Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“Homo Odyssey: Adventures of a World Traveler” by Brent Meersman— Seventeen Countries on Six Continents: A Travel Memoir

Meersman, Brent. “Homo Odyssey: Adventures of a World Traveler”, Bruno Gmunder, 2017.

Seventeen Countries on Six Continents: A Travel Memoir

Amos Lassen

In always look forward to a new book by Brent Meersman and I must admit that “Homo Odyssey” stole my heart. It is part autobiography, part social theory, an immersive study of sexual desire and the cultures that shape it and it is written with brutal honesty. Meersman throws sentimentality out of the window and becomes both tender and vulnerable as he gives us his memoir of gay life and sexual desire .

We are reminded that sexual desire “morphs with the times”. Meersman is both self-critical and cruelly objective in this deeply personal account that looks intimately at what it means to be human. His stories transcend gayness as they are stories about man as he makes his way through life and we immediately see that it is not difficult to identify with and to feel the human condition.

The next paragraph is quoted from the blurb of the book since it says everything so much better than I can.

“A gay Muslim in Berlin, a young gay man bewildered and lost on the highways of Los Angeles; a rent boy in Shanghai; a holiday romance in Mexico; a man from Dakar in a bathhouse in Paris; a love hotel in Tokyo; a darkroom in Rio; a hamam in Syria; the burning ghats on the Ganges; Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Shinto and atheist; legal and illegal … blazing through 17 countries on six continents…”

“Homo Odyssey” is an edgy, often very funny travel memoir that allows us to see the world and ourselves differently than we ever have before. We read how men are sexually attracted to other men who live in different parts of the world and how they see themselves. This is about survival in hostile places and how we have made it to where we are today.

 

“Afterglow (a dog memoir)” by Eileen Myles— Rosie, the Pit Bull

 

Myles, Eileen. “Afterglow (a dog memoir)”, Grove, 2017.

Rosie, the Pit Bull

Amos Lassen

In 1990, Eileen Myles chose Rosie from a litter on the street, and connected instantly and Rosie became central to the writer’s life and work. They were together for 16 years. Myles was totally devoted to her dog and when Rosie died Myles felt empty. In “Afterglow”, she gives us a look at their relationship and the bond that they shared. She begins this memoir on an imaginary talk show where Rosie is interviewed by Myles’s childhood puppet to give us a “critical reenactment of the night Rosie mated with another pit bull, from lyrical transcriptions of their walks to Rosie’s enlightened narration from the afterlife” and we see what it means to be dedicated to a pet. I could easily relate to this and was reminded of the twelve wonderful years I shared with my Jack Russell Terrier, Sophie.

Myles explores the grieving process in its various aspects and shares what it is to lose something that one cars so deeply about. While this is a book about a dog, it is also a book about life. Myles, Rosie and the reader explore the themes of “geometry, gender, mortality, evil, aging, and plaids” together and we see a new kind of prose. We look at love and loss over and over again in an entirely new reading experience. As Myles mourns her dog here, she takes us into her thoughts and her visions as we read about the closeness a master and her dog shared as she, along with the reader, question our purpose in life and why we are here. This is more than a read, it is a total experience.

“Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz” by Fred Hersch— The Life of a Sideman

 

Hersch, Fred. “Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz”, Penguin, 2017.

The Life of a Sideman

Amos Lassen

Fred Hersch is a jazz pianist, composer, activist, and educator whose talent as a sideman (a pianist who played with the giants of the twentieth century) who defied the boundaries of bop, sweeping in elements of pop, classical, and folk to create a wholly new music. This is his memoir and it is the story of the first openly gay, HIV-positive jazz player and a detailed look into the cloistered jazz culture that made such a status both transgressive and groundbreaking. We also get a profound exploration of how Hersch’s two-month-long coma in 2007 led to his creating some of the finest, most direct, and most emotionally compelling music of his career. Here is a look at post-Stonewall New York and a “narrative of illness, recovery, music, creativity, and the glorious reward of finally becoming oneself.”

“Just Your Average Guy” by Paul Jason— Gender and Gender Equality

Jason, Paul. “Just Your Average Guy”, Beaten Track, 2016.

