Author Archives: Amos

“Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery” by J. Aaron Sanders— Walt Whitman, Detective

Sanders, J. Aaron. “Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery”, Plume, 2016.

Walt Whitman, Detective

Amos Lassen

“Speakers of the Dead” is a mystery novel about the investigative exploits of a young Walt Whitman who explores the seedy underbelly of New York City’s body-snatching industry in order to exonerate his friend of a wrongful murder charge. Set in New York in 1843, young Whitman goes to the Tombs prison to visit Lena Stowe, a friend, who is to hang for the murder of Abraham Stowe, her husband. It is Walt’s plan to present evidence for Lena’s good but he is turned away by the sheriff. Lena hangs and Walt promises that he will exonerate her posthumously.

 

Walt’s boyfriend, Henry Saunders, from whom he has been estranged, returns to New York, and the two men discover a link between body-snatching and Abraham’s murder: a man named Samuel Clement. To get to Clement, Walt and Henry must go into the dangerous underworld where resurrection men steal the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them to medical colleges. Since there are no legal means to acquire cadavers, medical students rely on these criminals, and Abraham’s involvement with the Bone Bill (legislation that would put the resurrection men out of business) is what seems to have led to his and Lena’s deaths.

Reporter Whitman became involved in the case because the victims were close friends of his. Abraham and Lena Stowe are doctors who have dedicated their careers to furthering science and the role that women have in it by running a medical school for women to train to become doctors. When Abraham is killed for the murder of his supposed lover, his wife Lena is his supposed killer and she dies for it. However, the facts do not add up and Whitman decides to dig deeper into the mystery surrounding their deaths. He finds a link between his friends’ deaths and the graveyard body snatching in Samuel Clement.

The narrative is an interesting take on a young Walt Whitman as he develops and finds his voice. As he becomes involved with crime bosses who run the government and do not let the common people find justice, the story begins to move forward at a rapid pace. The plot follows some decent and some indecent surprising developments in the case.

This is a more than a mystery in which a young Walt Whitman helps to solve the case; it is also a historical novel. During the 19th century there was a lot said about medical schools using cadavers for dissection and education. Christians were against dissection as they felt that the bodies needed to be intact for “resurrection” to take place “at the end of time”. There were already medical schools and anatomy labs which had been burned in other states. Since there were no legal means of acquiring cadavers, medical students and their instructors had to rely on the illegal body trade which were controlled by those known as “resurrection men”. These businessmen would follow the obituaries and then dig up the recently deceased and sell them to medical schools. One of the characters here is Elizabeth Blackwell who is fighting to keep her medical school open and to further the cause for anatomical dissection as a value to furthering science. She later becomes the first woman to receive a medical license in the United States. The

mystery tries to uncover the actual public figures who are behind the “executions”. Whitman reveals clues as he continues to write special articles for the newspaper and he even manages to raise money to offer a reward to those who know who is behind the executions. More than that I cannot say.

The novel is written in polished prose that provides a great read. Author J. Aaron Sanders is great with detail and he balances history and murder wonderfully. I love his imagination and it is great fun to see so many literary characters together at one time. The portrait that we get of the young Walt Whitman is brilliant (and obviously well researched). Not only do we read about the young poet but also about his familial and romantic relationships and his ideas about life, religion, and the role of science. We see Whitman as a complex character that struggled with many of the same themes and ideas present in our society today. Here is a Walt Whitman who is young and ambitious, a reporter who risks his life for truth.

“Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display” by Jennifer Tycurczy— The Role of Museums in Sexuality”

Tyburczy, Jennifer. “Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display”, University of Chicago Press, 2016.

The Role of Museums in Sexuality

Amos Lassen

Writer Jennifer Tyburczy tells us that “all museums are sex museums” and she explores the formation of Western sexuality—particularly how categories of sexual normalcy and perversity are formed—and asks what role museums have played in using display as a technique for disciplining sexuality. She argues that most museum exhibits assume that white, patriarchal heterosexuality and traditional structures of intimacy, gender, and race represent national sexual culture for their visitors. In “Sex Museums, we see the history of such heteronormativity at most museums and she proposes alternative approaches for the future of public display projects, while also offering the reader curatorial tactics—what she calls queer curatorship—for exhibiting diverse sexualities in the twenty-first century. If we indeed live in a world of diversity, we must also be able to see diversity in our museums.

