Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide” by Tony Horwitz— On the Trail of America’s Greatest Landscape Architect

Horwitz, Tony. “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide”, Penguin Press, 2019.

On the Trail of America’s Greatest Landscape Architect

Amos Lassen

In the 1850s, the young Frederick Law Olmsted was adrift. He was a restless farmer and dreamer in search of a mission that he found it during an extraordinary journey as an undercover correspondent in the South for the up-and-coming New York Times.
Olmsted was a  Connecticut Yankee with the pen name “Yeoman” and to whom the South was alien, often hostile territory. Nonetheless, he traveled it for 14 months, by horseback, steamboat, and stagecoach looking for dialogue and common ground. His dispatches about the lives and beliefs of Southerners were revelatory for readers of his day, and his remarkable journey  also reshaped the American landscape, as he sought to reform his own society by creating democratic spaces for all. The result was Central Park and Olmsted’s career as America’s first and foremost landscape architect.

Tony Horwitz rediscovers Yeoman Olmsted in the discord and polarization of our own time. He looks for an answer to “Is America still one country?” As he searches for  answers, he follows Olmsted’s tracks and often his mode of transport (including muleback): through Appalachia, down the Mississippi River, into bayou Louisiana, and across Texas to the contested Mexican borderland. on far off beaten paths. Horwitz “uncovers bracing vestiges and strange new mutations of the Cotton Kingdom.” His journey takes him through an outsized American landscape.

Horwitz is a fun guide, self-deprecating, smart, and adventurous. It is fascinating to see through him that two of the most politically divisive eras in the US occurred prior to the Presidential elections of 1860 and 2016. In each of these timeframes, the country was more or less divided (North versus South and Red versus Blue, respectively) and thought the other half was wrong. 

This is what  drives the Horwitz’s narrative as he follows the path Fred Olmstead took in the 1850s and describes his encounters with others below the Mason Dixon line. He meets a very colorful cast of characters and helps to understand the differences and common threads among all Americans. 

Horwitz combines historical text with historical narrative nonfiction giving us a memoir of one man’s present day journey into the South. Horwitz is a seasoned guide. He is inquisitive, open-minded, and prefers observation over judgment and he brings humor, curiosity, and care to the characters he meets. This is unique reportage from a region that tells us a whole lot more about the country than the country wants to admit to. We get views of the South unlike any others along with “an enduring American spirit of generosity, and commonweal, and curiosity.” 

 

“As One Fire Consumes Another” by John Sibley Williams— A New Kind of Poetry

Williams, John Sibley. “As One Fire Consumes Another”, Orison Books , 2019.

A New Kind of Poetry

Amos Lassen

In “As One Fire Consumes Another”, John Sibley Williams creates a new kind of poetry that brings metaphysics and social critique together. It is extremely tense and filled with “transcendent vision and trenchant social”. Williams shows how we, as individuals, as fathers and as citizens see the violence that makes up a good part of the history of this country. We even venture a step further by  looking what is behind the violence that has become such a part of the way we live.

From the moment that I opened the book I felt transcendence and as if I walked into a cemetery and was surrounded by bodies of those who had given their lives for the sake of country. But this was no peaceful cemetery and the dead do not rest quietly. And so I began to read the poems that ranged from elegy to prayer with so many different  forms in between. The elegance of the language draws you in and then you are slapped with the reality of what you are reading.

Americans love to label, to put things together under one overall name and this is something I have not seen in other parts of this world where I have lived. The poems here fit into such categories but we understand here that the reason for the label is  way of escape. Having extensively studied philosophy, I understand that the human condition is the result of resistance and despair and that these are essentially important to define who we are. I love that poet Williams sees our experience as a series of mistakes and that we can never get it quite right.

I got the sense that desire is what we feel throughout the volume and desire is not always fulfilled yet always there. This is not  the desire of  to covet but rather the desire that develops with us as we pass through the various stages of life.

When I review poetry, I am often told that I am obtuse for not exploring the text as much as I do in prose. This is deliberate. Of all forms of literature, poetry is the most personal and t say too much deprives the reader of his chance to identify with the poet. I see my job as one of introduction to the texts and it is your job to take them for yourself. Grab this one as soon as you can.

