Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (D’Emilio)

I knew very little about Rustin going into this biography other than a decision had been made to not have him as the face of the March on Washington because he was gay. But there was so much more for me to learn. It was really interesting to discover the evolution of Rustin’s thinking, from his early days as a pacifist to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement to his recognition of what I think we’d call intersectionality today – the recognition that racial justice and economic justice (for example) are linked. Near the end of his life, he even became involved in the gay rights movement.

Though D’Emilio is clear that some of Rustin’s behavior was reckless, it was also enlightening to see how others (and by others, I mean the likes of Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph) reacted to his homosexuality and to his evolving thoughts, interests and passions. King, Randolph and Roy Wilkins do not always come off well here; they do come off as human, which is good.

This is a good, informative book – well-researched (without being overt about it) and illuminating. It just lacked a kind of narrative drive. Rustin was at the center of some tense and exciting moments of history, and D’Emilio is never really able to get the reader to feel the urgency of those times.

I’m glad I read it. I knew, as I said, very little about Rustin (perhaps that’s what D’Emilio means by using ‘Lost’ in the title), and I certainly know more now. It was just a bit harder to get through than I wanted it to be.

Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Hoban)

Look, I’m no art critic, but I’ve always been intrigued by Basquiat’s work. Can you separate the artist from the art? Would it be as intriguing to me if I didn’t know anything about the human being behind it? I think so. Those who have had discussions with fiction with me know that I tend to downplay the author’s biography when it comes to interpretation. So does it matter here? I think so. Hogan’s thesis seems to that of the divided Basquiat. Talented, but untrained. Attractive and repellent. Desperate for fame and aware that it destroys first his talent and then his life.

The book is, as the cover blurb says, “compulsively readable.” Hogan makes interesting choices with her supporting material. Instead of weaving it into the narrative, she’ll just stop and tell you the biography of a dealer or the evolution. You might think this would kill the momentum of the biography, but it doesn’t; it’s a chance to catch your breath.

We know how this turns out. Basquiat dies. He dies young, and he dies badly. Hogan never shies away from that fact; nor does she attempt to create any kind of artificial suspense or pathos. It’s a sad and predictable ending to his chaotic life which, in turn, leads to a tangled afterlife for his work and its profits.

I can’t resist one psychological observation (a natural consequence of reading a biography, I think). Basquiat’s father gets a lot of the blame here; Mom disappeared from the narrative for so long that I wondered if I’d overlooked the fact that she’d died or something. There are a few who make tentative efforts, but no emerges, no friend, no mentor, no family member, no artist, no business associate, no girlfriend who makes any serious and consistent effort to tell him that he’s screwing up his life. They are all too attracted to him and afraid of him.

Was he talented? Was he just both a victim and a beneficiary of the 80s art scene? Are we just drawn to him because he died young and left a good-looking corpse? I don’t know. I like to look at his art. It makes me think; it makes me feel. That’s enough, yeah?

Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)

Phew. I finished it with a week or so to spare before I see the show in Chicago. It’s a tremendous biography. Though I didn’t exactly feel the hip-hop songs jumping off the page the way Mr. Miranda did, he is right when he says that the founding of our country is a remarkable story. And, sad to say, with all of the justified concern about the decline of civility in the political process, well, we didn’t invent that either.

Though it checks in at over 700 pages, Chernow’s book is remarkably streamlined. I can only think of a few times when it bogged down, namely when Chernow was being meticulous about detailing Hamilton’s meticulousness.

It’s not original to say that historical figures become frozen in time. I knew some of Hamilton’s work with the Department of Treasury, but nothing of his role in the American Revolution and his connection with George Washington.

Writing about historical figures, especially ones as admired as Washington, has to be a challenge. There’s also the issue of historical context. That which we criticize now may have been viewed differently then, however wrongly we may think those views were. For the most part, Chernow handles these moments well. The few exceptions will make you grit your teeth and, I hope, continue reading. He gets more assertive as the book progresses.

Biographers have to be a kind of psychologist – explaining choices and behaviors with reference to their subject’s past. And Hamilton’s upbringing provides plenty of fuel for the fire, but such amateur psychoanalysis irks me. It’s outside of Chernow’s field. Why not just lay the cards out and let us draw our own conclusions?

I also take issue with Chernow’s treatment of Jefferson. Just as Rick Atkinson seemed intent on making Winston Churchill a buffoon in his WW2 trilogy, Chernow makes Jefferson the villain of this piece. I’m not saying Jefferson didn’t have faults. I defer to Chernow on that score. I’m equally certain that he was not the one-dimensional person Chernow presents here.

There is a fair amount of criticism here. But I really enjoyed the book. Chernow’s prose is streamlined and he tells a good story. I learned a lot, especially about Eliza Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Most importantly, I have a new appreciation for Alexander Hamilton himself and his role in the founding of our country.

