Author Archives: Amos

“Morris Kight: Humanist, Liberationist, Fantabulist” by Mary Ann Cherry— Morris Kight: Gay Rights Pioneer

Cherry, Mary Ann. “Morris Kight: Humanist, Liberationist, Fantabulist”, Process, 2020.

Morris Kignt:  Gay Rights Pioneer

Amos Lassen

It is so good to see so many new books about LGBTQ activists and I am especially glad to see that gay activist Morris Kight finally gets his due in the excellent new biography by Mary Ann Cherry. I have spent a lot of time reading about our history and I must admit that even though I had come across Kight, I really knew nothing about him. His life as an activist began in the 1930s when he was still a teen. Kight’s mother was the madame at a brothel in Texas and he was the only male living there. In the 50’s, Kight became a part ofan underground network of gay ‘safe houses’ that provided bail, health care, and legal advice when same-sex relationships were criminal in this country. The 60s brought him to the anti-war movement and the beginning of his public fight for “Gay Liberation.” Through this he was able to form relationships with fellow activists, politicians, socialites, and gangsters. He became an influencer long before social media brought millions together.

I am totally amazed by what I read here and could not help but wonder why there has not been more written about this hero. Cherry has done excellent research to bring Kight’s story to us and this book dazzles the mind.

Kight was the founder of several groups whose protests brought about The American Psychiatric Association removing homosexuality as a disease, protecting civil rights for gay citizens in California, and the reduction of police violence against the gay community.

Of course, like all of us, Kight was a man with flaws and one of those was that he unfortunately alienated many people but the good that he did rises above that. We hear from those who both loved and hated him but, hey, that is human nature.

Maryann Cherry was a friend of Morris Kight in high school and she writes honestly about him. He was a Gay Liberation Front leftist and “because of him [Kight] and in spite of him”, the Front was able to change the world. Cherry also writes about the main participants in the movement as well as those who came and left. We read about Morris as a boy and as an under-privileged teenager, as a good-looking young man, as a husband, and as a father. Morris – the son of an altogether mad mother. He dared to be who he was when this was dangerous to do so.

In reading about Kight, we are better able to understand how our community got to where it is today and we learn that sometimes we must fight in ways that are considered to be outrageous—- Morris Kight was outrageous. About all else, we see that how he, one man, could make a difference and we can now revel in those differences that he made.

Now that I have finished my initial read of Cherry’s masterwork, I feel the need to go back and read it again and again. There is so much information here which is beautifully written, that the book is a pleasure as well as an important addition to the LGBTQ canon. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible” by Rachel Havrelock— Conquest, Genocide and the Founding of Modern Israel

Havrelock, Rachel. “The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible”,  Princeton University Press, 2020.

Conquest, Genocide and the Founding of Modern Israel

Amos Lassen

“The Book of Joshua” is central to the politics of modern Israel than the book of Joshua. Joshua was a military leader who became the successor to Moses and his story is about the march of the ancient Israelites into Canaan. It describes how the Israelites subjugated and massacred the indigenous peoples of the land. In “The Joshua Generation”, Rachel Havrelock looks the book’s centrality to the Israeli occupation today and how it reveals why nationalist longing and social reality do not fit in the Promised Land.

Diaspora Jews largely ignored the book of Joshua and those who did not criticized it. The leaders of Israel, however, have used it as a way of promoting cohesion among the citizens of the modern state. Those Israelis who are at odds with the occupation see the Book of Joshua as a celebration of  genocide. Havrelock examines the composition of Joshua and shows how it reflected the nature of ancient Israelite society which was divided and then the desire to unify the populace under a strong monarchy. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, formed a study group at his home in the late 1950s and generals, politicians, and professors reformulated the story of Israel’s founding in the language of Joshua. We see how Ben-Gurion used this tale of conquest and brutality to unite the immigrant population of Jews of different ethnicities and backgrounds by showing Israelis and Palestinians as latter-day Israelites and Canaanites.

Havrelock gives us an alternative reading of Joshua finding  evidence of a decentralized society composed of tribes, clans, and woman-run households. We immediately see the relevance for today when diverse peoples share the resources of a land scarred by wars.

