Category Archives: Reading

AIDS in the ’80s: one book, one movie

When I first read Randy Shilts’ AND THE BAND PLAYED ON: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, I saw it as a current-events book that would be worth reading as history in decades to come. Rereading it recently I still think so, with one large exception (discussed in Killing Patient Zero further on).

As the book begins, gay men in San Francisco and New York — two hotspots for gay life at the time — start coming down with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a skin cancer that typically affects elderly Jews and grows slowly. These cancers did not. Other victims are hit with baffling bacterial growth in the lungs or brain diseases. Before long it becomes clear that something is killing gay men but is it drugs? An STD? How can it be stopped? And what do you call it: what started as “the gay cancer” became Gay-Related Immune Deficiency and then Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Shilts’ book is fueled by rage at pretty much everyone. Gays who refused to believe their sex life was the issue, and refused to practice safe sex. Government officials in both cities who sat on their hands about doing anything to help gays, or refused to close gay bathhouses for fear of offending gay supporters. Media that had zero interest in writing about some disease killing those icky people (the first stories focused on It Might Affect Straights!!!). Blood banks that resisted taking precautions against tainted blood — their blood does not have gay cooties! And it would be expensive to test! The Reagan administration lied through its teeth saying, over and over, that they’d funded every possible AIDS research and mitigation project when requests for funding were piling up. University administrations refused to expedite research requests by staffers and punished anyone who made an end run.

The result? Years wasted, lots more people dead. I’m not sure if AIDS was, as many people describe it, the most terrifying disease of the century (was it scarier than the Spanish flu or the possibility of kids getting polio?) but it was a horrifyingly lethal one. It might have been even worse if Rock Hudson, closeted Hollywood gay, hadn’t come down with AIDS. Here was a star who could put a face on the disease (though TYG says for people her age, young Ryan White getting AIDs from a transfusion was a much bigger deal): if a Hollywood icon and manly man could get AIDS, nobody was safe!

All that said, Shilts writes about a number of admirable figures too: people who fought for funding, researched the disease, pushed for safe-sex measures and struggled to save lives (right wing Senator Orrin Hatch was, to my surprise, one of them). Plus those who died, whether with dignity, resignation, fury or tears (or a mix of all of them). It’s the mix of individual experience and big-picture worldview that makes the book so effective.

Even though I lived through the era it feels unreal to me now. Shilts, writing in 1987, talks about how our lives are broken into Before the epidemic and After which is how it felt at the time. It was a seismic shock that made it suddenly acceptable to talk about condoms on TV (a big taboo previously) but now it’s a musty memory (keep in mind I was a straight guy living a low-risk life so I didn’t go through the harrowing some of the book’s subjects did). It makes me appreciate how the Spanish flu and polio have receded into history. It also makes me see some of the covid insanity with fresh eyes. Religious conservatives insisting their right to hold superspreader services — who knows if covid’s even real? — aren’t that far off from the reactions some gays had to the news sex could kill them.

The one place Shilts blows it is his portrayal of Gaetan Dugas, the man he fingers as Patient Zero, the gay dude who brought AIDS to America and spread it through a promiscuous lifestyle that kept going even after his symptoms became obvious. Except as KILLING PATIENT ZERO (2020) shows, AIDS had a much longer latency period than first appeared, taking as much as a decade to destroy people’s immune systems; that meant it was established in the American gay population well before Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant, supposedly began spreading it.

Dugas was, like many gay men, skeptical about AIDS being spread by STDs (one of the things better funding might have confirmed sooner); the movie points out that for many gays, sexual freedom in the 1970s was proof they were no longer the love that dare not speak its name and they didn’t want to withdraw from that. Dugas, ironically, came off looking like the prime mover because he cooperated so much with the CDC, providing lots of information about his sexual contacts; had other men been as forthcoming the map of who infected whom would have looked very different. And Patient Zero — a term that didn’t exist before AIDS — was really a misinterpretation of “Patient O” in one file, short for “Out of California.”