Tyburczy shows that museums are sites of culture-war theatrics. Dramatic civic struggles over how sex relates to public space, genealogies of taste and beauty, and performances of sexual identity are staged in the hope that these will provide better understanding. As we look deeply into the history of erotic artifacts, we see how museums have historically approached the collection and display of the material culture of sex, which poses complex moral, political, and logistical dilemmas for the Western museum. The author unpacks the history of the museum and its intersections with the history of sexuality and argues that the Western museum context (from its inception to the present) marks a pivotal site in the construction of modern sexual subjectivity. We get new interpretations of what we see in museums along with case histories that are compelling in every aspect. Tyburczy’s selections are “a diverse array of incidents that beautifully index period ideas about sex and its structures of visibility and invisibility. Ultimately, in weighing these discreet histories within a new category of displaying sex, Sex Museums manages to make them speak to one another.” This is an original, and timely account of the rhetoric and material practices of the display of erotic materials. Tyburczy uses her own experience as a curator and interviews, observation, and archival research to give us deep looks at these often-precarious institutions. She brings together queer studies and museum studies to show what works in terns of exhibiting and archiving sex.

She urges museums and museumgoers to think more carefully, creatively, and queerly about how diverse sex and sexualities are displayed and navigated in the museum. This is a very smart analysis of the politics of the erotic in the public sphere. Representation has the power to change how we understand the world, and care about sexual and gender minorities in “civic space.”

Tyburczy brings us a genealogy of the recent culture wars as she examines transnational circuits of capital, sex, and tourism. She reorients the history of exhibition in new ways and I am quite sure that whoever reads this will never look at an exhibition in the same way again.

Here we are reminded of how important performative display of images and objects are to the world outside the museum walls. We become immediately aware of Tyburczy’s consistent attention to the complex interplay between race, sex, gender, and the politics of display. We see how history and theory come together and how museums studies can come together with sexuality studies as well as how performance can join the archive thus producing thought and innovation in method. Tyburczy creates her own museum that is “a rich transnational-transdisciplinary space” and she leads us in an exploration of it. She also suggests that museums might be more open to sexual displays than we might have thought.

“Rented Heart” by Leigh Garrett— Finding Love

Leigh, Garrett. “Rented Heart”, Riptide Publishing, 2016.

Finding Love

Amos Lassen

Liam Mallaney moved back to Holkham, Norfolk, to mourn the loss of his husband. His grief and loneliness has kept him as a solitary figure, and he seems to like it that way.

Rentboy Zac Payne left London and only knows one way to make a living. When he sees Liam in a club one night, he feels that he has found what he is looking for. However, Liam is so nice and the two soon have a connection more than either man had planned on having. However, things become too complicated for Zac since he is also dealing with Jamie, his best friend and flatmate, Jamie. Zac owes Jamie everything, and even as Jamie’s drug addiction destroys all they have, Zac won’t leave him behind.

Liam knows nothing of Zac’s home life but when Zac’s life is suddenly put in danger, Liam understands that he must push his own feelings of grief to the side and help him. Liam is no kid; he is thirty-four-years-old and is really having a hard time dealing with the death of his lover, Cory, and business partner a little over a year ago. He is simply existing, going through life a day at a time. He has kept the business afloat and it is doing very well and he is proud of that. Yet, his loneliness convinces Liam to get out and have some fun. By snap decision, he goes home with Zac thinking that it would be nothing more than a hook up and not knowing that Zac is a rent boy.

Zac is only 23 and has never had a day that was some kind of struggle. He survived a heroin overdose six months before, thanks to being saved by his best friend and fellow rent boy Jamie and he took that second chance at life and moved away from the people and temptations of London to Norfolk and King’s Lynn.

Jamie and Zac are best friends who have taken comfort in each other. Jamie came with Zac to King’s Lynn but still loves and desires the oblivion and numbness the drugs give him. He will not give them up and he is quite a sad character.

Liam is good man who really cares about the people in his life and wants the best for them. The age gap between Liam and Zac is no problem because Zac is fierce and strong and has had to be to survive. He is vulnerable, however.

The chemistry between Liam and Zac is great right from the start, and it bothers both of them for different reasons. Zac has been hooking for a long time and he’s never felt any attraction to any of his other johns but Liam becomes important to him and rather quickly. Because of Cory, the only man he had ever had sex with, Liam feels a sense of guilt when he is with Zac and he begins to really enjoy his life once again. It is hard for him to deal with the fact that what the two share is a “business transaction”. Since both men have so much baggage from their pasts, they have a hard time seeing themselves as they see each other.

