Don’t miss these documentaries about legendary musical
performers in theaters now. They are indisputable testimony about the power of
music to overcome barriers and speak to the heart. Tomorrow: A Tuba to Cuba.
Eagerly anticipated since its impending availability was announced some months ago, Aretha Franklin’s performance of gospel music, recorded and filmed at two successive nights at the Watts New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, 1972, sat unwatched for nearly fifty years. These two nights provided the live recording of the most successful gospel album in history. Originally filmed by Sidney Pollack and crew, “technical difficulties” with the soundtrack prevented its actual viewing until the project was resurrected by Alan Elliott (trailer).
Now, those difficulties are solved and Franklin’s genius as
an interpreter of gospel is like a blinding light. She receives strong support
from the other musicians, the powerful Rev. James Cleveland, and the Southern
California Community choir and its charismatic leader, Alexander Hamilton.
I was delighted to see and hear from her father, Rev.C.L. Franklin, too. I’d heard a lot about his role as an early leader of the civil rights movement in Detroit. Aretha felt his influence felt her entire life. There’s a lot going on in every scene, with her family, the congregation, the other musicians, the filmmakers, and, on the second night, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the audience, but Aretha remains calm and centered in all this hubbub. It’s the music and its message that preoccupy her.
At that point in her career, with 11 number one singles and five Grammys, she could have done anything. She gave this her all.
How much worse “The Masque of the Red Death” is than “The Mask of Death”!
Writers are forever trying to encourage their readers to “see” what they see in their heads, to both literally and figuratively “color” their perceptions. Why is that so important? Color is memorable, color can be trendy, and, most important, color incites emotions and connotes layers of meaning.
Crimewriter John D. Macdonald’s 21 Travis McGee novels all contain a color in their titles (The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, The Lonely Silver Rain, etc.). This was done on his publisher’s advice, according to Wikipedia, in the belief that people on the go would be more willing to snap up a book if they were sure they hadn’t read it already, and putting a color in the title would help them remember—itself an interesting insight into the power of color in our visual memory.
Book marketers notice color trends, too, like a rather acidic yellow streaking into prominence in cover art. Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2018 is Ultra Violet, “A dramatically provocative and thoughtful purple shade,” that Pantone says “communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking that points us toward the future.”
Yes, purple is associated with the Crown Chakra, but that sounds like a heavy burden for one color to carry! However, sure as Plum Mouse mushrooms follow the lonely silver rain, Susanne Matson’s new book, published earlier this month, not only has ultraviolet on the cover, but as its title.
These digressions bring me to my infatuation with a fun little book, Fortune-Telling Book of Colors, a compendium of insights into color choices and their meanings. For example, the one-word association for Prussian Blue is “elegant,” whereas sky blue is “selfless” and indigo, “stable.” The book offers many kinds of insights into colors, their associations, and psychology, including insights into people who prefer various colors. The character description for green-lovers like me begins “You cannot abide others telling you what to do . . .” Surely an error.
The book lists the common phrases that include colors. For yellow, they are yellow-bellied, yellow card, yellowdog contract, yellow fever, yellow journalism, and yellow streak. It describes colors’ significance in different cultures. In Japan, my green symbolizes eternal life, but in Indonesia, it is “forbidden,” lest an evil sea goddess swallow you up if you stray too near the shore. A somewhat more scientific approach is embodied in “Blue as Can Be: Treasures from the Color Archive,” by Simon Schama in the September 3 New Yorker.
Kassia St. Clair’s 2017 The Secret Lives of Color describes the fascinating history and significance of 75 colors—a deep dive into the rainbow pool. There are these cultural history components to our attitudes toward color and personal history components beyond an author’s ability to anticipate. People who grow up in a happy home where the kitchen is painted turquoise may ever after feel an affinity toward that color. If the association was negative, just the opposite.
