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“Big Sonia”

A Diva

Amos Lassen

Sonia Warshawski who is over ninety-years-old is a Holocaust survivor and a diva that has just been served an eviction notice for her popular tailor shop in suburban Kansas City. Sonia’s trauma comes to the surface as she struggles with the concept of retirement. Sonia loves red lipsticks and clothing with animal prints and she is a vibrant force and a diligent worker who runs a six-day-a-week tailor shop by herself. For Sonia, the importance of keeping busy is no simple response to widowhood or means of fending off the loneliness of old age. A particular darkness has haunted her most of her life from her memories of the years she spent as a prisoner at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. As the only Holocaust survivor in the Kansas City area to speak publicly about her experiences, she has turned those memories into a form of action that is both enlightening and therapeutic.

Her granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, directed the documentary with Todd Soliday and their approach is clear-eyed and measured as they observe Sonia in at work and during her visits with students and prisoners as a motivational speaker. We get glimpses of the tattooed number on Sonia’s arm as she goes through her days.

Sonia acknowledges her emotional damage as well as her refusal to be bowed by it. At 13, in the Polish city of Miedzyrzec, she watched from an attic window as neighbors were rounded up for the camps. Soon her family would be found in their hiding places. She never again saw her father or brother. At 17, she witnessed her mother entering the gas chamber. Years later, she heard the history-erasing claims of Holocaust deniers and this galvanized her to counter their propaganda with her truth.

We see the effect of that truth on the faces of those listening to her quiet, impassioned words. In a program addressing bullying and aimed at reducing recidivism, incarcerated men appear shaken to the core when they hear what happened to her family.

But with her husband, who was also a Holocaust survivor, Sonia created a family. Warshawski’s access to Sonia’s children takes the film into the wartime experience as an emotional inheritance for the second generation. Sonia’s son, Morrie, recalls a sadness in the household and his awareness that he and his siblings weren’t as “natural and free” as other kids.

The filmmakers, like Sonia herself, acknowledge the ongoing struggle that’s essential to surviving such trauma. There’s hard-fought clarity when Sonia says that she leaves the matter of forgiveness to a higher power. Since we are losing the last of the Holocaust survivors, we see the urgency when Sonia insists on remembering.

“The Practices of Hope: Literary Criticism in Disenchanted Times” by Christopher Castiglia— A Positive Approach to Literary Criticism

Castiglia, Christopher. “The Practices of Hope: Literary Criticism in Disenchanted Times”, NYU Press, 2017.

A Positive Approach to Literary Criticism

Amos Lassen

Christopher Castiglia in “The Practices of Hope” pushes us to an alternative approach that to literary criticism and offers hopeful reading, “a combination of idealism and imagination that retains its analytic edge yet moves beyond nay-saying to articulate the values that shape our scholarship and creates the possible worlds that animate genuine social critique”. He does this by looking at a variety of critics from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War to demonstrate that criticism simultaneously denounced the social conditions of the Cold War United States and proposed ideal worlds as more democratic alternatives.  The work is organized around topics that critics have eschewed in my cases—nation, liberalism, humanism, symbolism—that were part of criticism’s “usable past” and uses them to generate an alternative critique, a practice of hope.

His argument is that scholars “no longer practice the open embrace of imaginative idealism that the founders of American Studies used as a method of ‘critical hope.’” He studies mid-century criticism that is accepted as the foundation of the discipline and then gives us a way to avoid this. Castiglia diagnoses our current situation and shows what we could be doing instead.

“Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World” edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington— We Are All Fans

Gray, Jonathan, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington, editors. “Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World”, NYU Press, second edition, 2017.

We Are All Fans

Amos Lassen

We are all fans. Whether we follow our favorite celebrities on Twitter, attend fan conventions such as Comic Con, or simply wait with bated breath for the next episode of our favorite television drama—each of us is a fan. What is so interesting is that fandom is not unusual, but rather a universal subculture,. What we read here demonstrates that understanding fans-(whether of toys, TV shows, celebrities, comics, music, film, or politicians) is important and “vital to an understanding of media audiences, use, engagement, and participatory culture in a digital age.”  

This second edition of the book includes eighteen new, original essays covering topics such as activism directed at racism in sports fandom, fan/producer interactions at Comic Con, the impact of new technologies on fandom, and the politics and legality of fan fiction. We have diverse approaches to fandom that help us understand modern life as it is in today’s world.

