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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Film Review | Up in the Air

by debbie cairo

This is the story about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man who spends most of his life traveling from city to city. He's got his whole life arranged for this purpose. His actual job is to fire people. Companies hire his company to send someone in to fire their employees and offer them "transition services".

Ryan's world is thrown into chaos when a young upstart Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener) has convinced the company they can do their business via webcam.

The boss sends the two out on the road together so that Anna can learn the business and try out some onsite webcam firings.

There are some twists and turns along the way that I won't give away, neither will I give away the ending. At its best this is some great character studies, at its worst a hell of an entertaining movie. Ivan Reitman is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors and he's put his own quirky sense of humor into the writing of this one as well.

At no point did I even think of looking at my watch, which is how I judge how entertaining the movie is. There we a few points I laughed so loud it was a little embarrassing. If you have a chance to go see this movie, you should do so.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Movie Review of Brothers (2009)

About twenty years ago I had a neighbor who was a Viet Nam veteran. He was a personable man with a calm manner who was raising his seven-year-old son by himself. I remember he liked to watch Rumpole on PBS and grow gourds in his garden. He was full-blooded Apache, and had lived on the reservation until he enlisted in the military fresh out of high school. One day, he told me a story that has stuck in my mind ever since.While in Viet Nam, his commander had ordered all the men in his platoon to go into a Vietnamese village, enter each hut one by one, and murder all the occupants inside. In the first hut my neighbor entered he found an old woman standing by a stove, an old man sitting in a chair, and a young boy of about seven seated opposite the old man. My neighbor approached each one in turn, put a gun to their heads, and pulled the trigger. He murdered the boy last, a youngster who had just witnessed the deaths of his grandparents. My neighbor had done as he was ordered without thought or hesitation.

This gentle neighbor of mine, with whom I passed pleasantries, and who seemed to be a fine father to his own seven-year-old son, a man who patched his roof and waved at passersby and brought me leftover slices of birthday cake, was also a killer. Not some Jekyll and Hyde personality, but simply a soldier in time of war. He said that in the intervening years not a day went by when he didn’t think of the murders he had committed. And he said maybe raising his own son would make up for the child he murdered. I never did see how having a child, something he might have done anyway, made up for the annihilation of another child, but his story offered insights into the ways war transforms human beings and the toll it takes on their lives when they return home.

A new generation of troops now fills my neighbor’s shoes and those of his platoon buddies. The human experience of bearing the extreme circumstances of war, of assimilating the atrocities troops are sometimes forced to commit and the atrocities that are committed against them, is the subject of Brothers, a film by director Jim Sheridan and written by David Benioff. Brothers is an undeniably powerful film that stuns the viewer at every turn with scenes of raw emotion and wrenching conflict, scenes delivered in no-holds-barred performances by a superb acting ensemble.

Tobey Maguire stars as Sam Cahill, a diehard family man and marine about to leave for Afghanistan for the fourth time. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Sam’s younger brother Tom, a directionless young man fresh out of jail for petty theft. Natalie Portman plays the military wife and mother with the honesty and seasoned depth we expect from her. Sam Shepherd is solid and complex as the brothers’ ex-military father. Two superb child actors, Bailey Madison and Taylor Grace Geare, play Sam’s young daughters.

(Warning: If you haven't seen the movie, the following summary reveals aspects of the plot).

As the film opens, Sam is spending time with his wife and daughters, all of whom suffer in their separate ways at the specter of Sam’s departure. Sam’s father, Hank, remains stoic all through a family goodbye dinner in which his younger son Tom is all but persona non grata at the family table, openly expressing his disapproval of Tom and comparing him to his older brother. Once Sam leaves for his tour of duty, however, Tom begins a slow maturation as he steps in to help Sam’s wife, Grace, and provide absent-fathering to his two nieces. When news comes that Sam has been killed, Tom’s involvement helps keep the family together, despite his own grief.

But unbeknownst to the family, Sam is not dead. He and a hometown buddy, Joe, have been captured by Afghan fighters. Under torture, Joe eventually buckles. But Sam maintains his wits--until he is ordered to kill Joe or be killed himself. Sam makes his choice in a harrowing scene, is later rescued, and returns home to his wife and children, nearly emaciated and hopelessly traumatized with guilt and shock.

In one of the most wrenching scenes of the film, Sam looks on as Grace is visited by Joe’s widow and young infant, knowing full well that it was he who murdered her husband and left her child fatherless. Soon after this he implodes in an unforgettable scene of unremitting agony that ends with his attempted suicide and being hauled off to a psychiatric facility. And though he eventually confides to Grace, whether he will be able to heal psychologically, and what the ramifications are for his life and the well-being of his family, is left unanswered. The film closes on Sam and Grace seated on a bench outside the psychiatric facility, leaning into each other against the freezing backdrop of a Minnesota winter.

