Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Visiting the Homeland

This afternoon I'm heading off to Israel, just me and my Dad going to visit my grandpa, aunts, uncles and about 300 cousins. The long skirts are packed, the piercings are out, and my Hebrew phrase book is in my pocket. Will return in ten days with photos...

Film Frenzy

Lately, I've been on a movie watching kick. Like novels, it seems like I'm always behind, that there aren't enough hours in the day to see every film when it comes out. So forgive me if some are a bit old, but if your like me and missed them in the theaters, there are a few worth renting. Disclaimer: I have a wide range of movie tastes often including sappy, cheesy, predictable, it's-been-done-before flicks...and I'm not ashamed of it!
  • Maybe it's just because I'm a swimmer or that I love sports movies, but Pride was definitely two hours well spent. Based on a true story, Terrence Howard plays a former collegiate swimmer who has battled racism at every meet despite his unbeatable talent. Now out of work, he takes a job from the employment agency to clean out a park district that the city has decided to shut down. But instead of cleaning it out, he cleans it up, taking in the local kids and teaching them how to swim. The plot is somewhat predictable, but the acting is so terrific and the story is so uplifting that you won't care. At least I didn't.

  • I know I'm probably the last person to see Blood Diamond, but if I'm not, you must head out to Blockbuster right now and pick it up. I'll save the summary and say that seldom do movies make my heart race the way this film did. It has all the things that I love about books: flawed characters that you learn to love and that you watch change throughout the story, suspense that comes from more than just gun fights and exploding cars (although there was a lot of that too), and strong social commentary that is done in such a way, you don't feel like you're being preached to. The acting was fantastic and the special effects made me wish I saw it on the big screen.

  • After that, I needed something a little lighter, so I got Stomp The Yard. I love dance movies especially when they have no plot (when I was younger I'd watch Breakin' all the time). This was a little different, focusing on Stepping in Black fraternities and sororities, but it definitely lived up to my expectations. Again, the plot is predictable and a little weak, the characters are only slightly developed, but the dance moves are great and so is the soundtrack, which is really all I'm expecting from these types of movies.

  • If you want a great thriller, I'd pick up Shooter, especially if you're a fan of Training Day. Mark Wahlberg plays an ex-Marine scout sniper who gets framed for the attempted assassination of the president. Lots of great explosions, cool gadgets, and lots of interesting plot twists. Kind of reminds me of a Gayle Lynds book, on screen.

  • I liked the book, so I picked up Fast Food Nation. The film itself was pretty bad, not a very good adaptation. But what was striking to me was how images as opposed to words can have a more powerful affect. When I read the book, of course I found it a little disturbing and haven't eaten McDonald's since, but when I watched the movie, when I saw the cows being slaughtered and gutted and skinned, I haven't touched red meat since. Guess my imagination isn't as vivid as the director's.

  • Last night it was back to Africa for The Last King of Scotland. Not the most feel good movie and definitely enough gruesome violence to make me close my eyes. But, the actors did an amazing job, especially Forest Whitaker who portrayed Idi Amin, and the story was so riveting, the two hours flew by in what seemed like seconds.
Finally, there were two movies that I have labeled "must-miss". First Daddy's Little Girls. The first 30 minutes were promising; I was getting into the characters, the dialogue was fresh, there were some interesting conflicts arising. But as the movie continued, it started to fall apart. The plot was loose and unresolved and the ending couldn't be described as anything but cheesy. Save your 3 bucks and your 2 hours. Next was Night at the Museum. I know, I should have expected it to be bad. But sometimes, I like dumb movies. Dumb movies can be really funny. And I thought the premise was kind of cool: museum exhibits come to life. But there weren't any laughs except at the plot attempts and corny dialogue.

So I guess the cat's outta the bag: I have questionable tastes in movies. Guess this is why I couldn't be a film critic. But all I'm really asking for is an interesting premise and characters I care about. And besides, sometimes you just need a good, bad movie.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Daily Dose

Can't wait for the Sunday paper to get your book review fix? Check out The Book Room, the new Sun-Times blog and you can get a daily dose.

