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“Words and Worlds: From Autobiography to Zippers” by Alison Lurie— A Collection of Essays

Lurie, Alison. “Words and Worlds: From Autobiography to Zippers” , Delphinium, 2019.

A Collection of Essays

Amos Lassen

Alison Lurie opens her new collection of essays with her life at Radcliffe during World War II when women were treated like second-class citizens. Even the most scholarly women were expected to support the war effort by working in factories. With this we get an idea of the tone of the essays to follow. Lurie tries her luck at being a writer and almost fails but that begins to change when se establishes relationships with other writers.

She writes about feminism, fashion, and friendships and even those tht seem to be a bit dated today are fun reads. Lurie tells us that how we choose to order the space where we live and work shows a great deal about us. This collection of twenty-one essays is diverse by topic and by length. She writes about everything that is important to her; her friends, her education, her writing and literature in general. She shares a wonderful essay on “Hamlet” and its staging  by Jonathan Miller for his 1974 production and an affectionate tribute to Ted (Edward) Gorey, her best friend for decades. She writes about children’s books like “Pinocchio”, “Babar the Elephant” and Harry Potter and she also looks at the world of the mundane and writes about of knitting, aprons, zippers, and aspects of fashion.

Regardless of what she writes about, she looks at each subject with the eyes of a seasoned critic and she frequently draws on her skills as a Pulitzer Prize–winning fiction writer to shape to her thoughts.

I wasn’t familiar with Lurie’s work before reading this book  and I must say that totally enjoyed it.  All of these essays were clever and interesting and informative.

“THE LOST CROWN”— A Detective Documentary About The Crown of Aleppo

The LOST CROWN (“HAKETER HA’AVOUD”)

 

A Detective Documentary About the Crown of Aleppo

Amos Lassen

 

For seven centuries, the ancient Jewish community of Aleppo (Syria) has safeguarded a sacred treasure worth millions: the Aleppo Codex. Then one night, riots set the synagogue on fire, and the Crown began a dangerous journey. In 1957, while secretly on its way from Aleppo to the hands of the president of Israel in Jerusalem, a third of its pages disappeared. This is the story of the attempt to solve the mystery of the lost pages. Were they simply lost in the fire, or is there another explanation that is less pleasant to the Israeli establishment? Avi, son of a Syrian family, follows the mystery and meets the Crown underground, a group comprised of an independent researcher, a devoted journalist, a best-selling author, and an elderly Mossad (Israeli intelligence) agent, all obsessed with the affair. They reveal a secret trial that took place in the 1960’s and uncover lost protocols leading to corrupt officials, dealing with antique merchants and wealthy collectors. Archival documents and rare testimonies show a harsh cultural clash between the ancient and the proud Aleppian Jewish community and the Israeli establishment of the newborn state and brings up serious questions about the involvement of the 2nd president of Israel in the misappropriation of the Crown.

 

 

This is not only a detective documentary film, it is also a virtual reality experience of a great synagogue, now destroyed and an investigative community website about the whereabouts of the Crown of Aleppo. The ‘Lost Crown’ project is the first Israeli documentary transmedia trilogy.

75,000 people have watched the film in Israel. It has premiered in the Miami Jewish Film festival in January and was officially selected to be screened at the NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival in March.

The film is the product of six years of  extended research and tells the story of an Israeli filmmaker who embarks on a perilous quest to reveal the fate of The Aleppo Codex, A.K.A “The Crown¨, considered to be the most accurate and valuable manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.

After being safeguarded for seven centuries by the Jewish community of Aleppo, over a third of its pages disappeared while being smuggled to Israel in 1957.

As the filmmaker, a great-grandson of the Crown keeper, navigates the dark corridors of hidden history, archival documents and rare testimonies reveal an astonishing tale involving an Israeli president, Mossad agents, passionate researchers,  rabbis and antique dealers.

he Aleppo Codex

 

“The Lost Crown” is directed by Avi Dabach and it documents the story of the Aleppo Codex. Like a good detective story, this is a story of intrigue, murder and even cultural appropriation at the hands of the government of Israel

The Aleppo Codex was written on parchment in the 10th century and is the most ancient manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.  Today it is located in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, but about 200 pages of the manuscript are missing.  The manuscript was kept in the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, which was destroyed in a fire caused during the riots of 1947, following the UN vote on partition. Even though the Crown was rescued from the fire, it is still unclear what happened to the missing pages.

