Author Archives: Amos

“Burnside Field Lizard and Selected Stories” by Theresa Griffin Kennedy— Five Short Stories

Kennedy, Theresa Griffin. “Burnside Field Lizard and Selected Stories”, Oregon Greystone, 2018.

Five Short Stories

Amos Lassen

 Theresa Griffin Kennedy introduces us to quite a cast of characters in the five short stories that make up “Burnside Field Lizard”. I must admit that I am not much of a short story reader and that could probably be due to having to tech so many that I longer find pleasure in short reads. I was therefore surprised at how much I enjoyed these stories. What we really see here is a look at Portland, Oregon through the unusual characters that live there; people who are both damaged and insightful and who see so much more than we do. Our characters are the less privileged inhabitants of Portland who are marginalized by either gender, class or sexuality or even by all three. Writer Kennedy uses them to look at greater universal issues ultimately examining “what people are people willing to take from others in order to survive and what does it mean to be human in such a landscape”. There is something very gothic going on in Portland.

The stories are honest and they are sad and happy, sometimes at the same time. Kennedy explores the Portland that most are unaware of either by choice or not caring. Here is the sordid and seamy “underbelly of Portland’s dark side.” We see Portland as wet and dark, a place inhabited by broken people who struggle and are defeated and angry that there seems to be no place for them. But these same people have hope that will achieve redemption and/or salvation and that it is within reach. We see that there is humanity in all people, even among those that we pretend are not here and those that we choose not to see.

As I sat down to write this review, I had not yet decided whether to review each story separately or to review the book as whole. Summarizing each story as I usually do when I review anthologies often causes me to write spoilers thus taking away from the reader’s discoveries in the text and I would rather that each reader have the chance to form his own opinion. Kennedy is a new author for me and I am anxious to hear what others have to say about what she has written here. I personally enjoyed the read and I have never been to Portland and do not see myself getting there anytime soon. (It’s hard enough being a southerner in Boston where people make fun of my accent). I believe that this collection brings back the local color that was once so important in our literature but slowly disappeared. We all live in different places and we are all different yet as Kennedy shows us, we are united by humanity.

“Hard Drive: The Best Sci-Fi Erotica of M. Christian” by M. Christian— Our Sexuality Makes Us Human

Christian, M. “Hard Drive: The Best Sci-Fi Erotica of M. Christian”, Sizzler Editions, 2018.

Our Sexuality Makes Us Human

Amos Lassen

I have been reading and reviewing M. Christian for about twelve years now and regard him as one of our finest erotica writers today. His importance is in how he sees our sexuality as that which as far as they go and he does this once again in his new collection of cyberpunk adventure, “Hard Drive”. His sexual stories are outrageous and therefore great fun. This collection contains story that M. Christian selected these stories from other erotica collections and not only are they celebrations of sexually explicit cyberpunk science fiction, they are also examples of what good writing is. We go to the “outer reaches of BDSM, gay, lesbian, and straight sexuality in the near and far future: worlds of brilliant imagination, relentless passion, and supernova heat!” It is really exciting to have the stories that he considers his best all on one volume. Now I go through the volume and say something about each story but that takes away from the element of surprise you get when you read.

Christian is very frank in his descriptions of intimacy and he has the ability to draw characters with whom we can easily associate because they are like us—they are searching for what they do not have sexually.

Physical and sexual pleasures are part of our lives even though they are transitory and perhaps that is why some of the stories here may indeed shock you. I am not sure why we are shocked when we are daily being bombarded by new technologies. The anthology is made up of seventeen stories and I can honestly say that I do not know when last I had such a good time reading before this. A word of warning—- I became so engrossed in what I read that I made the mistake of starting in the afternoon and then staying up all night reading.

“November Road: A Novel” by Lou Berney— A Crime Novel

Berney, Lou. “November Road: A Novel”, William Morrow, 2018.