This is “a second chance” novel and the writing is excellent. The characters are wonderfully drawn. I wasn’t prepared to read the entire book in one sitting but I became so involved with the characters that I could not stop reading. I believe many will feel the same way.

 

 

“Ghost Faces: Hollywood and Post-Millennial Masculinity” by David Greven— Contemporary Manhood on Film

Greven, David. “Ghost Faces: Hollywood and Post-Millennial Masculinity”, (SUNY series, Horizons of Cinema), SUNY Press, 2017.

Contemporary Manhood on Film

Amos Lassen

 David Greven brings together psychoanalysis, queer theory, masculinity studies, and cultural studies to explore contemporary manhood in film in “Ghost Faces”. We see clearly the terrible nature of homophobia even in contemporary Hollywood films that promote their own homo-tolerance and appear to destabilize hegemonic masculinity. Focusing on several key films, Greven frames his study on key films made in the 1990s David Greven examines several key films from the late 1990s forward. These include slasher film like “Scream” to bromances and beta male comedies such as “I Love You, Man” and dramas such as “Donnie Darko”. Greven also traces the disturbing connections between torture porn found in such films as Hostel and gay male Internet pornography. Below is the Table of Contents:

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Disrecognitions

 

  1. Ghost Faces, Genre Bodies

 

  1. The Murderous Origins of Bromance: Genre, Queer Killers, and Scream

 

  1. “I Love You, Brom Bones”: Beta Male Comedies, Bromances, and American Culture

 

  1. Apparitional Men: Masculinity and the Psychoanalytic Scene

 

  1. Trick-or-Treating Alone: Rob Zombie’s Halloween

 

  1. Torture/Porn: Hostel, Homophobia, and Gay Male Internet

 

Coda

Notes

Bibliography

Index Pornography

“Caught Inside” by Jamie Deacon— Changing Paths

Deacon, Jamie. “Caught Inside”, Beaten Track Publishing, 2016

Changing Paths

Amos Lassen

Luke Savage is seventeen-years-old and a very clever guy who thinks that he has his life figured out but that changes when he meets Theo. He had planned on having a fun summer with his girlfriend Zara at her family’s holiday cottage in Cornwall. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself on the beach and surfing. Love was the farthest thing from his thoughts and he is really not interested in love and he was totally unprepared for the way he reacted to Theo, Zara’s cousin who is an undergrad at Oxford and Zara’s best friend. He finds himself feeling desire and has him questioning everything about his life as he discovers that he does not really know himself. He and Theo develop a fragile relationship and Luke makes sure that no one finds out about it. However…

This is a very clever coming-of-age story with characters who are lovable. Jamie Deacon has written a wonderful story with very real characters who pull us into the story in the first few pages.

Luke’s struggle to come to turns with his own feelings and his undeniable attraction to Theo is a struggle that many of us have had to face in our lives. Both Theo and Luke have to deal with emotions that they had not been used to having as well as reconcile the desire they feel for each other. The story is told from Luke’s perspective of Luke, thus letting us feel what he is going through. Because this is the first time that Luke has ever felt anything more than friendship for a boy, his need for Theo is quite strong. It is fun to read about their feelings for each other and the deep conversations they share lets us really get to know them. As Theo and Luke become closer, Luke’s relationship with Zara becomes more and more of a problem. He is really afraid of hurting her. He also worries about how others will react when the secret is out. He realizes that he might lose friends but he also realizes how much he loves Theo.

“SLACK BAY”— A Dark Comedy

“Slack Bay” (“Ma Loute”)

A Dark Comedy

Amos Lassen

In the summer of 1010, several tourists disappeared while at the beaches on the French coast near Calais. Inspectors Machin (Didier Després) and his assistant Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux) are investigating these strange happenings. They think these the vanishings are centered at Slack Bay, a unique site where the Slack river and the sea come together only at high tide. Living in Slack Bay are fisherman and oyster farmers and a vey strange family, the Bréforts, who have been the ferrymen of the Slack Bay. The head of the family, is nicknamed “The Eternal” (Thierry Lavieville), because of having saved a hundred people from the sea. He and his family enjoy cannibalism.

The Van Peteghems’ mansion stands high above the bay. Every summer, the Van Peterghems who all degenerate and decadent from inbreeding, come to their villa and mix with the residents.

The film’s focus is on the clash between the impoverished locals trying to make ends meet by fishing and ferrying visitors across the shallow inlets and the upper class vacationers who wear fine clothing and possess airs of importance. The Van Peteghem family consists of André (Fabrice Luchini) and Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), husband and wife, and their two daughters (Lauréna Thellier and Manon Royère) who run all over the place and scamper about and their niece Billie (Raph) who falls for the young local Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), son of The Eternal. Billie mother is Aude (Juliette Binoche), André’s sister. The family manor, The Typhonium, has wonderful views over the coast.

