Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Death and Other Happy Endings” by Melanie Cantor— Three Months to Live

Cantor, Melanie. Death and Other Happy Endings: A Novel”,   Pamela Dorman Books, 2019

Three Months to Live

Amos Lassen

Jennifer Cole has just learned that she has a terminal blood disorder and has just three months to live. During the coming 90 days, Jennifer has to say goodbye to friends and family, and to put her affairs in order. She focuses on the positives about her impending death and has only has one regret: the relationships she’s lost.

Jennifer decides to stay put and write a letter to the three most significant people in her life, to say the things she wished she’d said before but never dared: her sister, Harry, her ex-husband and Andy, her ex-boyfriend–and finally tell them the truth. 

The news of her death acts as a cleansing and cathartic agent and she gains a sense of liberation. After sending out letters, her ex-boyfriend comes to her and she begins to find a way to speak with her sister who agrees to see her only after knowing that Jennifer is not contagious. Jennifer quickly sees that once you starts telling the truth, it’s hard to stop and soon discovers, the truth isn’t always as straightforward as it seems, and death has a way of surprising you.

The title leads us to think that this is going to be quite a depressing read but it is the opposite and as we can imagine, it is not easy to write a comedy about death. Actually, this is a light read that is entertaining while making us think what we would do in the same situation.

By writing the letters and being part of what follows, Jennifer gets closure in this story of love, loss, friendship and facing the end of your life. I found Jennifer’s story to be empowering. This is certainly a book that book clubs can have a lot of fun and stimulating discussions with. The prose is sweet and the style is simple and I mean that as a compliment.

“NEMESIS SEQUEL TRILOGY”— The Future Just Got Darker

Nemesis: Sequel Trilogy Nemesis 2: Nebula / Nemesis 3: Time Lapse / Nemesis 4: Cry of Angels

“THE FUTURE JUST GOT DARKER!”

Amos Lassen

Coming to us is the Nemesis Trilogy made up of the following:

NEMESIS 2: NEBULA: 73 years after the events in NEMESIS, humans have lost the Cyborg Wars and they are now slaves to the cyborg masters. Rebel scientists have developed a new DNA strain, which could signal the end of the cyborgs, and it is injected it into a pregnant volunteer. When the cyborgs learn of the woman and her baby, both are listed for termination. To escape, the woman steals a cyborg ship and is transported back in time to East Africa in 1980, where the mother is killed, but the baby is saved. It takes 20 years, but a cyborg bounty hunter named Nebula (Chad Stahelski, John Wick) eventually locates the young woman, named Alex (Sue Price), and travels back in time to terminate her.

NEMESIS 3: TIME LAPSE: Alex finds that she has twenty half-sisters who are waiting for her to return to the year 2077. Central Command wants Alex (Sue Price) captured alive and scanned to see if her DNA is a strong and more powerful strain than normal. But Alex may be too tough for Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson, Near Dark) to capture.

NEMESIS 4: CRY OF ANGELS: Following an uneasy ceasefire between the humans and the cyborgs, Alex Sinclair (Sue Price) is making a living in the future working as a cybernetically-enhanced assassin for her boss Bernardo (Andrew Divoff, Wishmaster). But when Alex accidentally targets the wrong man and kills the son of a major crime syndicate head, she finds herself on the run once again as every assassin in town comes to collect the bounty on her.

SPECIAL FEATURES include: 

  High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of all three films (Nemesis 2 & 3 Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1, Nemesis 4 Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1)

  Audio: 2.0 Stereo

  Albert Pyun talks Nemesis 2 (SD, 30:39)

  Albert Pyun talks Nemesis 3 (SD, 17:00)

  Albert Pyun talks Nemesis 4 (SD, 19:38)

  Original Theatrical Trailers for all three films

Announcing the 31st Annual Lambda Literary Award Finalists

Announcing the 31st Annual
Lambda Literary Award Finalists

(those marked with an asterisk have been reviewed here at reviewsbyamoslassen.com)

This year’s Lambda Literary Award finalists were selected by a panel of over 60 literary professionals who spent countless hours reading a record number of submissions from over 300 publishers. Today, we’re excited to announce the finalists in 24 categories.

Finalists will be celebrated and winners will be announced at the Awards Ceremony and Gala (the Lammys) the evening of Monday, June 3, 2019 in New York City. Tickets go on sale today.

Please join us in celebrating the following authors and their literary accomplishments.

FICTION

Lesbian Fiction

La Bastarda, Trifonia Melibea Obono, Translated by Lawrence Schimel, The Feminist Press at CUNY
The Evolution of Love, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Rare Bird Books
The Fifth Woman, Nona Caspers, Sarabande Books
Maggie Terry, Sarah Schulman, The Feminist Press at CUNY
Pretend We Live Here, Genevieve Hudson, Future Tense Books
*Sodom Road Exit, Amber Dawn, Arsenal Pulp Press
The Tiger Flu, Larissa Lai, Arsenal Pulp Press
Two Moons: Stories, Krystal A. Smith, BLF Press

Gay Fiction

Drapetomania, or the Narrative of Cyrus Tyler and Abednego Tyler, Lovers, John R. Gordon, Team Angelica Publishing
History of Violence: A Novel, Édouard Louis, Translated by Lorin Stein, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The House of Impossible Beauties: A Novel, Joseph Cassara, HarperCollins / Ecco
Jonny Appleseed, Joshua Whitehead, Arsenal Pulp Press
Luminous Traitor: The Just and Daring Life of Roger Casement, a Biographical Novel, Martin Duberman, University of California Press
Some Hell: A Novel, Patrick Nathan, Graywolf Press
Speak No Evil, A Novel, Uzodinma Iweala, HarperCollins / Harper
State of the Nation, David Jackson Ambrose, The TMG Firm

