Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology” by Jonathan Alexander— Confronting Creepiness

Alexander, Jonathan. “Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology”, Punctum, 2017.

Confronting Creepiness

Amos Lassen

Jonathan Alexander brings us a study that is something of a memoir, a theory, and a manifesto. He bases this on his experience as a victim of homophobia and suggests that labeling someone creepy may be the creepiest move of all. He confronts the idea of creepiness theoretically and with wit. He maintains that we are surrounded by creeps. Being creepy has taken on new forms and what defines a creep is so broad that nearly anyone can be a creep at times. For many, the idea of the creep is not just threatening, but exciting (in the possibility of threat). We do get “creeped” out but we are also fascinated by creeps, probably because we all sense the potential inside ourselves for creepy behavior.

Alexander brings together personal narrative and cultural analyses to explore what it means to be a creep. He uses his own experiences growing up gay in the deep south, while also looking at examples from literature and popular film and media with the idea of finding some sympathy for the creep. He confesses his own creepiness while also explaining to us what being creepy can show us in turn about our culture. He uses famous “creeps” from the past, to explore what makes a creep creepy, and how even the best of us succumb at times to being creeps. What we really get here is a study of creepiness that gives us critical insight into the fundamental perversity of how we live. Yes, this is a creepy read but we are living in creepy times.

“William Hutt: Soldier, Actor” by Keith Garebian— A Classical Actor

Garebian. Keith. “William Hutt: Soldier, Actor”, Essential Prose Series, 2017.

A Classical Actor

Amos Lassen

I must honestly say that before I picked this book up I had never heard of William Hutt. I learned something new here and that is one of the beauties of reading. Of course, reading this made me want to learn more but that does not seem to be a lot about Hutt around.

William Hutt showed that it was possible to be a great classical actor without sacrificing his Canadian accent or cultural identity. His roles created “imperishable portraits of Tartuffe, King Lear, Lear’s Fool, Feste, Khlestakov, Duke Vincentio, Titus Andronicus, Timon, Argan, Lady Bracknell, James Tyrone, Sr., and Prospero” and these guaranteed that he will be remembered as long as there is cultural memory. I understand that when he was not on stage, he could be charming and witty or moody and “oppressively grand.” He remained

the Duke of “Dark Corners” to many who wished to know him more intimately. In this detailed biography, Keith Garebian gives us Hutt’s “private and public lives, his most intense conflicts, deepest yearnings and anxieties in order to show how Hutt brought his life to his work and work to his life in a manner that left him vulnerable to wounds of the heart yet open to radical re-invention as an actor.”

“I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well” by James Allen Hall— Queer in Florida in the 80s

Hall, James Allen. “I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well”, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2017.

Queer in Florida in the 80s

Amos Lassen

When James Allen Hall’s parents lost their once-thriving family business in the pre-crash 2000s, they moved into a two-bedroom student apartment that James had previously shared previously with just his brother. His mother routinely attempts or threatens suicide, his father is depressed. Hall lives alongside, and through his family’s meth addiction, mental illnesses, and incarcerations, and weighs “his own penchants for less than happy, equal sex with an agility, depth, and lightness that is blissfully inconclusive.”

This is a collection of harrowing essays that are not only powerful but that also reveal the author’s sensitivity to find beauty and value in places where most of us do not look. He shows his vulnerability in language that is rarely spoken and we see him as a

witness, a seeker, a survivor and someone who’s earned the right to judge but who withholds doing so because he believes that we are all together and help by restraints that we see as compassion.

Hall journeyed through a youth that was violent and homophobic yet he managed to both exist and persist., manages to exist and persist. His writing expresses the pains that we endured and he persevered because he dared to accept himself as flawed. His writing is honest and compelling and for those of us who have ever had a broken heart will understand what he has to say. When all of his essays are taken together we see that we have his memoir written in the language of poetry. At times he disturbs us with what he writes but there is also humor here and he ranges from being serious to using camp to express how he feels. He discusses suicide frankly and openly and we love that he is honest about that. He knows the difficulties of being responsible and he knows that guilt can set boundaries. Through all of this we watch him take form as a gay male. He rises above the pain of his family and takes his own emotional risks. The risk he did not have to take is this absolutely gorgeous book.

“The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name” by Philip Harris— The Intersectionality of the Poet

Harris, Philip. “The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name”, Nomadic Press, 2017.

The Intersectionality of the Poet

Amos Lassen

“The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name” is basically a chapbook collection of nonfiction prose poetry that explores the intersectionality of narrator Philip Harris. Harris is a gay, Mexican man from Southern California who finds himself at the center of cultures, sexuality, and generations. He explores his mother’s life as a Chicana dealing with racism, his grandmother’s grief, and his own queer existence as a person of color with passing white privilege and in doing so, he shares his multicultural narrative.

As he searches for his roots and he struggles with what it means to feel love for his Mexican mother and her struggles while at the same time trying to understand his own gay identity that he so easily recognizes. What he finds is what he needs. Harris draws us into personal moments and interweaves familial stories in his structured prose poetry and we feel what he feels.

