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David Sedaris proves himself to be a brilliant diarist as well as humorist

David Sedaris has become a legend when it comes to creative nonfiction. Whenever someone hopes to be an essayist, his name usually pops up as an inspiration – it’s almost a cliche now. What sets him apart from his myriad of followers and imitators is his ability to mine deadpan humor and comedy from some of the most tragic and unfortunate circumstances. His collections of essays – including Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day – have become canonical standards for the genre, and “The Santaland Diaries” has become a holiday classic.

With this in mind, I approached his latest, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977 – 2002) with enthusiasm. Though many of the stories and circumstances will be familiar with those who’ve read Sedaris’ body of work, his astute observations, even in the truncated and terse form of a diary entry, still find the funny in either mundane or disturbing situations. It’s also neat to stroll through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and the 200s with Sedaris as he documents historical and cultural moments and milestones with the immediacy of experience them as they happen. Some of it is heartbreaking or chilling, as he recounts, almost off-handedly in 1981 that a new cancer was discovered that only affected gay men; or his reaction and grief in watching the Twin Towers fall while in Paris on September 12, 2001.

Other times, it’s neat to see Sedaris struggle and work, while slowly gaining a reputation as a comedic writer. It’s especially gratifying to read about his success, as they come hard earned. And the genesis of his two most notable essays, the aforementioned “Santaland Diaires” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day” are documented in the collection, and provide hearty laugh-out-loud moments. We also get the courtship of Sedaris and his partner Hugh, as well as the gradual ascendance of his sister Amy’s comedy career as well.

It’s hard to tell if any of these stories have been sweetened for publication. But really, it doesn’t matter, because it’s still a lot of fun to read these pithy, funny, and witty observations from a guy who has been responsible for some of the funniest work in the English language for the last twenty years.

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Kathy Griffin’s funny new book is a case of not enough of a good thing

Kathy Griffin’s comedy comprises of tales of the comic’s dealings with celebrities, good or bad. Throughout her career, she’s had many confrontations with famous people, and instead of ruing and being moody about, she has taken the experiences and made a multi-Emmy winning and Grammy winning career. In her new book, Kathy Griffin’s Celebrity Run-Ins: My A-Z Index, Griffin has compiled a selection of celebrity encounters, good and bad, and laid it out in alphabetical order like a dictionary.

Because she’s somewhat trapped by the format of the book, some of the stories feel abrupt and some of the celebrities get such a short shift, you wonder why she included them in the first place. And the stories that do get more ink feel somewhat rushed, too, which is a shame because Griffin’s an ace at translating her quick-fire wit to the page. And when she wants to be – as in the passages devoted to late pals Joan Rivers, Jackie Collins, and Garry Shandling – she can be an emotional writer, too. Those readers who remember her first book, Official Book Club Selection, will know that despite her reliance on humor and wit, she doesn’t shy away from darker aspects of her life. Celebrity Run-Ins is different, though, much lighter in tone and content, so there are only a few spots that feel like a shift away from the general jocular tone of the book.

And that’s a shame, because the years since Official Book Club Selection, a lot has happened in Griffin’s life, including the deaths of several friends (including mentor Joan Rivers), the cancellation of her talk show, the embarrassing Fashion Police fracas, the end of her popular reality sitcom,  her win of a Grammy, a notable dust up with Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and a seeming end to her relationship with Bravo. Some of these events are alluded to in her book, but it would be great to read more about how she dealt with these difficulties, and how she sees them now, with perspective. Of course, none of these stories would fit into the rigid format she’s constructed, so hopefully she has another book in her.

