Monthly Archives: September 2015

“Underneath It All” by Jack Bumgardner— The Only Gay Detective

underneath it all

Bumgardner, Jack. “Underneath it All, Wilde City Press, 2015.

The Only Gay Detective

Amos Lassen

It does not happen to be often but every once n a while I simply cannot get into a book and such was the case with Jack Bumgardner’s “Underneath in All”. This does not mean that this is not a good book or an interesting read because it certainly sounds as if it is but for me it just did not hit me. Here is the blurb for the book:

“When Crosby Comeaux, the owner of the only gay detective agency in New Cypress can’t even pay his light bill he decides that it’s time to close up shop. But, Armin Bleu, a cute blond with evidence of a double murder, convinces him to take on one last case. As Crosby investigates the murder it becomes clear that the motive was not just kinky sex gone wrong but something much more sinister. His journey takes him into a circle of men who have devised a plot that could literally destroy New Cypress and everything he loves—including his memories.”

I will try once again to read and review it.

 

“Proust: The Search” by Benjamin Taylor— Proustian Imagination

proust

Taylor, Benjamin. “Proust: The Search”, (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2015.

Proustian Imagination

Amos Lassen

It takes a serious reader to read Proust and I can only remember how I struggled with his writings as an undergrad. In fact I still struggle but love the aspiration to read all that he wrote. He is certainly a difficult read but one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.

In “Proust: The Search”, Benjamin Taylor shows how“different events, different emotional upheavals, fired Proust’s imagination and, albeit sometimes completely transformed, appeared in his work”. Like the writings of Proust, this book provokes thought. Even though Proust began his literary career somewhat late in life, he was able to create characters who were totally and memorably human.

 We learn here that until he wrote his several volume  “In Search of Lost Time”, he had been basically unread and unknown but a series of momentous historical and personal events causes him to become one of the greatest writers of all time.

In this new biography, author Benjamin Taylor looks at Proust in regard to the artistic struggles that he was forced to deal with and the search for the appropriate subtitles for his literary work. He looks at his life through Proust’s personal correspondence and published work and shows how he was influenced by his mother’s Judaism, his homosexuality, and such dramatic events as the Dreyfus Affair and World War I. As Proust searched he produced his great work that encompasses the essentials of human nature. Taylor tells us that Proust’s search was the search of all of us. To read all of “In Search of Lost Times” is to become transfigured and find a true home. If you have attempted to read Proust in the past and were unsuccessful, read Taylor’s view of Proust and try again. There is just so much to love and enjoy in it. Its elegance alone sets in apart from other biographies.

It was different events and upheavals that gave Proust the impetus he needed to write and with a book like this one by Benjamin Taylor we are given the impetus to go back and have another look.

“CHASING THE M– USE”— A Film Diary About Porn

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“Chasing the Muse”

A Film Diary About Porn

Amos Lassen

The French filmmaker Jean-François Davy’s documentary is a kind of film diary about porn casting, art and taboos. This is a film that shocks with its direct language and visuals. We hear philosophical thoughts about desire and pleasure and while once this might have been quite shocking it does have the same bite that it once had. We do see a lot of naked women but there is really not much sex that appears on film. This made me wonder why I would want to watch a documentary about sex when I could easily just watch the sex itself somewhere else.

Unfortunately the people we see (including the director) are average. I did find this to be in any way sexually arousing but that is my opinion. Everything seed rather mechanical, cold and certainly not erotic. I really wanted to like this movie but it just did not do it for me. Yet there is another feature on the same DVD by the same director that I found much more enticing even though it was made in 1975.

