy than others. At any rate, here are my final thoughts and picks for the 2016 Oscar season.

Best Picture

For the first time in close to a decade, there is very little consensus among the predictive awards, but there are three films that have dominated the conversation. The Producers' Guild, which has predicted each winner since the Best Picture field expanded, picked The Big Short. The WGA awards went to The Big Short and Spotlight, and the Screen Actors' Guild picked Spotlight, the erstwhile front runner that seems to have faded significantly. The Directors' Guild picked Inarritu for The Revenant, which also emerged victorious in two other non-significantly predictive awards, the Golden Globes and the British awards, the BAFTAs. So it's down to The Revenant, The Big Short, and Spotlight.

In my initial observations in January, I wrote that I could not discount the swelling support for The Revenant, though I conceded that Spotlight was likely the front runner; now I realize that picking Spotlight would violate all of my rules, so I can't pick it. That leaves The Big Short and The Revenant as the two competitors, and therein lies the problem. Both films satisfy Rules 2 (not subtle) and 3 (the power of the narrative), but they differ slightly on the other three rules. In terms of long-term ramifications, The Big Short would have the edge as a snapshot of the current and recent financial climate, but picking it based on that criterion would violate Rule 4, since the Oscars are historically myopic.

That leaves us two Rules to address. Let's start with Rule 1 - don't be contrarian and trust the Guilds - which would seem to indicate that I should pick The Big Short. The only reason, however, that I would pick The Big Short would be its PGA win; after all, Best Picture winners very rarely win as few as two Oscars, and unless The Big Short pulls out a win in Editing or Supporting Actor, it's not likely to win more than two if it were to win Best Picture. There are several reasons that I would not pick The Revenant: its wins (other than the DGA) are not traditionally predictive; it did not win the PGA award; it does not have a nomination for writing; and its director just won Picture and Director last year. There are, however, relatively recent precedents for a Best Picture winner with each of those latter qualifications - namely Titanic in 1997 and Crash in 2006, respectively.

If it sounds like I'm arguing against The Revenant, it's because I am. I have not yet seen it, but there is so much about it, the type of film that it is, and the type of campaign that it has run that is such an Oscar cliche that the thought of it winning is almost unbearable. The Big Short, on the other hand, does have some significance as an outlier, and though there are some similarly odious tendencies in its construction in regard to chasing the Oscar, there is some merit to considering it as Best Picture. I cannot, however, allow personal opinion get in the way, so that brings me finally to Rule 5: "don't overthink it". To satisfy this question, I have to unconsider almost everything that I have just asserted and decide based on a simple assessment: which of the two seems like more of a Best Picture winner? The answer, as far as I see it, is The Revenant, so that's my pick.

Directing, Writing, Editing, and Animated Feature

Director: Inarritu won the DGA, and the eventual winner has differed from that winner only seven times in the past sixty-seven years, so he seems like the obvious pick. That said, George Miller has a strong case for Mad Max: Fury Road, and he could pull the upset here. Still, I'm going with Inarritu to repeat as Best Director, the first time that will have happened since 1950.

Original Screenplay: Spotlight; Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short. Other than Brio, these are the most guaranteed awards of the night and they represent the perfect way to recognize the runners-up for Best Picture. Lock them in.

Editing: This is still up in the air between The Big Short and Mad Max: Fury Road, but I'm picking Fury Road to persevere here.

Animated Feature: Inside Out, which I still think should have been nominated for Best Picture.


Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio has played this campaign perfectly, though Five Thirty-Eight's Walt Hickey makes an interesting case that he is nowhere near the "most deserving" of this year's nominees, as his narrative has repeatedly emphasized; that honour goes to fellow nominee Matt Damon, who will be able to use his loss this year in his next campaign sometime in the next few years. For this year, however, it's Leo's time, and I do think that it is well-deserved nevertheless.

Best Actress: Perhaps even more guaranteed than Leo's win is Brie Larson winning for Room, as she has dominated the awards to this point. After all, Oscar loves an ingenue, and we haven't had one in three years (Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook), so we're overdue.

Best Supporting Actor: This seems like Stallone's category to win for Creed, but there is a not insignificant portion of the Academy that doesn't like him personally; besides, there are many examples of "comebacks" gone awry (Reynolds, Rourke) and famous actors from non-dramatic genres not being given Oscars (Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy), not to mention the fact that the Academy chose not to honour him in a better performance in the first Rocky film almost forty years ago. I actually think there's enough going against Stallone to not pick him here, so the question is which competitor to choose. I'm going with my first instinct and the actor that is only slightly statistically behind Stallone in most evaluations of this category, Mark Rylance from Bridge of Spies, though this is one category that I will be happy to get wrong.

Best Supporting Actress: This has come down to Winslet vs. Vikander, but it looks like the younger actress has the edge. Alicia Vikander for Ex Machina - oops, for The Danish Girl, for a double ingenue year.

Technical Categories

For only the fourth and fifth times in Oscar history, films have been nominated in all seven technical categories: Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant. Sorry, Star Wars, but I think those two are winning all of these categories between them.

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki for The Revenant, his third (!) win in a row.

Costume Design: I know that Sandy Powell is favoured for one of her two nominations, but I think this will be our first hint of The Revenant's dominance with a win here.

Makeup and Hairstyling: It has to be Mad Max: Fury Road.

Production Design: I'm going with The Revenant on this one.

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing: Look, I still don't know the exact difference between Editing and Mixing, so I'm just going to give both to Mad Max: Fury Road, though I will concede that there is a decent chance that The Revenant takes one of these two awards (though I'm not sure which one). As an aside, there are four duplicate nominees in this category, and I would be interested to see someone from Five Thirty Eight examine the history of these two categories to see just how unnecessary this division of Oscars really is; really, we can just nominate all of the sound people for one award like we do for Visual Effects.

Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road is so iconic here, and the Doof Warrior alone should put it over the top of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the bear from The Revenant.

Other Categories

Original Song: "Til It Happens To You" from The Hunting Ground will get Lady Gaga the "O" of her EGOT and Diane Warren her Oscar after seven unsuccessful nominations.

Original Score: This is a very difficult category to pick, but since I don't have much to lose, I'm going to go with a complete wild card and pick Johann Johannsson for Sicario. Why not?

Foreign Film: Son of Saul. Never bet against the Holocaust.

Documentary: Amy. Never bet against celebrity tragedy.

Final Thoughts

I think this Oscars had the potential to be really interesting, but I think that there will not be a lot of surprises by the end of the night and that it will rank in the "meh" category of both awards and telecasts, with The Revenant emerging as the dominant story of the night. If my predictions hold up, The Revenant will win five awards (or six, depending on Sound) including three biggies, Mad Max: Fury Road will win five (or four) technical awards, and Room, Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, and The Big Short will each take one award as acknowledgement of their accomplishments. Of the Best Picture nominees, that will leave Brooklyn without an award (which seems reasonable) as well as The Martian, which would then fill the obligatory role of the "Best Picture nominee with many nominations but no wins" (see: True GritAmerican Hustle).

Overall, this kind of result would make 2011 as the closest corollary to this year in recent memory, which feels about right: a not-great movie wins (The Artist), another movie dominates the technical awards (Hugo), most of the Best Picture nominees get some recognition, and the whole year feels mostly inconsequential in the long run, as there seems to be little significant substance to most of the films. 2014 was fairly close to that same formula, though the historicity of the controversy over Selma's missed nominations gives that year a slight edge over this one. (This makes me think that I should explore this kind of exercise in a post in the near future: ranking the Oscar years in terms of interest and long-term effects. I did retrospectively evaluate two decades of Best Picture winners back in 2012, so that post could be fun.)