Bisexual Fiction

Behind These Doors: Radical Proposals Book 1, Jude Lucens, Greenwose Books
The Best Bad Things: A Novel, Katrina Carrasco, MCD / FSG
Bhopal Dance: A Novel, Jennifer Natalya Fink, University of Alabama Press / FC2
Disoriental, Négar Djavadi, Translated by Tina Kover, Europa Editions
Jilted, Lilah Suzanne, Interlude Press
The Origin of Doubt: Fifty Short Fictions, Nathan Alling Long, Press 53
Palmetto Rose, J.E. Sumerau, Brill / Sense
The Wild Birds, Emily Strelow, Rare Bird Books / A Barnacle Book

Transgender Fiction

Confessions of the Fox: A Novel, Jordy Rosenberg, One World / Random House
Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi, Grove Atlantic / Grove Press
Invasions, Calvin Gimpelevich, Instar Books
Little Fish, Casey Plett, Arsenal Pulp Press
*Sketchtasy, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Arsenal Pulp Press

POETRY

Lesbian Poetry

Body Work, Emilia Nielsen, Signature Editions
Each Tree Could Hold a Noose or a House, Nina Puro, New Issues Poetry & Prose
Evolution, Eileen Myles, Grove Atlantic / Grove Press
Gaze Back, Marylyn Tan, Ethos Books
Obits., Tess Liem, Coach House Books
Past Lives, Future Bodies, Kristin Chang, Black Lawrence Press
Surge, Etel Adnan, Nightboat Books
Who Is Trixie the Trasher? And Other Questions, Jane Miller, Copper Canyon Press

Gay Poetry

ESL or You Weren’t Here, Aldrin Valdez, Nightboat Books
Indecency, Justin Phillip Reed, Coffee House Press
Inquisition, Kazim Ali, Wesleyan University Press
Junk, Tommy Pico, Tin House Books
Not Here, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Coffee House Press
Stereo(TYPE), Jonah Mixon-Webster, Ahsahta Press
Unfinished Sketches of a Revolution, Brane Mozetič, Translated by Barbara Jursa, Talisman House Publishers
Wild Is the Wind: Poems, Carl Phillips, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Bisexual Poetry (*new category for the 31st Annual Lammys)

Cenzontle, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, BOA Editions Ltd.
If They Come for Us, Fatimah Asghar, Random House / One World
Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore: Love Poems, Frances Donovan, Reaching Press / Createspace
My Woman Card Is anti-Native & Other Two-Spirit Truths, Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
We Play a Game, Duy Doan, Yale University Press

Transgender Poetry

Heal Your Love, Luna Merbruja, biyuti publishing
Holy Wild, Gwen Benaway, Book*hug Press
If the Color Is Fugitive, Sara Mithra, Nomadic Press
Lo Terciario / The Tertiary, Raquel Salas Rivera, Timeless, Infinite Light
Some Animal, Ely Shipley, Nightboat Books

NONFICTION

Bisexual Nonfiction

Many Love: A Memoir of Polyamory and Finding Love(s), Sophie Lucido Johnson, Simon & Schuster, Inc. / Touchstone
No Archive Will Restore You, Julietta Singh, Punctum Books / 3Ecologies Imprint
Out of Step: A Memoir, Anthony Moll, The Ohio State University Press

Transgender Nonfiction

*Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man, Thomas Page McBee, Scribner
Histories of the Transgender Child, Julian Gill-Peterson, University of Minnesota Press
*I’m Afraid of Men, Vivek Shraya, Penguin Canada
Mobile Subjects: Transnational Imaginaries of Gender Reassignment, Aren Z. Aizura, Duke University Press
*The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, Joy Ladin, Brandeis University Press

LGBTQ Nonfiction

The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-Sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago’s First Century, Jim Elledge, Chicago Review Press
Butch Heroes, Ria Brodell, The MIT Press
Has the Gay Movement Failed?, Martin Duberman, University of California Press
Ladies Lazarus, Piper J. Daniels, Tarpaulin Sky Press
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, Imani Perry, Beacon Press
*No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas, C.J. Janovy, University Press of Kansas
Resistance: The LGBT Fight Against Fascism in WWII, Avery Cassell, Stacked Deck Press
Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, Charlene A. Carruthers, Beacon Press

MYSTERY

Lesbian Mystery

A Matter of Blood, Catherine Maiorisi, Bella Books
A Study in Honor: A Novel, Claire O’Dell, HarperCollins / HarperVoyager
A Whisper of Bones: A Jane Lawless Mystery, Ellen Hart, Minotaur Books
Alice Isn’t Dead: A Novel, Joseph Fink, Harper Perennial
Gnarled Hollow, Charlotte Greene, Bold Strokes Books
The Locket, Gerri Hill, Bella Books
Secrets of the Last Castle, A. Rose Mathieu, Bold Strokes Books
Stolen: A Kieran Yeats Mystery, Linda J. Wright, Cats Paw Books

Gay Mystery

Black Diamond Fall, Joseph Olshan, Polis Books
Boystown 11: Heart’s Desire, Marshall Thornton, Kenmore Books
Death Checks In, David S. Pederson, Bold Strokes Books
Dodging and Burning: A Mystery, John Copenhaver, Pegasus Books
TheGod Game: A Dan Sharp Mystery, Jeffrey Round, Dundurn
Late Fees: A Pinx Video Mystery, Marshall Thornton, Kenmore Books
Somewhere Over Lorain Road, Bud Gundy, Bold Stroke Books
Survival Is a Dying Art: An Angus Green Novel, Neil S. Plakcy, Samwise Books