 

The filmmaker, the great grandson of the Syrian Jewish man who was the guardian of the Crown, becomes obsessed with the subject and begins to try to solve the mystery of what happened to the missing pages. He interviews Mossad agents, antiquities dealers and historical researchers. He travels to Deal, New Jersey, where he meets members of the tight-knit, vibrant Halabi (Aleppo) Jewish community, who vacation there every summer.  When he returns to Israel, he documents the story of the Aleppo Code.

 

This is both a personal quest for the filmmaker and also an attempt at righting a wrong that was enacted in the name of the State of Israel, a kind of cultural interventionism and paternalistic appropriation on the part of officials of the State.  “TH

Top Ten Most Challenged Books Lists

 

Top Ten Most Challenged Books Lists

The American Library Association condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information. Every year, the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles a list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books in order to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools. The lists are based on information from media stories and voluntary challenge reports sent to OIF from communities across the United States.

The Top Ten lists are only a snapshot of book challenges. Surveys indicate that 82-97% of book challenges – documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries – remain unreported and receive no media.

Sometimes OIF receives information as the challenge is happening; other times OIF receives an online report years later. This affects the total number of challenges reported in any given year. Thus the Top Ten Most Challenged Books list should not be viewed as an exhaustive report.

Top Ten Most Challenged Books

Top Eleven for 2018

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 347 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2018. Of the 483 books challenged or banned in 2018, the Top 11 Most Challenged Books are:

George by Alex Gino
Reasons: banned, challenged, and relocated because it was believed to encourage children to clear browser history and change their bodies using hormones, and for mentioning “dirty magazines,” describing male anatomy, “creating confusion,” and including a transgender character
A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller
Reasons: banned and challenged for including LGBTQIA+ content, and for political and religious viewpoints
Captain Underpants series written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey
Reasons: series was challenged because it was perceived as encouraging disruptive behavior, while Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot was challenged for including a same-sex couple
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Reasons: banned and challenged because it was deemed “anti-cop,” and for profanity, drug use, and sexual references
Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier
Reasons: banned and challenged for including LGBTQIA+ characters and themes
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Reasons: banned, challenged, and restricted for addressing teen suicide
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
Reasons: banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and certain illustrations
Skippyjon Jones series written and illustrated by Judy Schachner
Reason: challenged for depicting stereotypes of Mexican culture
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: banned and challenged for sexual references, profanity, violence, gambling, and underage drinking, and for its religious viewpoint
This Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman, illustrated by Kristyna Litten
Reason: challenged and burned for including LGBTQIA+ content
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Reason: challenged and burned for including LGBTQIA+ content

“Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark” by Cecelia Watson— A Book About a Semicolon

Watson, Cecelia. “Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark”, Ecco, 2019.

A Book About a Semicolon

Amos Lassen

I know I have often wondered why we need the semicolon and therefore I have hesitated to use it much. Likewise I found it hard to imagine why anyone would write an entire book on the semicolon. Stephen King, Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Orwell detest it. Herman Melville, Henry James, and Rebecca Solnit love it. But why? When is it effective? Have we been misusing it? Should we even care?

Cecelia Watson gives us the rise and fall of this infamous punctuation mark, which for years was the trendiest one in the world of letters. However,  in the nineteenth century, when grammar books became all the rage, the rules of how we use language became both stricter and more confusing and a prime victim was the semicolon. Watson takes us on a journey through a range of examples (from Milton’s manuscripts to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail” to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) and reveals how traditional grammar rules make us less successful at communicating with each other than we’d think. Even the most die-hard grammar fanatics would be better served by tossing the rule books and learning a better way to engage with language. Watson has written a guide to grammar that explains why we don’t need guides at all, and refocuses our attention on the deepest, most primary value of language: true communication.

Watson’s stress is on compassionate punctuation making this “ a volume worth serious consideration.”

What begins as “an exploration of the obscure origins of a modest punctuation mark becomes a slyly profound proof of the value of creative freedom itself. Grammar fiends and poetic anarchists alike will find “Semicolon” inspiring, challenging, and delightful.”

 

Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters” by Christian Smith— A Groundbreaking New Theory of Religion

Smith, Christian. “Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters”,  Princeton University Press reprint, 2019.

A Groundbreaking New Theory of Religion

 Amos Lassen

Religion remains an important influence in the world today, yet the social sciences are still not adequately equipped to understand and explain it. Building on recent developments in science, theory, and philosophy to advance an innovative theory of religion that goes beyond the problematic theoretical paradigms of the past is writer Christian Smith’s purpose here.

