Saturday, September 29, 2018

Book Review - "Who is Michael Ovitz?"

“Who is Michael Ovitz?”

A fascinating and fast read. It’s all here, the growth of CAA, decline of Lew Wasserman, MGM and MCA, his departure from CAA, the Picasso Eisner had to give Robin Williams, being fired from Disney, David Letterman’s battle for the Tonight Show, the “gay mafia” and his third act as a wildly successful Silicon Valley investor. 

Ovitz is certainly an egotist but there’s no denying his hard work, vision and success. If you worked in entertainment between 1988 - 2006 no doubt you will get some juicy details on a story you were attached to and enjoy hearing Ovitz’ POV on the rest. And he names names. 

Memoirs are often criticized for not being objective. But that’s part of the fun of it and also the authorial subjectivity tells you something about the person that no one else can. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Book Review - "Severance: A Novel" by Ling Ma

Post-apocalyptic novels work on the premise that all was fine before the bad event. The best thing about this one is that it shows that what came before the big event was itself the apocalypse. It’s popular with millennials as it suggests that rot results from our routine & meaningless walk through life. It is also right on trend with AI thinkers who question whether your daily existence is different than that of a closed loop robot/zombie. Is it?

And just when you think that is quite enough to chew on, Ma also gives you a background immigration story that pairs like a fine wine with an apocalyptic migration story. But, wait, there’s more! It’s also a coming to maturity story which works well with the theme of the acceptance of inconvenient truths - known as “adulting”. 

You will find a lot to like here. I made sure to collect this as a first/first. Let me know what you think.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Hillbilly Elegy - A Companion Reader from the View of a Black Person


J.D. Vance starts  his memoir with a confession. I will start this commentary with one. I confess that I did not want to read this book as it seemed nothing but an excuse for why poor, rural, white people voted for Donald Trump. It may yet turn out to be that.

I am struck,  however,  by what I think Vance's actual goal was: to explain the effects of poverty and its attendant social isolation without the distraction of the racial filter.

What Vance does not know though is that there is always a racial filter. Even the fact that he seeks to explain poverty in a white environment so people can "get it" has the cloud of the white filter.

Trust me. Black people of all socioeconomic levels get how "deep anger and resentment" lead their communities to despair, turning them into "hub(s) of misery". Nevertheless, Vance diligently and earnestly seeks to explain how the demons of that life, even when "left behind" continue to haunt a life.

This is evidence  that the racial filter simply cannot be dropped: what Vance doesn't seem to know is that  black people do not ever get to leave that life behind - even if they were never actually in it (me); even if they transcend it. Just ask Obama.

Still, I will  continue to read and reflect as I go, but as a black, city-centered woman, I expect I will learn much more about living in rural America than I will about climbing the jungle gym to The American Dream. But if Vance thought I would be surprised about the desperate lives of some poor white people,  he has another think coming.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Film review - “BlacKKKlansman”

“BlackkKlansman” -
Spike Lee is back.

I posted this online review because it highlights a crystalline statement in the film about the role of white women, the majority of whom voted  for Trump. The epitome of gluttony and American Pie, the wife of a white supremacist cannot see her actual position within the flaming circle of hate.

Washington plays Ron Stallworth like  Shaft-  calm, confident and aware.
With his character, the always excellent Adam Driver exhibits a form of racism that is often frowned upon as an individual failing, but he does it with such delicacy that the universal question is posed: if a racist fells a tree and you aren’t there to hear it, did it happen? Does it matter?
The use of  classic films and real life images is exquisite and powerful. One scene is eerily reminiscent of the massacre/christening scene in The Godfather.
This film does not preach because Lee knows that you already hear the message. With gut wrenching accuracy he ties the past  to the present or rather, shows how the past ties the present, damn near strangling the future.

Yes, Spike Lee is back.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Book Review "Golden Hill" by Francis Spofford

A stranger, whose name of course is Mr. Smith, comes to early 18th century New York with a letter of credit for a thousand pounds sterling. Who is he? What does he want? And why won't he tell anyone? 

