Sunday, January 26, 2020

Quotes To Live By

“If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” 

   - John Irving

“Without wearing any mask we are conscious of, we have a special face for each friend.”
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

- Oscar Wilde
“Obstacles are things a person sees when he takes his eyes off his goal.”

- E. Joseph Cossman

“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” 

 - Emile Zola

“The future is like heaven, everyone exalts it, but no one wants to go there now.”  
- James Baldwin

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

- Maya Angelou

“It’s easy to sit up & take notice. What’s difficult is getting up & taking action.” 

- Honore de Balzac

“A great artist is always before his time or behind it.”

   - George Edward Moore 

If you judge a book by the cover you might miss an amazing story

Monday, January 6, 2020

Gems of a Decade

Top Five TV Shows of the Decade

In a time of endless reboots, spanking new productions, and innovative offerings from streaming services, looking back at TV gems of the last decade seems redundant. That’s chiefly because with unprecedented freedom in storytelling, a plethora of daily releases now glut the small screen. But, like every artistic endeavor, there are surefire standouts. And the last decade was no exception. For the more discerning viewer, some TV shows, in fact, are like great literature, they stay with you long after you finished watching them. In that regard, the 2010s packed quite a punch—powerful scripts, excellent cinematography, and outstanding performances. Here are my top five picks:

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison


An addictive, politically charged spy masterpiece 
[released on October 2, 2011]

Rarely has an espionage-themed Psychological thriller, bolstered by superb performances elicit a character study as compelling as this. Claire Danes, as Carrie Mathison, a self-destructive CIA agent with an uncanny ability to perceive what her peers can’t, brought her A-game to this critically acclaimed television drama. Bipolar, volatile, and unpredictable, she is both a despised figure and an important resource in the agency, none of which prevents her from fearlessly risking everything whenever a new challenge surfaces. 
Claire Danes & Mandy Patinkin
From the moment she sees through the veneer of decency of Nicholas Brody, a veteran U.S. Marine Sergeant rescued after eight years of captivity in an al-Qaeda jail and celebrated as a war hero, it’s clear that the die is cast. With subplots and mini-dramas introduced with creative subtlety, this show, steeped in current realities and imbued with a frightening web of intrigue is at once enthralling and thought-provoking. And has remained, season after season, an edge-of-your-seat sensation.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in action
The Americans
A supreme spy thriller with evocative period touches 
[released on Jan. 30, 2013]

If ever a TV show can be described as a spy thriller of the highest order, this is it. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, a real-life married couple elevate the art of camouflage to creative perfection with ease, playing two KGB spies, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, who pose as an American married couple living in the 1980s Washington D.C. Utterly believable, even likable, the multifaceted duo, presented on the show as heroes who are also villains compel viewers to confront one of TV’s deepest dilemmas—rooting for the baddie. A
The duo as Philip & Elizabeth Jennings
heart-pounding action drama, the show has a snappy premise and the ingenuity of its underlying theme
Philip and Elizabeth as parents juggling their extraordinary mission with the ordinary reality of family life—is simply riveting. It makes for great television and realistic storytelling which tries and succeeds to not present any side as completely heroic or villainous. Also, the strong chemistry between the leads shines through the screen to a gleaming finish. It’s painful to see, though that in the end, stripped of all the disguises and forced to be themselves, they don’t know where to begin, and though they stand together, they seem oddly apart, looking back on a city that, to them is both home and foreign.   

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood
House of Cards
A lush, acidic exploration of power in Washington 
[released on February 1, 2013]

If what the producers wanted was a political drama with plenty of shock value to force audiences to sit up and pay attention, that in fact, is what they got. A fictional foray into the world of political power struggles, this show, with its robust acting performances and engaging plots, is not only a breath of fresh air, it might also have redefined the genre. In this engrossing spectacle, Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a Majority Whip cozened out of his dream job of Secretary of State and poised for revenge, gives his ‘all’ to the role and soars. Playing Claire Underwood, his wife, accomplice, and rival, Robin Wright soars along with him. Their gaping cynicism strikes a familiar chord in the audience considering current political realities in the country and against the backdrop of the ongoing real-life controversies in the White House. The sham duo, peeling away the layers of their political madness one step at a time and with delicate cruelty, know of every secret in politics and are hell-bent on betraying them all to attain the presidency. The show is an unusual take on politics. Not only are the performances pristine, but the production is also gorgeous, original, and boasts first-rate talents.
Kevin Spacey & Robin Wright
In the final season, sadly, Frank Underwood, one of the most legendary characters ever portrayed on a TV show is absent, and it’s a struggle for Claire alone to ride the unicycle and maintain the equilibrium. That’s because in past seasons, the Frank  & Claire counterpoise balanced the intricacies of the show. But now, it’s Claire’s turn, and with her commanding presence, Robin Wright makes it count.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred
Handmaid’s Tale
A haunting & vivid depiction of a dystopian world 
[released on April 26, 2017]