ROMANCE

Lesbian Romance

Autumn’s Light, Aurora Rey, Bold Strokes Books
Beowolf For Cretins: A Love Story, Ann McMan, Bywater Books
Breaking Down Her Walls, Erin Zak, Bold Strokes Books
Charming the Vicar, Jenny Frame, Bold Strokes Books
In Development, Rachel Spangler, Brisk Press
Just For Show, Jae, Ylva Publishing
The Music And The Mirror, Lola Keeley, Ylva Publishing
The Talebearer, Sheri Lewis Wohl, Bold Strokes Books

Gay Romance

The CEO’s Christmas Manny, Angela McCallister, Dreamspinner Press
Crashing Upwards, S.C. Wynne, self-published
Detour, Reesa Herberth & Michelle Moore, Riptide Publishing
Learn with Me, Kris Jacen, MLR Press, LLC
No Luck, Kayleigh Sky, Kiss Drunk Books
Of Sunlight and Stardust, Christina Lee & Riley Hart, self-published
Point of Contact, Melanie Hansen, Carina Press
Undue Influence: A Persuasion Retelling, Jenny Holiday, self-published

MEMOIR/BIOGRAPHY

Lesbian Memoir/Biography

Apocalypse, Darling, Barrie Jean Borich, Mad Creek Books / The Ohio State University Press
Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography, Julia Van Haaften, W. W. Norton & Company
A Certain Loneliness: A Memoir, Sandra Gail Lambert, University of Nebraska Press
Chronology, Zahra Patterson, Ugly Duckling Presse
Food Was Her Country: The Memoir of a Queer Daughter, Marusya Bociurkiw, Dagger Editions
MINE: Essays, Sarah Viren, University of New Mexico Press
*My Butch Career: A Memoir, Esther Newton, Duke University Press
nîtisânak, Lindsay Nixon, Metonymy Press

Gay Memoir/Biography

*Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death, Lillian Faderman, Yale University Press
*How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee, Bloomsbury Publishing
No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America, Darnell L. Moore, Bold Type Books
On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, Deray Mckesson, Viking
The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens: A Memoir of the Beales, the Maysles Brothers and Jacqueline Kennedy, Jerry Torre & Tony Maietta, Querelle Press
The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, Jeffrey C. Stewart, Oxford University Press
The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, Edmund White, Bloomsbury Publishing
There Will Be No Miracles Here: A Memoir, Casey Gerald, Penguin Random House

LGBTQ

Anthology

As You Like It: The Gerald Kraak Anthology Volume II, The Other Foundation, Jacana Media
Beyond II: The Queer Post-Apocalyptic & Urban Fantasy Comic Anthology, Taneka Stotts & Sfé R. Monster, Beyond Press
Foglifter Volume 3, Issue 1, Miah Jefra, Chad Koch, et al., Foglifter Press
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, Roxane Gay, HarperCollins / Harper Perennial
Q2Q: Queer Canadian Performance Texts, Peter Dickinson, C.E. Gatchalian, Kathleen Oliver, Dalbir Singh, Playwrights Canada Press
Sista!: An Anthology of Writing By and About Same Gender Loving Women of African/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, Rikki Beadle-Blair, John R. Gordon, Team Angelica Publishing
Spawning Generations: Rants and Reflections on Growing Up with LGBTQ Parents, Sadie Epstein-Fine & Makeda Zook, Demeter Press
Written on the Body: Letters from Trans and Non-Binary Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, Lexie Bean, Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Children’s/Young Adult

Anger Is a Gift: A Novel, Mark Oshiro, Tor Teen
The Dangerous Art of Blending In, Angelo Surmelis, HarperCollins / Balzer & Bray
Darius the Great Is Not Okay, Adib Khorram, Dial
Girl Made of Stars, Ashley Herring Blake, Houghton Mifflin & Little, Brown
Hurricane Child, Kheryn Callender, Scholastic / Scholastic Press
The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo, HarperCollins / HarperTeen
Sawkill Girls, Claire Legrand, HarperCollins / Katherine Tegen Books
This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, Kheryn Callender, HarperCollins / Balzer + Bray

Drama

Black Light, Daniel Alexander Jones, produced by The Public Theater
Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties, Jen Silverman, Samuel French, Inc.
Draw the Circle, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen, Dramatists Play Service
Plot Points in Our Sexual Development, Miranda Rose Hall, produced by LCT3 at Lincoln Center Theater
Singlet, Erin Markey, produced by The Bushwick Starr

Erotica

Best Lesbian Erotica of the Year, Volume 3, Sacchi Green, Cleis Press
Crossplay, Niki Smith, Iron Circus Comics
Gents: Steamy Stories From the Age of Steam, Matthew Bright, Lethe Press
The Lurid Sea, Tom Cardamone, Bold Strokes Books
Miles & Honesty in SCFSX!, Blue Delliquanti & Kazimir Lee, self-published

Graphic Novels

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, Mark Russell (Writer), Sean Parsons, Mark Morales, Howard Porter, Mike Feehan (Illustrators), DC Entertainment
The Lie and How We Told It, Tommi Parrish, Fantagraphics Books
Love Letters to Jane’s World, Paige Braddock, Lion Forge
On a Sunbeam, Tillie Walden, First Second / Roaring Brook Press
Our Wretched Town Hall, Eric Kostiuk Williams, Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics
The Pervert, Michelle Perez (Writer), Remy Boydell (Illustrator), Image Comics
Unpacking, Steve MacIsaac, Northwest Press
We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology, Jeanne Thornton & Tara Madison Avery, Stacked Deck Press

Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror

The Barrow Will Send What It May, Margaret Killjoy, Tor.com
The Breath of the Sun, Isaac R. Fellman, Aqueduct
The Descent of Monsters, JY Yang, Tor.com
Forget the Sleepless Shores, Sonya Taaffe, Lethe Press
In the Vanishers’ Palace, Aliette de Bodard, JABberwocky
Metabolize, If Able, Clay AD, Monster House Press
Resilience, Fletcher DeLancey, Heartsome Publishing
Witchmark, C.L. Polk, Tor.com

