Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Broken People” by Sam Lansky— Finding Peace

Lansky, Sam. “Broken People: A Novel”,  Hanover Square Press, 2020.

Finding Peace

Amos Lassen

Samlearns that there is someone who can perform “open-soul surgery” on emotionally damaged people. He is new to Los Angeles after his life in New York imploded and this sounds great to him. He loves the idea of the possibility of total transformation. He’s desperate for something to believe in, and the shaman, who promises ancient rituals, plant medicine and encounters with the divine sound wonderful and so he signs up for a weekend under the shaman’s care. What he does not know is if
the great spirits to be summoned are real or just ghosts in Sam’s memory that are more powerful than magic.

Sam has the ability to ‘go deeper’ to find peace within his own body and we understand that this is writer Sam Lansky’s his l memoir. The novel refers to aspects of author Lansky’s life while developing fictional Sam’s character and character journey. This a “coming-to-grips story that at once makes fun of fake spiritualism even when it brings the author’s personal insights to the surface…. [the novel] is a journey into the nature of truth and fiction—a story of discovering hope amid cynicism, intimacy within chaos and peace in our own skin.”

I see this book as a satire and thinly disguised memoir and sequel to Lansky’s earlier memoir, “The Gilded Razor’ which I love. However, a defined plot is lacking here and unfortunately most of the characters are ego centered and not the kind of people I would want in my life. Yet the prose is gorgeous and deals with many of the questions of life and the reasons for angst. It is also deeply personal and spends a good deal of time on Lansky’s gay sexuality. Effectively, this is a mediation on what Sam remembers and what being human really means. We are taken into a look at what is truth and what is not and look for hope so that we can make peace with who we are. We see that we’re all broken but we can be healed.

The themes of  gay sex and love; addiction; real estate are evident throughout.

The Rooming House Diaries: Life, Love & Secrets” by Bill Mathis— An Old Rooming House

Mathis, Bill. “The Rooming House Diaries: Life, Love & Secrets”, Rogue Phoenix Press, 2020.

An Old Rooming House

Amos Lassen

We love reading about secrets so it is fascinating to be able to read six diaries that were discovered in an old rooming house and give the lives of the owners and tenants over a hundred years in Chicago.

The diaries include those of an unwed pregnant teen, a teen from Paris after a relationship during World War I, a  Mexican who is the first in the neighborhood, undocumented AIDS clients and a mother who worked in a brothel. leaves a long-hidden diary that details her undisclosed life of brothels. The characters are fascinating and their stories mesmerize as we cross time spans.

Each diarist added a little bit more and added to the fact that a family does not have to be one that you are born into. Writer Bill Mathis takes us through lives of his characters and we see their  loves and feelings about so much.  

A Polish immigrant built the rooming in the late 1890’s by a Polish Immigrant but had to leave the old country. It is through the diaries that were written by those who lived in the house that we learn so much about humanity. We also have the diaries of the family members of the man who built the rooming house. In is in the diaries that the theme of humanity runs strong along with ideas of redemption , learning how to live and acceptance. We see how a family is built even of the members do not share blood.  We are taken through the ups and downs of life as we go through  woes and wars, marriages, discrimination, wars, troubles, marriages, racial discrimination and see the neighborhood that moves from immigrants of Eastern Europe to Mexican to Black and how people were treated over the course of a century.  

It is Manny who finds the rooming house after a quarter of that century of being homeless and a hustler who sold his body to other men in order to survive. He finds the rooming house to be a home and it is his story that is the center of the book.

Mathis is a fine storyteller who pulls us in on the first page. He is also an excellent writer who had me turning pages as quickly as possible and who kept me captive as I read the book in one sitting. It is the prefect read during these trying times and certainly more fun than watching the bad news of television.

 

 

“Beloved Comrades: A Novel in Stories” by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub— Three Generations

Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “Beloved Comrades: A Novel in Stories”, Anaphora 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 me 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 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, he keeps it to himself. 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 depression 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  focus is 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 he differences in public and personal and the effects they have on the 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.”