That’s not to say that Celebrity Run-Ins isn’t funny or not worth picking up. It’s hilarious and often an astute look at our celebrity culture. What inspired the book, according to Griffin, is she realized with a start that she knew or worked with the principal figures in the excellent documdrama Straight Outta Compton. And the list she’s compiled is an impressive array of figures from sports, politics, film, television, theater, and music (her adorable bother, Maggie, a celebrity and fan favorite in her own right also gets a chapter). While expected names make appearances  – Gloria Estefan, Anderson Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt, Chris Colfer – it’s the names of folks you wouldn’t necessarily expect like Suge Knight, Warren Zevon, and Marshawn Lynch that may be a pleasant surprise for readers (the Suge Knight story is very funny). And because she’s known for her brutal irreverence for celebrity (along with her devotion and obsession with it – she’s our Andy Warhol), some of the celebrities included – and I’m looking at Jon Hamm in particular – may want to skip her assessment of them.

Celebrity Run-Ins works best when Griffin is indulging in her love of gossip, Hollywood, and admiration for her subjects. The book hits various high points, most notably when she writes with great affection about Anderson Cooper, Cher (who gets dialogue written in funny phonetic spelling) Jackie Collins, Gloria Steinem, and Jane Fonda, among others. It’s in these passages that she combines her sharp wit with her big heart. It makes for fun reading that gets sentimental, but never gloppy. Her relationship with Cooper in particular is wonderful because the two have a sibling-like love for each other, and Griffin is forever subjecting him to her hilarious pranks, and he seems to be the perennial good sport about it all.

Hopefully there is a weightier tome in Griffin, yet. Her Twitter has posts that reflect her attitude and opinion on politics, race, age, gender, the election, queer rights, and culture. I’d love for Griffin to pen an essay collection in which she addresses Black Lives Matter, ageism, sexism, homophobia, Trump, Clinton, as she does in her stand-up and social media. But that’s for another time. For now, Celebrity Run-Ins does a commendable job in providing its readers with some laugh out-loud moments.

 

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Amy Schumer bares her soul in the hilarious and heartbreaking ‘Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo’

Amy Schumer is one of the buzziest comedians working today. Due to an exhausting work schedule, she finds herself in an enviable position, one that few stand-ups can claim: not only is she household name, but she’s branching out – along with a hit sketch show, she’s also got a $100 million film under her belt, and has become one of the most influential comedians. Unfortunately, this bright-hot fame has its downsides: her politics have been shoved into the public eye after two women were shot and killed during a showing of her movie Trainwreck in Lafayette, Louisiana; she also is a constant target for online haters and trolls, picking apart her politics, her looks, and her intelligence; and recently, she’s gotten flak because a writer/friend on her show released a string of sexist tweets regarding rape and victim-blaming. But this kind of up-and-down seems a consistent in Schumer’s life, as she chronicles in hilarious and heartbreaking detail in her first book, Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

Part memoir-part essay collection, Girl is an intimate look at one of comedy’s brightest and smartest acts. She writes that her book is not a how-to manual or an advice guide, but like Kathy Griffin’s memoir, Official Book Club Selection, Schumer’s book works as evidence that a hard work ethic is the most valuable tool one needs to make it in show business. And Schumer is a hard worker. She writes of paying her dues in clubs before “making it” so to speak, by appearing on a reality show (Last Comic Standing), only to  bomb consistently on the show’s tour. But she keeps plugging away, working hard on her craft, creating a strong and distinct comic persona. Girl doesn’t undo that persona, but it adds more layers to it.

The most surprising thing about Girl is how disarming and vulnerable Schumer allows herself to be; for most comics, the microphone is a symbol of power – for female comics, it’s even more potent and subversive because of societal standards of female gentility. On stage, Schumer presents herself as a joyous and witty Wife of Bath for the 2010’s – sexual and liberated. She’s also presented as a lustful life of the party – one who can probably drink even the hardiest party animal under the table. Her willingness to embrace this loud and raucous side of her is what makes her such a powerful comedian – she lays claim to territory that is rightfully her’s, even if prudes find her distasteful and inappropriate. But in Girl, Schumer also allows the more sensitive side of her to shine – one that may not be as loud and dynamic as her stage persona, but one that is equally potent.