“Exhibition” is a documentary on the 70’s French porn industry and I learned something right away— there are generally two kinds of porn documentaries–those that actually take an insightful look behind the scenes, and those that are just an excuse to show a lot of nudity and XXX porn footage. This is actually somewhere in between. It’s generously seasoned with porn footage, but there are also a lot of (fully-clothed) interviews, and they even talk to the owners of porn theaters, some typical porn customers as well as a guy who makes promotional billboards for porn movies although he claims never to have seen one. And of course they also talk to porn directors and (usually naked) porn performers. The most interesting are the males who all cheerfully admit to bisexuality and demonstrate how they can “get it up” on camera with or without female help. Like many of their 70’s male counterparts in America, the male actors actually have some talent beyond porn. One Italian actor comes in singing an operetta, sits down for a long, cheerful interview, arouses himself for the camera, calls a female co-star to finish him off and then dances with her!

The females come off less well. Some are neophytes without much to say while others admit they’re only in it for the money. Claudine Beccarie, who was quite famous at the time, comes off very badly as she insults her male co-stars on camera during their (attempted) sex scenes. Soon after this doc was made, she would turn vehemently against the porn industry (but you get the idea it’s only because it didn’t take her where she thought she should have gone). Generally though, both the performers and directors seem much less delusional about their careers than their counterparts in America did during the heady 70’s “porno chic” days.

“Rest for the Dove: Reading for Shabbat” by Haim Sabato— Looking at Torah

rest for the dove

Sabato, Haim. “Rest for the Dove: Reading for Shabbat”, Maggid, 2015.

Looking at Torah

Amos Lassen

The name Haim Sabato is probably familiar to any of you who have read novels coming out of Israel. If you have, you have a general idea what Rabbi Sabato will be like as he looks at weekly Torah portions. Sabato has the unique ability to read Torah religiously and literarily at the same time. He brings his own love of literature to Torah and we really see that in the way he writes, combining the sensitivity of a creative writer with the insight and deep roots of a rabbinic sage. He uses the themes of the human condition as is seen through the five books of Torah.

I really love that this is a book to be read on Shabbat and especially after hearing the Torah read. It is so fitting that these holy commentaries are to be read on the holiest day of the week.

The true beauty of Torah commentary is that from the same reading we can have thousands of interpretations. Those written by Rabbi Sabato are short and sweet yet even in their brevity there is much to think about. An even though this is a translation, the beauty of the language represents the writer’s love for what he does. Let me just cite Parashat Shemini as an example. Rabbi Sabato entitled it “On the Day of Hid Heartfelt Joy”. That joy comes both in the reading of the Torah and the reading of the commentary here. I caught myself smiling as I read.

“The Weekly Mitzva” by Binyamin Tabory— The Love of Torah

the weekly mitzva

Tabory, Binyamin. “The Weekly Mitzva”; Maggid, 2015.

The Love of Torah

Amos Lassen

I love reading Torah commentary by those who love Torah s much as I do and we certainly see that in this wonderful book of short writings about each portion. What Binyamin Tabory chooses to discuss in these commentaries is what makes them so interesting. I have always tried to figure out ahead what the commentary might be on a certain portion and I usually am wrong just as I was wrong many times here. It is Tabory’s approach that makes his book unique. He manages to bring together abstract analysis with pedagogy and then stir that with his personality and we get quite an interesting meal.

For each topic, Rabbi Tabory arrives at the fundamental logical point upon which the discussion hinges, and applies that insight to various practical questions.

I understand that the commentaries here were first written in Hebrew and appeared in a weekly Shabbat pamphlet. Tabory’s writings reflect what he was known for doing—each was written for both scholar and layman and from here good discussions begin. I understand that Rabbi Tabory would like these commentaries to bring about discussions that convey the classic concepts of traditional halachic analysis) in a way that readers are engaged.

It is interesting to note here that Rabbi Tabory was one of the first to pioneer a transformational concept for religious Zionist communities that exist outside of the borders of the State of Israel. He helped actualize the prophecy that Torah would come out of Zion and he did this with his special appreciation of the fulfillment of the prophecy required exporting the Torah to Jewish communities around the world from the yeshivot in the land.