Few TV shows have raised the bar for what the small screen can accomplish even in the middle of its golden era quite like this one. An engrossing adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same title, the story is as significant today as it was during the era of Puritanism from which it drew its inspiration, and is difficult to watch but impossible to ignore. It details a
Joseph Fiennes & Yvonne Strahovski as 
Fred Waterford & Serena Joy
dystopian vision of the near future in which the United States becomes a fundamental theocracy based on the Bible and the few women whose fertility has not been compromised by environmental pollution are forced into sexual servitude for the purpose of childbearing. It is both chilling and terrific, and because of the current realities in the world, also timely; it would be understandable if its audience views it as 
cautionary. Elisabeth Moss as Offred, a fertile maiden assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy looms large on the screen in a blood-red robe and a white cap that partially conceals her face, putting her acting prowess on display in every scene. 
Offred with other handmaids

The show, firmly anchored in her outstanding central performance, often takes the audience on a sadistic ride through her life in touching flashbacks as she, like all the other maidens, awaits her turn to be inseminated. A fictional tale steeped in realistic possibilities, the show is as brilliant as it is terrifying.

Matt Smith, Claire Foy, Vanessa Kirby
The Crown
A lavish reenactment of powerful historical affairs
 [released on November 4, 2016]

In this romanticized history of British royalty, a 25-year-old Princess, crowned Queen Elizabeth II is catapulted to global prominence. And, just like William Shakespeare said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” she faces the daunting task of leading the world’s most renowned monarchy and forging a relationship with the domineering Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Not only was the first season of the show worthy of its grand subject, but in a way, it also felt like the TV equivalent of a long drive through the English countryside. 

Olivia Coleman as Queen in Season 2
In season two, though Olivia Coleman replaced Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, the show remained a top-notch production with impeccable craftmanship, lavish cinematography, and sterling performances. Buttressed by verifiable historical facts and some of the century's most powerful events that still resonate today, The Crown ticks all the boxes of a royal classic. 

Honorable Mentions 

Jon Hamm & Christina Hendricks in Mad Men
The following gems should, because of their grandness make the cut, and although some of their seasons rolled into the 2010s, they can only make the honorable mentions lists because their original release pre-dated the decade in consideration.

Mad Menreleased on July 19, 2007, was a fantastic show that felt like a photo spread of the early 1960s advertising world. Moving with a leisurely pace, its sly, subversive approach to the workplace muffled the undercurrent of disaffection by constantly radiating wit and class.
Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad

Breaking Badreleased on January 20, 2008, was a darkly gripping crime thriller about a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who thought his life couldn't get any worse when he was diagnosed with cancer. With imagery that was often gruesome, it was a stimulating and unpredictable masterpiece with a strong sympathetic lead, superb writing and fabulous performances that made the TV audience craved for more.
Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife
The Good Wifereleased on September 22, 2009, was a savvy legal drama with a delightfully powerful mix of family drama and political intrigue. With a deft piece of legal work that put all its parts in excellent working condition, the show grew into an addictive masterpiece featuring majestic dialogue, intriguing surprises, and enjoyable performances, from the lawyers to the judges and to the family members.
It's no surprise that some of these shows generated equally powerful spin-offs, like Better Call Saul, a pre-sequel of Breaking Bad, and The Good Fight, an off-shoot of The Good Wife 

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Annus Horribilis

2019 - in Words & Pictures

Unlike many years past, 2019 was a surprisingly shameless year, not so much because of the shocking and sometimes, inhuman things that happened. But because most of them played out in the streets and on live television and in blatant social media meltdowns. 
2019 was the year that uncanny chain of events shoved the world to the brink, from deadliest natural disasters to wars & rumors of wars, to election chaos, to senseless trade wars, to fake news, and to the Brexit madness. It was a year that one could only count the positives on the fingers of one hand. Yet, beyond the turmoil, there were triumphs, like, for example, the U.S. Women World Cup win, and the huge number of women and minorities elected to the U.S. Congress which led to a spectacular takeover of the House of Representatives by Democrats.

