Skye Falling an Immersive Visit to West Philadelphia




By Mia McKenzie

Random House, 311 pages





It is said it’s good to go beyond one’s comfort zone. If that’s true, I accumulated some major karma by reading Skye Falling. Unlike author Mia McKenzie, I am not female, African American, lesbian, or (alas!) 38 ¾ years old. About all I share with McKenzie is that I grew up in Pennsylvania and know that “jawn” is Philly slang for a non-specific thing, person, or event.


Protagonist Skye Ellison is young(ish), gifted, and Black, but she definitely has issues. She runs a travel company called Black Destinations that takes her all over the world, but it has also been a way for her to flee her past and jawns that irk, unsettle, or make demands upon her. That list includes an abusive father, a mother who failed to protect her, an annoying brother, and what she perceives as a betrayal from a girlhood friend. She avoids Philly as much as she possibly can, but when she is in town stays in a B & B run by her trans-woman Latina friend Viva and her White husband Jason. Mum is the word, as she has little desire to see her own mother, even when her persistent brother Slade insists she’s not well.


This time a complication arises as she awaits departure on another trip. First she wakes up after a night of drinking and dancing to find a naked man in her bed—not what a lesbian expects—and though he insists nothing worse than mutual groping occurred, Skye is disgusted with herself. But a bigger jawn is in play. Faulkner once wrote that the “past isn’t dead… it’s not even past.” Before Skye launched her new life she did her friend Cynthia a solid. She desperately wanted a child but couldn’t get pregnant and convinced Skye to donate eggs so she could conceive.


March forward 12 years. Cynthia is dead, her husband Kenny is remarried to Charlotte, who is White and spouts all manner of liberal slogans about equality. Both she and Kenny had such a hard time raising Vicky that they reluctantly agreed to share custody of her with Cynthia’s sister, Faye. Vicky, as you probably guessed, is Skye’s egg. Vicky actually thinks that’s pretty cool, but she isn’t yet 13 and pushes all of Skye’s flight buttons. Is it Skye’s fault that Vicky would rather hang with her than her Aunt Faye, her constantly distracted father, or a step-mother who treats her as a social justice laboratory rat? When does the next jet leave?


A variety of circumstances lead Skye to spend more time in Philly than she wants. She is immersed in things she rather not be: street culture, gentrification, a non-aligned/non-licensed church, neighborhood parties, an annoying White guy who complains people on the street are too noisy, police brutality, and a frosty relationship with Faye. The latter finds Skye irresponsible, self-centered, and scarcely more mature than Vicky. Skye wrestles with the distinct possibility than Faye is right, not to mention that she’s really ripped at being physically attracted to her. Bad move; Faye’s engaged to a guy named Nick.


This is a novel in which everyone has a hidden backstory or two or three. Some of their past lives are distressingly current. Every now and then, for instance, substitute mom Faye flashes why she was once a feisty rapper known as MC Faye Malice. She’s one of many that challenge Skye’s snap judgments.


Skye Falling ultimately touches upon some very important life questions: What makes a family? What is the difference between forgiveness and mercy? Where is home? How can you help a 12-year-old cope with anger when you can’t deal with your own? How much does emotional flight cost? When fate deals you a hand, is it okay to fold and walk away from the game?


Skye Falling might take you a while to get hooked. Skye is often so exasperating that you might desire to take flight. Plus, it’s not exactly as if the theme of a child melting icy exteriors is anything new. For all of that, this trip to West Philly is immersive. It jolts in mostly good ways and administers only mild shocks when it strays onto (too much) predictive turf. How do I redeem my karma points?


Rob Weir




Certified Copy is a Mind-Twister



Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

MK2 Diffusion, 106 minutes, PG-13






The New Wave movement is synonymous with France, but it was a global effort by auteurs more interested in making serious film than in mass-audience “movies.” Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016) was part of the Iranian New Wave and continued to make challenging films there, even after the 1979 Islamicist revolution. He got away with that because his films are largely devoid of overt political content, though his work was so enigmatic that Iran’s theocracy forbade screening them there.


Kiarostami has been compared to auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Vittorio De Sica. De Sica was Italian, the land in which Certified Copy is set, though its principals Juliette Binoche and William Shimell are French and English respectively. The latter is James Miller, a British writer of a book titled Certified Copy; Binoche an unnamed antiques dealer. (Some reviewers give her name as “Elle,” unaware that elle is French for “she.”) Miller is on a book tour that takes him to Tuscany, where his distracted host (Binoche) attends his talk and buys six copies of his book. Miller’s book is indeed about copies and the validity of things viewed as authentic. It parallels French intellectual Jean Baudrillard whose theories on simulacra and simulacrum hold that cultural forces “construct” reality through systems of symbols and signs. Miller cast doubt on whether “truth” exists in any independent fashion.


If you made it past the last sentence, you know that Certified Copy is a mind-twisting film. We don’t know if what is happening between Miller and Binoche is real or simply role-playing by two intellects playing mind games. Nor can you draw definitive conclusions from what you observe. Binoche is either Miller’s handler for the day or his wife and the mother of their difficult son.


Strangers for a day or estranged? The first part of the film suggests strangers. Miller must catch a 9 pm train but agrees to an afternoon excursion to an outlying village where she shows him a painting that was later exposed as a forgery. She insists it’s nonetheless lovely but he walks away saying he has written his book and has nothing more to say about the subject. When pressed, he acerbically snaps that even the Mona Lisa is a copy (of the real woman DaVinci painted).


