Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Review: "James Baldwin" By Randall Kenan

James Baldwin by Randall Kenan (Chelsea House, 144 pages, illustrated)
Reviewed by Charles Michael Smith

Randall Kenan's James Baldwin is a biography of the late writer that's mostly a rehash of previous Baldwin biographies and books on the civil rights movement. So the information in its pages is old hat to those familiar with its sources.

But James Baldwin is not aimed at an adult audience. Its audience are those gay and lesbian teens who, writes Martin Duberman in the preface, are "unable to find in his or her family's traditions--as other minority people often do--a compensatory source of validation for the deprecations of mainstream culture." (Duberman, an historian and biographer of Paul Robeson, is the general editor of the Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians series, of which Kenan's book is a part.) For these young readers, the information about Baldwin's life, literary career, and times will be very fresh and, I believe, engrossing.

Kenan , an award-winning African-American author, has done an excellent job of retelling Baldwin's inspiring story in language that is accessible and beautiful. Among the things young readers will learn are the following: that Baldwin had been a child preacher; that despite his lack of a college education, he wrote for "some of the most important intellectual journals of the day"; and that his 1963 nonfiction book, The Fire Next Time, was on the bestseller list for 41 weeks.

The only drawback is the opening chapter, "Into the Fire," which summarizes the history of the civil rights movement without first establishing to young readers who Baldwin, an influential participant, was.

Despite that one flaw, James Baldwin is a wonderful way to introduce a new generation to the life and writings of the Harlem native who "somehow found the fortitude to write and speak the truth as he saw it, no matter how painful, controversial, or dangerous."

Originally published in Whazzup! Magazine (Oakland, California), August 1996.

Pantheon Books recently released an anthology of James Baldwin's uncollected writings called The Cross of Redemption, edited by Randall Kenan.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

You Just Can't Please 'Em

"If Michelle Obama wears shorts, it infuriates people who remember past First Ladies. If she tries to keep up with modern trends, it does the same thing. What's a Lady to do?"--Patricia A. Galimberti, North Bergen, N.J., letter-to-the-editor, "Voice of the People", New York Daily News, August 15, 2010.

Maybe Michelle Obama's detractors would prefer she wear her birthday suit in public.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Few Words From James Patterson

"One of the nice things about working on a lot of projects at the same time is there's no such thing as writer's block. If I'm writing and a chapter isn't coming, I just move ahead.
In my office in Florida I have, I think, 30 manuscript piles around the room. Some are almost done. Some I'm rewriting."--James Patterson, from Q & A interview, Time magazine, July 5, 2010.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Requiem For The Physical Book

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, has predicted that the physical book will be dead in five years (, Aug. 6, 2010).

The impending death of the physical book is greatly exaggerated. The more likely scenario will be the co-existence of the physical book and the e-book. After all, the physical book has been around for hundreds of years. That's a lot of history.

Anyway, Americans are not known to be the most bookish people on earth. Only about two percent of the U.S. population bothers to buy and read books. I don't know how digital books will change that.

One other thing, how does one highlight a passage or make marginal comments on a digital book? Will these devices allow those activities to be performed?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mad Men And The Color Line

Michael Ross's article, "The Other Mad Men" is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of black people in the advertising business .

Let's hope the producers of AMC's popular series, Mad Men, read it and decide to follow Ross's suggestion to put "some darker faces in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Gay Porn Star For President

"If I could choose any one single job, I would definitely go the presidential route. I wouldn't mind being President of the United States. Absolutely."--Junior Stellano, gay escort/porn star, from Q & A interview, Time Out New York magazine, August 5-11, 2010 (Issue 775)

Here's an idea for a "reality" show that would be worth watching every week, a gay escort/porn star campaigning for the presidency. It would be so outrageous and over-the-top , it would probably be a hit show. Junior Stellano could be made the star of the show.

The chance of such a candidate winning the election is as likely as me landing on the moon in a homemade rocket ship. But it would be humorous and highly entertaining, especially the reaction of people on the campaign trail.

Since the forthcoming Oprah Winfrey Network is having some trouble filling its schedule with enough new programs, here is an idea they should take into consideration for their 2012 season.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Book Review: "Arkansas" By David Leavitt

The following is an excerpt of a previously unpublished book review I wrote in 1997.

Arkansas: Three Novellas by David Leavitt (Houghton Mifflin)
Reviewed by Charles Michael Smith

David Leavitt's Arkansas, a collection of three novellas, is further proof that he is one of America's brightest young fiction writers.

It is also proof that he is not afraid to stir up controversy. At the beginning of the first novella, "The Term Paper Artist," Leavitt refers to the controversy that involved himself and the late English poet Sir Stephen Spender who "sued me over a novel I had written because it was based in part on an episode in his life."

This time it is "The Term Paper Artist" that has created what New York Daily News columnists Rush and Molloy have described as a "litquake." They stated that Esquire magazine decided not to publish an excerpt of the novella out of fear that the references to male sexual organs and oral sex would offend readers and advertisers.

The whole issue is much ado about nothing. There is indeed frank language in the novella, but nowhere are there the kind of explicit sex scenes found in hard-core gay skin magazines. Leavitt discreetly turns away from such depictions. For example, here is how he ends one such scene: "Then for about half an hour, though he made other noises, he didn't speak a word."

"The Term Paper Artist," which uses a lot of autobiographical details from Leavitt's life including the use of his name as the name of the first-person narrator, is about a young writer who enters into a "prostitutional" arrangement with seven heterosexual male college students. The arrangement was that he would ghostwrite their term papers in exchange for sex, thereby becoming "an industry." Whether this term paper arrangement actually happened to Leavitt is unclear. (Leavitt teases the reader by having his namesake say that "Writers often disguise their lives as fiction. The thing they almost never do is disguise fiction as their lives.") His namesake admits that it is "unethical" and "goes against everything I believe in." But it beats sitting in the UCLA library doing research on the new novel about the scandal that resulted when a homosexual brothel was discovered by the police in 1889 London.

In Arkansas David Leavitt probes the hearts, minds, and souls of the people he knows best--the suburban upper middle class.