Using the philosophy of critical realism and personalist social theory, Christian Smith answers key questions about the nature, powers, workings, appeal, and future of religion. He defines religion in a way that resolves myriad problems and ambiguities in past accounts, explains the kinds of causal influences religion exerts in the world, and examines the key cognitive process that makes religion possible. He further explores why humans are religious in the first place (uniquely so as a species)  and offers an account of secularization and religious innovation and persistence.

 “Religion” includes a wealth of illustrations and examples that help to make its concepts accessible to readers. Writer Smith brings sound theoretical thinking to a perennially difficult subject, and a new vitality and focus to its study.

Smith analyses what religion is, how it works and why it matters, using an approach combining critical theory with personalist social theory. It is  articulate, accessible, and engaging. Smith ignores the postmodern claims that religion is merely a discursive category and provides a critical realist account of what it means to speak of the causal power of a set of religious practices. The result is a social scientific theory that explains why religions continue to be powerful entities operating in the world

 Smith’s goal in this book is to not deal with amateur biases and media-centered discussions surrounding religion, but to provide an empirically and theoretically well-grounded discussion of “what religion is?” “how it works?” “why are humans religious?” etc.

This book is for those interested in understanding religion in all of its various manifestations, as well as the influence it can exert across communities, institutions, and individual lives. It is filled with examples from a wide variety of religious contexts and is accessible to all who have a genuine curiosity into the subject matter.

 

“LEONARD SOLOWAY’S BROADWAY”— WHO?

“Leonard Soloway’s Broadway”

Who?

Amos Lassen

Leonard Soloway is 90 years old and bringing a show to Broadway. Leonard Soloway is an authentic Broadway legend whose career includes over 100 shows, 62 Tony nominations, 40 Tony Awards, and 21 Drama Desk Awards. He has worked with some of the greatest stars of the stage along the way and started his career at the Cleveland Play House. After moving to New York, he landed a few acting bits before finding his place as a general manager and producer. He is outspoken, very funny and has been openly gay long before it was acceptable. He became a force in the Broadway world with his dedication and boundless energy. “Leonard Soloway’s Broadway”, the documentary  is a warm and friendly look at him as he tells his story in his own way. Soloway is an elegant raconteur, so there is lots of backstage gossip. 

Soloway was  the producer/general manager of over 100 shows that garnered over 40 Tony Awards and 60 Tony Nominations and this movie about him is delightful. We get a look at one of the old fashioned gentleman producers who is the epitome of a golden age that has long past. He decided to retire at 87 and calls the movers to pack up his apartment and moves to East Hampton.  He got bored quickly (within three months, so sold up and shipped all his belongings back to the city to an apartment lent to him by one of his many friends had lent him.

Even though he had a two year marriage to an actress, Soloway was one of the first openly gay men in Broadway management. 

His story starts when his mother suggested he go and volunteer at the Cleveland Playhouse.  He was 11 years and was totally smitten with the theater,  and by the time he was 18 had moved to Off Broadway .  His passion for his work and the fact he was more than happy to do it 7 days a week, got him climbing the ladder in no time.

Soloway had a wealth of stories about the stars he produced and managed and who all became his friend.  Filmmaker Katy Scroggin interviewed several Broadway legends who were literally tripping over each other declare their love for him.

There are fascinating stories like the one where he had to fire a young Bernadette  Peters out of town when her part was cut from the show. Because of that she got a part  in “Dames At Sea” her first big hit.  She credits Soloway to making her star. When Marlene Dietrich   summoned him to the theater at 8 AM one Monday Morning. It was the day of the Opening of her new Show and she wanted her dressing room painted, but to Soloway’s shock she actually wanted to do it herself.  And she did.  He also shared that this woman who had a reputation for being ‘impossible’ to work with actually brought the whole orchestra dinner,  that she had cooked herself,  after ever matinee performance.

Soloway says that of all of the Broadway people that he had to deal with Jerome Robbins was the worst. He  had been pushing his cast of 62 very hard for six months of rehearsals.  So one day Soloway stepped in and sent them all home for a break, and when Robbins challenged this, Soloway’s refusal to back down was overheard by a stage hand who spread the news subsequently making Soloway a Broadway hero,

Soloway fell  in love with a new show by dancer Maurice Hines when it was playing out of town and committed himself to bring it into the city which  he manages to do. The show opens at the Second Stage Theater to rave reviews but is so under-financed that Soloway cannot keep it open. It is a rude awakening as he realizes that the whole landscape of mounting shows has changed, and that so many of the investors who had supported him for years are now dead.

