Harvey Milk, "Mayor of Castro Street" and the first openly gay elected official, is a political hero whose life story is well-worth brushing up on. Randy Shilts, a former reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle, produced this comprehensive and unparalleled in-depth look at the evolution of the man and his city. This unique and compelling tale, narrated with journalistic flair by Marc Vietor, tracks Milk from high school through his late forties when he finally won a seat in city government, to the tragic moment when he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by co-worker Dan White, and the social and political aftermath of that fateful day. First-time listeners and those that keep coming back to this book every few years alike will find themselves troubled by the discovery of its eerie echo in current California politics, but relieved to remember that all is not lost.
Giving voice to the lively and inimitable original purveyor of the "hope" speech is no easy task, and Vietor wisely plays it safe by sticking to his natural voice with a few appropriately flamboyant inflections peppered throughout the direct quotations from Milk and his motley crew of activists. Colorful and filled with deep characterization though the story is, Shilts ultimately meant for the book to be read as a significant and serious piece of history. Vietor's contemplative approach to the tone is necessarily dignified and equipped to deliver this education, but does not sink into the sedate or severe.
As Milk grows into himself, so too does the San Francisco gay scene. Shilts' definitive biography includes several appendices for Milk's best original speeches, with Vietor providing a rousing snapshot into the political ideology of the late 1970s. This Audible Modern Vanguard production also includes a James Atlas interview with Larry Kramer, the award-winning playwright and AIDS activist who worked extensively with Shilts on his other masterwork, And The Band Played On. The interview highlights how dedicated Shilts was to illuminating a history of the gay community that would promote optimism within that community as well as genuine acceptance and support of it from the outside. Though the gay studies genre has exploded with publications since Shilts first published this pioneering book in 1982, The Mayor of Castro Street remains one of the major classics in contemporary nonfiction writing. Megan Volpert
Harvey Milk has been the subject of numerous books and movies, including the Academy Award-winning 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk. His life is also the basis of a 2008 major motion picture Milk, starring Sean Penn.
This production is part of our Audible Modern Vanguard line, a collection of important works from groundbreaking authors.
©2008 Randy Shilts; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
"A no-holds-barred character study and a history of the local gay movement....An investigative piece on the mechanics of big-city government in all its expedient, back-biting splendor." (The Washington Post)
"A remarkable work [of] biography, social history, and political machination....Exceptional." (The Los Angeles Times)
But I cannot remember ever being riveted to a piece of nonfiction like I was to his telling of "The Mayor of Castro Street." While the writing does not add anything to the story, Shilts himself does. He gives us history. He gives us an education in politics. He gives us a 1970s American city.
But he takes us so many more places and introduces us to so many characters. And he really lets us know Harvey Milk the way HBO let us know Tony Soprano. He gives us a deeply conflicted human being. Harvey Milk was short-tempered with friends. Demanding of volunteers. He was a nymphomaniac who let a boyfriend half his age embarrass him in public because "he's a really good lay." Perhaps the book actually ends that particular sentence with a four-letter word.
But while Shilts gives us a Harvey Milk who led a flawed personal life, the author also gives us a Harvey Milk who sacrificed his finances, his relationships and ultimately his life to better the lives of perhaps America's most beset upon minority.
Shilts never uses the word sacrifice, but he draws a picture of a man, who after he was assassinated, left friends who were surprised to find that every article of clothing he owned was thread-bare. Looking for something for the funeral, the friends couldn't even find a pair of socks without holes.
This is a David and Goliath tale that ends in a Shakespearean tragedy.
It is one of the greatest stories ever told.
And it is semirecent American history.
Randy Shilts tells this story with consummate skill and feeling. The depth of research, the first-person connection, and the writing chops combine to make this one of the most compelling biographies I have ever read (or heard). Of course it is a sad story, but--like the great tragedians--Shilts makes it moving rather than depressing.
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