Gender and Gender Identity

Amos Lassen

Now that transgender people have begun to see a bit of acceptance in modern society, many are writing books about their journeys. In this memoir, we read

About the conflicts, the traumas and the breakdowns that he has experienced as a man who is closeted,, a family guy who tries to balance his straight sexuality with his trans side as a man who crossdresses. He shares his personal thoughts on crossdressing without going into self-psychoanalysis as so many others have one. This is his journey of self-discovery in which he reflects back on the lonely struggles of coming to terms with his crossdressing in a pre-internet era.

When he began dressing as a woman years ago, he felt terribly guilty about it. He was afraid all the time that someone would catch him crossdressing (wearing his mother’s clothes). When he moved out of his parents’ house, he began building his own closet, yet the fear and that guilt came with him. He went to great lengths to protect his secret and we really feel the fear that he felt. It is interesting that

there was no sexual element to his crossdressing, as well as no deep-seated gender confusion behind his identity. Crossdressing never aroused him nor did he ever want to become a woman. He was never aroused by crossdressing, and never felt the urge to become a woman. He simply takes comfort in the clothes and the cosmetics, and finds a sense of peace in his crossdressing, without ever forgetting who he is beneath it all. He writes about double standards and carefully explains that he is quite simply a man who likes to dress as a woman. He simply wants us to understand that.

When I lived in Arkansas, I went to a gay weekend in the small town of Eureka Springs and it just happened that weekend there was a meeting of straight male crossdressers. It was a fascinating experience to speak to the guys (who ranged from truck drivers to stay at home dads) and to learn their feelings on dressing as women while otherwise maintaining straight lives. Writer Jason’s views are also fascinating especially because he writes about how it was before we had the Internet and access to so much.

We do not yet live in a world where men are free to live in have peace and we can only hope that we are moving in that direction. The more that we read and understand, the more likely we will gain that new world. I admire Jason’s honesty in telling his story and I can only hope that as many people as possible will read it.

 

“Being Green: A Colorful Journey by Howard Green— A Memoir

Green, Howard. “Being Green: A Colorful Journey”, Page Publishing, 2017.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

Howard Green grew up in the 50s and it was rough. His father was abusive and his mother was insane. It was a time when there were no role models for young gay boys and homosexuality was not spoken about as freely as it is today. Being gay back then caused people to think of mental illness. Green hid from himself and from society. He married to disguise his feelings but the inner pressure got to him and he entered a mental institution for a month. It was only through his inner strength and perseverance that he was able to accept who he was and turn his life around and what a turn that was

Green became a successful film publicist in Hollywood and worked with such celebrities as Lucille Ball, Clint Eastwood, Barbra Streisand, John Denver, Jack Lemmon and many others.

As you read what he writes here, it is easy to sense his confidence and his honesty. It was not easy to gain self-acceptance and how Green went about it is inspiring. Now, in his book, he looks back at his life and lets us see how he did along with the many hurts and bruises he felt. Reading this is akin to Green begins with his troubled past and childhood and he shares how his sad childhood affected his struggles in his adult life. He overcomes adversity, falls in and out of love and builds a successful business. He was able to attain his dreams while remaining humble.

As someone who is now editing his own autobiography, I can tell you that writing about oneself is not easy. Green wonderfully balances “the ups and downs, the triumphs and tragedies, the loves found and sometimes lost, with a certain wry humor and a fearlessness in not allowing himself to come across as a victim or having an inability to point the finger at himself if he somehow fell short”. He writes with total honesty and allows us into his life as if we have always been there.

 

“Lou Sullivan: Daring To Be a Man Among Men” by Dr. Brice D. Smith— Becoming a Gay Man

Smith, Dr. Brice D. “Lou Sullivan: Daring To Be a Man Among Men”, Transgress, 2017.

