Category Archives: GLBT fiction

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.

“Two Dads Under the Christmas Tree” by Tobias Mile and illustrated by Milan Samadder— A Book for All of Us

Mile, Tobias. “Two Dads Under the Christmas Tree”,  (1) (Jayden’s Funny Tales), illustrated by Milan Samadder, True Colors Lab, 2020.

A Book For All of Us

Amos Lassen

“Two Dads Under the Christmas Tree” might look like a children’s book but it is really for everyone.  The first book in a series by Tobias Mile, it is alladoption. We meet Jayden who tries to tell everyone what adoption is and how beautifully it can change a child’s life. The story is sensitively written and touching as it looks at diversity. Families today are different than they ever were before. Jayden’s family is a wonderful example of this and we can see that is a great tool for explaining to diversity and inclusiveness. More important, it teaches respect for others, something that has become lost in recent years for many.

Author Mile includes humor through delightful stories that deal with adoption, human rights and respect for diversity and these stories are told by Jayden in his own language. We see that love is love and does not depend upon race, sex and other limits. It is a feeling we have for others and this feeling is what is so important. What a great way for parents to be able to teach their children about families that are non-traditional and about adoption. It is also a wonderful way for parents to learn from Jayden.

While it is set at Christmas, it is relevant at any season and I cannot praise it enough. We do not need a holiday for a love story—- all we need is the love and we certainly feel that in Jayden’s family. The artwork by Milan Samadder is gorgeous and so uplifting. I felt that Big Dad and Little Dad became my friends and Jayden represents a kind of “everychild” who does all the things that children do. You will find memories flooding back and begin to look at things differently.

 

 

“Tiny” by Malread Case— How We Mourn

Case, Mairead. “Tiny”, Featherproof Books, 2020.

How We Mourn

Amos Lassen

With “Tiny”, Mairead Case gives us a contemporary, poetic retelling of Sophocles’ “Antigone” that is set in the Pacific Northwest. Tiny, a teenage girl, has a brother who kills himself after coming home from a far-away war. Tiny is confused by death but she also understands it in a way that her dad and the government just can’t see. She misses her brother, but-with the help of Izzy, her best friend Izzy, boyfriend Hank, and  night at a collective dance night in an old artificial limb store, she manages to escape being frozen in grief. “Tiny” explores how we mourn and move on. We see that being vulnerable is something of a sacrifice and that by mourning, death becomes a participatory act. Case takes us on an emotional journey that looks at death and how we del with it. We also see how we are brought together by love.

 

 

 

“Erato: Flash Fiction” edited by Alex Freeman, T.C. Mill and Guinivere Charles— The Erotic Imagination

Freeman, Alex, T.C. Mill and Guinevere Chase, (editors). “Erato: Flash Fiction”, The New Smut Project, 2020.

The Erotic Imagination

Amos Lassen

“Erato” is a collection of fifty erotic short stories filled with diverse characters, themes and settings. We go back in time, go to the future and also stay in the present as we are thrilled by unique language and fascinating characters who explore the gamut of sexuality and eroticism. Taken together this is a celebration of sensuality in all of its forms. I felt as if I was on a journey to a dream world.

We have stories from both experienced storytellers and new talent “who caress the senses and linger in the mind.” The stories are short enough (6 pages or less) to read over a cup of coffee in the morning before work, during a break or just before bed. Literarily speaking the book is filled with special treats for all people and for all tastes. I love the creativity of the writers and enjoyed the kinkiness of some of the selections. It is not often that each selection in an anthology is a good read but that is certainly true here and each story expands the imagination as it has something to say about the way we live today.

I have always had a hard time reviewing anthologies because I have to decide whether to look at the book as a whole or go through each selection and write about it (this is not an option here with fifty stories). You might think that I am making general statements here when I say the entire book is an exciting read but I am not. I am sincere in saying that. I am sure that every reader will find stories here that will take them away. Because of the variety and diversity of the stories, there are stories for everyone.