LGBTQ Studies

Black. Queer. Southern. Women.: An Oral History, E. Patrick Johnson, University of North Carolina Press
Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean, Lyndon K. Gill, Duke University Press
Gay, Inc.: The Nonprofitization of Queer Politics, Myrl Beam, University of Minnesota Press
Herlands: Exploring the Women’s Land Movement in the United States, Keridwen N. Luis, University of Minnesota Press
Media and the Coming Out of Gay Male Athletes in American Team Sports, Andrew Billings & Leigh Moscowitz, Peter Lang International Academic Publishers
Post-Borderlandia: Chicana Literature and Gender Variant Critique, T. Jackie Cuevas, Rutgers University Press
Semi Queer: Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers, Anne Balay, University of North Carolina Press
Toxic Silence: Race, Black Gender Identity, and Addressing the Violence Against Black Transgender Women in Houston, William T. Hoston, Peter Lang International Academic Publishe

“The Handyman’s History” by Nick Poff— The Handyman is Finally Back

Poff, Nick. “The Handyman’s History”,  (“The Handyman” Series), Old Spruce Productions, 2019.

The Handyman is Finally Back

Amos Lassen

I have often wondered what happened to Nick Poff’s, “The Handyman Series; I remembered that I had read and reviewed the three books that made up the series and then I received a surprise when book 4 arrived in the mail. Our handyman, Ed Stephens, as it was once the gay everyman for me (like his creator Nick Poff). He is not necessarily one of the guys and he is most certainly not a stereotype—- he just happens to be a man who likes men.

The past year has not been good for Ed and his partner, Rick Benton; their benefactor, Hilda Penfield died and they miss the peace they once shared at Penfield Manor and hope that it will return after they finish being the hosts for Claire’s (Rick’s sister) wedding to Matt Croasdale. Just as they thought that things were quieting down, Rick’s boss, Vince, involves the in some new activities. Ed and Rick both find themselves involved in new activities. Vince suddenly realizes the opportunities that are available in the sudden expansion of Porterfield. He and Rick have become the leaders for an important redevelopment project and Ed’s innocent suggestions about the revival of a local festival leads to his becoming a member of the Porterfield Days Association, and the additional responsibilities that go along with that.

It’s Rick’s discovery of a tombstone in a town cemetery that caught Ed’s curiosity about the background of his father’s family and he questions the relationship that he and his father shared. Ed hopes by knowing about and learning some of the Stephens family secrets will help him deal with his unresolved feelings and hopefully put them to bed forever. Now if you have read any the precursors to this, you will recognize some of the returning characters— Norma, Ed’s mother with a tongue as sharp as a razor and a quick mind, Laurie, Ed’s sister and Effie Maude, the housekeeper at Penfield Manor and who entertains Ed and Rick with her observations and what she has to say. Friend Gordy is also back and he see him really trying to build a relationship in the early years of AIDS. I am so glad that Poff included AIDS in the story; we can never allow ourselves to forget the disease or who we lost. As AIDS spreads, we see the hostility of the larger community and the lack of tolerance and compassion that we need to bury our dead with honor.

It is 1985 and the epidemic is at its height. Ed is forced to deal with the reality  of being a gay man in a small town but he gets support from a client of his who is visually impaired he unexpectedly finds support from two unlikely sources, a visually impaired client and a new clergyman in town. With “The Handyman’s History”, I was able to meander with my memories while also using them as well as a basis for then and now. It is those who are not here, those who paid the ultimate price with their lives so that we can be who we are that are important to us. And yes, those who lived through AIDS like Ed and Rick, they too are heroes. As we move forward and backwards, we see the need for each other and we watch as Ed and Rick become more and more committed to each other.

Now I need a moment to admonish Nick Poff and let him know that we do not want to have to wait for years in between books. We had to wait for eleven years for this  one and while it was worth the wait, you could have also written another ten during that period. You have too much talent to keep it to yourself.

While I know I did not go into detail about the plot here, there is a reason for that. This is a book that I love and when that happens I am reluctant to share because I want it for me. Also by not summarizing, I get to see what others think.

“We Cast a Shadow” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin— Protecting His Son

Ruffin, Maurice Carlos. “We Cast a Shadow: A Novel”, One World, 2019.

Protecting His Son

Amos Lassen

Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the story of  a father’s obsessive quest to protect his son even if it means turning him white.

Dr. Nzinga’s clinic is like the fountain of youth in a sense. The doctor has a seductive promise that “You can be beautiful, even more beautiful than before.” Anyone can get their lips thinned, their skin bleached, and their nose narrowed or even a complete change of skin color that will liberate you from the confines of being born in a black body. You just need to be able to afford it.

Set in a near-future Southern city that faces fenced-in ghettos and police violence, more and more residents are turning to this experimental medical procedure. Like any father, our narrator wants the best for his son, Nigel, who is a biracial boy whose black birthmark is getting bigger by the day. The darker Nigel becomes, the more frightened his father is.

Is this a hallucinatory novel or can one change his color so freely? “We Cast a Shadow” is a sharp satire of surviving racism in America as well as a profoundly moving family story. At its center is a father who just wants his son to do well in a broken world and this book is not afraid to show things as they are and exposes the   the violence we inherit, and on the desperate things we do for those we love.