A Crime Novel

Amos Lassen

Frank Guidry had been a loyal street lieutenant to New Orleans bob boss, Carlos Marcello but because he knows too much about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he has to go. Set in America of the 1960s, Lou Berney gives us a look at organized crime of the period.

Within hours of JFK’s murder, everyone with ties to Marcello is turning up dead, and Guidry suspects he’s next: he was in Dallas on an errand for the boss less than two weeks before the president and now he senses that he will be the person to “disappear”. He goes to Las Vegas to see an old associate who happens to be a very dangerous man who hates Marcello enough to help Guidry vanish. From his work with the mob, Guidry knows not to stop while running but he comes upon a beautiful housewife on the side of the road with a broken-down car, two little daughters and a dog in the back seat. In this he sees the perfect disguise to cover his tracks from the hit men on his tail. Posing as an insurance man, Guidry offers to help the woman, Charlotte reach her destination of California. If she accompanies him to Vegas, he can help her get a new car.

She’s also on the run escaping a stifling existence in small-town Oklahoma and a kindly husband who’s a hopeless drunk. “Two strangers meet to share the open road west, a dream, a hope—and find each other on the way.”

Charlotte sees Guidry as strong and kind; Guidry discovers that Charlotte is smart and funny. He learns that’s she determined to give herself and her kids a new life and she learns that Guidry is desperate to leave his old life behind. What the two do not seem to understand is that the road they are can also be a trail and we see that Guidry’s ruthless and relentless hunters are closing in on him. But now Guidry doesn’t want to just survive, he wants to really live, maybe for the first time and he can’t throw his new relationship with Charlotte away but this new relationship could get both of them killed.

Everyone’s expendable, or they should be, but now Guidry just can’t throw away the woman he’s come to love. “November Road” is a crime story, a love story, and an American story. Berney’s writing reflects those times of both disillusionment and hope when those few weeks at the end of 1963 brought about a feeling that all that was lost. Guidry was connected to the president’s death and could be identified as the man who drove a car seen at the site of the assassination. He realizes that he must leave New Orleans quickly and without a trace in order to save his own life.

The chance meeting of Charlotte and Frank is the momentum of the novel. Running away is difficult enough. It becomes almost impossible when one falls in love as they did. The stories of the two characters come together when Frank realizes that his boss is responsible for Kennedy’s murder and that key players in the organization are being killed for knowing too much, Frank’s role in providing the getaway car in Dallas makes him a target, too. Meeting Charlotte who has just escaped a monotonous marriage to a drunk changes everything for them.

“They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders” by Janet Mason— Beyond the Boundaries of Gender

Mason, Janet. “They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders”, My Story Publishers, 2018.

Beyond the Boundaries of Gender

Amos Lassen

I have always found it interesting how coincidences come together. For the last month I have been in a study group about the Hebrew Bible or what is commonly known as the Old Testament. We have been studying the women of the Bible and trying to raise their position in the written text so I suppose we could call this redefining gender in the holy books. It also happens that in a very week weeks the state of Massachusetts will have a referendum on gender rights and it seems that all of sudden gender has become important in our lives whereas ten years ago we would not have heard a peep about it. The third coincidence is that I received a copy of Janet Mason’s new book. “They” in which the Hebrew bible is the background for the story of Tamar that goes beyond the boundaries of gender. I believe it takes a strong person to tackle gender in literature these days and the impression that I got from reading Mason’s last book is that she is a person who can do so… and she did so, quite beautifully.

“They” is a groundbreaker and I am sure that the author will agree with me that attempting to add new meaning to given bible stories is tantamount to heresy. I have no doubt that she will suffer repercussions from those who do not agree with her approach. Personally I found her story to not only be wonderfully written but charming and liberating to us who have lived in a binary world for too long.