The detectives come on the scene to investigate some strange disappearances and provide a connection between the two classes.

Their inquiry seems doomed with no method but plenty of madness, while a family of bourgeois holidaymakers arrive for their annual vacation. Machin is obese and Andre is a hunchback.

The film is a visual fest with beautiful costumes and gorgeous seascapes. It opens with the Breforts scraping mussels off the rocks at low tide. The men combine their bivalve gathering with the ferrying well-off visitors across the river inlet or around the headland.

There is something strange going on amid the sand dunes. What brings the Breforts with the Van Peteghems together is the young romance between Ma Loute and Billy (who dresses as a boy but says she a girl in disguise). The film is a lot of fun as the circumstances are set up.

As I mentioned earlier the Brefort family are cannibals who kidnap, kill, and eat some of the bourgeois tourists whom they row across the bay. “Slack Bay” is a burlesque of passion and rage, a comedy of manners and of carefully constructed appearances that are warped by the constant and hidden force of cannibalism. This is a society that depends on radically maintained differences and distinctions that don’t hold up against relentless natural forces.

The isolation of the Brefort clan has come about due to official contempt and social invisibility and we see this in the father and the son. (Neither are actors; they were picked from the location and are actually father and son). Director Bruno Dumont’s attention to light, form, and motion is graceful but with an off-kilter spontaneity that matches their emotional fullness. The comedy is loud and its repetitive antics adhere to a quiet transcendent tenderness and, a geographical devotion to earth that united with irrational sublimity. Dumont blends genres as we see the coming together of slapstick and horror and realism and fantasy. (Would anyone care for anymore of this foot?).

“In the Name of the Family” by Sarah Dunant— One of History’d Most Notorious Families

Dunant, Sarah. “In the Name of the Family”, Thorndike, 2017.

One of History’s Most Notorious Families

Amos Lassen

The quick rise of the Borgia family in Rome has taken Italians by surprise, as Pope Alexander VI Rodrigo Borgia openly uses his illegitimate children as dynastic weapons. His son Cesare is the arrogant, sadistic leader of a victorious mercenary army, and his scandal-soaked daughter, Lucrezia, is a pawn in the marriage game.

In Florence, people lament what has been lost after the mad monk Savonarola s pious reign. We really see that violence is an acceptable kind of diplomacy and Niccolo Machiavelli, a clever and calculating undersecretary who does well in conditions like this and he tries to use affairs of state to his own ends. Machiavelli is impressed with the influence and boldness of the Borgias and one man in particular catches his eye.

Cesare defies his own father and hatches a secret plot to consolidate his power and feed his ambition. Lucrezia, whose previous husband was murdered by her possessive brother, is set to marry once more to further the Borgias advantage and her future sister-in-law is a formidable adversary.

While alliances are forged, tensions within the regions of Italy intensify, and deceptions are set like traps. Dunant’s novel is a psychological look at the familial relationships between Father Rodrigo and his children. Set from 1501-1503, we meet three Borgias who work for the family and construct fame and fortune together diplomatic, political and military genius. All three Borgias, we see, were intelligent strategists. Sarah Dunant combines the lives of the infamous Borgia family, actual historical events giving us a look at corruption, manipulation, and intrigue.

 

“Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America” by Nathaniel Frank— How Opinions Change

Frank, Nathaniel. “Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America”, Harvard University Press, 2017.

How Opinions Change

Amos Lassen

I often find myself staring blankly ahead and thinking about how gay marriage has changed who we are in this country. Before the 1915 Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex couples to marry, there were periods of intense conflict and some of the most divisive of all contests took place within the LGBT community itself. Nathaniel Frank gives us the very dramatic story of how the idea of gay marriage was an unthinkable and undesirable idea for many gays and lesbians. Nonetheless it became a legal and moral right in just fifty years.

Frank begins the story in the 1950s when millions of gays and lesbians were afraid to come out and were certainly not ready to fight for equality. Then a gay rights movement came into being along side of the rising awareness of the equal dignity of same-sex love. A group of LGBTQ lawyers soon began to focus on legal recognition for same-sex couples and this time, marriage was not considered. It took being pushed by a small set of committed lawyers and grassroots activists that established movement groups to create and develop a successful strategy to win marriage in the courts.