I think what will ultimately prove to be the most interesting about this year and that what might save the telecast and the year from mediocrity is what happens with Chris Rock hosting and the #Oscarssowhite controversy. It has been reported that Rock has rewritten much of the show after the nominations, and I think that he has a real opportunity to make some necessary observations on Hollywood as a whole. So much of the narrative of this year's Oscars is how race-less it has been - remember, even last year had Selma - and so I am fascinated to see what Rock does with his platform, as well as if any of the presenters will go off-script. In the meantime, there is still this brilliant take on this trend from Last Week Tonight's "How Is This Still A Thing?" series on Hollywood Whitewashing, which I present to you with an obligatory warning about offensive language and content. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Turner Tunes: The Developmental Years

In my first entry of my musical biography, I chronicled the initial thrills and misadventures of my clumsy formational years as a listener of music (any fans of Canadian alternative rock circa 1997 will see what I did there); in this entry, I am setting out to describe my developmental years as a music enthusiast - my audiophile adolescence, if you will. Adolescence is a time in which teenagers try out different personalities and are constantly changing, and the same was true of my music habits from 2001 to late 2007. I had a few different musical personalities that I tried over those years, and I have carried elements of each of those into my overall listening patterns now as a more mature listener.

In those developmental years, I expanded my collection significantly. When I had first moved out after high school in August of 2000, I owned maybe 50 albums on CD (and that largely thanks to Columbia House's cheap deals by mail); by the next time I moved to a different city three years later, my collection numbered in the three hundred range, and had probably doubled again three years after that. I doggedly pursued music as perhaps my primary hobby in those years, and it arguably did more to shape me as a person than almost anything else I did between the ages of 18 and 24. I spent a lot of time, energy, and money on my musical pursuits, and although those youthful exuberances have been tempered with time, I still find that this period of my musical life continues to bear fruit in who I am as a fan of music today, for better and for worse.

The Last Saskatchewan Pirate: The Downloading Years

Fortunately for me, the perfect tool for trying new music - downloading - was just coming of age as I was as a fan of music. At first it was Napster, which was followed by LimeWire and Morpheus, which were then supplanted by torrents and Mediafire accented by legal downloading through mySpace and iTunes, which were in turn somewhat supplanted by the current streaming pastiche of Spotify and YouTube. It seems quaint to have to have depended on piracy to hear new music, but that's what we had to do if we could not buy all of the music we wanted to hear, which was almost a certainty given the amount of music there was out there.

I did my best to use downloading responsibly: I listened to albums a few times until I got a sense of whether I wanted to own them, at which point I may have decided to keep one song and delete the rest of the album. Canadian laws allowed users to own up to 10% of a work they did not own; although technically according to Canadian law, I could download the albums legally without uploading them, I recognized that I was in what could be considered a morally ambiguous area, so I did my best to be legal and moral in my pirating endeavours, which I feel like I did with the compromise I reached internally.

In the earlier iterations of piracy, I focused on individual songs, often either burning them to CDs I affectionately labeled as "Big Heppy Tunes" (taken from my erstwhile high school nickname) or even recording them onto mixtapes. Yes, I remember when mixtapes were a thing, and they were a primary way that I communicated my affections and/or emotions to my then-crush (now wife) in an often haphazard and occasionally lamentably sappy manner. I know that playlists are the current equivalent of the mixtape (or burned CD), but I do feel that something has been lost in the transition to digital media - an ability and appreciation for the craftsmanship of the juxtaposition of songs, perhaps - and that the way that most people use playlists is far more malleable than those self-made compilations once were - but I digress.

In the early years of torrenting (starting around 2003 for me), I remember feeling a huge sense of possibility as we suddenly had much more access to much broader swaths of musical history. It was now possible to download discographies of artists and to listen to decades' worth of music, and it was now possible to find long-lost b-sides and rarities buried within collections of an artist's work. iTunes and iPods completely revolutionized the way that most listeners interacted with their music, as they now made it possible to have access to any song at any time; if this idea seems pedestrian now, it's only because the iPod was so revolutionary for its time and because the shift from what had been pre-iPod and post-launch was so fast that it's almost hard to remember life as a fan before its introduction.

I never really bought into the whole iPod craze, partially due to cost and partially due to my unwillingness to become subservient to Apple. It didn't start out as a matter of principle, but it kind of ended up there after a couple of years, and I still rarely use iTunes to this day (although I will admit that Apple's recent dealings with the FBI are giving me a newfound respect for the company). At any rate, I remember that when I bought my first computer in 2000, I thought I would never fill a 10 GB hard drive; it was out of date within a year or two, though I liberally used burned CDs to store episodes of Futurama and extra information to make it another year or so before I finally replaced it with something more reasonable - a 250 GB drive (I think); the sheer amount of data that we now use for storing information - especially music and videos - is simply staggering. Anyway, my point is that I remember being a fan of music even before iTunes and mySpace made it easier to encounter new artists, which is saying something - mainly that the the way we listen to music has shifted almost entirely in my adult lifetime, and that I'm certain that there are more seismic shifts to come.

I Can Only Imagine: The CCM Years

I had begun to explore Christian music in my formational years, but it was during this period that my affection for the "genre" of Contemporary Christian Music really became dominant. I tended to try to avoid the more mainstream portions of the genre, eschewing much of the adult contemporary pop and worship of the WOW collections for the alternative, hardcore, and hip-hop side of the industry spearheaded by Tooth and Nail and its subsidiaries, although I know that I crossed over into the Mercy Mes and Casting Crownses of the Christian music world more often than I would like to admit. I have since purged my collection of many of these CCM entries, but a few vestiges remain in a combination of chagrin, as guilty pleasures, and occasionally unironic enjoyment.

I fondly remember the days of (at least I think that was the domain) and the Bookstop at Canadian Bible College and how I used both of those resources liberally to build my collection. I remember vividly my excitement when the Bookstop had a fire and all of their books and CDs went on sale at the SGI Salvage Depot for $5 apiece; I think I added 25 albums to my collection that way, as well as my first Donald Miller book, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance (though I didn't realize that it was his writing until after I read Blue Like Jazz a couple of years later). I shudder now to think of how much of my student loan went to buying music, particularly albums that I have likely since cleared out of my collection, but I was happy enough spending my money that way at the time.

During this period, I underwent what could be considered a rite of passage for most Evangelical Christians: the wholesale rejection of "secular" (ie. non-Christian) culture, an event to which I have alluded often in various blog posts over the years. I remember feeling the conviction to clear out any such distractions from my faith shortly after my 19th birthday, and that for the better part of the following two years that I avoided most music that was not explicitly Christian along with TV and movies (other than The Lord of the Rings). Most of my non-Christian music and media did not survive the purge, though U2 did - they were Christians, after all, and at least their 1980s albums were sold by Christian music stores at some point - along with Collective Soul, somewhat inexplicably; Metallica and the Foo Fighters did not (though I did repurchase the Foo Fighters albums again later).

At some point, I will write a much longer post detailing more of this period of my listening life and some of the influences that remain in my listening profile, but I think that it's enough for now to know that these Christian music roots run very deep throughout my life as a fan of music in general, that in these developmental years that it was the single most defining piece of my fandom, that vestiges of this period are still part of my life today, and that I still legitimately name Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown as one of the seminal albums of my lifetime.