Tamar lives in the desert and is something of a hermit but she is happy. She is very close to her pet camel (and having lived in the Middle East and having had working experiences with camels, I can tell you that loving one is not easy). Many forget that at the time of the Hebrew bible, love for God and fellow man went hand-in-hand with sacrifices. Tamar hated this and as a result became a vegetarian. Tamar’s twin sister, Tabitha, became pregnant from having been with a young shepherd and the two women plot tricking Judah into believing that he is the father of the child that Tabitha carries. (As an aside, Tabitha does not appear in the Hebrew bible— her first appearance comes in what is called the New Testament, which is also a misnomer. If the Hebrew bible is correctly referred to as the Hebrew bible, there would be no New Testament. In order to have a New Testament, we must have an Old Testament which we do not.

The reason for convincing Judah that Tabitha was carrying his child was to provide status for the newborn. It was the custom for children born out of wedlock to be burned. When the time came to give birth, Tabitha had twins and Tamar becomes attached to the children (born intersex) and here is where the real story begins. If we follow Mason’s story as she presents it, we would know the bible as it is today and this is what I love the most about stories of this kind. We are dealing with, supposedly, one of the earliest histories of the world yet nothing in it can be proved. In fact, I find that every time I study it, is different. Tamar and Tabitha and the twins give a new dimension to the bible and Janet Mason deserves full credit for giving us an option to traditional bible stories. Whether it is true or not does not really matter. What does matter is what we learn from the story and that can possibly differ with all of us. I love the premise of the book but I am not going to share the story because I want you to read it. I found myself looking up things in the holy writings and some things I found and some I did not.

What I see as a result of reading this book is one of two things or even both we gain something of an understanding of gender even when the story that supports it might be based on ideas. The second result was something personal for me but I an others doing the same. Reading this drove me to check things in the bible and by reading it, you are stating that you believe in what it says or not. As you check you begin to realize how much is written in the early writings. For the last ten years, I have allotted myself an hour a day for bible study and I faithfully do study for that time period every day. It is great fun just as Janet Mason’s story can be great fun or very serious. At any rate, do not miss the chance to read something new with “They”. I am quite sure that it is going to turn up on my 10 Best List for 2018.

“Sketchtasy” by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore— Coming Together, Falling Apart

Bernstein Sycamore, Mattilda. “Sketchtasy”, Arsenal Pulp, 2018

Coming Together, Falling Apart

Amos Lassen

In the twelve years that that I have been reviewing LGBT literature, I have seen writers come and go. To stay fresh and well read, a writer must develop an audience. Then there are those audiences whose writing is so provocative that there is always an audience and I know that when I see that name on the cover of a book that I am going to have an interesting read that will make me think. The one thing that is certain is that it is impossible to predict what the book is going to be about and sometimes it takes until you are halfway through before you realize what you are reading. That, however, is not the case with Mattilda’s newest book , “Sketchtasy”. The blurb says that “it takes place in that late-night moment when everything comes together, and everything falls apart—it’s an urgent, glittering, devastating novel about the perils of queer world-making in the mid-‘90s.” Set in Boston in 1995, we see that this is a city that is dealing with a fear of difference.

Alexa is an incisive twenty-one-year-old queen who daily faces brutality but determined no to led it bother her. She rejects the pretensions of the and deals with trauma by criticizing the world. Alexa is a drug queen and her world is one of “drugged-out escapades”. She searches for home in a gay culture of clubs and conformity, apathy, and the fear of AIDS. It was a time when there was little difference between desire and death and death in fact became very real for many who had never thought about it before. For those of us who lived through that time, it was scary and a time when hope for a better future was tied to the present that did not seem to want to let go. In effect, we see this period through the author’s eyes and we do not just get descriptions, we find that we are experiencing her writing along with her. Some will be able to identify with the characters here while others will have a hard time doing so but it makes no difference for anyone who has ever been part of a larger group will understand what I am saying. Mattilda takes us to her characters and they find a way to enter us and make us feel what they feel. This is not your regular novel in that it is a novel of the emotions that is beautifully written. The memories that I thought I had lodged in the back of my mind rushed forward as I read and I felt honored to shed cathartic tears.