This is where the ability to describe a color accurately helps (see yesterday’s post for more about this). Is your turquoise the coolly inviting shade of a Bahamian swimming pool, is it the heart-piercing turquoise of an Arizona sunset, or the dusty turquoise of your mother’s favorite earrings? What penumbra of meaning are you trying to evoke? Additional descriptors add new associations and richness to your descriptions by making them more precise.
As writers, we don’t pick the color of a room or a coat randomly, even if the connections behind our choices are mostly unconscious. Because our readers also have both conscious and unconscious associations with colors, we owe it to the strength of our vision to describe them with precision.
By Gin Phillips – If you want to write a psychological thriller as compelling as this Gin Phillips debut, here’s how. If you’re a parent—or can imagine being one—construct your “worst nightmare” scenario, including in it all the times you thought about, as most parents do, how you would extricate you and your child from deadly peril.
Then think about all the ways your scenario could go wrong, your possible misjudgments, the quirks of your and your child’s behavior that spell possible doom.
Once you’ve depleted your daily allotment of adrenaline with this imaginary exercise, write it all down. Few child-in-danger novels set out to immerse themselves in the relationship between mother and child as Phillips has. It’s that relationship that brings the novel its relentless, overwhelming power.
Phillips has done that here in an edge-of-your seat thriller told mostly from the acutely observant third-person point-of-view of a young mother. Devoted, attentive mom Joan is hurrying her four-year-old son, Lincoln, out of the zoo at closing time. As they near the exit, she realizes they were wrong about the noises they’ve been hearing. They weren’t firecrackers or popping balloons, they were gunshots, and people lie dead and dying. Where to hide? How to hide, when Lincoln is averse to whispering and to having his wishes more-or-less met upon request?
The action takes place in the three hours, ten minutes from 4:55 to 8:05 p.m. one weekday, so, in a way, it unfolds before you in real time. The zoo/park setting in an unnamed American city is meticulously rendered, introducing not only the animal exhibits, but also the miscellaneous trappings—the snack court, the carousel, the circulating train and, in the season of Joan’s nightmare, the cheesy Halloween decorations.
The behavior and preoccupations of a four-year-old are so accurately described, you know this child. You can absolutely believe in every mistimed, too-loud complaint, every desire that needs immediate attention, and every incipient wail. You sympathize with Joan trying to comfort and control her son and be a positive parent, to reassure not terrify him. She knows him so well, she anticipates the best ways to assuage his discomforts. Unfortunately, what will work can be risky. At times, the tension is so high, you may need to take a break. (I did!)
Lincoln is a child who follows the rules. That mostly works, but Joan must finally tell him, “The rules are different today. The rules are that we hide and do not let the man with the gun find us.” The police have arrived—she’s heard the sirens—but the gunfire continues and they don’t seem to have penetrated the zoo itself. Why not? This delay is one of the few lapses in the novel’s believability.
So, if you write down a terrifying story such as that, you will have done what Phillips has done. Oh, and you need to throw in a moral dilemma or two, you must capture the thinking of a bright, inquisitive child without becoming saccharine or tedious, you have to create compelling secondary characters, and you must have the writing chops of a serious, thoughtful author. In other words, you must be Gin Phillips.
Beginning this year, EQMM—a prominent short story publisher with a 75-year history—began publishing six times a year. The issues are longer than the former single-month editions, and the policy was instituted undoubtedly to save mailing costs. I hope this doesn’t mean an eventual reduction in the number of stories EQMM publishes, because outlets for mystery/crime short stories are severely limited.
Judging by the quality of the May-June 2017 issue, there’s no shortage of entertaining content out there. Here are some of the stories I liked best:
“Charcoal and Cherry,” by Zoe Z. Dean, in which an amateur sleuth teams up with a retired police detective to unravel a cold-case murder.
“Rosalie Marx is Missing,” by Robert S. Levinson. A pair of amateur Las Vegas sleuths find a missing granddaughter. Lively banter.