“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” Audio CD –– Audiobook, CD, Unabridged

“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”

Audio CD – Audiobook, CD, Unabridged

Amos Lassen

I have had many great experiences in my life and three of them have to do with Tony Kushner’s masterpiece. “Angels in America”. The first was getting to see the original on Broadway with the Broadway cast. I believe I sat there with mouth agape for the entire performance. The second was watching the HBO production with an all star cast (I still watch this version faithfully on DVD at least once a year). Then the third was watching this version in Brookline, Massachusetts on the screen of the Coolidge Corner Theater about two years ago and many years after the original. It had not lost any of its power and the actors were all sublime. I had hoped that there would be a DVD release of the National Theatre’s production but as of yet, there has only been this CD. I am not complaining—- this CD is brilliant all the way through

In this production, adapted especially for the listening experience, Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, and the entire cast recreate their acclaimed performances from the 2018 Tony Award-winning National Theatre revival. It adds a narration by Bobby Cannavale and Edie Falco, and a musical score by Adrian Sutton, and it is a compelling and immersive theatrical listening experience.

Kushner’s drama is a complex and insightful look into identity, community, justice, and redemption. New Yorkers grapple with life and death, love and sex, and heaven and hell as the AIDS crisis intensifies during a time of political reaction–the Reagan Republican counterrevolution of the 1980s.

The full cast is made up of:
Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter
Nathan Lane as Roy M. Cohn
Susan Brown as Hannah Pitt 
Denise Gough as Harper Pitt
Beth Malone as The Angel
James McArdle as Louis Ironson
Lee Pace as Joseph Pitt 
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize
With narration by
Bobby Cannavale (“Millennium Approaches”) 
Edie Falco (“Perestroika”)

The National Theatre production was directed by Marianne Elliott. 

 

 

“On Streisand: An Opinionated Guide” by Ethan Mordden— Have Opinion, Will Voice

Mordden, Ethan. “On Streisand: An Opinionated Guide”, Oxford University Press, 2019.

Have Opinion, Will Voice

Amos Lassen

Barbra Streisand has said that the reason she became a singer is that she could not get a job as an actress. Imagine her surprise when she realized that she had done both. She actually revolutionized the two professions and changed forever the ideal of how a movie star chooses roles, going from musicals to dramas to comedies, “from period fare to ultra-modern tales, from “Funny Girl” to “The Way We Were” to “Yentl.”

In “On Streisand”, writer Ethan Mordden begins with a broad year-by-year outline of Streisand’s achievements and some of her more whimsical escapades, as when Rex Reed apologizes for an interview piece and she responds with “I had more respect for him when he hated me.” Mordden follows this a long essay on how “Streisand’s idiosyncratic self-realization marks her as a unique national treasure, an artist without limits.”

The  major part of the book is a work-by-work analysis that is broken down into separate chapters, each organized chronologically: the stage shows, then the television shows and concerts, then the movies, and last (because longest) the recordings. Mordden follows Streisand’s independence, which he sees as her central quality. Mordden shows how she was exercising individualistic control of her career from her very first audition, and how the rest of her professional life unfolded from. Streisand knows how to be in control.

Aside from the fascinating subject, Mordden’s elegant prose and sharp wit is beguiling.
If you are interested in a biography of Streisand than  this book is not for you. While it is filled with wonderful insights, it is basically an analysis of Streisand’s career.

This is a fascinating, perceptive and very concise overview of Barbra Streisand’s sixty year career and it  examines and evaluates what she has accomplished (she’s won 10 Grammys, two Oscars and five Emmy awards). We read about the motivation behind each project and see that she does nothing on impulse. “She makes considered–even excruciatingly interrogated–judgment calls, because her work is her identity.”

Mordden brings in Streisand’s personal life, her difficult reputation (sometimes earned, sometimes not) and how her genuine distinctiveness worked for and against her. Because she is an original, and many people dislike originals, she has suffered.
This is a thoughtful, perceptive and at times analytical look at Streisand’s creativity and working methods that celebrates and deepens an appreciation of Streisand and her body of work.

“SOUTHERN PRIDE”— Race, Sexuality, Gender Politics and Advocacy

“SOUTHERN PRIDE”

Race, Sexuality, Gender Politics and Advocacy

Amos Lassen

 It has been a couple of years since I last watched “Southern Pride” and I remember being overwhelmed at how powerful it is. Malcolm Ingram who also directed “Small Town Gay Bar” was the head of this film as well; “the story of strong, queer women and their allies who answered the call to make their community better, in a time when the world is being torn apart.  It examines the complications surrounding race, sexuality, gender politics and advocacy in America today.”

 It was not that long ago when gay bars were often the only safe communities for small-town LGBTQ people in the Deep South’s Bible Belt (and many times still are), and bigoted forces—Fred Phelps, Tim Wildmon, and more—have long tried to shut them down. Now, after the election of Donald Trump has emboldened anti-LGBTQ hatred in the region, Ingram documents the travails of running a gay bar in Mississippi, with a profile of lesbian bar owners in Biloxi and Hattiesburg.

