Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“Life After Losses: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Life” by James LaVeck— An Intimate Journey of Dealing with Grief

LaVeck, James. “Life After Losses: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Life”, James Laveck, 2021.

An Intimate Journey of Dealing with Grief

Amos Lassen

We are all aware of how difficult it is to lose someone that we love and that the grief process is one of the roughest things that we face in life.

James LaVeck shares his experiences with loss and grief. He tells the story of his first love, his husband Bob, who he lost after 7 years together. He takes us on his journey of healing and ultimately of falling in love yet again, with his second husband with whom he had two children. Laveck lost his second husband as well, after fifteen years together.

Through beautiful storytelling and with practical advice, LaVeck hopes that his own journey toward healing can help anyone else dealing with grief of their own. We cannot avoid grief but we can transverse it. LaVeck has come to the other side of this grieving process and shows us he modelled this journey for his children as well. 

LaVeck’s story is both heartbreaking and uplifting and helps anyone who has dealt with grief and loss. He is optimistic and straight-forward with what he shares. Above all we see  the power of hope.

“All the Young Men” by Ruth Coker Burks— Behind the Red Door

Burks, Ruth Coker with Kevin Carr O’Leary. “All The Young Men”, Grove Press, 2020.

Behind the Red Door

Amos Lassen

In 1986, 26-year old Ruth Coker Burks went to visit a friend at the hospital and noticed that the door to one of the hospital rooms was painted red. She saw nurses drawing straws to see who would take care of the patient inside. On impulse, Ruth entered the quarantined room and began to take care for the young man who was crying for his mother in his last moments of his life. Before she could even understand what she had done, word spread in the community that Ruth was the only person willing to help young men suffering from AIDS and she was called upon to nurse them. She was able to create deep friendships with the men she helped and she worked to find them housing and jobs and even searched for funeral homes that were willing to take their bodies. She cooked meals for sick men, stored rare medications for her most urgent patients, taught sex-ed to drag queens after hours at secret bars, and became a symbol of hope sick gay men in the conservative state of Arkansas. Ruth is still a legend in Arkansas. I lived there from 2005-2014 and people still speak of her goodness and altruism. I regret that I never had the chance to meet her.

Burks dared to defy local pastors and nurses to help the men she cared for: Paul and Billy, Angel, Chip, Todd and Luke. As she carried the weight of their collective pain, she advocated for their safety and visibility and advised then Governor Bill Clinton on the national HIV-AIDS crisis.

“All The Young Men” is her moving memoir in which she honors the men who fought for their lives during a hostile and misinformed time in America. She beautifully balances pathos and humor as she shares her story. It is difficult to picture a place like conservative Arkansas that exhibits hard feelings for those who are different and even though it has come a long way, it still has a long way to go in accepting the LGBTQ community and I can say that having experienced it myself.

This is a story that had to be told. The American South  was unlike other places during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. I was lucky enough to be out of the country for it (aside from a short visit to New Orleans in 1989 where what I saw broke my heart).

It took just one moving encounter with Jimmy, an abandoned young man hours before he died that brought Ruth Coker Burks to action and to begin to care of ill gay men and fight homophobia. She battled indignities and intimidation, families and churches and health care.

In the spring of 1986, Burks was a single mom living in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She found a new family while visiting her best friend in the hospital when she came upon that red door and saw the behavior of the nurses. This was the beginning of how Burks began advocating for a better life for men like Jimmy. She sought out ways to reach gay men and teach them how to avoid getting AIDS. She inherited a cemetery she inherited that  became a final resting place for Jimmy and for many that followed. By the end of that summer, she’d buried eight men.

She learned more and more about HIV/AIDS and found ways to help. She spent time in hospitals and visited those who were not yet hospitalized. Burks offered them dignity. something  others were unwilling to do. She was ostracized by others, especially from the members of her church.

As I read, I cried, I laughed, and I became enraged and I fell in love with Ruth Coker Burks who dared to help an already ostracized group of people that were shunned by society and their own families. We really see the hypocrisy of religion and the sexism and insincere attitudes that were everywhere in Arkansas at the time.

“A Dutiful Boy: A Memoir of a Gay Muslim’s Journey to Acceptance” by Moshin Zaidi— A Memoir

Zaidi, Mohsin. “A Dutiful Boy: A Memoir of a Gay Muslim’s Journey to Acceptance”, Square Peg, 2020.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

“A Dutiful Boy” by Mohsin Zaidi is a coming of age memoir about growing up queer in a strict Muslim household. Mohsin was raised in a poor section of east London in a devout Shia community in a close-knit and religiously conservative family. From an early age, he felt different and very alone since in his home being gay was not an option for him. Mohsin attended a failing inner city school where gang violence was a fact of life. As he grew up, there did not seem to be any choices he could make as he matured. He was disenfranchised from opportunity and isolated from his family as a closeted gay Muslim, yet he had had incredible drive and became the first person from his school to go to Oxford University. There he experienced the newfound freedom to become the man his parents never wanted him to be. When his father confronted him and a witch doctor was invited to “cure” him, Mohsin had to make a difficult choice. His story is filled with twists and turns yet there is humor here.

Today, Moshin is a top criminal barrister after having to hide his secret for so many years. He knew that he was gay from a young age but for years and tried to fight against it since he knew that his parents would not approve. He finally learned to accept his sexuality and strove to seek acceptance from his family.