Shilts’ editor (the author himself has passed) says he seized on Dugas as a way to put a face on the epidemic; giving readers and the media a Typhoid Mary figure (and Typhoid Mary herself was nowhere near the lethal carrier legend has made her out to be) would generate enough attention people outside the gay community would read the book. Giving them a Typhoid Gay guaranteed right-wing media would flag the book as one of interest (right-wing outlets, as I recall from the time, took great glee pointing out it was All Gays’ Fault for their lechery, but ignoring Reagan’s role). Shilts didn’t like demonizing Dugas but he went along with it and the tactic worked. The documentary does a good job painting Dugas as human being rather than a deviant monster. I’d recommend anyone who reads Shilts’ book follow up with the movie. “It seems to me reality shouldn’t come ready-packed with metaphors.”

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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This is why I haven’t made it to the in-person writer’s group for a while.

In addition to the bi-weekly writer’s group Zoom meetings, I really enjoy the live action meetings on the alternate Tuesdays … but I haven’t gone to many this  year. It means staying out late, which is fun, but I do need to get to work the next morning. And with the dogs needing more morning care as they age, plus the cats, I don’t have as much flexibility as I used to.

Tuesday I went anyway, had a great time but even though I skipped the after-meeting get-together I got home late enough to be exhausted. That did not leave me in peak form Wednesday morning; coupled with knowing I had a blood donation appointment that afternoon, my brain just stopped cooperating. I did some blogging, that was about it.

Then Wednesday night I had an absolutely awful insomnia leaving me largely fried mentally the next day.  I’ll definitely have to plan better next time I go.

I wound up spending a lot of time on my Savage Adventures book about Doc Savage because polishing and expanding my blog posts is a lot easier than writing more creatively. I’ve now completed about 19,000 words.

I got some work done on the rewrite of Oh the Places You’ll Go and another chapter finished on Let No Man Put Asunder. I edited my rewrite of Love That Moves the Sun and did some more proofing of 19-Infinity. I met with Kemp Ward, who did the cover on Undead Sexist Cliches and he’s going to work up some cover sketches from my ideas.

I was on a  time travel panel at Con-Tinual and posted on Atomic Junk Shop about Fantastic Four Annual #4 and the tragedy of Quasimodo, the Quasimotivational Destruct Organism, shown below. I also blogged about comic-book loose ends.

Sunday I’m hosting a writer’s work day so I’ll make up some of the lost time.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Bama, comics panels by Jack Kirby.

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Is Our Writers Learning? Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline’s READY PLAYER ONE is a good example of how books are a product of their time, though like Skull the Slayer, it’s not always in a bad way.

Most obviously, a book that’s drenched in nostalgia for 1980s pop culture will inevitably lose its appeal as the decades and the generations go by. I don’t think this is such a terrible thing: writing a wildly successful, popular book (even if I couldn’t get into it myself) is no small accomplishment, even if it doesn’t become, as they say, an “enduring classic.” Very little of what any of us write will endure.

The setting — the Oasis multiplayer online gameworld/social network where everyone in the dystopian mid-21st century spends their lives — also reflects the book came out in 2011. Social networks had a much more positive sheen then, without concerns about trolling, cyberbullying, online harassment and misinformation. In Ready Player One the bad guys are out to take over Oasis and monetize it, where creator James Halliday was an idealist. The past twelve years have made it clear how the people who create social networks and run online platforms are anything but idealists.

Halliday, as most of y’all probably know, died some time before the start of the book, leaving his fortune and the rights to Oasis to whoever can solve a series of puzzles built around Halliday’s nostalgia for 1980s pop culture. Our protagonist, Wade, is one of the “gunters” trying to win the McGuffin along with his buddy Aech and fellow player Art3mis, whom he crushes on due to her witty, self-deprecating blog posts. Can any of them solve the riddle? Can they do it before the corporate drones succeed and thereby seize control of Oasis?

I’ve often wondered if “show, don’t tell” matters to anyone outside writers and editors and this book is an argument that it doesn’t. It’s very, very Tell: we learn about the creator’s life in incredible detail, most of which is completely unnecessary. Cline tells us lots of other stuff about 1980s pop culture, the Oasis world and more. It didn’t hurt the book’s sales at all.

