Book Review: Black Hat Jack

Book Review: Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale

Nat Love is better known to some as “Deadwood Dick” as he did some fancy shooting in Deadwood, and “Deadwood Nat” just sounds wrong.  Nat was a ex-slave, a gunslinger, a soldier, a cowboy and all-round troublemaker.  You may have seen those “dime novels” with his nickname on the cover; them Eastern writers cleaned up his language considerable, his behavior some, and worst of all bleached his skin.

Black Hat Jack

But this here story is told in Nat Love’s own words, all about how he and mountain man Black Hat Jack decided to try their hand at buffalo hunting but wound up fighting in the Second Battle of Adobe Flats.  Now, this is a thing that really happened and the way Nat tells it is true…mostly.  Lyin’, well, that’s just something people do.

Joe R. Lansdale is a noted author of crime, horror and yes, western books.  He was a big name in the splatterpunk movement, and his stories often include plenty of gory violence, strong language and assorted bodily fluids.  This novella is no exception.  It’s part of Mr. Lansdale’s series about “Deadwood Dick.”  There have been relatively few stories written about African-Americans in the Old West, certainly disproportionately few in comparison to their actual numbers.

In some ways, this story is very much like the old dime novels, full of fast-paced action, flying lead and a casual relationship to historical fact.  Yes, there really was a Second Battle of Adobe Flats that Bat Masterson was present for.  And one of the defenders did pull off an amazing shot.  After that, the accounts tend to contradict each other, and Mr. Lansdale has put them together to tell the story he likes.

Where the book is unlike a dime novel is the extended coda after the battle, as Nat Love starts a relationship with a young woman he rescued during the fighting.  This plays out in a disappointing but entirely realistic manner.  It’s surprisingly melancholy for the genre.

In addition to the grisly violence mentioned above, Nat and Jack stumble across the results of torture, described in detail, and there is frequent talk of rape.  Period racism is unsurprisingly present, and Nat points out that it’s better out in the lawless West where it’s a man’s achievements that matter, than back East where you have to fit in to society.

The heavy use of obscene language made this book thick going for me; this book is not for children.

For fans of spaghetti westerns ready for a bit of diversity in the protagonists.

Note: The copy I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof and small changes may have been made in the final product, like fixing a couple of typos.

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Outlaws of the Atlantic

During the Age of Sail, the deep ocean sailing ship was one of the most advanced technological wonders of its time.  But such a complex device required many workers to keep it running smoothly and keep it from collapsing in times of danger.  So there rose the class of people known as the common seaman; sailors who were essential to the ship as a group, but entirely replaceable as individuals.

Often ill-used, to the point that they often compared themselves to slaves, sailors developed their own subcultures and began “resistance from below”; most notably creating the “strike” when an entire harbor’s sailors struck  (took down) the sails of the ships they were on and refused to work until they got better conditions.  Sailors became both the creators of and spreaders of rebellion against the cruel social order of their day.

Mr. Rediker is a professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, and this is a collection of short pieces he’s written on the general theme of “resistance from below” as it relates to the Atlantic Ocean in the Age of Sail.  He talks a lot about “antinomianism” (the idea that one is primarily saved by faith, rather than obedience to law), and “hydrarchy” (rule by the sea, often connoting rule of the lowly many as opposed to the official hierarchy).

The book begins with an examination of “the sailor’s yarn” and how it was used to spread information both useful and dubious, influencing Western literature among other things.  It moves on to the stories of two men that demonstrate that history also includes ordinary workers and castaways.

In an essay on pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy 1650-1730, emphasis is laid upon the efforts of pirates to democratize their ships; pirate captains were limited in authority, unlike merchant or military captains whose word was law, and whose punishments were untempered.  This indeed was one of the reasons pirates found favor in popular culture; for all that they were criminals, they also had a kind of freedom seldom seen at the time.

There’s another essay on how “motley” (multi-ethnic) crews of sailors helped spread the ideas that led to the American Revolution; though the wealthy stepped in to keep the Revolution from going too far towards mob rule as they saw it.

There is a chapter on slave rebellions aboard the ships carrying them to the New World, usually doomed, and a separate chapter for the case of the Amistad, which turned out much better than could have been hoped.  The latter chapter looks at how conflating the Amistad freedom fighters with pirates helped influence American attittudes towards the men from Sierra Leone.

There are several black and white illustrations, copious endnotes and an index.

This book very much feels like an introduction to the theme of rebellion in Atlantic Ocean history, and as such I would recommend it to the casual student looking for a quick read on various aspects of the subject.  Professor Rediker’s other books appear to go into much more depth on the individual subjects involved, such as slave ships and piracy.  Based on his work here, those should also be interesting.