Brothers takes on special meaning in light of the recent decision by President Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan, a happenstance the producers of the film could not have known during filming. But the human toll of war, not only in terms of loss of life, but in terms of the irrevocable soul-destruction of the survivors, is brought to full relevance in Brothers. As movie goers, we are offered an opportunity to take action simply by witnessing the stories of those who have participated in war and whose lives have been irreversibly changed by it, reminding us how vital it is that we not turn our backs on the war experience, that we listen to our neighbors as they tell their stories, even if the story they tell is heart-wrenching, or cowardly, or cruel. The war experience varies for each of our troops--not to mention civilians caught in the midst of battle—and their responses differ depending on their individual makeup. In Brothers, the protagonist murders one of his own but only under duress by Afghan militants. In that sense, the movie plays it safe politically. However, I recently watched a documentary on PBS that showed a Viet Nam veteran, now in his sixties, admitting that for him killing had been addictive and who returned to Viet Nam a second time for the chance to kill legally. A veteran of Iraq admitted to killing unarmed civilians. Not a pleasant thing to hear, but the plasticity of the human psyche, horrific as it can be, is a subject we must consider as we watch ordinary young men and women, people with hopes and futures, return home changed, or damaged, sometimes with inclinations akin to criminals, or bearing a host of horrific memories for the rest of their lives. And whatever their experience, may we all listen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Contest Announcement: Writer's Digest 10th Annual Short Short Story Writing Competition: Deadline: 12/1/2009

Writer's Digest 10th Annual Short Short Story Writing Competition: Deadline: 12/1/2009

We're looking for fiction that's bold, brilliant...but brief.

Send us your best in 1,500 words or fewer. Enter the 10th Annual Short Short Story Competition for your chance to win BIG $$$$ - including the $3000 First Prize!

Click here for additional information.

Writer's Digest 9th Annual Short Short Story Writing Competition

Look for the winners of the 9th Annual Short Short Story Competition in the May/June 2009 issue of Writer's Digest.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Film Review | A Serious Man

by julie

I recently went to see A Serious Man, which takes place in a predominantly Jewish suburb in Minnesota in 1967. Interestingly, the film opens with a short scene from the shtetls of 19th century Europe just a few generations earlier. A husband and wife are visited by the ghost of their deceased neighbor. Neither can agree on whether the neighbor is indeed a dybbuk, and though the wife stabs the neighbor in order to remove the curse, the neighbor bleeds like a human yet walks calmly away. We are left with ambiguity, though the opaqueness of the scene promises a movie rife with profundity. To add to the intrigue, a proverb attributed to Rashi, the 11th century French rabbi, flits across the screen, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”

Of course, if anyone accepted their fate with anything like simplicity, there wouldn’t be much drama left for a film. The movie’s central character, Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a college professor and family guy with a cartload of troubles and more to come. His wife is in love with Sy Edelman, a widower who has no qualms about stealing another man’s wife and who shamelessly patronizes Larry every chance he gets. Larry’s dysfunctional brother lives in his house and on his dime. Larry’s bar mitzvah-age son smokes pot and gambles. There’s more. Larry’s tenure is in doubt due to anonymous letters denigrating his character, his neighbor is encroaching on his property, a student is blackmailing him into conferring a passing grade, and—perhaps worst of all--some recent x-rays have come back abnormal.

And so Larry asks the obvious question: why me? Thus begins his search for answers. He turns to faith, seeking explanations and solace from the three rabbis at his synagogue. None of the rabbis is portrayed as having much sympathy for Larry’s despair and alternately offer platitudes, nonsense allegories, or ignore him altogether. I had to wonder why it was necessary for the Coen brothers to portray these Jewish leaders as so disingenuous and uncaring. Was this a commentary on religion in general or are they expressing a complaint about the Jewish religion in particular? And while an uncritical, saccharine approach would hardly be appropriate, there was a decided lack of affection toward many of the film’s Jewish characters that seemed contrived and slightly vindictive, as though the Coen brothers had a bone to pick with their upbringing and were using the film to vent old resentments.

