Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Eleven Inch” by Michal Witkowski— In Search

Witkowski, Michal. “Eleven-Inch”, Seagull Books, 2021.

In Search

Amos Lassen

Right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, two queer teens  travel from Eastern Europe Vienna and then Zurich, in search of a better life as sex workers. They are total opposites. Milan, aka Dianka, is a dream-filled, passive guy from Slovakia, who has moved from one abusive sugar daddy to the next and Michał, a Pole, seeks pleasure and is selfishand ruthless, qualities that allow him to succeed in the West as he takes advantage of his huge penis that he calls ‘Eleven-Inch’.

The two enter a world of hustler bars, public toilets, and spend nights sleeping in train stations, parks and in the homes of their wealthy clients. Writer Michał Witkowski explores the transition from Soviet-style communism to neoliberal capitalism in Europe through the  eyes and experiences of the destitute queers, the most marginalized societal group. 

Through detail and wit, we get quite an emotional story of acollapsing culture that takes us to metro stations, seedy bars and sad streets.Witkowski  challenges ideas of what it means to be queer .

 

“Until We Fall” by Nicole Zelniker— Present and Future

Zelniker, Nicole. “Until We Fall”, Jaded Ibis Press, 2021.

Present and Future

Amos Lassen

Isla is a Black, transgender student who, with her teacher, is arrested by the government for revolutionary activity. Because of this, she becomes an activist working for social justice. Through her journey, writer Nicole Zelniker has something to say about authoritarian government: loss of civil rights, violence, suppression, and the countermovement— a movement in which all human life is valued and fought for.

Before her arrest, Isla did not see herself as an activist but everything changed and she became part of a resistance movement fighting the government’s implementation of its “family values” campaign.

While this is fiction, it could very well happen anywhere and this is a story we can all relate to. I think many of us have recently shared the experience of fighting the powers that be during the Trump administration. We are certainly aware of how powerless we feel because of

misogynist, racist, homophobic and transphobic politics but we see here that there is something we can do to change things. That is what we really see in this book.

Zelniker gives us the experiences of danger, close calls, and betrayals, yet love and friendship are the rewards. The similarities of Zelniker’s world in “Until We Fall” and the world we live in now are amazing and quite disturbing. We are reminded of just how quickly we can lose freedom and what it takes to get it back.

“A Previous Life” by Edmund White— The Decline of Beauty

White, Edmund “A Previous Life”, Bloomsbury, 2022.

The Decline of Beauty

Amos Lassen

In “A Previous Life” Edmund White explores polyamory and bisexuality, ageing and love through the lives of Sicilian aristocrat and musician, Ruggero, and his younger American wife, Constance who agree to break their marital silence and write their Confessions. They had placed a ban on speaking about the past, since transparency had ruined their previous marriages. As the two alternate reading the memoirs they’ve written about their lives, Constance shares her multiple marriages to older men, and Ruggero talks about the affairs he’s had with men and women across his life, especially most importantly his passionate affair with White. 

White aims to give us a broader understanding of sexual orientation as we read about complex characters, physical beauty and its decline. We look at themes of love and age through different eyes, hearts and minds. 

The stories of Ruggero and Constance take us back to their childhoods and sexual awakening and we see the influence their lives. When Ruggero begins a relationship with White that the becomes somewhat surreal. Ruggero is a narcissist who often appears becomes a character that is hard to like and who seems focused only on himself and his self-gratification.  We explore sexual relationships that are in states of constant evolution.

Ruggero and Constance have by-and-large kept their pasts  secret, but when Ruggero is confined to bed, they decided to write out their memoirs and read them aloud to each other and in doing so they reveal their  past loves and affairs.

The novel takes place in 2050 and much of the past narrative is about the life today in the more modern world.The story opens with Ruggero and Constance in a Swiss chalet after he breaks his leg skiing. He’s in his 70s, she is her 40s. They’ve never spoken about their past lives to each other and now decide to write their confessions and read them aloud to pass the time. We feel the sense of  Ruggero’s previous love affair with White.

Constance is afraid of being abandoned (because of Ruggero’s age) yet she ultimately leaves him for  an American lover her own age who can give her the family that Ruggero refused to do. The second half of the novel goes into Ruggero’s intense affair with White and then further into the future when husband and wife have split and found happiness while no longer together.

. And finally still further into the future where both Constance and Ruggero have found their own happiness, apart from each other. Constance and Ruggero are both bisexual and through this we look at the differences between men and women, sexually, emotionally, and socially. They are both flawed characters. Ruggero is charismatic and obsessed with his own masculinity.