“The Joshua Generation” is a study of the role of the bible in Israeli culture and the impact it has on politics and modern commentary and reinterpretations. Here we have questions about the intersection of the bible with history, archaeology, politics, and national memory.

By examining interpretations and uses of the book of Joshua at various stages in its history, this marginal text for Jews in the diaspora became foundational for the formation of a national identity in modern Israel based on myth.

The Book of Joshua presents a nation-building process unlike what was actually happening on the ground. Ben Gurion used it for similar ideological purposes and we see the significance of historical literary analysis and historical geography and how these affect political possibilities today.

“The Ministry Of Guidance and Other Stories” by Nour Gooinoosh— Sex, Longing and Desire

Nour, Goolnoosh. “The Ministry Of Guidance and Other Stories”, Muswell Press, 2020.

Sex, Longing and Desire

Amos Lassen

Set in Iran and Europe, the stories here are about the dilemmas of their characters and “argue for nuance in a world that wants to make things black and white.” We read ofsex, longing and desire in many of its forms with an emphasis on LGBTQI relationships.  The sexual encounters are explicit and stark yet relationships between characters are nuanced and change quickly. Some characters look for sex as a way of escape in which their painful memories are erased thus  and they gain a feeling of their own self-consciousness about being in the world. Other characters love their hedonism  and we gain a different look at those who we are not used to seeing express themselves sexually. We have a range of different points from young women who come to understand more of the world to unrequited love and the corruption of the publishing industry. 

We read about what it means to be a Muslim and in love and why there are so many rules and regulations around who a Muslim can love and how this is seen by the larger society. We are told in the dedication that these stories are “for all the queers”and the stories are profoundly queer and come together at the meeting pointof gender, ethnicity, class and sexuality.

“The Ministry of Guidance”, the first story (set in Iran), Sogol visits the ministry to see if her collection of poems is publishable. Sogol comes from a secular, intellectual family but in order to appear to be a good Muslim girl she wears the correct clothing and acts as chaste. The man she meets at the Ministry, Mr. Mohammidi, tells her her book won’t approved if she does not have sex with him. This sets the tone for all of the stories—the  hypocrisy of those in power and playing a role. 

Both Sogol and Mr. Mohammidi assume being something they’re not as we see this played out in the other stories.  In Tehran Yaoi, a young gay man pretends to like Lady Gaga in order to impress a boy he is interested in and in “God’s Mistake”, a young woman pretends her sex journal is a novel she’s writing when her mother discovers it. The truth makes one vulnerable to being hurt.

Most of the characters are young LGBTQ people who deal with finding a way to deal with desires that are forbidden and who search for some kind of guidance but find none.  The stories are filled with both life and fear and the characters lack direction and on the edges of society. I was reminded that there was a time in this country that we dealt with our sexuality in much the same way.

 

 

“Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment” by John Giorno— A Memoir of New York

Giorno, John. “Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

A Memoir of New York 

Amos Lassen

John Giorno (1936-2019) was a New York-based poet and performance artist who was the founder of Giorno Poetry Systems. He was a longtime member of the Lower Manhattan art scene and an AIDS activist and Tibetan Buddhist whose work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, among other institutions. His memoir, “Great Demon Kings” is a sexy look at his “becoming” in New York in the ‘60s.

Giorno graduated from Columbia in 1958  and was a “handsome, charismatic, ambitious” guy who wanted to enjoy as much of Manhattan’s art and culture as possible. Because poetry gave him almost no income, he worked on Wall Street and spent his nights at the happenings, underground movie premiers, art shows, and poetry readings of the city. He was involved in an intense romantic relationship with Andy Warhol who had not yet become a global superstar. This relationship exposed Giorno to even more of the downtown scene, but after starring in Warhol’s first movie, “Sleep”, they drifted apart. Giorno was then involved with Robert Rauschenberg and later Jasper Johns with both relationships fueling his creativity. He quickly became a renowned poet in his own right and he at the intersection of literature and technology, freely crossing genres and mediums as did William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. 

