#ToniMorrison Will Always Be #AllTheThings

And I am all the things I have ever loved: scuppernong wine, cool baptisms in silent water, dream books and number playing. – Toni Morrison

I was the only (dumb) white guy in the class. Maye the only wannabe writer, too. 1999. African American Literature at Elon College. I thought I was cool being the minority. We had to read Jazz by Toni Morrison. From the very first line…Sth, I know that woman…I was transported, and changed. It was, and still is, to this day, unlike any other novel I have ever experienced. It was wholly unique, a novel written like music…a looping chorus of tortured souls, a deepdown, spooky jazz song about people and places I had never thought about before…voices I had never heard and feelings I would never forget.

It was also composed in a way that broke every rule of writing. Jazz is the reason all of my novels have roving, shifting, intertwined POV’s.

Morrison shunned the idea of writing something universal…but in her specificity and focus on the African-American reality, she tapped into the timelessness of the human experience. The human frailty and strength she evoked is universal.

Margalit Fox of The New York Time’s wrote: “Ms. Morrison animated that reality in a style resembling that of no other writer in English. Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.”

As I grew older, and I sampled more and more of Morrison’s playlist, I grew to love her even more. I was in awe of her ability to plumb the depths of place and time channeling the hopes and fears of all of the marginalized. Her A Mercy haunted me like the transcribed dream of every sad soul dragged kicking and screaming to the New World.

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I loved to hear her talk, her voice like a cool babbling brook gossiping about the world it snaked through, and read her thoughts on the craft. I basked in her wisdom.

If you don’t see the book you want to read out there, go write it. Damn it.

I loved her thoughts on freedom.

Once you’re free, you gotta free somebody else…otherwise what’s the point?

Her thoughts on leadership were no different…set the bar high, and when you get some real power, use it to empower others.

I was lucky enough to see her speak and meet her in person at the Free Library of Philadelphia with my wife in 2015. She was everything I knew she always was.

Toni Morrison is, and always will be, all the things I have ever loved.

She is the Greatest American Novelist, and she has left behind a legacy of words and wisdom we are hardly worthy of. She is the best of us. She is all of us.

I’d like to imagine that a thousand years from now when all musical recordings are lost, the internet is unplugged, and the only clouds are those in the sky…someone might wonder, what was jazz?

The only answer will be her book, whose opening paragraph was sung like this…

Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.”

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Written by D. H. Schleicher, inspired by the life of Toni Morrison

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

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

God Help the Reader in Toni Morrison’s New Novel

Toni Morrison God Help the Child Cover

It’s a strange, disturbing thing to read a contemporary Toni Morrison novel – a woman who has been at home for decades exorcising the demons of our collective American past.  Yet even in the present day, her characters are hung up on ghosts.  God Help the Child is a story, like all Morrisonian tales, woven in different voices, all tied to the cycle of abuse that starts in childhood and seems to never end.  There’s Sweetness, a mother who finds it impossible to love her too-dark child, Lula Ann.  There’s Bride, the reborn adult version of Lula-Ann, wielding her beauty like a scythe across the scorched western landscape.  There’s Booker, a man who refuses to let go of his dead brother who was brutally murdered when they were just boys.

At times, the abuse is overwhelming.  No one in this Morrison novel is left untouched.  It almost verges on melodramatic parody as each dark secret is revealed.  In some ways the novel comes across as a bourgeois version of Precious, where instead of an inner city girl, we have a fashionista – both surrounded by horrors that know no bounds.  Oprah and Lee Daniels must be drooling over this.

But Morrison refuses to let the reader get away that easily.  The novel can not be dismissed as artsy, exploitative trash.  The book is as insular, intimate and twisted as her A Mercy was expansive, remote and mangled (in oh so many beautiful ways).  Her handling of the surreal adds an otherworldly gravity to an otherwise modern tract.  Continue reading

No Ruth My Love in Zero Dark Thirty

Director Kathryn Bigelow and star Jessica Chastain hold a mirror up to the manhunt for Bin Laden in ZERO DARK THIRTY.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and star Jessica Chastain hold a mirror up to the manhunt for Bin Laden in ZERO DARK THIRTY.

America’s grand dame of literature, Toni Morrison, has given us many haunting words…but none have echoed in my mind more than the ones from A Mercy when a young girl who has lived through a colonial hellscape in 17th century Virginia announces to the world that she is, “In full.  Unforgiven.  Unforgiving.  No ruth, my love.  None.  Hear me?”

I’d like to think that former art student and painter Kathryn Bigelow has read Morrison, but who knows?  That’s the beauty of connecting one piece of art to another.  Morrison’s words came to clear mind while watching Bigelow’s tightly wound dramatization of events more recent – the man hunt for Osama Bin Laden – in Zero Dark Thirty.  How does one fight against terrorist enemies who are willing to kill anyone (including themselves) to achieve their mission?  Well, the answer is painfully simple.  You show them no ruth.  No mercy.  And you hunt them down by any means necessary and kill them. 