I think the protagonist, Larry Gopnick, illustrates my point well. The film’s title, A Serious Man, begs the question, Is Larry a serious man? His store of oft-depicted Jewish angst shows he’s serious, perhaps too serious. The less obvious question is whether he is really a man. Apparently not. Larry Gopnick fits the mold of many male Jewish characters who are short on masculine attributes. When Larry is approached by the Korean father of his bribing student, Larry’s bigoted gentile neighbor addresses Larry with, “Is this man bothering you?” as though Larry were a woman or a child in need of a real man for protection. Larry is feminized as he breaks down and weeps like a woman. He is passive under his wife’s scolding. He is physically overpowered by his wife’s lover. His neighbor steals his property in front of his face and his brother uses him. Larry is one more Jewish weakling to add to many others in filmdom and literature. I would have hoped for more originality from the Coen Brothers, but I’m also not especially surprised that stronger characters were lacking. Stereotypes are so engrained in our culture I continually have a debate with myself as to whether the people who create them in film and literature are aware of what they’re doing. At any rate, the story of the human condition, ultimately so unresolvable, could yet be told in a more realistic way. From the standpoint of Jewish characterization, the Coen Brothers have told the same old story.

There are, of course, fine performances in A Serious Man. There are moments of great humor, the suburban scenes resound with authenticity, and the Yiddish of the shtetl is heartwarming. A Serious Man is a film worth seeing and worth pondering, if only to discover one’s own foibles as we hope for answers only to discover there aren’t any. Or perhaps we all have to find our own way. But this is also a film without heart. Larry, who wants so much for himself, gives very little to his family other than a paycheck; he virtually ignores his children except to absently police them here and there. Jewish concepts of loving kindness and service toward others are strangely absent from this supposedly Jewish-themed movie. As the movie ends, a tornado approaches in an ominous black cloud. It was a darkness that seemed to follow me as I left the theatre.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Announcing the Success of One of Our Own!

ShopNotes is pleased to report that our very own Karen N. Johnson’s book is available for purchase in trade paperback. Beautiful Testing: Leading Professionals Reveal How They Improve Software is available from O’Reilly Books and Videos.

From the publisher’s website: “Beautiful Testing offers 23 essays from 27 leading testers and developers that illustrate the qualities and techniques that make testing an art. Through personal anecdotes, you'll learn how each of these professionals developed beautiful ways of testing a wide range of products -- valuable knowledge that you can apply to your own projects.”

In Chapter 12, “Software in Use,” Ms. Johnson connects our personal stories and how they affect our work. The importance of storytelling becomes intertwined with the testing methodology.

We had an opportunity to catch up with Ms. Johnson recently, and she took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for us:

SN: What was it like writing a book for software testers that included such personal stories as your relationship with your ailing mother?

KJ: Writing the chapter in Beautiful Testing was a healing process of sorts for me. I blogged about it, see: “Beautiful Testing.”

SN: What did you gain from working with the Evanston Writers Workshop in the process of writing this story?

KJ: I drafted the chapter before I met the Evanston Writers Group. In fact, the chapter was close to going to print. I did ask Amanda from the group to provide a good critical review focused on grammar and some other aspects even though the timeframe was tight. I found having a strong writer helpful as everyone else who'd reviewed the chapter previously knew plenty about software testing but I didn't feel as though my chapter had gotten a true writer or editor's review.

SN: As you work on your next projects, and we understand you have a contract on another project stemming directly from your work on Beautiful Testing, what thoughts do you have on your process? Do you find working with a workshop approach helpful to your work?

KJ: Between having had conversations with another author and my work on BT, I was asked to contribute to another book that will be coming out from O'Reilly publishers. Hopefully I can draft my material in time to be included in that book - slated to come out in the first half of 2010.

Process. I wish I could say I have more of a process. I am deadline-inspired.

The workshop is helping me - its helping me schedule time for writing, think more about writing and I feel like I have a sincere group that I can get feedback from.

SN: Any other thoughts you’ve had about writing that you’d like to share with us?

KJ: I am beginning to understand what helps me write. I'm trying to understand and notice what elements or conditions help me write so that I can do my best to get myself or give myself those conditions.

For more information about Ms. Johnson and her work, please visit her website at Karen N. Johnson.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Welcome to the Shop!

"It's not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out where the strong man stumbled or where the doer of great deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena. Whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again. And who, while daring greatly, spends himself in a worthy cause so that his place may not be among those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt

Sometimes, the hardest thing is to just begin.

We have all sorts of myths about beginnings. If we cannot assure ourselves of doing it right, then we can be assured of not doing anything, for fear of doing it wrong.

The only thing this really assures, is that we will do that: nothing.

Which, all things considered, is a real shame.

So how do we spring from doing nothing to doing something? Like anything else. Lao Tsu said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Have the trust that we can take that one step, and another, and another, just steps – not anything enormous, grand, or big. Just little, gentle steps. One foot in front of the other, like when we teach children to walk.

Of course, as anyone who watches children will tell you, what happens? They fall down. A lot.

Mary Pickford said, “This thing we call ‘Failure’ is not the falling down, but the saying down.”

Experiment, today, with taking a step. Buy a blank notebook. Find one in your stash of office or school supplies. Find a pen. (Preferably one that has ink in it.) Now take a few steps onto the page, string a few sentences around, maybe draw a doodle or two.