Becoming a Gay Man

Amos Lassen

Lou Sullivan was told that he couldn’t live as a gay man, but he died a gay man. Lou was from the Midwest where “girls did not grow up to be gay men and die from AIDS.” Lou was a transgender pioneer and one of the most tragically overlooked people in LGBT history. He marched for Civil Rights, embraced the 1960s counterculture. He came of age in the gay liberation movement, transformed medical treatment of trans people, institutionalized trans history, created and forged an international female-to-male transgender community and died from AIDS. He overcame tremendous obstacles to be who he was and dedicated his life to helping others to do just that. Sullivan inspired a generation to rethink gender identity, sexual orientation and what it means to be human.

What author Brice Smith has done here is give us well-informed understanding of transgender issues by framing these through Sullivan’s life in a way that systematically introduced and expands understanding and fill in gaps about the trans movement.

Sullivan’s Milwaukee roots were instrumental in the making of LGBT history and we see that the trans community has unique qualities that have influenced the LGBT movement.

“A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain” by Simon Goldhill— An Extraordinary Family

Goldhill, Simon. “A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain”, University of Chicago Press, 2016.

An Extraordinary Family

Amos Lassen

Edward White Benson became Archbishop of Canterbury at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, and his wife, Mary, was renowned for her wit and charm. Some, including the prime minister, thought her to “the cleverest woman in England or in Europe.” The couple had and raised six precocious children included E. F. Benson, creator of the Mapp and Lucia novels, and Margaret Benson, the first published female Egyptologist.

Author Simon Goldhill, however, is most interested in what went on behind the scenes of the family that was very unusual. The Benson family wrote novels, essays, and thousands of letters that opened new perspectives such topics as what it might mean for an adult to kiss and propose marriage to a twelve-year-old girl, how religion in a family could support or destroy relationships, or how the death of a child could be celebrated. There has been no other family to leave such detailed records about their most intimate moments. It is through these accounts that we see how family life and a family’s understanding of itself took shape during a time when psychoanalysis, scientific and historical challenges to religion, and new ways of thinking about society were just developing. While this is the story of the Bensons, it is also the story of how society transitioned from the Victorian period into modernity. We really realize how much has changed by reading this book and we see that what

makes this family so queer is not just their unconventional sexuality, but “how that sexuality is accommodated, denied, negotiated within the tramlines of a very conventional life.” . . . The Bensons are both exemplary and unique in their queerness and in this is the importance of this book. Goldhill takes us into Victorian discussions of sex and sexuality, of religious belief and doubt, and other engaging and “discreet” topics. We read of “child brides, cousin marriage, generational antagonisms, polyamory, lesbianism, homosexuality”. Religious fervor dominates the times as we read of the Benson family between 1850 and 1940. Here is family that wrote and rewrote itself, across generations, genders, and genres. In dramatic detail, Simon Goldhill shares the

the ‘biographical urges’ of the Bensons and the story that comes through is as much psychological as biographical. We explore the social climate in which the Benson family lived. Even with acknowledging the same sex attraction of both male and female family members, it avoids any explicit detail of any physical relationships or whether they existed.

The book is more a collection of essays and lacks a clear, straightforward narrative of the family. The six individuals we read about here would never have labeled themselves (or their siblings) as gay or lesbian, and it is unclear to what extent each of them acted on their impulses.

“A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir” by Ian Buruma— Tokyo’s Underground Culture

Buruma, Ian. “A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir”, Penguin Press, 2018.

Tokyo’s Underground Culture

Amos Lassen

Ian Buruma arrived in Tokyo in 1975 with little idea of anything about Japan, other than it having been a faraway place. Ian was a sensitive misfit. He was an upper middleclass guy who longed for raw adventure like he had seen in theater performances in Amsterdam and Paris and he had been particularly influenced by a Japanese troupe made up of runaways, outsiders and eccentrics and directed by a poet. He thought that if Tokyo was anything like the plays, he had to be there. He found Tokyo to be “a feverish and surreal metropolis where nothing was understated, and everything shouted for attention—neon lights, crimson lanterns, Japanese pop, advertising jingles, cabarets, and PA systems.” It was a city He encountered a city in the midst of an economic boom where everything seemed new except for the temple or shrine that had survived the firestorms and earthquakes that had leveled the city during the past century. History remained in fragments in Japan where he found wounded World War Two veterans in white kimonos. He saw the seedy old bars and the narrow alleys where street girls had once ruled. But Buruma’s Tokyo was a city going through radical transformation. His adventures in the world of avant garde theater, with carnival acts, fashion photographers, and moments on-set with Akira Kurosawa, caused him to go through his own radical transformation. As an outsider, he was unattached to the cultural burdens placed on the Japanese and so he experienced true freedom.

