Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth

IMG_5910.JPGI talked extensively aboutVulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth with Tony nominated choreographer Sam Pinkleton, on an episode of The Stacks podcast. You can hear us discuss and sort through the many layers of this book there.

If you aren’t familiar with the story of serial killer Andrew Cunanan and his crimes, here is a little more about this book.

On July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace was shot and killed on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. But months before Versace’s murder, award-winning journalist Maureen Orth was already investigating a major story on Cunanan for Vanity Fair. Culled from interviews with more than four hundred people and insights gleaned from thousands of pages of police reports, Vulgar Favors tells the complete story of Andrew Cunanan, his unwitting victims, and the moneyed world in which they lived . . . and died. Orth reveals how Cunanan met Versace, and why police and the FBI repeatedly failed to catch him. Here is a gripping odyssey that races across America—from California’s wealthy gay underworld to modest Midwestern homes of families mourning the loss of their sons to South Beach and its unapologetic decadence. Vulgar Favors is at once a masterwork of investigative journalism and a riveting account of a sociopath, his crimes, and the mysteries he left along the way.

There are parts of this book that are interesting and fascinating. There are whole sections and chapters that I couldn’t stop reading. Orth’s ability to paint the scene of Cunanan’s life and more specifically his crimes, are some of the best parts of this book. I had a hard time sleeping thinking about hist first murder. It is about as haunting as they come.

Where I struggled with this book, and ultimately what turned me away from it, was Orth’s contextualizing of the story. Orth’s tone is intolerant at best, and outwardly homophobic at worst. She has a disdain for Cunanan, which of course makes sense, but she also judges those people in his world. And his world is that of gay men in the 1990’s. I can’t help but think that the “vulgar” in the title is directed at the Cunanan and his community. She discusses sex, drugs, and lifestyle as if this community is synonymous with all gay people all over. Its generalization at its worst. If you’d never met a gay person, you might think that all they did was pay each other for sex and snort (or swallow) meth.

Vulgar Favors is a book about a man who is obsessed with lies and celebrity and Orth gets wrapped up in that herself. She name drops through out, and forces connections where none exist. Her sources, and she has a whole lot, can feel a little unreliable, who doesn’t want to distance themselves from a man who killed five people, before then killing himself?

The story is multilayered and entertaining, but Orth can’t resist turning it into spectacle. She draws conclusions and connects dots that just might not be there. Vulgar Favors is full of contradictions and hearsay. While I enjoyed the book for what it is, if you read it, read it as a period piece from 1999, and not historical fact. Its a reminder of how people felt about homosexuality not too long ago. Its a reminder of different era of technology and media. You can also watch the FX Series The Assassination of Gianni Versace; American Crime Story and be just as entertained and not feel quite as icky.

If you do read this book, which is just fine, I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; Reprint edition (October 3, 2017)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Vulgar Favors on Amazon

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

 

Ep. 8 The Stacks Book Club – Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgChoreographer Sam Pinkleton is back in time for The Stacks Book Club to take on true crime, with Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth.

Vulgar Favors examines the serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who murdered 5 men in 1997 culminating in the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace. We discuss Cunanan and his victims, but mostly we focus on the tone of the book. We examine the term “gay crime” and why we find this and so much of the book to be problematic.

While there are spoilers in this episode, this book covers a real life event, which means all of the information is out in the public. You can listen without ruining the book.

Discussed this week:8E581578-8D11-49A9-85E5-9D03E7209E74

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Othello by William Shakespeare

AF5A379C-606C-48A1-AF83-92754A187CF9I have to admit up front, I am a total Shakespeare nerd. I love his plays and I actually enjoy reading the verse. I also feel that these stories are plays, and should be heard and seen. However, for an upcoming episode of The Stacks, we are discussing New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, which is a retelling of Othello, so I thought I should brush up on the original text.

Here is an introduction to Othello if you’re not familiar with this great tragedy.

In Othello, Shakespeare creates powerful drama from a marriage between the exotic Moor Othello and the Venetian lady Desdemona that begins with elopement and mutual devotion and ends with jealous rage and death. Shakespeare builds many differences into his hero and heroine, including race, age, and cultural background. Yet most readers and audiences believe the couple’s strong love would overcome these differences were it not for Iago, who sets out to destroy Othello. Iago’s false insinuations about Desdemona’s infidelity draw Othello into his schemes, and Desdemona is subjected to Othello’s horrifying verbal and physical assaults.