The parts of the story with Edmund White in them are quite amazing. We see him as vulnerable and later old. The lines are blurred between what we view as binary categories. I found the entire read to be absolutely fascinating and the fact that it has really made me think is very special.

“Once More With Chutzpah” by Haley Nell— Jewish Identity, Mental Health and Sexuality

Nell, Haley. “Once More with Chutzpah”,Bloomsbury, 2022.

Jewish Identity, Mental Health and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

Haley Nell’s “Once More With Chutzpah” is a beautiful story about a young girl dealing with issues of  her Jewish identity, mental health struggles, and sexuality while on a trip to Israel. You would not think that a sentence such as this would awaken anti-Semites, homophobes and anti-Zionists to decry this book even before it’s official publication. I was shocked by what so many had to say about it even though they have yet to see a copy and to understand what it really has to say. I received my copy last week and after reading it went to look at the book’s page on Goodreads where I found excessive hate and complete misunderstanding of what this book is about. We immediately become aware of the lack of knowledge about the Middle East and the ongoing Palestine/Israel conflict. Yet these people see fit to write about it as parts of book reviews of a something they have not even read. Politics witch once brought us together is now tearing us part and it is so sad that this is based on such ignorance and hate. Perhaps if these same “reviewers” read this with open hearts and minds, they would see how really wrong they are. It is even more astounding that Goodreads allowed these diatribes to be posted especially since they do not even reference the book. Do NOT let them deprive you of a wonderful reading experience

High school senior Tally and her twin brother Max embark upon an exchange trip to Israel during winter break. Tally hopes that the trip will be good for Max who is still struggling from a car crash that injured him and killed the driver. Tally always planned that they would go to college and begin good lives and is worried that her brother will change their plans.

As they and their group travel across Israel, Tally realizes her plan might not be working, and that Max is not the only one with a lot on his mind. When a new relationship gets complicated in the face of her own anxiety-about her future, her sexual and romantic identity, and her place within the Jewish diaspora, Tally struggles with both  the past, but also with what life will be like when they get back home. On the brink of adulthood, Max and Tally face the pressures of identity and we do so as well.

“White Smoke” by Itamar S.N.— Love, History, Hope, Politics and Human Rights

S.N., Itamar. “White Smoke”,Independently Published, 2021.

Love, History, Hope, Politics and Human Rights

Amos Lassen

Many of you know that I have been an activist for the LGBTQ community in Israel for many years and I devour anything I can read on the subject. I was so glad when Itamar S.N. contacted me about his new book and I immediately sat down to read it.

Yonatan, a bisexual left-wing activist meets Meir, a shy High-Tech entrepreneur and falls in love for the first time. The two marry and adopt twins. Amal, a Palestinian girl the victim of a family honor acid attack comes into their lives and the love story builds. While there were good feelings about peace between Israeli and Palestinian, it soon becomes quite dim when forces put the family’s and the State of Israel at risk.

This is such an important book for me in that it combines two important aspects of my like—-my love for Israel and my LGBTQ identity. Writer Itamar S. N. brings the two together beautifully and powerfully; so much so that I read “White Smoke” in one sitting. As I read the word “hope” stayed in my mind continuously.

“White Smoke” is a dramatic love story that uses important themes and prosaic skill to show us the importance of life and love. Before Yonatan met Meir he had never been in love and we quickly see how the life of the playboy political activist changes when love comes in. When the two men bring  Amal, a Palestinian girl who was the victim of a family honor acid attack into their family, their love grows even more and in fact we see a union between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, as we have all see too well, this does not last and forces not only threaten to destroy the happiness of the family but the State of Israel as well.

Early on we meet Amal as she suffers from having been attacked and filled with pain and thoughts about what she had been through. Upon understanding that her recovery would be lengthy, she became upset and questioned remaining alive.  Her pain was as mental as it was physical.

Meanwhile Yonatan does whatever he can to ire his father, the right-wing Prime Minister of Israel. He becomes the founder of Isratine – a democratic union of Israel and the Palestinian Authority and meets Meir. Their love for each other grows quickly even though the hope for peace between Israel and Palestine loses steam.  Israeli and Arab anti-liberal forces place democracy in danger and threatening the life of the family that the two men have created. There are mistakes on both sides. Writer Itamar S.N. uses the family as a way to look at human rights and we see this through life in modern Tel Aviv.

This is a book that will stay with the reader long after the covers are closed and has us looking at who we are and what hope and love are all about. I find it extremely difficult tout my words on paper as I am so struck by what I read here. More important than anything else is the look at what humanity can be.