Lynn Koval is the white owner of Just Us Lounge, the oldest gay bar in the state of Mississippi, and Shawn Perryon, Sr., the black owner of the nine-year-old Club Xclusive,  who separately decide to hold their cities’ first Pride celebrations in 2017, as a rebuke to the “open-season” mentality encouraged by Trump, as well as to Mississippi’s Religious Liberty Accommodations Act, the Pulse nightclub terrorist attack, and the murders of three Gulf Coast transgender women shortly after the 2017 inauguration. Just Us Lounge restored their community after Hurricane Katrina almost devastated Biloxi and nearly destroyed the bar. Can they and Club Xclusive organize a Pride event in the face of homophobia and racism? For months they prepared, held fundraisers and did what they could do to raise the necessary funds to put on a celebration. We see the power of community the brave efforts of these two gay bars and we understand that this is an example of Southern pride.  

Having grown up in Louisiana, I had LGBT friends in nearby Mississippi and even though I have been gone for many years, I often look back and remember the good times we had. I could not help but wonder how they were dealing with Trump in the  White House and I saw the irony that they probably knew more than he did about whatever and anything.

Lynn Koval is a queer organizing veteran who had devoted more than 25 years of her life to keeping the local gay drinking bar/ community center called the Just Us Lounge going in Biloxi, Mississippi. Bars have come and gone but Just Us outlasted them all. Lynn decided it was time that Biloxi found its pride on a larger scale, and so she decided to organize and put on the first Pride event on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. This became a  struggle and caused confusion and frustration but it also made everyone feel stronger. About the same time,  Shawn Perryon, owner of KlubXclusive in Hattiesburg, decided to bring to Mississippi its first Unapologetic Black Gay Pride.

 “Southern Pride” is the story of strong, queer women and their allies who are determined to make their community better, in a time when the world is split and divided. Through this film, we examine the complications that surround race, sexuality, gender politics and advocacy in America today.   Watching the film gives you a sense of pride alongside of a sense of sadness but pride seems to be winning here.

 

“BARBARA RUBIN AND THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND”— An Art-Porn Masterpiece

“Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground”

“An Art-Porn Masterpiece”

Amos Lassen

There are those that believe that Barbara Rubin was the single most important person in American culture in the early 60s. She was a young woman who showed up in Manhattan, got a job with experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas when she was just 17-years-old and wound up influencing not just her mentor but also Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed and many others. Before she abandoned the New York scene, she changed the course of Manhattan culture. She brought Warhol to the first Velvet Underground show, she introduced Dylan to Jewish mysticism and made a sexually graphic short film,” Christmas On Earth”, that served as a feminist counterpoint to Jack Smith’s far better known “Flaming Creatures.” Then she abandoned it all for a life as far removed from the Factory scene as one can imagine. , Rubin was seeking a deeper meaning to life. After retiring to a farm with Allen Ginsberg, she shocked everyone by converting to Hasidic Judaism, marrying and moving to France to live an anonymous life. She died in 1980 after giving birth to her fifth child.  For years, Mekas treasured all of Barbara’s letters and films and cherished her memory. Now with Mekas’ footage, this film takes us inside the world and mind of Barbara Rubin; a woman who truly believed that film could change the world.

Director Chuck Smith presents Barbara Rubin to us in vivid detail. He use archival footage with present-day testimonials from her family and friends (including film critic Amy Taubin) and Rubin’s own letters, read by Claire Jamison. What we get is a portrait of an artist determined to make the most of every last artistic impulse “even if that meant pitching Walt Disney on a pornographic sequel to Christmas On Earth that she believed would expand the minds of anyone who saw it. She just needed a little help with the animation.”

Barbara Rubin’s “Christmas On Earth” (1963-65) is an art-porn masterpiece that shocked NYC’s experimental film scene and inspired the underground. Its orgy scenes, double projections and overlapping images shattered artistic conventions and announced a powerful new voice in the city’s underground film scene. All the more remarkable was that the vision belonged to an 18 year old teenager. For the next four years her filmmaking and irrepressible energy helped shatter artistic and sexist boundaries.

Rubin’s unbridled creativity inspired her to make films when women simply didn’t and saw her breach yet another male domain, Orthodox Judaism, before her mysterious death at 35. She became  nearly forgotten artist, an avant-garde maverick, a rebel in a man’s world, who now finally regains her rightful place in film history. This film is a recontextualization of the 1960s New York art and experimental film scene through the story of an influential, yet unheralded, figure, Barbara Rubin, the extraordinary young filmmaker, who defied sexist conventions.