Marriage equality proponents first had to win over members of their own LGBT community who were not ready to make marriage a priority and at the same time had to contain the others who has moved ahead with the idea of gay marriage. They also had to fight against antigay opponents and gain and maintain the American center by spreading the simple message that love is love with the idea that this would move the community further towards justice.

Frank traces the dramatic struggles that finally resulted in same-sex couples winning one of the most important rights of citizenship: the right to marry and have their marriage recognized by state and federal governments. This is quite an inspiring read and with our government in the condition that it is now, really need inspiration. It is fascinating to read how every state prohibited homosexual activity in 1961 and then allowed marriage equality for gays and lesbians in 2015. It was something that most of us never dreamed of seeing in our lifetime and I was mesmerized by what I read here. Just as we waited for the SCOTUS decision to come down, I have waited for someone to write the definitive account of how this happened. This is a story of courage, determination, and strategies. Just as details were important during the fight, so are they important now and Frank shares those details with us. His prose is impressive yet easy to read and it is our story.

 

“Spotless Memories of a New York Childhood” by Sherman Yellen— Behind the Scenes with Yellen

Yellen, Sherman. “Spotless Memories of a New York Childhood”, Moreclacke Publishing, 2017.

Behind the Scenes with Sherman Yellen

Amos Lassen

Sherman Yellen is a playwright, librettist, Tony nominee, and two-time Emmy Award-winning writer. In his autobiography, he shares the world of his impoverished forebears before World War I; writes about “his troubled, prosperous, mendacious father” and his beautiful, fashion-model mother and he tells us about his own New York childhood in the 1930s and 40s. Here we read about the lost world of a New York Jewish-American family during the Great Depression and World War II with candor and love.

Yellen grew up in New York under FDR, and he has watched with great sadness the rise in bigotry and the dismantling of social programs and social progress in this country. He is appalled by the heartlessness and greed that now passes for government policy and he believes it is the obligation of artists to speak out against the erosion of our democracy during these troubling times. Not only is this story it is also the story of New York City of the early 20th century and it is fascinating.

Yellen wonderfully recreates the Jewish-American immigrant experience and it is that much more interesting since he has written it with his trademark wit. He tells it like was and this is not always pretty but we need to know the reality of how things once were. Personally, I am in awe of how things have changed and I often think about that when I was growing up, there were not many people around who were my age today. There were even fewer college graduates. For me looking back is not so terrible but for others who lived poor lives it can be difficult to think about. Some may find Yellen’s depictions to be cruel but I find them to be honest. There is a theme here about compassion for the human condition and if that is all we have learned from the past, we can be satisfied. Because there is so much more here, it is that much more satisfying.

“The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer” by Bonnie S. Anderson— “The Queen of the Platform”

Anderson, Bonnie S. “The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer”, Oxford University Press, 2017.

“The Queen of the Platform

Amos Lassen

Ernestine Rose who was “known as the queen of the platform” was an outstanding orator for feminism, free thought, and anti-slavery. Yet, she would gradually be erased from history for being too much of an outsider because she was an immigrant, a radical, and an atheist.

Rose was the only child of a Polish rabbi but she rejected religion at an early age, successfully sued for the return of her dowry after rejecting an arranged betrothal, and left her family, Judaism, and Poland forever. She went to London and became a follower of socialist Robert Owen and met her future husband, William Rose. Together they moved to New York in 1836. In the United States, Ernestine Rose rapidly became a leader in movements against slavery, religion, and women’s oppression. She was a regular on the lecture circuit, speaking in twenty-three of the then thirty-one states. She challenged the radical Christianity that inspired many nineteenth-century women reformers and even though she rejected Judaism, she was both a victim and critic of anti-Semitism. After the Civil War, she and her husband returned to England, where she continued her work for radical causes. By the time women achieved the vote, for which she had tirelessly worked so hard for, her pioneering contributions to women’s rights had already been forgotten.

Rose was active in the religiously-motivated abolitionist movement and free thought and worked tirelessly to see that ALL people are created equal. What is so interesting is that Ernestine Rose’s commitment to equality and justice is almost virtually unknown. This book changes that and I must admit that before this I had never heard of her before and author Anderson brings the past to us and in doing so gives new perspectives on the present. Rose’s activism came at a time when it was rare for women to speak out on political issues, and certainly not about on their own rights.

She was “a woman of fierce intellect and uncompromising convictions”. Bonnie Anderson makes sure that Rose’s legacy will both inform and inspire those who are still fighting for equal rights.