Ruffin takes on the issue of race at the core of the American experience. The nameless narrator’s love and concern for protecting his son in a near-future dystopia where there are oblique references to nuclear war, revolutions, and widespread civil unrest is the focal point for considering the issue of race in America. Our characters come from all races and colors and they are engaged “in a full, spectrum of complex ways, from protest, to malicious compliance, to defiance, to outright radicalization.” Ultimately though, by the narrator’s actions and various description of his “fractured psyche” we see the true cost of the struggle that involves and implicates all of us as we look to the future of America and the world

Author Ruffin anchors the race talks on a very relatable and engaging father/son story and from there on its classic dynamics of familiar relations presented against the context of a racially divided social order somewhere in the South. The father is well intentioned yet tragic; a black man who has done every possible thing to fit in and prosper in a society where black men seldom do and are so obsessed with white supremacy that many choose to alter their appearance to suit the social norm (remember Michael Jackson white?). The tragedy comes when he tries to quite literally whitewash his young biracial son to give him better chances in the world. He balances his career and his marriage, while dealing with his own difficult relationship with his father and keeping this balance by chemical means and holding on too tightly to things he values the most only to watch them all slip away. As a white man, I found the story to be devastating at times, especially towards the end.

Because this is a satire, so it’s also darkly humorous at times, especially the first chapter. Ruffin cleverly provokes us and feeds the mind while entertaining us. We connect emotionally with the characters as we think about what is really going on here. This satire has power and meaning and we pay attention and think about what we read. We see that it is possible to talk about race if done so in the right way (whatever that means).

The unnamed father whose lack of self-confidence and yearning for his son’s acceptance in the world is using every medical treatment possible in this near future world to make his son as white as possible. This is, of course, a misguided attempt is at odds with his wife and is so expensive that the narrator is doing whatever he can at work to move up, despite his not loving his job and the people who work there. His past begins to catch up with him and with his addiction to hallucinogens, the narrator views of right and wrong becomes more and more askew. Of course, it is nice to see a man who loves his son so much that he will do anything for him. He is a man who is teetering on the edge of not only a breakdown, but on the edge of right and wrong.

He believes that being black is bad and no matter what obstacles are put in his way and what rational thought is presented to him, he believes the only way his son, who has a noticeable black birthmark on his white skin, will find happiness in the world is if his skin is as white as possible. While his views are to the extreme and therefore flawed, we  feel sorry for the man.

“BY INVITATION ONLY”— The Elite New Orleans Mardi Gras

“By Invitation Only”

The Elite New Orleans Mardi Gras

Amos Lassen

New Orleans filmmaker Rebecca Snedeker explores the insular world of the elite, white Carnival societies and debutante balls of New Orleans Mardi Gras. She questions their racial exclusivity, she takes an unprecedented insider’s look at the pageantry and asks: what does it mean to be the queen of the masked men? As she examines her own place in this tradition, she challenges viewers to reflect on the roles we all play in our lives. I love Mardi Gras but there is no place for me in it as a gay Jewish male raised, educated and bred in New Orleans. I have had many debutantes as friends, I have taught two queens of carnival and many of my former students hold esteemed places in New Orleans society and Mardi Gras tradition. I was invited to a very exclusive ball only to have my invitation withdrawn when it was learned that I am “of Jewish heritage” whatever that means.

For anyone who wants to understand racism and white privilege, this film is a must-see. Rebecca Snedeker declined her opportunity at a white glove and gown entrance to formal local society, her film “By Invitation Only” is both memoir and documentary as Snedeker reveals her own choice not to participate while she follows one friend’s paths through the process of preparing for a debutante ball and reigning as a Carnival queen. She interviews friends and family along the way, questioning them about the nature of a tradition with racially segregated origins. Gaining access to private parties and permission to film one of the balls help expose the krewes’ aura of secrecy, asking whether the “By Invitation Only” is a unique examination of class and race privilege, and shows us just how deeply embedded are the structures of entitlement and expectation for members of the ruling class, not only in New Orleans, frankly, but nationwide. New Orleans just happens to be the society on display here and the fact that it has Mardi Gras makes it truly unique. Snedeker explores the ways in which this system not only dehumanizes those who stand outside of it, but even those for whom its benefits were intended. “By Invitation Only” is a great place to start to understandof what was broken with the American class and race systems, long before Hurricane Katrina.  

Just imagine being in the center of New Orleans debutante and Carnival traditions and saying no to it all— the power and privilege. Snedeker had beauty, brains, money, and entitlement. “She records her stepping back, rethinking, reconsidering, reorienting herself into a wider way of being in the world, outside of the social and emotional prisons of her caste, class, and racial position.” She gives up some unearned privilege and lives a stronger and more coherent life as a result.

This is a personal documentary in which the filmmaker rubs against the upper-crust Mardi Gras traditions of her society family, realizing there’s no place in the celebrations for her African-American boyfriend. Here is her take on class and race that traces 100 years of parallel New Orleans history, both white and black.

This is a fascinating insider’s documentary on New Orleans’ Mardi Gras world of floats and parades, “and how racial exclusivity white kings and queens ruling an unreconstructed antebellum aristocracy of color—masks itself as innocuous family tradition and holiday reveling.” She gave up her own chance of a crown, but she comes out as a queen of a new realm.

New Orleans does not change easily and we saw that in the amount of time it took for the removal of the Confederate monuments. There were protests, arrests, and a Lamborghini burned to a crisp. When Rebecca Snedeker brought cameras into the covert world of New Orleans’ Carnival royalty to create a documentary questioning its traditions, she expected a backlash. And she was correct.

“Part of what’s so challenging about speaking up about a tradition when you’re part of it is you have relationships. So if you put your foot out or say anything about this being wrong, it’s like you’re offending everyone.”

I remember seeing the photos in New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune of that year’s debutantes, but I couldn’t understand what they represented and why at Mardi Gras the front page of the paper would unveil, with fanfare, the identities of Rex and the Queen of Carnival.