Jonas Mekas shares that the filmmakers he presents and champions are not interested in the narrative but the poetic side of cinema. But this is not true for “Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground”, a straightforward doc about a larger-than-life character among a whole scene of larger-than-life characters. 

After her years in the New York underground, Rubin had a religious epiphany while driving by an Orthodox Jewish orphanage with her friends. She made them stop the car, jumped out, started working at the orphanage, and that was that—Rubin was out of the movie scene. She married one Orthodox Jew, then quickly divorced him and married another, and lived the rest of her life as a devout Hasid, first back in New York City and then in France, having child after child until she tragically died after giving birth to her fifth. 

Unfortunately, the film’s talking heads have very little insight into this change of direction, and the final word goes to Amy Taubin calling it unfathomable and almost a tragedy for the scene, for art. Perhaps we need to be reminded that Rubin always had spiritual yearnings; she felt betrayed by the scene she had helped to build; she wanted children and a family life; she felt that her art was ultimately hollow; she had mental illnesses going back to her teen years that were exacerbated by prolific drug use and being surrounded by addicts. She was always religiously curious and grappling with these things would have balanced the film’s narrative, stripping away some of the nostalgia from the middle of the film—which, while pleasant, doesn’t get to the heart of the matter of finding detect of her future change of lifestyle and the disintegration of that whole milieu.

Yet even with that, this is an amazing experience that is so much more than fascinating.

“Walter Benjamin Reimagined: A Graphic Translation of Poetry, Prose, Aphorisms, and Dreams” by Frances Cannon— Walter Benjamin’s Ideas, A Graphic Translation

Cannon, Frances. “Walter Benjamin Reimagined: A Graphic Translation of Poetry, Prose, Aphorisms, and Dreams”, The MIT Press, 2019.

Walter Benjamin’s ideas, A Graphic Translation

Amos Lassen

Walter Benjamin was a man of letters, an art critic, an essayist, a translator, a philosopher, a collector, and an urban flâneur. It was never enough just to see something, he had to experience it and thus in his writings he ambles, samples, and explores. In “Walter Benjamin Reimagined”, author Frances Cannon presents a visual and literary response to Benjamin’s work. Through detailed pen-and-ink drawings and hand-lettered text, Cannon takes us on an illuminated tour of Walter Benjamin’s thoughts―a graphic translation, an encyclopedia of fragments.

This is not only a guide to Benjamin’s greatest ideas it is also a beautifully rendered work of graphic literature. Benjamin’s words and Cannon’s drawings construct a creative topography of Benjamin’s writing. Phrases from “Unpacking My Library,” for example, are accompanied by images of flying papers, stray books, stacked books, books “not yet touched by the mild boredom of order”. We go through different periods of Benjamin’s writing: “Artifacts of Youth,” nostalgic musings on his childhood; “Fragments of a Critical Eye,” early writings, political observations, and cultural criticism; “Athenaeum of Imagination,” meditations on philosophy and psychology; “A Stroll through the Arcades,” Benjamin’s unfinished magnum opus; and “A Collection of Dreams and Stories,” experimental and fantastical writings. This is so much more than a feast for the eye and desert for the mind and is highly recommended. It is a “phantasmagorical tribute to Benjamin’s wandering eye.”

“Life of David Hockney: A Novel”— A Moving Portrait of the Artist

 

Cusset, Catherine. “Life of David Hockney: A Novel”, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Other Press, 2019.

A Moving Portrait of the Artist

Amos Lassen

David Hockney was born in 1937 in a small town in the north of England and he had to fight to become an artist. He left his home in Bradford for the Royal College of Art in London where his career flourished, but he didn’t. He struggled with a sense of not belonging, because of his sexuality, which at that time was still a criminal activity. Additionally his inclination for a figurative style of art was not yet sufficiently “contemporary” to be valued. He began taking trips to New York and California–where he would live for many years. He was introduced to new scenes and new loves. It was in this country that he confronted the fraught years of the AIDS epidemic.

This book is a hybrid of novel and biography that gives us a look at Hockney and we see him as a painter who shook the world of art with a vitality and freedom that “neither heartbreak nor illness nor loss could corrode.” Cusset follows Hockney from birth and she does so with sympathy and understanding. She captures “Hockney’s work with a deep, captivating sense of empathy and understanding.”  Hockney was a man striving for a life at odds with the world.

We cannot help but see how much Hockney loves what he does and he also happens to love swimming pools, beautiful boys, trees, and the English countryside.