“Find and Replace,” by Marjorie Eccles, an increasingly hilarious (and suspicious) exchange of letters between a homeowner and a newspaper’s gardening expert.
“Your Name Will Be Written in Lights,” by Jonathan Moore, author of last year’s excellent The Poison Artist. A show girl puts on the performance of her life.
“In the Time of the Voodoo,” by John Lantigua, high-tension effort to protect a Miami immigrant from her past and the Tonton Macoute.
“Angel Face,” by M.C. Lee, attention to detail may exonerate a wrongly convicted death row prisoner, in Florida, “a state where the statue of Blind Justice would be better suited standing in front of a Whac-A-Mole machine.”
Libraries and big box bookstores carry EQMM, or subscribe! Available in print and for the Kindle.
Books by some of the authors highlighted above:
Full title of this Joseph Cedar movie is Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (trailer). Norman the person is not very likeable. He stands too close when he talks to you, he’s relentless in searching for an angle, he’s quick with the half-to-full-lie. But in Richard Gere’s nuanced portrayal, initial discomfort turns to something more like sympathy. How he’s treated by the people who see him for what he is becomes simultaneously justified and painful.
The sympathy is possible because Norman isn’t angling to benefit himself, at least not financially. He only wants to feel important, that he matters in the world, yet he remains “always just a few capillaries removed from the beating heart of power,” says A.O. Scott in the New York Times. When he has a setback, and he has plenty of them, you see the gears turning until he hits a way to make the best of it.
When Norman “bumps into” an Israeli diplomat and does him a favor, right there you know the seeds of calamity are planted. I won’t say more about the plot, which is complicated in the delicious way that only someone like Norman could complicate it.
Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi plays the diplomat; Michael Sheen plays Norman’s put-upon nephew; Steve Buscemi as the rabbi of a financially distressed congregation is “a marvel of wit and off-kilter humanity,” Scott says; and Manhattan plays itself, beautifully.
I have a friend who doesn’t like intense family dramas—too many bad associations. He’ll have to avoid The Dinner (trailer), written and directed by Oren Moverman. The movie is based on Dutch author Herman Koch’s excellent novel (2013), which I greatly admired (best book cover ever!). It’s told in the first person, and I wondered how the narrator’s snide and witty commentary would translate to the screen. That aspect of it worked differently in the book and survived less successfully in the film, with biting humor replaced by mental chaos.
Steve Coogan plays Paul Lohman, an erstwhile high school history teacher who loathes (actually, is desperately jealous of) his politically successful older brother Stan (Richard Gere), now embarking on a gubernatorial campaign. The brothers and their wives (Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall) are to have dinner at an exclusive restaurant, but Paul at least is not looking forward to it. Nor should he be. Stan has an agenda. He wants to discuss something truly awful—criminal, in fact—their teenage sons have done, which could explode all their lives.
Comparisons with Roman Polanski’s Carnage are perhaps inevitable, but the fireworks and the damage here are all in the family. The kids who caused the whole debacle are weakly portrayed, and the movie, unlike the novel, ends ambiguously. If your focus is on strong performances, this is a worthy effort. If you want a convincing story, read the book.
Ouch. When a stage production doesn’t really work for you, who’s at fault? Are you having a bad day? Is it the play itself? Is it the production? We’ve all found ourselves at stage events where we thought—what??? This is Supposed To Be Good?? Remind me, how much did I pay for these tickets?
The Tony-award-winning Book of Mormon, was incessantly advertised as the best musical of the 21st century, after only one decade of that century had elapsed, but I didn’t even bother to review it. I found it so offensively racist and, this is a technical theater term, moronic, why bother? The problem was not the fault of the hard-working cast, but the cupidity of the original writers and producers.
This last weekend we saw a local community college production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 classic tragedy, Blood Wedding, immensely popular in Spain, I’m told. The plot of the original is probably a bit simplistic and over-familiar for modern audiences. There’s a deadly feud between two families and the daughter of a third family is involved with young men on both sides. Nothing good results.