“Deja Vieux: A Michel Doucette & Sassy Jones Mystery” by David Lennon— Returning to New Orleans

Lennon, David. “Deja Vieux: A Michel Doucette & Sassy Jones Mystery”, Blue Spike Publishing, 2020.

Returning to New Orleans

Amos Lassen

I always look forward to a new book by David Lennon for two reasons— he is a fine writer who keeps me guessing (and I am not a mystery reader) and he captures my home town of New Orleans beautifully (often making me homesick). His descriptions of the city jump off the page and I begin to dream of beignets and po’boys, the French Quarter and carnival season.

Seven years ago, Michel Doucette left his career in public investigating and began a life of comfort (or so he thought). But then Sassy Jones, his good friend and former partner asked him to take a look into possible thefts at the nursing home where she is a volunteer. He agrees to do so albeit with reluctance and soon learns that what seemed to be an easy case, is not so. Attempted murder is involved.

On a trip to visit his father down in the Bayou, Michel finds himself in the middle of a gun battle between a drug lord and those who were protecting drug operations in the swamps near New Orleans.

To say any more about the plot would ruin a wonderful read and it is never too late to begin Lennon’s seven book series about Doucette and Jones. I can almost promise you that once you read one of the books in the series, you will then want to read them all. Each is a treasure and “Deja Vieux” is a treasure of treasures.

I sensed Lennon developing his plot as he wrote. We are pulled into the story on the first page and we are held captive by it. I devoured it in one sitting, mesmerized by what I was reading.

Doucette has matured and he seems to be different than the man we met in the other books. Retirement can do that especially after a career filled with action. His relationship with his partner, Chance, is not what it was so working on this new case gives the two men a chance to be on their own and perhaps rekindle what was lost.

What we love about mysteries is here— shootings and attempted murder, drugs and controllers of drugs along with Jonesy, an alligator (we are in the Louisiana swamps, after all). Lennon beautifully captures the dialogue of the Bayou and New Orleans and we also get the idea that with a little bit of work, Michel and Chance will work through their problems.

I am not alone in my high regard for Lennon’s writing and plots. He has been a Lambda Literary finalist five times and  won the award with “Echoes”, the second book in the series.

“Home” by Jean Alexander— Living in Texas

Alexander, Jenn. “Home”, Bywater Books, 2020.

Living in Texas

Amos Lassen

Rowan Barnes moved to Texas because of her job as grill chef at a new restaurant was but she feels out of place and alone in the Lone Star State. But then she meets Texas born and bred Kate Landreth while picking up beef from a local cattle ranch. Rowan is immediately attracted to Kate and is immediately drawn to the woman and the two women become closer. Kate is Texas through and through and her heart is as big as the state in which she lives. Even though Rowan begins to see Texas differently, Kate is wary about falling for someone who feels that Texas will never be her home. As we read Jenn Alexander’s novel, we find ourselves looking at new definitions of what the word “home” means.

At first, Rowan finds Texas to be completely different from her hometown and she is homesick even while pursuing her dream job.  Of course, the readers want a happy ending for the two women and we hope that they end up together. Rowan finds Texas to be very hot and very conservative and this stays with her until she meets Kate and romance ensues. Kate teaches her all about Texas and we feel her love for the state and also for Rowan. Rowan listens carefully to what Kate says and soon realizes that maybe everything will be alright.

Alexander appeals to the emotions in her book and it is difficult not to weep gently as we read. She has created too relatable characters that we take into our hearts and this she does with beautiful prose and wonderful description. I must admit that I once felt about Texas the way Rowan did and it beautiful that she has someone to help change her mind.

It is very difficult to leave one’s hometown and move to a place that is foreign and the differences between Portland and Rowan’s new home in Texas. With the right person, the wrong place can feel like home.