The essays “push the boundaries of fan studies in bold directions.” Fandom is more prevalent than I had ever considered and has become part of the way we live today. This is the perfect book for understanding that.

“Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done” by Jon Acuff— Finishing What We Begin

Acuff, Jon. “Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done”, Portfolio, 2017.

Finishing What We Begin

Amos Lassen

All of us are guilty of starting projects that we don’t finish and there are many reasons for this, basically personal ones. If you have ever finished a project, you know the great relief that comes with that feeling but have you ever wondered why other projects just stop? Don’t you want to now why?

According to studies, 92 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail. Is this because we just don’t try hard enough? Many have tried to solve this problem in a myriad of ways and nothing seems to work. Jon Acuff has news for us. While he was leading a seminar about helping people realize their goals, he learned that people do not act effectively when pushed hard. He learned that the biggest obstacle to meeting your goals is not laziness, but perfectionism. We are our own worst critics, and if it looks like we’re not going to do something right, we prefer not to do it at all. We’re most likely to quit on day two because by then we know.

Acuff gives us strategies in this book are “counterintuitive and might feel like cheating”. However, they’re based on studies conducted by a university researcher with hundreds of participants. The data says that people who have fun are 43 percent more successful. We can achieve success by following a few simple principles that he presents to us here.

First off, we learn that it is ok to laugh at ourselves and that opens the door on so much. I always get excited about a new project and that can last a few days as it sits on my desk waiting for my next surge of passion… and that is just fine. Acuff identifies the many ways we sabotage our own progress and gives us powerful tools to get to work and finish it up. The motto we adapt is “Let’s do it already”. It’s like this review which I started a week ago and let slide. I needed a shaking to get to it and the best shaking was my own. Acuff, in “Finish” gives us “a practical, inspiring, and seamless roadmap for moving things across the finish line.”

Because I review, I live with deadlines and some I easily make. Then there are those that just challenge me to let go and that is easy. After reading this, I am trying to stop letting go and finishing whatever I start as close to the start time as possible. I won’t give you the secrets here but you can find them in this book. Pick up a copy and FINISH it.

“Our Israeli Diary, 1978: Of That Time, Of That Place” by Antonia Fraser— Back in Time

Fraser, Antonia. “Our Israeli Diary, 1978: Of That Time, Of That Place”, Counterpoint, 2017.

Back in Time

Amos Lassen

In May 1978 turned thirty years old and the national had two wonderful at the birthday party— Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser. They had been living together for three years then and neither had ever visited Israel before. visited Israel at the time of the 30th Anniversary of Independence. It was three years after they first lived together; neither had set foot in Israel before. They visited many of the country’s historic sites: from Bethlehem to the fortress of Masada, met with then future Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, Jackie Kennedy and a long-lost cousin of Pinter’s on a kibbutz. Pinter said that in Israel he began to have feelings about his Jewish heritage for the first time.

Antonia Fraser kept a diary filled with wonderful descriptions and a lot of humor but above all, this was a tender memory of an important trip for both of them. Her diary is also a special look at a special time and place. You can just imagine what happens when two intellectuals take a vacation together. We have a Jewish playwright and a Catholic biographer sharing fifteen days in the Holy Land and we see their devotion to the land and to each other.

Pinter was afraid that he would “dislike the place, the people.” But that changed soon. Fraser read biographies of major Israeli figures before they got there and because they were both well known, they had access to great privileges. They visited and stayed at an artists’ colony, made frequent trips to biblical and historical sites and they were often accompanied by the cream of the Israeli literary scene. writers, and they socialized with the cream of Israeli society as well as actors, journalists, and politicians. Pinter had not seen his cousin who was living on a kibbutz for 30 years and that was a beautiful reunion. They spent time with Shimon Peres and his wife in their apartment and encountered Jacqueline Kennedy at the Armenian Patriarchate. They “sweet as ever.” One evening they met Anthony Lewis who was finishing up a tour of the Middle East for the New York Times and disagreed a bit about how Lewis characterized Israelis as irritating and as unable to see how others see them. Fraser said that Israelis are insular but she found them “just wonderful” .