“A Dutiful Boy” is often harrowing but Mohsin has found the right balance between humor and pathos. It is sometimes difficult to read but sticking with it has its rewards. This is a memoir that is anhonest reflection of the lives of both a gay Muslim boy and his Pakistani family. It is profound, moving, heartbreaking, redemptive and brutally honest. As we read, we better understand bullying, faith, sexuality, family dynamics and beliefs, social barriers, poverty and class and the solace of loving and being loved.

We really see how it feels to be the “other”. Moshin was an outsider in his own country because of his ethnic heritage, an outsider in his family because of his sexuality and  an outsider in the LGBTQ community because of his religious background.

He was pressured to succeed as the first son to a Muslim immigrant family. He shares his experiences growing up and coming-of-age as an outsider among outsiders. Even with very dark and painful times, Moshin’s story is compelling and joy and happiness eventually break through the darkness.

THE BEST LGBT BOOKS OF 2020—- A PERSONAL LIST

THE BEST LGBT BOOKS OF 2020—- A PERSONAL LIST

AMOS LASSEN

Reviews by Amos Lassen

Books, Movies and Judaica and Random Thoughts About Whatever

 

MY BOOK OF THE YEAR

 

Shayne, Alan. “The Rain May Pass”, Rand Smith,  September 15, 2020.

Simply Beautiful

Amos Lassen

It is not often that a book pulls me so quickly that I stop everything else and read it in one sitting. Such is the case with Alan Shayne’s “The Rain May Pass”. It is a sincere and beautifully written coming-of-age memoir. Beginning his story in the 1940s Brookline, Massachusetts, Shayne shares his teen years with us. This is the story of young Alan discovering his sexuality and coming to terms with it. We meet young Alan as he is preparing to spend the summer working in his grandmother’s shop on Cape Cod. This was to be a summer like none other— it was then that Shayne discovered he is. It was the summer before World War II and his parents decided that he had to go to the Cape and way from the city.

He grew up as a Jewish boy on the East Coast and like so many teens, he was quite sure that his parents did not understand him and that his older brother ignores him. He was dealing with his sexuality even though he has no comprehension of what it means and really has no idea of how to face it. That summer, he met Roger who was a good deal older than him and who initiated him into the world of gay sex. The two met by chance and while Alan was pretty sure of his sexual orientation, it took Roger for him to act on it.

There ws something about Roger, his first love, that gave Alan the strength to accept himself and to later continue his quest to become an actor and have an entertainment career. While that summer heralded his beginning with Roger, it also come to be the end of the two’s relationship. Roger enlisted in the service and Alan got a part in summer stock. Even though Roger had cone a few times to Brookline, he and Alan had no more intimate moments. Alan carried Roger with him for a long time and it was only when he became successful on the stage that he was able to let go of his unrequited love for the older guy.

We read of Alan’s relationship with his family as well and all of its dysfunctions. His parents really did not understand him nor did they know how to let go. His grandmother was no help either and they shared a non-relationship even though Shayne hoped that there would have been. Through Shayne, we see what it is to become a man.

I felt I was smiling as I read but there were also times that had me wiping tears from my eyes. The prose is simple yet lyrical and the short chapters give us Alan Shayne’s character in various incidents. We read from his perspective yet we also get the perspectives of the other characters.

I absolutely love this book and I loved being on Alan Shayne’s journey through his young years. I actually felt, at times, that I was right there beside him. Reading of his accepting himself was a real treat. Authenticity and honesty jump out from the pages.

FICTION:

Washington, Bryan. “Memorial”, Riverhead Books, 2020.

Love, Family, Anger and Grief

Amos Lassen

Bryan Washington’s “Memorial” is a funny and profound story about family in all its forms, becoming who you’re supposed to be, and the limits of love.

Two young guys, Benson and Mike live together in Houston. Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant and Benson’s a Black day care teacher. They have been together for years but now they’re not sure why they’re still a couple. They love each other but something seems to be missing. 

Mike finds out his estranged father is dying in Osaka just as his Japanese mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Texas for a visit. Mike flies to Japan to say goodbye. There he undergoes a transformation as he learns the truth about his family and his past. Back in Texas, Mitsuko and Benson are stuck living together as unconventional roommates in a strange domestic situation that means more to each of them than they ever could have thought. Benson begins to push outwards, realizing he might just know what he wants out of life. Both men will change in ways that will either make them stronger together, or ruin everything they’ve ever known.

This is a beautiful book that had me turning pages as quickly as possible. I fell in love with both the characters and Washington’s beautiful prose. This is a fresh look at the American family as well as a way to deal with grief and loss and forgivingness.

The characters are complex and wonderfully drawn and I cared about each of them as I reconsidered my thoughts about love, and family, and anger, and grief. We have humor alongside intimacy, sadness and sensuality.

Washington shows us how we live while we act and do and what we feel must be a part of our lives. It is really “about everything that matters in life: love, loss, community and communion.”

.Mitsuko and Benson, even in their initial awkwardness come together through their mutual love for Mike and through tight dialogue.  Washington also wonderfully shares the complexities of Houston and the personalities there making the city another character in the novel.

Reardon, Robin. “On The Precipice” (Trailblazer Book 3), IAM Books, 2020.