Sharing more details of the plot of would ruin not only the surprise but the journey. 

This novel is a fresh update on the rambling 18th century novel. It plays out on the same streets we know today -  Broad Way, Wall,  Maiden Lane. 

To complete his unknown mission, Mr. Smith has to learn to navigate the customs and currencies of the city of 7,000 without raising alarm. Unfortunately, he's landed in town during a heated political skirmish between the governor and the assembly and everyone wants to know what side he's on. The counting house he presents the letter of credit to is unsure whether he's a worthy and wealthy man whose credit they must meet to avoid their own ruin  or a con artist whose credit they must not meet to avoid their own ruin. The single women, especially the younger daughter of the counting house owner, are paying attention. But the whole town has to wait for a ship from England to arrive that will either prove or disprove his story - which even then won't solve the whole mystery.
Along the way we  learn about shipping routes, local festivities, brew pubs with various political affiliations, the public hanging of native American scalps, how the various religions engaged with each other's holidays and  how people moved about town. We see the start of the banking, trade and theatre industries. 

The plot is surprising. The characters are refreshing. It's a fast read with many twists and turns. Not one major character ends up being what you expect them to be. Not one. The historical setting is organically shown rather than explained.

Spofford accomplishes - rather breezily - what most authors hope for: an entertaining and educational read that sparkles with near-invisible skill.  

Critics are in consensus on this one: read it!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


In honor of the first anniversary of the publication of "Jay Gatsby: A Black Man in Whiteface" here is one of my favorite chapters. Enjoy!


There’s a call and response in the literary world. It
goes like this:

Call: “unreliable narrator”

Response: “Nick Carraway”

He’s the prime example of a narrator who does not
tell you everything. He’s a Yale man, an upstanding
Middle- Westerner. While lying may be beneath
him, courteous and secret omission is not.
He lets us know in the second line of the novel that
when someone has not “had the advantages” that
he has had, he has been taught to avoid criticizing
them. And he does just that by laying out Gatsby’s
lies, but never calling them lies. For example, Nick
likely knows that Gatsby is lying about his
hometown because San Francisco is not in the
Middle-West; that the 7 th Infantry was not in the
Argonne; and that Gatsby is not a legitimate
businessman. Nick knows these things, but never
directly says to the reader that Gatsby had lied.

Even more indicative of his penchant for omission
is that Nick also doesn’t tell the other characters.
This pattern of Nick showing us the lie, but not
calling it repeats when it comes to Gatsby’s race.
It seems that Nick is suspicious of Gatsby’s race
from the start. Shortly after his tanned
skin/frequently trimmed hair observation he says: “I
would have accepted without question the
information that Gatsby sprang from the swamps of
Louisiana or the lower east side of New York.”
(TGG 54) Note, not just the swamps. Not just
Louisiana. Not just New York, but the lower eastside. Why?

To this day older black New Orleans residents refer
to the “front of town” and “back of town”. The back
of town is the swampland close to Lake
Pontchartrain that flooded in Hurricane Katrina. In
Fitz’s time, free blacks and Creoles lived in the
back of town/swamp neighborhoods. (Wiki8) There
was so much racial mixture and social fluidity in
these neighborhoods that Creoles developed a
term for the racial passers: “passabone”. (Buck 85) 
If Gatsby is a passabone it is plausible that someone like him had started out from such a place, just as Nick suggests.

Nick suggests that Gatsby could also have come
from the “Five Points” neighborhoods of New York’s
lower east side. Freed black people were originally
segregated there and they stayed there until they
were pushed to Harlem in the 1920s. (Columbia1)
It’s of note that around the time of Gatsby’s birth (c.
1890) other lower east side districts that were close
to the black ones had so many German immigrants
they were called “kleindeutschland” (Columbia2).
There are hints that Gatsby is part German
because the name “Gatz” is mostly considered to
be German (Jew, Obscene 133) and his father
follows the Lutheran religion, popular in Germany.
(Slater 56) It’s easy to imagine a Gatsby of mixed
race springing from here.