At the center of Bigelow’s film is one of filmdom’s greatest female characters of all time (all the more powerful for having been based on a real-life CIA analyst still working in the field), an agent named Maya played with calculated precision by Jessica Chastain (the doe-eyed red-head, all awkward coils that are both sinewy and frail, and with a soft voice that hides her steely demeanor beneath) who announces her talents to the world with this role much in the way that Cate Blanchett first staked her claim as the Queen in Elizabeth.  Here we see Maya’s journey over ten years from wunderkind analyst to ruthless field operative.  Continue reading

Coming Home in Toni Morrison’s New Novel

Frank Money.  I can’t think of a better, more ironic, name for the hero of Toni Morrison’s new novel, Home.  In only 148 short pages (somehow I picture Toni Morrison on that old game show Name that Tune proudly declaring, “I can name that tune in zero notes!” like she could divine what the song will be; and she herself does not waste a single note, syllable or word when she composes) she takes us Home – to an emotionally and psychologically damaged Korean war vet trying to find his way back to Georgia to rescue his little sister from some deep trouble.  More so than any past novels, this one is about as straightforward and accessible as a Morrisonian narrative can get, though there’s a brilliant little conceit where between chapters Frank Money is speaking directly to Morrison and reveals some gut-wrenching secrets.

As she paints for us Frank Money’s journey, Morrison gives us glimpses into the lives and mindsets of people marginalized by society and peppers her tale with those signature Morrison observations, including one passage that playfully argues the only logical response to Truman dropping that atom bomb was for the subculture to create bebop and scat.  There’s also a great little episode where Frank Money is taken in for the night by a good Samaritan whose young son (a precocious and determined math wiz) interrogates Frank about his time in Korea and ultimately how if felt to kill a man, and how Frank’s responses color the boy’s view of this strange guest in his house.  The boy’s “deep” his father had warned Frank…but when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, the boy responds to Frank succinctly, “A man.” (pg 33) Continue reading

Upstate Royalty

The Proctor Boys are a strange lot – three grizzled old men who have spent their entire lives in stifling isolation on a dairy farm in Upstate New York.  When the eldest, Vernon, winds up dead one morning in the bed all three shared, the youngest, Creed, gets swept up into accusation while the emotionally crippled simpleton (and middle brother), Audie, barely grasps the gravity of the situation.

Jon Clinch’s second novel, Kings of the Earth, was inspired by actual events.  Clearly fashioning himself a 21st century William Faulkner, Clinch spans his book across generations and voices.  Each chapter is titled by a year and a character’s name – with POV’s shifting from 1st person to 2nd person to 3rd person, but never omniscient – eerily reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.  Those not familiar with the style may find it a challenge, while fans of Faulkner will probably favor it as a nice homage, but it pales in comparison to the master.  This isn’t to say Clinch hasn’t achieved something memorable nearing mythic stature here. Continue reading

The Hook Brings Them Back

The calm between the storms: And just where do they plan on fitting another foot of snow?

They sure do like to rush the sequels these days.  Just barely 72 hours after Snowmageddon dumped 20 inches or more over most of the Mid Atlantic, the sequel was rushed into production and now we have Snowmageddon 2:  The Sleetpocalypse, arriving mid-week no less and snowing-in the same area (and then some) once again.   As Dickens would say…it was the best of times, it was the worst of times

But it seemed the perfect cabin-fever brew to stir up some inspired work on that novel…you know…the one I’ve been babbling about since — For the Love of Pete — April of 2008!  Though I have much of the outlining and research completed and even drafted a very rough first chapter, one thing I have been wrestling with is crafting that perfect, killer opening line.  They say you have to grab a reader’s attention instantly, and if you don’t hook them with the opening, then they are less likely to come back.   I decided to test that theory and thought what better way to procrastinate than to hit my bookshelves and crack open some of my favorite novels and current reads to see how the masters of their craft hooked readers with that opening line.  

I invite my readers and fellow bloggers to do the same and leave some of you favorite (or worst) opening lines to novels (or screenplays) in the comment form! 

Here are some of my findings: Continue reading

A Review of Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

Orphans of the Storm

In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy we see life through the eyes of people physically and emotionally abandoned, orphans with names like Lina, Florens, Jacob, Rebekkah and Sorrow.  The storm is the clashing of cultures in pre-Revolutionary War America where the laws are not yet defined, everyone and everything is for sale, and all are threatened with annihilation by God, the environment or each other.  Europeans looking for a promised land of unending wealth or escape, Natives living through an apocalypse, indentured servants and slaves from Europe and Africa bound to barbaric institutions are all brought to a slow, simmering boil in the torrid fog rolling in over Mary-Land and Virginia…colonies ironically named for women but that are unmerciful and cruel to those females who come to their shores. Continue reading

The Greatest Novels of All Time

Halloween always brings to mind that classic of gothic literature, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

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This is a novel that has so enamored me over the years I once took a class dedicated solely to the study of it line by line.  The mythology it created is still alive and well today (witness the recent box office champ 30 Days of Night), and there have been a myriad of stage, film, and television adaptations that always seem unfaithful.  Over the years Count Dracula has been romanticized and made an object of sympathy, whereas in the novel he was always kept at arm’s length as a monster, and we learned of his story through a series of diary entries, letters, and notes from those in and around his inner circle of victims.  The book’s perversion of Victorian Era social mores and its inversion of the Christian sacraments made it an instant and subversive classic.  Its subtexts concerning child sexual abuse and modern man’s irrational fears of women’s liberation make it a point of controversy to this day.  Its lasting influence on future generations of writers and mythmakers will be bleeding and frightfully alive for years to come.  Does this make it one of the greatest novels of all time?

It made me wonder is it even possible (or practical) to make a list of the greatest novels of all time?  Continue reading