Literary and Cinematic Hat Tricks

Anil's Ghost: A Novel

“Most of the time in our world, truth is opinion.” – pg 101, Anil’s Ghost

In the chaos of war-torn Sri Lanka in the 1980’s, a Sri Lankan born forensic anthropologist trained in Britain and America, returns to her homeland on behalf of a human rights group and teams up with an archaeologist to solve the mysteries of unidentified skeletons, as likely to be remains from an ancient burial site as they are to be the recently desecrated and burned corpses of victims of terrorism left in a jungle ditch.

While reading Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, a novel so rich in immutable sadness and beauty I’m not even sure what happened at the end, only that it was beautiful and sad and unforgettable like the very best and weird dreams are, I started to think about the run Ondaatje was on when he published it. Most artists are lucky if they produce one great work in their lifetime, and the masters can typically eek out three great works if they are prolific enough over many decades. It’s absolutely staggering to think that Anil’s Ghost came directly on the heels of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. There is absolutely no doubt that this tryptic represents Ondaatje at the very height of his literary prowess, and his ability to churn out these three masterpieces one right after the other is something of a miracle. How many novelists or film auteurs have performed this hat trick, having produced their three greatest works sequentially? I scanned across my favorite authors and filmmakers to see if anyone matched Ondaatje (realizing of course this would be a highly subjective exercise based on my own opinions), and I would dare my fellow writers, readers, and film buffs to do the same and see what they come up with… Continue reading

Before the Darkness: Thoughts on Earlier Writing

Don’t ever let them tell you life is short, Ty. Life is long and people do lots of things. Some of them good. Some of them bad. And sometimes these things catch up to people. And sometimes that takes a long time.  – Evelyn Kydd, from Then Came Darkness

The arc of a writer’s life is long, too. You have to write a lot of bad stuff (and read a lot of good stuff) before you learn how to write well.

I’ve been writing since I was seven years-old (my first story was a melodrama about a jewel heist) and I’ve shoveled my fair share of crap, including countless twisted tales during middle and high school, and three highly questionable and amateur novels I rushed to market during the infancy of the self-publishing craze right after college before I finally wrote some good stuff, The Thief Maker. I’d like to think my latest, Then Came Darkness, is good stuff, too. It laid dormant for a number of years as my favorite unpublished work, and then on a delirious whim fueled by exhaustion and inspiration while on parental leave last year, I thought to myself, “What the heck, let’s dust this off and publish this thing!” It was equal parts a lark, and a test of the new waters.

A lot has changed in the twelve years since I self-published my first bit of good stuff, The Thief Maker. In the years between that and Then Came Darkness I’ve been busy with blogging and short stories (some which have been published), and big life stuff like advancing in my corporate career, multiple trips to Europe, getting married, buying a house, and having a baby. It’s easier now than ever before to self-publish thanks in large part to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, but it’s probably ten times as hard to find an audience as it was twelve years ago (not that I was very successful then either, though the small audience I did find for The Thief Maker seemed to like it).

I was honestly lost this time around until I found the #WritingCommunity on Twitter and started making use of my neighborhood Little Free Libraries, which I have tirelessly stocked with autographed copies. The one at the end of my street has been restocked at least five times…so thanks, neighbors, or whoever you are out there reading Then Came Darkness!

The early reviews from fellow indie authors, book bloggers, and readers have been slow to come, but mostly positive. People seem to love the characters (which brings up a feeling of pride second only to having my actual child praised by strangers), and my favorite blurb thus far has come from C. D. Tavenor, who stated “the rising conflict and relationships between characters reminded me of one of the classics I read in high school, but this time, I was reading it for pleasure!” He also loved the cover designed by my wife (thanks, hun!)

All of this made me want to take a little trip up to my attic full of boxes which store much of my earlier writing, which as terrible as most of it is, was fun as hell as to write at the time. I fondly remember the days of middle school friends fighting over who got a character named after them, and furious scribblings in notebooks during torturously boring high school classes that got passed around like gossip. Many of the techniques used, character types birthed, and themes explored later were present there from the start: fractured non-linear timelines, unreliable narrators, feisty women, tortured men, and resourceful orphans all trying to survive personal tragedies amidst larger chaotic (often apocalyptic) events.

