Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“I Did It My Ways” by D’yan Forest and Stephen Clarke— Funny, Serious and Everything Else

Forest, D’yan and Stephen Clarke. “I Did It My Ways: An 86-year-old stand-up comedian’s lifelong journey from prudish Bostonian to scandalous Parisienne, and beyond…”, PAF, 2021.

Funny, Serious and Everything Else

Amos Lassen

Before I read D’yan Forest’s “I Did It My Ways”, I had never heard of her but I feel like I know her now. In the book she takes us into her life or better said, lives. She has been a desperate Boston housewife, a New York night-club singer and a Paris swinger, the only Jewish girl in a Christian choir and the female pianist in a transvestite cabaret. She has taught basketball, piano and sex education and dated Paris’s second-ever female bus driver, a transsexual rock guitarist and a defrocked nun. She was able to get German friends to visit Nazi concentration camps while pursuing her own journey to understand why her European relatives were killed Today, Forest is 86 years old and she still works as a stand-up comedian and musician but that is only a part of who she is.

Reading this is like sitting down for a cup of coffee with a good friend who reveals bit-by-bit, the story of the experiences, the ups and downs, the pleasures and disappointments of life without holding back. From the first page I was drawn into this amazing life as I read about love, family, romance, divorce sex and estrogen.

So how is that a nice Jewish girl becomes an international entertainer? That is just what this book is about. I am sure that her Boston family had no idea about who D’yan Forest was to become. She knew about anti-Semitism having grown up during World War II and she also knew that she was not the kind of woman who would become a housewife yet she got married, nonetheless. It was a different time back then. Moving on from the marriage, the world opened for Forest and her story really begins.

I really loved being able to laugh and to weep as I read but more than that, I loved being entertained as I devoured every word. Forest dared to do what many of us only dream of, exhibiting “chutzpah” that only she has to answer for. To be able to beautifully write down all she has done is a gift and each page is like opening a new present that is filled with surprises. In fact,  enjoyed this so much that I am going to make it a part of my annual reading list and reread it often. In fact, if this review seems a bit short, it is because I am going to stop writing and begin rereading it right now.

“How Y’All Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived” by Leslie Jordan— Happenings in the Life

Jordan,  Leslie. “How Y’All Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived”, William Morrow, 2021.

Happenings in the Life

Amos Lassen

In “How Y’all Doing”, Emmy Award-winner Leslie Jordan shares stories about in a series of essays.He makes us laugh and lifts our spirts at a time when this is just what we need.

 During the start of the pandemic Jordan was “hunkered down” with his family in the South. In this collection of stories from his life we get a look into his life before and during the pandemic.

We laugh and learn a lot about Jordan in this somewhat autobiography.His stories from his past show us what kind of person he is. The stories are connected by Jordan’s Southern charm and former Southern Baptist sass. whether he writes about his Southern Baptist upbringing in Chattanooga, Tennessee or shares stories about his military father who died when Jordan was just 11-years-old, Jordan can be wildly flamboyant and achingly vulnerable at the same time. He seems surprised by the fact that he has millions of Instagram followers who are, no doubt, drawn to his engaging personality and transparency and very open about his ongoing recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. He is also queer and unashamedly so. 

“The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Poet’s Memoir” by Spenser Reece— A Life Saved by Poetry

Reece, Spenser. “The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Poet’s Memoir”. Seven Stories, 2021.

A Life Saved by Poetry

Amos Lassen

Spenser Reece’s “The Secret Gospel of Mark” weaves the author’s experiences with an appreciation for seven great literary personages: Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, James Merrill, Mark Strand, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Through the beauty of the works of these poets, Reece found inspiration as he journeys through life. He shares his coming-of-age as a gay teenager in the 1980s,  bis years at Yale, dealing with alcoholism, time as a Brooks Brothers salesman, a student Harvard Divinity School and his ultimate success as a poet, his reconciliation with his family, and his fulfillment as an Episcopal priest. He shows us the truth and beauty of the writers who have influenced him.

Reece narrates his life story as a priest, a poet and a gay man as he weaves the poetry he loves into how he has lived. Poetry became a haven, as a relief and  as confirmation and redemption. With his focus on his life as one of despair and  redemption, he brings us  authentic descriptions that are honest, lyrical, and occasionally violent, often psychologically penetrating. His story is a story of gay self-acceptance but above all it is a book about poetry. Reece shares his life and soul here. His journey is one of sexual and spiritual awakening. His memories of love, spirituality, family, and sexual identity remain with the reader long after the covers are closed.

