my thoughts on the Oscar nominations

If you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you know that most years, I have at least a bit of commentary on the Oscar nominations.  I don’t predict the winners–it’s too early to do that anyway, and I don’t have the magic formula–but I like to throw in my two cents about whom and what I hope will win.

  1. Best Picture: This is an unusual year in that I had already seen three of the Best Picture contenders before the nominations were even released.  I’ve already shared my thoughts on Hacksaw Ridge in this post.  The other two I’ve seen are La La Land and Manchester by the Sea, two excellent films that are polar (or at least West Coast/East Coast) opposites in setting, aesthetic, and topic, but that both deal with the theme of rebuilding a life from the ruins of hardship and disappointment.  I’d be happy if either of those won the top prize.  Hacksaw Ridge won’t win it–because of its subject matter, its director, and its fairly conventional story trajectory.  Speaking of conventionality, I was surprised to see Hidden Figures on the list because the trailers made it look like a standard feel-good movie.  Trailers can be misleading, though.  As for the other nominees, Fences looks like the kind of emotionally raw family saga that the Academy loves, Arrival looks like one of those surprisingly deep space travel movies we’ve been seeing a lot of in recent years (Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian), and the other three I have nothing to say about because I know next to nothing about them.
  2. Best Original Score: This is typically one of my favorite categories, but this year, with the exception of La La Land, it’s a total snoozefest so far–I say “so far” because I’ve been listening to all of the scores on Spotify throughout the day, and I just (like 30 seconds ago) started the last one, Passengers.  (I have hope for this one because it’s by my favorite film score composer, Thomas Newman.)  La La Land, as we would expect from a movie about music, has a very good score–it’s peppy and poignant by turns in all the right places.  One film whose score I would have included, if I’d been asked, would have been Manchester by the Sea.  Maybe it was left out because some of the finest musical moments in the film were not original at all but from Handel’s Messiah and other classical works.  But the original portion of the soundtrack was beautiful and unexpected for this understated story (it’s mostly choral, which gives the film a sacred quality).
  3. Miscellaneous categories they sneak in near the beginning of the broadcast when I’m out in the kitchen getting snacks: Know what else had a really good score?  My favorite movie of the year, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  James Newton Howard didn’t get nominated in that category, but the film did get nods for Production Design (formerly known as Art Direction) and Costume Design.  I think it’s significant that it was nominated in these categories rather than in those where we often see fantasy/franchise films, such as Visual Effects and Sound Mixing.  This seems to be another indication that the Harry Potter franchise is growing up–the Academy sees Fantastic Beasts as a period piece, not a special effects blockbuster.  By the way, I was cherishing a secret hope that Eddie Redmayne would get nominated for Best Actor for his third year in a row.  Alas.
  4. Best Animated Feature: I’ll close with this: One of the best films I saw in 2016, categories be darned, was Zootopia.  It dealt with serious current issues in a complicated, far from heavy-handed way, and it was that rare animated movie that remained a kids’ movie even while appealing to adults.  It should have been nominated for Best Picture, but I hope it at least wins the animated feature category.

I’ll probably blog about my reactions to the winners on February 27.  Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on the nomination slate?

a story about my hands

I don’t normally write product reviews on my blog–this isn’t that kind of blog (though, in fairness, it is hard to say exactly what kind of blog this is).  But I recently came across a product that has so astonished me and enriched my life that I feel it would be wrong of me to keep it to myself.  However, in keeping with the literary nature of this blog, I will tell you about it in the form of a story.

Once there was a woman whose daily labor was almost entirely intellectual.  She got occasional opportunities for salutary manual labor, as when she had to replace a heating element in her oven or shovel the snow out of her driveway.  But most of her work consisted of teaching, typing, and thinking deep thoughts (well, some days she got to do that third thing).  Therefore, one might have expected her hands to be soft and smooth, the kind of hands that an upper-class woman in a Victorian novel would be proud of.

However, for at least six months out of the year, her hands were as red, rough, and raw as those of one of those slipshod, loud-voiced women (fishwives or washerwomen, they usually are) who live in the seedy and morally questionable tenements of a Dickens novel.   She never knew exactly what caused this–poor circulation, possibly–but no matter what she tried, her hands cracked, stung, and bled. She tried all the hand creams, from the aesthetically pleasing but largely useless Bath and Body Works kinds to the evil-smelling medicated kinds that surely were too nasty not to work.  She went to bed with her hands coated in Vaseline, wearing handbell gloves to keep it from getting on the sheets, and although she found some temporary relief here, in a few hours after waking up she was back to looking like a bloody-knuckled butcher.  She wore gloves every time she ventured outside from November through March, which probably did prevent her from losing any fingers due to frostbite, but it’s quite possible that the wool or synthetic material of the gloves actually exacerbated the persistent problem.  Unfortunately, she also had a habit of wearing “statement” rings, bracelets, and other jewelry that drew attention to her back-alley prizefighter paws.