So here, for fun, are some delicious tidbits from all that crap I had to write then to get to where I am now. Continue reading

When Night Falls on Niagara Published by Eunoia Review

When Night Falls on Niagara – a short story inspired by some fanciful conversations while on a family trip to Niagara Falls in 2017 – was published this month by the digital literary magazine, Eunoia Review.

Here’s an excerpt:

When night falls on Niagara I follow her. She stops for coffee every night before her shift starts. “Gloria” is the name scribbled in playful black marker on her coffee cup, but she doesn’t look like a Gloria to me. I don’t know what I would name her, but definitely not Gloria. It must be an alias…or perhaps a nostalgic reference to an old family joke from childhood. When I was a kid my father would make up names for us any time we went for ice cream or smoothies and the person behind the counter asked for our names to identify our soon to be prepared sweet treats. We would then make up the funniest stories about our new identities. Dad was a Spanish clown with robotic arms or an artisanal vegan baker who communicated only in mime. I would be an antique mailbox reclamation artist or a dog hypnotist who could identify your pooch’s past lives. I wondered…who was Gloria? A freelance myna bird trainer whose failed dreams of being a ballerina haunted her? A former music teacher who now taught cats sign language? Did Gloria dream of hitting the jackpot at the casino so she could fly off to Paris and buy that pied-à-terre in Montmartre? Haunted longing hung delicately on her face with her perpetually downturned eyes.

The constant roar of the falls outside drowned out my more fanciful thoughts as I followed her up the hill to that old skinny brick building with the iron fire escape cascading down its long side. Facing the water, it seemed to mirror the river tumbling down into the colorfully lit nighttime abyss. The seven-story building was all dark at 10pm until she entered. I imagined inside there was no working elevator, and I could hear her steps as she walked up to the top floor. Then, on my perfectly timed beat, that single yellow glow would appear in the window on the top left-hand side of the building’s long, sad face, as if it was an eternally tired person who could just barely keep one eye open…the falls before them forever churning like their ennui.

Read the whole story @ Eunoia Review

Coming Through Slaughter and the Evolution of Michael Ondaatje

Buddy Bolden

Above: the only picture of Buddy Bolden (top, second from the left)

Coming Through Slaughter, a piece of poetic historical fiction that attempts to channel the mysterious genius and insanity of jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, was Michael Ondaatje’s first novel (published in 1976) though one must use the term novel loosely. I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Ondaatje speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month, and he touched briefly on Coming Through Slaughter, and how it was a bridge between his earlier poetry and his later more refined (though still free flowing and organic) novels.

Along with Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje is probably my favorite living novelist. Coming Through Slaughter shares some stylistic and thematic traits with Morrison’s 1992 masterpiece Jazz (one of my favorite novels of all time). Both attempt to lyrically copy the cadence and spirit of the music in written form, but while Morrison’s work features many voices riffing on each other, Ondaatje’s is a singular voice that goes on a solo performance into madness. Morrison’s novel is slinkier, like forgotten notes from a dozen songs cat-pawing through a moonlit room whispering their spooky secrets. Ondaatje’s type of jazz is more gritty, virulent, like an unending trumpet blast ear-worming into the sweatiest, dirtiest, darkest spaces. Continue reading

Boko Haram’s Greatest Hits Published by A Million and One Magazine

Image result for mcmenamin's tavern germantown ave

Boko Haram’s Greatest Hits – a short story inspired by a conversation between two strangers that I overheard while having lunch and a drink at McMenemin’s Tavern on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia while being “trapped” at the nearby apartment of my then girlfriend (now wife) during an over-hyped snowstorm – was published this month by the new digital arts magazine, A Million and One Magazine.

Suffice it say, I’m kinda stoked.