Monday, August 13, 2007

My Kind Of Town

Yesterday, a friend and I took a long swim in Lake Michigan, an activity that usually occurs once or twice a week. It's a great way to be outside without dying in the heat and it gives me time to think. Each time I turned to take a breath, I would catch a glimpse of the lakefront path and the tall buildings lining Lake Shore Drive. And when I looked forward, swimming back towards the beach, I could see Navy Pier, The Drake Hotel and the John Hancock building. Each moment I spent in that lake reminded me of how much I love this city and, therefore, how much I love reading about it.
But not everyone can write Chicago with authenticity. Not all writers can make their readers feel the vibrations from the El, smell the faint sweetness of chocolate in the West Loop, hear the crowd cheering from Wrigley Field. Not everyone can write each of Chicago's neighborhoods like they've lived in them for years or tell a scene in a bar like they themselves are regulars. Not all writers can write this city with the love and compassion it deserves. In fact, plenty of books have caused me to cringe, stumbling upon a mistake or misstep, a tell that lets me know this author and this character are not true Chicagoans. If you're going to write the Windy City, or any city for that matter, take my advice:
  • Know the hoods Don't just know where they're located, know what they look like, smell like, sound like. I have no problem with authors taking fictional liberties, as long as they fit. Each Chicago neighborhood has a different personality so make sure your characters live and work in a neighborhood that suits them. Once you know the neighborhood, you can utilize it. For example, the Cabrini Green housing projects used to be located (they're in the process of tearing them down) smack dab in between the affluent neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. Putting your character in that area would call for conflict and/or heighten the existing tension.

  • Know the streets You would think with Mapquest and Google Earth that authors would stop making mistakes when it comes to streets. But they don't. Chicago works on a grid, which makes it easier, but there are still plenty of books with parallel streets intersecting, freeway exits that don't exist, and other types of silly errors. Want to show a reader you don't live in the city? Making these mistakes is the easiest way to do it.

  • Know the food Do not have your character put ketchup on their hot dog or drink a Miller Lite at a Cubs game or order a Pepsi at the Billy Goat Tavern. Chicagoans love their food and they love it a certain way. Double check with a hardcore Chicagoan before handing in any scenes in bars or restaurants.
  • Know the crimes Whenever I would travel abroad and tell people I was from Chicago, I would hear one of two things. At the time it was either, "Oh! Michael Jordan!" or "Chicago! Bang bang!" Historically, Chicago is known for two main things: organized crime and crooked politicians. Now, it's lots of gang and race related violence... and still lots of crooked politicians. When I read Chicago crime fiction, I expect these crimes to be a part of the story in one way or another.

To me, Chicago is a perfect place to set a novel, but if you're gonna do it, do it right. With all the technology we have at our disposal, there's no reason to make mistakes. And, to be perfectly honest, I have put down books because the author made too many mistakes like these. As with any type of writing, research is key. But ultimately, it's the passion for the city that makes the setting come alive on the page.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Listen Up: Thoughts on AudioBooks

This weekend, I drove up to Michigan and I was faced with a last minute dilemma. My car, a 94 Buick Skylark that I bought off an old lady, does not have a CD player and my MP3 player was broken. Knowing I couldn't bear even an hour with just the radio or, heaven forbid, silence, I stopped at the library to pick up an audio book.

Over the past year there has been much discussion about whether or not listening to a book is actually considered reading. Personally, I have harbored a slight bias when people tell me they listened to a book, didn't actually read it. I thought of them like the kids in high school who bought the Cliff Notes and was reminded of a certain Seinfeld episode. But as I drove and listened to my audio book, I was thinking how much better it was than listening to music and, how much "reading" I could accomplish by listening to books in the car instead of NPR or crappy pop music. I think this is the mentality of most audio book listeners, that they can multi-task.

My step-mom, an AVID audio book listener, mentioned that in book groups, participants were not allowed to listened to the books, that they were specifically told they must read them. At first, I found myself nodding in agreement, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how silly that was. Stories began as an oral tradition, long before written words and bound books. In writing workshops, pieces are read aloud to catch any snags in dialogue or awkward sentences. We go to hear authors read from their books, longing to hear the voice behind the words. So why all the uproar about listening to books?

Me, personally, I would rather read than listen. Audio books don't compare to the feeling I get sitting with a book in my lap and turning the page. And to be honest, since my Michigan trip, I have not resumed listening to the book. But that's me, and now I do not judge those who prefer audio books. While there are many differences between the two mediums, I do not believe one is superior to the other. Anyone disagree? I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this.