I find Othello to be one of Shakespeare’s most relatable and easy to read plays. The story is very straight forward, there are not a lot of characters or subplots, even the language is relatively simple (for a Shakespeare play). If you’re a little intimidated by reading Shakespeare, this is a great place to start.

What makes Shakespeare masterful is how he was able to weave together so many themes and ideas into a short play. In Othello we are looking at the themes of, fear of the outsider, entitlement, sexism, love, trust, truth, rage, racism, and jealousy, and thats just to name a few. Shakespeare employs his characters to engage in debate over these issues, weather it be a conversation about jealousy, or a monologue on faithfulness. He uses the words to speak directly to the audience and drive home his points. You’re being asked to think as you read (or watch).

One of the things that stuck out to me upon re-reading Othello, is just how current the story feels. Iago might as well be the “Trump Supporter” we have heard so much about in the last few years. The white man who feels he is owed some standing in the world, and can not handle life not being what he thinks he is entitled to. He is racist, misogynistic, and thinks if he didn’t earn it he can just take it. His reality doesn’t meet his expectations of where he thinks his life should be, so he acts out instead. He throws the whole tragedy in motion, because of his fragile ego.

The last two acts of this play are fantastic. They move at the perfect speed and deliver a gut-wrenching finale. Each scene tops the one before, until you’re left with a feeling of what just happened here, and a pile of dead bodies, a staple of a Shakespearean tragedy.

If you’ve never read this play, I think its worth a read. If you read it years ago, it might be time for a re-read. It is that good. Its short and powerful. It is current. I would love to hear from you, so add your comments below.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group (July 3, 2001)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy Othello on Amazon

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

Barraccon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neal Hurston

7656B5CF-B2A2-46BB-B40E-493BDF919E38.JPGI had zero plans to read Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston any time soon, but was invited to join a buddy read (one time book club) with some friends I’ve made on the internet. Which, sounds a little creepy, except that people who talk about books on the internet are the best. So I got the book a dug in.

Here is the basis of what this book is all about:

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. 

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, and spent more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past—memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.

Barracoon is hugely important. I hate when people call books important, mainly because I find it to be an overstatement. However this book is deserving of the moniker. The book comes from such a unique perspective, an African adult enslaved and taken to America who went on to live long enough to see freedom, and have his story documented in his own words. There are not many of these stories. Given the timeline (legal slave trade ending in early 1800s, and slavery ending some 60 years later), this kind of documentation, from an adult perspective was rare.

With all of that being said, to have this story is a gift. To give a singular voice to the tragedy of slavery and racism in The United States is rare. We are often told the story of a group of slaves (Amistad), or a generic fictitious narrative (Roots). This book is not that. This book is one story. The story of a man who is the link between Africa and America. A man who is afforded the luxury to not have to speak on behave of the many, but is allowed to speak for himself. This is not a luxury that Black people in America are often given. Hurston gave this gift.

The story of Cudjo is told in his own words. Hurston transcribes his words in his own dialect and does not compromise that for the sake of the reader. This commitment to authenticity is one reason this book was not published until 2018. Hurston wants you to hear what Cudjo says, and how he says it. His idiosyncratic phrases are as important to his story as the events themselves. They help to create the man. She gives the book its shape, but it is Cudjo who gives this book its heart.

Barracoon is surrounded by a forward (by Alice Walker), a couple of introductions, an appendix, an afterward, and a glossary, all of which give this story a place and gravitas. I found these supplemental writings to be powerful in their own way. They helped to contextualize both the work of Hurston, and the world of Cudjo.

In truth, my only complaint is that I could have read so much more. I would have devoured stories from Cudjo about his time as a slave, his feelings on the reconstruction era, and whatever else he may have shared with Hurston. I want to know about how Cudjo died, and what became of his family line and legacy. I want more of these types of stories. More uniquely individual tales from Black people. The stories are there, and they are interesting and important, and Black people deserve to be heard and heralded. I hope this book opens those doors.

Go read this book.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad; 1st Edition edition (May 8, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Barracoon on Amazon

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

373D9DE5-DAF7-409C-8CC6-C66584EF3853.JPGI don’t like comedy. I don’t really like celebrity books much either. So picking up The Last Black Unicorn, is really out of character for me. In the last few years I’ve read a handful of books that fall into the celebrity comedic memoir category, and except for Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, I have disliked them all. That being said, I did decide to listen to The Last Black Unicorn, and it was kind of wonderful.