Fraser gives wonderful descriptions of people, ambience, architecture, and climate and Pinter himself. Pinter told Fraser that he is very definitely Jewish but he also states that he is also English. Fraser’s answer to this was that she felt she could live in Israel except that she is not Jewish. Not only is this a look at the Israel of forty years ago but also a tribute to a great English playwright.

“Manhood: The Bare Reality” by Laura Dodsworth— Manhood and “Manhood”

Dodsworth, Laura. “Manhood: The Bare Reality”, Pinter & Martin Ltd, , 2017.

Manhood and “Manhood”

Amos Lassen

In the world of today, we are all less bound by gender and traditional roles than ever before in history but there is still confusion about what being a man means. In “Manhood: The Bare Reality”, Laura interviews one hundred men and shows photographs of their manhood. The men come from all walks of life and they all share honest reflections about their bodies, sexuality, relationships, fatherhood, work and health. We see the spectrum of ‘normal’, in which men reveal their penises and bodies in all their diversity thus dispelling body image anxiety and myths. With concentration on the penis, the words power, penetration and strength, weakness, misery and shame come to mind and we are amazed that a single organ embodies all of emotions. The text focuses on the unique attributes of each penis, making it possible to see the organ in a new way. What each man has to say about his penis is what is important here. that counts.

Dodsworth brings us the full gamut of manhood including cis-gendered and trans men. The photos are un-retouched and the penis owners are anonymous. We don’t see their faces but we do get a few biographical details on each. Our world is still one in which the male has the upper hand on almost everything but you may be surprised to learn that not all men feel that way.

“There are surprises, things we should talk about more often but rarely do. Such as a black man who found himself sexually fetishised by white women in his youth. Or the 92-year-old who speaks of himself as an intersectional feminist. The testicular cancer survivor who tries to live in the moment. The spina bifida patient whose colostomy bag is apparent, almost more prominent than his penis, in the photo.  Or the man who found himself hiding a personality he wasn’t sure others would like behind a body he was confident they would. Age and race, disability and illness. These issues affect us all, but like the penis, are just as often hidden away.”

The text here is funny and shocking, filled with vulnerable moments we might otherwise never see. It often takes baring one’s body in order to bare the soul and that is what we read here. Every penis here has a story—- the trans man who invested in the biggest and best; the underpowered poet hung up on his for years, until he decided to celebrate it with The Big Small Penis Party; the man who as a teenager thought he had genital warts and considered killing himself, until he found out they were normal spots; the business leader whose small penis taught him humility; the sex addict whose wife tried to cut it off; and the vicar who enjoyed his first threesome while training for the priesthood.”

In each photo, we see penis and testicles, belly, hands and thighs. The humanity lies in the relationship between these body parts.

“A lot more men feel a sense of shame or anxiety about their size, or an aspect of their performance”; shame and inadequacy is found in different parts of their lives. “For Dodsworth, Manhood has not been an aesthetic revelation: some penises are nice to look at, some less so. But having seen the number of men who struggle with their manhood, literally and metaphorically, she has become a champion of the penis. “It is so often subject to ridicule. It’s like baseline standard male banter. Half the people in the world have got penises. It’s unfair to be cruel about them.” This is an absolutely fascinating read.


“OCCIDENTAL”— A Critique of Xenophobic Ideologies


A Critique of Xenophobic Ideologies

Amos Lassen

The arrival of a gay couple at a retro-’70s Parisian hotel begins a series of absurd anecdotal actions that involve homophobia, racism, misogyny, terrorist threats, and political manipulations.

French/Algerian filmmaker Neïl Beloufa brings us a deceptive and smart film that recasts today’s mainstream ideologies and fears. It satirically reflects the uneasy context of our contemporary world in a film that is a mixture of genres including neo-noir, comedy of manners, thriller and romance.

The film takes place almost entirely within Hotel Occidental, a retro, ’70s site that functions as a geopolitical microcosm while a mass demonstration rages in the streets of Paris. Inside the hotel, the atmosphere is thick with intrigue and eroticism since the arrival of mysterious, flirty, and handsome “Italian” Giorgio (Paul Hamy) who requests the bridal suite for himself and his male companion Antonio, a Muslim who arouses the suspicion of the hotel manager who thinks the men might be terrorists.

The receptionist may be smitten, but the hotel manager instantly suspects their attitude and alerts the police, despite there being no evidence of any wrongdoing. The cops and hotel staff soon find themselves confronted by a series of absurd actions.