Through verité documentary footage, humorous storytelling, interviews and archival film material, we see a Broadway few ever see as told through the eyes of a legendary Broadway Producer and General Manager you’ve probably never heard of. He lived an unconventional life on his own terms who, over a 70-year span was involved with over 100 shows (and counting) which generated history making headlines.

“Leonard Soloway’s Broadway” is a journey through seventy years decades of Broadway as lived by a Broadway stalwart and dedicated lover of the theater who relishes the day-to-day drama of producing, the roller coaster of raising money, the struggling to make ends meet, the long hours of tech, the packed house on opening night, the stars, the salacious and secrete love affairs and the anticipation of a New York Times review, which could make or break any show.

An over-achiever and rebel spirit from the start, Leonard Soloway is a marvel of a man.

“White” by Bret Easton Ellis— Non Fiction

Ellis, Bret Easton. “White”, Knopf, 2019.

Non-Fiction from Bret Easton Ellis

Amos Lassen

Bret Easton Ellis combines personal reflection and social observation in his first work of nonfiction, an incendiary polemic about this young century’s failings, e-driven and otherwise, and a defense of what “freedom of speech” truly means.

Bret Easton Ellis is an enigmatic figure who has always gone against the grain and refused categorization. He wonderfully captured the depravity of the eighties with one of contemporary literature’s most polarizing characters,  Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho”. In recent years, his candor and gallows humor has been seen and heard on Twitter and his podcast. He is a person who is  determined to speak the truth, however painful it might be, and there are those that either love him or hate him. He encounters various positions and voices controversial opinions and more often than not he fights the status quo.

This is a loosely-strung-together set of essays that are part cultural critique, part rant and part memoir. He writes brilliantly about film in general, especially depictions of male sexuality and the gay male gaze in cinema. If this had been a whole book of film criticism and film-based essays, I would have enjoyed it so much more. We see his politics in his blog like essays of which several just ramble with no focus.

\ what people mean when they use that comparison. The worst bits of White are rambling, repetitive and unfocused; they repeat the same points numerous times; they contradict themselves; they make assertions without any evidence. As much as I like Ellis’  writing, I was lost sometimes. Yet I was entertained by it for the most part.

“The Hub of the Gay Universe: An LGBTQ History of Boston, Provincetown, and Beyond” by Russ Lopez— A Comprehensive Look

Lopez, Russ. “The Hub of the Gay Universe: An LGBTQ History of Boston, Provincetown, and Beyond”,  Shawmut Peninsula Press, 2019.

A Comprehensive Look

Amos Lassen

Before I moved to Boston seven years ago, I had only visited here twice and really knew nothing about the place. For whatever reasons, I became too involved in many activates to explore the gay scene here and I believe that in the amount of time that I have lived here, I have to gay bars maybe five times. There always seems to be something going on that’s more important than bar-hopping but I did want to learn about gay Boston. I would about this or that but what I really wanted was to explore. In order to do that I would need a guide of some kind and the only one I could fine was a map where certain important gay sites were marked. Then I learned about this book by Russ Lopez and realized that not only would I be able to find the important places in LGBT history but I would also get an explanation and historical background.

I am so glad to see that local communities have begun to write their histories. Hopefully those who have not done so will decide to put pen to paper. Lopez places LGBT Boston and Provincetown in between two dates— he tells us that his LGBTQ history of Boston and Provincetown begins with the coming of Europeans to Massachusetts in 1620 and ends with the victory over the referendum to overturn transgender rights in 2018. There are significant high points between those two events. These include the “torrid romances of nineteenth century actress Charlotte Cushman, the glamorous nightlife of 1950s Boston, the wild times of 1970s Provincetown, and the great outpouring of happiness that accompanied the country’s first same-sex marriages.” There were low points as well: “the murders of trans women and gay men, the terrible waves of repression of the 1920s, and the devastation of the AIDS years.” I put both of these events in quotation marks because I am sure that each person also has his own personal lists of highs and lows.

I find it amazing that word of this magnitude (not to mention its importance) was undertaken by just one person. I have friends who work with Boston’s LGBT History project and they told me that Lopez spent tireless hours working in their files. He has produced a work that he can be proud of.

Lopez shoes us that there have been LGBTQ people in the region since the coming of Europeans and with them is a political consciousness and advocacy for their rights well over a century before Stonewall.  Granted that Stonewall has come to represent the beginnings of a gay political movement, it is important to know that were movements that preceded event and we see that was certainly true here and in New Orleans as well. While Boston is important in gay history she does not stand alone.