 

 

“The Thirty Names of Night” by Zeyn Joukhadar—- Three Generations of Syrian Americans

Joukhadar, Zeyn. “The Thirty Names of Night”, Atria, 2020.

Three Generations of Syrian Americans

Amos Lassen

Five years after his mother was killed by suspicious fire, a closeted Syrian American trans boy searches for a new name. He used to love to paint but has been unable to do so since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. He is his grandmother’s sole caretaker  and spends his days up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who is also his longtime crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he sneaks out at night to paint murals on buildings in the neighborhood known as Little Syria. 

One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds a journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who had dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but in her journal is proof that both his mother and Laila Z saw the same rare bird before their deaths. He sees that Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s and his grandmother’s in ways he never could have imagined or expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story contains the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. He realizes that he isn’t and has never been alone and gains the courage to officially take a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare. 

Then as large numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the skies of New York City, Nadir asks for the help of his family and friends to learn what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. He follows  his mother’s ghost and learns of the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself and finds the family that was there all along. 

Zeyn Joukhadar’s book is an exploration of how we all search for and eventually embrace who we are. The prose is lush and beautiful. “It explores loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history.” We are taken on a journey and look at the cost of silence and secrets. We all want to exist and belong and through Joukhadar’s prose, we get a look at a young man who wants to do the same.

We begin with the then unnamed narrator sitting on the roof of his grandmother’s apartment watching birds fall from the sky. His mother had been an ornithologist so he is familiar with birds. He thinks about how everything has changed since her death. He hides the things she left behind and they are his only tangible means of remembering, and of grieving. We are with the boy as he becomes Nadir and his story is the story of transgender people who want acceptance. It is also the story of immigrants who feel exclusion from the rest of society. When Nadir discovers the artist’s journal in an old tenement building, he discovers so much more than he anticipated and begins to see himself as he is. He learns to accept himself and others.

 

“As If Death Summoned” by Alan E. Rose— The AIDS Epidemic: The Early Days

Rose, Alan E. “As If Death Summoned”, Amble Books, 2020.

The AIDS Epidemic: The Early Days

Amos Lassen

The premier release of the new Amble Books Press is a beautiful book by Alan E. Rose about the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The book beginsin 1936 when a man was caught in a blizzard on the Bogong High Plains of Australia. A search party found him unconscious and took him to the nearest township where he died Afterwards there were stories of a lone figure seen wandering over the heathlands. When he is approached, he vanishes and nothing of him can be found. Sixty years later, a young American returns from Australia and he is haunted by dreams of what happened back then on the Bogong High Plains. Ten years of working on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic there, he, too, is lost but in a different kind of blizzard; one  that has already taken the lives of thirty-one friends of whom the last was his partner and lover. He has reached burn out and is exhausted and often  often mistaken for one of those infected with whatever took his friends and lover but he has stopped correcting people. There was a time when life was not just about death and he tries to remember how that was. As he works with an AIDS organization in Portland, Oregon, he begins to understand his connection to the Bogong High Plains.

Using what happened at Mt. Bogong, Alan Rose has written a story about dealing with grief and how to rebuild a life after it has been shattered by loss. While this is a story about the epidemic, it is also and more importantly a story about accepting what we have experienced including the loss of life and love. It was a terrible time yet it was a time that we learned the value of life. I found myself remembering those I loved and lost and I was able to celebrate having had them in my life. Rose has written an emotional tale that causes us to both laugh and cry and to see that there indeed can be light in the darkest of times. Along with the grief that we shared, a new sense of community developed as the epidemic raged.

The man who tells the story is not named; he is an everyman who represents what we felt. He decided to return to America from Australia after his partner’s death and is asked by the health department to organize and maintain an HIV testing and counseling clinic in Portland, Oregon. He recruits and trains others, solicits funds and works with community outreach specialists. He forms a small group of HIV-positive gay men as he works, he deals with his partner’s death and his own relationships as he faces the challenges of the disease. We enter his mind in order to experience what he feels and this makes this more than just a novel but a look at ourselves. As he works through his grief, we discover a lot about ourselves.