New Orleans has confronted tough questions about racism and Mardi Gras more than once. We are in the midst of a citywide conversation about whether Zulu should continue to parade in blackface. The City Council once weighed in to force Carnival krewes to integrate. But in year two of #MeToo, we somehow still haven’t gotten around to talking about the role women play in this annual show of pageantry.

Snedeker, now the James H. Clark executive director at Tulane University’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, attempted to start this conversation with this 2006 documentary. The film screened at various festivals, including the New Orleans Film Festival, and collected a number of accolades. In it, she followed a woman through her transformation into a Carnival queen while also asking pointed questions about the racial and gendered history of the tradition.

“By Invitation Only” also pointed to party invitations with racist language and imagery, framed the history of debutantes as a means for high society in the South to maintain a white ruling class by “protecting” their daughters from interracial relationships, and characterized the krewes’ (name for Mardi Gras organizations)  royal-themed costuming as an outgrowth of wealthy Southerners who yearned for the days when they were masters of their own plantations. While Snedeker is no longer part of that inner world, she says from her view on the outside looking in, not much has changed.

A Rex official was asked about women’s roles in that organization. “It’s held to a very fast tradition without a lot changing in terms of the role of the queen or courts or the presentation method at each ball,” he said. “It’s very traditional and customary, and that’s part of the mystique and allure of this very unique celebration.”

The Rex official asked not to be named in keeping with the traditions of that organization and he said the young women who participate do not receive any formal education into the history of New Orleans debutantes. Former queen of Carnival and the current trainer for Rex monarchs Shelby Westfeldt Mills said she does try to include some history when she works with the court. That training primarily focuses on how participants should carry themselves during the presentation, a physical manifestation that “what they’re representing is for the public,” Mills said.

“Part of the tradition is the annual reveal of Rex and his queen. The Times-Picayune features both on the front page of the newspaper, their faces framed in gold. We present these two locals as consorts, equals, saying to the world that this man and this woman are worthy of our admiration. It casts a striking image.

While the man selected by his fellow Rex members to reign as king for the day is typically older — in the past decade, they’ve been between 54 and 75 — and considered a city leader, the woman is a debutante. She’s typically 21, a junior in college. She’s got varying interests and hobbies, perhaps an extensive record of volunteering, though usually no career yet. In one profile our newspaper presented in the past decade, she’s described as “willowy” with dimples.

But regardless of how they spend their free time, it’s not the women who are being honored; it’s their fathers and grandfathers. With every Carnival that passes, we endorse the stereotype that men become more valuable as they age, and women devalue with it.

As New Orleans-born author and former debutante C. Morgan Babst explained, “He’s at his highest value as a captain of industry or whatever. And she’s at her highest value at 21. … That’s the roots of this tradition.”

Babst wrote an essay about her experiences for the online Lenny Letter, after which she said she, like Snedeker, received thanks from other former debutantes for opening up about the ambivalence and strangeness they felt in continuing their family traditions.

Mills, the Rex trainer, looks back on her day as queen of Carnival in 2003 “as something I’ll never forget,” and she impresses upon new queens that it’s really meant to be a fun experience. She hadn’t considered the age difference between her and Rex that day as anything strange until out-of-town friends pressed her on it.

“That’s just what I knew it to be,” Mills said, calling it “two different honors.”

“I can see how that might seem strange – that the dates for the evening have that age difference – but it’s more, I think, for the pageantry,” she said. “You’re putting on a show, and I think the girls making their debut, that’s always been the age they’ve been.”

New Orleans itself has changed in recent years. The influx of newcomers after Hurricane Katrina and the slow development of the tech industry have introduced new faces among the city’s elite and powerful. Meanwhile, the ability to parade on New Orleans’ streets during Mardi Gras has grown more egalitarian with the rise of various krewes boasting lower barriers to entry.

But many Carnival organizations continue to segregate membership by gender. For women who want to parade or fully participate in New Orleans Mardi Gras, that often means not joining a group but forming a whole new one.

Though Carnival organizations overall have become more accessible to those without entrée to the city’s predominantly white high society, the group from which the queen or Rex is chosen, and the court presented to them, remains unchanged.

The Rex official said the organization had never had a debutante with a same-sex escort. The organization, he said, has had debutantes who were people of color, but their escorts have not been. “I will only say we do have African American members of the organization,” he said. “But it’s all been very traditional.”

The official said both his daughters participated in Rex’s annual presentation, and one of them was Carnival queen. Neither of his daughters, however, “would construe their being queens of Mardi Gras as necessarily defining in terms of who they have become as young women.”

It’s tempting to brush all this aside, to say it doesn’t matter, that it’s all make-believe for a specific segment of society. But how we fancy ourselves, how we play — these are all reflections of who we are. And have we not changed in the past 200 years?

“There are so many different shifts that could happen,” Snedeker said of the tradition, suggesting debutantes learn the complicated history of what they’re taking part in, or the allowance of same-sex escorts or those who are people of color. “Is there room in the tradition for everyone to be true to themselves?”

If the sorts of rites of passage we celebrate throughout our lives can’t grow and change and modernize, then they lose their ability to be deeply impactful experiences that mark the chapters of who we become.

By holding too tightly to the traditions of our past, we lose their connection to what’s meaningful in our present.

“Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou” by Ken Wells— 250 Years of Gumbo

Wells, Ken. “Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou”, W.W. Norton, 2019.

250 Years of Gumbo

Amos Lassen

Ken Wells shares a personal narrative about gumbo and that it has been for 250 years a Cajun and Creole secret and has become one of the world’s most beloved dishes. Of course every gumbo recipe is secret and has a secret ingredient that only each individual mother knows and it is different with each off them. Such a secret!!!!!!!! And I believe it since gumbo tastes different wherever you have it.