Ready for Love

Amos Lassen

Nathan Bartlett is looking for someone he can love but even more than that he wants to find someone who he can trust— “he’s ready to love and be loved.” His past has not been glorious. He has lost his parents,  his older brother Neil, and the grandmother who’d raised him. The only family he has left is his sister Nina. His relationships have gonenowhere and he is emotionally spent. It seems that his life has been one of following trails that lead nowhere and he has decided that the time has come for him to strike out and make his own trails. He decides to climb mountains in memory of Neil This takes him to Drew, a man in a wheelchair who had an accident on a mountain and will never hike again. It is here that Nathan finds himself on a precipice and knowing that only trust will help him now. 

“On The Precipice” is the third and final volume of her “Trailblazer” series and it is the most intimate of the three. Nathan faces the decision of becoming involved with a man who will never walk again. He knows that they will have problems and huge differences and that he must grow both mentally and personally and that the both of them must face their pasts before true love can bloom. Nathan knows that this will not be easy. He knows what he wants from life— to be able to climb mountains and to work as a counselor in a drug addiction setting. More than both of these, he wants to be in love. What he does not know is whether Drew is the right man for him—at least, not at first.

Drew experienced a spinal cord injury while saving a child’s life on a dangerous mountain trail and is in a wheelchair and is now unable to hike and climb as he loved to do. He is still learning to deal with this even though he has been able to be independent and active. Yet, there are still problems and issues that he must face. At the same time, Nathan understands that the help he has been able to give to addicts who he has volunteered to help is also good for him. He probes his inner self to deal with what he has suffered with the loss of his family knowing that he will not be able to love anyone else until he can love himself.

Robin Reardon’s prose is gorgeous and the way she handles what the two men deal with is amazing. I have loved Reardon’s writing since I reviewed her first book years ago. Here  I especially love that she provides discussion questions and a reading group guide and a foreword by Stevie M. Jonak, a wheelchair user who I understand was a consultant on the book as well. A special surprise is the playlist of songs to listen to while reading.

Robin Reardon always surprises with her originality and her emotional writing. I am sad to see the series end but if I know Robin, there is still much more to come and I anxiously await to read whatever she writes.

White, Edmund.  “A Saint from Texas”,  Bloomsbury, 2020.

Twin Sisters

Amos Lassen

Almost every summer, I look forward to reading something new from Edmund White and it is always a highlight of my literary experiences. This summer was no different with “A Saint from Texas”, White’s new novel that tells the storyof twin sisters, one set for Parisian nobility and the other moving toward Catholic sainthood. 

Yvette and Yvonne Crawford are twin sisters who were born on an East Texas prairie. Their destinies turned out to be dramatic and we are with them as they follow them.  Each girl has secrets and dreams which will take them  from Texas and from each other. As the years pass, Yvonne becomes a member of the elite of Parisian society while Yvette enters to a lifetime of worship and service in Jericó, Colombia. Even though, they are separated,  and live very different lives, they share the bonds of family and the past. 

Beginning in the 1950s and taking us to the recent past, these two Texas women’s lives are bound together even though they are very different from each other. From the newly rich of Dallas, the society of Paris and Colombian convent, we see the lines of class and sexuality.

Edmund White explores love, sex and family over 50 years bringing the non-believer and the totally-committed to God together and we share their lives. Yvette and Yvonne are finely-drawn characters and we sense White’s sympathy for them. He explores sin and envy, in-depth, through them.

This is a story about us as well. As the sisters find themselves through losing themselves, so do we. We have human love and divine love alongside of passion and sin and desire. As the novel moves forward, secrets come to the fore and revelations explode on the pages It is White’s wit and irony that makes “A Saint from Texas” so wonderfully readable.

The storyis told from Yvonne’s perspective  and as she tells about her life (through letters to her sister), she also tells the story of  Yvette. Yvonne went to Paris in college and married a Baron there. Yvette converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun.

In a world of morally corrupt and unlikeable characters, Yvette is able to maintain some decency even with the difficult life she has led. Her timidity and self-effacing and both sisters ultimately become being sex-obsessed. Since they are from a very homophobic part of Texas, we would expect them to be bothered by desires for other women but they are not.

I thought that this was going to be quite a light read so I was surprised  that it is much more than that.  Collections of stories make up the plot and as I hinted, the characters are strange. Each sister searches for her own sense of perfection and we see that faith drives Yvette while Yvonne is by status. They both mature when they realize that there is no such thing as perfection. This is, in effect, a comedy of manners and I was totally and completely drawn into it— so much so that I read it from cover-to-cover in a single day. Since I am a huge Edmund White fan, this is not surprising. The clashes between cultures are hilarious while, at the same time, explore the characters. There were moments that my feelings toward the twins bordered upon love and disdain. Their experimentations with them themselves teach them about who they are.

There is a lot to think about as we read making this an intellectual experience to a degree. While the pace, at first, seems swift do not be surprised if you find yourself stopping to think several times. We root for the sisters as they face societal demands of conformity and subservient women.

Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “Beloved Comrades: A Novel in Stories”, Anaphora Literary Press, 2020.

Three Generations

Amos Lassen

Several years ago I discovered the poetry of Yermiyahu Taub and it was such a rewarding experience that I immediately became  a fan. I eagerly await each book he publishes and find myself reading as quickly as possible but feeling down afterwards because the experience is over and I have to wait for him to write another book. I often immediately reread his work to better savor the beauty of his words and plot just as I did here. I am sure that his relevance for me is because we share the same communities— Jewish and queer.

