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“AKIO JISSOJI: THE BUDDHIST TRILOGY”— 3-DISC LIMITED EDITION

“Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy”

3-Disc Limited Edition

Amos Lassen

During his career, Akio Jissôji created a rich and diverse body of work during his fifty years in Japan s film and television industries. He is best-known for his science-fiction: the 1960s TV series Ultraman and 1998 s box-office success Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis. For others, it is his 1990s adaptations of horror and mystery novelist Edogawa Rampo. There are also his New Wave films for the Art Theatre Guild and three of them comprise this set— “This Transient Life”, “Mandara” and “Poem”. Taken together, they are known as The Buddhist Trilogy.

“This Transient Life” is among the Art Theatre Guild s most successful and most controversial productions. It is about a brother and sister from a rich family who defy the expectations placed on them: he has little interest in further education or his father’s business and obsesses  over Buddhist statues; she continually refuses a string of suitors and the prospect of marriage. Their closeness, and isolation, gives way to an incestuous relationship which brings about disaster.

“Mandara” is Jissôji’s first color feature and focuses on a cult who recruit through rape and hope to achieve true ecstasy through sexual release. It is radically stylized and experimental.

“Poem” is in black and white, returns to black and white and is centered on the austere existence of a young houseboy who becomes helplessly embroiled in the schemes of two brothers and continues the trilogy’s s exploration of faith in a post-industrial world.

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

  High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of This Transient Life, Mandara and Poem

  Original uncompressed LPCM mono 1.0 audio on all three films

  Newly translated optional English subtitles

  Introductions to all three films by David Desser, author of Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave

  Scene-select commentaries on all three films by Desser

  Theatrical trailer for Mandara

  Theatrical trailer for Poem

  Limited edition packaging, fully illustrated by maarko phntm

  Illustrated 80-page perfect-bound collector s book featuring new writings on the film by Anton Bitel and Tom Mes

 

 

 

“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead— Two Boys in Florida

Whitehead, Colson. “The Nickel Boys: A Novel”, Doubleday, 2019.

Two Boys in Florida

Amos Lassen

“The Nickel Boys” is the follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning and New York Times bestseller “The Underground Railroad.” Colson Whitehead brilliantly looks at  American history through the story of two boys sentenced to reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Elwood Curtis was abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to attend the local black college, however, for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, it took just one innocent mistake to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, where the mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”

But this quite far from the truth. In reality, the Nickel Academy is a hell house of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Elwood Is stunned to find himself in such a vicious place. He really tries to hold onto Dr. King’s statement “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend, “Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to find ways to avoid trouble.”

There is tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism and this leads to a decision whose repercussions will be with them throughout time. decades. The boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. The book is based on the real story of a real school for boys that closed in Florida in 2011 after 111 years in existence. It was  Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Academy is the kind of institution that purports to rebrand bad boys into good young men. In theory it should be a good place for Elwood, a young black man who, although he had planned to attend a nearby college, was caught unknowingly riding in a stolen car. The happenings inside Nickel Academy do not match its public image, and Elwood learns that, no matter how idealistic or optimistic he is, his life is taking a very bad turn. Turner does not share Elwood’s idealism but helps him to survive Nickel Academy. This is a story about of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and filled with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

“Color Me In” by Natasha Diaz— Meanings

Diaz, Natasha. “Color Me In”, Delacorte Press, 2019.

Meanings

Amos Lassen

Natasha Díaz used her own experience to write this coming of age novel. I is about the meaning of friendship, “young romance and racism and religious intolerance that can both strain a family to the breaking point and strengthen its bonds.”

Neveah Levitz grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City and never thought much about her biracial roots. Her mom is black and her father is Caucasian and Jewish. When her parents’ marriage falters, Neveah she relocates to her mom’s family home in Harlem and is forced to find out  something about blood pressure.  She wants to get to know her extended family, but one of her cousins feels that Nevaeh, who often “passes as white, is too privileged, pampered, and selfish to relate to the injustices they face on a daily basis as African Americans. In the midst of attempting to blend their families, Nevaeh’s dad decides that she should have a belated bat mitzvah instead of a sweet sixteen and this guarantees social humiliation at her very fancy private school. As this happens, Neveah does what she’s always done when things become complicated—she says nothing.