Rose gives us very real characters with which we interact throughout the story and who teach us a great deal. Publishing this during the time when we are all once again suffering from a pandemic makes it all the more real and all the more powerful. While many of us have put HIV/AIDS in the back of our minds, we see the importance and necessity of remembering.

“2 COOL 2 BE 4GOTTEN”— Felix and The Brothers

“2 COOL 2 BE 4GOTTEN”

Felix and The Brothers

Amos Lassen

Petersen Vargas’s “2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten” is the story of Felix Salonga (Khalil Ramos), a friendless teenager from a poor background who is determined to be the best in his class and elevate his status. Handsome and mysterious Magnus and Maxim Snyder (Ethan Salvador and Jameson Blake), half-American brothers, want to escape life from the Philippines and live in the USA. As Felix develops a relationship with the brothers and discovers desires that lead to dangerous consequences.

This is a coming of age movie set in Pampanga in the Philippines and follows the life of Felix, whose existence is shaken to its core when Magnus and Maximillian start going to his school.
Felix is especiallydrawn to Magnus, befriends him and infiltrates the private lives of the Snyder brothers. He interweaves himself to their dark and mysterious motives and at the same time, his interactions with them uncover desires within him that he has never confronted before.

The action takes place ten years after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Felix is upset about his poor living conditions and finds solace in a journal-writing exercise for his English class.
 At first, his journal is filled with cynical observations against his teachers and classmates. But when the Snyder brothers transfer to his school, he finds himself gravitating toward their mysterious personalities.

His interactions with them bring to the fore his new desires but then he learns that their lives  aren’t as glamorous as people think. Things spiral out of control when a sinister plot to murder the mother of the Snyder brother arises, leaving death and devastation all along its path.

“Summer of the Cicadas” by Catherine Chelsea— The Coming of the Magicicadas

Chelsea, Catherine. “Summer of the Cicadas”, Red Hen Press, 2020.

The Coming of the Magicicadas

Amos Lassen

Welcome to Mayberry, West Virginia where we meet Jess, a disgraced former cop. Jess has lost everything and everyone she cared for and is now a void emotionally. Mayberry is filled with Magicicadas, a periodical insect that emerges in eastern America every 17 years. A situation arises and Jess is deputized. In the past she had been a good cop but she had made some wrong choices but is now needed to help with how the swarm of the Magicicadas is affecting the residents of Mayberry. As we read about Jess we realize that she is strong even after suffering tremendous loss. We are with her as she heals
from the loss of her family, killed in a car crash two years before the story begins. Jess is also dealing with her feelings for her sister’s best friend, Natasha, a town council member. After the swarm is finally removed, she must also face the two-year anniversary of her family’s death and Natasha’s romance with a local editor and a loss that changes everything.

Author Chelsea Catherine uses gorgeous prose to write about the cicadas who overtake and own Mayberry and the results of this. Her descriptions of nature are stunning and she creates a world for us just as she has creates very real characters. I can only imagine how difficult it was to bring the story of the cicadas together with Jess’s personal story of loss. We see the author’s ability to understand how everything comes together including terror and love.

The analogies to what we are dealing today as we face the Covid-19 pandemic jump off the page yet the novel was written before what we face now. There are some books that become more than just reads, rather reading them becomes an experience. That is just how I felt with “Summer of the Cicadas”.

“Finding Tulsa” by Jim Provenzano— Past Obsessions

Provenzano, Jim. “Finding Tulsa”, Palm Drive Publishing, 2020.