What drew me to it was the promise of dance—tango, Argentine tango, and flamenco—integrated into the production. Plus, I’d never seen the play. A bad case of too-high expectations.
My notes for the producers:
The dancing is interesting, both the ensemble numbers and the sexy tango between the bride and her lover – good job!
Don’t conceive of staging that is beyond the capacity of the technical staff to implement; the moving curtains were tricky and slow
Yes, the mother of the groom bears great grudges, but let her develop a broader palette of emotions. Constant kvetching doesn’t maintain audience interest.
Eliminate redundancy. Even Shakespeare is trimmed for modern audiences. The mother doesn’t need to describe her complaints more than twice. Respect your audience. We get it.
Pick up the pace. Show you value the audience’s time.
Of course, I don’t know what happened in Act II with this production, because we cut our losses and went home. (Would that we had done that with Book of Mormon.) We weren’t the only ones.
This isn’t a complaint about Garcia Lorca, who wrote in and of a particular culture and time, and I’ve appreciated his House of Bernarda Alba, with Blood Wedding, part of his unfinished rural trilogy. You’ll recall that Lorca was only 38 when he was assassinated at the start of the Spanish Civil War.
Nor is my complaint about the mostly student cast, who soldiered gamely on with material so foreign to modern life, language, and ways of thinking. A number of them did fine jobs. Rather, my disappointment is with the theater director and producers who needed to shape a production enabling the whole team—cast and crew—to be part of a big success.
Does a play or musical come to mind that seriously disappointed you? How did it let you down?
Guest poster Greg Beaubien; photo, courtesy of the author
Story and voice are essential in novels. Start by thinking of the most compelling story you know or can imagine, and then tell it in your own voice, as if you don’t expect anyone else to ever read it. A common mistake beginning writers make is trying to impose style on their work. Attempting to impress readers has the opposite effect; they can smell a contrived or self-admiring tone.
To win readers over and give your novel that all-important element of voice, tell your story in a simple, straightforward way, with your own personality or attitude. Your voice becomes your style. Most professional writers do their share of hackwork to pay the bills, but when you write a novel, never censor your fiction or try to please others.
What makes a good story? Something changes in the lives of the characters, setting the narrative in motion. In The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the sudden, ominous appearance of a heroin dealer who wants financial backing and political protection from the Corleone family—and then tries to assassinate its patriarch when that support is denied—is the story’s catalyst. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy begins with the funeral of the protagonist’s grandfather, an event that leads to the impending sale of the family ranch in Texas and the young man’s decision to embark on an adventure to Mexico with his best friend. Early in my novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, an American tourist kills a drug dealer in Morocco—an action that may or may not have been taken in self-defense, and from which the rest of the story flows into the past, present and future.
The change that sparks a story might be as big and dramatic as the outbreak of war or a natural disaster, or just someone new who enters the main character’s life. Stories that capture our attention involve a problem or barrier that the protagonist must face, a dilemma or an elusive goal. Something is at stake. In one way or another, there should be constant conflict—whether it’s a physical fight, an argument, or just a haunting memory. That pressure keeps the story moving and holds the reader’s interest.
Important as the story catalyst is, equally significant is how the characters react to the situations they’re in, according to their own personalities, desires, and fears. Tell your story, but show your characters. Always have empathy for them, even the villains. As the author, you should be able to sum up your novel’s story—how drug trafficking changed the Mafia in the 1940s, for example—but you also need to know what it’s about emotionally. In the case of The Godfather, the answer might be, “In taking over his father’s organized-crime empire, a son betrays his family and himself.”
Using the raw materials of your story, characters, emotional theme and naturally occurring authorial voice, write scenes in your novel similar to those in a movie. And just as filmmakers do, propel the narrative and hold the audience’s attention by getting into your scenes late and leaving them early.