Things changed after she learned about a
secret from her mom’s past and she is feeling the pangs of first love. finds herself falling in love. This is when she sees the prejudice her family faces that she begins to realize she has a voice. She also has to make choices and decisions.  It is so very important that each of us know our background.

change. Nevaeh learns that identity is both beautiful and complicated. As we read, we find ourselves looking at things differently.

Nevaeh’s parent’s separation and she is struggling to find her place in this new reality. She wants to fit in with her mother’s very religious Baptist family who live in Harlem, but she has never the chance or desire to explore her Black identity. Slowly with the help of her extended family, the friends she makes and getting to know her mother better through her old journal, she begins to express herself through oral poetry. She is also initially hesitant to understand her Jewish identity but that that also changes because of the influence of the Rabbi Sarah. Nevaeh is a realistic teenager with faults, who doesn’t know everything, makes mistakes and can’t even understand why she is wrong. Ultimately she owns up her mistakes and tries to correct them as she strives to be better. 

The other characters in the book have their own plotlines. They all influence Nevaeh in her growth, but they have lives and their own issues that are independent of her.

Diaz’s prose shows us the power of Nevaeh, a young woman torn between two worlds, not knowing who she is or where she fits in. She fights against privilege that comes with her skin. It’s filled with strong female characters who challenge Nevaeh’s sense of normalcy. learns about her Jewish faith from her father’s side, and her Baptist faith from her mother’s side, she also catches a glimpse into the reasons behind her parents’ crumbling marriage as she reads through her mother’s old journal. 

 

“Silence of the Chagos” by Shenaz Patei— Based on a True Story

Patei, Shenaz. “Silence of the Chagos”, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Restless Books, 2019.

Based on a True Story

Amos Lassen

So many books profess that are about cultural identity but few of them ring true. Cultural identity involves the meaning of home and the eternal quest for justice. Shenaz Patel approaches this by using the lives of uprooted Chagossian activists as he shows us the tragic example of 20th century political oppression.

Daily, in the afternoon, Charlesia wearing a red headscarf walks remembering what was “back there”. She remembers Diego Garcia, one of the small islands forming the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean and how with no explanation, no advance warning, and only an hour to pack their belongings, Chagossians were deported to Mauritius. Officials tell her that the island is “closed” and none of them will ever be allowed to go back, there is no going back for any of them. Charlesia yearns for life on Diego Garcia, where during the day, she worked  on a coconut plantation and at nights she danced to sega music. As she struggles to deal with her life on Mauritius, she meets  Désiré, a young man born on the one-way journey to Mauritius. Désiré has never set foot on Diego Garcia, but as Charlesia shares the story of his people, he learns of the home he never knew and about the ruined future of his people.

Joren Molter brings forth “painful nostalgia, lingering memories and the eternal incomprehension of these expelled from a string of lost islands.” 

The story is told in two voices by Charlesia and Désiré. We learn that Chagos. The Chagos are an archipelago that would have been hidden in the depths of the Indian Ocean, if Americans not built a military base to bombard other countries. What really stands out are the two characters and the relationship between political expediency and its all-too-human consequences, between the abstract needs of international security and the concrete needs of the individual, and above all between the rich and the poor.”

The book is about two main characters who have been uprooted from their land and are lost in the world… it tells about the suffering of a people, the Chagossians, who were brutally forced to quit their islands, one of which is being used as a US military base. 

“Mary McCarthy: A Life” by Carol Gelderman— An Extraordinary Woman

Gelderman, Carol. “Mary McCarthy: A Life”, St. Martin’s, 1988.

An Extraordinary Woman

Amos Lassen

 I am a bit ashamed to say that I never read Carol Gelderman’s wonderful study of Mary McCarthy and there is reason for that especially since McCarthy was Hannah Arendt’s best friend and Carol Gelderman was one an important professor in my graduate studies.