Past Obsessions

Amos Lassen

Stan Grozniak was the once-rising star of 1990s gay cinema In Jim Provenzano’s “Finding Tulsa”, he shares how he almost self-sabotaged an important and prestigious directing gig after casting his teenage summer stock crush. Stan has been haunted by the death of Rick Dacker, the sexy star of his cult favorite action trilogy and tries to start a romance with actor Lance Holtzer who played Tulsa from a small town Ohio production of the musical Gypsy.

In the process, he learns more about himself than he has ever known or realized. It takes place in a recent visit to his boyhood home during which he shares his rise to cinematic success what he had to do to get there. Reading more like an autobiography than a novel,  we meet Stan who seems to really care about no one else than himself and we see that his life and career revolve around his affairs with other men. His story is filled with nostalgia and sex set against the backdrop of the ravages of the AIDS epidemic and his feelings of having loved and lost.

It is as if we read his family stories and his quest to survive in a world that he does not feel apart of. We have quite a large cast of characters and a look into the gay world that once was and we see Stan as a gay “everyman” who is confused by his own past. For many of us who came-of-age at an earlier time, this might seem like our own stories. Stan, now a middle-aged man, looks back and reflects on his life. He was in love with a boyhood crush and a porn star and through his memories, he tries to determine who he really his.

Filled with humor and beautiful prose, we see life through Stan’s eyes and along the way we see our own lives. We managed to survive adolescence and find out who we are and even though it might not have been in the same ways that he did, we are reminded of incidences in our lives that have stayed with us. This is a complex novel and sometimes hard to follow because there is so much in it but it is an important look at from where we have and to where we are going.

“The Redshirt” by Corey Sobel— Challenging Stereotypes

Sobel. Corey. “The Redshirt”,University Press of Kentucky, 2020.

Challenging Stereotypes

Amos Lassen

In “The Redshirt”, Corey Sobel challenges stereotypes while writing about the hypermasculine world of American football.  Miles Furling is a young man who knows that he was born to play football. He is a deeply closeted gay man who feels that the sport is a way to gain a permanent place in a culture that would otherwise reject him. However, hos own body and recruiters tell him  that he is not big enough to compete at the top level. Everything changes when he receives a letter from King’s College.

King’s College is an elite southern school boasts know for providing one of the best educations in America and one of the worst Division One football programs. the football program is filled “with obscure, ignored players like Miles and the world of sports receives quite  shock when it is leaned that the country’s top recruit, Reshawn McCoy, has chosen King’s as his college of choice. Further, Reshawn refuses to say why he chose the school over other programs.

Miles becomes Reshawn’s roommate and the two become not only best friends but also confidants after initially being at odds with each other. Football at King’s soon becomes a win-at-all-costs program that makes hash demands on their time and bodies. Their true selves and the identities that have been forced upon them by the game collide, they are both forced to make life-changing decisions.

Sobel brings us in-depth characters, particularly Miles and takes us into his mind allowing us to feel what he feels and understand both his and Reshawn’s observations and anxieties. Here is a shattering look at masculinity.

This is also a brutally honest novel about race as well as football and the American university. Sobel gives us an expose of the hypermasculinity of collegiate football. I attended an elite southern university with a lousy football record, there is so much here that I can identify with. It where, like Miles and Reshawn, I learned to be who I am. Like them, I had to deal with academia and sexuality at the same time (but without football).

As we explore the violence and social pressures that are supposedly part masculine identity, we read about the pain of repressed desire of both the body and mind. We are pulled into Miles’ world, as he goes through rough practices and being drawn into a world of betrayal. 

Miles could not figure out why Reshawn chose to attend King’s when he could have chosen the best. Miles had never told anyone that he is gay. He remained in the closet and became part of the football culture he feared would reject him if they knew of his sexuality. I found it illuminating to read about what football players go through, both emotionally and physically in order to get out on the field.  By capturing Miles’ conflicts and Reshawn’s frustrations, we get an intense look at the life of living with secrets. Here is a first novel that deals with sexuality and masculinity and the messiness of college sports in beautiful literary prose.