In “Beloved Comrades”, Taub brings us the story of three generations and the Orthodox Jewish community. A new synagogue provides a place for the three generations that we meet here. Told in chapters that come together to form a novel, we meet unforgettable characters that many of us are all too familiar with but that are also brought to us in new ways.

Arnold is co-owner of a car service with a reserved seat at his Yeshivah.  However, he often finds that his seat is taken by others and so he does the logical thing—-he decides to create his own synagogue where everyone is welcome. There is to be no rabbi and Arnold is clearly running the show. He wants the synagogue to be a community of friends (comrades) and he names it with a name that reminds one of socialism. He sets the goal of helping his members forget their memories of exclusion and heartbreak and he wants his house of worship to be a haven for those who feel different and marginalized where everyone enjoys being treated kindly or as Taub says with  “kindness just short of pity.”

We do not meet complete characters at first. Rather, Taub has the plot develop through the course of their stories and we see that they share pasts filled with secrets and shame. He builds his characters through his beautiful prose thus pulling us in and making us feel that we are gaining new friends. Along with the character development, we also get physical descriptions that emerge with the development of the interior descriptions.

The issues introduced are intense and complex yet Taub writes with a compassion that we do not often find in books that deal with such Orthodox Jewish ideas. I could actually envision my father grimacing at the idea of a  young Jewish boy’s realizing his feelings for his black, Muslim friend. Yet when another member of the community learns of this, she keeps it to herself. I was reminded of when I was working at my synagogue in New Orleans when we had an application for a new membership and I was asked to interview the person who was a transsexual and wanted to chant Torah at a Shabbat service.

Each of the stories here is a tour-de-force and the reader is left with the question of “What would I do?” in difficult cases. At first, it all sounds quite depressing but let me assure you that there is great happiness to be found here. It might seem easy to put minor events in our lives behind us, but we see here that this is not always the case and as small as these incidents might seem to be, they are indeed part of our identities and reemerge when least expected and they hurt.

The novel focuses on Jewish Americans and themes of love, friendship, community, faith, sexuality and social justice. While the book is about Jews, the themes are universal and is relevant to all people regardless of religion, ethnicity, background and nationality.  By presenting his characters’ private lives, Taub shows us the differences in public and personal and the effects they have on  who we are.  The Jewish experience we have here is a reflection of the human experience we all share.

Taub conveniently provides a glossary of the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Yiddish words in his “sensitive novel about a religious community’s relationships and its wide spectrum of dreams, hopes, and desires.” (“Foreword Clarion Reviews”)

Schneiderman, Jason. “Hold Me Tight”, Red Hen, 2020.

Risk and Vulnerability

Amos Lassen

I have long been a fan of Jason Schneiderman’s poetry and I love every new book of his that comes out, However, I was not prepared for the vulnerability that I found here. That is not a bad thing, far from it. It is a good thing because it meant the poet has descended from above and feels what so many of us feel.

“Hold Me Tight” is composed of five poetic sequences and looks at life in today’s world of technology, violence and anxiety. He explores selfhood and where life is going. The collection opens with “Anger”, a long poem about finding peace and the struggle it takes. Having just recently done some deep research on anger for a class I will be teaching on anger in the Hebrew Bible, I dove right in and realized that this is an extremely personal poem about an issue we all deal with from time-to-time. Using his own life as a basis, we see the universality of anger and no one is exempt from being angry.

“And I realized

That I’ve never

experienced anger

I only know rage.”

This is the conclusion he reaches after Schneiderman asked everyone how anger works and  after trying to find a definition of what anger is. Can we differentiate between anger and rage?

“What it’s like to want

Everyone else to suffer

As much as you

Are suffering,”

This is a question I leave for you to decide after reading “Anger”. Schneidermann looks for a definition for the anger he feels only to discover that it also has another name.

Next we have a series of parables about wolves used metaphorically to look at political conflicts, emotions and relationships that all seemed to have the perpetrator and the victim, “the predators and prey”. “Wolf loves Fox, which wolves don’t do… which makes all the other wolves hate him”. I reread that line over and over thinking how perfectly this applies to loving someone that society sees as unfit for me. 

“All the wolves are named Wolf, 

which usually works fine, but now that 

Wolf loves Fox, they need a name to drive him 

from them.

”… “Foxbutreallywolf [sic] says

…“I had to know you would give everything up 

for me”. (Thinking to myself, “WOW!”. I have never heard it put that way before).

A group of ten poems about Chris Burden and his movement from the personal, self-inflicted violence of his early work to the larger questions of political violence of his later work.

“The submarines are undeniably beautiful,

suspended from the ceiling in a field…

‘Oh god, look at all that destruction we’ve

unleashed on the world!” But really,

Those are some beautiful submarines”.

We then shift to a group of poems about technology and art that looks at how technologies extend the possibilities of the human body and this alters what it means to be human.

“O newest of new words

Welcome to my mouth!

Are we open to dealing with the new especially when we see the tremendous amount of change in our lives?

“Because we die, because

We can more easily calculate

The number of possibilities

Than actually look at them.”