Any self-respecting Louisianan will tell you that his “Momma: makes the best gumbo. It remains the product of a melting pot of culinary influences and gumbo totally reflects the diversity of the people who cooked it up: French aristocrats, West Africans in bondage, Cajun refugees, German settlers, Native Americans; all of them have had a hand in the pot and therefore added to or subtracted from the recipe. So what is it about gumbo that continues to delight and nourish so many and what explains its spread around the world?

Ken Wells is a journalist who goes after the answer to these questions. He returns to his childhood in Cajun Bayou Black, where his French-speaking mother’s gumbo often began with a chicken that had been chased down in the yard. When he was a young man, gumbo was a soup that was little known beyond the borders of Louisiana. While at college in Missouri, Wells realized there wasn’t a restaurant that could handle his gumbo cravings so he called his momma for the recipe. The gumbo that was a result of that phone chat was a disaster but it became the impetus for him to explore gumbo’s roots and mysteries. That is what this book does.

Wells spends time with octogenarian chefs who produce gourmet gumbo; he joins a team at a highly competitive gumbo contest and visits a factory that makes gumbo by the ton. He observes the gumbo-making rituals of an iconic New Orleans restaurant where high-end Creole cooking and Cajun cuisine came together for the first time.

Wells has traveled the Gumbo Belt researching, recording, and tasting the many different interpretations of gumbo and he has recipes, He knows gumbo and its sources and its history making “this required reading for gumbo aficionados and addicts, and those who aspire to be.” He tells us that gumbo’s history is “the story of jazz but writ in food”. The Colonial French brought the roux, the Cajuns amped it up, creating a dark roux that would forever change gumbo. Spanish pioneers contributed spices from their colonies in North Africa and the Caribbean. File, ground-sassafras powder and an early gumbo staple came directly from the Choctaw Native American tribe. German settlers took the French andouille sausage and re-smoked it, slaves from West Africa and the islands came to Louisiana with okra and rice stews that were early gumbo prototypes and so on and so on. It is interesting that the word okra in African Bantu dialect is “ki ngombo” and here is where gumbo got its name.”

And I am sitting here  in Boston watching the snow fall on March 3 as New Orleans is celebrating Mardi Gras and I am coveting (yes coveting) a big bowl of gumbo. I can actually smell it,

 

 

As we read, we understand that gumbo is more than delicious; it is also an attitude, a way of seeing the world. Wells has written a memoir that we can almost taste and when I read it for a second time, I will have a bowl of gumbo in front of me. There is more than talk of gumbo here; Wells shares growing up on the bayou, skinning squirrels and meeting the different personalities he grew up with. This is history that most of us do not know about—I knew some from having been raised in New Orleans but the bayou is truly unique.

“Wunderland: A Novel” by Jennifer Cody Epstein— An Intimate Look at an Intimate Friendship

Epstein, Jennifer Cody. “Wunderland A Novel”,  Crown, 2019.

An Intimate Look at an Intimate Friendship

Amos Lassen

There are some books that have the “Wow” factor all the way through and there are some that have it from the very first sentence. This is the case with “Wunderland”. After reading just the first sentence I could tell that I would be doing nothing else until I finished the entire book. I was so glad that the weather was so lousy that I was confined to the house anyway but I was also locked in because I wanted to be. For the rest of the day it was me and “Wunderland”. Very basically this is the story of a friendship and motherhood against the backdrop of war.

Jennifer Cody Epstein begins her story in 1989 in New York’s East Village where we meet Ava Fisher and see that she and her mother, Ilse and she have a tenuous relationship even though they are estranged. Ava has so many unanswered questions— Who was her father? Where had her been during the war? Why had she left her only child in a German orphanage during the war’s final months?  Ava has just received her mother’s ashes from Germany and this reopens old wounds that have never really closed. With the ashes came a bunch of unsent letters  addressed to Renate Bauer, a name that Ava has never heard before and she learns was a childhood friend of her mother. The letters tell the story of her Ilse’s past that is causing Ava to sink into serious depression. Ava realizes that she never really knew her mother.

We go back in time to 1933 and to Berlin. The Nazi party tightens its grip on the city and Ilse and Renate find their friendship is like the German people— under siege with Ilse’s increasing involvement in the Hitler Youth movement and outs the two girls on opposing sides. Then the Nuremburg Laws force Renate to confront a long-buried past, and a major betrayal begins. We do not often get war stories told from the women’s point of view as we do here and it is a fascinating look at the most horrible period in the history of the world. The amount of research that writer Epstein did to bring us this story is staggering and it also shows how much she cared about the story she wrote. We are aware throughout of the history captured here and the facts became woven into the fabric of the story. We have two timelines coming together with many different perspectives about mothers and daughters, the lies we tell ourselves and the potential for humankind to engage in evil often starting with the lies we tell ourselves.

Epstein has written classic historical fiction with a story that goes back and forth between 1939 and 1989. In 1939, Berlin comes under attack and those Germans who have not had the experience of being raised according to “Nazi Gold Standard” can either flee the country or go into hiding. Ilse and Renate are two teenage girls who                        the best of friends, have no idea of what awaits them. Renate never would have imagined that her best friend was capable of a betrayal so vile that is shakes her faith in humanity. 
It is very difficult to write about such a terrible war as World War II with style and grace. I have always found emotions have been overpowering when thinking about the destruction of cities and the tremendous loss of lives that were the result of Hitler’s rise to power. Epstein has done such careful research that her story comes to us as very real and not necessarily fiction. Not many writers can do this successfully.