I should say as a matter of clarification that I do not necessarily regret this time, even though I was occasionally somewhat insufferable in my Evangelical zeal, and I am glad that there are neither blogs nor social media posts lingering from the heart of this period in my life (February 2001 to summer 2003), though I do have an exhaustive record of every interview and article I published about Christian music with the student newspapers for which I wrote, including this embarrassing list that not only reflects my late teenage musical sensibilities, but that I actually published with my name on it. I was a very different person then - or at least I would like to think I was. Sigh.

School of Hard Knocks: The Hardcore Years

One of the main manifestations of my focus on Christian music in those developmental years was an influx of "hardcore" artists in my listening repertoire. My first real exposure to the world of hardcore Christian music was through my youth pastor, who not only listened to some really heavy stuff (Mortification, Zao), but also actually played in a real (Christian) metal band. I had listened to some 90s Christian hardcore and metal, but it wasn't until 1999-2000 that my tastes really converged with what was becoming popular in the Christian (and to a very limited extent broader) music scene, rather than the not-quite-palatable products of the alternative/punk/speed metal scene. It was in my Grade 12 year, sometime in the fall of 1999 or spring of 2000, when I first started really listening to the two California-based bands that led this charge in my lifetime: P.O.D. and Project 86.

I could (and will) write posts on both of these artists later on in my Turner Tunes series, but suffice to say for now that they quickly and effectively infiltrated and dominated my musical attitudes in those years. P.O.D.'s performance at Youth Quake in 2001 remains one of the seminal moments of my musical lifetime, and by September 2001, when I was being accepted into membership at church, I used the lyrics from the P86 song "Stein's Theme" to encapsulate my experience; in reflection, I'm not quite sure how that particular song reflected who I was at the time or what I was trying to communicate, but I think it's enough to see now that "loud angry music" had become my musical lingua franca.

By my later developmental years (2004-2007), I had expanded my repertoire to include artists such as As Cities Burn, Blindside, Demon Hunter, Emery, Thrice, and Underoath - all of which remain in my collection to this day - along with other less long-lived artists, like, say, the odd concept band Maylene and the Sons of Disaster. I was a fan of Thousand Foot Krutch - the Limp Bizkit of the Christian music world - for a time (despite that name!); I also experimented with the harder fringes of Christian metal, but the hardest music I was able to consistently enjoy was Demon Hunter.

Hardcore, unlike what might be expected, is a highly intelligent and social genre, and I really appreciated the stimulation I received in pursuing my fandom of this genre; I think in particular of the artistry of the allusions of Project 86's Truthless Heroes, which reflected lead singer Andrew Schwab's M.A. in English. It helped that I had a large number of intelligent and accomplished friends who were also in the throes of this style of music, as it became a highly social enterprise for me, including the many concerts I was able to enjoy with friends. I enjoyed having connections with local Saskatchewan artists like Understated, Means, and Autumn Tides (RIP) who were creating legitimately listenable and interesting albums. I was able to interview many of these local artists - as well as some of my aforementioned favourites - during these years, and I gained a new appreciation for the intelligence of many of the purveyors of this pulverizing music. I may not listen to it much now, but I still have a deep appreciation - and even a need - to pull out the classics and rock out every so often.

Achtung Baby: Learning about U2

I have realized, in retrospect, that in many ways that I had the perfect timing to become a fan of U2, as it was also in this period of my life that I really invested in the Irish quartet. I had first encountered U2 in the late 1990s with the release of The Best of 1980-1990 and their single "The Sweetest Thing", but I had missed most of the Pop era other than my general awareness of popular radio singles; I still recall hearing "Staring at the Sun" on the World Top 40 on Sunday night along with INXS' "Elegantly Wasted", which might have actually been my earliest memory of a U2 song.

I was vaguely aware of the release of U2's vaunted "comeback" album All That You Can't Leave Behind in October 2000, but I didn't have any historical referent at the time to understand why fans of the band were so exultant about the album and why it felt so important at the time. I picked up the album secondhand by the following February after its release, and I remember "Elevation" in particular being significant by that summer. In all honesty, I think that the album is somewhat weak after the first four or five tracks, and although I do recognize why they did what they did with those songs, I think that ATYCLB was simply not as strong as people remember it to be.

Still, there was so much happening in this period with U2 that I now can see as significant that it was an electric time to learn to be a U2 fan, whether it was the reclamation narrative, the Elevation Tour, or the band's public appearances, including performing "Where the Streets Have No Name" with Bono's prayerful introduction during a game of the NBA Finals in 2001 (the height of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers). I still revisit their iconic Super Bowl halftime show from February 2002 every year in the wake of the big game, and I recognize that without that album that we likely don't have U2 to this day, so I'm grateful for that.

I began really exploring the band's 1990s catalog with the release of The Best of 1990-2000 in October 2002, and by the time they released How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb in October 2004, I had thoroughly and exhaustively explored and learned to appreciate their much maligned 90s back catalog, a period that I personally think was their most artistically productive and satisfying (a point I'm sure I will disseminate at length in the future).

Dismantle was the first U2 album that I knew from launch forward, and though I now recognize that it is arguably one of their worst albums, it still remains close to my heart, particularly for the season that it represents (the ending of my first engagement) and how closely I felt many of those songs - especially "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" and the song that is still my ringtone today, "Vertigo". As I have mentioned before, I sold my car to see them perform in Vancouver in April 2005, and I would do it again in a heartbeat, as that concert remains one of the seminal experiences of my life.

Bring Back Vinyl: The Writing Years

One of the other ways that I explored music, as I have alluded to earlier, was on the side of writing about music (not writing songs). I wrote consistently for my student newspapers (the Carillon and the Sheaf) throughout these years, and I am finally working on scanning and scrapbooking all of those articles for posterity. Although my formal writing style has developed quite significantly over the past seventeen years that I have been actively pursuing writing as a hobby, I'm still really proud of where I started, even when I conducted my first real interview with Wide Mouth Mason for my high school newspaper. As I have reflected on these different articles, I can see how I was able to ask some really interesting questions and find ways to frame each piece in a unique way, and I can recognize how I learned to find the hooks in the story and to go beyond the basic questions that could be asked.

I also started blogging in the summer of 2004, and although I have not pursued the same kind of interview-based writing in my personal blog, music has always been part of my discussion here at Life of Turner, dating back to how some of my earliest posts included reflections on the CBC's "50 Tracks" initiative. I did also spend some time in 2005 and 2006 working on a side project blog entitled "Bring Back Vinyl", as well as some time writing reviews for a couple of other sites in those later developmental years, so writing - both interviewing and reviewing - has been a key part of my musical journey.

I've Been Everywhere: Expanding my musical horizons

Other than my aforementioned forays into CCM, hardcore, and U2, there were other ways that I expanded my musical horizons in those years. For example, I really got into Christian hip-hop for a few years - most notably Ill Harmonics, Pigeon John, and John Reuben - and although I was never part of the scene either locally or more broadly, one of my best friends in this time was an emcee who participated in local emcee battles, and my adjacency to the local scene helped fuel my interest; I still own a few of those albums, though I have found since that hip-hop and rap (Christian or not) are typically not my thing.

One of the other significant introductions in my life during this period was meeting the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. Of course, I knew about Cash, but I had disregarded him along with the entire country genre early on in my life, and it was only with his final album that he released before he died - American IV: The Man Comes Around - that I truly learned to appreciate his artistry. I remember when I first heard Johnny Cash's "Hurt" and how much depth it presented instantly. Soon thereafter, I began exploring the American Recordings series that Johnny had recorded in the last year of his lifetime, and by the time that Walk the Line was released, I was fully a fan of Cash.