“The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership” by Jill Hammer and Taya Shere— Welcoming Women to Judaism

the hebrew priestess

Hammer, Jill and Taya Shere. “The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership”, Ben Yehuda Press, 2015.

Welcoming the Women to Judaism

Amos Lassen

Traditionally, women have had a very small role in the Jewish religion as spiritual leaders. “The Hebrew Priestess” goes back in history and brings together anything related to the Jewish priestess and then brings everything together and celebrates the spirituality of women and reclaims “the lost Divine Feminine”. Many will find several surprises here and what a wonderful thing it is to try appreciate and celebrate the role of women in our religion. I love that instead of looking at women as abandoned in Judaism, Jill Hammer and Taya Shere see her as forgotten as spiritual leader during the times before women were ordained as rabbis in the 1970s. This is a book I read with my eyes thoroughly wide open and ready to learn something new and I was never disappointed. Each sentence has something new to offer. The title alone hints at how much there is be learned here.

Beginning with the past, we see some uniquely feminine forms of leadership and we are made aware of how this has come forward to the present. This may come of something of a surprise for some who have lived with the ideas that women actually little if any role in the creation of the Jewish religion as we know it today. I am sure that many of us can name the Jewish women that were important but unfortunately that does not mean that they know much about them. Female talents as religious leaders had been going on long before the Exodus from Egypt and when Deborah sat under a tree.

The authors offer up uniquely feminine forms of spiritual leadership for our time. There women were more than just the mothers of the patriarchs and they share a part in the early days of the religion and people hood. I find it difficult to think of Abraham without Sarah. If Abraham is to be regarded as the father of the Jewish people, should Sarah also be regarded as the mother? We all need to be aware that the place and roles of women were downplayed, hidden or even erased by the rabbinic editors of our holy books and sometimes it is necessary to read between the lines and deeply to find out about the women of the times.

From before the days of Miriam the Prophetess and Deborah the Judge, Jewish women have offered their talents as religious leaders. The Hebrew Priestess tells their stories, often reading between the lines of the Bible and Talmud to rediscover the women that rabbinic editors downplayed and perhaps even tried to erase. The research done to bring the women back to where they belong is intensive and well done and it will probably shock some males that there was female divinity with the Jews. Judaism during Biblical times was nothing like we know it today (aside from the sacrifices, of course).

After the amazing introduction that in itself has a lot to say, we are given a brief history of the Hebrew priestess and this is followed by other brief histories of women in their various roles. Those roles are thirteen in number—prophetess, weaver, drummer, shrine keeper, midwife, mother, maiden, witch, queen, wise woman, mourning woman, seeker and fool). The authors then show how each model of women’s leadership was manifest in ancient times and throughout Jewish history, and how women in today are following that path. Ultimately, it shows how each model can be incorporated into one’s own spiritual life.

There will be those that ask if this is something fairly new and the answer is that there were hints at the lives of these women in the Bible, in texts and in folk traditions. Hammer and Shaya tell us that we can truly understand the history of the Jewish people without being aware of the priestesses and the Divine Presence that they represent. Among the priestesses we see Ruth, Deborah, and Miriam while the Divine Presence comes as Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs, in hidden spaces of the temple and in Eve who is the mother of all life. (If you are having a hard time in accepting this, that is totally understandable because of the way Judaism has been practiced for so long. We have not been taught to know the priestesses of the Bible but that does not mean that we cannot know them. We have to look for them in myths, texts and tradition or you can make it easier by reading this wonderful book. Before I leave you let me just define the word priestess as it is defined here— “A priestess, like a priest, is a facilitator between worlds. She tends the relationship between human and divine. She may do this through ritual, through the maintenance of a sanctuary, through trance and prophecy, through creation of sacred words and objects, or through music and dance. She is a medial person in the Jungian sense— though mystery she offers, she allows others to open the realms of spirit and the depths of human experience”. Now if that not make you curious about this book, than nothing will. I think the biggest danger I find here in writing this review is that I cannot seem to stop writing because there is so much here. But I am stopping and hoping that my words will bring you to this book. You will be glad if they did.