“Francis Bacon: Revelations” by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan— The Life and Art of Francis Bacon

Stevens, Mark and Annalyn Swan. “Francis Bacon: Revelations”, Knopf, 2021.

The Life and Art of Francis Bacon

Amos Lassen

“Francis Bacon: Revelations” is the first comprehensive look at the life and art of Francis Bacon, one of the iconic painters of the twentieth century.Bacon’s role in 20thcentury art created an image of modern man. 

He was an openly gay male at a time when many others stayed in the closet and his sexual exploits were unforgettable as he moved through of London’s Soho and East End, the literary salons of London and Paris, and the homosexual life of Tangier. The authors, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Aswan conducted hundreds of interviews, and new research to bring us Bacon’s childhood in Ireland, his i open homosexuality; his early design career, how he formed his artistic vision, his early failure as an artist; his uneasy relationship with American abstract art; and his late entrance upon the international stage as one of the great visionaries of the twentieth century. This is a complete and nuanced look at Bacon than ever before and at his art. We see Bacon as not just an influential artist but as a man who helped remake the twentieth-century figure.

Bacon chose not to be a member of a historic movement and this became a consistent thread in his art. He seems to have come upon painting whilst working as a furniture and interior designer but his paintings only began to be noticed when he was in his late thirties, and even then it he did not gain popularity. His works were difficult to place in either the Paris or New York art scenes because of his violent images yet he continued to pursue his own artistic tradition until he eventually became one of the most celebrated artists of the last century.

Chronicling his professional and personal life, we see a lot more about Bacon ever before. Here was a man who  lived in societies that grudgingly accepted his existence yet he was able to find and maintain deep relationships with both lovers and friends, who in turn shaped his life.  He was charming wherever he went and loved parties, drinking, and gambling.  He remained loyal to his family and adopted families and loved meeting  new people. He flirted with others right up to his death.

Bacon cultivated the myth about himself, his persona as an artist and as an important man. He was a very complex human being, with characteristics that were contradictory and opposing c. He defied some conventions yet stayed true to what he considered to be proper. While eager to flaunt his carelessness about money, class and status, he  worked hard to remain on top.

We have the personal stories behind every painting and how each corresponds to the events in the life and how the perception of the work changed.

“Antiman: A Hybrid Memoir” by Rajiv Mohabir— A Memoir

Mohabir, Rajiv. “Antiman: A Hybrid Memoir”, Restless Books, 2021.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

Rajiv Mohabir’s “Antiman” is an unforgettable read that shares the story of young man dealing with cultural heritage, race and sexuality. Mohabir shares his experiences as an Indo-Guyanese queer poet and immigrant to the United States.

Growing up in Central Florida as a Guyanese Indian immigrant, he was fascinated by his family’s abandoned Hindu history and the legacy of his ancestors, who had been indentured laborers on British sugarcane plantations. Getting to Toronto, he heard stories from his grandmother, Aji, about Caribbean Bhojpuri. Her eleven children have immigrated to North America and became involved with ascension, Christianity, and doing away with their heritage and Caribbean accents. Mohabir wanted to know where did he came from, and why has he not found his place.

He begins  a journey of discovery, living for a year in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, perfecting his Hindi and Bhojpuri and tracing Aji’s music. When he came back to Florida, he found Islamophobia. His father disapproved of him and sent him to New York where he was able to find a community with brown activists who thought as he did and he began to work as an ESL teacher.

 In New York, Mohabir was distracted by the queer nightlife scene but living in Jackson Heights among many south Asians, he continued to feel like an outsider.  When his cousin outed him as gay or “antiman”, a Caribbean slur for men who love men, his father and aunts disowned him. He was lucky to have learned how to be resilient from his grandmother and was able to begin a new life and embrace himself as he is.

What we see here is how we failed at inclusion in this country. By reading this, we not only learn Mohabir’s story but a great deal about ourselves as well. We see more than just the narrow world of this country and are with Mohabir through his journeys to India, Guyana, Canada and as we read his poetry and prose, we learn a great deal about his history and experiences as he strives to find himself. His examination of what brings us together and what pulls us apart are enlightening and we really see his resilience through the many family journeys across generations and continents. He writes smartly and with feeling and deep insight causing us to re-examine our own thoughts on caste, ethnicity, and sexuality.