A finished novel should be about 70,000–90,000 words long (established authors sometimes write them twice that length). But once you reach the end, plan on revising at least five or six drafts—and maybe many more. Much of the beauty in well-written novels occurs through the author’s self-editing. When you eliminate extra words, slow or dull passages, repetitions, clichés and errors, your story and voice are honed and the real book starts to emerge.
Guest poster Gregory W. Beaubien is a longtime journalist and feature writer, who published his debut novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities in 2014 (Moresby Press). He is revising a new novel called Air Rights, about struggling fathers who try to blackmail a real estate tycoon, not realizing that the businessman also has a family and is facing serious legal and financial problems of his own.
By Eimear McBride — You’ll have trouble with this book. I did. About page 40, I wondered, “is she ever going to write in complete sentences?” About page 90, I thought, “is it ever going to be about anything but sex?” The answer to both these questions was “almost never.” But The Lesser Bohemians is much more than a literary 50 Shades. And I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.
Ireland native McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and many, many other accolades for her 2013 book, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and when I saw she’d written another one, I jumped at the chance to read it.
In Bohemians, released last month, an 18-year-old Irish girl—a drama student in London—meets meets an older man, a handsome actor near 40. She isn’t a virgin much longer. There’s a lot of sex, a lot of cigarettes, a lot of alcohol. We don’t even learn these characters’ names until very far along. He’s Stephen, he calls her Eily. Her full name, her real name, Eílís, is used only once, two pages from the end, when their identity is finally clear to each other and themselves, perhaps. Their urgent and scouring intimacy is McBride’s way of flaying any falseness from the characters and laying them (literally) bare.
The story approaches somewhat closer to a conventional first-person narrative (sentences!) in the second half, in a long section in which Stephen tells her about his past, a true heart-breaker there. Most of it is written in almost a stream-of-consciousness way, and McBride is often compared to James Joyce for that reason. Conversations are presented in long paragraphs, uninterrupted by such reader-aids as quotation marks, but once I got into it, I didn’t have much trouble following.
Emphasizing the difficulty of it risks underpraising how mesmerizing it is. McBride’s approach forces you to slow down and really absorb what’s being said, as she fractures the rules of punctuation and grammar. As NPR reviewer Annalisa Quinn said, “By sacrificing grammatical precision she gets emotional and psychological sense—even as those things are in themselves impossibly and inherently imprecise, like light or color.” Or love, I’d add. A sample:
On that said Saturday, she (Eily’s friend) helps me move into the (friend’s ex-boyfriend’s) flat. Tired white walls. No curtains or blinds. But perfect. Landlady free. The I hope you’re proud of yourself, ringing in my ears and lug my stuff from the Safeway’s trolley I nicked and pushed down to Patshull Road. I think I’ll blank him, she decides. Fair enough, I say, blu-tacking Betty Blue up. I pity you, he’s such an–. Keep it down, I live here now. I bet he shags you before the term is out. I wouldn’t.
Conventionally, this would be handled something like this:
On that said Saturday, she helps me move into the flat. Tired white walls. No curtains or blinds. But perfect. Landlady free. The “I hope you’re proud of yourself,” ringing in my ears and lug my stuff from the Safeway’s trolley I nicked and pushed down to Patshull Road. “I think I’ll blank him,” she decides. “Fair enough,” I say, blu-tacking Betty Blue up. “I pity you, he’s such an–.” “Keep it down, I live here now.” “I bet he shags you before the term is out.” “I wouldn’t.”
The Lesser Bohemians is an unforgettable book about two characters I came to really care about. I can picture their lives and prospects and I appreciate an author who doesn’t believe she has to make my job as a reader too easy.
Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood) & Alan Rickman (Col. Brandon) in Sense & Sensibility
Novelist Carrie Brown, in an essay in the Glimmer Train bulletin this month, advocates a reassessment of the components of conflict that writers incorporate in their work. Too often, she believes, less experienced writers, especially, lean too heavily on catastrophe. They include “too much dark and not enough light,” believing only the bad stuff is dramatic.