For half a century, Mary McCarthy was at the center of the literary and intellectual life of America. This book, written with her cooperation, but not authorized, traces for the first time her extraordinary career.

Written while the subject was still alive, and with her cooperation, this is an engrossing biography of a woman whose name always comes up in any discussion of mid-20th century writers and intellectuals.

 

Mary McCarthy was both known as and actually was a brilliant writer, thinker, and supporter of leftist causes. She was outspokenness and this  often brought her unfavorable attention (the whole Lillian Hellman/Dick Cavett episode is examined). Gelderman gives us  a sympathetic yet balanced treatment of the criticism and controversies in her personal and literary life. There was much more to Mary McCarthy than her most famous work, “The Group.”

 Carol Gelderman was McCarthy’s first “official” biographer, and what surprised me was the inclusion of small details that were absent in later efforts such as McCarthy’s friendship with Montgomery Clift, and, after he sublet her house one summer who up as a character in “A Charmed Life?”).  

“Notes from the Fog: Stories” by Ben Marcus— The Body, Sex, Death, Lust and Shame and All Of Human Folly

Marcus, Ben. “Notes from the Fog: Stories”, Vintage Contemporaries Paperback, 2019.

The Body, Sex, Death, Lust and Shame and All Of Human Folly

Amos Lassen

Ben Marcus, in this collection of short stories, “Notes from the Fog”, combines sharp brilliant literary prose, clever wit, and surreal ideas to struggle with “sex and death, lust and shame, the indignities of the body, and the full parade of human folly.” Each story is strange or better put, “quietly eerie with electric characters.”

When reviewing a collection of short stories, I always hesitate as to whether to look at the book as a whole or go through it and write about each story but that was not a real problem here because all of the stores are dystopian visions of alienation in a modern world. For example, we have a hapless, corporate drone finding love after being disfigured from testing his employer’s newest nutrition supplement; a father beginning to suspect that what was his son’s precocity has now become sinister; and two architects in a failing marriage thinking about the ethics of artificially inciting emotion as they construct a memorial to a terrorist attack. While the ideas are important, the stories are character propelled and in all of them exhibit  Marcus’s compassion, imagination, and mordant humor. As one who relishes existential catastrophes, I had a great time with this book (especially laughing at and about things that probably should not be funny. The plots are both thrilling and disturbing but above all else,  disquieting. Marcus imagines a future that is plausible, but different enough for us to understand that the ramifications of certain fates are becoming part of our current world.

Nightmarish scenarios are relaxed through the use of wit as each story is written in “lacerating prose threaded together by sentences that, like a marionette’s strings, bring the world to full, expansive life. This is a bracing, forceful collection.”

“Notes from the Fog” is packed with fascinating ideas and observations. Marcus makes his stories possess a disquietude  by opening our psyches and exposing our secret fears and feelings, the ones we find it impossible to explain. Marcus finds those words and does so with style and elegant prose. We wince or laugh and experience a poke at contemporary life. The stories are fresh and original , dark and funny; a total reading experience.

“The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom— New Orleans, Before and After Katrina

Brown, Sarah M. “The Yellow House”, Grove, 2019.

New Orleans, Before and After Katrina

Amos Lassen

In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in New Orleans East, a neighborhood with great promise and built her world inside of it. It was then the height of the Space Race and the neighborhood was home to a major NASA plant and there was a great sense of postwar optimism.  seemed assured. Ivory Mae was a widow who remarried Sarah’s father Simon Broom and in their combined family, there would eventually be  twelve children. But after Simon died, six months after Sarah’s birth, the Yellow House would become another of Ivory Mae’s children and this one was hard to deal with.

“The Yellow House” shares  a hundred years of author Sarah M. Broom’s family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most famous mythologized cities that just happens to be my home town and the place I started my teaching career. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house’s entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to have to deal with the pull of home even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans is known for doing that and I honestly do not believe that anyone ever really leaves New Orleans because a part of the city always remains with them. “The Yellow House” expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how the “enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure.” This is not the New Orleans of tourist guides but it is the New Orleans in which Broom was raised and a memoir of place, class, race, inequality, and the internalized shame that many times follows. It is a moving story and one that we do not usually get.