The film shows the complexity of present-day morality using the likes of Coca-Cola and a hidden love story in order to reflect upon French life, politics, and pervasive xenophobia.

But it’s clear from the beginning that the two men aren’t who they say they are and that they don’t come in peace… The hotel’s staff react to the uncertain menace of the two men with fascination, sexual attraction, suspicion, fear and sometimes all of these at once. The hotel’s other guests fly in and out of the action (almost all of which is confined to the hotel’s lobby) without consequence aside from a laugh or two. The creeping sense that something terrible is about to happen gradually swells to the breaking point, but we do not know what that something terrible is.

The film is set almost entirely a blatantly artificial Parisian hotel, with riots happening just outside and focuses on the arrival of two possibly gay, possibly extremist Italians whose presence elicits widely disparate reactions amongst the hotel’s guests and its dysfunctional staff. Beloufa takes a flamboyant and catastrophic approach to his themes of discrimination and literal class warfare.

“EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY PEOPLE”— The Folk and Traditional Arts in America



The Folk and Traditional Arts in America

Amos Lassen

I doubt that many of us are aware of the National Heritage Foundation and that is the subject of this documentary by Alan Govenar. It is one of the programs that falls under the National Endowment for the Humanities and was begun in 1982 to provide fellowships to musicians, dancers, quilters, woodcarvers and others who are involved in the shaping of the folk and traditional arts in this country. This film demonstrates the importance of those arts in shaping the history and fabric of America.

“Extraordinary Ordinary People” takes us a journey of folk and traditional arts in America with lots of music performed by those who have been awarded the fellowship and it is great fun. There is more than music here and we meet dancers, musicians, woodcarvers, quilters and others involved in traditional American art. There is a lot of talent here.

The featured artists all live in the United States but come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. The art forms they practice include singing with the Bejing Opera, boat building, wax-flower making, weaving, and performing at Mardi Gras. Through Govenar’s interviews with them, we not only explore their art, but also their history. These individuals have dedicated their lives to uncommon art forms that preserve the traditions of those who came before.

Govenar began documenting the artists more than 35 years ago and his project includes two 52-part radio series for NPR and three books that gave him the opportunity to explore in great detail the intersection of disparate cultures. Many of these cultures were brought here by immigrants over hundreds of years. The film gives insights into how cultures endure, and how cultural expressions evolve but at the same time remain true to their roots in our 21st century connected world. We see here that each of the artists has exceptional talent, ingenuity and perseverance that he shares with others and his country. Artists range “from Bill Monroe and B.B. King to Passamaquoddy basket weavers and Peking Opera singers; from Appalachia and the mountains of New Mexico to the inner city neighborhoods of New York, the suburbs of Dallas, and the isolated Native American reservations of Northern California”.

Just to give you an idea of what we are talking about here is an extensive list of just some of the artists you will see in the film:

Sheila Kay Adams – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Ballads, Musician, Singer, Storyteller

Rahim Alhaj – Culture Iraqi; Tradition: Composer, Oud Player

Loren Bommelyn – Culture: Native American Tolowa; Tradition: Artisan, Dancer, Musician

Laverne Brackens – Culture: African American; Tradition: Artisan, Quilter

Charles Carrillo – Culture: Hispanic; Tradition Santero

Clifton Chenier – Culture: African American, Creole; Tradition: Accordionist, Musician, Zydeco

Sidiki Conde – Culture: Guinean; Tradition: Dancer, Drummer, Musician

Sonia Domsch – Culture: Czech; Tradition: Artisan, Lace Maker

Qi Shu Fang – Culture: Asian, Chinese; Tradition: Peking Opera Performer, Musician

“Queen” Ida Guillory – Culture: African American, Creole; Tradition: Zydeco, Accordionist

John Lee Hooker – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Guitarist, Musician, Singer

Wanda Jackson – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Gospel, Musician, Rockabilly, Singer

Dolly Jacobs – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Circus Aerialist

Flory Jagoda – Culture: Jewish; Tradition: Sephardic Musician

“Flaco” Jiménez – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Accordionist, Conjunto, Musician

Genoa Keawe – Culture: Native Hawaiian; Tradition: Musician, Singer, Ukulele Player

B.B. King – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Guitarist, Musician, Singer