Bad stuff happening is the meat and potatoes of the genre I read most often—mysteries and thrillers. Yet even there, excess abounds. Authors feel compelled to pile up ever more bodies, to make the manner of death ever more grisly, to include female characters who might offer a hope of happiness only to put them out of reach, often because they’re dead, to give their protagonists’ souls so many dark places to hide that after a while, I wonder, “why does this character get out of bed in the morning?” When I start rolling my eyes, the author has lost me.
Brown believes “the mystery of people inclined toward charity or kindness has a drama as compelling as a story of decline and despair.” These positive forces are as powerful and as complicated as the impulses that propel other people toward evil. Jane Austen knew this. So did Dickens.
The key to presenting happiness well, she says, is to capture its complexity and contradictions. She uses an example “weeping with happiness.” Think of Emma Thompson in the movie Sense and Sensibility, crying with great, gasping sobs (see the clip!) when she realizes that Edward Ferrars is in fact not married. We are infinitely more moved by her happy tears than if she’d simply grinned delightedly.
It is not easy for people to be happy, and it is especially not easy for them to be happy when they have been beset by all the other fictional difficulties authors throw at them. But, Brown might argue, these characters can—and should—be happy for that precise reason. She says happiness depends “on the nearby presence of unhappiness to be felt most acutely. By necessity, it seems, the happiest man will also be the man most aware of unhappiness.” Going back to Sense and Sensibility, that would be lovely Colonel Brandon.
An example from Brown’s own work is her 2013 novel The Last First Day, in which a long-married couple—the headmaster of the Derry School for Boys and his wife—must face the declining health that forces his retirement. Said Reeve Lindbergh in her review of the book for The Washington Post, “Terrible things happen and have happened. These people struggle and are hurt. . . . Nevertheless, [the author shows] one can see with clarity and with appreciation for certain glimpsed miracles in every day, whatever else the day brings.” One is capable of a kind of happiness.
The Israeli movieGett (trailer) is the story of Viviane Amsalem and her five-year struggle to obtain a divorce (gett) through Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical courts. The only roadblock: her husband says “no,” and under Jewish religious law, a divorce cannot be granted unless the husband agrees. The entire movie takes place in the courtroom and just outside it, as witnesses come and go and the couple and their lawyers face off, in confrontations that rapidly switch between absurdity and tragedy.
This may sound as if there’s not much action, but there is plenty going on emotionally. Except for the lawyers’ confrontations, much of the power of the film comes from the way feelings simmer (mostly) below the surface, through the outstanding performances by the wife (played by Ronit Elkabetz) and husband (Simon Abkarian). He is torturing her in front of the three rabbis who serve as judges, who alternately don’t see it, don’t acknowledge it, and don’t act when they do. This also makes the film a cautionary tale about the difficulties of male-dominated religious courts, intent on shoring up a patriarchic system and oblivious to individual and women’s rights.
Not surprisingly, in real life, Israel’s rabbinic judges claim the movie misrepresents them, which, as Israel’s oldest daily newspaper Haaretz says, “misses the underlying point: that the rabbinical courts will not approve a divorce unless the man agrees to it,” citing a 2013 survey that one in three women seeking divorce in Israel is “subject to financial or other extortion by her husband.” The term for these truly “desperate housewives” is “chained women.”
Lest you think the problems of chained women are confined to the Jewish State, in 2013 in New York, criminal prosecutions resulted when rabbis kidnapped and tortured several estranged husbands to persuade them to approve their divorces. (Although the United States regulates marriage, divorce, and remarriage through the secular laws, for these proceedings to be religiously recognized, Orthodox Jews must also have them approved in rabbinical courts.)
Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi directed the film, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards and won the Israeli Film Academy Ophir Award for Best Picture. Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it 100% positive ratings (47 critics), and audience approval was 87%.