One thing I wish he’d shown us is Art3mis’ allegedly witty writing. Telling us someone is funny or charming or silver-tongued doesn’t work as well as showing — though that said, it’s better than having them say something dull or trite and having everyone act like they’re clever. Art3mis breaking down John Hughes films into the Dorky Boys Trilogy and the Dorky Girls Trilogy isn’t terribly deep or witty so perhaps it’s good Cline stopped there. In fairness, I’ve seen much worse, like a book excerpt where “you’re still beautiful” is all it takes to qualify as “silver tongued.”

Criticisms about how Cline writes Art3mis/Wade and the gatekeeping aspects of nerd culture are, I think, accurate, but my own dissatisfaction with the book was more personal. The gatekeeping criticism refers to things like Wade effortlessly flaunting his superior 1980s pop-culture knowledge to crush other gunters. This kind of one-upmanship is entirely plausible (and not just in nerd stuff) but I found Wade annoying rather than cool when he did it. I know lots of stuff about Silver Age comics but I don’t feel the urge to use it in the same way (“I’m sorry, do you seriously think “Indestructible Creatures of Nightmare Island” was JLA #42? It was #40, you imbecile!”).

More than that, the sheer, endless quantities of trivia left me numb. It’s less like geeking out over at Atomic Junk Shop and more like talking to someone who can’t shut up about their passion: I admit I don’t follow the show so I can’t discuss the latest episode, they respond by sharing a scene-by-scene breakdown in detail. Sure, there’s billions at stake in the gunters’ exploits but that doesn’t make discussions of Swordquest games or quoting Wargames (Wade’s memorized every line, along with tons of Halliday’s other fixations) any better. Though like Harlan Ellison’s Jeffty Is Five I might have liked it better as a teen or twentysomething when I was much more immersed in fiction. As is, it’s like Lewis Shiner’s Glimpses — the book becomes a deep dive into the life of Brian Wilson and the music of the Beach Boys and I had zero interest in either.

Which is another way of saying that this presses the wrong nostalgia buttons for me. Cline, as he makes clear here, is writing his version of 1980s pop culture; mine has much more comics, more SF novels, different TV touchstones and very little videogames. That’s not something “wrong” with the book, it just makes it hard for me to connect with it, the same as if it were all about 1980s sports nostalgia. It”s also annoying that Cline claims some 1970s stuff, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the TV show Land of the Lost as part of the 1980s. He may have been watching them in the ’80s but by that logic I Love Lucy could qualify as 1980s nostalgia.

Even though John Scalzi at the Cline link above describes the 1980s as “the Cosby era” (which of course is also of it’s time — who’d want to connect a book with Bill Cosby now?) the effect of Cline drawing on his personal nostalgia fest means it’s very white and very male: no Michael Jackson, no hip-hop or rap, more Family Ties references than Cosby Show, passing mentions of Transformers and Gobots but not Jem or anything else primarily girl-coded.

That said, I imagine Cline will do fine without my giving the book a thumbs up.

#SFWApro. Cover design by Christopher Brand, JLA cover by Murphy Anderson, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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A book about mediocrity, a mediocre book about bread, plus Cthulhu!

I picked up MEDIOCRE: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeolma Oluo assuming it was, like Pedigree, about how our meritocracy enables mediocrities with the “right” credential to beat out more talented people (see also the glass floor). Instead it’s a big-picture look at how much of our schools, workplaces and government offices were formed with an eye to affirming and defending white male supremacy; this is relevant to the topic but not what I was looking for. Nor do I entirely buy that all the ways the system is rigged are designed with intent toward that end (this does not make them any less of a problem, of course)When I picked up SIX THOUSAND YEARS OF BREAD: Its Holy and Unholy History I had a feeling from browsing that author HE Jacob might be one of those thinkers whose efforts to build a synthesis from multiple disparate parts would exceed his grasp. Still, it was a Friends of the Library sale so it was cheap — but I was correct about the book. Jacob offers dubious speculation about Paleolithic bread-baking, historical information often barely related to the topic (there’s a lot of stuff about the Greek and Persian wars that has nothing to do with bread) and a lengthy discussion of what could have caused mass wafers to appear to bleed when broken. Cuisine and Empire covered bread in history better, and felt more reliable.