If these sound like topics you’d be interested in, check your lending library system to see if they’ve got this book in stock.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War edited by Paul Levitz

In 1977, African-American male leads in mainstream comic books were still countable on one hand (and don’t even ask about African-American women!)  But this also had the effect of making a comic with a black person on the front attention-getting.  And I suspect that at least some of the creation of “Gravedigger” came from that fact.

Showcase Presents Men of War

Gravedigger was the lead feature in DC Comics’ last-launched war comics series of the Bronze Age, Men of War.  He is introduced as Sergeant Ulysses Hazard, a polio survivor who threw himself into intense physical training (including martial arts) to overcome his handicaps.  Despite his superior physical condition and combat skills, Hazard was consigned to a segregated battalion and assigned to funeral detail (thus his codename.)  After his heroics saved lives (except his best military friend) and defeated Nazi troops, the white officers ignored his contributions and denied his request for reassignment to a combat unit.

In the second issue, Hazard somehow gets back to the U.S. and single-handedly infiltrates the Pentagon War Room to demonstrate his skills.  A character identified in that issue as the Secretary of War but in later issues demoted to an undersecretary (as his sliminess would have been a slur on the character of Henry L. Stimson, the actual Secretary at the time) decides to use Hazard as a political pawn.  If “Gravedigger” fails on one of the suicidal missions, he can be written off, but if he succeeds, the Undersecretary can take credit.

Now Captain Ulysses Hazard so that he can pull rank when necessary, Gravedigger returns to Europe and takes on a number of commando missions ranging from rescuing art from the Nazis to destroying an experimental mini-sub.  There are guest appearances by a couple of DC’s other war comics characters, and the final issue features Gravedigger actually leading Easy Company (normally the job of Sergeant Rock) for a few hours.

Gravedigger was basically “military Batman”, performing superheroic feats on a regular basis.  To be fair, this is common in comic books about commando-style solo characters, but if you are a stickler for realism, look elsewhere.  Later in the series, he gets a cross-shaped facial scar to give him more distinctive looks, important in comic books.  He even gets an archnemesis, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who enlists mad science in a massive scheme to rid the Reich of this one commando.

In the next to last story, Gravedigger personally saves the lives of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though an opportunity is missed to have Captain Hazard bond with FDR over their mutual experience with polio.

In addition to the expected violence, there’s also period racism, ableism and anti-Semitism (the last confined to Nazi characters.)

The back-up features varied from issue to issue.  “Enemy Ace” featured Baron Hans von Hammer, “the Hammer of Hell”, a World War I German fighter pilot.  He was depicted as noble and honorable, one of a dying breed of warrior outdated by brutal modern warfare.  Some of the stories have art by Howard Chaykin, who is not as well served by the black and white reprint as the other artists.

“Dateline: Frontline” was about American reporter Wayne Clifford, covering World War Two while the U.S. was still neutral, and having his naivete chipped away bit by bit.  He struggles with censorship, the temptation of writing the story to suit the person who can give you access, and the moral gray areas of war.

“Rosa” features a spy working in the late 19h Century who is loyal to no country, and has the habit of switching accents in every sentence either to disguise his nationality or (as he claims in a somewhat dubious origin story) because he is literally a man without a country.  His name might or might not actually be Rosa.  Most notable for having a character switch sides between chapters for plot convenience.

This volume contains all 26 issues, and is not brilliant but is decent work by journeymen creators.  Worth picking up if you are a war comics fan, or interested in the history of African-American characters in comic books.

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad by E. Randall Floyd

American history is full of offbeat people, some downright weird.  The author was (like many a lad) fascinated by their stories when he was young.  Then he got to interview Erich von Daeniken (Chariots of the Gods) and decided to make writing about unusual people a full-time hobby.  This book is one of the results.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

It contains 37 mini-biographies of interesting people in American history, arranged alphabetically from Jane Addams (social worker and pacifist) to Wovoka (Native American mystic and the leader of the “Ghost Dance” movement.)  There are the really obvious candidates, like “Emperor” Joshua Norton of San Francisco and Nikola Tesla (eccentric inventor.)  But there are also more obscure figures, like Giacomo Beltrami, who didn’t quite discover the source of the Mississippi, and Bernarr MacFadden (health nut.)

The writing is okay, but these are very short biographies, and some of the subjects have had entire (and much better) books written about them.  There are no illustrations, no citations or bibliography, and no index.  Your college professor isn’t going to accept this as a source!

While written for adults, I think this book would best serve as a gift to a bright teenager who can then look further for more information about any person that catches their fancy.  It’s a good book for a quick read, and some interesting historical moments.