When Ivory Mae bought the house, the postwar optimism seemed sure. But it wasn’t and the area was soon neglected. This is a love song to that house and to
New Orleans’s unbeaten tails, history, loss, hurricanes before and including Katrina. We become very aware of the way New Orleans holds on to her residents and never really lets go. Sure there is the French Quarter, and Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, drinking and amazing food but there is so much more as  Sarah Broom points out.

The first part of the book tells the story of Sarah’s family and how they came to live in the yellow house. The second half of the book tells of her search for identity and adventure as she tried to escape her home and eventually returned. Broom discovers she has to return to New Orleans and to what remains of her childhood home and neighborhood. Her undying attachment to the land, to the city, to her family makes her life and New Orleans seem  very, very special (and very New Orleanian).

Behind the story of the Yellow House and its inhabitants, is a story about persistence, loyalty, and strength. The house had been a focal point of the family for many years, but although it’s now gone, the real anchor is the family connections among the siblings.

“Half Gods” by Akil Kumarasamy— The Exiled, The Disappeared, The Seekers

Kumarasamy, Akil. “Half Gods”,  Picador Paperback, 2019.

The Exiled, The Disappeared, The Seekers

Amos Lassen

Akil Kumarasamy’s “Half Gods” follows the origins and destines of two brothers named after demigods from the ancient epic the Mahabharata and we meet a family that is struggling with results of the past in their lives. Ten interlinked stories bring us a new map of the world and  surprising so. After an act of violence, a baby girl is renamed after a Hindu goddess but raised as a Muslim; a lonely butcher from Angola finds solace in a family of refugees in New Jersey; a gentle entomologist in Sri Lanka, discovers unexpected reserves of courage while searching for his missing son. These are just three examples of this new world. He stories here clearly show us the ways that parents, children, and friends act as unknowing reflections of each other in their all-too human weaknesses, hopes, and sorrows a connection to the divine.

We gain a unique perspective in the world — an ability to see, observe, and navigate. The ten stories support, contradict, and argue with one another and create a rich disorder. This disjointedness speaks to how trauma can interrupt both chronology and one’s sense of self. The stories are written with great confidence and without ornamentation and characters that are fully rendered/

Kumarasamy easily transitions from the voice of a disaffected teenager watching the end of the war from afar to a lonely Angolan butcher hoping to fall in love with a kind patron. Each story connects with the others in subtle ways and we gain a sense of unity between characters who often feel alone.  

The prose is beyond beautiful and the author is capable of rendering both major tragedy (war, the end of a marriage, the loss of a child) and minor tragedy (a lousy effort at matchmaking, a sad Christmas invitation) with care and precision. Kumarasamy writes with heart, wit, and with a sure eye about the complexities of family, war, and finding one’s home. We get here an intergenerational history of an Indian Tamil family from the first generation who left India to work in the tea estates of Sri Lanka to children born in America. Some of the stories will break your heart while others explore the immigrant experience.
The family patriarch is descended from Tamils who came to Ceylon harvest tea. The family experienced the end of colonization when the British left Ceylon, reborn as Sri Lanka. They suffered during the Anti-Tamil riots when their village was destroyed, fled to a refugee camp, and finally immigrated to America. Sri Lanka (once Ceylon)
was colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British. They built rubber, coffee, and coconut plantations. When the coffee plants were decimated by a fungus, tea was grown, and to harvest the tea, Tamils from southern India were brought over as indentured servants.

When the country gained its independence, the Sinhalese were the dominant group, making their language the official one. The Tamils were marginalized and tried to gain a political voice. Anti-Tamil riots arose; Tamils were killed and others left the country. Out of this conflict, the Liberation Tamil Tigers were birthed and civil war ensued.

Nearly 300,000 displaced persons were housed in government camps and 100,000 people died during the war. Sri Lanka ranks as having the second highest number of disappearances in the world. This is the historical background for the stories in “Half Gods”.

Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short” by William D. Cohan— Four Who Died Young

Cohan, William D. “Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short”, Flatiron,  2019.

Four Who Died Young

Amos Lassen

“Four Friends” is a look at the lives of four boarding school graduates who died too young. , John F. Kennedy, Jr. among them, by their fellow Andover classmate, New York Times bestselling author William D. Cohan.

Writer William D. Cohan shares the stories of four young men who attended Andover, the most elite of American boarding schools, who died young and who he brings back to life on the pages of his book.

Jack Berman was the child of impoverished Holocaust survivors who used his Andover pedigree to achieve the American dream but lost it all to an act of violence. Will Daniel, Harry Truman’s grandson and the son of the managing editor of The New York Times, felt trapped by his family legacy and did everything he could to escape it. Harry Bull was a careful, successful Chicago lawyer and heir to his family’s fortune before he dared to take an inexplicable and devastating risk on a beautiful summer day. The life and death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. comes to us with surprising new details.

“Four Friends” is both a tragic and inspiring look at promising lives cut short and it is written with compassion, honesty, and insight that not only captures the fragility of life but also its poignant and pivotal moments.

It is also a “meditation on ends and beginnings, large dreams and larger misfortunes, outsized promise and unfathomable loss. It is also an indelible portrait of a time and place, at once masterfully researched and deeply personal. Cohan writes with a reporter’s acuity and a memoirist’s subtlety; if he can’t explain the inexplicable, he does deliver us, gracefully and unsparingly, right to its doorstep.” It is impossible not to be moved by these stories that are so much more than four tragic endings. We look at the twisting course of any life and see that it is not always as expected. What we really see is something about “fate, friendship and the shattered dreams of once-golden privileged men.” Here is what happens when promise becomes tragedy. Yes this is a sad read but it is also a rewarding and cathartic read that ultimately makes us feel better.

“Bunny: A Novel” by Mona Award— An Outsider Among Bunnies

Awad, Mona. “Bunny: A Novel”, Viking, 2019.

An Outsider Among Bunnies

Amos Lassen

I was very lucky to be at a reading during which Mona Awad read the first chapter of “Bunny” and I realized that I had to read this book. It is the story of Samantha Heather Mackey, a total outsider in her small, highly selective MFA program at New England’s Warren University. She is a scholarship student who prefers her dark imagination to other people’s imaginations and cannot stand the others in her MFA program , she is utterly repelled by the rest of her fiction writing cohort–a clique of unbearably twee rich girls who call each other “Bunny,” and seem to move and speak as one. 

Everything changes when Samantha receives an invitation to the Bunnies’ fabled “Smut Salon,” and finds herself drawn to their front door and ditching her only friend, Ava, in the process. As Samantha descends deeper and deeper into the Bunnies’ world, “beginning to take part in the ritualistic off-campus ‘Workshop’ where they conjure their monstrous creations, the edges of reality begin to blur.” Samantha’s friendships with Ava and the Bunnies are brought into a deadly crash. This is a “creepy and kooky” story of loneliness and belonging, friendship and desire, and the power of the imagination— a dark, twisted novel that looks at women’s relationships to one another and to art, academia, and class.

Samantha was surprised to be invited by the Bunnies to their “Smut Salon,” which she believed to be a very intimate writing workshop. While some reading of pieces did actually happen place at the Salon, the real purpose was the creation of a dream man, “made by blood magic and the desires of the Bunnies, not to mention a sacrificial rabbit.”
Samantha followed he bunnies and despite her writer’s block and family background, or perhaps because of them, she is easily drawn into their word. She finds herself taking part in their rituals, forgetting  who she is and the importance of her friendship with Ava. When a mysterious man named Max shows up and begins a relationship with Ava, Samantha faces her terrible acceptance of the Bunnies’ deeds and the power of her own frightening imagination. By the end, it is up to us to find out the differences between fantasy from reality along with Samantha.

Awad. wonderfully balances the funny and the serious and that is the last thing I can say without giving the plot away. It is a unique read that I totally enjoyed.