THE FALL OF CTHULHU OMNIBUS by Michael Alan Nelson collects several volumes I read years back, plus the conclusion which I was never able to find. The human protagonists discover cultists seeking to wake Cthulhu — not his worshippers, but followers of the god Nodens, who seeks to hunt the Old One down for sport. Nyarlathotep has his own agenda, as does the sinister Harlot of the Dreamlands. Does the human race stand a chance? I think this one’s excellent.


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Week in review: No need to cry “Mayday!”

Which is to say the week went well. Okay, Obolus got its first rejection but I’ve never sold anything to Fantasy and Science Fiction and have no reason to think this one would do any better. But why not start with an A-list market? To their credit, they always respond fast. I submitted two stories to other markets; perhaps they’ll do better.

I’m having fresh challenges with Wisp as she’s decided my lap on the couch is preferable to her pillow on the back of the couch. That’s fine in itself but if Trixie’s there too she’ll demand equal petting time so I wind up with both hands on my pets and none free to write with. No hostility beyond that, even when I get up and leave them on the couch.

First, I am now officially the publisher Behold the Book, having filed a “doing business as” certificate with Durham County. I have made that official on all my published books at Draft2Digital but haven’t figured out how to do it with the Amazon paperbacks yet.

I got some more work done on my Doc Savage nonfiction book, including rereading The Red Skull; despite the relatively low stakes (land containing valuable deposits) it’s a dynamic, action-packed adventure and a pleasure to reread. There are no scenes as cool as the James Bama cover though.

I got around 3,000 words done on Let No Man Put Asunder. It’s going a lot slower now but I think that’s necessary. As I mentioned earlier this week it’s lost focus along the way and I need to get that back. Part of that is that I’m having to think through What Comes Next a good deal more. But I’m pleased with the results so far.

I read the book’s second chapter to the writer’s group. I’d been concerned they’d find it too slow-paced as the section I read is heavy on talk and not much action. Instead they thought it was a little too fast and needed more moments for Paul and Mandy to pause and reflect (see this post from last month about speed in fiction). Good information to have.

I also got further on the rewrite of The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. It’s also slowing down as I get out of the opening chapters (frequently rewritten) into terra relatively incognita.

I worked on rewriting Oh the Places You’ll Go — feedback from the group was way helpful there — and rewrote The Cheap Assassin, getting it much closer to what it needs to be. If the next draft improves as much, it might be ready for beta-reading. The big problem is that I haven’t come up with an ending that works yet; I may just take it to group with a bad ending and ask for suggestions (I’ve done that before. It helps).

I worked on proofing 19-Infinity and I have a meeting with a possible cover artist next week.Over at Atomic Junkshop I look at Marvel in ’66 and rewrote and reposted and old blog entry here about DC’s Guy Gardner. I’m also over on YouTube in a Con-Tinual panel about the future of pandemic fiction. You can see one of the Marvels I mention, Millie the Model reuniting with the hip Liverpool band, the Gears.

Oh, and someone bought a copy of Undead Sexist Cliches on Amazon! Thanks, stranger (if you are, in fact, a stranger).#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders, Millie cover by Stan Goldberg, Undead Sexist Cliches cover by Kemp Ward.

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Women protagonists I’ve encountered recently.

The WONDER WOMAN SILVER AGE OMNIBUS Volume 1 collects stories (by Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito) I already have, but in a large color format that makes them much more eye-catching. Just look at this sequence from Wonder Woman #114, after aliens suck parade balloons up into the air with their trucks attached —It is, as the watching bystanders say, one amazing stunt and it looks sooo much cooler in this format. The volume runs from “The Million Dollar Penny” which kicked off the Kanigher/Andru/Esposito team on the book through the story right before the Wonder Family era began. It also includes several sample letter columns, showing that yes, Wonder Girl really was popular with fans and that fans weren’t as knowledgeable back in the day — lots of questions about WW’s origins and who is that “Great Hera” person she swears by? Gale Simone’s introduction is fun, pointing out the strengths of this run, though she’s wrong to assert Wonder Woman is reluctant to kill — she has zero qualms about blowing up alien invaders or sinister foreign submarines. I’m looking forward to V2 later this year.