The summers of 2006 and 2007 marked my last intensive foray into exploring new music and adding new artists to my repertoire. In a sense, that period of my life in retrospect is analogous to the period of late adolescence in which you go off to university and start being aware of a number of new ways of seeing the world. In those later developmental years, I added artists like Keane, Muse, Death Cab for Cutie, Audioslave, The White Stripes, and Anberlin to my repertoire (among many others) in addition to the artists I was already carrying, and many of those artists remain vital in my listening today.

By that point, I had been listening intentionally to music for close to a decade, and I began to find that my tastes were starting to converge and merge, and I became much more confident in myself as a music fan. Although I didn't realize it at the time, in retrospect I can see that those years were my last stretch of intensively pursuing music, though it does not come as a surprise when I consider it now. I no longer had an outlet for writing interviews since I had graduated and did not write for the student press; I moved away from a number of the friends with whom I had intensively pursued music; and I started to see the impending end of that whole single student phase of life, as I got (re-)engaged and started my first teaching job at the end of summer 2007.

I still pursued music to an extent, particularly in the course of the 2007-2008 school year, but I found quickly that although I had more access to disposable income that I also had more ways that it needed to be spent such as my impending wedding, student loans, and slowly replacing all of the dishes and pots that I had used for years; after all, thrift store kitchen wares last only so long . My time began to become much more precious, and I found that I had less and less time and energy to devote attention to incorporating new musical artists into my life. By the summer of 2008, I was much more cognizant of the transition (though I still denied its influence for several more years), and I started to make the transition into the listener I am today.

As I reflect on these developmental years, I can see how they have influenced my patterns and habits significantly. Many of the artists I still follow were first introduced to me in those years, and many of the albums released in that period remain near and dear to my ear to this year. I can see how my unabashed zeal in some pursuits served me well in expanding my repertoire, and how I doubt that I would have the palate I do today without having had those years of intentional and intense expansion. Although the early to mid 00s might not have been the best time to be a music fan - although inarguably better than the late 90s - the way in which we intake music changed so significantly that it made it one of the best times to be growing in my appreciation of music in general. So I am thankful for those years, as they still serve me well in these more "mature" musical years, which I will discuss at some point in the future.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Women of Valour

"Eshet Chayil" is a Hebrew term that means "woman of valour; it originates in the poem written in praise of the woman of valour in Proverbs 31. I recently encountered the concept in the writings of Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans, two female bloggers and authors whose books I have read recently. Along with Nadia Bolz-Weber, and other female authors like Jen Hatmaker and Lauren Winner (among others), there are a lot of women who are writing really insightful, powerful and beautiful things as they (finally) have a place and voice within the church to express themselves freely and fully.

For a long time, I had difficulty identifying with female writers (or so I have been told), but I have really been appreciating the balance that reading the works of these strong women has brought into my overall perspective, particularly in the midst of the traditionally patriarchal confines of most North American Evangelical churches. It has been heartening to read their books and to see how they are influencing others to consider the place and space for women in church and ministry and how they are helping to make space for women through how they are living out their calling in their corner of the world.

As I have been appreciating the writing of these women, I have been thinking about the women in my own life and how I have many meaningful friendships with women. My wife and I joked that I could have just as easily had "groomsmaids" as "groomsmen" at our wedding, and it's still true today. I have an incredible group of female friends and family who make my life richer and more meaningful. One of those friends, Leah Perrault, has started writing her own blog at, and I am so glad that she is sharing her experience of motherhood and womanhood in a vital, precious way, just like these other authors are doing.

As I reflect on my female friends and family, it is encouraging to see women of all types and walks of life in their numbers: single moms; authors; widows; teachers; grandmothers; nurses; pastors; married; unmarried; divorced; full-time stay-at-home-moms; working moms; political minds; women struggling with disability; you name it, it's represented in my female friends. I am so privileged that these women have allowed me to be part of their journeys, and for how they have been a part of my journey over the years.

There is, of course, one woman who sticks out above the rest - my wife - who makes me a better person by who she is, and who knows that she needs me to have other women in my life for her sake and mine. I am so privileged to get to share my life with her, and I am blessed to have her being willing to journey with me. We have now been together in some form since I was eighteen - almost half of my life - and I cannot imagine life without her.

So consider this short post a valentine to all of the amazing women in my life - a toast to the many women with whom I have the privilege of sharing my life and theirs. I would not be the man I am without those friendships, and I am thinking of many of them this weekend as they observe this occasion in whatever form of joy, grief, exhaustion, exhilaration, love, or anticipation it may represent for them. Happy Valentine's Day, women of valour.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

In or Out? 2016 Movie Edition

I have been listening lately to a podcast called "The Watch", a weekly look into pop culture (with an emphasis on television) from Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, two of my favourite writers from the recently-deceased Grantland. One of the features on the show is that Chris and Andy, who have been friends since college, debate whether they are "in or out" on something, whether that is a new TV show (they are all the way in on The People vs. O.J. Simpson), album (in on Kanye West, out on his tweets about Cosby), or movie (in on Ex Machina).

I decided to do my own edition of "In or out?" with the major movies that are coming out in 2016. Most of the major tentpoles and blockbusters have already locked down release dates, so I have picked fifty notable movies coming out over the course of the year (including a couple of that have already released) for which I will provide a brief reasoning as well as a final verdict of "in" or "out". I have divided the movies into categories to make it a little easier to sort, and I have given a short summary for each category as well.

Superhero division

Just in case you didn't already think there were enough superhero movies out there, the deluge really begins this year with every studio doubling down on establishing their own extended cinematic universes. Here are my thoughts on the six major superhero movies coming out this year.

Deadpool (Feb. 12) - February superhero movies have never really been that great (Ghost Rider and Daredevil come to mind), but I think Deadpool will be a lot better than those ones were, particularly because of the writers (Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick of The Joe Schmo Show and Zombieland). That said, I tend to avoid the R-rated hero movies, a subgenre of which Deadpool is set to become the prime example, and I just don't see myself seeing this movie despite the fact that it is poised to become one of the most popular movies of the year with the kids I teach. Out.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Mar. 25) - This movie has everything: an underwhelming predecessor, a terrible title, a dubious premise, a director with a less-than-stellar reputation, a mess of heroes, a trailer that gives everything away, and Batfleck. Everything about this movie - the pacing, the scripting, the advertising - indicates that it is going to be a mess, and I think it has the opportunity to sink the entire DC-verse before it really even starts. This might be the movie that marks when superhero movies truly jump the shark; I would not be surprised if Aquaman actually does just that at some point in the movie. Definitely out.

Captain America: Civil War (May 6) - Now this is how you do an overstuffed superhero movie: you take a really captivating storyline, streamline the heroes involved - keeping the most popular ones -  and put it in one of your "side" movies so that you can focus the action and thematic development to the subject matter. The Winter Soldier had its issues (mainly that it was just a bit long), but I think that Civil War may be able to make very interesting commentary on contemporary society if they do it right. All the way in.

