Book Mini-Review: The Artist Is Human, And Black Too

An American Odyssey: The Life and Work and Romare Bearden.
Mary Schmidt Campbell.
Oxford University Press, 464 pp. $34.95.

As the third decade of the 21st century swiftly approaches, it might be difficult for some fine artists under 35 to understand a time when the self(ie) was not unapologetically at the center of the artistic experience. The first biography of Bearden in almost 20 years, and clearly the fullest, Campbell–who knew the author, trading letters with him going back to the 1970s–has crafted a quality book about 20th- and 21st-century Black ritually- and visually-based aesthetics through American history’s prism. (The fact that, as Campbell writes, “Bearden seemed to delight in exploring the use of color” has a acute, and subtle, significance.) With a lack of dangerous 20th century socio-political action and adventure to reconstruct, Campbell, president of Spelman College and a former leader in the New York City artistic community, must go around and through the topic, briefly profiling the many artists in his orbit, such as Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston and Augusta Savage. She documents well, and with great care, his artists’ organizing efforts, his many important writings and his forgotten early-political cartoonist career. What was most important to this reviewer is her detailed, and thoughtful, placement of Bearden at the slow-but-perfect storm of the development of 20th century American media, technology, popular culture and racial struggle. Although Campbell’s theme of the Black American Odysseus is sound, this book is actually about how someone fed on the European art classics and the organic African-American experience (of Harlem and Pittsburgh) slowly realizes something when the latter becomes in vogue in the 1960s (perhaps not-so-coincidentally), allowing him to ultimately collage his being fully as both an artist and a Black man: that being and presenting one’s Black self in New York City, the then-new center of the art world in the center of the century, forever seeing and remembering, is more than profound enough.

 

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Book Mini-Review: Galactic Improvisation

So Say We All: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized History of Battlestar Galactica.
Mark A. Altman & Edward Gross.
Tor Books. 718 pp., $27.99.

No, it wasn’t the record-breaking-rated, universally-loved show it is now seen as, almost ten years after it ended. No, it wasn’t unconditionally loved and cherished by its network–until the awards and critical acclaim came in, and the showrunners announced that the fourth season would be its last. From its beginnings 40 years ago as an often ill-fated attempt to bring the visual and spiritual power of Star Wars to ABC primetime screens every week, to its let’s-kill-every-rule-Star-Trek-ever-had-and-hold-up-a-mirror 21st century Sci-Fi (now SyFy) Channel revival during the post-911/War on Terror years, Battlestar Galactica was almost always an acquired taste, a pleasant, almost-mainstream discovery. But how powerful the concoction! Altman and Gross, who interview as many cast and crew members that a human mind can absorb on a given page, take us step by step through the mythology as it developed, the last three words being key; perhaps the biggest shock of the book–practically its thru line–is how much of the new version was editorially done on the fly, and how its showrunners, Ronald D. Moore and the series’ often-unsung hero, David Eick, trusted its writers to fly Galactica–a complex series about race/identity and its connection to current politics, ancient Earth history and world religion–to a powerful, albeit controversial to many, end. What a great way for Altman and Gross to end a trilogy (four books, technically) of fan-favorites–Star Trek, then Buffy/Angel, and now BSG. These kind of books, especially with its oral history formats, take the rabid deep into the rabbit(-ears) whole, allowing the reader to see into the experience, and stay there. For a BSG fan, this is essential, since the series presented much but purposely answered little.

Book Mini-Review: A Sci-Fi Novelist’s Sophomore Effort Shows The Symmetry Of Imbalance

Temper.
Nicky Drayden.
Harper/Voyager.
385 pp., $19.99.

What a “Nicky Drayden sci-fi novel” is is, for now, solidified with this fine second inning. Set in a land that might be South Africa if you want it to be, this tale of twins, dark magic, African god possession and the horrors of boarding school really takes command after a too-long set-up. Secrets pile and spill, characters switch identities and loyalties and–in what is now Drayden’s style–monsters are shown, from the inside out, as all too human. What is important about Drayden as a novelist is two-fold: first, she seeks to destroy public (gender) identity’s use as a lazy marker of someone’s totality, and second, in this novel particularly, she shows that true balance is achieved by serving every side of imbalance. Definitions built, then crushed. Religion and science at odds, or working in harmony? Waaayy too simple. And Drayden delights in her humorous genre- and character-mashups.  Like her first novel, “The Prey of Gods,” this is not your father’s fantasy Africa or Africans, and nor is it meant to be; it is another fully realized narrative from an author who refuses to see and satisfy any pre-supposed expectations or limitations.

My New Book Review, About A New Collection of Elombe Brath’s Writings,……….

…….is here.