 In the fifth and final sequence, Schneiderman creates a series of “last things” where finality gives meaning to the people and things in question. That old humanism is here as is the holding, accepting and loving of the changes in the way we live and think.

“The last baby is only the last baby for a year or so”.

 Schneiderman’s project invokes a kind of old fashioned humanism, embracing the ruptures in our contemporary ways of living and thinking.

Risk and vulnerability abound in the entire collection. I was reminded that the line from the Book of Ecclesiastes , “there is nothing new under the sun” is only temporary especially when we realize that the germ for something new comes from the old and what is new is only temporarily so.  There were times that I read that I felt that I was actually conversing with Schneidermann (and maybe one day I will get that opportunity). Everything he says is grounded in the reality in which we live. There are surprises here in that we are surprised to see how we feel in words. It takes a brave man to do that.  

I must admit that I did not arrive at what I say here after a singular reading. I kept returning to the poems hoping that the conversation between the poet and myself was still in progress. We can chat about every line of verse and every completed poem and to me, that is what great literature is. Schneidermann’s poems will stay with me for a very long time and the fact that I am having flashbacks as I write this is proof of that. I love “Hold Me Tight”.

NON FICTION:

 

Warren, Rosanna. “Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters”, W.W. Norton, 2020.

An Enigma of a  Man 

Amos Lassen

We have heard the name of Max Jacob in our college careers but many of us know little about him. As a graduate student, I researched Jacob as I studied about the beginnings of the Cubist movement but it was not until I read Rosanna Warren’s study that I really learned about the man.

Jacob was a Jewish homosexual poet who has been unfortunately relegated to the sidelines of early twentieth century French history. He was “Pablo Picasso’s initiator into French culture, Guillaume Apollinaire’s guide out of the haze of symbolism, and Jean Cocteau’s loyal friend.” While Picasso was reinventing painting, Jacob helped to reinvent poetry through “compressed, hard-edged prose poems and synapse-skipping verse lyrics, the product of a complex amalgamation of Jewish, Breton, Parisian, and Roman Catholic influences.”

His life was part of bohemian Paris from the turn of the twentieth century through World War II. In this study we are taken back to Picasso’s studio in Montmartre, where Cubism was born and we meet the artists on the left bank where Max would often “hold court.” We read of the artists who shaped the Modernist movement and of his complex understanding of faith, art, and sexuality. In 1909, he saw a vision of Christ in his room in Montmartre, and in 1915 he converted formally from Judaism to Catholicism. Picasso was named as his godfather. In later life, Jacob spent time in both Paris and the monastery of Benoit-sur-Loire. In February 1944, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Drancy, where he dies a few days afterwards.

We see Jacob as a man, an artist and a poet. I learned so much of what I had always wondered about the man.

Gambone, Philip. “As Far As I Can Tell: Finding My Father In World War II”, Rattling Good Yarns, 2020.

Searching for His Father

Amos Lassen

 Philip Gambone, a gay man takes us into his life as he thinks about why he never told his father the reason why he was rejected from the draft during the Vietnam War. His father, never talked about what he did as a soldier in the Second World War. There was something missing between father and son and that sense of mystery is the backbone of “As Far As I Can Tell”. I remember having dinner with writer Gambone when I first moved to Boston some nine years and he told me about the book he was planning to write. I am amazed at how much time has passed since the day we sat in Zaftig’s Restaurant in Brookline, Massachusetts and had this conversation. That book is here now, the result of seven years of Gambone’s thoughts about who his father was. We see his dad as a quiet man and we read how Gambone relived his father’s journey while at the same time dealing with the emotions that came upon him as he explored his and his father’s lives. It challenges the reader as well since we feel some of the same emotions as we read how a father saw history and human civilization colored by war. I found it impossible not to be moved by what I read.

Gambone combines family memoir, travelogue and meditations on war to bring us his story and we learn what is was to really feel war as it is being fought. Through chronicling his father’s army service, Gambone learns about his father and what the two men shared and what held them apart. We cross time and place as we read how the author came to forgive both his father and himself. Written in gorgeous prose, many of us are taken into a world that we have lived but do not talk about. For Gambone, connection emerges— we are all not that fortunate yet watching how he reaches that point is filled with beauty and grace. I felt that this is a book that the author had to write in order to be at peace with himself and this makes it a courageous look at how we live. Our pasts never leave them and by facing them, we come out stronger and often better people. It is difficult to explore what we do not know, especially in our own families and Gambone dares to do that and succeeds wonderfully. We do not often have to be caged by the ideas of what is expected of us and by reading this, we see how to break free of that constraint. It is not easy but the rewards are great. Literature is meant to make us think and Gambone gives us a great deal to think about.

Gevisser, Mark. “The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 2020.

Sexuality and Gender as Uniting and Dividing Forces

Amos Lassen

Mark Gevisser’s “The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers” looks at how the issues of sexuality and gender identity divide and unite the world today. He explores how the human rights frontier around sexual orientation and gender identity has come to divide―and describe―the world in a new way over the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Until now, no social movement has brought change so quickly and with such mixed results. Same-sex marriage and gender transition is celebrated in some parts of the world while at the same time,  laws are being strengthened to criminalize homosexuality and gender nonconformity in other Parts.  Gevisser maintains that a pink line has been drawn across the world. He takes us to see it.