X-Men: Apocalypse (May 27) - This is also how you do an overstuffed superhero movie: introduce an undefeatable villain (Apocalypse), some strong female heroes (newcomers Psylocke and Jubilee and returnees Storm and Jean Grey), use one of the iconic storylines of the series (Apocalypse and the Four Horsemen), put it all in a unique nostalgic setting (the 1980s), and let it rip. Days of Future Past reinvigorated the X-Men franchise and erased any lingering memories of the end to the original trilogy, along with giving sendoffs for the original cast (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, and likely Hugh Jackman). These are the X-Men that I grew up with in the animated series on Fox Kids, and Apocalypse was the baddest of the bad, so I am so excited to see him on the big screen, especially played by Oscar Isaac. My main question is where they will take the series next - to Genosha perhaps? IN IN IN IN IN!

Suicide Squad (Aug. 5) - I'm really conflicted about this one: on the one hand, it has some really interesting actors (Will Smith, Viola Davis, Jared Leto) and characters (The Joker and Harley Quinn) in particular; on the other hand, it seems destined to be very disturbing and violent and the kind of superhero movie that I might not enjoy. I am interested to see what Leto does with The Joker, who looks to be taken from The Killing Joke, the most psychopathic storyline starring the villain, as well as Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, but I am also expecting that this will be a very disturbing movie. Out for now with the possibility of in later on.

Doctor Strange (Nov. 4) - Another one on which I'm conflicted: Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast, and the concept seems really interesting, but this could present some very challenging content in a spiritual sense, as Strange tends to dabble mostly in the mystical and occult realms. I'm not sure that I'm in, but I'm in on the way that Marvel is doing this movie. I'm going to say in for now, with the caveat that I may choose to avoid this movie if it goes too dark.

In summary: out on DC; in on Marvel; out on R-rated superheroes; in on Benedict Cumberbatch and Oscar Isaac; and getting further out on superheroes in general.

Fanboy Division

As if you didn't think there was already enough to satisfy the fanboys with the superhero movies, here are another seven movies that are aiming for those ComicCon eyeballs and dollars.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Feb 5) - I'm not really a fan of Austen or zombie movies, so this is an easy decision for me. Out.

Warcraft (June 10) - A movie based on World of Warcraft is not really very appealing to me either in terms of content, specific source, or style of movie, but the one piece that interests me is that Duncan Jones (Moon, The Source Code) is directing. Out.

Independence Day: Resurgence (June 24) - It has been twenty years since the aliens first invaded, and they're back - but we don't have Will Smith to protect us with his sarcastic wit this time, even if the rest of the cast is back. I remember watching Independence Day in the theatre when I was thirteen and being underwhelmed then, so I don't know what will be different this time in a sequel that I'm not sure anyone really wanted to see - other than Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum, of course. By the way, can I just say (likely not for the last time) that these extended universes and IP machinations are only going to get more and more tiring as they continue to generate revenue? Out.

Ghostbusters (July 15) - Then there's this reboot of an even older intellectual property that seems to be doing everything right so far, starting with the director (Paul Feig), cast (all-female Busters including Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones), and (apparently) restarting the franchise without concern for continuity (though that may be proven to be incorrect). The only concern I have about this movie is that Ghostbusters has tended to be spiritually dark; that said, I am so far in on the way this is being done and I am excited to see it as an action-comedy.

Star Trek Beyond (July 22) - I was more than a little underwhelmed by the initial trailer, which only served to bolster my suspicions that this iteration of Star Trek might move further from the roots of the franchise and more into the action territory - a suspicion that is also confirmed by the presence of director Justin Lin, the man behind four Fast and Furious movies in addition to the brilliant Community season 1 paintball episode "Modern Warfare" that used those skills to perfection. I'm not as out on Into Darkness as some were - I think the movie itself worked, just that the advertising and promotion did the movie a disservice - but I'm not sure if Beyond will help or hinder the future of Trek. I'm grudgingly in, but prepared to be out after a viewing.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dec. 16) - I really enjoyed The Force Awakens (though slightly less so upon rewatching it), but I'm dubious about spinning off Star Wars ad nauseam into many different individual storylines. There are some interesting pieces here, and it might end up working well, but I'm staying out for now. This one is going to have to prove it to me.

Assassin's Creed (Dec. 21) - I guess 2016 is the year that movie studios finally figured out that video games might work as movies; I'm not entirely sure that it's a smart bet, but if there's one that will work, it should be this one because of star Michael Fassbender. I'm not a fan of the series, so I have little interest other than tangential pop cultural awareness; count me out.

In summary: Out on video game adaptations; in on the new Star Trek series as long as it doesn't mess it all up; out on fanboy flicks in general; and way in on funny women in Paul Feig movies.

Family Fantasy Division

There are a number of movies competing for those hard-earned family dollars, even though there have been some pretty historic flameouts in this category recently (I'm looking at you, Pan). I'm mostly out on the whole "family fantasy" genre anyway, but I'll still go through the motions on this one.

The Jungle Book (April 15) - Live action adaptations really don't work. Out.

Alice Through the Looking Glass (May 27) - Alice in Wonderland was not nearly as entertaining as it should have been, and Tim Burton is not back for the sequel. Plus, this is Alan Rickman's last role, and it will just be sad to hear his voice. Out.

The BFG (July 1) - Seems like the pieces might work here, with Steven Spielberg directing a book by Roald Dahl, but I won't be rushing to see it. Out.

The Legend of Tarzan (July 1) - See comments on The Jungle Book, but with less enthusiasm. Out.

Pete's Dragon (Aug. 12) - A combination live-action-animated-reboot-fantasy? Who greenlights these projects? Out.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Nov. 18) - The cynical part of me knows that this is just milking the Harry Potter cow, but there is a part of me that's really excited to see the new creatures on screen. I'm in on the concept, but tentatively out on the fact that this will be a trilogy. In for the first movie.

The Great Wall (Nov. 25) - This is described on Wikipedia as an "American-Chinese 3D science fantasy adventure-monster film" about mysteries about the Great Wall of China, and it stars Matt Damon. We could be talking serious guilty pleasure territory here. I think it's entirely possible that it might be absolutely terrible, but from that bonkers description, I'm in.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Dec. 25) - And now we see where Tim Burton has gone - exactly where he should be. Burton is the perfect pick to translate this odd gothic adventure to the big screen, and I'm really interested to see how his visual style corresponds with the style of the books. I'm not so sure I'm in for yet another trilogy of young adult books spread over four movies over five years, but I'm at least in to see this first movie in the series.

In summary: out on live action adaptations; in on unique young adult fantasy novel adaptations; out on extended movie series; out on Disneyfied Hollywood; in on crazy Chinese monster movies with Matt Damon. 

Family Animated Division

Is it just me, or does it seem as though there are more and more of these movies being released each year? Then again, the good ones make hundreds of millions of dollars, and even the bad ones tend to make a lot of money even before merchandising, so why shouldn't there be this many? It's not really my bag as a category, but there are enough kids in my life that I have to pay at least minimal attention to this group of films.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (Jan. 29) - May as well just keep cranking 'em out. Also, is this Jack Black's most identifiable role? Out.

Zootopia (Mar. 4) - The anthropomorphic animal world thing has been done to death, but there still looks to be something possibly endearing about Disney's 55th animated film. It does also have "Peter Moosebridge", so there's that. Disney's track record lately has been actually good - Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Big Hero 6 were all pretty entertaining - so call this a slight out. (Even though I will likely end up seeing it when I have to babysit someone's kids sometime).

Ratchet and Clank (April 29) - Another video game adaptation? I guess this is a thing now. This one is animated and mostly from the same team that has made the games, so this one probably has the best chance of working. Even so, I'm out.

The Angry Birds Movie (May 20) - It seems like this is the kind of movie that was greenlit because "The Lego Movie was a success and kids love Angry Birds, so this should work, right?" Ah, 2014. I'm so out.