If you don’t know Tiffany Haddish (breakout star of Girls Trip), or the book here is a little more for you.

Tiffany can’t avoid being funny—it’s just who she is, whether she’s plotting shocking, jaw-dropping revenge on an ex-boyfriend or learning how to handle her newfound fame despite still having a broke person’s mind-set. Finally poised to become a household name, she recounts with heart and humor how she came from nothing and nowhere to achieve her dreams by owning, sharing, and using her pain to heal others.

By turns hilarious, filthy, and brutally honest, The Last Black Unicorn shows the world who Tiffany Haddish really is—humble, grateful, down-to-earth, and funny as hell. And now, she’s ready to inspire others through the power of laughter.

Here is what I liked most about this book, its actually funny. Haddish does a great job of weaving her signature “tell it like it is” humor in with her own life events. She isn’t afraid of being too much, or going too far. She indulges us in the funny and bizarre events in her life, and doesn’t shy away from the darker moments. She talks about an abusive ex-husband, a childhood in foster car, and even her career trajectory in comedy. Her vulnerability makes this book both hilarious and heartbreaking.

I think its worth noting that in The Last Black Unicorn we do get to a little name-dropping, which I love. I love hearing celebrities talk about each other. Who doesn’t want to know about Jada and Will Smith using Groupon for the first time? Haddish only names those that she likes, and gives nicknames to those who didn’t treat her well. I respect it, and I appreciate it .

I wish that this book dug a little deeper. There are parts of her life she skims over. The story is a little disjointed, and the writing itself isn’t great. I can forgive most of that because she has lived such an interesting life, the content is strong. Its worth noting, that I listened to this book, and it is Haddish who narrates. She lived the life, she wrote the book, and she can perform those words. The audiobook is fantastic.

I think most people would enjoy this book. Its not too long, and helps to bring a little context to another person’s story. It is R-rated, and she talks about very adult stuff, just in case you wanted to play the audiobook in the car with your kiddos. If you’re like me and don’t like this genre, I would still say its worth reading.

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery Books (December 5, 2017)
  • Audio Book: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy The Last Black Unicorn on Amazon

 

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

 

Ep. 7 Talking Books with Sam Pinkleton

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgThis week on the show we are talking all things books with Tony nominated choreographer, Sam Pinkleton, best known for his work on the Broadway show, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Sam and Traci discuss using books as an entry point to new worlds, the mythology of the present, and a handful of their favorite true crime books.

Sam and Traci cover a lot of ground this week, and you can find everything they discuss here in the show notes.

BOOKS

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The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

E6521C99-1A52-4616-B658-92150D28E59B.JPGThis book is a true gift. I am very grateful that Wamariya chose to share her story with the world. I think we, as readers and consumers, can often feel entitled to read great stories. I think we feel we deserve to be educated and entertained. The Girl Who Smiled beads is an ever present reminder, that every book, every story, is the work of someone else. It is their labor of love and struggle, and that they are making a choice to share that with us. We should be humbled to be in the presence of someone else’s journey, and we should be grateful. This book made me grateful.

If you are not familiar with this book, here is more information for you.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive. 
 
In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine provokes us to look beyond the label of “victim” and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks. Devastating yet beautiful, and bracingly original, it is a powerful testament to her commitment to constructing a life on her own terms.

Clemantine and her sister Claire go on extraordinary journey, except its not extraordinary. It is all too common. It is the story of civil war. It is the story of death and violence. It is the story of becoming a refugee. It is one telling of this story, that too many know too well. Wamariya makes the point of reminding us that it is us, that are inadequate, we can not take in all the unique stories of suffering. So instead, we find ways to make certain ones the special ones. The ones we are willing to see.

The story as told by Wamariya to Weil is fantastic. The poetry in the language is beautiful and it brings so much depth and emotion. Wamariya is willing to get vulnerable. She is willing to be flawed for us. The structure of the book is not linear, we jump from event to event, year to year, we are sorting through Wamariya’s life with her. Looking for clues as to who she is and how she grew into her self. She is angry and bitter, she is distrustful, she is also a caretaker and a witness to so many. She will not let us see her, or her sister, as only victims.

While there are parts of the book I would have loved to hear more about (her relationship to Black Americans, the conflicts in Africa she experiences, her day to day acclimation in Chicago), this book is full. It is rich with thoughtful analysis of ones own journey, which is so hard to do. To be truly examines one self is no easy task.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is in line with other books about children who grow up in war torn African countries and find their way to America. Two that I am particularly fond of, What is the What by Dave Eggers, and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. While the other two books are more concerned with historical context and the telling of a cohesive story, I found this book to be more thoughtful, more introspective, and more concerned with the greater narrative of suffering that we inflict upon one another.