Despite the f-bombs and the hilariously lascivious tales, Schumer is a deep thinker and an intellectual. She approaches her comedy from a very smart place, and that translates to her writing, too. Also, she allows herself a larger, wider breadth, to explore introspective and sometimes-darker parts of her story. She’s very upfront about being a victim of sexual assault and domestic violence, and bravely shares these deeply personal stories with her readers. As evident with the recent racist/misogynist online attack of Leslie Jones, women are still reduced and dehumanized – Schumer’s candid approach to her story gives a huge spotlight and megaphone to an issue that is still sorely misrepresented by the media and law enforcement. And just as personal and profound is her grief over the deaths of Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson, the two women who dies in the screening of Trainwreck. Schumer puts on another guise, that of policy wonk, as she details why our current gun laws are too lax, and lays out the tragic consequences (there’s even a helpful part in the appendix in which Schumer shares the names of those in congress who benefit from the gun lobby).

But these departures from the funny don’t feel inorganic or forced. Instead, they present a complicated, complex, and very interesting woman. One who is devoted to her family and friends. Her family life can be described as difficult and she works out some stuff about her relationships with her mom and dad (who is living with MS). She loves her sister (a writer on Inside Amy Schumer and a very funny lady in her own right) and their relationship looms largely, as it seems to influence a lot of her work. Her writing about her mother is fraught with tension – at times her mom comes off as self-involved and self-destructive, this is especially true in the passage that deals with her mom’s infidelity, one that destroys her family when it comes to pass that Schumer’s mom and her best friend’s dad leave their respective spouses and marry each other. But Schumer is equally honest about her dad, whom she admits to idolizing, but who also had affairs and a string of wives (which resulted in the phenomena of a string of temporary step-siblings, too).

What is so remarkable about Girl is how assured its voice is. This book does not feel like a debut, and in reality it really isn’t, as Amy Schumer has been telling her story for years now. It’s just different now because she’s committed it to paper. What elevates Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo from the library of similar books-by-comedians is that its author has a strong and highly-developed literary voice. One that will make readers laugh out loud, but one that can also bring readers to tears. The book is a fantastic read that brings together all sorts of issues including feminism, rape culture, comedy, gun violence, politics, sexual politics, self-esteem, and family. Like Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, and Kathy Griffin before her, Amy Schumer has masterfully created a literary persona: one that is wise, funny, bruised, and resilient. I can’t wait to read her next book.

Click here to buy Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo on amazon.com.

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‘Go Set a Watchman’ by Harper Lee – thoughts

Like a lot of readers of To Kill a Mockingbird, I romanticized and idealized Atticus Finch as the perfect father – virtuous, moral, fair, and good. So like many of the same readers, I was ambivalent when Harper Lee’s manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was published. Not only was the question of her senility bothering me, but I also wondered if a sequel would ruin my memories of To Kill a Mockingbird – would an inferior sequel somehow dampen my appreciation for the original.

Interestingly enough, Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first, and an editor suggested that she expand on the section in which the novel’s protagonist, Scout reminisces about her childhood. Telling the story from a child’s point of view is interesting because like her readers, Lee’s heroine sees her father in a similarly hero worship way.

What pushed me to read the book was the attention that Atticus Finch was receiving. Unlike the moral hero in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is a flawed human being. Though he still has a serious set of codes and ethics, he’s also racist. To many this characterization was shocking and dismaying – some refused to read the book, so that their perfect image of Atticus Finch remains so: perfect. More than any other book, To Kill a Mockingbird inspires a sentimentality among many of its readers, probably because it’s one of the first “issue” books read as a child.

Go Set a Watchman takes place years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout returns to Maycomb to an elderly and increasingly-infirm Atticus Finch, who lives with his opinionated sister. Meeting her on her return is her longtime beau, Hank, a childhood friend who hopes that their casual relationship would eventually turn into marriage. The plot of To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in a chapter, in which Scout things about her father’s crusading work as a lawyer.