Rajiv Mohabir is the winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing and deservedly so.

“Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water” by Kazim Ali — Returning to Memories

Ali, Kazim. “Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water”, Milkweed Editions, 2021.

Returning to Memories

Amos Lassen

Ali Kazim, the poet and child of South Asian migrants was born in London, lived as a child in the cities and small towns of Manitoba, Canada and then made a life in the United States. He had never felt he belonged to a place until one day while remembering the forests and waterways of Jenpeg, a community near the building of a hydroelectric dam on the Nelson River where he once lived for several years as a child, he wondered if the town is still there and if the dam is still in use. As he searches for it, he learns something about the local Pimicikamak community that is now facing environmental destruction and broken promises from the Canadian government. Manitoba’s electric utility has evicted the community from the dam on Cross Lake and in a place where water is an integral part of social and cultural life, the community now demands accountability for the harm that this has caused. 

Ali returns to the place in hopes of understanding his place in the story and is wants to hear from the community. During a week, he takes part in community life, speaks with Elders and community members, and learns about the politics of the dam from Chief Cathy Merrick. He socializes with the Chief and learns about the history of the dam, built on land that was never ceded, realizing that the town of Jenpeg exists mostly in his memory. Through the relationships he builds with his former neighbors, he explores land and power and in his memories of a lost connection to this place, finally finds a place where he can belong.

The language is gorgeous and the memories are riveting. As Ali journeys to connect with a Cree tribe called the Pimicikamak, he finds a human landscape that brings his own familial and cultural disruption to those of the community.  There are questions and more questions that teach us a great deal about identity and where we find “home”.

“Black Boy Out of Time: A Memoir” by Hari Ziyad— Black and Queer in America

Ziyad, Hari. “Black Boy Out of Time: A Memoir”, Little A, 2021.

Black and Queer in America

Amos Lassen

In “Black Boy Out of Time: A Memoir”, journalist Hari Ziyad writes “about growing up Black and queer in America, reuniting with the past, and coming of age their own way.” He was one ofnineteen children in a blended family and was raised by a Hindu Hare Krṣṇa mother and a Muslim father.

Ziyad takes us on his journey of growing up queer and Black in Cleveland, Ohio, and then finding their true self in New York City. They explore childhood, gender, race, and trust.  Ziyad looks at what it means to live beyond “the limited narratives Black children are given and challenges the irreconcilable binaries that restrict them.” This is the story of “the outcast, the unheard, the unborn, and the dead” and it gives us a new perspective on survival and the necessary disruption of the social norms. It is both tender and filled with rage and we, in turn, are forced look at where we are now and see the possibilities for the future.

Ziyad gives us a look at the long term impacts of assimilating into a more normative society that has been shaped by prison-based ideologies and how this left them with almost no understanding of who they were. They show that Black people are refused access to childhood due because of their punitive social conditioning that protects concepts of gender and class and claims that Black childhood can only be taken back if prisons are abolished.  

While Ziyad writes as a Black writer for readers in mind, what they say is relevant to all of us. We ultimately find Ziyad committed to a loving relationship that problematic— their fiancé is living with HIV and dealing with the trauma from past sexual violence. This is an ongoing project yet Ziyad successfully shows us the  essence of being Black and queer. Ziyad is brutally honest in bringing together the personal and the political as he looks at the ways in which the lives and

We are forced to question and challenge everything we thought we knew and to see what we pretended was not there along with a way to deal with it.

“Self, Divided” by John Madeiros— Connections

Medeiros, John. “Self, Divided”, Howling Bird Press, 2021.

Connections

Amos Lassen

In 1995 John Medeiros and his identical twin brother took part in a gene therapy study in which the HIV-positive twin was infused with billions of genes from the HIV-negative twin. In this memoir we gain a firsthand perspective of a time in history when the world had to deal with a virus that could not be defeated. We look at, in depth, “the dysfunctional yet enduring relationships that surround this pivotal moment in Medeiros’s life and family” and we see how we all are connected to those around us.

Beautifully written, this story of a man ‘s reconciliations with his identity that is totally connected to his twin and a terrible and threatening medical diagnosis.

We are reminded of when HIV AIDS was a death sentence. It was a time of dread and worry. We see what it was to be a young gay male dealing with his sexuality, his feelings of being an identical twin, and his growing up in a religion that sees him as an abomination.