“It’s dangerous, hilarious, scary, and transcendentally beautiful.”

If I had to name my favorite parts of “Sketchtasy”, I would be unable to do so because every sentence and every word in every sentence is my favorite.  We read of Alexa’s quest for connection and we join her on it. Alexis is one of the most real literary characters I have come across lately. As we read, we live through her and she, in turn, lives within us.

We find the relevance of nostalgia and the beauty of memories. However Mattilda’s nostalgia becomes violent in that it replaces what was with mass-marketed, consumer-friendly products. Alexa is trapped in the life of the Boston gay clubs and culture and she yearns for a better place but is unable to find what she needs and wants. At the time of the time, Boston was not open to difference aside from in the Boston’s gay ghetto that tried to ape the main culture of the city and by that I mean what was considered to be the normalcy of straight society which included racism, self-hatred and, of course, misogyny. I still see remnants of this in the Boston of today.

This is Alexa’s story and she relays it to us in her first-person stream of consciousness. She has rejected the society that she was raised to subscribe to and she is totally alone yet wanting to belong. She argues with someone in a café who tells her that she is who she was brought up to be and she rejoins that those that live that way hate themselves. She plans to rise about that but… she needs a boost.

“What If It’s Us” by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera— Ben and Arthur

Albertalli, Becky and Adam Silvera. “What If It’s Us”, HarperTeen, 2018.

Ben and Arthur

Amos Lassen

Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera combine their talents in this smart story about two very different boys who can’t decide if the universe is pushing them together—or pulling them apart.

Arthur has comes to New York for the summer but finds himself involved in a romance. .Ben believes that the universe needs to mind its business. He wouldn’t be on his way to the post office carrying a box of his ex-boyfriend’s things if the universe had had his back. When Arthur and Ben meet at the post office. . . ? We follow Arthur and Ben who instantly hit it off,  but things go wrong and they don’t get each other’s number. We follow the two as they attempt to find each and then go on a series of bad dates. Along with the drama are the complicated relationships that exist between friends, parents and ex-boyfriends, as well as discussions around identity. Both Ben and Arthur are gay, and Ben is also Puerto-Rican and Arthur is Jewish. This isn’t a coming out story— both guys were out to their parents and friends.

Ben has an ex-boyfriend that he may or may not be over and he regrets messing up the friendship group because of their breakup. Arthur can’t help but feel jealous of Arthur’s experience and brings unrealistic expectations into the relationship. Real life romance is messy and that is what we see here, but with fluff and cuteness.

Both Ben and Arthur have a friendship group that is going through some turmoil. Ben’s group has been torn apart by intra-group dating and Arthur feels distant from his friends since he moved to New York, and he’s sure one of them doesn’t accept him coming out as gay. Friendship complications are depicted well here. done here and friends are just as complicated as relationships. Ben’s issues with his group falling apart because some friends are now exes is something we are familiar with.

Both Ben and Arthur have many flaws that keep them from connecting properly. Ben is really proud and doesn’t let anyone in. He struggles to be vulnerable and uses a cool exterior so no one can really hurt him. Arthur is over-eager and jealous and decides things in his head without letting other people share their perspectives. Throughout the book you really see how they change and develop, and how the relationship improves them both as individuals.

 

 

“What’s Left of the Night” by Ersi Sotiropoulos— The Young Cavafy

Sotiropoulos, Ersi. “What’s Left of the Night”, New Vessel Press, 2018.

The Young Cavafy

Amos Lassen

In June 1897, young Constantine Cavafy came to Paris on the last stop of a long European tour. This trip deeply shapes his future and pushes him toward poetry. “What’s Left of the Night” is about those days as Cavafy is on a journey of self-discovery across a continent that is about to undergo tremendous change. Cavafy is dealing with his homosexuality and he is both exhilarated and tormented by it; the Greek-Turkish War has ended in Greece’s defeat and humiliation; France is ravaged by the Dreyfus Affair, and Cavafy’s native Alexandria has turned culturally East. This is a portrait of a budding author before he became one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. We read of the complex relationship of art, life, and the erotic desires. We read about the poet’s mind, his wavering between faith and despair at his own talent and his desire to be heard.