“Great Demon Kings” was completed shortly before Giorno’s death in 2019. Giorno was a singular cultural pioneer especially as an openly gay man at a time when many artists remained closeted and avoided gay subject matter. He was a devout Buddhist whose faith steered and sustained him through highs and lows. The memoir includes the “it-people” of the downtown scene and a sensitive look at his long friendship with  Burroughs. Here is quite a sensational look at New York City as seen through the eyes of one of its most singular characters. There was creative ferment in the 1960s and 1970s in New York City and we see this through Giorno’s relationships with Warhol, Gysin, Rauschenberg, Johns and Burroughs, and his friendships with many others. Giorno wrote this with sensitivity and tenderness as he shares his enthusiastic openness to the full range of human experience as he pursued “bliss and great clarity”. We read of the“creativity and debauchery” of gay artists and writers in this posthumous memoir and it is  over the top at times but always sincere.

Giorno’s life was “ shocking, joyous, and raw”. His eternal search for inspiration and love made him a great poetic voice and he wrote with “beauty, forgiveness and truth.” 

“Elixir” by Charles Atkins— A Cure for Cancer

Atkins, Charles, “Elixir”,  Severn House Publishers, 2020.

A Cure for Cancer

Amos Lassen

Pediatric oncologist Dr Frank Garfield has discovered a genetic cure for cancer that can save his young patients. However, his mentor, Nobel Prize laureate Dr Jackson Atlas, believes that this is fodder for drug companies who are interested in profits will twist and weaponize it. 

UNICO Pharmaceuticals CEO Leona Lang wants desperately to find a new product and Garfield’s formula could be it. Jackson is an obstacle and so Lang’s son, a sociopath named Dalton Lang is told to join to get Garfield to join UNICO. Dalton is tasked with eliminating Jackson and make it look like a burglary. 

The question remains now with Jackson gone, whether Garfield can be persuaded to join UNICO or let his research die. Lives of innocent children thus hang in the balance and while Frank can save them, the cost could be exorbitant. Everyone wants a part of the cancer cure and each is willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

We see ruthlessness everywhere and the characters here are cold-hearted. We sense that something is not right with Leona and Dalton and this stays with us in this medical thriller. We meet big pharmacy, caring medics and appealing children and writer Charles Atkins, a psychiatrist, uses psychological motives to creating a twisted plotthat moves quickly.

 

“THE FIGHT”— Defending Civil Rights

“THE FIGHT”

Defending Civil Rights

Amos Lassen

“The Fight” follows four civil rights cases brought against the Trump administration by the American Civil Liberties Union. The directorial team of Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg show us in vital detail what is really at stake in Donald Trump’s assault on civil rights. The Trump administration has become the biggest and most wide-ranging threat to civil rights in America’s recent history, and it is the job of the ACLU to uphold these rights in the courts and through the judicial system. The film looks at contentious, difficult subject matter and manages to make a tremendous  amount of dry technical detail interestingly clear and focused.

We look at family separation at America’s borders (immigration rights), abortion access (reproductive rights), at the ban on transgender military personnel (LGBTQ+ rights), and at the attempt to amend the US census with a question about citizenship (voting rights). The film presents a to synthesis and clear assessment of the political and historical contexts of each case.

We see that the batter for civil rights is a matter of life and death through the film’s exploration of  Trump’s attempts to establish a Muslim ban. is very powerful and shows us that the civil rights battle remains a matter of life and death. Members of the ACLU talk about the consequences of their failures and we see how deal with the effects of controversies that are painful. During the film’s examination of ACLU support for the Unite the Right march at Charlottesville in 2017, we really see its importance. The complexity of the issues at stake is looked at with sensitivity, intelligence, and tact and it shows us the filmmakers’ commitment to give a nuanced and honest account of the ACLU.

There is so much more to be done as we see here making this a documentary of immediacy and essential viewing. “The Fight” often succeeds at making the travails of civil rights lawyers in the Trump era visually and emotionally engaging. We follow five lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union as they travel between New York, Washington D.C., and the Southwest, leading efforts to counter numerous assaults on the rights of immigrants, women, and transgender people. These lawyers make the film a humanizing look at the ACLU.

After playing audio from Trump’s inauguration over the production company logos, the film’s prologue shows ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt obtaining a stay on Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” After this (later overturned) legal win, Gelernt becomes the lead on the ACLU’s lawsuits over child separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, while colleagues Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, and the team of Lee Block and Chase Strangio work on abortion rights for detained migrants, the notorious “citizenship question” proposed for the 2020 census, and trans rights in the military.