Here’s an excerpt:

Jasmin entered the pub where only a few other weary souls were gathered.  It was dark, sepia-lit, and humming with TV’s and congenial human murmuring.  It smelled like a pub should: meat and potatoes, spilt beer, table top cleaner, and moldy wood.  Snow tracked in on the floor quickly turned to water.  She sat down at the corner stool where she leaned her violin case against the bar.

Some storm,” she heard patrons at a table remark as they watched the updated weather forecast on the TV.

There was a picturesque dusting of frozen precipitation outside, but nothing more.  It was certainly not the snowpocalypse they had predicted last night.  It was enough of a panic, though, for many flights to have been delayed.  So here she was, at mid-week, mid-afternoon, in some townie bar, just looking to kill time.

“What can I get you?” a bartender asked.

“A chardonnay,” she replied in a pleasant sigh.

Wes came out of the men’s room and stumbled back to his stool, one over from hers and against the wall.  He conspicuously looked her up and down and noticed the violin case against the bar, travel-worn and adorned with stickers from all over the world.  San Francisco.  London.  Paris.  Cairo.  Lagos.  He was instantly drawn to her well-dressed African-ness.  The academic braids.  The glasses.  The smart sweater.  Her stylish boots and well-fitting dark jeans.

Jasmin was slightly put off by his hipster scruffiness.  The shaggy hair.  The beard.  The flannel shirt.  Had she realized someone was sitting so close she might have opted for another stool or even a table.  She sensed him checking her out and it made her uncomfortable as she took a sip of wine.

Read the whole story @ A Million and One Magazine

 

Unbow Your Head in If Beale Street Could Talk

How does one even begin to unpack the layers of brilliance on display in If Beale Street Could Talk?

How does one even begin to unpack the impacts of hundreds of years of institutional racism on African-American culture, and society as a whole?

“Unbow your head, sister,” Tish’s older sister (Teyonah Parris) tells her after the revelation that Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant…by Fonny (Stephan James)…who is in jail…unjustly awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. There should be no shame when amongst family, when you are in love, and when a cruel world has stacked the deck against you. Tish should hold her head high because that child was born out of love, and she and Fonny would’ve been married had he not been unfairly accused. The epic emotional confrontation that happens next, where Tish reveals this to Fonny’s parents (his mother a spiteful holy roller), is a masterclass in directing, editing, and acting, with Tish’s loving family fighting fiercely in her (and Fonny’s) corner.

If Beale Street Could Talk is above all a love story, but not just a love story between Tish and Fonny. It’s also a love story about parents (Regina King in a crowning performance, and an equally unforgettable Colman Domingo) who always believe in their children. It’s a story about love, romantic and familial and communal, in the face of the most extreme adversities.

Barry Jenkins fulfills the promise of Moonlight and takes all of his artistic elements to the next level in his gorgeous adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. Continue reading

The Gruesome Thrills of Dracul

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the first “adult” book I remember reading as a child, and being all about horror as a lad and having already been exposed to the Bela Lugosi and Hammer film classics, I was positively obsessed with the book…so much so that years later as a senior in high school I took a mythology and folklore class where Stoker’s tale was the primary topic for a full semester and we dissected the book journal entry by journal entry, line for line.

I always imagined a bold modern update…in the 80’s and 90’s the story would’ve been told through television news clips, emergency room visit logs, and frantic 911 calls.  Today, it would be told through tweets and vlogs.

Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker however, imagined something quite different, driving a stake through the heart of the 1897 classic further back into its origins and Bram Stoker’s childhood and young adulthood where the mysterious fate of his beloved nanny, Ellen Crone, becomes intertwined with that of his siblings and an evil force even more fantastic than what ended up on Bram Stoker’s pages.  The result is a fun, gruesome thrill-ride complete with the tearing apart and re-assembling of a man, among other supernatural horrors. Continue reading

The Flow of Life in Roma

There’s something paradoxically both achingly intimate and frustratingly passive in watching Alfonso Cuaron’s quasi-autobiographical familial drama, Roma.  There are few, if any, close-ups, and his famous tracking shots display a gleeful chaos bubbling up as we flow in and out of the everyday life of an upper middle class family’s nanny/maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Mexico City (and later the countryside and then the coast).  The first two-thirds of the film are intermittently fascinating (in an “oh, look at how amazing that shot, or that framing, is!” kind of way) and meditatively boring (in an, “oh, huh, what just happened and who is that?” kind of way).  We’re just kinda there, floating along with his camera (Cuaron epically does his own cinematography here – and it is astounding), awash in heavy water symbolism.  It drips, drips, drips, much like the scattered details of these people’s lives.