Review of show (11-6-16, Chicago)

Sometimes, things don’t live up to their hype. No worries here. This is an amazing show. The music is tightly constructed and powerful. The plots, both political and personal, are rendered well. The performance made the arc of the story clearer – Hamilton’s initial timidity becomes his consuming assertiveness. Burr’s friendly mentorship gives way to his selfish opportunism. Imagine being criticized, as he was, for campaigning openly. I hadn’t realized from just listening to the soundtrack (over and over and over again) that Burr serves as a kind of narrator. That makes his role, here played by Joshua Henry, central to the success of the show, and Henry was most certainly up to the task. Miranda also deserves a high five for the roles he assigns to the women in Hamilton’s life. They are both aware of the limitations society places on them and bursting at the seams to break out of them. The last image of the play – which I won’t spoil – was inspiring.

I don’t really have the vocabulary to talk about choreography, but think back on the first time you heard that there was going to be a musical about Alexander Hamilton. As much as I wondered what the songs would be like, I also wondered about the dancing. What sort of dance goes along with the story of the American Revolution? But Andy Blankenbuehler makes it work.

The cast was exceptionally strong. Eliza Hamilton (Ari Afsar) was tightly coiled, complex and convincing. Alexander Gemignani was wonderful as King George. Chris De’Sean Lee (LaFayette / Jefferson) and Wallace Smith (Hercules Mulligan / James Madison) were absolute scene stealers. Hamilton himself (Joseph Morales) was solid, but labored under my perception of Miranda’s performance.

I want to talk about casting. When I first heard that Miranda was casting his show with entirely non-white actors, it didn’t concern me much. I wasn’t surprised when very little came of the controversy over the casting call. Put it this way. If Miranda told me that I wasn’t the right person to play me, I’d step aside. I thought, initially, that his motive was to give opportunities to those had not traditionally been offered such opportunities.

Over time, I wanted there to be more to it. Who among us has not wanted to, for example, cast Romeo and Juliet in a way that illuminates its meaning (Palestinians as Capulets; Israelis as Montagues, for example)? What the production suggests is that the casting reflects that no one, at that time, was truly an American. Everyone came from somewhere else. And the constant reminders of the circumstances and locations of Hamilton’s birth could not help – two days before the election – remind of the immigration debate today. When Jefferson, Burr and Madison out on a West Indian accent in order to insult him, I admit I winced.

But I still wonder if there’s more. In both New York and Chicago, I believe, Hamilton is played by a lighter-skinned actors and his antagonists are dark-skinned. Coincidence or deliberate? In the production I saw, the actress (Samantha Marie Ware) playing the little mentioned Schuyler sister, Peggy, also becomes Maria Reynolds, who has (spoiler alert) an affair with Hamilton. What’s Miranda up to with these contrasts?

And I wanted Miranda’s commitment to non-white casting to be reflected in the audience. No such luck, at least on the afternoon that we saw it.

The show is tremendous and important. My father’s test of a great musical is – Do you walk out humming the tunes? I most certainly did and am looking forward to the mixtape version as well — Hamilton mixtape. And I am looking forward to the opportunity to see it again. And again. And again.

 

Che Guevera: A Revolutionary Life (Anderson)

Like others, I imagine, I knew the name from the image on the poster and t-shirts —

but I knew very little about the man. Anderson (http://www.newyorker.com/contributors/jon-lee-anderson), who seems to be something of an expert on this topic (he was one of the first people called when – spoiler alert – Che’s body was found) has compiled a remarkably compelling story of a man, devoted to his mother and his country and seriously troubled by asthma, who tried to live according to his ideals and, sometimes brutally, tried to persuade others to do so as well.

I was struck by two aspects of Che, the young man. First, his travel. He was passionate about and privileged to be able to see a great deal of Latin America as a young man, though he did not travel in anything resembling a comfortable way. He also read – voraciously.

Anderson’s account of ideological development, his friendships, and his introduction to Fidel are riveting. Yet, he also knows when to stop, offer an asterisk, and write ‘see notes for more.’ The account of the Cuban Revolution brings you right there. Anderson’s tone is spot on. He offers his insights into Che’s perception of people and the big enemy, the United States, not in a detached fashion, but a reasonable one. Che’s real issue, it seemed to me, was with colonization.

Tellingly, the book bogs down when Che does. The Revolution, having been won, is know about details. Che digs in, but he seems to be a restless soul. It reminded me of the end of the Robert Redford movie The Candidate, Redford’s character, having surprisingly won an election, escapes the chaos of the celebration and earnestly asks his advisor, “What do I do now?”

Anderson’s work on Che’s efforts in the Congo and in Bolivia are harder to track, perhaps, as he points out, because the number of sources narrows. Still, this is a portrait of man who, until the end, tries to match his vision to his life, and I found, though I wanted to offer him advice at times (is there really a revolutionary formula?), I had to admire. I understood his rejection of the political process and wonder about it even in our days.