I think one of the most interesting aspects of Boston history came with the “Banned in Boston” years and this idea probably was developed back in the colonial days. I read here that societies chose to be either accepting or repressive and we certainly see both of these in the history of Boston—at times an affirming place and at other times, as Lopez puts it, a nightmare. We also read here of the political consciousness that the LGBTQ community  and used it to their best advantage. Lopez also writes of the resiliency of the LGBTQ community and the point here is that regardless of what was going on, the community continued to live and go about their daily lives.

I do not yet know Russ Lopez but I will meet him  and express my gratitude for the job he has done here. My adoptive city has been very good to me and I see now that this is the kind of place I am living now. I urge you to get a copy and sit back and read a wonderful adventure in our history.

“PATRIMONIO”— Destroying Communities and Cultures

“PATRIMONIO”

Destroying Communities and Cultures

Amos Lassen

Once it was a hidden idyll: Todos Santos is a small fishing community in the Mexican Baja California Sur between desert sand and the Pacific coast. Their only protected beach is Punta Lobos, where for centuries the inhabitants have set sail with small cutters. It is a picturesque spot where we can “live harmoniously, exuberantly and easily here with the exuberance, local self-sufficiency, and simpler life”, it sounds ideal. Tres Santos is a project of Mira Companies, a subsidiary of the US-based Black Creek Group. Harmony is not exactly its strong side.

But the multi-million dollar business has fascinating strengths— forgery of documents, even authorized police squads and almost inexhaustible financial resources. They come in handy when a bunch of local residents block the road on which the work vehicles have to drive to the gigantic construction project. Each of the warring parties says the other one started and both are right. The fishermen started to fish from Punta Lobos and preserve the fragile ecosystem generations ago. Tres Santos started to build. The mangroves protecting the beach from erosion are gone, the river bed filled in, a dam built and a boutique hotel. Tres Santos turns off the faucets for the fishing families in two ways: they take their livelihood from the beach access and drain off the already scarce groundwater.

Supposedly, the company has permits but it does not want to show them. Instead, they have arrested attorney and environmental activist John Moreno, who represents the fishermen in court. So much for “free range”. They fought giants, one of the fishermen describes the unequal fight that accompanies movie directors, Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale. The growing public awareness is backing the community, which is desperately defending its living space. But the company itself has ejected the network for corrupt local politicians. The conflict remains dramatic beyond the end of the film: testimony to a dispute that has not been won despite the optimistic outlook. The resort stands, the coastal area is damaged – if it does not recover and fishermen, nature and the hotel business are gone, probably lost forever.

The film directors do their part to support the courageous resistance of a small fishing community to the destruction of their livelihoods. We see corruption and unscrupulous greed behind a clean eco-facade, as well as integrity and instinctive respect for the environment in a few faded fishers.

 

“Grevious: A Novel” by H.S. Cross— The Sequel to ‘Wilberforce”

Cross, H.S. “Grevious: A Novel”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2019.

The Sequel to “Wilberforce”

Amos Lassen

In 2015 I wrote that “Wilberforce” takes us to St. Stephen’s Academy in 1926 where the students are on the verge of revolt. The younger boys are plotting an insurrection and the older boys are engaged in sneaking out-of-bounds, thrashing each other, tearing each other’s clothes off or perhaps all three. Morgan Wilberforce has had enough and cannot take any more of it. It is now 1931 and we are back at St. Stephen’s Academy in Yorkshire, 1931 and we see that it a  world unto itself, populated by boys reveling in life’s first big mistakes and men still learning how to live with the consequences of their own. They live a cloistered life, exotic to modern eyes, founded upon privilege, ruled by byzantine and often unspoken laws, haunted by injuries both casual and calculated. Where there were moments of joy, “windows of enchantment, unruly love, and a wild sort of freedom, have all disappeared.

The story is related to us  from a variety of viewpoints—including that of unhappy Housemaster John Grieves We are taken inside St. Stephen’s where we draw out the urges and mercies hidden beneath the school’s strict, unsparing surface. We gain psychological insight into its richly realized characters, and an exercise in mood, tone, and characterization.

Here is a British public school  where boys talk a strange slang while dealing with bullying, caning, and countless other rituals. Writer Cross is a good writer who draws on a Kipling-like nostalgia in her entertainingly peculiar picture of the public school as crucible for young male Brits.”  This is a   complex portrait of a sensitive housemaster in a 1931 English boarding school and his nemesis, an angry boy who hides his true self in a box of mysterious letters.