For most readers approaching Go Set a Watchman, the media coverage of Atticus Finch’s racism will weigh heavily during the reading. It did for mine. I read with dread, waiting for Atticus Finch, the klansman to appear – and it doesn’t happen. Atticus is racist, and it’s disturbing to read this once-revered paragon of virtue espouse disgusting attitudes about race – but the character is essentially an allegory of toppled heroes – no one can live up to heroic standards, and certainly no one can live up to the standards set by idealistic children. Atticus Finch was frozen in amber for Scout and Harper Lee’s readers because we all saw him through Scout’s eyes, when she was a child. Harper Lee doesn’t create Atticus Finch for readers to wholly condemn – instead, he acts as a way for readers to condemn placing too much value and worth on our heroes.

When Scout discovers that her father is an attendant of the Citizens’ Council, it makes her sick – literally. All of her notions of goodness and righteousness are questioned because the man who instilled those values has turned out to be tragically human. Scout and Atticus engage in a dialogue, in which Scout’s impotent rage and offense is easily bounced off by Atticus’ measured defense. It’s a disgusting defense, in which Atticus undoes much of the mythic goodwill he’s engendered in To Kill a Mockingbird. Believing that racial equality is an inevitability, he also sees it as a danger to black people: he’s condescending toward black folks, thinking that they are too backward, childish and simplistic to hold public office, teach in schools, govern, etc. This line of thinking ignores black intellectuals who lived in the United States since slavery, nor does it take into account that in the rural south, whites often suffered because of lack of education and a paucity in resources that middle class folks take for granted.

Part of Atticus’ point was also his resentment at the Brown vs. the Board of Education – particularly the overreach of the Supreme Court in the decision that integrated public schools. It feels very timely reading Got Set a Watchman, in light of how many are characterizing the marriage equality ruling as an instance of the Federal Government overstepping. In Scout’s formless condemnation of the Supreme Court’s ruling as well as Atticus’ more articulate slam as Harper Lee’s feelings of angst over the Federal Government and its role. The resolution between Scout and Atticus also feels cheap and unearned – despite their differences, Atticus is proud that his daughter has principles and stood up to him. The problem is the principles that Scout held aren’t formulated all that well, and Atticus is clearly patronizing his daughter in much the same way he patronizes the black people in his life.

It’s a strange passage in a strange book. It’s a confusing text – sometimes brilliant, but often the story feels a bit too self-satisfied in the characters’ quirkiness, especially when it comes to Scout’s inability to conform to social standards. I felt the book was at certain moments too cutesy in mining comedy – especially when it comes to Scout’s relationship with her aunt, a Southern belle with a penchant for corsets and a devoted obedience to societal and gender mores. The two have a predictably prickly relationship, and it feels cliched and forced.

But there are moments that are breathtaking because of how well written and interesting they are – for example, when Scout finally realizes that the black people employed into domestic servitude aren’t the one-dimensional angels who happily abandon their own families for white families is brutal but important. With books like The Help or Gone with the Wind, the relationship between whites and their black servants is often romanticized at the expense of the examination of the hierarchies that create these inequities. In Go Set a Watchman, some of that happens, too – but it’s deceptive. Though Scout’s mother is dead, her maid, Cal acts as a surrogate mom, even explaining puberty, sex, and menstruation. But when Cal’s grandson is arrested for accidentally running over a white man with his car, a perceptible curtain is dropped between Cal and Scout. Scout visits Cal, hoping to cheer her because Atticus will take on the case (only because he doesn’t want the NAACP to get involved), but her visit to Cal’s home is heart wrenching because she finally learns how tenuous their bond was, and how racial injustice can sour even the seemingly purest of affections (that of a child to a loving adult).

In the end, I read Go Set a Watchman  because I felt I had to. Besides being conflicted and disappointed, it did make me want to read To Kill a Mockingbird again. It’s important for readers who feel cheated or robbed to see this book as another work of art – separate it from the original book. It’s not a clear sequel, as it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and really, it acts more as a literary curio – like seeing a good rough draft. I see that Harper Lee was aiming at asking deep questions about race as well as about how children attach values and ideals to their parents – these are important issues to look at. But her questions about race as well as her justly righteous disgust with racism are mitigated by an unsure heroine who cannot seem to intellectualize or verbalize her feelings. Scout as a child is precocious and interesting – Scout as an adult is hesitant and frustrating.