In various chapters, Gevisser looks at culture wars, folklore, gender ideology, and geopolitics, Gevisser provides sensitive and the LGBTQ people that he’s met on the Pink Line’s frontiers across nine countries. Among them are a trans Malawian refugee  who was granted asylum in South Africa and a gay Ugandan refugee now stuck in Nairobi; a lesbian couple who started a gay café in Cairo after the Arab Spring, a trans woman who is fighting for custody of her child in Moscow, and a community of kothis―“women’s hearts in men’s bodies”who maintain a temple in an Indian fishing village. Here are the new aspects of LGBTQ culture. While things are better for so many in our community, reading this we realize how much has yet to be done. The situations we read of and the people we meet in this work considers distant and recent LGBT history and progress across the world. Here is the evolution of LGBT life and culture on a global scale.  

The essential perspective on the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities worldwide takes us to places that many of us have not thought of before reading this. “None of us are free until all of us are free” becomes even more real here. Gevisser’s research is stunning as is his knowledge of global queer life is an important way pf learning about who we are. Looking at sexuality and identity around the globe and there are no limits to the people spoken of here, we have those with and without privilege, come from all races and nationalities and we see both the universal aspects of queer culture as well as local.  

“The Pink Line” is “a global geography of queer struggle, a wide-ranging, open-hearted, beautifully told account of the radically various state of LGBTQ rights in the world” that challenges us to act for the good of all. There are still places “where so-called ‘traditional values’ are being mobilized by states to combat trans, queer and feminist social movements.”

Gevisser introduces us to hisconcept of a ‘pink line’: “the difference between the wish of queer individuals for autonomy, versus the increased manipulations of gay and trans identities to shore up power systems.” This is a disturbing, transformative and educative read that is so very necessary. It is hard to understand what others experience if we are not aware of the places where this happens.

Atshan, Sa’ed. “Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique”, Stanford University Press; 2020.

Freedom and Homophobia

Amos Lassen

I have long worried about the Palestinian LGBT community and even though I am a citizen of Israel, I fear for my gay brothers and sisters who are just miles away. Their issues have become major points of concern globally regarding queer politics.  They have to fight the patriarchy and imperialism of their homeland yet have to deal with  an “empire of critique” from Israeli and Palestinian institutions, Western academics, journalists and filmmakers, and even fellow activists.

Within their rights movement is an emphasis on anti-imperialism above the constant struggle against homophobia. In “Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique”,  writer Sa’ed Atshan asks how transnational progressive social movements can balance struggles for liberation along more than one axis. With him leading us, we look at critical junctures in the history of Palestinian LGBTQ activism that show the “queer Palestinian spirit of agency, defiance, and creativity” as they face tremendous pressures and forces that work to constrict it. Atshan explores the necessity of connecting the struggles for Palestinian freedom with the struggle against homophobia.

We have not had a study ofqueer Palestinian activism that allows us to see and to understand the complicated and complex intersections of selfhood, activism, and belonging. By using the limits of the binary of East/West and self/other through detailed empirical analysis and powerful theoretical interventions, we find here important information of  Middle East studies, queer studies, and anthropology.

Today’s climate in academia tends to make radicalism  and schisms synonymous and we really need a way to look at Queer Palestine. Through American scholarship the critique of empire has become the empire of critique. We are called to  introspect, reflect and reject the theories of “cultural authenticity.”

By bringing together ethnography and personal experience, Sa’ed Atshan gives us new ways to think about the challenges and trajectory of the Palestinian LGBTQ movement. The struggle for justice and freedom against empire and homophobia are indivisible and we must see it that way.

Doty, Mark. “What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life”,W.W. Norton, 2020,

Biography, Criticism and Memoir

Amos Lassen

Writer Mark Doty brings together biography, criticism, and memoir as he explores his personal quest for Walt Whitman. He says that he has always felt haunted by “Walt Whitman’s bold, perennially new American voice, and by his equally radical claims about body and soul and what it means to be a self.” In “What Is the Grass”, Doty traces “the resonances between his own experience” and Whitman’s life and work. Whitman asks “What is it then between us?”. Doty searches for an answer, both externally and internally. He meditates on desire, love, and the poet’s enduring work which is a radical experience of transformation and enlightenment, queer sexuality, and an obsession with death and the love for a great city and the character of American speech. Through close readings with personal memoir and illuminated by wonder, Doty shows the power of Whitman’s presence in his life and in the American imagination. What we have is a conversation across time and space, a look at the “astonishment” that Doty finds in Whitman, and his attempt to understand Whitman’s vision of human possibility.

I believe that many gay men have read all or parts of ‘Leaves of Grass’ looking for the lines, that speak to me as a gay male. I understood that such lines of poetry were there and I wanted to know what another gay male, a poet felt about desire. Doty proves that he can give a scholarly look at the work and then write about in ways we can all understand. He delves into the meaning he sees of various passages that Whitman is not afraid to write about and thereby expose.  Doty covers “the etymology of words used and the newness of their use in his collection, the edits he makes over time, the typeset of his words, the quiet, blank spaces, his innovations, and the movement and placement of various passages in different editions.”

Doty sees Whitman as a man both of his time, and out of his time. He further explores Whitman’s family, his readings, his mentors, his motivations, his influence on writers who came after him, and his drives. He writes of Whitman’s genius and how that genius changed the face of American poetry as well as that of the world.  