We are with the lawyers as they file briefs, struggle to balance family and work life, deal with surprising rulings, and struggle with Microsoft Word.

“Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring” edited by Rita Stephan and Mounira M. Charrad— Before and After the Arab Spring

Stephan, Rita and Mounira M. Charrad, editors. “Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring”, NYU Press, 2020.

Before and After the Arab Spring

Amos Lassen

“Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring”is a collection of essays by female activists and scholars that document women’s resistance before, during, and after the Arab Spring. Rita Stephan and Mounira M. Charrad bring together a group of scholars, activists, artists, and more, to show the first-hand experiences of women at that time. 

In this relevant and timely volume, Stephan and Charrad paint a picture of women’s political resistance in sixteen countries before, during, and since the Arab Spring protests first began in 2011. Contributors provide insight into a diverse range of perspectives across the entire movement, focusing on often-marginalized voices, including rural women, housewives, students, and artists. By reading these essays, we come to understand
an important twenty-first century movement that is the story of Arab women’s activism.

Here are Arab women’s voices and the forms of activism before, during and after the Arab uprisings. The editors use a variety of forms of expression ad include art and literary production in political commentary. The present a challenge to misrepresentations of Arab women’s agency and their ongoing roles in the struggle for democracy.

The essays cover a wide range of Arab countries and contexts as they explore the activism of women before, during and after the Arab Spring uprisings. Here are distinctive features of Arab women’s struggles and the national and local origins of their protests. Women, through their very presence in protests, transformed the relationship of women to public space. They become bold  through their organizations and increased political representation and they have brought about legislative changes as well as claiming their creative agency “through literature, film, street art, the photographic lens, and many other forms of expression.”  

What we really see is that the Arab Springs is hardly over and the efforts of women will continue to he heard in calls for reform, revolution and resistance. The Arab Spring is a critical point of history for Arab women as they face tremendous odds. The collection extends the boundaries of the study of feminist resistance. Theoretical debates, empirical nuances are seen through a sophisticated lens that captures the experiences of Arab women.

“EINSTEIN’S UNIVERSE— Celebrating Albert Einstein


“EINSTEIN’S UNIVERSE”

Celebrating Albert Einstein

Amos Lassen

“Einstein’s Universe” is a documentary from 1979 that celebrates the centenary of the birth of Albert Einstein and is narrated and hosted by Peter Ustinov and written by Nigel Calder, the author of the accompanying book of the same title. Set at the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory,  a staff of renowned scientists and physicists take us through a hands-on experience of the various facets of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Peter Ustinov leads a discussion of the Theory of Relativity with luminaries such as John Archibald Wheeler, Irwin Shapiro, and Roger Penrose. In it, we see  numerous thought experiments of the type Einstein thought up.

The filmhas been re-mastered and digitally enhanced and we become thoroughly enlightened on the great physicist’s theories, especially General Relativity, by a renowned team of scientists including Dennis Sciama, Roger Penrose, John Wheeler, Wallace Sergeant, Irwin Shapiro, Sidney Drell, and Ken Brecher.

The experiments we see help us understand gravity, warped space, how light responds to gravity, the “Doppler effect” and how radio waves, as used in police radar, are an unbeatable way of measuring speed. From these simpler experiments, larger concepts are drawn, such as the discovery of a Binary Pulsar, the nature of black holes and how they are created, and the ultimate theory of how the universe was formed. Other demonstrations measure the speed of light, how time passes more slowly for people traveling in an airplane, the incredible accuracy of the Atomic Clock in Washington, DC and how time itself would appear to stop at the surface of a black hole. We see Einstein as a great humanitarian who although known as the “father of the Atomic Bomb”, had great concern for the potentially devastating effects splitting the atom could have on the future of mankind. His famous letter to President Franklin Roosevelt warned that although the splitting of the atom to detonate an atomic bomb could be used to end World War II, it could also potentially be used for far more deadly ends.

“ The Jefferson Bible: A Biography” by Peter Manseau— the Bible As a Guide for Living

Manseau, Peter. “ The Jefferson Bible: A Biography”, Princeton University Press, 2020.

