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

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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

 

Happy 2019 and 2018 Year in Review

Well, it’s 2019.

Looking back, 2018 was the most life-changing year of my life.  Though not without its share of heartbreak and struggles, I’ll focus on the positive here.

In February, I again changed the course of my career at the company I’ve been with for almost fifteen years, this time with a promotion into a different department with new mandates.

In July, I became a father when my wife and I welcomed our bouncing, baby boy.

And in November, I published my Depression Era noir novel, Then Came Darkness.  Which, as a New Years gift to my readers will be available for free download to your Kindle from January 1st through January 5th (after which it will return to its normal Kindle edition price of $4.99.  Paperback edition is always $11.99).

Here’s a quick recap of films, books, and travel at The Spin in 2018: Continue reading

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 Human Touch in Warlight

What lengths would one go for love…or in war?  Cataclysmic outside events thrust unlikely people together…torn from their privacy to create new intamicies…in secret…but in service for something larger…a delicate, romantic spy game that could determine the fates of strangers in strange lands just as much as it could the fate of the ones you most love.

In his masterpiece The English Patient, Canada’s titan of literary fiction, Michael Ondaatje described a novel as a “mirror walking down the road.”  In his latest novel, Warlight, which mirrors many of the themes of his best, he describes a memoir as “the lost inheritance”.  Warlight is a novel written as if it was a memoir, and the light it casts on the shadowy lives of those left picking up the pieces in the aftermath of World War II will leave one shaken as equally by Ondaatje’s craft as by the fates of the characters.  It would make a cracker jack film or miniseries, you know, if someone skillful enough could dissect it, reassemble it, and focus the whole thing on the shocking soap opera-like revelation at the end…the twist of fate…the sad realization of what the consequences of one’s actions and youthful indiscretions could be. Continue reading

Going to Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense opens with a magical passage dreamily describing that feeling of flying, sitting in a plane and taking-off, the world a string of lights slowly falling and fading away beneath you.  It’s a magnificent episode.  So much of the mood he sets was exactly what I felt on a flight ascent from Toronto to Philadelphia many years ago, and I had always wished I had the nerve to capture it properly in words.  Alas, Helprin captured it better than I ever could have…and wisely changed the setting to Paris, to boot!

The novel was a gift from my wife this past holiday season, and the greatest gift the novel gave to me was its ability to bring back memories of our trip to France in September of 2015 just a month before we were married.

Helprin’s swooning and expansive tale of an elderly cellist facing down the demons of his past and the fate of his legacy is dense, dense stuff.  Helprin’s vivid, thick, sometimes blustery, sometimes flowery descriptions of people, places, food, wine, and emotions are intermittently wondrous, evocative, illuminating, frustrating, and too often clichéd.  Oh, yes, anyone who has been there gets it…Paris is undeniably Hemingway’s Moveable FeastContinue reading

Land Needs a Deed not Deeds in Mudbound

Indeed, you might need a deed to own land, but it’s all those horrible deeds that lead to systematic oppression that tie the tortured souls of Mudbound to the land.  Even in the afterlife they can’t escape the land, which swallows their flesh and churns up their bones, the indentured survivors plopping their dead loved ones’ bodies right into the ground, rendering all their deeds and deeds undone.

While still stewing over the fact his vile racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks) sold the only land the family ever had, Henry (Jason Clark) is so damned obsessed with the idea of owning land and working it that he uproots his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan, ever graceful in her depiction of a woman’s arc from blissful naivety to pessimistic pining) and young daughters to go live on a godforsaken plot of harsh farmland in Mississippi.  There the work and hardships are shared with an African-American family led by the spirited Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his stoic wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) who have been toiling the land in quiet dignity for generations, first as slaves, and now as sharecroppers.

Continue reading

Matterlightblooming and Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

In an ancient cemetery on a hill near Washington D. C. the dead-who-know-not-they-are-dead rise from their sick boxes at night to cavort, cajole, console and wonder, wander, ponder. They have developed their own culture, their own shadowy cadence of “living” in this self-inflicted purgatory, patiently waiting for some sign to know what to do next, while fellow spirits vanish in the matterlightblooming and others join them in fresh sick boxes, an eternally spiraling phantom world of temporary inhabits…ships passing in a melancholic feverishly nightmarish harbor where the waters are haunted by memories of thier life in that other place from before they so long for…

One such spirit is left dispirited by another (who committed suicide)…exclaiming…

“You did not give this place a proper chance, but fled it recklessly, leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world…Forgoing eternally, sir, such things as, for example: two fresh-shorn lambs bleat in a new-mown field; four parallel blind-cast linear shadows creep across a sleeping tabby’s midday flank; down a bleached-slate roof and into a patch of wilting heather bounce nine gust-loosened acorns; up past a shaving fellow wafts the smell of a warming griddle (and early morning pot-clangs and kitchen-girl chatter); in a nearby harbor a mansion-sized schooner tilts to port, sent so by a flag-rippling, chime-inciting breeze that causes, in a port-side schoolyard, a chorus of childish squeals and the mad barking of what sounds like -” (p. 140-141)

Apparently in George Saunders’ purgatorious bardo, every ghost is a poet…and a grammarian champion of the semi-colon. Saunders’ ghosts go through the metaphysical motions, getting bawdy like Shakespeare in their regaling of tales and nihilistic like Beckett’s Godot waiters…waiting, for something…someone…to rock their boats. Continue reading