The beginning of “Wunderland” presents us with so much that it feels a tad heavy so I suggest that you take your time to get into the story—- once you do, there is no turning back. The novel begins with fragmented scenes from the main characters’ lives beginning in 1989 and then going back to  1933, then back to the initial character in 1977 and onto yet another character in 1937. It takes a bit of patience but you will be glad you held on. 
The story is related in the voices of three women—Ilse, Renate and Ava—and in different places and time periods, ranging from Germany in the 1930s to New York in 1977 and 1989. Each chapter identifies the character and the time making it less confusing. We not only hear from the characters but we go into their minds and see what they think. Epstein manages to make us put ourselves on hold and see things as we might have if we had been in Germany during the Nazi consolidation of power with Hitler’s vision for a glorious Germany galvanizing most of the nation.  The emotional appeal of extremist authoritarianism is all too horrifically clear.

Through Ilse and Renate we see how extremism replaced  moral and societal norms with a new ideology in which there is only one correct race and outlook, and those who don’t or can’t fit that ideology are first marginalized, then victimized and ultimately exterminated. The Nazis suddenly believed themselves to be superior, not because of anything they’ve done, but merely because they are “Aryans.” With no thought they turn on their non-Aryan friends and neighbors. Their victims can’t understand how they are now suddenly worthy only of contempt and cruelty by people they thought were fellow Germans and part of their community. Epstein’s tone is never didactic, yet it’s impossible to read this book and not think about the many people today who have learned nothing from history and are caught up in the same extremism and hateful thinking that only leads to alienation and destruction, not greatness.

The purpose of the Ilse/Ava element of the story, and the 1989 chapters is to relate what happened to Ilse, Renate and their families after 1939, and to reveal the pain that grew from Ilse’s and Germany’s Nazi past. These chapters give us an insight into the psyche of the disillusioned and authoritarian believer and any more than that about the plot would spoil the read. This is quite a beautiful book that I was prepared to dislike simply because of the war. I was pleasantly surprised to see otherwise. I recommend your reading and loving this book if for no other reason than to get a new and personal look at the world of WWII.

“Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood” by Andrew Rannells— A Memoir

Rannells, Andrew. “Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood”, Crown Archetype, 2019.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

 Andrew Rannells is an actor, singer, and performer  who is best known for originating the role of Elder Price in “The Book of Mormon” and for playing Elijah Krantz in HBO’s Girls. A Tony and Drama Desk nominee and Grammy winner, he has also played Hedwig in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, King George III in “Hamilton”, Whizzer in “Falsettos”, and recently starred in the 2018 Broadway revival of “The Boys in The Band”.  This is his first book and it is a

Sincere as well as a hilarious coming-of-age memoir of a Midwestern boy who survived bad auditions, bad relationships, and some really bad highlights as he goes after his dreams in New York City. Rannells left Nebraska for New York City in 1997 and he, like so many others, saw the city as a chance to break free and to start over. He was fiercely ambitious and sexually confused. He takes us on the journey of a twentysomething experiencing everything New York has to offer: new friends, wild nights, great art, standing ovations. He has a powerful drive to reconcile the boy he was when he left Omaha with the man he really wants to be.
He shares the drama of failed auditions and behind-the-curtain romances, of losing his father at the height of his struggle, and the exhilaration of making his Broadway debut in “Hairspray” when he was  twenty-six. Along the way, he learns that one can never really leave his/ her past or family behind and that the most painful, and perversely motivating, jobs are the ones you almost get; and sometimes the best nights are those with friends.

We feel Rannells strong personality behind every word he writes. His humor is frank  and he engages readers with self-effacing honesty as he writes about his life’s great expectations and mistakes. We feel his insecurities and we have all been there in varying degrees. He is guided by ambition and love and struggle and success. Rannells’ story is one of becoming—- not just as an actor but also as a writer.

This isn’t the typical celebrity memoir of brags and name-dropping but rather a more universal story about pursuing dreams. It is also a story about coming to terms with who you are and the need for self-acceptance. He also shares coming to terms with his sexuality, and the dysfunctions that come with coming out and his first sexual encounters and romantic relationships.

It is Rannells’ enthusiasm and excitement that makes this such a fun read. He does go into detail about the plays he has been in yet what we might think would cater to a theater audience is actually for all of us.

Rannells’ point is that for every success we see, there have been accompanying disappointments and challenges.

P.S. So Andrew, if you ever want to become the Andy to my Amos, just let me know.

“OUT OF LOVE”—-Passion, Passion, Passion

“OUT OF LOVE”

Passion, Passion, Passion

Amos Lassen


Director Paloma Aguilera Valdebenito’s “Out of Love” is a film about passion. It all begins when Nikolai (Danil Vorobyev) spots Varya (Naomi Velissariou) from the open kitchen of his restaurant. He experiences love at first sight. The two find each other in an indefinable city, and from that moment on, the dynamics of their t relationship begin. However lust and desire become pain and despair.

“Out of Love” is about extremes— those extremes, that are so common that there everyone is aware of. They include love, hatred, passion and violence in a relationship. Initially Nikolai and Varya they cannot get enough of each other but their relationship starts to fade .to form in the shiny varnish of their togetherness. During the period of infatuation, there was great desire, even publicly. Little disagreements seemed to weigh on both of them.

We follow Nikolai and Varya and see intimate fragments from a relationship that is doomed to fail, but neither of them would have wanted to miss what they had. Because the focus of the story is on the couple is on the couple, we don’t really know what is going on in the world outside.

They are both destructive people gives the film an extra layer: if you are so in love, there is simply nothing else than the other. “Everything is yours,” Varya says at one point in the film, and we fully understand her. We believe the actors because we want to.

A strong point of ‘Out of Love’ is that you do not have to choose a side. Where two fight, have two guilt. It is a cliché, but it definitely goes for it. What works less well is the slightly too long playing time. Although continuous attracting and repelling continues to fascinate, the best-before date is in sight. “Out of Love”, made in the context of De Oversteek, an annual collaboration project of the Film Fund, Mediafonds, CoBO, VPRO and NTI, is a particularly impressive film.