 

“Yay! You’re Gay! Now What?: A Gay Boy’s Guide to Life” by Riyadh Khalaf— I Am Not Sure How to Feel About This Book

Khalaf, Riyadh. “Yay! You’re Gay! Now What?: A Gay Boy’s Guide to Life”, illustrated by Melissa McFeeters, Lincoln Children’s Books,2019.

I Am Not Sure How to Feel About This Book

Amos Lassen

I am by no means a prude but I do suppose that I am something of a contradiction when it comes to talking about sex. I still believe in discretion and that there are somethings that we just should not talk about. Therefore you can imagine how I felt when I saw a copy of  “Yay! You’re Gay! Now What?”. There are sections on “Awkward Boners”, “Wet Dreams”, “Circumcision”, “Doing it” and “Cumming”, to name just a few and they are illustrated. Sure, I guess my younger life would have been a good deal easier if I had had a guide such as this but then I would have missed out on learning about these topics myself.

We get the following words from the author who I understand is a journalist, a YouTuber and LGBT+ advocate who has quite a following.

“Yay! You’re gay! Or maybe you’re bi. Or maybe you just feel different… in time, that difference will become the greatest gift you could ask for. It will bring you love, a sense of identity, a new community, and eventually the freedom to be yourself. I promise!”

I read that this is meant to be a “personal, heartfelt go-to guide for young queer guys… [with] frank advice about everything from coming out to relationships, as well as interviews with inspirational queer role models, and encouragement for times when you’re feeling low.” There’s a support section for family and friends written by Riyadh’s parents and embarrassing stories from gay boys around the world. Aside from what I have already mentioned there are chapters on:
• Labels – what does it mean to be gay, bi, trans or queer?
• Coming out
• Your first crush
• Dealing with bullies
• Learning to love your body
• Sex ed for gay guys 
• Coping with embarrassing moments
• Finding your tribe

There are illustrations throughout.

Of course, it could be me but this is not a book that I would want an uninformed teen to find even though I am sure that it has been edited and re-edited. I am just not sure that this is a book we are ready for.

“We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation” by Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown— Pride in History

Riemer, Matthew and Leighton Brown. “We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation”, Ten Speed Press, 2019.

Pride in History

Amos Lassen

“We Are Everywhere” is a beautiful photographic history of the Queer Liberation Movement, from the creators and curators of the massively popular Instagram account @lgbt history. If you plan on adding a new book about the movement and pride, you should consider this striking volume that actually brought tears to my eyes more than once.

The photographs were shot through the lenses of protest, power, and pride making this book an essential and empowering introduction to the history of the fight for queer liberation. It combines researched narrative with meticulously curated photographs as it traces queer activism from its roots in late-nineteenth-century Europe and long before the l Stonewall Riots of 1969 to the gender warriors who are leading the charge today. We have more than 300 images from more than seventy photographers and twenty archives, this inclusive and intersectional book enables us to truly see our history unlike anything before. We have glimpses of activism in the decades preceding and following Stonewall, family life, marches, protests, celebrations, mourning, and Pride.

Here we challenge many of the assumptions that dominate mainstream LGBTQ+ history by showing readers how they can–and must–honor their queer past in order to shape our liberated future. It is the past that we see and read about here and it is the past that pushes us to the future. It is so important to know that the fight for justice and equality came together on the streets outside Stonewall, with brave patrons of a bar fighting back but this was neither the first nor the last time that we fought for equal rights. you need to read We Are Everywhere right now. Our history hasn’t been taught in schools; it’s been passed from person to person, whispered through the ages. But we whisper no more. We are on the pages of this book and we see  as Anderson Cooper says, “our pride and power, our blood and tears, our love and laughter. This is our fight, our history, and we must learn it, embrace it, and never, ever, forget all those who fought and died so that we may live.”

 

We are now living during a time when we once again feel repression against us and in order to move forward we must know and understand where we have been. This important book shows in words and pictures the proud legacy of resistance that we  have to draw upon, as we continue to fight today for freedom and justice. 

“We Are Everywhere” has something for everyone. In it we see queer people of all backgrounds and that “we have a history, a family, and a legacy to take pride in.”  It gives us  a chance to experience the queer past in all its complicated shades. We go beyond one-dimensional stories of gays and lesbians who are ‘just like everybody else. Writers Riemer and Brown show us the radicals— the bisexuals, the gender warriors, the women, the people of color, and the militants who have always led the fight for liberation. If we forget what we fought so hard for, we will feel the  consequences of forgetting. Photos and representation of the vital, powerful LGBTQ movement for equality and liberation are rare today and we are lucky to have these. Here are images of queer activist protest, lives, and power filled with the joy, anger, resilience, and impact of a movement that is still changing and making history.