Nancy Pelosi at SOTU in February
And the election of Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House, the most powerful woman in Washington D.C. For some, though the positive aspect ended there, for the win set the stage for a clash over congressional oversight powers. In the course of the year, the Robert Muller investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 elections came to an end with no satisfactory outcome for either side. Though Trump was not indicted for Obstruction of Justice, he was not outright exonerated, and some of his close associates went to jail.
Clockwise from top left Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat
from Arizona; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat
from New York; Cathy McMorris Rodgers, 

Republican from Washington; and Lauren Underwood, 
Democrat from Illinois
Immigration was a thorny issue. Children were separated from their parents, with some held in what many described as cages. The dire situation led to one of the most haunting pictures of the yearan image of the lifeless bodies of Óscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, his arm limply draped over his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, locked together on the banks of Rio Grande where they drowned trying to cross from Mexico into the United States. 

In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May bungled her way out of N° 10 Downing Street in tears over her headstrong and incompetent handling of the Brexit drama. On the other hand, her counterpart in the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn didn't fare any better. With no clear position on Brexit, and anti-semitic charges dogging his step, he sleepwalked into a national election on Brexit and spectacularly lost to Boris Johnson. He wasn't the only loser in Europe. The
Megan Rapinoe with her teammates Samantha Mewis, left,
and Alex Morgan after scoring her team’s first goal in the World Cup final.
vice-chancellor of Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache got entangled in a political scandal known as the Ibiza Affair and bowed out in disgrace. In Italy, the far-right Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini shot himself in the foot in a poorly orchestrated palace coup that ended up toppling him. Next door in France, the Yellow Vest's anti-government protests shook the political establishment and put the President, Emmanuel Macron on notice. In Asia, while the unyielding humanitarian crisis raged on in Yemen, protesters poured onto the wide boulevards of Hong Kong week after week. A subway fare increase in Chile led to protests in Santiago, and the tumult of mass gatherings, from Algeria to Sudan, from Bolivia to Venezuela, produced some of the most powerful images of the year. 


Cardi B at Met Gala Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019,
January: Women wielded power in the U.S. Congress
February: Nancy Pelosi's clap at the State of the Union went viral 
March: A terrorist attack hit New Zealand 
April: In Paris, the Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames  
May: Attorney General William Barr's congressional testimony set the stage for a confrontation  
June: President Trump made history by crossing the demilitarized zone into North Korea 
July: The U.S. Women soccer team clinched the World Cup 
Motorcyclists ride on a road as haze from
wildfires blanket the city in Palembang, Indonesia
August: A horde of U.S. Democratic presidential hopefuls staggered into the open
September: Wildfires devastate the Amazon as Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas 
October: ISIS kingpin, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in Syria by U.S. special forces   
November: The Chinese principle of one country, two systems tested its consistency in Hong Kong  
December: Trump became the third U.S. President to be impeached 
Brentwood, California,
In the midst of all these, fires burned, from Australia where more than 12 million acres and 1,000 homes were destroyed to California, where about $80 billion in damage and economic losses were estimated. Further, more than 80,000 forest fires ravaged the Amazon Forest, a huge carbon store considered a vital buffer for the world against climate change. The fires, accompanied by deforestation have had devastating effects on this important ecosystem. In Russia, hundreds of fires spread across Siberia, their proximity to cities like Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk marked as alarming. Air pollution put millions of people at risk in Indonesia as well, where the fires were particularly destructive. Schools were closed as smoke billowed out over Southeast Asia. 

There were notable deaths in 2019, among them, Doris-Day, the legendary actress and singer who died at age 97 on May 13 after “contracting a serious case of pneumonia.” The fashion designer and mother of CNN anchorman, Anderson Cooper, Gloria-Vanderbilt, died at age 95 on June 17. Representative, Elijah E. Cummings who died on 17 October left a legacy as one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. Congress. Earlier, on July 9, the billionaire former presidential candidate, Henry Ross Perot died in his home in Dallas at age 89. Seven days later, on July 16, the retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who served on the court from 1975 to 2010 died at age 99. 

Less than a month later, the celebrated Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison died at age 88 on August 5. Soon afterward, Peter Fonda, the Easy Rider star died at his Los Angeles home at 79
on August 16, followed, 14 days later by
Valerie Harper, the Mary Tyler Moore star who died at age 80 on August 30. In the last month of the year, the first French Bond girl, Claudine Augur, who starred alongside Sean Connery in Thunderball died at age 78 in Paris. Then on December 12, after a brief illness, another well-known name, Danny Aiello who starred in movies including The Godfather Part ll, Moonstruck, and Do the Right Thing died at age 86.  

Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Art of Storytelling

Mastering The Art Of Storytelling In Ten Steps

The principle of true art is not to portray, but to evoke.