The Bible As a Guide for Living

Amos Lassen

 August,  2020 is the 200th anniversary of the completion of one of Thomas Jefferson’s retirement projects, “The Jefferson Bible” in which he eliminated all the miracles in the New Testament leaving the holy book as a guide to living. Peter Manseau, Smithsonian curator and writer gives us the full story of the creation and legacy of “The Jefferson Bible” through the present day.

This is also the story of the reception of the controversial project. We see how generations of Americans have tired to understand the Jefferson Bible. Through reading this biography of the work, we also lean about Jefferson, the man, the history of his bible and how, through it, Jesus has been seen by Americans as way as the cultural history of biblical interpretation. Jefferson’s intellect is seen above all else. His perspectiveon the larger history of religion in America and how it relates to American cultural differences regarding the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith is another major theme here.

Retiring from politics, Jefferson took it upon himself to edit the bible looking at the ideas of the enlightenment, he attempted to reconcile Christian tradition and reason by showing that Jesus of Nazareth was a great moral teacher but that he was not divine. We see how each new generation has reimagined the book in its own image. Readers have struggled with Jefferson’s legacy and where religion fits in the life of America.  

The Jefferson Bible was lost for decades and then rediscovered by chance in the late nineteenth century. It has meant different ideas to different people. Some see it as evidence that America is a Christian nation founded on the lessons of the Gospels while others see it as proof of the Founders’ wanted to root out the influence of faith. Manseau explains Jefferson’s personal religion and philosophy giving us the influences and ideas that inspired him to revise the Gospels. Here is a broad search for the historical Jesus and the part that Jefferson’s bible played in American religious disputes over the interpretation of scripture. The intrigue surrounding the loss and rediscovery of the Jefferson Bible is explained and we see the bible’s  reception history from its first planned printing in 1904 for members of Congress to its power “to provoke and enlighten.”

“THE WOODS”— A Polish Miniseries

“THE WOODS”

A Polish Miniseries

Amos Lassen

“The Woods” is a six-episode Polish miniseries based on the novel by Harlan Coben. It is split between two time periods, opening with a flash-forward to prosecutor Pawel Kopinski (Grzegorz Damiecki) who has a gun pressed to his head. We then before flash back to 1994, when a teenage Pawel (Hubert Milkowski) is at summer camp. Something very bad happened in the woods there, leaving two teens dead and two others—including Pawel’s sister, Kamila (Martyna Byczkowska)—missing. The discovery of a dead body connected to the murders brings Pawel back to the case in 2019.

In the present-day timeline, Pawel reconnects with his former girlfriend, Laura Goldsztajn (Agnieszka Grochowska). Laura is now a college professor, and the two attempt to figure out what happened all those years ago. Pawel has been prosecuting a rape case in which one of the accused perpetrators is the son of a rich TV personality, Krzysztof (Cezary Pazura), who has promised to use his resources to ruin Pawel’s life if he doesn’t drop the charges.

The change of setting from New Jersey to Poland has little impact on the story. The most distinctive local element here is an exploration of anti-Semitism. We see grieving families searching for someone to blame following the initial crimes. But even that turns out to be something of a red herring.

Coben’s characters are morally compromised, and finding out who killed or kidnapped a story’s central victim doesn’t necessarily lead to an anticipated catharsis. Pawel’s handling of the rape case is especially strange, and his determination to stand up for the accuser is about his own pride and seeking justice for a young woman who’s been attacked.

Pawel and Laura share a personal connection to every aspect of the case  and this gives us a kind of revelation. The story’s rush of exposition can be mystifying but the pieces fall into place in ways that aren’t entirely unbelievable.

Up to the final moments, “The Woods” is filled with twists and turns and plot threads remain untied by the end. We are hooked by Pawel and want to know what happened all those years ago.

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The large cast makes the plot complicated and it is not always easy to keep track of who’s who. “The Woods is both a mystery and a love story. The romance is somewhat hit and miss. Damiecki and Grochowska are both excellent but the stoicism that drives them as adults makes it hard to get an emotional connection with them. But there’s not even that much time for love as corpses pile up There is a sharp critique of the concept of justice here too as police brutality, trial by media and the massive influence that money can affect who we see as guilty or innocent.

 This is a dense but compelling watch, beautifully directed by Leszek Dawid and Bartosz Konopka. Atmospherically, “The Woods” is amazing and the flashback scenes in 1994 are captivating as we wonder who is and isn’t trustworthy.