There’s comedy, pain, and honesty. There are no wasted words in Harris’s tribute to his mother and grandmother and he delivers a memoir that hits hard and explains a lot about what it’s like to grow up in America. This is an intimate look at family and poet that celebrates “the personal and political lives that reside in our everyday lives.”

“Everything Is Awful: And Other Observations” by Matt Bellassai— Awful Moments of Life

Bellassai, Matt. “Everything Is Awful: And Other Observations”, Atria/Keywords, 2017.

Awful Moments of Life

Amos Lassen

“Everything is Awful” is a collection of very funny and anguished essays about awful moments from Matt Bellassai’s life so far, the humiliations of being an adult, and other little indignities.

Matt Bellassai tells us that he became “semi-Internet famous” by getting drunk at work, making him a “professional” alcoholic. He’s been able to understand some things about his life but certainly not everything. This is not a memoir yet but in a few years it night become one but that is doubtful. It is, quite simply, essays about some awful moments in Matt’s life that made him the adult that he is today. There is anguish here.

Matt has had to deal with his past when he was known as the Midwest’s biggest nerd. We read how he came out as gay to his friends and family, how he deals the humiliations of adulthood, “like giving up on love in New York City, living alone with no one to heat his microwave dinners, and combating the inner voice that tells him to say aloud all the things the rest of us are smart enough to keep to ourselves.”

Bellassai has a unique and signature voice and perspective and he is very funny. I caught myself laughing aloud as I read but he is also sincere in what he has to say. He is able to move from the very serious to the silly instantly and he truly lives up to his own mantra that “being a human is hard work, so you may as well make your story funny when you can.”

“Learning What Love Means” by Matheiu Lindon, translated by Bruce Benderson— A Memoir of a Friendship with Michel Foucault

Lindon, Mathieu. “Learning What Love Means”, translated by Bruce Benderson, Semiotext(e) / Native Agents, 2017.

A Memoir of a Friendship with Michel Foucault

Amos Lassen

I have been anxiously awaiting the publication of “Learning What Love Means” because of my own relationship with Michel Foucault when I was a wide-eyed young graduate student who believed that knowledge is power. Like Mathieu Linden, I loved Foucault although it was not the same kind of love—his was physical and mine was intellectual. I was in awe of the man for his knowledge and how he used it.

Lindon very clearly states, “I loved Michel as Michel, not as a father. Never did I feel the slightest jealousy or the slightest embitterment or exasperation when it came to him.  … I was intensely close to Michel for a full six years, until his death, and I lived in his apartment for close to a year. Today I see that time as the period that changed my life, my cut-off from a fate leading to the precipice. In no specific way I’m grateful to Michel, without knowing for exactly what, for a better life.” Here I must also say that I loved that Michel Foucault indirectly taught me how to strive for a better life.

Mathieu Lindon and Michel Foucault met in 1978 when Lindon was twenty-three years old and part of a small group of jaded but innocent, brilliant, and sexually ambivalent friends who came to know Foucault. At first these guys became nominal caretakers of Foucault’s apartment on rue de Vaugirard when he was away, and they later came to share their time, drugs, ambitions, and writings with the older Foucault. Lindon’s friend, the late Herve Guibert, was a key figure within this group. Lindon came from literary stock. He was the son of the renowned founder of Editions de Minuit and he grew up with Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Samuel Beckett as family friends. He was a young man of whom much was expected but he adds that it was through his friendship with Foucault (who was neither lover nor father but an older friend) that he found the direction that would influence the rest of his life.

Foucault did that for so many and I considered myself to be lucky enough to have encountered him in the ways that I did. We all have our heroes and for me a hero must be one who is intellectually a challenge. Foucault is just that as is my other hero, the much more controversial Hannah Arendt.

This book, Lindon’s autobiography is a collection of associated episodes and interpretations that together compose for the reader a kind of guidebook about how to love. He runs from apartment to apartment, job to job, or lover to lover and as we read his book, his story becomes a story of conversion that testifies to his author’s radical change of viewpoint that “leads to his invitation into the social world through lessons about love.” In this wonderful meditation on friendship, “Learning What Loves Means” gives us an insight into a part of Foucault’s life and work that until now, remained unknown.

The beautiful translation is by the always wonderful Bruce Benderson,

“How I Went to Asia for a Colonoscopy and Stayed for Love: A Memoir of Mischief and Romance” by David Gilmore— Reclaiming His Life

Gilmore, David. “How I Went to Asia for a Colonoscopy and Stayed for Love: A Memoir of Mischief and Romance”, David Gilmore, 2017.

Reclaiming His Life

Amos Lassen

If there were awards for the most interesting titles of books, “How I Went to Asia for a Colonoscopy and Stayed for Love” would most certainly be a hot competitor. It is the true story of one man on a fascinating journey to reclaim his life and it is irreverent, hilarious, and racy ride through the enchanting lunacy of Southeast Asia. The book follows the author’s 7 years of travels through Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and finally Malaysia as he searched for a mate. One day on a bus in Malaysia, he gets an invitation for something unimaginable. Then he returned to the United States where he was shot at on his bicycle. Feeling defeated, in America, he moved to Kuala Lumpur and it was there, in a Muslim country that he found what he had been searching for. 