“Rabbi Jill Hammer brings vast erudition to this book as well as unique personal experience. She is co-founder, with co-author Taya Shere, of the Kohenet Institute, which trains Jewish women as Hebrew priestesses. Hammer and Shere believe that the spiritual gifts of Jewish women will only be incorporated into Judaism when women explore the Divine through their own lens. The Kohenet Institute offers an embodied, ecstatic, earth-based approach to Jewish spiritual practice and leadership.

“The Hebrew Priestess weaves a careful examination of historical antecedents of these new priestesses with the personal experiences of women who embarked on this new path of Jewish priestesshood”.

“The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century” by Stephen Pinker— Making Writing Better

the sense of style

Pinker, Stephen. “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century”, Penguin Books , 2015.

Making Writing Better

Amos Lassen

Many of us wonder what has happened to the English language and why writing has become so bad these days. Perhaps that because of the new technology, we have to rethink the rules of grammar and usage and see if they are still relevant to the 21st century.

 Steven Pinker uses examples of both great and awful modern prose while at the same time avoiding the classic writing manuals and shows us that the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable and exciting mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right. This is a book that was written for writers of all kinds and for those readers who are “interested in letters and literature and are curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best”.

However, if you are a strict grammarian, you might find what Pinker has to say to be a bit disturbing. He recommends and advocates a guide to writing that is based on common sense and he tells us from the fact that he has spent years as a reader, writer, and professor, an approach that he refers to as the classic style. With this style we get clear communication and a conversation takes place between reader and writer.

This style strives to communicate clearly and coherently and to establish a conversation between the writer and reader. We all know those people that love language but who do not now the basic fundamentals of how our language works yet want everything written based on the rules of grammar that in many cases are outdated. These are the people who repeat what they learned in high school or perhaps misunderstand what they learned and so not try to find the current definitions of words or the conventional usage of those words. This is not to say that Pinker is in favor of a no rules approach—“he believes that understanding the grammatical underpinnings of our language is essential to the development of good style”.

It seems to me that this book was written for those who are already writing and not for beginners. Pinker’s advice is sound and based on intense research and it presents some wonderful ideas and he gives writers ways to produce eloquent prose that matters.

“Stroke – From Under the Mattress to Out in the Open” by Robert W. Richards— Combining Art and Desire

stroke

Richards, Robert W. “Stroke – From Under the Mattress to Out in the Open”, Bruno Gmunder, 2015.

Combining Art and Desire

Amos Lassen

There is nothing like a little prohibition to make things more exciting. In the 1950s, when a large-scale effort was underway to crack down on what was termed “sexual perversion,” gay life was pushed into the closet.

 Regardless of these strictures, gay men still needed to explore their sexuality and true identity. As a result, a number of magazines became widely available. These featured the work of great artists like Tom of Finland and Bob Mizer. Buying one of these publications required an act of courage. These magazines were often hidden away, sometimes under the mattress. Each issue typically featured masterful illustrations by major artists who also worked for mainstream publications such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Long dismissed simply as soft-core porn, these works reflect the work of talented artists and are an important part of our history. This volume is a historic retrospective of the erotic illustrations published in US magazines from the 1950s to 1990s. Although they were freely available, their often closeted readers put them under their mattresses.

Stroke rediscovers these treasures and puts them together with vividly told stories and previously unpublished material. The book was composed by Hunter O’Hanian, director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum, and artist legend Robert W. Richards. It features works of over thirty artists, among other luminaries such as Tom of Finland, Harry Bush, Michael Kirwan, and George Quaintance.

Artist legend Robert W. Richards and museum director Hunter O’Hanian rediscover the treasures of gay erotic art and put them together with vividly told stories and previously unpublished material.

 

“Throwing Stones” by Robin Reardon— Finding Acceptance

throwing stones

Reardon, Robin. “Throwing Stones”, IAM Books, 2015.