But there’s an external political chaos brewing in the background, Cleo gets pregnant by a martial-arts loving deadbeat, and the family’s patriarch flakes off and never comes home after a business trip to Quebec.  Suddenly there’s a political riot while Cleo is shopping for a crib, and all emotional hell breaks loose.  The last third of the film is an engrossing, unforgettable revelation, and the water that once merely dripped or washed away dirt is now swelling (literal ocean waves) and washing away regret and grief, simultaneously threatening and bringing loved ones closer.  The quietly thrilling beach sequence involving Cleo and her young charges is one of the most beautifully shot enthralling pieces of emotional suspense ever captured on film. Continue reading

I Love You to the Moon and Back in First Man

There’s something sad at the core of Damien Chazelle’s historical hero epic, First Man, and it’s not just star Ryan Gosling’s dreamy pale blue eyes that look up longingly at the moon or the melancholy tones of Justin Hurwitz’s musical motifs punctuating the film’s sorrowful and soulful meditative moments.  The film is constructed like a visual and aural tone poem, swinging from moments of breathless action and wonder to lyrical interludes of domestic intimacy, all shadowed by tragedy.

The opening moments where we are smack dab in the thick of a test flight thrusting Neil Armstong above the earth’s atmosphere are among the most thrilling I’ve felt since Dunkirk, all sound and fury and rattling nuts and bolts and creaking ship hulls.  But when not relishing in the “in the moment” nitty-gritty details of how we got to the moon, the filmmakers take a huge gamble by positing (with some poetic license) that the primary motive behind Neil Armstrong’s push to the be the first man on the moon was perhaps grief – namely finding a way to process the death of his two-year old daughter, but also the grief over the astronauts who lost their lives in earlier failed missions. It worked for this viewer (and new dad) but it makes for a surprisingly somber tale colored with a psychological complexity I was not expecting.

Continue reading

Fatherhood with Raymond Carver and Ron Rash

Well, I’m a little over three weeks into this new fatherhood thing (our son having arrived auspiciously early last month), so it was rather serendipitous that Ron Rash’s long-nursed Something Rich and Strange short-story collection (seriously, I’ve been working this one for like three years) was in closest reach when I found myself with a short window of respite.

The next story up just happened to be “Badeye” and I don’t know if it was simply the pure joy I found in being able to read something amidst the exhaustion that made me feel the way I felt about it, but, man, it’s got to be my new favorite short story of his.  Like an Appalachian set Stand-by-Me where the narrator reaches back to his childhood and tells us, “That summer was the longest of my life…”, Rash’s story is about a little boy who loved snowcones and snakes, his mother’s spiritual and moral battle against both, how he found a way to connect to his previously distant father, how the father comes through in a big way in the boy’s time of need, the mysterious man who delivered the snowcones, the secrets both adults and children keep from each other, and the tales we weave about it all.

It instantly brought to mind one of my favorite short-stories of all time from arguably the greatest short-story writer of all-time, Raymond Carver’s “Bicycles, Muscles, and Cigarets” from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (fitting words for this time in my life) collection.  Like Rash’s “Badeye”, Carver’s masterpiece is also about a father and son, and the secrets both adults and children keep from each other.  Carver’s harried, cluttered, suburbia of 1950’s California seems a far cry from Rash’s brutal yet beautiful Appalachia of the same time period, yet the stories share universal themes, and as a new father with a newborn son, I can appreciate them on an added level above just their brilliant craftmanship. Continue reading