 

 

“ALMOST LOVE”— Friends and Relationships

“ALMOST LOVE”

Friends and Relationships

Amos Lassen

Actor Mike Doyle makes his proficient writing-directing feature debut with “Almost Love” which looks at a tight-knit circle of thirtysomething New Yorkers and their romantic foibles. about not settling for less than one deserves.

Adam (Scott Evans) is an underappreciated artist who ghost paints for Ravella, a successful artist (Patricia Clarkson). He’s been in a five-year relationship with boyfriend Marklin (Augustus Prew), a men’s fashion influencer who tends to unintentionally overshadow Adam and is not yet ready to get married. Adam’s best friend Elizabeth (Kate Walsh), has been married to her husband for fifteen years. Their single friends have their own issues. Cammy (Michelle Buteau) is dating Henry (Colin Donnell), who is currently homeless and living at a shelter. Neurotic Haley (Zoe Chao) is tutor to a 17-year-old boy Scott James (Christopher Gray) for his SATs and she is figuring out what her maternal or romantic feelings toward him mean. Everyone is navigating their respective rough patches in life and they are lucky to have  each other to turn to.

 “Almost Love” captures the mundanities of life that can sink a long-term relationship if both partners aren’t putting in the work. Director Doyle’s never focuses on the sexuality of Adam and Marklin who are guilty of lacking communication and sometimes make other feel like a straight couple (humor me). When Adam and Marklin, are riding their bikes home after a therapy session,  they stop for a quick kiss and are called out for being gay by a passerby but they proudly laugh it off and keep riding. What seems to be a minor detail is there for a reason. The prime conflicts that arise don’t always go where we completely expect but do get taken care of nicely.

The film revolves around the slumping five-year relationship between Adam and Marklin. Adam wishes that he was further along with the paintings that actually mean something to him. Marklin has gone from working retail to running a high-end men’s fashion website with a huge Instagram following. The ensemble cast is excellent all around and shares great chemistry. The film comes to us quietly as it steadily unfolds with natural dialogue, moving back-and-forth between joy and sadness.

At its core, this is a film about emotional intimacy: the mundane, ecstatic and difficult parts of loving someone over the long-term. It depicts the lives of gay characters but prioritizes their inner struggles, the way any other pic about a couple would do instead of limiting their lives to only being about coming out or fighting for LGBTQ rights. There are no sex scenes between the two leads and yet there is no sense of sexual repression or an absence of affection between Adam and Marklin. The film delves into a wider exploration of what binds a couple together and what can tear them apart.

But, Doyle doesn’t ignore the struggles that gay people face in society, however a shown above. Even though this is a  movie about Adam and Marklin, a little more development of the female characters in their friends group would have enriched the story. We know that Cammy “used to edit cookbooks”, that Elizabeth hates kids and that Haley is a writer who studied at Brown, but beyond this their stories are only told within the context of their romantic pairings. I wish I had known their characters better by the end of the film.

“Almost Love” is  proof that a quiet movie with a relatable story doesn’t need forced hijinks to impact an audience. This is an actor-driven production that gives plenty of room to the ensemble to explore personalities. It does lose focus on the group effort, “Almost Love” has feeling but sincerity certainly supports the story. In any relationship, platonic or sexual, the fear of a sell-by date is of concern to most of us, and “Almost Love” does a great job at exploring that fear and the possible results from it.

“Boys of Alabama” by Genevieve Hudson— Being a Queer Boy in the South

Hudson, Genevieve. “Boys of Alabama, Liveright, 2020.

Being a Queer Boy in America

Amos Lassen

Max is a sensitive teen who has just arrived in Alabama where he falls in love, questions his faith, and deals with a strange power. His German parents don’t understand the idea that the South longs for the past while Max thrives. He is on the football team, learns how to catch a spiraling ball, how to point a gun, and how to hide his deepest secrets.