HOW TO BUILD A GIRL by Caitlin Moran worked better for me than I’d have expected as 1990s coming-of-age stories are hardly my thing. Nevertheless I really enjoyed the tale of Johanna, a British teenager in 1990s London reinvents herself as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking Goth rock reviewer with viciously snarky putdowns of bands that don’t measure up to her standards. Moran’s character style and first-person voice kept this fun but the pacing is off: so much time spent on the era Before Johanna takes action, then her stint in her new identity, then a sudden rush to finish, realize the moral (reinventing yourself shouldn’t mean becoming a shitty person!) and course-corrects. This may reflect that it’s the first in a series but it still lessened my enjoyment.

I was ambivalent about the return of SAGA after the “meh” previous volume but taking a break does seem to have recharged creators Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples. With Marco gone, Mom is doing her best to keep her family going, even if it means shady dealings, while a variety of players still want her and little Hazel dead. Entertaining though if you can’t stomach gendered insults (the “c word” for women gets tossed around a lot) this ain’t for you. And while this series has never made any pretense it’s a realistic future culture, it still annoys me that suddenly the characters are tossing around “woke” as common slang which they never did before.

I KISSED SHARA WHEELER by Casey McQuiston has Chloe, a bisexual student at a conservative Christian Alabama high school, become obsessed with the disappearance of Shara, the principal’s perfect daughter and Chloe’s only rival for valedictorian (and the Most Obnoxious, Most Irritating Girl She Ever Met, so we know where this is going). That Shara’s leaving cryptic notes for Chloe and others doesn’t do anything to cool Chloe’s fixation. I enjoy McQuiston’s voice but Shara dropping her enigmatic clues came off a knock-off Batman villain ; I dropped out half-way through the book, skipped to the ending  and didn’t regret it. Keep in mind, though, I’m not the target audience so YMMV.

#SFWApro. Art by Andru and Esposito, book cover by Allison Reimold, all rights remain with current holders.


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I’m rushed for time, so a cover-art post it is!

This one by Bob Stanley just looks creepy, like the guy checkng the woman out is a total perv.Another Virgil Finlay coverHere’s a strange Ed Emshwiller cover.One by Robert Gibson Jones that makes me want to read the story.

I’ll wrap up with this Alex Schomberg cover, which also makes me curious to read the contents.

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Theatrical mysteries and a second-rate superhero: books read

RUDDY GORE: A Phryne Fisher Mystery by Kerry Greenwood has the Honourable Miss Fisher (“honourable” is a courtesy title for children of aristocrats) attending a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore when two cast members drop dead; how can a self-respecting Aristocrat Detective look away? This feels like a deliberate throwback to the Golden Age of mystery fiction, but with a more liberated female lead (sexually liberated too) and better roles for people of color; despite those assets, it didn’t engage me. I might catch the Miss Fisher TV series sometime though.In SMOKE AND MIRRORS: A Magic Men Mystery by Ellyn Griffiths, the theater is a British Christmas pantomime in 1951 which brings magician Max Mephisto to Brighton as part of the cast. This reunites him with a local detective inspector he knows from WW II (the “magic men” unit — based on alleged exploits by stage conjurer David Maskelyne during the war) just in time to help investigate the brutal murder of two local kids. Does it have anything to do with the murder at another pantomime years earlier? Is there a fairytale MO to the killing or is that just coincidence? I picked this up because there’s a long tradition of magician detectives (DC’s Mysto, the Great Merlini and others) but this  one didn’t work for me either. Griffiths does, however, do an excellent job on the period setting, from sexism to homophobia to the insecure life of performers to England slowly crawling out from a decade of rationing.

DAREDEVIL: The Man Without Fear by Stan Lee and multiple artists collects the first twenty issues of Hornhead’s comic. It’s one of the weaker books of the 1964-1966 though it’s mand ch superior to earlier weakest links such as Ant-Man’s series.

Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was all about duplicating what worked (a common view among many comics professionals); Daredevil, acrobatic and inspired by tragedy (his father Battling Jack Murdock, was killed by the Fixer for refusing to throw a fight) was modeled on Spider-Man while either the X-Men or the Avengers were supposed to be the next Fantastic Four. Bill Everett, however, had major problems meeting deadline on Daredevil #1. Instead Marvel rushed out either X-Men or Avengers to fill the slot instead. The “or” is because while it’s been widely argued that Avengers #1 was whipped up at the last minute, I’ve seen counter-arguments they were in the works well ahead of time.