Narciso Martinez – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Accordionist, Conjunto, Musician

Lydia Mendoza – Culture: Mexican; Tradition: Musician, Singer

Norma Miller – Culture: African American; Tradition: Dancer, Lindy Hop

Bill Monroe – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Bluegrass, Mandolin Player, Musician, Singer

Alex Moore – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Musician, Pianist, Singer

Chum Ngek – Culture: Asian, Cambodian; Tradition: Musician

Clarissa Rizal – Culture:Native American Tlingit; Tradition: Ceremonial Regalia Maker

Earl Scruggs – Culture: Anglo; Tradition: Banjo Player, Bluegrass, Musician

Dan Sheehy – Folklorist & Former Director of NEA Folk & Traditional Arts; Mariachi Musician

Koko Taylor – Culture: African American; Tradition: Blues, Musician, Singer

Mike Vlahovich – Culture: Croatian; Tradition: Shipwright

Albertina Walker – Culture: African American; Tradition: Gospel, Musician, Singer

“Never Break the Chain” by Jason Warburg— Grief and Obsession

Warburg, Jason. “Never Break the Chain’, Wheel Publications, 2017.

Grief and Obsession

Amos Lassen

Set in Malibu among mansions and Hollywood rock clubs, Tim Green is grieving over the loss of his father and this grief becomes an obsessive quest to find his mother who deserted him almost thirty years earlier. The journey takes him deep into the heart of rock and roll. We meet Green at the oceanfront compound of British guitarist Blake Saunders, who’s just hired him to write an authorized biography of his rock band. Green’s efforts to retrace his mother’s steps through Los Angeles’s rock and roll underworld push him toward a cathartic confrontation. Everything he once thought about who he is becomes challenged. This is a novel that is equal parts family drama, literate thriller, and a behind the scenes look at an aging rock band but taken as a whole, this is a story about families both the ones we’re born into, and the ones we create.

We get a lot of references to music here as might be expected from an author who has been a music writer and the music is actually a cast member here. This is a story of excess and success and it does show us who Tim Green really is. It’s through that we learn this. Warburg understands how music can play a major part in people’s lives.

“The Golden House: A Novel” by Salman Rushdie— An Epic of Modern America

Rushdie, Salman. “The Golden House: A Novel”, Random House, 2017.

An Epic of Modern America

Amos Lassen

On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the United States, a mysterious billionaire from foreign shores begins living in the “the Gardens,” an “architectural jewel” in a cloistered community in New York’s Greenwich Village. The neighborhood is a bubble within a bubble, and those who were already living there become intrigued by the strange newcomer and his family. Nero Golden has brought along his three adult sons: agoraphobic, alcoholic Petya, a brilliant recluse with a tortured mind; Apu, the flamboyant artist, sexually and spiritually omnivorous and D, who is twenty-two and the baby of the family who has an explosive secret even from himself. There is no mother, no wife until Vasilisa, a sleek Russian expat, snags seventy something Nero and becomes his wife.

René, an ambitious young filmmaker is the Golden’s neighbor and he is researching a movie about the Goldens and manages to ingratiate himself into their household and is soon seduced by their mystique. He becomes implicated and involved in their quarrels, their infidelities, and their crimes. Suddenly a comic-book villain sets out on a presidential run that turns New York upside-down.

Rushdie’s novel is a “modern epic of love and terrorism, loss and reinvention—a powerful, timely story told with the daring and panache that make Salman Rushdie a force of light in our dark new age.” This is a very epic of the immigrant experience in modern America, where nothing can free a family from its past sins. 

Golden and his three sons have moved from Mumbai to New York under mysterious circumstances. He marries again and he and his new wife and sons establish their places in New York society. Rene tells us their stories .

Rushdie is a powerful novelist who is not content to stick to any sort of genre oformat within his writing. Most of us do not read Rushdie for his plots but how he relates his stories. Self-invented Nero Golden is a tycoon and a Russian oligarch whose name was everywhere in those days and “on everything from hot dogs to for-profit universities”.

Rene plots and plans his Big Film Project on Nero Golden and his three sons but he has no idea who these men are, where they came from and why they came to New York. It seems to me that this story is about metamorphoses/transition/change, and asks if it is it possible to be both good and evil. It might take you a while to read this but keep in mind as you that this is more of an experience than just a book.