It was in 1897 during those three days when Constantine Cavafy began to understand what his destiny would be his destiny (his voice and his subject) as a major poet. Writer Sotiropoulos notices every encounter and records every intuition in her lyrical, impressionistic style. Sotiropoulos has done an incredible job of showing us Paris as it was during the Dreyfus affair while at the same time giving a glimpse into what it was like to be a poet at that time. What set Cavafy apart is his original approach to poetry. Readers may well leave this novel with a sincere desire to pick up a book of his poetry. This is both a character study and a look at the creative mind as it questions the relationship between an artist’s life and his art, especially the quality of art that comes out of immense suffering. To escape darkness of this kind is to transmit misery into works of beauty.

We can read this as an account of three days in the life of Constantine Cavafy and we can read it as a passionate introduction to his work and on a more metaphorical level as a reflection about art and where it comes from. Sotiropoulos maintains that “the gloomy darkness of real life is often the breeding ground of great work.”

This is a convincing portrait of the poet as a young man as he seesaws between faith and despair at his own talent and his desire to be heard.

“Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities” edited by Belo Cipriani— Stories of Our Time

Cipriani, Belo. “Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities”, Oleb Books, 2018.

Stories of Our Time

Amos Lassen

Lately I have been working on accessibility for people with disabilities as part of what I do in Boston. I actually become involved as a result of my friendship with a friend of mine who is blind and through her I have become more and more aware of the need to makes sure that everyone has equal access to everything. Actually, Belo Cipriani, a blind gay male who wrote “Blind” about his life, made me aware of blindness and the problems that people with disabilities face.

I had not heard from Belo is several years and then I received notice about this book that he edited. We had both moved to new cities but we quickly caught up and I looked forward to reviewing “Firsts”.

Most of us have no idea what a person with disabilities deals with and Belo knowing that gives us a wonderful introduction to the eleven stories in the volume. Along with the writers here, we go back in time and read about the first times they felt heartbreak, and the first time they dealt with an unexpected issue and they first time they realized that they had a disability. Contributors include Nigel David Kelly, Kimberly Gerry-Tucker, Caitlin Hernandez, Andrew Gurza, Heidi Johnson-Wright, Sam E. Rubin, Kevin Souhrada, Teresa M. Elguezabal, Christina Pires, Cathy Beudoin, and David-Elijah Nahmod.

There is great diversity in the stories and in the writers and I must add that each story is very special. For me, it was like going into eleven different worlds and being bale to take something from each one. I laughed and I shed tears and I learned something from each story. Had it not been for Belo Cipriani, I would have never had the chance to read such inspiring stories. I love that we feel the vulnerability of the writers and we are witness to their honesty. We see the difficulties that come with disabilities and we see how they are dealt with. Each story focuses on a different disability— blindness, deafness, autism, tinnitus, etc. Each essay has a different author and a different voice but we see that the same frustrations are shared by all.

Cipriani began writing as the result of a suggestions and it put him in a position to position to met and to help others. By having others tell their stories and thereby overcome limits that they faced. We are the very lucky benefactors of that.

“A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America” by Kirsten Fermaglich— What’s In a Name?

Fermaglich, Kirsten. “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America”,  NYU Press, 2018

What’s In a Name?