While there are parts of this book that are disturbing and emotional, I would suggest you read it. I would suggest you bear witness to Wamariya and her journey.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

 

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

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Sometimes reading a “classic” makes me a little anxious. I have a long history of reading books that are called classics, and I just couldn’t get into them. This list includes, but is not limited to, Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. So when we decided to cover Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin in The Stacks Book Club, I was worried.

If you don’t know the story of Giovanni’s Room here is a little breakdown for you.

Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds himself caught between desire and conventional morality. With a sharp, probing imagination, James Baldwin’s now-classic narrative delves into the mystery of loving and creates a moving, highly controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart.

While all “classics” get that title for a reason, the reason for this one, I actually understand. Language is powerful when it is wielded by Baldwin. There is no tepid point of view, there is no doubt, the words are strong, powerful, and precise. You can sense that Baldwin is grappling with so much of the same ideas that we are as the reader. There is a vulnerability to this work that speaks volumes. Baldwin was something special, and this book shows that.

Giovanni’s Room has been seen as a quintessential text in Gay Literature, and for good reason. Baldwin humanizes the struggle for sexual identity in a way that few did in the 1950s, and still few can do now. David, the protagonist, takes a journey of exploration and self loathing. He is asking the most basic question of what it means to live the life we want versus living the life we think we should have. Baldwin is crafted something universal in this story, despite the stigma of homosexuality, especially at that time.

There are a lot of other themes that come up in this book, from gender roles to the refusal to succumb to love, from wealth to isolation. This book examines what makes us human, what makes us carry on, and what ultimately makes us give up. And while this book is specific in its story, it is universal in scope. There is emotion and feeling that is evoked in this book, and there are moments that are deeply personal for each reader.

I would suggest this book to almost anyone,  and especially to lovers of the art of writing, and to fans of James Baldwin. I would also suggest this book to people who are struggling with their sexuality, I have heard from many friends that it is healing and helpful in that journey.

Make sure to check out our Book Club conversation on The Stacks Episode 6, where we discuss this book in greater detail. As always, I’d love to hear what you think about the book and the episode.

If you’ve read the book and want a little more insight into Baldwin and his writing of Giovanni’s Room I would highly recommend this New Yorker article, The Unsparing Confessions of “Giovanni’s Room” by Colm Tóibín.

  • Paperback : 176 pages
  • PublisherVintage Books; 1 edition (2013)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Giovanni’s Room on Amazon

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

 

 

Ep. 6 The Stacks Book Club – Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgOn this week of The Stacks, we discuss Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin with our guest, TV writer Chris Maddox.

Giovanni’s Room is a classic American novel written in 1956, and the topics of masculinity, isolation, and love deferred are as relevant now as they were then. Our conversation traverses these themes from the book and more, like what we think of the title and who we think should star in the film version.
 
There are spoilers in this episode, so if you’ve yet to read the book proceed with caution.
Here are other things that we talked about this week on The Stacks.

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“The Unsparing Confessions of ‘Giovanni’s Room'” (Colm Tóibín, The New Yorker)

The Night Of (HBO)

Timothee Chalamet

Chris, Liam, & Luke Hemsworth

Girls (HBO)

Lena Dunham

Allison Williams

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

 

The Stacks Book Club June Picks

790DB80A-4D74-426E-B8D9-052C6E9265FA.JPGHere are the next picks for The Stacks Book Club. These books will be covered in the month of June on The Stacks Podcast. Make sure you read the books and then join us for our in depth conversations.

June 6th, I’ll be joined by actress, Vella Lovell and  we will discuss Tracy Chevalier’s  New Boy. This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which contemporary author’s reimagine Shakespeare’s plays. New Boy, is a retelling of Othello, set in a 1970’s suburban Washington School yard.

On June 20th join founder of Black Arrow FC, Aaron Dolores, will join the show to discuss How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer. This book uses soccer as a lens to reexamine the most pressing issues of our day, from globalization to racial and cultural dynamics. We’re reading this book at the start of the World Cup, to help contextualize the most popular sport and sporting event on the planet.

Once you’ve read the books, don’t be shy. Please send over your thoughts and questions so we can incorporate them into the podcast. You can leave a comment here, or find us on our Instagram @thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.