Finding Acceptance

Amos Lassen

I have always enjoyed Robin Reardon’s books and now I have one more to add to my list. I had the pleasure of meeting Robin recently and not only getting a copy of her newest “Throwing Stones” but also some wonderful conversation about writing and the state of LGBT literature among other topics. Reardon has given some wonderful stories about young gay men and how they cope with their sexuality and “Throwing Stones” does that again with Jesse Bryce, a seventeen-year-old Oklahoman. Jesse’s family regards being gay as a sin and he feels tremendous pressure at home because of Griffin Holyoke who is a member of the pagan community that live in a village right there on the outskirts of his town. Griffin Holyoke is a tall, dark-haired boy with a tree tattooed all up his back and a pagan. For Jesse, he is the object of a huge crush and pagan to boot so he is already starting out with two strikes against him in terms of what Jesse has been taught. The pagans seem to have no problem with homosexuality and for Jesse this is an escape from the way his family feels.

Then a man from the pagan village was murdered while trying to help a girl who was in the process of being assaulted and Jesse’s town barely reacted and those who did were unsympathetic. While this was confusing to Jesse, it gave him the impetus to try to find a way to bring and the village together so that each accepted the other. Jesse already knew how his parents would react to this and therefore he had go against their wishes as he continued to visit the village.

Here is where we see Reardon shine. She obviously has done her research well and she wonderfully explains the mysterious rituals that Jesse sees as she captures the beauty and the intensity within them. Jesse soon finds himself in love with a villager who teaches him so much and lets him see a whole new kind of existence. I continually thought to myself that when there is no love at home, we must go elsewhere to find it and falling in love is an educational experience. In this case it was not just an education experience for Jesse but for myself as well as I gleaned a lot of information about a lifestyle I knew nothing about.

We read the story through Jesse’s eyes and we quickly see something that must of us know but do not want to admit— we tend to come to conclusions based on not what we know but on what we do not know. This is so true when looking at religion and when we consider how religion and it wars based on it have changed and influence the course of human history. The same can be said about homosexuality. It is only when we have a complete honest picture that we are free to draw conclusions. I am so reminded of those who believe that the Jews killed Christ without their really knowing what happened back then. Likewise there are so many misconceptions about being gay that have caused hate unnecessarily. After all, love is love no matter who is involved and religion is a personal choice. Who are we to criticize someone for what he/she believes in or has sex with? I venture to say that two of the most misunderstood subjects in today’s world are religion and sexuality. Without knowing the truth about either of these can we fully understand them and until we understand them, we cannot beg forgiveness on what we do not know. The search for the true here is paramount. It does help to know that Paganism is a religion and as such there are different ways to approach it just as is true of all the religions of the world. We are surely aware of the different levels of religiosity in the world today and we know that each religion has its own different sects who take the core of their religion and then adapt it to their needs. One thing about Paganism that is clear is that it is not a religion of devil worshippers. There is no evidence of that anywhere and their credo is simply, “An it harm none, do as ye will,” and we see that this is quite challenging to follow. Pagans are to understand others and themselves and they take no action where harm might ensure.

The message of Reardon’s book is very strong yet also very sensible. We must not maker assumptions before we know what we are talking about and we must not condemn anyone who thinks differently than we do especially when we do not understand why. I am ashamed to say that I do this and so do so many others. I, at least, am brave enough to admit it. We also tend to be afraid of what we do not know and many do not make an attempt to change that. One of the beautiful things about living in today’s world is that we can celebrate diversity and that we have the opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people. However, the caveat is that we must know them as well as meet them. Having lived in many laces outside of America, I have found that there is no place in the world for labeling people like we do here. “He’s a nice guy for an Italian” or “She has the prettiest smile for a fat girl”. One cannot just be a nice guy or have a pretty smile without some kind of qualification.

I am aware that for a Robin Reardon book, this one seems to have a larger cast of characters and more subplots than I remember in her other six novels that I have read and reviewed. I am sure the reason for that is because we explore a very serious issue here that we have the power to stop.