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

I was searching for books to read about Maine (an upcoming vacation destination), and it caught my attention because of its uniqueness. A book based on the diary of a midwife shortly after the American Revolution. Also, it became a movie – www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/mwt/.

I am glad I found it at the remarkable King Bookstore in Detroit (www.kingbooksdetroit.com/). I found it remarkably engaging and was impressed by Ulrich’s research and analysis. She presents 2 dozen or so diary entries at the start of each chapter. They are short and feature what we might call inventive spelling. From this extract of the diary (as well as other sources), she narrates a key late 18th / early 19th century theme – the role of women, the economy, etc.. She had to have been remarkably tenacious to undercover the details from which her themes emerge. In doing so, she manages to paint a compelling and vivid picture of Maine shortly after the Revolution.

I’m sure it’s a kind of history – social, cultural, something. But her writing, along with the maps, gave me a thoughtful picture of the evolution of one remarkable woman, her family, and her town during the 27 years of her diary.

Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Reiss)

This biography (according the the New York Times blurb on the front it’s a “richly imaginative biography” – what does that even mean?) of the the father of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo is compelling. Reiss uses Dumas (the father) as a kind of emblematic symbol of France’s remarkable changes during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Bankrupted by their support of the American Revolution, France begins an at times reckless exploration of various forms of government and revolution that mark Dumas’ rise and ultimate fall during Napoleon’s second act.

In order to sustain his narrative, Reiss has to provide a fair amount of supporting context, including, for example, France’s abolitionist spirit, the Haitian Revolution, and Napoleon’s machinations. Some of these diversions are more interesting than others, but the narrative in variably suffers when the noble Dumas is not at center stage.

Reiss clearly admires his subject a great deal and laments, in the end, that there is no statue of him currently in France. He seems to have been a remarkable soldier, an ethical man (in a time when the wind was constantly changing) and, to the best of his abilities, a strong family man. Aside from a bit of a temper, Reiss finds no flaws with Dumas, a black man who flourished at a time that was transformative (in both good and bad ways) in the history of France. And his race does matter. It is symbolic of the changing winds in France that he, deeply devoted to his country, succeeded because of his aptitude and courage in his military career and then was finally diminished because of his race.

It’s always funny with biographies. Just as reading Baldwin’s biography prompted me to think about reading more of his work, this one has me thinking about The Three Musketeers. But it’s too soon, I think.

This is a good book. Pulitizer Prize worthy? I’m not so sure.

 

James Baldwin (Leeming)

I’ve heard and read that contemporary writers make the complaint that so much is demanded of them. One even bemoaned that he was always asked to write for free and cited the necessity to tweet and to write a book review for the New York Times as examples. But the days of writers being larger than life characters seems to be gone. And the days of writers being both writers and citizens seems to be on the wane. Salman Rushdie was forced into the role, and PEN persists, but pause for a moment – when was the last time a writer (of fiction) was central to a national conversation (Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps, but even he made the point that ‘they’ generally only allow for one at a time), let alone in an international one?

Based on this biography, written by someone who was part of Baldwin’s entourage, someone Baldwin called, “My Boswell,” paints a picture of Baldwin who was personally and professionally everywhere in part because he could find a home nowhere – not in the church, not in New York, not in France, not in a particular genre of writing (I favor the essays) and certainly not in any relationship apart, perhaps, from the one with his brother, David. He felt called as a witness, and so he would travel to where there were things to be seen. The Civil Rights Movement – a name he eventually rejected – kept calling him home and forcing him to the South, a place where he’d return for one of his final pieces, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, about the murders of children in Atlanta.

Leeming narrates Baldwin’s life with engaging fluidity. At times too much the amateur psychologist, Leeming absolutely and painfully bogs down when he provides a few pages of summary / autobiographical analysis of many of Baldwin’s publications. Though short (thankfully), these sections are incredibly hard to read as Leeming rapidly summarizes the novel or play or essay collection interweaving, with an irritating sense of certainty, the parallels in Baldwin’s life and mind. Granted, Baldwin was apparently not shy about discussing these things, but these pseudo-academic digressions seem to serve little purpose. I started to grimace when I knew yet another one was coming. Okay, enough. They were frustrating.

How much autobiography is in Baldwin’s work? Leeming certainly makes the case for a few common threads (father-son, the boxes we are all put in and put ourselves in, etc.) and even does a decent job of acknowledging how Baldwin’s thinking changed and became more refined.

I was sorry to read of how he struggled so much – for personal contentment, for money, for a successful relationship, for more theatre and film work. Did the struggle make the man, the writer? Perhaps there is something to the cliche of the necessity of suffering for art.

Mostly, though, I want to return to Baldwin’s work, particularly his fiction, with new eyes and if not a better understanding than at least a deeper one. He put his life onto his pages and while some results have seemed messy or elusive to me, others (“Sonny’s Blues” might be the best short story I’ve ever read) have, like his essays, changed me. I need to give him more attention.