Finding Dory (June 17) - On the one hand, it's Pixar; on the other, it's a sequel to something other than Toy Story. Count me intrigued and maybe interested; I'm sure I'll see it sometime - I have seen every Pixar movie, after all - but it's not a priority. Out.

Ice Age: Collision Course (July 22) - This is the fifth movie in the franchise, which has produced $2.8 billion worldwide over the past fourteen years to make it the 13th highest-grossing franchise of all time. The things you learn when you do research for articles like this. Out.

Storks (Sept. 23) - As I stated before, I'm kind of out in general on the whole animated movie thing; then again, I am in on Key and Peele, who provide voices along with Andy Samberg. Ah, who am I kidding? Out for the movie, in for watching Key and Peele sketches on YouTube and Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Netflix.

Trolls (Nov. 4) - They're ba-ack. It's kind of hard to believe that this is a thing in 2016, but this is the maelstrom that has been unleashed by The Lego Movie. Out.

Moana (Nov. 25) - Disney comes in with their second entry of the year into their animated canon with a new princess from Oceania. While I do applaud their attempts for diversity, I think their sketchy gender politics (not to mention racial stereotypes) might balance out the good in any such attempts. Out.

Sing (Dec. 21) - More anthropomorphic animals, this time on Broadway. Haven't I seen this before? Out.

In summary: out on all ten major animated films being released this year; in on diversity in kids' films; out on manufactured nostalgia; in on voice cameos by Peter Mansbridge; out on paying to watch kids' movies; in on rewatching old Pixar movies instead.

Assorted Other Sequels and Remakes Division

In which I cover most (if not all) of the other assorted remakes, reboots, restarts, and other sequels/prequels/inquels that don't already belong to another division. I'll give you a hint that you probably could have already figured out: I'm pretty much out on this abuse of IP in general.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant (Mar. 18) - At one point, I was intrigued by Divergent; then I just haven't gotten around to watching either of the first two movies. Also, this is one of those "split the last book into two movies" movies, so I'm in no rush. Out (though I might end up binge-watching them all on Netflix sometime next year).

The Huntsman: Winter's War (April 22) - Sure, this can be a thing. But really - this is a thing? Out.

TMNT: Out of the Shadows (June 3) - Didn't watch the last one, don't plan to. If I want Ninja Turtles, I'm going back to Secret of the Ooze. Out.

Now You See Me 2 (June 10) - I know why they would make a sequel (money!), but the first one wasn't that great, and I think this will be far worse. Out.

Jason Bourne (July 29) - Matt Damon is back as Bourne...for some reason. Unless there is a compelling reason for this to exist (other than money and Matt Damon trying to redeem himself as an action star after Elysium) AND Paul Greengrass has learned how to use a tripod, I'm definitely out.

Ben-Hur (Aug. 12) - Sure, I guess every established IP is up for grabs now. The main question I have - other than "why?" - is what's next to be remade. Out.

The Magnificent Seven (Sept. 23) - Yet another example of mining a beloved classic for money. Then again, this one is Denzel and Ethan Hawke back with Antoine Fuqua with Chris Pratt along for the ride, so maybe? No, I'm out...but I kind of want to be in and it wouldn't take much to convince me. Sigh.

Inferno (Oct. 14) - I had to look this up even though, by all accounts, the title, director (Ron Howard), and star (Tom Hanks) should have clued me in that this is the next Da Vinci Code movie. I am genuinely surprised that these are still being made - Dan Brown is so 2006 - but I guess there's still money to be made from the IP somehow. Out.

In summary: out on remakes, reboots, sequels almost in their entirety; in on Chris Pratt; out on needless extended universes; in on Denzel; out on shaky cam; in on movies from the 1950s and 1960s.

Comedy Division

There are movies that are intended to be funny; sometimes they succeed, but often they don't. These are my thoughts on those kinds of movies.

Hail, Caesar! (Feb. 5) - I haven't seen it yet, but of course I'm in; it's the Coens. Dude, I'm in.

Zoolander No. 2 (Feb. 12) - Okay, I get why this exists, but I wasn't a huge fan of Zoolander, so I know it's not for me. I put Zoolander in the "Dumb and Dumber" school of comedy films that you probably had to watch it at the time to really appreciate for what it was, and I just didn't do it. Out.

The Boss (April 8) - Melissa McCarthy is quite possibly the funniest woman working in movies right now, but her schtick seems like it can last only so long. I'm in on McCarthy, especially as this generation's Bill Murray playing variations on a character, but I'm a little gunshy to be in on this one. I'm going to stay out for now, but I could easily be convinced to be in if I watch Spy soon and really enjoy it or need a fix of McCarthy before she starts ghostbusting in July. Out.

Keanu (April 29) - Key and Peele making a movie? About finding a cat? Running into gang members? With Will Forte included? Seems like I'm in; then again, it's entirely possible that this could be really rude or dumb or just otherwise not work for me. Until I hear otherwise, however, I'm in.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (May 20) - I'm so over crass comedies. Out.

In summary: in on Key and Peele; out on comedy sequels; in on Melissa McCarthy; out on McCarthy playing the same role every time; in on the Coens; out on most Hollywood comedies.

Biopic Division

There have not been a lot of biographical movies announced yet for this year (most dates for fall awards-season releases will not come until late summer), but there are some intriguing ones coming up.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Mar. 4) - Aside from the fantastic title, this movie has Tina Fey in a non-slapstick role, which intrigues me. These kinds of comedy-war movies often find difficulty with tone, but I'm hopeful for this one, though I acknowledge that it very well might end up being not all that great. In.

I Saw the Light (Mar. 25) - Tom Hiddleston (Loki) plays Hank Williams, the country singer who died at a young age, which should be interesting on its own. Then again, the movie was delayed from awards season, which means it's probably not that good, and Hank Williams III has publicly criticized the movie, so that means I should be out.

Snowden (May 13) - Oliver Stone may not be very relevant, but he's always interesting, and his biopics tend to be among the most intriguing of his films. Throw in Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the titular role, and I'm in.

Sully (Sept. 9) - This would normally be the kind of biopic that I would tune out, but the subject - the successful landing of a commercial flight on the Hudson River - and the pedigree of those involved - directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks - made me think twice. But I'm still out.

The Founder (Nov. 25) - The story of Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's. I'm probably out on this one, but the fact that it stars Michael Keaton, who is always interesting, may make me rethink this judgement. Out.

The Birth of a Nation (TBD) - This passion project of director, writer, and star Nate Parker, about the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, was purchased at Sundance for a record $17.5 million, and it is already being buzzed for next year's awards season. I'm definitely in.

In summary: increasingly out on biopics in general; in on Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Bonus Division

This is the section in which I try to cover any gaps I may have left in my commentary thus far and include a few bonus movies that might not otherwise be as noteworthy.

In on original science fiction, as there are three original movies being added to the genre this year: Midnight Special (March 18); The Space Between Us (July 29); and Passengers (Dec. 21);

Out on horror movies, of which there seem to be more and more all the time;

In on Ryan Gosling, who stars in The Nice Guys (May 20), which looks like Boogie Nights meets L.A. Confidential, and Damien Chazelle's La La Land (July 15);

Out on the general creative malaise that seems to have descended over Hollywood for this year, as there are only maybe a dozen movies that have any interest to me at all at this point;

In on Amazon and Netflix shaking up distribution models and producing content that might not have otherwise been seen as widely, like Elvis and Nixon (April 15);

Becoming increasingly out on movies in general, as it seems as though there is far more creative vitality on television than in the movies at this point;

In summary: mostly out on Hollywood in general; in on mocking Hollywood in Hail, Caesar!; out on extended universes and cash grabs and extensive unnecessary use of IPs; in on increased diversity in Hollywood; out on (often misogynistic and myopic) fanboy internet culture and the way movies are being produced and promoted to appease that culture; still in on Captain America: Civil War; X-Men: Apocalypse; Ghostbusters; and Star Trek Beyond; out on most other major movies being released this year; but still in on movies, because movies.