Amos Lassen

“A Rosenberg by Another Name” is Kristen Fermaglich’s history of the practice of Jewish name changing in the 20th century, showcasing just how much is in a name and it is a fascinating and enlightening read. We have many stories about name changes from those of ambitious movie stars who adopted glamorous new names or Ellis Island officials who changed immigrants’ names for them. However, we learn here that the real story is much more profound. Fermaglich examines previously unexplored name change petitions to upend the clichés that we have heard all of our lives and we see that in twentieth-century New York City, Jewish name changing was actually a broad-based and voluntary behavior: thousands of ordinary Jewish men, women, and children legally changed their names in order to respond to anti-Semitism. They were not trying to escape their heritage or “pass” as non-Jewish, most name-changers remained active members of the Jewish community. While name changing allowed Jewish families to avoid anti-Semitism and even achieve white middle-class status, the practice also created pain within families and became a stigmatized, forgotten aspect of American Jewish culture. 

This first history of name changing in the United States says something about American Jewish life throughout the twentieth century. We see here “how historical debates about immigration, anti-Semitism and race, class mobility, gender and family, the boundaries of the Jewish community, and the power of government are reshaped when name changing becomes part of the conversation.” 

Fermaglich went through court documents, oral histories, archival records, and contemporary literature and convincingly maintains that name changing has had a lasting impact on American Jewish culture. Ordinary Jews were forced to consider changing their names as they saw their friends, family, classmates, co-workers, and neighbors doing so. Jewish communal leaders and civil rights activists needed to consider name changers as part of the Jewish community, making name changing a pivotal part of early civil rights legislation. Jewish artists created critical portraits of name changers that lasted for decades in American Jewish culture. The book ends with the quite disturbing realization that the prosperity Jews found by changing their names is not as accessible for the Chinese, Latino, and Muslim immigrants who wish to exercise that right today. 

We gain a new appreciation for the levels of complexity that Jewish identity was forced to take on in post-war America. This is a powerful story about “anti-Semitism, adaptation, markers of identity, and the kinds of choices and sacrifices that people must make in the name of access, privilege, and commitments to their communities.”

“CITY SLICKERS”— Middle-Aged men at a Working Dude Ranch

“CITY SLICKERS”

Middle-Aged men at a Working Dude Ranch

Amos Lassen

Billy Crystal plays Mitch, a 40-year-old radio ad salesman who lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. He feels trapped in a humdrum existence and is so unenthusiastic about his job that he embarrasses his nine-year-old son by giving a speech against it during career week at the boy’s school. He joins his best friends, Ed (Bruno Kirb), a sporting good storeowner, and Phil (Daniel Stern), a grocer, for a two-week vacation on a working dude ranch. After learning about riding and roping, they head out into the wilderness on a cattle drive led by Curly (Jack Palance).

Crystal gives a wonderful comic performance as a smart aleck who gets in touch with the nurturing side of himself he’s kept hidden. The three guys let down their hair with each other and for the first time experience male camaraderie that goes beyond surface pranks. Director Ron Underwood gives us one of the funniest films about middle age. This is the proverbial comedy with the heart of truth, the tear in the eye along with the belly laugh. It’s funny, and it adds up to something. The dude ranch possesses a certain mythic quality that is reinforced by the theme from “The Magnificent Seven” which plays under the Western action, sometimes ironically and sometimes heroically.

The city slickers are choosing, half ironically, to follow in the footsteps of the great movie cattle rides of the past. Trail boss, Curly (Jack Palance), seems like a survivor from an earlier time. The plot unfolds along fairly predictable lines. The three city dudes meet up with their fellow urban cowboys, including two black Baltimore dentists and a good-looking blond who has been abandoned by her boyfriend. They ride out one morning at dawn, saddle-sore but plucky, and along the way there are showdowns with macho professional cowboys, stubborn cattle, and nature.

They share moments of insight, of secrets sincerely shared, of the kind of philosophical speculation that’s encouraged by life on the range. There is also the kind of crazy heroism that can be indulged in only by guys who don’t understand the real dangers they’re in. And there are dreamy nights around the campfire when they stand back and look at their lives, their marriages, and the meaning of it all.

“City Slickers” deals with everyday issues of living in an unforced way that doesn’t get in the way of the humor, and yet sets the movie up for a genuine emotional payoff at the end. And the male bonding among Crystal, Stern and Kirby is unforced and convincing.