Medeiros has lived a lifetime of contradictions, some of which began before he was born. We see him through the way that contradictions come together to form his identity in all of its complications.

“Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People” by Ben M. Freeman— Building Pride

Freeman Ben M. “Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People”, No Pasaran Media, 2021.

Rebuilding Pride

Amos Lassen

In “Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People”, Ben M. Freeman educates, inspires and empowers Jewish people “to reject the shame of antisemitism imposed on Jews by the non-Jewish world as well as non-Jewish perceptions of what it means to be a Jew.” He shows us the process of defining our own identities as proud Jews through Jewish experience, Jewish history and Jewish values. Freeman takes his inspiration from his own experiences with LGBTQ+ issues.

Freeman was born and raised in Glasgow in a small traditional community and went to the only Jewish school in the area. The reason he wrote this book come from his own experiences with pride having found his own sense of gay pride  and his taking part in the fight against Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing Labor antisemitism in which he saw “that Jewish people wanted to speak out, wanted to be proud, but they were suffering the hangover of the ‘keep your head down’ policy.”

Freeman feels that many young Jews on the left tend to avoid the subject for fear of being labelled as being on the wrong side of history and the Jewish community is of utmost importance. The idea of this ‘community of the good’ has always existed, it just changes depending on what periods we look at. Today, the community of the good is the Left — to be Left, to be progressive means that one is good. Regarding Zionism, he maintains that there have always been those who are against the concept of the Jewish state, but the ‘Zionism’ that they base basing their hatred on is not Zionism, “it’s not a movement of self-determination — it’s white supremacy, it’s colonization and that’s not what Zionism is.”

Freeman’s father instilled in him this idea that Jews will always be hated and Freeman says that this is still the case today. That hatred comes from the non-Jewish world where  Antisemitism is embedded in the non-Jewish world in the culture and society we live in, and it is antisemitic just as it is homophobic, misogynistic and in many ways anti-black. Having lived through homophobia, Freeman went through shame even though he shared his sexuality with his family and they were accepting of it. However to reject his own shame was arduous and often painful. Some may same to be accepting on the surface yet we know that is not always the case. With his own self-acceptance, he realized that there indeed others who accepted him. The Left, however, accepted his homosexuality but rejected him as a Zionist. He was left to struggle with two identities. As with most of us, his situation with Judaism became secondary to his finding himself as gay.

Freeman says that just because we are Jewish does not mean that we necessarily understand or know aspects of our experience as a people. We’re taught about the Shoah and pogroms but there’s also a lot about our experiences that people aren’t aware of. We need to  explore our history as a people.

“The Gates to Brilliance: 16 Reasons a Gay, Jewish, Middle-Class Kid Who Loved Horses Found Success–and How You Can, Too” by Robert Dover— Finding Greatness

Dover, Robert. “The Gates to Brilliance: 16 Reasons a Gay, Jewish, Middle-Class Kid Who Loved Horses Found Success–and How You Can, Too”, Trafalgar Square, 2021.

Finding Greatness

Amos Lassen

Robert Dover’s memoir,“The Gates to Brilliance: 16 Reasons a Gay, Jewish, Middle-Class Kid Who Loved Horses Found Success–and How You Can, Too” is a book that is an inspirational look at how to elate one’s spirits. We are taken through16 “gates to brilliance”, “the keys that Dover discovered as he made his way through his own life, from gawky, horse-crazy child to influential Olympic coach and entrepreneur.” He shares the deeply personal stories that were fundamental to who he became and is open and honest about the path he took on his way to becoming one of the world’s most successful equestrians. He was abused as a child and when he was young, he the only Jewish kid on Grand Bahama Island. His father was an alcoholic and after his parents divorced, he was totally loyal to his mother.  writes frankly about his father’s alcoholism, his parents’ divorce, and his unwavering devotion to his mother. He dealt with his fear of coming out, explores love and loss, and looks at his perfectionist tendencies that often held him back from others.

Dover shares stories from the barns, arenas, and show grounds where he built his career from his early days as a wild Pony Clubber to his struggles in Germany learning from some of Europe’s great riding masters. He introduces us to the horses and people that were his partners along the way and he takes us behind the scenes of the pomp and politics of international equestrian competition.

Dover has dedicated to self-improvement and the belief in living a life with purpose. He is critical of himself and uses humor to share his story. His honesty about fundamental life lessons is clear and he wants us to learn from them. Dover feels that the ultimate goal is to come through on the other side of whatever comes next.