This is a memoir of true self-revelation. It begins as a bold tale of a hapless Westerner in Asia, who gives some entertaining looks at the world of sex and medical tourism and it becomes a story of deep love and acceptance.

Gilmore is a wonderful writer and he has an incredible story to tell. This is a sensual memoir that is filled with travel advice. It is also a journey of love in an unforgiving world and it is filled with emotion that is relayed to the reader. He shares gory details of his travels and experiences and it is his cynical sense of humor that wins readers over.

“Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris” by Derek Johns— Quite a Wait Yet

Johns, Derek. “Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris”, Faber and Faber, 2018.

Quite a Wait Yet

Amos Lassen

We will have to wait until this coming June to read about Jan Morris , one of the great British writers of the post-war era. Morris was a soldier, a journalist, a writer about places, elegist of the British Empire, novelist. She has developed a distinctive prose style that is elegant, fastidious, supple, and sometimes deliciously gaudy. For many readers she is best known for her candid memoir “Conundrum” in which described the gender reassignment operation she underwent in 1972.

As James Morris she was the journalist who brought back the story of the conquest of Everest in 1953 and who discovered incontrovertible evidence of British involvement in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Rebecca West says that Morris is the finest prose stylist of her time, and her essays span the entire urban world. Her many books include a classic on Venice, a 1,600 page history of the British Empire, and a homage to what is perhaps her favorite city, Trieste. Her writings on Wales represent the most thorough literary investigation of that mysterious land.

Derek Johns was Jan Morris’s literary agent for twenty years. and “Ariel” is not a conventional biography. Instead it is something of an appreciation of the work and life of someone who besides being a delightful writer is also a generous, affectionate, witty and irreverent friend. “Ariel” is to be published to coincide with Morris’ 90th birthday.

Writer Derek Johns quotes copiously from Morris’s wonderful writing as well as analyzes her style and we are reminded what a wonderful journalist we have had in Morris. ‘Ariel” is as much an anthology of excerpts from Morris’s writings as it is a literary life of an author whose writings should be celebrated and enjoyed.

“Pray the Gay Away” by Michael and Zach Zakar— “Mom Knows”

Zakar, Michael and Zach Zakar. “Pray the Gay Away”, Zakar Twins, 2017.

“Mom Knows”

Amos Lassen

“Pray the Gay Away” is most certainly not great literature— it is not even literature and the Zakar twins are not writers. However, that does not mean that this is not a fun read. It’s all about coming out, telling mom and so on— you know the exercise, we play it all of the time.

Coming out is hard and it is continuous– a daily part of life whether to a new friend, a co-worker, or most importantly yourself. The book looks at Michael and Zach Zakar as they face “awkward sexual encounters, drug-fueled escapades, coming out to each other, and their biggest foe – Mom, a woman who not only gave birth to what she calls one regret – but two.” This is a memoir looks at what it’s like growing up as gay, Iraqi twins in modern America. I understand that the book was inspired was inspired by the night their mother snuck into their bedroom and force fed them “holy grapes,” determined to “de-gay” them. The Zakar Twins are two of the new voices speaking out against generations, particularly within the Iraqi culture, who look down on being gay.

At times the book is very funny while at other times it is a heartbreaker. It reads very quickly and it takes no thought to understand what is written here. There are moments of humor, shock and raw emotion and we see that normal does not necessarily mean perfect and that life is a journey that usually ends up better than when it started.

“Boys Keep Swinging: A Memoir” by Jake Shears— “Portrait of the Artist”

Shears, Jake. “Boys Keep Swinging: A Memoir”, Atria Books, 2018.

“Portrait of the Artist”

Amos Lassen

Jake Shears, the lead singer of the multiplatinum selling band Scissor Sisters and I have something in common. We both love New Orleans but while I choose to stay away, he chooses to live there. I grew up in New Orleans and while it is no longer home for me, the city remains a great place to visit.

In his new memoir, Shears looks at his life as he evolved from coming of age in the Pacific Northwest and Arizona, his entry into New York City’s electrifying, ever-changing music scene, and the Scissor Sisters’ rise as they reached international fame in the early 2000s.

He was not always Jake Shears. He had once been Jason Sellards, a teen living a double life in Arizona until he was unable to hide it any longer,. He had had to deal with a confusing and confining time in high school as his classmates bullied him and teachers showed little, if any, sympathy.

It took him years and once while on a trip to visit a childhood friend in New York City, that Jake met a musician nicknamed Babydaddy (the stage name of Scott Hoffman). Jake had found him to be a kindred spirit, a person who longed for stardom and freedom. Their instant bond led them to form Scissor Sisters. At first, they performed in the smoky gay nightclubs of New York City but then finding massive success in the United Kingdom where the Scissor Sisters became loved by the LGBTQ community and their recordings reached platinum status and they were rewarded with accolade after accolade. Shears holds nothing back in telling his story and we feel the same presence that we feel when we see him perform.

We read about his rise from a misfit boy who became a dazzling rock star and he is an inspiration.