Book Review: Empire of Sin

Book Review: Empire of Sin by Gary Krist

A criminal called “the Axman” opens this story, and after a thirty-year flashback through New Orleans history, wraps it up as well.  No one is sure who the Axman actually was, how many of the crimes attributed to him he actually did, or his final fate.  Rather more is known of many of the Crescent City’s other colorful characters between 1890 and 1920 or so.  The reformers tried to make prostitution and other vices confined to a small neighborhood sardonically named “Storyville.”  This created one of the most notorious red-light districts in American history.

Empire of Sin

Gary Krist, who also wrote City of Scoundrels, which I reviewed earlier, covers rather more ground in this volume, expanding from 12 days to three decades of history.  In addition to the brothels and saloons of Storyville, presided over by the genial vice lord Tom Anderson, the history also looks at the alleged Mafia/Black Hand involvement among Italian immigrants, the infancy of jazz music and the coming of Jim Crow.

The high-minded citizens who wanted to reform New Orleans and make it a modern city unfortunately wanted to make it like other Southern cities of the time.  So in addition to segregating out sin and temptation, they wanted to segregate out people of color as well.  New Orleans’ complicated social scene, including many Creoles of color, was simplified (legally at least) into black and white, the first of which was to be suppressed and oppressed.  This resulted in Storyville being one of the few places where people of different races could meet and interact as something like equals.

Meanwhile, the Italian immigrant population had persistent problems with crime;  how organized it was is up for interpretation.   Paranoia and the assassination of the police chief resulted in the Parish Prison lynching of eleven men.   It didn’t help when some of the alleged Mafia people decided to try to muscle in on Storyville.

Quite some space is devoted to the early musicians who created what would become jazz,   “Buddy” Bolden, considered by many to be the first, had a tragically short career due to a sudden onset of mental illness.  But by that time, he had inspired many others, with Storyville providing work opportunities for them in dives and brothels.

While reform movements constantly assailed the vice district, what dealt the crippling blow to Storyville was World War One.  With a major military encampment near New Orleans, and the War Department insistent on keeping their soldiers moral and fit for duty, they imposed restrictions that made it difficult at best to operate.  After the war, Prohibition struck, making it illegal to serve alcohol, the lifeblood of many demimonde establishments.

While crime and vice never actually went away, they did have to go underground, leaving New Orleans a much duller place.  The “better class” people disdained jazz, so the city lost many of its best musicians to other cities, particularly up North.  Eventually, economic doldrums convinced the New Orleans tourist boards to play up its seedy and jazzy past, though somewhat whitewashed.

There’s small pictures at the beginning of each chapter, a bibliography, end note and index.  The paperback edition also has a short interview with the author, a suggested playlist for New Orleans music, and a list of fictional treatments of the Crescent City.

I found this book to be more…diffuse…than Mr. Krist’s previous one–thirty years is a lot of territory to cover.  The focus on the Storyville district means that a lot of other matters get only a glancing view at best.   Still, if you’re curious about New Orleans history, this is a good place to start, well-researched and full of lurid bits.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was involved.

Movie Review: Reet, Petite and Gone

Movie Review: Reet, Petite and Gone

Years ago, Schuyler Jarvis (Louis Jordan) was a young entertainer who fell in love with a woman named Lovey Lynn (Bea Griffith.)  She liked him plenty too, but her mother disapproved because Jarvis was a poor man, and forced Lovey to break off the affair.  Lovey was married to a wealthy gentleman and had a daughter named Honey Carter (also Bea Griffith) while Jarvis married some other woman and had a son named Louis Jarvis (also Louis Jordan.)

Reet, Petite, and Gone

Lovey passed some time back, and Schuyler, now quite wealthy in his own right, is on his deathbed.   He’s determined to marry his bandleader son to Honey, and sets up his will to ensure this by specifying the exact physical dimensions of the woman Louis must marry to inherit the dough.

Crooked lawyer Henry Talbot (Lorenzo Tucker) sees an opportunity to profit and alters the will to make it appear that the required woman matches the description of his secretary Rusty (Vanita Smythe.)  He also heads off Honey and her friend June (June Richmond) at the airport, attempting to get them to fly back to New Orleans.  (June is a savvy woman and keeps the bribe he gives them so the girls can use it as the first month’s rent on an apartment.)

Talbot initially gets away with it because Schuyler passes away before Louis can get back from the radio station he’s performing at.  He’s repulsed by Rusty and wonders if perhaps he can skip the inheritance.  His manager Sam Adams (Milton Woods) reminds him that they’re about to put on a Broadway show, and the money would sure come in handy.  Then the show biz men get an idea.   They’ll scout for another woman with the same dimensions as Rusty but more palatable by claiming it’s a beauty contest/audition for the show.

This doesn’t go so well, apparently Rusty is unique among women.  However, Honey hasn’t been able to find a job and winds up at the Jarvis mansion to audition.   She doesn’t match the altered criteria either, but she’s able to remind Louis of who she is, and the two hit it off well.