 

 

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‘Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’ by Johann Hari – a review

I first heard about Johann Hari, and his book, Chasing the Scream when watching Bill Maher’s Real Time with Bill Maher. On the program, Hari talked about the War on Drugs, and sought, in the limited time he had, to debunk with both factions on the left and right thought about drug addiction: essentially, drug addiction isn’t a moral failing, nor is it solely a chemical issue, it’s more environmental. He also went further, talking about a famous study done to a rat addicted to drugs, explaining that if rats are given the choice of drugs or a fulfilling life with other rats, then they would choose the later. Maher, a known opponent of the War on Drugs, impishly suggested then that people could take heroin and not be addicted, as long as their environment was ideal. Of course, this brought laughter from the audience, but then Hari pointed out that when people leave the hospital after surgery, they are often prescribed drugs that are essentially heroin in its pure form, and few will develop addictions.

All of this was intriguing, which is why I found Chasing the Scream such a fascinating book. Admittedly, I went into this book with my sympathies and bias in Hari’s favor, but even I have to admit that some of Hari’s findings stunned me. And though I’m also critical of the War on Drugs, I didn’t know much of its history, outside the Reagan Administrations’ championing of it, and I didn’t understand the extend of its ruinous effects on society.

To build his case, Hari lays down an historical context to the War on Drugs, going back to the racketeering days of Prohibition. And while there are no villains in this story, Harry J. Anslinger would inspire boos and hisses for his pioneering work in the criminalization and prohibition of drugs. He sought to restrict marijuana, tapping into racist fears of the 1930s, exploiting race panic, including the image of sexually predatory black male, who will rape and murder white women if high. One of his victims included jazz legend Billie Holliday, who suffered through years of drug addiction as well as grueling punishment from the government. Ruthless gangster Arnold Rothstein is also profiled to highlight the danger of drug prohibition and its creation of gang warfare.

Ansligner and Rothstein are relatively obscure figures and Holliday is a musical icon – neither comes to mind when thinking about the War on Drugs, which is what draws the reader in initially. But Hari doesn’t just focus on historical figures. Through countless interviews, he profiles a diverse group of individuals, all scarred somehow by the War on Drugs. Some of the tales are heartbreaking and poignant, as a few of his subjects die before the book’s publication. Some like Chino – a trans man who struggles through a disastrous childhood of abuse, rape, drug addiction, and gang violence, emerges as an activist for change and social justice – are inspirational.

Hari’s research highlights major holes in the War on Drugs – namely that the prohibition of drugs encourages addiction. For most readers, such a claim would feel counter intuitive. But his findings support much of what he’s suggesting: because drug prohibition creates an grossly inflated profit on the sale of drugs, unscrupulous, violent, and dangerous gangs try to control the trade. And because the justice system views drug addiction in a punitive manner, addicts are often severely punished, jailed, and often tortured in such ways that relapse or death seems inevitable  Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio and his infamous tent city is a particularly disturbing and ghoulish example of the abusive methods in which states and counties in this country deal with drug problems – Hari shares a story of a prisoner who is essentially cooked in a cage in the hot Arizona desert.

Though not a travelogue, Hari’s work takes him to different parts of the world where drug addiction is a problem, and he interviews a diverse group of people, each of whom is looking at the War on Drugs as a failed disaster. In Sweden and Portugal, he witnesses new laws that work toward decriminalization, and he goes to Vancouver and writes about an addict who mobilizes his peers into demanding rights and treatment from their government. These stories place human faces on the War on Drugs and highlight was a catastrophic failure it turned out to be.  And in Colorado and Washington, he talks to two activists, both working hard toward the legalization of marijuana, but both coming from vastly different ideological backgrounds. It’s the diversity of the subjects of the book – conservatives, liberals, activists, doctors, politicians that really emphasizes just how wide-reaching the problem of drug addiction is.