There is always something to expect from a Reardon novel and she never disappoints. This time it is Paganism and I have no idea what she will able to do to top this book. I did something here that I rarely do and that was to read the entire book in one sitting. It had that effect on me. Now I can put my thoughts down on paper and go back and read it a second time but doing so slowly and carefully so that I do not miss anything. Just so you know, there is a big difference between reading for review and reading for pleasure. I have always found it hard to do both at the same time and there is an advantage to that—I get to read mostly everything more than once.

If you are not sure how I feel abut this book, I am giving it a rave and I doubt anyone will have any trouble understanding why.

“A BRAVE HEART”— An Anti-Bullying Activist

a brave heartposter

 “A BRAVE HEART”

An Anti-Bullying Activist

Amos Lassen

“A Brave Heart” is a documentary that follows the inspiring story of “26 year old, 58 pound Lizzie Velásquez and her transformation from cyber bullying victim to anti-bullying activist”. When she discovered that there was a YouTube video labeling her as “The World’s Ugliest Woman,” Lizzie began a physical and emotional journey and we are with her as she ultimately lobbies Congress for the first federal anti-bullying bill.  It all began when she was 16 years old.

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Today Lizzie is a 26-year-old but was the victim of bullying when she was 16-year-old. She suffered with many daily imperious events just because she is physically different. She struggled a lot in her life and now she is an influential speaker who is very famous in the world. What a change—from having everyone ready to bully her, she is now being followed because she has the right attitude towards life. Lizzie has a disease that prevents her from gaining weight. She cannot weigh more than 64 pounds. When she was four-years-old she went blind in her right eye and she also has a weak immune system.

Lizzie was always encouraged by her family. She fought against the bullying and all those people who teased her, made fun of her and called her ugly. She found the best way to make herself better was by using the negative things as a ladder to climb up towards her goals. She proved that those who cannot recognize the true beauty that lies within the soul of the person right in front of them are the ugliest people in the world.

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Through home movies and interviews with her family, we learn of countless surgeries and procedures Lizzie had growing up as her doctors tried to figure out what she is suffering from (an on-camera visit to a specialist late in the film explains some of it). The film is Lizzie’s story but what really is fascinating is how this lithe, articulate, and wonderfully soulful person changed a potentially crippling moment into a weapon against intolerance. We watch Lizzie transform herself into an international activist, meet with fans around the world and deal with her health issues and we feel, inspired and humbled.

Lizzie is an outstanding role model, and the film has many powerful messages for teens. Some parts can be upsetting, such as when the movie talks about bullying victims who’ve killed themselves (one mother is interviewed and gets very teary), when Lizzie reads hurtful comments about herself (and her friends and family members react with anger and sadness to her situation), and when Lizzie’s precarious health is discussed. This is an important movie for parents and kids to watch together; hopefully it will encourage everyone who sees it to stand up for themselves and others and embrace who they are. It has a potent and powerful message about one of humankind’s most foolish acts: bullying.

The Internet has made it possible to hurl piercing insults without any repercussions or a good old-fashioned ass kicking. Lizzie became a victim of relentless bullying as early as she can remember. Because if her condition, she was an easy target from adolescence through high school, and still as an adult from people without souls. Lizzie speaks from her heart, and even though she’s quite petite, her message is louder than a bomb. This is a movie that makes us cry but most of the tears come from how jubilant Lizzie is when she faces doctors, fans, and anyone else who comes across her path. Her infectious smile never leaves her side.

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Instead of exploiting Lizzie and all of the bullying she’s endured, director Sara Bordo chronicles Lizzie’s triumph over adversity and we watch as she speaks at conferences in front of thousands all around the world. Lizzie’s current (and at times, stressful) life unfolds as the camera rolls. We see how she fights back with compassion. Lizzie is always calm in the film and in turn calms down the viewers.