Talbot manages to get one of the show’s backers to bail out, now making it absolutely essential for Louis to inherit if he doesn’t want to close the show before opening and become box office poison.  Things are looking pretty dire, and Louis must make his marriage decision before midnight.  At the last moment, Dolph the aged butler (David Bethea) reveals that he’s been holding a trump card….

This is another “race” picture,  where the cast and crew are all black, designed to air in segregated theaters.    This gave actors who normally got stuck with roles as maids and comic relief the chance to shine.   It’s also a musical and as such a showcase for Mr. Jordan and his Tympani Five band.  As such, there are multiple swing numbers, three of them before the plotline even starts!

Ms. Griffith was apparently not a particularly good singer, so the film avoids her breaking into song as much as possible.  Instead, we’re treated to a couple of fine numbers by June Richmond.  (She’d actually have made a better female lead, I think, but was too heavy-set for Hollywood to give her that role.)

The fan service is heavy in this film–the showgirl costumes and bathing suits are at least plot-relevant, but there’s a scene of Ms. Griffith in her underwear when she didn’t need to be.  (Really obvious when Ms. Richmond is in the same scene, fully clothed.)  Mr. Jordan’s taste for fine-looking ladies is treated as being a lovable scamp.  But the next to last song in the movie is a misogynist screed “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman?”, that really jarred when the finale is “If It’s Love You Want, Baby, That;s Me.”

As such, if you are watching this with younger viewers, you might want to discuss the harmful effects of casual misogyny

The Mill Creek edition of this movie cuts off just before the resolution of the plot; the Internet Archive print is complete, but has much worse picture quality.

Book Review: Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year

Book Review: Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an advanced reading copy, and the final product (due out September 2014) will have some changes, including a full index.

Death of a King

This book covers the last year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, from April 4, 1967 to April 4, 1968.  It focuses strongly on Dr. King’s state of mind and thoughts as the year progresses (based on his own words and the memories of his friends and family), with a few digressions to important past events.  As a way to make it feel more personal, the writers refer to him as “Doc,” the nickname his friends called him.

It was a tumultuous year, and not a high point in Dr. King’s life.  It opens with his speech coming out publicly against the Vietnam War, still a deeply unpopular position at the time.  He also worked to widen his civil rights focus to concentrate on the problem of systemic poverty, which cost him support among his followers who felt he should stick to racial issues.  In addition, he was being challenged by younger black leaders who favored the threat (and actual use if necessary) of violence to get their way.

According to this book, during this time Dr. King struggled with issues of depression, his marital infidelity, ill health and private moments when alcohol caused him to lose control of his temper.  But the dark night of the soul was not his only concern, and it talks of his preaching, of his willingness to reach out to his critics and enemies to learn their viewpoints, and of his desire to serve.

Towards the end of the book, it creates a refrain with the end of each chapter leading towards Memphis.  That city’s callous attitude towards its sanitation workers, which had led to the entirely preventable death of two of them, had become intolerable, and led to a strike.   Dr. King was there to elevate the strike into the national spotlight, and to help bring the city to the negotiating table.  But instead, he was assassinated.

This is by no means a complete biography, nor is it meant to be.  Younger readers, or those reading about Dr. King for the first time, will want to read a more general biography first.  That said, the book strongly evokes a particular time in American history, and an important figure in that history.  Snippets of favorite songs and Dr. King’s famous speeches set the tone.

The writing style is intimate, but easy to follow, and moves along quickly.

Recommended to those who want to know more about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement.  Parents should be aware that due to its subject matter, some racist language is used in quotes.

Magazine Review: Thought Notebook June 2014

Magazine Review: Thought Notebook June 2014 edited by Kat Lahr

Disclaimer:  I received this magazine as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Thought Notebook

This is subtitled “Literary and Visual Art Journal”, which means that in addition to poetry, short fiction and essays, it has a lot of pictures.  The theme of this issue is “A Time of Renewal” and it groups the pieces by key words that relate to the theme, such as “Restoration” and “Awakening.”

Each piece is accompanied by a small blurb tangentially related to it.  They range from interesting to trite.  The art is serviceable, but none of the pieces really popped for me.  Of the written bits, I was most struck by two pieces by Skeeze Whitlow about his alcoholism and recovery from same; and a brief essay by Marcie Gainer discussing Andrei Tarkovsky’s last three films.  Also of interest was an interview with poet and vocalist Shanara.

There’s a strong emphasis on the importance of creativity, thought and spirituality in the overall choice of pieces.  I find it somewhat more accessible than other journals I’ve read.

I’m going to plug a couple of the journal’s projects that might be of interest to readers–Project Teen Voice www.thoughtcollection.org/teenproject and Healthcare Reform Research Project www.thoughtcollection.org/hcr

 

 

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