Though Hari claims that his book is targeted toward the moderates – those who don’t fall too far left or too far right, Chasing Screams is a hard sell for those who take a conservative view of drug addiction. Some will claim that Hari and his subjects favor a touchy-feely approach that is doomed to fail. Some also will claim that Hari is essentially arguing for government-sanctioned crack houses. But Hari acknowledges that this discussion is far more complex than merely, “drugs should be legal, full stop.” As someone whose life has been marked by addiction, Hari knows first hand its consequences, and as a devoted uncle to young children, he fears for his nephews’ and niece’s safety. As a result, he does an admirable job in sharing his own prejudices about drug addicts as well as his preconceived ideas of drug addiction. Even if Chasing the Scream feels a bit like the proverbial preaching to the choir, those sympathetic toward Hari’s cause should still read the book, because it does highlight many unknown, yet tragic consequences of the failed War on Drugs. In light of ongoing discussions of our cracked justice system – particularly in light of the recent deaths of black men at the hands of the police – Chasing the Scream will be one of the most important books you’ll read.

Click here to buy Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs on amazon.com.

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Kent Russell explores masculinity and gender with ‘I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son’

Reading Kent Russell’s I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, I kept thinking of one thing: the old military commercials where some kid – usually black or Hispanic – announces that he’s enlisting, and he’s up against some vague protests before the parent accepts the kid’s decision. I think about those commercials because Russell writes about  his father – a war vet – who discourages him from enlisting. In the commercials, the parents, though initially hesitant, are happy and proud that their kid is enlisting. In reality, I can’t imagine how many parents would be filled with dread and terror at the thought of their son or daughter going off to war – given just how corrupt and damaging the last two or three wars were to this country and our brave veterans.

But Russell’s Timid Son isn’t an anti-war screed or polemic. Instead, it’s a look at masculinity and how our culture approaches ideas of manhood. The essays collected take Russell on various journeys, some emotional some physical to places that act as Petri dishes on masculinity. He writes of his adolescence, growing up around different models of manliness and masculinity – the three main models of manhood in his life are his father, grandfather, and a childhood friend, an Iraq war vet. In comparison to these guys, Russell is positively effete with his sensitive scribbling, but he’s an observant and articulate commentator on how concepts of masculinity and gender play out in the real world, where men, who are taught to be stoic and resilient, have feelings of fear, doubt, and regret.

The title refers to a quote from legendary frontiersman, Daniel Boone, who allegedly said the line at his son’s funeral. Boone was reportedly unhappy with his son who did not enlist. Boone is a fitting figure to reference in a book on masculinity because the man is a myth of masculinity and ruggedness. But as Russell’s book highlights, there’s more complexity to masculinity, even if its tempting to be reductive. The most notable examples in the book are the Juggalos (fans of the rap group, the Insane Clown Posse) and a gentleman from Wisconsin who claims to have developed an immunity to venomous snake bites. In both instances it would be very easy to be condescending and insulting – the Juggalos, in particular, are often derided as poor white trash, while the snake charmer from Wisconsin could simply be seen as a kook. But Russell doesn’t stoop down to bullying or teasing: instead, he writes about the Juggalos with a measure of respect. He doesn’t romanticize the subculture, nor does he pretend that the Juggalos are misunderstood or unappreciated connoisseurs of alternative culture; instead he reports on the phenomenon with a journalist’s eye and with a solid measure of compassion. He doesn’t dismiss the seamier aspects masculinity and our culture with high-minded snobbishness.

The same level of fairness goes into how  he writes about his father, as well. The relationship between Russell and his dad could’ve been easily whittled down to a grizzled, taciturn, macho dick who can’t relate to his dad. But Russell isn’t interested in facile, one-sided characterizations, and instead, Russell’s father is someone that has moments of sensitivity, wit, and compassion. It’s clear through the work, that his father has had a major impact on his life and  his outlook on what being a man means. But this isn’t a weepy “daddy never loved me” tome. Russell indulges in fanciful wordplay, but he doesn’t indulge in self-pity. Instead, he revels in the eccentric and prickly relationship that he shares with his dad.