Max was ready for the ribald behavior of his new, American friends but he doesn’t expect their friendship or how quickly he would be welcomed into their world. In his new canvas pants and thickening muscles. Max doesn’t feel like he fits until he meets Pan, the school “witch,” in Physics class: Pan dresses only in black and from head to foot, wears a goth choker and uses gel that made his hair go straight up. Suddenly, Max feels seen, and he and Pan begin a consuming relationship: Max tells Pan about his supernatural powers, and Pan tells Max about the initiations of the local church. The boys, can’t decide whose past is darker and who they really are.

Writer Genevieve Hudson brings the paranormal, coming of age and a cultural exchange book in “Boys of Alabama”. In Germany, Max was just another guy but in Alabama he is a student in an Evangelical Christian school and very popular. Taken in by the football boys, he seems to be a stereotypical American teen high school student.

There is a touch of strong evangelical activity that propels the plot. Then along with the clash of German and Southern evangelical is a touch of the paranormal.

The prose is fresh and reflects some of the cultural clash between Germany, Alabama and the paranormal. Genevieve Hudson “brilliantly reinvents the Southern Gothic, mapping queer love in a land where God, guns, and football are king” with a lovely and special portrait of masculinity, religion, immigration, and the adolescent pressures of conformity.

Max and his family move to Alabama for his father’s car manufacturing job. The ways in which Max navigates the culture and landscape of this new place, which is both like and unlike his home and beautifully depicted from an outsider’s point of view. Max has histories and secrets he struggles to deal as do  the boys he befriends. 

Max falls in love with Pan while, at the same time, feeling the pull of the evangelism of football and the Judge (an actual evangelist with political aspirations). He loses steadiness and searches for things that will keep him grounded. The climax and ending of this book are both unsettling and surprising and I was literally stunned. There are many layers to the novel as it looks at queerness, secrets, evil, the burdens of life. I found myself reminded that our strongest beliefs hide behind the human heart.

“The Black Flamingo” by Dean Atta— Finding His Voice

 

Atta, Dean. “The Black Flamingo”, Viking, 2020.

Finding His Voice

Amos Lassen

Michael is a mixed-race gay teen growing up in London. He is dealing with what it means to be Greek-Cypriot and Jamaican–but never quite feeling Greek or Black enough in this coming-of-age story. It is a novel in verse about identity and the power of drag.

As he gets older, Michael’s coming out is beginning of his learning about who he is and where he fits in. When he discovers the Drag Society, he finally finds where he belongs and he creates the Black Flamingo.

Michael is British and marginalized not just as biracial but also as gay boy who wants to be a drag artist. His journey is one of emotions and it is so fitting that it is written in verse. The focus is on family relationships. Michael has a complicated relationship with his mother, who accepts him but still makes mistakes, he has no relationship with his nonexistent father. Michael is connected to his uncle and grandmother on his father’s side and he has friends.

We follow Michael’s ups and downs of his coming out at school, his first crushes, his first high heels and his first drag.  Throughout the novel and pictures that enhance the text. Michael deals with self-acceptance and how to free himself from the demands of society.

Writer Atta has written a love song to both Michael and poetry filled with powerful imagery and we get a lot to think about. Michael  is able to find, define and understand through poetry. 
He deals with the questions of what it’s like being biracial, his family, and the relationships that shape who he is. When he finds drag, he does so through and people who do not allow him to not really find himself, but let him come into who he is. “The Black Flamingo” is a stunningexploration of the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.

“Vanishing Moments” by John Elizabeth Stinzi— A Portrait of Dislocation

Stinzi, John Elizabeth. “Vanishing Monuments”, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020.

A Portrait of Dislocation

Amos Lassen

Alani Baum is a non-binary photographer and teacher who has not seen their mother since they ran away with their girlfriend when they were seventeen some thirty years ago. When Alani gets a call from a doctor at the assisted living facility where their mother has been for the last five years, they learn that their mother’s dementia has become worse and seems to have robbed her of  her ability to speak. Alani suddenly is once again running away but this time in reverse— they’re running back to their mother.
Staying at their mother’s empty home, Alani tries to tie up the loose ends of their mother’s life while at the same time struggling with the painful memories that they’re terrified of losing. As the memories in the house slowly grow animate and  during the longer period when Alani is there, the fact that any closure will have to be manufactured.
John Elizabeth Stinti writes about the things that haunts us the most and reinforce grief over not only what is lost, but also what remains.