Then, she learned of a product called O’Keefe’s Working Hands.  (To be precise, if this didn’t ruin the timeless quality of the story, I would tell you that her mother came across the product while searching for severely dry hand remedies on her smartphone.)  This odorless, non-residue-leaving, waxy paste comes in a shallow green tub and is said to be able to heal serious cracks and callouses in the hands of people who actually do manual labor for a living.  So of course, my hands (for this story is, indeed, about me) were no match for it.  I have been using O’Keefe’s since late December, and my hands are smooth, soft, and possibly even attractive.  I still occasionally use a more standard hand cream, just for good measure, and I wear my handsome gray driving gloves when I go outside.  But it’s the O’Keefe’s that makes the real difference.  The truly amazing thing is that I don’t even put it on every day–only when I happen to glance down at that lovely green container on my nightstand and think, “Oh, maybe I should put some of that on.”

The moral we can draw from this story: If you have dry, cracked hands and have never found a satisfactory remedy, try O’Keefe’s Working Hands.  I’ve seen it at Walmart and Food Lion, so I’m guessing any standard grocery or drug store will carry it.  It can also be ordered online.

The End

This is my brain on the first day of classes.

Although I warmed up by teaching an intensive class last week, nothing ever really prepares me for the first day of a semester.  Today, after teaching a maxed-out children’s lit class (there’s a waiting list–not because of my popularity, but because it’s a required course for education majors), conducting a meeting while hungry (I hate that), and answering the emails that kept pouring in–plus the ones I neglected over the weekend–I barely have enough brain function left to make a cup of tea, let alone craft a memorable blog post.  But I think it’ll be easy enough to list some of the things that made me happy over the weekend and today.  So here we go.

  1. Saturday-Sunday, I went camping, backpacking (though I barely carried the pack a quarter of a mile, since our campsite was so close to the car), and scrambling up a popular local rock face known ominously as Devil’s Marbleyard.  Although I love hiking and being outdoors, I’ve rarely camped and never backpacked. Fortunately, I was with a friend who is a certified wilderness EMT and adventure guide and I don’t know what else, so she showed me how to set up a tent, boil water for hot chocolate (very important) in a Kelly Kettle, and wash dishes with hippie soap (it seriously had hemp in it) in a freezing cold creek by the light of a headlamp.  The part I was most worried about was staying warm at night, but with a zero-degree sleeping bag and a lot of those Hot Hands packs that are popular with hunters at this time of year, I was downright cozy.  As for scrambling up the rock face, I just pretended like I was Frodo or Sam traversing the Emyn Muil–just without the elven rope.
  2. Last night I went to see Hacksaw Ridge (side note: I went out last night wearing leggings as pants, and I was regretting that style choice all the way to the theater and thinking, “Wow, I’ve really let myself go.”  Immediately after getting there, I saw at least three women wearing leggings as pants.).  If all you’ve heard about Hacksaw Ridge is that Andrew Garfield has a bad accent in it (he really doesn’t, though, and he is adorable), you should give it a chance.  It’s about Desmond Doss, a WW2 medic who refuses to carry a gun due to his religious convictions and past traumas, but ends up saving dozens of lives in one night, under relentless attack, through his (figuratively) insane work ethic and (literally–almost) insane fearlessness.  It was especially poignant to watch the film in Lynchburg, VA, where Doss grew up.  (We actually drove on the PFC Desmond T. Doss Memorial Expressway while coming back from the mountains yesterday.)  If you think you’ve seen enough WW2 movies, see this one anyway; you’ve probably never seen one about a conscientious objector.  They tend not to make movies about conscientious objectors.
  3. After the movie, I rushed home to watch the second half of the Steelers-Chiefs game.  I rarely write about football on this blog, and I won’t take the time to start now, but since I’m listing things that have made me happy, I’ll just say that I’m happy that the Steelers won–and, like all good Western Pennsylvanians, sick with apprehension about next week.
  4. Finally, my students, as they so often do, have made me happy today.  My children’s lit students seem to think I’m a comedienne (I try), and most of them appear to be totally on board with the Walt Disney World-style character breakfast I’m planning for the last day of class.  Meanwhile, a student from last week’s class sent me a Harry Potter article and a recording of Neil Gaiman reading A Christmas Caroland he told me that I’m currently his go-to person to discuss Harry Potter with.  Just what I’ve always wanted to hear.

Time to go outside and try to clear my head with fresh air.

my discussion board post

I’m teaching my first real graduate class this week (it’s in a one-week intensive format), and let me just tell you that I’ve been having major imposter syndrome (i.e., that voice in your head that tells you you’ve fooled everyone into believing you’re smarter than you actually are and that the truth is about to come out) all weekend and into today.  Fortunately, these graduate students are kind and understanding and (since most of them are graduate student assistants) know something about feeling unprepared to teach, so today went pretty well.

I teach at a Christian university, and tonight I’m having my students write a discussion board post about how their Christian worldview impacts their scholarly career.  (These are English M.A. students, many of whom will go on to careers in academia.)  So I thought I, too, should do what I’m asking them to do, but since I don’t want to crash their creative party by becoming the awkward authoritative presence in the virtual room, I’m writing my thoughts here.