Monday, February 08, 2016

On Reading

I have been thinking about myself as a reader lately largely as a result of some of the discussions I have been having with colleagues at the various schools at which I have taught recently. As I have considered how to interact with younger readers, I have been thinking about my own history as a reader and the kind of reader that I am today. In the same way that I have written posts outlining my biography as a board gamer and as a listener of music (with more to come for the latter), my intent and hope here is that writing my biography as a reader will give some insight as to my current status as a reader and will allow for readers of this blog to connect to their own experience as a reader. As in those previous posts, I'm starting with my earliest memories of the hobby and moving toward the present; but as a bonus this time, I'm including a few quick hit "Top 5" lists about my current reading at the end of the post.

Primary years

I don't remember a time when I could not read (much like I don't remember a time when I was not a Christian), as I started reading at such an early age that I have no memories that do not include an ability to read. Apparently, the way my Kindergarten teacher dealt with my ability was to have me read the books to the class, since I could easily read and comprehend all of the words in the books. I moved schools for Grade 1 largely because that school I had attended could not really accommodate someone of my reading level; at my new school, I actually received pull-out support several times a week for advanced reading (which as a teacher I now recognize is very abnormal and almost never happens anymore).

By the time I was seven or eight years old, I was routinely reading complex books, and I do remember spending an inordinate amount of time reading through the Guinness Book of Records from cover to cover. My mom would take me to the library book trailer weekly to load up on books, but it wasn't just pictures and story books I was taking out; I read many of the pulp Star Trek and Star Wars novels, often reading through one a day (or more) in the summer and constantly reading during the sermons in church (much to the consternation of some of the older ladies in the congregation, to which my mom responded that "at least he's quiet"). By the end of Grade 4, I had a reading and vocabulary level equivalent to that of a first year university student (or higher), and I was able to read and comprehend fairly complex texts (for which I give some credit to watching Star Trek: The Next Generation every week starting halfway through Season 4 when I was eight years old).

Middle school

I made the transition to a classroom program deliberately designed for gifted students in Grade 5, which seemed like it should have made a positive difference in my engagement in reading books in class; alas, I still remained distant from much of the in-class material. Whether it was the pace we took, the kinds of activities we did, or even just the style and content of books we read, I could not say, as I barely remember any of the books we studied in my earlier middle school years. I do recall, however, that I was so bored with Island of the Blue Dolphins in Grade 5 that I did not do my homework (making a map of the island using the descriptions in the text) for weeks until my parents made me sit down and do it over the Easter break. Literature for pre-teens has come a long way since the mid-1990s.

Novel studies got better for me as the years progressed, though that was helped by the fact that we did not study typical material in Grade 7 and 8 and that our teacher liked science fiction, which was my favourite genre at the time. We read Jurassic Park in Grade 7 (1995, within two years of the movie's release) and wrote an 11(!) paragraph essay on the ethics of the scientific changes explored in the novel. We mostly unsuccessfully read Fahrenheit 451 in Grade 8, but I attribute my failure in enjoying the book at the time to the classroom climate and in just not understanding the imagery of the novel at the time since it became one of my favourites when I read it on my own later on.

I also remember having the choice between Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World as an independent novel study in Grade 8; I chose Brave New World and I loved the satirical tone and content of the book, which I fully grasped even at twelve years old. That said, I am amazed that my teacher encouraged us to read that book both in terms of content and because it was on the Grade 12 curriculum at the time.

High school and early university

Even though I did read a number of good books along the way during my school years, I still missed out on a lot of great books in middle and high school. I remember enjoying most of the books I read, save for Mary Stewart's dreadfully boring Arthurian fantasy The Crystal Cave in Grade 9. including Ender's Game in Grade 9; All Quiet on the Western Front, Black Like Me, and Alive in Grade 10; To Kill a Mockingbird in Grade 11; and The Handmaid's Tale in Grade 12, but that list leaves a lot of classics by the wayside. It did leave me a great list of novels from which to begin in learning the accepted canon, many of which I have read (and some of which I have taught) since, including: 1984; The Outsiders; The Catcher in the RyeThe Giver; Lord of the Flies; Night; and Animal Farm, among others.

Throughout my teenage years, which lasted until halfway through my second year of university, I don't remember much of what I read on my own, save for a few examples. I do remember that I read Frank Peretti's abortion novel Prophet in Grade 9 for a report of my own choice, and that I read through the first half-dozen (or more) books of the Left Behind series; taken together, those embarrassing admissions give some idea of my fundamentalist state of mind at the time. I do wish, in retrospect, that I had taken more time on reading through classic Christian texts rather than reading mostly poorly written, theologically suspect, and eschatologically questionable Christian fiction, but
such is life; that said, I do not think I would have some of the understandings I have today about what I believe about Jesus without having read those Left Behind books and realized just how much I truly could not agree with the worldview presented therein.

There were two other reading selections that stand out from those teenage years, both of which turned out to be very formative for me as a reader: C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy and The Lord of the Rings. I had put off reading Tolkien's work for a few years, but I finally gave in shortly before the first movie was released, and I was glad I did, as I really appreciated the opportunity to enjoy Tolkien's world for my own before Peter Jackson's vision became the dominant one. I don't remember reading much in those early university years that really captured my attention - though I do remember the tedium of my CanLit class - but perhaps my favourite English class of all of my years was the one in which we studied The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings in a semester; it was a heavy reading class, but it was totally worth the work.

Learning to teach reading

I really started to feel like I was a more mature reader after I entered the Faculty of Education in my second half of university. There were a couple of incidental developments that may have been part of this shift - particularly entering my twenties and moving away from the more fundamentalist mindset that had perhaps prevented me from being more open-minded in my approach to literature in addition to having to be more mature in considering a career with real implications for the first time - but whatever the reason, I felt like I was an accomplished reader. I took time away from finishing my Education degree to finish my English degree, and I continued to feel as though I was building my knowledge base, particularly in the science fiction course in which we read a novel per week throughout the semester.

By the time I got to my teaching internship, I felt much more ready to teach reading and also that I had reclaimed my identity as a reader. I suppose I never really left it behind, but there was something about intentionally and purposefully reading again that seemed energizing. I will likely never forget the moment that, as I sat in the first class of my Advanced Secondary Teaching Methods course, the instructor asked the two dozen students - all of whom had just spent the previous four months teaching high school English - who read recreationally; I was one of two who raised a hand, and the prof immediately admonished us that "if you're not reading, they're not reading". Some students attempted to dissent - "we were so busy!" - but they were summarily shut down, and rightfully so.

You might think that my lifelong love of reading would make it easy to impart that skill or at least an affection for reading to students as I teach, but I actually find it somewhat challenging to do so. I never struggled to read or to develop the skill set required for reading successfully - vocabulary, grammar, decoding strategies, you name it - so I find it challenging to teach students who have a hard time learning to read or to discover who they are as a reader. I have not only had to learn how to make sure that students have the kinds of skills that I inherently had, but also how to help students in their process of discovering what they want to read, why they should read, and who they are as a reader, and that's a hard thing to instruct. That said, I have found it valuable to explore this area over the past few years, and it has helped my own reading to learn how to help others.