                                                                                              ~ Jerzy Kosinski

We all have a story to tell is a maxim everyone agrees with. Interestingly, we also all love stories. A good story can convey a life-changing message, entertain us in unimaginable ways, and even ignite a fire within us. As the author, Vera Nazarian puts it, “The world is shaped by two things—stories told and the memories they leave behind.”
However, for a story to have the impact described above, it must be told properly. In nearly every society, storytelling is associated with the social or cultural pastime of sharing anecdotes, myths, and folktales. It is used invariably as a means of cultural preservation, education, entertainment or even instilling moral values, and it is not uncommon for it to be accompanied by embellishments, theatrics, and sometimes improvisation.
In modern society, the art of storytelling can be complex and frustrating for many aspiring writers. These tips might help:

(1)   Know Your Audience

If a school commissions you to teach a class, the students you have in front of you would determine your lesson, wouldn’t they? Are they kindergarten kids or young adults or grownups? You would undoubtedly tailor your lesson towards the specific demographic the school commissioned you to teach. It’s the same with storytelling, that’s why knowing your audience is the first step towards the process. That knowledge determines not just the length and content of the story but the expression used. It is therefore crucial that before beginning a story, an aspiring writer spends some time considering who he/she is targeting. One way to do that is to pinpoint something special in the story to narrow it down to a specific group - is it a love story? Is this love story about a specific demographic? Is it a fit for a certain age or interest group? So, being able to isolate types or groups of people that the story would appeal to is fundamental. It is also important to check out published books comparable to your story and find out who the book’s audience is.

(2)   Make The Reader Care

Why should a reader be interested in your story? How is it relevant to him/her? This is one of the important aspects of storytelling that an aspiring writer should consider. It is fundamental that the writer makes that clear in his/her mind because if it’s not clear to you, it certainly won’t be clear to the reader. Keep in mind that caring doesn’t come by design, you must cultivate it. Just like a filmmaker, the writer must create something that draws attention, like the background music in a film, the romantic element in a tale, or the fear factor in a narrative. He/she should create what some call an itch which could be a particular trait in the protagonist that becomes a defining characteristic, like daddy issues, low or high self-esteem, being a workaholic or a control freak. That way, the writer invokes a common emotional element or a dilemma that the target audience can somehow identify with. A good story should, therefore, have a certain element of reality that makes it possible for readers to relate to even if they haven’t had that particular experience. So, emotionally or intellectually or even aesthetically, the aspiring writer, in crafting his/her story, must make it interesting enough for the reader to care.

(3)   Set The Scene

The context in which words appear and scenes develop generally affects a story, and that’s because people experience the world through their senses. Therefore, for a story to captivate an audience, the writer must set the scene and provide them with a context for the account. Where, for example, did the story take place? When did it begin? What was the atmosphere like? What triggered it? Who are the key players? These are a few of the questions which answers can help set the scene, engaging the senses of readers by offering them a more immersive experience. It is called ‘painting the picture.’ One thing that can help a writer start the process is to identify the purpose of the story and the high moment in the tale. It is equally important to determine what is at stake for the protagonist and other characters in the story and to emphasize conflict, both internal and external. Another key point is to highlight character change, making sure not to lose the reader as you illustrate how the events change the players. As the scene unfolds, the reader should be able to determine who has the most to lose/gain in the story. Whose emotional reaction will be the strongest? Which character will change the most and how will that change or reaction impact the plot?

(4)   Use Chronology

A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Once you understand this basic tenet of storytelling, you may choose to abandon the conventions of normal chronology and opt for a creative one, like hurling the reader straight into the midst of the action, or to the end of the story to catch their attention. Done creatively, this can arouse the curiosity of the reader, generate unexpected suspense, or create a searing tension that keeps the reader glued to the pages. Once a reader identifies who to root for, he/she will become invested in the story and a desire to know what might happen next will be one of the easiest ways to keep them reading, if nothing else, to find out how the writer intends to bring together the missing pieces of the puzzle. So, while keeping faith with the basic tenet of a story having a beginning, a middle, and ending, the writer can choose, with ample creative liberty, how to present the sequence of events in order of timing in a way that the reader can follow.

(5)   Create a Punch line

In a comedy set, a punch line is the climactic conclusion of a joke that makes an audience laugh; usually, it is a short line that delivers a humorous reveal, mainly because it is the opposite of what the audience expects. In storytelling, punch lines should follow the same pattern. As explained earlier, a story generally has a beginning, a middle, and an ending; therefore, as in comedy, a punch line in storytelling should follow the introductory framing of the tale, the development of the scenes, and the narrative that sets it up. But unlike comedy, it doesn’t necessarily have to aim at eliciting laughter from the audience unless it’s a humor book, rather it should aim at delivering a dramatic reveal or what is known as a twist in the tale. A punch line can also be poetic, inspirational, or a romantic reveal. While the appeal of some stories may not depend on punch lines, the writer should never lose sight of the purpose of telling the story and must employ all the tools in his/her creative arsenal to make the story interesting and relevant.   