I once met Mark Doty when he was the guest of the Little Rock, Arkansas library system. Here was a man who inspired me with his poems and who never hid his sexuality. The transparency of his writings show him as both a strong and weak person (like all of us). I was very proud to shake his hand.

As he looks at various passages from Whitman, he says he feels Whitman is speaking directly to him and to the rest of us. Whitman is present in all of our lives and we see that in how his poetry remains relevant through the ages. What Doty captures so beautifully is Whitman’s genius.

Reading Doty, we learn how to read Whitman closely as he shows us how the poems reflect incidents in his own life and those of his  contemporaries. Doty’s own ruminations on art, queerness, humanism, and the American experience are woven into Whitman’s life and vice versa.

Doty’s life and words are on a par with Whitman’s. He examines Whitman’s life, work, worldview, and his cosmic theology. As he does, he takes us into his own life in candid episodes. Language comes alive and we see meaning and purpose in the world. What the two poets share the most is faith in language. Doty’s relationship with Whitman is intimate in its “reality and in all that it imagines”.

“What is the Grass” is a sublime read that is fully of grace and intimacy. It made me feel alive again while being quarantined and I was reawaken to the power of language and the beauty of words.

“As Far As I Can Tell: Finding My Father In World War II” by Philip Gambone— Searching for his Father

Gambone, Philip. “As Far As I Can Tell: Finding My Father In World War II”, Rattling Good Yarns, 2020.

Searching for His Father

Amos Lassen

 Philip Gambone, a gay man takes us into his life as he thinks about why he never told his father the reason why he was rejected from the draft during the Vietnam War. His father, never talked about what he did as a soldier in the Second World War. There was something missing between father and son and that sense of mystery is the backbone of “As Far As I Can Tell”. I remember having dinner with writer Gambone when I first moved to Boston some nine years and he told me about the book he was planning to write. I am amazed at how much time has passed since the day we sat in Zaftig’s Restaurant in Brookline, Massachusetts and had this conversation. That book is here now, the result of seven years of Gambone’s thoughts about who his father was. We see his dad as a quiet man and we read how Gambone relived his father’s journey while at the same time dealing with the emotions that came upon him as he explored his and his father’s lives. It challenges the reader as well since we feel some of the same emotions as we read how a father saw history and human civilization colored by war. I found it impossible not to be moved by what I read.

Gambone combines family memoir, travelogue and meditations on war to bring us his story and we learn what is was to really feel war as it is being fought. Through chronicling his father’s army service, Gambone learns about his father and what the two men shared and what held them apart. We cross time and place as we read how the author came to forgive both his father and himself. Written in gorgeous prose, many of us are taken into a world that we have lived but do not talk about. For Gambone, connection emerges— we are all not that fortunate yet watching how he reaches that point is filled with beauty and grace. I felt that this is a book that the author had to write in order to be at peace with himself and this makes it a courageous look at how we live. Our pasts never leave them and by facing them, we come out stronger and often better people. It is difficult to explore what we do not know, especially in our own families and Gambone dares to do that and succeeds wonderfully. We do not often have to be caged by the ideas of what is expected of us and by reading this, we see how to break free of that constraint. It is not easy but the rewards are great. Literature is meant to make us think and Gambone gives us a great deal to think about.

 

“The Storm: One Voice from the AIDS Generation” by Christopher Zyda— Facing the Memories

Zyda, Christopher. “The Storm: One Voice from the AIDS Generation”, Rare Bird Books, 2020.

Facing the Memories

Amos Lassen

It was not that long ago, 1986, when this world faced the deadly epidemic of AIDS. It was a horrible time for the world and devastating to the gay community. Many have been able to bury the memories of that terrible time and many still have trouble dealing with what they witnessed and experienced. In “The Storm”, Christopher Zyda confronts his long-buried and painful memories of the fifteen-year journey he was a part of and it is a touching love story set against the early years of the epidemic in Los Angeles.  

It began in early 1984, when Chris was a twenty-one year old UCLA English Literature major. He came out as gay knowing that he would risks ostracism from his fraternity brothers. The AIDS epidemic was just beginning to explode in gay communities across the United States. Not long after, Chris met and fell in love with Stephen, a graduate of Yale University and Law School. The two of them built a life together as their friends began to fall sick and die from AIDS. 

Early on Stephen began showing symptoms of AIDS in and Chris faced a difficult choice as he is certain that he, too, would eventually be stricken by the disease. He abandoned his writing career and went to the UCLA business school so that he can then earn enough money to pay for healthcare during Stephen’s illness. 

Chris’s story is one of optimism, and love and it is also the history of LGBTQ Los Angeles under AIDS. It is hard to read at times because it brings back the memories of loss and despair yet it also is about the emotions of forgiveness, the power of love, spiritual growth and living each day, dreams, and, of course, survival.

“Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters” by Rosanna Warren—- An Enigma of a Man

Warren, Rosanna. “Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters”, W.W. Norton, 2020.

An Enigma of a  Man 

Amos Lassen

We have heard the name of Max Jacob in our college careers but many of us know little about him. As a graduate student, I researched Jacob as I studied about the beginnings of the Cubist movement but it was not until I read Rosanna Warren’s study that I really learned about the man.