Things degenerate from there. They go to a café where the café owner assumes Miller is Binoche’s husband, discourses on the need for them, but wonders why he has lived in Italy for so long but can’t speak Italian when she can. When he returns from the restroom, they shift into the roles of bickering spouses in a dead relationship. He constantly asks her to translate external conversations, yet we hear him speaking Italian in the first part of the film She insists there is beauty in all things, including the town square and a couple getting married; he demurs. Even more strangely, she tries to rekindle their “marriage” by walking him through memories he cannot recall. She even tries to seduce him but is rebuffed. Stay, she implores; he insists he must catch his train. 


What do make of all of this? First, any way we parse it, we must concede it is brilliantly acted. Binoche won a Best Actress award at Cannes in a role that tightropes between the possibility she is a wronged woman or that she is madder than March hare in a poison ivy patch. Shimell is also superb as an acidic cynic. That’s all the more impressive in that he is an opera singer, not an actor. (Kiarostami liked to cast amateurs.)  


The second thing to bear in mind is Miller’s thesis. If all things are copies, this applies also to films. They are the ultimate artifice, so why must they follow the strictures of how reality is perceived? I return to the question of strangers or estranged. Why must we choose? Why not both? Or neither? At the risk of sounding like a bad Philosophy 101 inquisitor, what is reality and how do you know?


Kiarostami offered images and situations that are as much a poetic montage as a film. Poetry can also be difficult to unravel, but how sublime when we decode one that brings us pleasure. I can’t promise you will love Certified Copy but I am confident you will think about it long after you get past shouting, “WTF?”


Rob Weir



Discover the Joys of Jess Walter




By Jess Walter




I’ll read anything Jess Walter writes if, for no other reason, the man seldom repeats himself. The closest he comes is his (sometimes begrudging) love for his hometown of Spokane, Washington.


I am not a fan of short stories, but The Angel of Rome (Harper, 275 pages) is Walter at his eclectic best. The title tale is set in 1993 and probes the life-changing path of reinvention by accident. Jack Rigel sets off under false pretenses to study Latin in the Eternal City and is a hopeless joke to his teachers and fellow students.  A series of fortuitous misunderstandings places him in the orbit of down-on-his-heels actor Ronnie Tower and famed Italian icon Angelina Amadio, the namesake “Angel of Rome.” Jack is reborn as a script doctor, a writer, and a screenplay maven.


Several stories—“Drafting” and “Fran’s Friend Has Cancer” tackle the Big C, the first through Myra, whose voracious physical appetites draw her into numerous affairs; the second a bittersweet comedic take on non sequitur conversations and talking past one another.


 “Town & Country” ask us to consider how a young man can come out as gay—in Boise, Idaho no less–to a father who bragged of being “quite a cocksman” in his youth but is now suffering from dementia and has a Trump-loving girlfriend. The most surprising thing, though, is the memory unit into which his father moves. Call it the 1950s reborn in a place where illusions are made believable. “Famous Actor” also deals with fictions when a Bend, Oregon barista has a one-night stand with an egoist insisting he’s not one. She’s not fooled. Clay is, though, in “The Voice.” Radio personality Claude takes up with Clay’s mother then takes off with a guitar teacher. This one is about those who go and those who stay.


“The way the World Ends” finds two individuals unknowingly interviewing for the same job at Mississippi State University. Neither is right for the Deep South and most of the search committee fails to shows up as an apocalyptic storm bears down. So why not have a sybaritic sendoff? Toss in a Black student in the process of coming out who bears the Biblically appropriate name of Jeremiah. Does a liberal campus offset an ideological cesspool like Starksboro?





To really appreciate Jess Walter, immerse yourself in one of his novels. After voraciously consuming gems such as Beautiful Ruins and The Cold Millions, I turned to an older work, his Edgar Award-winning Citizen Vince (HarperCollins, 293 pages). What a book!


Imagine a low-level thug testifying against high-level ones. If ever anyone needed to be in the Witness Protection Program it’s Marty Hagen. He is secreted out of New York to Spokane and is reborn as Vince Camden. Over the years he builds a life that suits him. His official job is making donuts, but has several outside-the-law ventures going, including a credit card scam. It’s small potatoes stuff; Vince is a thief but not a monster. He is content to live among hookers who want to be realtors, postal carriers skimming small kickbacks, guys playing the numbers, and blue-collar folks who don’t care about hustlers because they feel like they’ve been screwed by the broadly defined Establishment.


The story takes place on the eve of the 1980 presidential election and Vince, who has never voted, feels like he should do his duty. For whom should he cast his vote? Reagan? Carter? Anderson? His burgeoning civic ethos leads him to ask questions, though most of those with whom he drinks at down-market bars couldn’t care less. Vince feels unsettled. He begins to count the number of people he knows that are dead and this makes him feel even more anxious, as does the murder of two guys close to him and the appearance of a criminal he recognizes as Ray Sticks, a brutal mob enforcer.


Vince never killed anyone, but he left New York owing money to Mafia kingpins with a reputation of not caring about the relative severity of how they were offended. As Vince sees it, his only shot at staying alive is to head back to New York and make amends. Those who recall the Big Apple circa 1980 know it was a place that wore its social problems on its sleeve. Few, including cops, are on the level and there is an underlying stench of danger that made Spokane smell like a rose garden.


Citizen Vince wends its way to a surprisingly finish that takes us from the streets to the voting booth and beyond. Walter’s novel is gritty, tense, yet unexpectedly tender and redemptive. Just when you think you’ve got it measured, Walter skillfully veers left instead of right. This is among the many things that makes Walter a writer who makes you grateful you learned how to read.


Rob Weir