Current reading habits

Although reading seems rarely to be as much a part of my life now as I would like, I'm still an avid reader; of course, my attention is now diffracted throughout several different forms of reading, so it's really just the intentional reading of novels and books that suffers as a result of the reading I do on my phone. I try to read for twenty to thirty minutes a day, usually before bed, which works out to roughly a book every seven to ten days, but it also happens every so often that I am enraptured by a book, and I voraciously consume it in a few days; this was the case most recently with Ernest Cline's 2011 video game nerd nostalgia novel Ready Player One, but it happens a couple of times a year (usually during school breaks).

I tend to be fairly exhaustive and intentional in my approach to authors and genres, and much of my "to read" queue and lists are informed by books that I have read. There are a number of authors for whom I have tried to read everything they have written, and I routinely try to fill gaps in my bibliography as part of my regular reading rotation. I also use Goodreads to track all of my books and to set challenges for myself. I post reviews of every book I read on that site, and it is invaluable as a social tool and place for exploration for anyone who is seeking to become a better reader. I have had several surprising instances in which others have connected with a book as a result of my review, so I do make sure to be intentional about sharing my reading in that way. Plus, it helps me keep track of my progress on my reading challenge for the year, which I set again at forty books in 2016 after falling short on that number last year.

I have a number of genres represented both in my personal library and in my reading repertoire, and I tend to alternate between them with some fluidity. I often read more than one book at a time, particularly as different books and genres demand different styles and levels of attention; I have found it particularly unuseful to read certain non-fiction texts before going to bed, for example. I do also have a lot of intentionality with the books I read in most genres, particularly insofar as there is cultural currency in reading a book to be part of a larger conversation or before the release of the movie, and I do also have an awareness of gaps in reading of classical and canonical texts that I am often intentionally attempting to rectify.

My default genre to read would be science fiction, including classic, contemporary, and young adult sci-fi; I read the latter largely because I feel the need to keep up with what is popular with my students, but also because they tend to make for very easy reading during more intense points of the school year. I have a large selection of classic SF novels from which I draw, but I also tend to try to read newer works that are acknowledged by the major genre awards (the Hugos and the Nebulas), which still have validity despite recent controversies.

I tend to avoid most fantasy novels, with the notable exception of The Lord of the Rings (which I have successfully argued is more SF than fantasy anyway), as I tend to appreciate the ways in which SF comments on our own society and the construction of worldviews rather than the escapism present in most fantasy series; I do have a significant section of works by and about Tolkien, though I have only yet accumulated the first of the twelve volumes of The History of Middle Earth (and I'm not sure if I will ever go out of my way to pick up the rest). I do read other works of fiction as well - particularly popular examples of young adult fiction - but not with nearly as much regularity or intentionality as my forays into SF unless the movie is being released soon.

I also tend to read a lot of non-fiction texts, and I really appreciate the balance that reading these kinds of books brings to me as a person. The genres and topics are somewhat varied; some are connected to areas of professional interest, including biographies, language and words, and history - especially of Canada. I read a significant number of books with a sociological bent, particularly toward evaluating modern trends and culture, as well as a not-insignificant portion that focusses on some form of pop culture, including cultural commentary, memoirs of entertainers, and some sports texts. A significant subsection of those books - several dozen - are about U2, a fact that is both confusing to and bemoaned by my wife every time I find a new book to add to my already substantial collection, as she is legitimately puzzled by the fact that there are books about the band that I do not yet own and that I would feel a need to have any more books about the Irish quartet; all I have to say in response is that she's not a collector, which is probably a good thing for our space.

The other major area of non-fiction toward which I gravitate is books about Christianity. There are several subgenres I read in that broad category, and they tend largely to mirror my readings in other subjects of non-fiction: biographies; cultural criticism; pop culture; histories; sociological analyses (particularly in regard to the functioning of the church in North America and its interaction with the greater world). I do read some books within this field that are also intended for personal edification and learning, as well as some that help me understand the way that different authors understand how to follow Christ in our contemporary context; that said, I tend to gravitate toward the end of the theological spectrum with which I most clearly identify, so there's a lot of "Christian books" that I would never read other than to discover how some particular strains of thought are being propagated in churches.

"Currently reading" Top 5s

In order to better illustrate some of the observations from my "current reading habits" section, I thought I would compose a few "top 5" lists that will give snapshot indications of some of my leanings in the different genres I have mentioned. Keep in mind as you judge my lists that these are not exhaustive or definitive; they are merely indications of where my tastes lie right now as a reader (as well as some of the unfortunate gaps that remain in my personal bibliography).

Five books that have given me difficulty in completion: The Crystal Cave (Mary Stewart); The Yiddish Policemen's Union (Michael Chabon); Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon); Dune (Frank Herbert); Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)

Five books released last year that I'm excited to read soon: Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee); Out of Sorts (Sarah Bessey); Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans); Accidental Saints (Nadia Bolz-Weber; For the Love (Jen Hatmaker)

Five cultural commentators / sociological writers whose works I really enjoy: Chuck Klosterman; Jon Ronson; A.J. Jacobs; Malcolm Gladwell; Will Ferguson

Five contemporary fiction authors whose books I make sure to read: Michael Chabon; Dave Eggers; John Green; Ernest Cline; China Mieville

Five literary classics I still intend to read sometime: Moby Dick (Herman Melville); Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll); either Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen; and at least one novel by Dickens.

Five classic science fiction books next in my queue: The Dispossessed (Ursula K. LeGuin); The Foundation series (Isaac Asimov); Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner); The Forever War (Joe Haldeman); and Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke)

Five classic Christian texts that I really should read soon: The Cost of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer); The Ragamuffin Gospel (Brennan Manning); The Pilgrim's Progress (John Bunyan); Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton); and one of a number of books other than Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.

Five books that genuinely changed the way I saw the world (or at least are key to how I interact with it): Blue Like Jazz (Donald Miller); The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell); A New Kind of Christian (Brian McLaren); Velvet Elvis (Rob Bell); Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis)


I started writing this post about a year ago after I had participated in some professional development sessions about reading, but I had left it unfinished until now; there was not much reason for doing so other than being somewhat distracted from finishing a number of drafts I had begun composing throughout 2015, but I am glad to have taken more time to reflect and to examine myself both as a reader and as a teacher of reading. It has been helpful to think about my progress, predilections, and priorities regarding reading, and I think that even writing this post has helped me to gain some clarity as to my current purposes and proclivities as I read.

I cannot imagine a life without reading, and I am so glad to have had the opportunities that I have had as a reader even from a young age. I am also excited about my future as a reader, both in when I can pass that on to my own classroom again, but also when (at some point) I am able to pass that on to my kids. A number of our friends' kids are getting old enough to be developing their own reading tastes and flavours and to be able to express why and how they read, and it is really quite fun to be part of their journey (as well as their parents') as they have the kinds of formational reading experiences that I have outlined here.

I think it is really exciting as well to be instilling that love of reading into a generation that has more technological advantages (and, let's be honest, challenges) than any generation in the past, and that arguably has more opportunities and abilities to read than any generation in history. Although there is a lot of gloom and doom about this generation and the future of reading, I tend to see that there are so many positives that outweigh those challenges that it is a great time to be a reader - and a pretty good one to be an English teacher, too.


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