  1. How my Christian worldview has impacted me as a writer and researcher.  As Gilderoy Lockhart once said, “For full details, see my published works” (flashes award-winning smile).  All I mean by that is that I won’t take the time to go into great detail here because I’ve already written about this at length in the introduction to my dissertation.  In summary, I said that I’m more comfortable than a secular scholar would be with talking about authors as real personalities, not merely constructs, because I believe that God, a very real personality, inspired the Bible and had a clear authorial intent in mind when he did so.  Therefore, even though I know that a degree, perhaps a large degree, of uncertainty is inevitable when we interpret texts (even when we interpret the Bible with our finite rational capabilities), it is imperative that we respect the text–any text–and its author and do our best to understand the intention, even if we don’t agree with it, and even if we see interpretive possibilities that may not have been in the author’s conscious thought.  That’s not a popular view in literary criticism, but I think it’s a Christian view.
  2. How my Christian worldview has impacted me as a teacher.  In many ways, I hope!  I hope my Christian worldview, along with the Holy Spirit inside me, has helped me to see the value of all students, to be patient with them, and to listen to them before I start telling them what I think they should think.  (I don’t always succeed at all of this.)  I know my Christian worldview has helped me to see teaching as a meaningful calling, not a frustrating but necessary side effect of being a scholar.  My Christian worldview also has a direct impact on what I say in class, something I’ve been focusing on more deliberately in the past few years as I’ve come to realize that not all of my students a) are Christians and b) understand the Bible and their faith well.  I teach English, not theology, but there are so many opportunities to speak Jesus’s name and the truth of the gospel in my classes, whether we’re looking at the triumph of grace over law in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the resurrection symbolism in Much Ado about Nothing.  (A lot of the depressing short stories I assigned in English 102 were great purely for their clear demonstration of how badly sin has messed up our world.)

There it is, my discussion board post.  I’ve written twice as much as I asked my students to write, but we teachers are known for being a bit long-winded. 😉

for your New Year’s resolution to read more children’s lit

Because if that isn’t one of your New Year’s resolutions, it should be.

When I was grading my children’s lit students’ response papers on contemporary realism, for which at least five of them chose to write about Louis Sachar’s Holes, I realized that I had never read this novel, though I had seen the 2003 movie (which is excellent, and which I’ll address shortly).  So during my Christmas break, I decided to spend an afternoon reading it.  Now, I’m pretty sure I’ll use it as an assigned text if I teach the course again next fall.  Let me tell you why Holes is so good.

In slightly over 200 pages, Sachar weaves a five-generation family saga together with a hundred-year-old mystery and the story of a teenage boy’s developing self-esteem and moral consciousness.  In the process, he meaningfully addresses the penal system, homelessness, and race relations in America.  Yet there’s nothing pretentious or alienating about this novel.  It’s exciting, it’s funny, and it’s perfectly pitched toward that elusive reading demographic, elementary to middle school-aged boys.

When I get around to teaching Holes, I’ll have to comb through it to find all the symbolism, parallelism, and other literary devices that Sachar uses in such a not heavy-handed way.  For now, here’s one example: the situational irony.  I love the little detail at the end of the novel that tells us that Camp Green Lake ends up turning into a Girl Scout camp, a wonderful conclusion to all Mr. Sir’s lame jokes about how it isn’t a Girl Scout camp.  As ironic reversals go, this ranks right up there with Haman’s nasty shock in the book of Esther, my current go-to example of situational irony.

I’ll also have to find time in the course to show the movie, which is one of the most faithful page-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen (not that I valorize faithfulness; I understand that books and films are two totally different media), probably because Sachar himself wrote the screenplay.  (He also appears in a brief cameo–he’s the balding guy that Sam the Onion Man tells to rub onion juice on his scalp.)  One thing I appreciate about the film is that all the characters from the book are in it; none of them are collapsed together for simplicity’s sake, as so often happens in adaptations.  I also think it’s important that each of the actors who portrays one of the boys in D Tent is the same race as the character in the book, since race is such a major (though relatively subtle) theme in this novel.

The one place where the movie diverges significantly from the book is also one of its areas of strength: the casting of the protagonist, Stanley Yelnats.  Shia LaBeouf plays this role with great sensitivity and humor (whatever he may be now, Shia used to be a really good actor), but he doesn’t fit the novel’s description of Stanley as a very overweight kid.  Stanley’s weight is important to the themes and even the plot of the novel, and it adds painful overtones to scenes that are already emotionally fraught (like when ZigZag tries to force Stanley to eat his cookie).  I wonder if some young fans of the novel were disappointed that the movie didn’t address this element–especially, perhaps, some kids who identified with Stanley.  I was a little disappointed myself, but it’s my only complaint about the film.

In conclusion, you should read Holes, watch the movie, and let me know what you think.  And get working on that New Year’s resolution.