 

“The Wrong End of the Telescope” by Rabih Alameddine— A Journey

Alameddine, Rabin. “The Wrong End of the Telescope”, Grove Press, 2021.

A Journey

Amos Lassen

In “The Wrong End of the Telescope”, Rabih Alameddine, takes us onan Arab American trans woman’s journey among Syrian refugees on Lesbos island.

Mina Simpson is a Lebanese doctor who arrives at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, after having been urgently summoned for help by her friend who runs an NGO there. She is alienated from her family except for her beloved brother and has avoided being so close to her homeland for decades. Now with a week off work and being away from her wife of thirty years, Mina has hopes of doing something meaningful. A boat comes bringing Sumaiya, a fiercely resolute Syrian matriarch with terminal liver cancer, she is determined to protect her children and husband at all costs. Sumaiya refuses to tell her family about her illness. Sumaiya’s secret brings the two women to a deep connection. As Mina prepares a course of treatment with the limited resources on hand, she faces the circumstances of the migrants’ displacement and her own constraints in helping them.

Alameddine brings together the stories of other refugees with Mina’s own story giving us tragic and amusing portraits of people facing a humanitarian crisis. He looks at the intersection of identity when the present day crisis of Syrian refugees is confronted. 

Mina and Alameddine have a great deal in common. She grew up in Lebanon, has problems  with her family over her sexuality, was able to get to the US as a student, and then stayed. Mina is a middle-aged now, married successful surgeon who has lived as an out trans woman and lesbian for many years. In many ways their lives reflect each other.

When Mina comes to Lesbos to provide medical care and whatever other help she can to the waves of incoming refugees,  she finds that there is not much to really do. One of the central questions of the book is trying to grapple with how the wish to help during a crisis can cause one to feel defeated.  Mina spends a lot of time thinking about her childhood in Lebanon, about how similar she is to the refugees and she relates more strongly to the white helpers than her own people. By working with one particular woman and her family, she is able to cope. Mina does sometimes worry about how others will see her, especially since she knows that trans women are not safe in the communities that the refugees come from.

Queer suffering is part of who she is but it is not the focus the novel. Mina is so fully drawn, however, that her identity as trans is not really relevant. 

Reading this, we face questions about empathy and sympathy and taking care of people causing us to ask questions about our own lives.

Alameddine gives us the stories from a refugee camp in Lesbos and we meet people who usually form part of a labelled group for us— doctors, boat people, refugees, NGO’s. Through his lens they become persons and we can imagine the what would it be for them to be us.

The book was is heart-wrenching and soul-filling with deep characters and a deep and beautiful plot. It is a collection of vignettes that attest to the violence of war and displacement without being sensational.

It combines the biographical with the historical and  personal moments to give us an intimate tale of human connection during disaster.

“The Charm Offensive” by Alison Cochran— When Sparks Fly

Cochrun, Alison. “The Charm Offensive: A Novel,Atria Books, 2021.

When Sparks Fly

Amos Lassen

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Dev Deshpande has spent his career creating the long-running reality dating show “Ever After”. He became the successful producer in the franchise’s history by writing scripts for the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life is in shambles. But then along came Charlie Winshaw whodoesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to star on the show as attempt to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s stiff, and has no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold and lacks emotion.

As Dev tries to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a worldwide tour, the two men begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars.

Dev’s six-year relationship with fellow producer Ryan recently ended. Charlie, the new bachelor is a former cologne model and tech mogul who (very) reluctantly agrees to go on the show but he is totally awkward.

Dev learns that social anxiety and Charlie do not mesh. As he tries to help Charlie tries to become more comfortable with being around people and interacting with the contestants. Dev is determined that Charlie will find love and propose to one of the contestants by the end of the season but he does not understand why the “practice dates” that they have been going on seem more intense than Charlie’s dates with the women. It also seems that Charlie see Dev as the person he is looking to connect with.

There are themes of rejection, self-doubt, self-identity, mental illness, sexual identity, morality, acceptance, and aspects of love throughout the novel. Cochrun has created a wonderful character in Dev who rescues Charlie’s broken life as Charlie rescues him. This is a fun look at gay love and the struggle withsocial anxiety and depression that many of us deal with.

“Who’s Afraid of Michael Kearns?: 3 Full-Length Plays by Michael Kearns” by Michael Kearns— A Career in Print

Kearns, Michael. “Who’s Afraid of Michael Kearns?: 3 Full-Length Plays by Michael Kearns”, F Stop Books, 2021.