(6)   Don’t Tell, Show 

There is an invisible border between your story and the reader; it is in engaging the reader that that boundary is erased. The best way to engage the reader is to invoke as many of the five senses as possible—seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting—in the story. The reader automatically becomes a participant in the adventure if the story engages his/her emotions, if he/she can identify with the characters, fears for the life of the characters, or loves or hates a particular character enough to desire a certain outcome for them. A writer won’t achieve that by telling the reader what is happening. He/she would achieve it by showing the reader what is happening. As the famous Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov puts it, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Indeed, when you show the reader what is happening rather than tell him, you engage him, and by engaging him you make him a participant in the adventure. So, rather than having everything imparted to him, the reader can see the events in his mind and then comes to the conclusions you want. 

(7)   Deploy Tension

Tension is the principal reason we describe some books as page-turners. If you’ve ever read a story so intense that you forget about time and feel compelled to continue reading until you finished, then you understand the value of introducing tension into your writing. One way to do that is by getting your readers attached, not only to the plot but also to your main characters. By heightening the stakes and creating character conflict, you get your readers invested in the story. It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that clever use of tension in storytelling is one of the most effective ways of rendering a story irresistible and a book ‘unputdownable.’ By introducing exponential tension into your writing and timing the tension effectively, you engage the reader, and by engaging him/her, you erase that invisible boundary between your story and its audience. Another method of incorporating tension into your writing and getting the reader flipping the pages is using cliffhangers that leave the audience in suspense, making them yearn to know what will happen next. While it is okay for suspense to permeate the pages, cliffhangers, however, should be abrupt and should come at the end of the plot. Cliffhangers are particularly effective in books that have a sequel, but it can also be a great strategy for stand-alone books.    

(8)   Paint A Picture

The hardest part of writing is the presentation, and a good presentation requires clever use of words. It is not enough for writers to construct the whole story in their heads, they must be able to present it in a way that makes sense, not only to them but to the reader too. In view of that, it might seem as if the easiest part of the process is the story’s conception. For those with a fertile imagination, it certainly is, after all, that’s what distinguishes a creative mind from a non-creative one. But storytelling, for a writer, must show elements of craftsmanship and finesse. A picture, according to an English adage, is worth a thousand words, which is a notion that just a single picture can convey some complex ideas. So, unless a writer is presenting a picture book, he/she must paint the picture with words to make the reader see and hear and smell and touch and taste whatever he/she puts out. It is the writer’s descriptive power that takes the reader on a journey that gets him/her invested in the story and makes him/her feel what the characters are feeling, forcing him/her to partake in whatever dilemma the characters are facing. As a writer, you have no other weapon but words, so don’t limit yourself in deploying them.  

(9)   End With A Bang

As in films and theatrical performances, a grand finale in storytelling keeps readers thinking or even talking about the book long after they’ve finished reading it. Whatever the plot development, whatever tension or suspense that builds up in the story, the resolution should not be slow in coming. If for reasons of a possible sequel, the writer does not want to end with a cliffhanger, he/she should ensure that there’s closure in the story by resolving the plot and leaving no questions hanging in the air. For stand-alone novels that end with a cliffhanger, the writer should add some creative magic to the story in a way that leaves the reader with a sense of awe, like the feeling one gets when leaving the cinema after watching a great motion picture or the theater after watching a great production. The writer can achieve this by leaving his/her readers with a ‘big puzzle’ to solve in their minds or with a profound take on life, on humanity or the theme of the story.

(10)   Have Fun With It

Often in interviews, writers are asked, why do you write? The answer may differ from one person to another, but the cardinal point in writing is to ‘get something off your chest.’ Writers, like most people, are often plagued by convoluted thoughts, mental burdens, and ideas that they find difficult to shake off. Writing provides them the ultimate release. So, while you are at it, why not have fun with it? First, though, to enjoy the process, you must have something to say. Not everything that goes through the mind ought to end up as a book because a written work should have a keen aesthetic sense. It should be distinguished as a literary culture of value. If you have something to say, if you have a unique story to tell and have the words with which to tell it, if you create a wonderful world for others to enjoy, you might as well relish the experience. Cultivate a sense of purpose, develop a creative mindset, view challenges as opportunities. Read, read, read, it’ll give you the tools you need. And, above all, enjoy the process.