We immediately feel writer John Elizabeth Stinzi’s sensitivity as it looks at an  internal landscape. This is a story of dislocation between  “countries, family, gender, identities, and, the distance between … you and yourself.” An absolute monumental achievement of a first novel.” We look at belonging, identity and vocation, duty and love. Memory is everywhere in this novel and it is both elusive and inescapable. Here is the struggle one feels about home, the past, family and oneself.

“The Prettiest Car” by Carter Sickels— The Last Summer

Sickels, Carter. “The Prettiest Star”, Hub City Press, 2020.

The Last Summer

Amos Lassen

Carter Sickels’ “The Prettiest Star” is a story about an aspect of the age of AIDS, one that until now we have not had. In 1986 in New York City, Brian, a 24 year old boy is diagnosed with AIDS. His boyfriend, Shawn, died as a result of the disease and Brian, feeling alone, decides to move back home to live with his parents in their small town in Southern Ohio, part of Appalachia. It had been 6 years since he was with a family that doesn’t know what to do with him and living in a community that hates  him, even though there are a few characters who love and care for him. Brian is well aware that the challenges the status quo yet he has hopes of changing minds and feelings using his last days of life to the in some way affect his community and his family.

The story is told to us through alternating first person accounts of Brian’s mother and sister and himself ad they share the emotion of the story. In the beginning of the book, we meet Brian contemplating ending his life after losing Shawn and so many friends. His health is not good and his hopes of a career are put on hold. But he doesn’t attempt to end his life and instead returns to the home he left right after high school. His town knows nothing about HIV and AIDS but it knows both subtle and blatant homophobia. His family hardly knows him.

Sharon, Brian’s mother and Jess, his sister share part of the story. Brian films videos with a camera that he picked up when he moved to New York… and he promised Shawn that he would continue to document his life. He does so even though he is unsure of what he is documenting.

The theme of shame is everywhere in this novel beginning with the shame one feels when he realizes that he is born into a society where he doesn’t find and is not accepted. The family feels shame that a member is different and Carter Sickles shows us brilliantly the result of that shame through fear, angst, pain and confusion in Brian’s family. We take an in-depth look at  what home and family mean. Brian is at home in his last days and it is not his family who takes care of him but another gay man, Andrew, who does so. The two men build a relationship as a chosen family and it is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. I found myself weeping as I read of how a stranger taught a mother about her son.

With the many books written about AIDS, there were few that were about men who returned to their rural communities and their families who’d rejected them. Brian has been eager to escape his hometown as soon as he could but not that he is facing his last summer, he writes to his mother and asks to come home.

Sickles writes about the body and its politics and fragility and the toll that sex and shame have on a person but this is really a story of family. Written in gorgeous prose and with great understanding, this is a very important book about things we should never forget. We have passed the AIDS epidemic but we cannot allow ourselves to forget.  The homophobia that was so evident during that time is still here and those of us who lives through that period still feel the pain. Our community was devastated and our lives will never be the same. Many families still do not accept their gay children and there are religions that regularly remind us that we are not wanted. Yet, the importance of home remains very important to many of us and we especially see that with Brian who chose to spend his last days at home even though it was bound to be very difficult for him and his family. Redemption and non-acceptance face off here. The characters with their flaws are honest and human even with what they cannot abide and the storytellers reveal their contradictions and their feelings until we, the readers, feel a sense of pride and loyalty. It is not enough to read of AIDS, we also read of that hate and bigotry that was so pronounced.

We all know characters like those in “The Prettiest Star” and how they feel and act stays with us. Here is a book that is going to be with me all of my life.