A Career in Print

Amos Lassen

Many of you may know Michael Kearns as a theatre actor who also appeared in television and film. He is  an award-winning, internationally-acclaimed artist who has played many roles (in the entertainment industry) and has been an  actor, director, playwright, dramaturge, acting teacher, writing teacher, author, producer, and solo performer. Beginning with the AIDS crisis, Kearns became an artist-activist whose work, while not exclusively, has largely focused on HIV/AIDS. In his new book, “Who’s Afraid of Michael Kearns”, he gives us a

collection of three he has written.  “Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?” looks at the backstage drama of four male actors in Edward’s Albee’s, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. “Bang Bang” is about a school shooting and examines violence and American society’s “addiction to the spectacle of carnage, power, and sex.” “Bloodbound” is about the physical love between two brothers–one who is an author and the other who is a prisoner serving life a life sentence. We look at their emotional entanglements and see the injustices of mass incarceration within a love story and we see how life narratives change over the years.  

All three plays look at what it means to be human in a world that is “challenged by unspeakable tragedy that hovers over the lives of the characters.”

“The Insiders” by Mark Oshiro— Not Fitting In

 

Oshiro, Mark. “The Insiders”,HarperCollins, 2021;

Not Fitting In

Amos Lassen

Héctor Muñoz is going to a new school. At his former school being gay didn’t mean feeling different. At Héctor’s new school, he feels alone and wishes he could disappear. And that is what he does— into the janitor’s closet. One day, when the door closes behind him, Héctor finds two new friends from different corners of the country and his life changes. 

Héctor is gay and proud but there’s no drama class at this new school and no people for him to sit with in the cafeteria. He will not let this get to him and so he sits at the table of the self-pronounced Misfits, a group of students that don’t fit any other tables. They have all been bullied by the teacher’s pet, Mike who is now determined to bully Hector. the bullying gets worse, Héctor finds himself hiding in a janitor closet that magically becomes a safe space.  Yet even while school is becoming a nightmare, in the magic room, Héctor finds friends.

Reading about these kids who have all been bullied by the same individual, knowing that there’s nothing they can do about it is heartbreaking. The teachers don’t believe them and everyone else ignores the situation. The book, however, is not all dark— there are some sweet and humorous moments.

Héctor’s parents and grandmother are filled with love and. The Misfits that were afraid to stand up to Mike, become a source of comfort for Héctor in the best way and Hector’s friends are supportive and help each other in every way. This is a story aboutfinding one’s place and it is inspiring and beautifully written.

“A Long Way from Douala” by Max Lobe— A Journey Across Cameroon

Lobe, Max. “A Long Way from Douala”, translated by Ros Schwartz, Other Press, 2021.

A Journey Across Cameroon

Amos Lassen

“A Long Way from Doula” is a coming-of-age story about two friends on a journey across Cameroon as they deal with grief, sexuality, and dreams of leaving. 

After their father’s sudden death, Jean’s older brother Roger decides he’s had enough of their abusive mother and their city and runs away to try to illegally enter Europe in the hopes of becoming a soccer star abroad. When his family does not hear from him and the police decide that finding him isn’t worth their time, Jean feels he has to act. He is determined to catch up with Roger before he gets to the Nigerian border and enlists the help of Simon, a close neighborhood friend, and the two set out on the road. 

We see Cameroon life in all its ups and downs. Max Lobe writes about complex issues and is able to do so with humor and levity. We are taken into life in Cameroon through the story of one young man searching for his missing brother. Jean discovers about his brother, his home, and himself.

The book’s plot revolves around the idea of boza, a frequently dangerous and even more frequently unsuccessful bid for prosperity and success in Europe. We see the influence this has on culture in Cameroon and the impact it could have on one family. We read about the effect of Boko Haram terrorism on life there, and the extent to which it is covered up in more urban areas away from the fighting to shield people from the grim reality. Jean’s physical journey to find his brother is shown in the way that leaving his home city in the south meant leaving the fantasies enjoyed in Douala about the threat of Boko Haram.

The different relationships in the book were also quite well written, and they capture complexity. It takes a while to see the depth of relationships— between Jean and his brother and his brother and his mother. Jean’s relationship with his brother, his mother’s relationship with his brother, and Jean’s relationship with Simon all felt like they needed a bit more exposition, however. Many of the characters are complex and dynamic,  but there are also weak ones like the narrator.

The adventures are told through short chapters about the ups and downs of life, family struggles and day to day life in Cameroon, while the threat of Boko Haram terrorist attacks hovers above everything else.