And through it all, Russell remains a funny and vital voice. Even when the stories take dark turns – his passages about his best friend’s struggles with PTSD are particularly disturbing – Russell’s smart voice shines through. He doesn’t belittle the more serious parts of his story with humor – instead he enhances the reader’s empathy and interest with it.

Click here to buy Kent Russell’s I Am Sorry to Think That I Have Raised a Timid Son on amazon.com.

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It’s important to read ‘The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk’

Harvey Milk is a hero and martyr for the gay rights movement. In The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the late Randy Shilts writes about the slain politician who is seen as a pioneer whose life was tragically cut short. A sad and brilliant book, The Mayor of Castro Street isn’t just about Harvey Milk, but about looking at the moment when the mainstream gay rights movement took on a nation-wide profile. Reading the book, which was published in 1982, is fascinating because of all the recent strides and setback in the modern gay rights movement, as well as knowing where some of the players of The Mayor of Castro Street go in the three decades since the book’s publishing. While progress has been made in many aspects of the gay rights movement, there are chilling and direct parallels in the book that are still around today.

The story of Harvey Milk has been well-publicized and the man has been canonized by his admirers. What Shilts does is carefully deconstruct the saint, and show just how human Milk was. He was a complex, mercurial, and passionate figure, whose single-minded goal of breaking down barriers often left him at odds with friends, lovers, supporters, as well as political adversaries and allies. Through exhaustive research and interviews, Shilts tells the story of an ambitious and courageous man who sought to change minds through example and hard work.

What sets Shilts’ book apart from simple hagiography is that the author is more than willing to highlight sides of Milk that the media chooses to ignore. Though Milk was a compassionate man, he was also calculating and politically savvy. He cared about the issues, but was also very calculating in how he approached his work and how he crafted his image. In one notable example, when highlighting the problems of dog waste to a group of journalists, Milk stepped in dog feces in front of the cameras, as if to illustrate the nuisance, though he planted the offending feces himself for maximum effect. In another case, he refused to vote for Diane Feinstein as president of the board of supervisors, when his vote would’ve merely been symbolic as Feinstein garnered the necessary majority, but a unanimous vote would’ve been a nice courtesy. For Milk to become as successful as he was, he had to anger those around him, including many who worked with him and supported his agenda. Shilts isn’t arguing that Milk was stone cold or unfeeling, but merely that the man was much more wily than the smiling, sometimes idealized figure who has passed into legend.

For context, Shilts’ work gives us an encompassing view of San Francisco circa late 1970s. In this backdrop, Milk’s ascension works as a way of highlight progress. During Milk’s time, the city of San Francisco was gutted by the Jonestown massacre, in which over 900 members of the Peoples Temple died in a mass murder-suicide. The tragedy was a convenient way for right wing politicians and religious figures to legislate homophobia, through a series of anti-gay legislation that swept through the country, decimating local anti-discrimination ordinances. Shilts expertly describes the rise of the religious right and compares its success, tactics, and outcomes, to those of the growing gay rights movement. He doesn’t create false equivalencies, nor does he offer excuses for bigotry, but he adds context to the rising anti-gay movement, as well. This context is helpful when trying to assess the atmosphere under which Milk and his fellow gay rights activists were operating.

What the book really needs is a sequel, however. Unfortunately, its author has since died, but Milk’s story did not end in 1978 when he was gunned down by fellow supervisor Dan White. In the the more than thirty years that followed, the gay rights movement has shifted with its focus on marriage equality, hate crime legislation, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, trans awareness, and most poignantly, the AIDS crisis (which would not only take Shilts away, but many of the people that populate The Mayor of Castro Street). Reading the book now adds a certain tension to the story because many of Milk’s goals have been met – there is a growing number of openly gay politicians – but a lot of the resistance and bigotry he and his contemporaries face are still prevalent. The Mayor of Castro Street is a beautiful book, but very sad one, because despite its inspirational tone and heroic subject, it exposes just how much of Milk’s legacy has been left unfulfilled.

Click here to buy The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts on amazon.com.

 

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