Jacob was a Jewish homosexual poet who has been unfortunately relegated to the sidelines of early twentieth century French history. He was “Pablo Picasso’s initiator into French culture, Guillaume Apollinaire’s guide out of the haze of symbolism, and Jean Cocteau’s loyal friend.” While Picasso was reinventing painting, Jacob helped to reinvent poetry through “compressed, hard-edged prose poems and synapse-skipping verse lyrics, the product of a complex amalgamation of Jewish, Breton, Parisian, and Roman Catholic influences.”

His life was part of bohemian Paris from the turn of the twentieth century through World War II. In this study we are taken back to Picasso’s studio in Montmartre, where Cubism was born and we meet the artists on the left bank where Max would often “hold court.” We read of the artists who shaped the Modernist movement and of his complex understanding of faith, art, and sexuality. In 1909, he saw a vision of Christ in his room in Montmartre, and in 1915 he converted formally from Judaism to Catholicism. Picasso was named as his godfather. In later life, Jacob spent time in both Paris and the monastery of Benoit-sur-Loire. In February 1944, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Drancy, where he dies a few days afterwards.

We see Jacob as a man, an artist and a poet. I learned so much of what I had always wondered about the man.

“The Rain May Pass” by Alan Shayne— Simply Beautful

Shayne, Alan. “The Rain May Pass”, Rand Smith,  September 15, 2020.

Simply Beautiful

Amos Lassen

It is not often that a book pulls me so quickly that I stop everything else and read it in one sitting. Such is the case with Alan Shayne’s “The Rain May Pass”. It is a sincere and beautifully written coming-of-age memoir. Beginning his story in the 1940s Brookline, Massachusetts, Shayne shares his teen years with us. This is the story of young Alan discovering his sexuality and coming to terms with it. We meet young Alan as he is preparing to spend the summer working in his grandmother’s shop on Cape Cod. This was to be a summer like none other— it was then that Shayne discovered he is. It was the summer before World War II and his parents decided that he had to go to the Cape and way from the city.

He grew up as a Jewish boy on the East Coast and like so many teens, he was quite sure that his parents did not understand him and that his older brother ignores him. He was dealing with his sexuality even though he has no comprehension of what it means and really has no idea of how to face it. That summer, he met Roger who was a good deal older than him and who initiated him into the world of gay sex. The two met by chance and while Alan was pretty sure of his sexual orientation, it took Roger for him to act on it.

There ws something about Roger, his first love, that gave Alan the strength to accept himself and to later continue his quest to become an actor and have an entertainment career. While that summer heralded his beginning with Roger, it also come to be the end of the two’s relationship. Roger enlisted in the service and Alan got a part in summer stock. Even though Roger had cone a few times to Brookline, he and Alan had no more intimate moments. Alan carried Roger with him for a long time and it was only when he became successful on the stage that he was able to let go of his unrequited love for the older guy.

We read of Alan’s relationship with his family as well and all of its dysfunctions. His parents really did not understand him nor did they know how to let go. His grandmother was no help either and they shared a non-relationship even though Shayne hoped that there would have been. Through Shayne, we see what it is to become a man.

I felt I was smiling as I read but there were also times that had me wiping tears from my eyes. The prose is simple yet lyrical and the short chapters give us Alan Shayne’s character in various incidents. We read from his perspective yet we also get the perspectives of the other characters.

I absolutely love this book and I loved being on Alan Shayne’s journey through his young years. I actually felt, at times, that I was right there beside him. Reading of his accepting himself was a real treat. Authenticity and honesty jump out from the pages.

“Lyrics of My Life: My Journey with Family, HIV, and Reality TV” by Branden James— An Inspirational Journey

James, Branden. “Lyrics of My Life: My Journey with Family, HIV, and Reality TV”, Cleis Press, 2020.

An Inspirational Journey

Amos Lassen

Branden James was a finalist on the 2013 season of America’s Got Talent. Since then, he has toured with The Twelve Tenors and sang for Pope Benedict XVI and The Mandela Family in South Africa. He has also performed at The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago and tours internationally in a cello and vocal duo called Branden & James with his husband, Australian cellist, James Clark.

Coming out and sharing intimate details of his broken ties with his religious family, he received many messages from fans who could relate to his personal struggles. He realized that he had to becompletely authentic about whom he is in order to help others and continue to help himself. In “Lyrics of my Life”, he shares further stories of his struggles with depression, the time when he contracted HIV, and how he suffered from sexual abuse while in school and identifying with the Christian faith.

This is a memoir that highlights the conflicts of growing up gay in a world that saw him and what he believed as a sinful way of life. He sought and found solace in his passion for music.  He writes  about his unstable life as a young adult, estrangement from his family and his will to overcome adversity. As he searched for his own personal freedom, James finds reconciliation with his family, rediscovers his faith, and “realizes that affliction and hardship are not what define us as human beings.”

He grew up in California with evangelical Christian parents with four children who were always dealing with financial troubles.  We read of what he experienced as he was able to accept hissexuality and his struggles with reconciling it with his Christian faith. He had to deal with self-inflicted shame, drugs and alcohol, becoming HIV+, and finding who he is.

He faced ups and downs in his personal life. It was his appearance on “America’s Got Talent” that led to his becoming the performer.  Then he met his future husband James and found the sense of purpose he had been searching  for.

This book is an inspiration to young LGBTQ adults who are  struggling to find their way to adulthood as it shows some of the missteps and error that anyone can face.