There was more backstage drama after DD debuted: Wally Wood, a legend at EC Comics, did some or all of the plotting, as was standard at Marvel. When he didn’t get credit for it, he walked.

All this is more interesting, at least to a comic-book nerd such as myself, than Daredevil itself. While it boasts are and plotting by multiple talented artists — Gene Colan, Wally Wood, John Romita — it’s still a mediocre book. We have the standard disability cliches where Matt Murdock figures his pretty secretary could never love a blind man (it has to be pity!) and Matt apparently knows no other blind people in New York. A largely uninspired Rogue’s Gallery including the Organizer (as names go, that one really, really needs to go), the Masked Matador and the Plunderer.

Stan Lee’s dialog makes me think this wasn’t a book he cared about the way he did Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Matt’s heightened senses often turn into some kind of magic, where he can sense evil or unrest. The dialog is never as sharp as Peter Parker’s. Plot elements get dropped abruptly, such as Matt leaving the firm so Foggy can move into a smaller, more affordable office. There’s also a ridiculous plot in which Foggy tries to impress Karen by pretending he’s Daredevil; it’s laughable though not as bad as when Matt pretended to be his own brother. I’m not sure which of the creator’s gets the blame, but there’s more than enough to go around.

That said, there are some great stories such as DD’s battle with Sub-Mariner, and some that are fun (I’m fonder of Stiltman than he deserves).

#SFWApro. Covers by Wally Wood, all rights remain with current holders.

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Sidesplitting Lovecraftian comedy and other books read

LOLCRAFT: A Compendium of Eldritch Humor comes from the same company that put out the Lovecraftian romance anthology Eldritch Embraces a few years ago. Once again, they’ve included one of my stories and once again the other stories are excellent (I’ve been in anthologies where that wasn’t true. Excellent is better). The Old Ones save Christmas, Bertie Wooster meets HP Lovecraft (“These American authors are all cowboys.”), the Old Ones confront corporate bureaucracy and Las Vegas and vacationers share their online reviews of couples weekend at the Arkham Witch House (“It was weird, the soap was lying on the floor of the bathtub but it seemed an infinite distance away.”). While one or two stories didn’t work for me, the vast majority were a hoot to read.I was much less entertained by Megan Lindholm’s WIZARD OF THE PIGEONS despite some glowing recommendations and Lindholm’s later success as Robin Hobb. In this 1986 urban fantasy, Wizard is a homeless Vietnam veteran wandering the streets of Seattle, dealing with his PTSD and the memories he’s trying to bury but also with the duties his magic imposes on him and the terrible threat of some amorphous evil force invading the city.

Lindholm writes beautifully but by the end of the first few chapters I could tell the ratio of pretty writing to story was way out of whack. At times the story slips uncomfortably close to movies such as Fisher King or They Might Be Giants where everything is in the protagonist’s head; I don’t think the magic is but I’m not sure about the evil force (I got to skimming a lot) and I hate All In Their Head stories. Plus the mentally disturbed Vietnam veteran was and is a bad stereotype (not that they didn’t exist but a lot more went home and resumed something approaching normal life). I’ve wanted to read this for years but now that I have it’s a disappointment.

LOVE EVERLASTING by Tom King and Elsa Charretier was more interesting, but didn’t work for me either. In the first chapter, protagonist Joan falls for her boss even though he’s dating her BFF; it all works out happily but then she wakes up as a young college student who falls for a counterculture type over her father’s objections but once again her life reboots. Eventually we learn a mysterious cowboy guns her down whenever she finds true love.

I’ve no idea where this is going and not in an “intrigued” sort of way. The stories aren’t really parodies as they could easily have appeared in Girl’s Love or similar titles (except the last one, set in the Great War, which doesn’t fit the pattern) and they’re not critiquing the stories or attitudes so was this just a way to make a modern love-comics anthology interesting? The murky discussion at the climax doesn’t explain enough to satisfy.