Swamps or New York’s lower east side, either way
Gatsby is once again placed amongst black
populations and culture. And if it is both ways (i.e.,
he has a German father and a Creole mother), then
Gatsby is the personification of the northward
creeping negroid streak. (Thus, it makes sense within the novel’s themes that Tom has a hand in
vanquishing him. This is an example of how a black
Gatsby renders this book whole and seamless.)

Let’s re-consider the caveat: don’t criticize people
who “haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”
We know that Nick largely doesn’t criticize Gatsby.
Based on Nick’s principles, it follows that he must
deem Gatsby to have disadvantages. Since Nick
believes that Gatsby may have come from one of
the well-established locales of free (usually lighter-
skinned) black Americans, it is possible that Nick
believes (or at least wonders) whether Gatsby’s
disadvantages go beyond class to race. But having
concluded that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn
bunch” of the “rotten crowd” (TGG 134), Nick is not
going to tell us. He is not going to let anyone else
tell us either – that’s why he calmly erases the
obscene word on the steps, a word whose
appearance didn’t seem to surprise him. Thus,
following the pattern, Nick has laid Gatsby’s biggest
lie out in front of us, but refuses to call it.

I think in the end Nick was indeed what he said he
was: a “keeper of the secret griefs of wild, unknown

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Meghan Markle?

“I who am the ancestor of Shakespeare, Chaucer and William the Conqueror, I went to London… I was the only Negro there."

Those words come from Adrienne Kennedy's one act play "The Owl Answers." They are spoken by Clara, the daughter of a white American man and a black American woman who is denied and ostracized by the European culture she idolizes. The play explores issues of multi-cultural identity and inclusion - or  more importantly, exclusion.

"If you are my ancestor why are you a Negro, Bastard? What is a Negro doing at the Tower of London, staying at the Queen's House?" Clara's Dead White English Father asks her.

Yes. Just what is black American Meghan Markle doing in Windsor?

Why, going home of course.

Her mother, a black American, likely has at least some roots in Western Africa. Her father's roots though go back to England. He is descended from Captain Christopher Hussey, the great-great-great-grandson of Lord Hussey, who is also one of the English colonists who founded Nantucket in the 1600s. Lord Hussey was beheaded by Henry VIII for treason -  few things can make you more British than that. Furthermore, Markle and Prince Harry may actually be very distant cousins through a shared ancestor: High Sheriff of County Durham Ralph Bowes, born in the late 15th century.

Though the media  have taken to referring to Markle as "bi-racial",  the many, many Americans that have this particular black/white racial makeup are usually referred to as garden variety black Americans or African-Americans. The existence of their European or other heritage is ignored. Unless they look like Markle. With her blush-brown skin,  naturally curly hair, and freckles, attempts to categorize her quickly become like the messy buns she favors. People are confused and feel like a different label is needed for this unusual, yet expected, though some say bastardized, product of England, America and Africa. Just as Clara struggles to get people to recognize and allow her to enjoy her English ancestry and culture, many are trying to figure out what to do with Markle, what she means.

 To some she is an intruder, to others a pretender, and still others an item of exotica entering the palace. To me, she is a black American woman who has traveled back across the pond and seemingly across time to take a place on the royal stage which a version of her may have always had if someone not emigrated to America. For me, she is a powerful (yet delightful and fashionable) symbol of the chickens coming home to roost in the best way  possible. By some karmic force, England, the country that is the poster child for colonialism, slavery and cultural demolition across the world, will now curtsy to its aftermath. Even the fact that she grew up in the Windsor Hills area of Los Angeles only to be married in Windsor Castle in England has magical resonance. This was meant to be. The circle is closed.

So, the clotted cream is bought and the tea selected. The eggs, sausage and toast are ready to go. I will be celebrating under a cozy blanket, watching a black American not only claim a place in history, but her heritage. All of it.

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Book Review - "Who is Michael Ovitz?"