There are some lovely writing prompts available on the internet. Try googling “writing prompts” and see what happens. Or try finishing the sentence, “One day, Bob left his house and…”

The important thing is not how you begin. The important thing is just to begin.


"There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." - Joseph Brodsky

I think that perhaps the worse crime is not writing them. How many of us have so many ideas for stories to write, but when we sit down (or maybe even before we get to the chair), something stops us? Sometimes, it’s a lack of ideas for how to get started. “What do I write?” is a common thought for some of us.

On the other hand, there are some great prompts out there! The internet is a terrific tool – in fact, my personal theory is that it was developed by writers. Don’t laugh! Where else can you go that’s a data repository of all the weird, wild, and wonderful facts you could desire? Where else can you go to procrastinate so productively? Where else can you go to publish blogs, and tweets, and facebooks, not to mention websites, myspaces, and all the other accumulated outpourings of a people who must, simply, write?

So, what do I write?

Let’s share some ideas in this column and develop, over time, a basket of prompt ideas so that we never have to sit, answerless, after asking that question.

To begin:

You are a thirty-year-old woman. You are wearing black. You are in New York’s Central Park. It is six o’clock. Who are you and what are you doing?

Describe a natural setting, a park or a forest, in as great a detail as you can. Strive for at least two pages of description, using all the senses, not just sight – what do you hear? Smell? Can you taste anything from the air, or perhaps a stem of grass? Do you feel anything, heat, a breeze? Do you ‘sense’ anything like menace? Joy? A sense of general foreboding that nothing in the scene immediately makes apparent, but is nonetheless clear to you?

Sniff a bottle of perfume, either someone else’s – a spouse or lover, roommate, or even a coworker. Close your eyes and inhale the scent. Now write.

What are your favorite prompts? Share them with us! We’d love to know!

Critique Tips

What makes a good critique?

First and foremost, a good critique is one that is useful to the writer. For that reason, the definition of “good” will vary from writer to writer.

The most important element to getting the most from a critique is to write the best piece you can. Avoid common spelling and grammar errors to the best of your ability and submit polished content to your critiquers. (Thank you in advance.)

But what do you do if you’re the one critiquing? Where do you start?

Here are some suggestions, in no particular order, to get you started. Remember, though, just as in writing, critiquing gets better with practice!

-Read the piece through once, just to get a feel for what the writer is trying to do.

-If any grammar or spelling errors jump out at you, note them.

-Some people prefer to critique by hand on a printed copy, while some prefer to do so on the computer. Either way is fine, as long as you write legibly by hand if that’s your method of choice (after all, if the writer can’t read your critique, they can’t very well benefit from it!).

-If you use the computer, it’s a good idea to use something to set your comments apart from the main body of the text. Use a different color, bold typeface, or collect your comments at the beginning or end of the document.

-Be specific.

-Be specific. (No, that’s not a typo – it’s such an important point it bears repeating.)

-Be specific. Vague “this is good” or “this is awful” are not helpful to the writer, no matter how heartfelt they may be to you. The point when doing a critique is to help the writer; if you don’t believe you can do so, then do not critique.

-Give examples. If you tell someone “use active voice,” show them what you mean.

-Do not assume the writer knows the jargon. Define your terms!

If You've Had a Bad Critique

We’ve all had one. It’s a review or a critique that left us feeling flattened, like we shouldn’t have picked up a pen or keyboard in the first place. And we’ve all tried to smile and say, “Oh, it’s all right, it didn’t bother me,” and laugh it off.

But we don’t laugh. We don’t let it go.

And we don’t write.

If this happens to you, or has happened, then recognize that you have been injured. You’re not silly, you’re not making a big thing out of nothing, you’re not having histrionics.

The following steps are from Julia Cameron’s excellent book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.

1. Receive the criticism all the way through and get it over with.

2. Jot down notes to yourself on what concepts or phrases bother you.

3. Jot down notes on what concepts of phrases seem useful.

4. Do something very nurturing for yourself. Read an old good review or recall a compliment.

5. Remember that even if you have made a truly rotten piece of art, it may be a necessary stepping-stone to your next work. Art matures spasmodically and requires ugly-duckling growth stages.

6. Look at the criticism again. Does it remind you of any criticism from your past – particularly shaming childhood criticism? Acknowledge to yourself that the current criticism is triggering grief over a long-standing wound.

7. Write a letter to the critic – not to be mailed, most probably. Defend your work and acknowledge what was helpful, if anything, in the criticism proffered.

8. Get back on the horse. Make an immediate commitment to do something creative.

9. Do it. Creativity is the only cure for criticism.