To end on a win, TYG and I caught the Durham Savoyards’ production of THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD a couple of weekends ago. This Gilbert and Sullivan operetta takes place in the Elizabethan age at the Tower of London. The alchemist Fairfax has been sentenced to death for witchcraft so a relative can seize his estate; to spite him, he pays Elsie, a traveling entertainer, to marry him, thereby putting his estate off-limits. When Fairfax manages to escape his fate, however, both he and Elsie have to deal with a marriage neither fo them thought would last.

The standout part is Jock Paint, the jester in love with Elsie, his performing partner. Where Shakespeare’s jesters are wry philosophers, Jack has to work at being funny, often struggling; losing his love to Fairfax ends the show on a genuinely and uncharacteristically sad note for G&S. I’ve seen this played several ways — Elsie is heartless, the ending is tragic — but here she’s sympathetic and it’s simply downbeat. It’s odd, given that Jack doesn’t have any more claim to Elsie than Bunthorne had to Patience in Patience, but it works nonetheless. Though Fairfax/Elsie doesn’t, at least for me — unlike Algernon in Patience or most G&S romantic leads, he doesn’t seem in love with his leading lady. Regardless, the Savoyards pulled this off with their usual flair.  “Tell a tale of cock-and-bull/Of convincing detail full/Tale portentious/Heaven defend us/What a tale of cock and bull!”

#SFWApro. Covers by Don England (top) and Charretier, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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I imagine Ron DeSantis does not want people reading this book

Because Philip Dray’s AT THE HANDS OF PERSONS UNKNOWN: The Lynching of Black America (edited to get title right) probably would make some students uncomfortable with its story of how brutally many whites have treated several thousand blacks (and some whites too) and how other whites turned a blind eye.

I thought I knew how horrifying lynching was but this book was an eye-opener. People taking home knucklebones from a corpse as souvenirs. Children posing next to a hanged black man for a photo (many post-lynching photographs would become postcards). A black WW II veteran having his eyes burned out with a blow torch. All of it done without benefit of trial, frequently to innocent men (and sometimes women), on the bullshit rationalization that supporters of “Judge Lynch’s law” were protecting white women from being defiled by lecherous black men (in some states, sex between a black man and a white woman was automatically classed as rape). All of it originally done as a community public spectacle; criticism in the 1930s made racists take most such incidents private rather than attract attention from Yankees and others who just didn’t understand the South was it’s own special place (sarcasm font). Often lynching’s aftermath included rampages through black business districts, reminding me of kristalnacht and other European porgroms.

While some historians argue if it isn’t public, it isn’t a lynching, Dray follows the pattern of violence on into the 1950s and 1960s as it slowly fades in the face of increasing opposition. The deathblow came when the feds successfully prosecuted the killers in the Meridian murder of three civil rights workers — not everybody, but enough to show you couldn’t be sure of getting away with it. Dray acknowledges that the legal system is still biased against black men but writing in 2002 he’s optimistic we’ve come a long way. I wonder if he’s still so optimistic (back then, I was too) in a world where police defend their right to shoot black people and whites have called the cops because a black person was standing there. Or where a Tennessee lawmaker can get nostalgic for hanging people from trees — yeah, I’m sure no racial subtext there. Nor in Texas’ scumbag governor Gregg Abbott vowing to pardon a driver convicted for running over a BLM protester

I’m also reminded of the shocked reactions so much of America had to 1960s protests and 1970s urban terrorism and the fantasy that before Kids These Days got out of hand (irrationally angry blacks, irrationally angry gays, kids raised too permissive) everything had been civilized and orderly and peaceful. No, it wasn’t. But lynchings didn’t have the same impact on white America that black or anti-war protests did; lynching enforced the status quo, 1960s protests challenged it.

Dray does a good job profiling the people who fought against Jude Lynch’s Law, such as black activists Ida Wells and Walter White, the NAACP and the Communist Party. Many of them labored for years to end lynching without seeing their work bear fruit. Others were simply self-interested: as lynching finally began to offend the rest of the nation, Southern leaders pushed back against it for fear lynching was bad for business and bad for their image. At the local level, the murderers kept right on lynching for far too long.

Like I said, it’s understandable if, even cleaned of the worst details, lynching upsets students. Contrary to DeStalinist, even if it does that’s no reason not to teach it.

Cover from Allen-Littlefield collection at Emory University, all rights remain with current holder.


Filed under Politics, Reading