 “A Tokyo Romance” is a portrait of a young artist and the city that shaped him. Buruma “brilliantly captures the historical tensions between east and west, the clash of conflicting cultures, and the dilemma of the foreigner in Japanese society who is constantly free yet always on the outside. This is a story about the desire to transgress cultural, artistic, and sexual boundaries.

“Self-Made Woman: A Memoir” by Denise Chantrelle Dubois— Becoming

DuBois, Denise Chantrelle. “Self-Made Woman: A Memoir”, (Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiography), University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.

Becoming

Amos Lassen

I chose to use only one word to entitle this review simply because it connotes an ongoing practice. I do not believe that we ever finish “becoming” and every day that we are alive, we “become” a little more. I think this is especially true for gay people and trans people since we never come out just once. Every time we meet someone new, we must decide whether or when to come out to them or not.

Denise Chantrelle DuBois had a rough time transition from Dennis to who she is today. She was born in Milwaukee to a working class Polish American family. He father was domineering and in the 1960s when she was growing up, the idea of gender conformity had not yet but something to speak open about especially in a neighborhood where people worked in order to survive. There was very little money in Denise’s family and there would have been no compassion for a boy who wanted to be a girl back then. Throughout school, Denise faced bullies and teasing and when she got home, the sense of deprivation was so strong that she rarely felt good about herself. She tells us, “For decades I kept Denise in the closet. Then I kept Dennis in the closet”. We can only imagine how terrified she was and she fought that by resorting to alcoholism, drug dealing and addiction and these often led to dangerous sex and eventually to prison time. She barreled from Wisconsin to California, Oregon, Canada, Costa Rica, New York, Bangkok, and Hawaii in search of some kind of peace. Somehow she managed to survive. When she was finally able to accept herself as a woman, things changed but it was a long and arduous road to get to that point.

Now that trans people are receiving the acceptance they deserve, there are a tremendous number of books about self-acceptance and transitioning and the theme always seems to be the same—- the person who was born into the wrong body and gender and who has to struggle to find the true self. In the last year, I read many but I must say that Denise’s book really got to me and had me turning pages as quickly as possible. I think that is because it is so brutally honest and so filled with both pain and joy. Yes, it is a book about transformation but it is also a book about survival. Sometimes we have to go through terrible pain to reach happiness and we see that so clearly and powerfully here. We often forget that in order to make peace with the future, we must also confront the past and that is what Denise does so beautifully here. Denise also happens to be a fine writer whose story I will not likely forget anytime soon.

 

“The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism” by Jason Tougaw— Growing Up Gay

Tougaw, Jason. “The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism”, Dzanc Books, 2017.

Growing Up Gay

Amos Lassen

In,“The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism”, Jason Tougaw tellshis story of growing up gay in 1970s Southern California in “The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism”. He had been raised by hippies who had “dropped out” in the late sixties and couldn’t seem to find their way back in. They used the expression, “There’s something wrong with our blood and it affects our brains” as a catchall answer for incidents such as Tougaw’s schizophrenic great-grandfather directing traffic in the nude on the Golden Gate Bridge, the author’s own dyslexia and hypochondria, and the near-death experience of his notorious jockey grandfather, Ralph Neves.

This is an honest and unexpected true story that seals with the big questions of “Where did I come from,” “How did I become me,” and “What happens when the family dog accidentally overdoses on acid?”

This is a wonderfully funny read but it is also sensitive and very moving in that we read about a family that is both particular and universal. It is also the story of a boy growing up in California during the years of a waning counter culture and it brings together reflections on the brain science of human memory and development and the mystery of why some of us survive a chaotic and brutal childhood while there are others that do not do so.

We read of the terrifying bonds that make a family and also see that these bonds are wonderful as well. By using social theory and neuroscience, Tougaw looks at what makes the “self” as he tries to determine how we become who we are.