Monthly Archives: August 2017

“Queer Dance” edited by Clare Croft— The Challenge of Dance

Croft, Clare (editor). “Queer Dance”, Oxford University Press, 2017.

The Challenge of Dance

Amos Lassen

The various ways that people are together have an influence on choreographic practices and help us to imagine the ways groups assemble in more varied ways than just pairing another man with another woman? We can ask, “How might dancing queerly ask us to imagine futures through something other than heterosexuality and reproduction? How does challenging gender binaries always mean thinking about race, thinking about the postcolonial, about ableism? What are the arbitrary rules structuring dance in all its arenas, whether concert and social or commercial and competition, and how do we see those invisible structures and work to disrupt them?”

 

In “Queer Dance”, Clare Croft brings together artists and scholars in a multi-platformed project-book with an accompanying website, and live performance series that ask just how dancing queerly progressively challenges us. The artists and scholars who have contributed to the book and whose performances and filmed interviews appear online give us a range of genders and sexualities that challenge and destabilize social norms. Through what we read here, we engage with “dance making, dance scholarship, queer studies, and other fields” and we are asked how identities, communities, and making art and scholarly practices might consider what queer work the body does and can do. There is a great deal power in claiming queerness in the press of bodies touching or in the exceeding of the body best measured in sweat and exhaustion. We look at how queerness exists in the realm of affect and touch, and we are led to look at what then might about queerness should come next via the complex bodily ways of knowing.

It is important never to take ‘queer’ or ‘dance’ for granted as stable terms. We become very aware of how the contributors manipulate them to render visible the ways in which “dance is a queer praxis and queerness is a dancing analytic”.

The book goes beyond the currently accepted registers of queerness to bring the subjects it finds into convergence— feminism, race, and queerness, are simultaneously distinct and integrated and this reveals an amplified understanding of queer dance and provides new areas for engagement.

 

 

“They Both Die at the End” by Adam Silvera— A Day in the Life

Silvera, Adam. “They Both Die at the End”, Harper Teen, 2017.

A Day in the Life

Amos Lassen

Just after midnight on September 5, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to tell them that they’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus have never met and know nothing of each other but they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. This is so easy in this modern age of technology because there is an App called “Last Friend” and it brings Rufus and Mateo together for a great adventure that is to be their last. They each to live an entire lifetime in one day. This then becomes a story of friendship, love and loss.

I love the idea for the book in that it makes us think about what we would want to do if we know that the day was the last one we would ever have. Every moment suddenly becomes very important. Rufus and Mateo speak openly and honestly about what fate has brought them and how angry they are at the unfairness of life that has brought them to this point. They have an intense discussion about what it means to be alive, something that never thought about before and only do so now because their mortality is about to take them away.

Author Adam Silvera uses young queers to talk about mortality, diversity and disability and many of us are very surprised at what they have to say (and say it with eloquence). We are reminded that there is no life without death and, in fact, that death is a fact of life. There is also no love without loss and that in ne day, there is the possibility of change.

“The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA: Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s” by Benita Roth— A History

Roth, Benita. “The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA: Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s”, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

A History

Amos Lassen

ACT UP/LA was part of the militant anti-AIDS movement of the 80s and 90s that went against the neglect of the AIDS epidemic, engaging in multi-targeted protest in Los Angeles and nationally. The members faced the government and brought about tremendous change at a time that our community was dying. medical, and institutional. We see the appeal of direct action anti-AIDS activism for people across the United States. The group argued about “the need to understand how the politics of place affect organizing, and how the particular features of the Los Angeles cityscape shaped possibilities for activists.” Through a feminist perspective we see “social inequalities as mutually reinforcing and interdependent, to examine the interaction of activists and the outcomes of their actions.” The united us in a struggle against AIDS and homophobia, and gain a voice in our own healthcare.

This is a “dense and meticulously annotated” history of an organization that gained the power that was necessary to bring about change. Writer Betina Roth shows us that members of ACT UP/LA were often scared and frightened to participate in actions but did so anyway because lives were at stake and no one really seemed to care.

“Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote” by Johanna Neuman— Turning a Feminist Cause into a Fashionable Revolution

Neuman, Johanna. “Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote”, NYU Press, 2017.

Turning a Feminist Cause into a Fashionable Revolution

Amos Lassen

 Over two hundred of New York’s most glamorous socialites joined the suffrage movement in the early twentieth century. Their names read like who’s who-—Astor, Belmont, Rockefeller, Tiffany, Vanderbilt, Whitney and so on and these names carry great public value. These women were the darlings of the media of their day because of the extravagance of their costume balls and the beauty and their couture clothes. Their social registers were filled with political power because of these women and they were able to turn the female vote into a fashionable cause.

Even though critics dismissed them as “bored socialites” who looked upon suffrage as they would like at fashions on the fashion runway, they were at the epicenter of the great reforms of the Progressive Era.  They championed education for women, women pursuing careers, and they advocated for the end of marriage. They were part of the great changes in New York City. 

Writer Johanna Neuman shows us rightful place in the story of women’s suffrage.  Knowing that there was a need for popular approval for any social change, these socialites used their wealth, power, social connections and style to bring mainstream interest and in doing so they were able to diffuse resistance to the cause and helped to push women’s suffrage.

These are not the women we think of as leaders in the fight for women’s right to vote, but they were and they got there by using their wardrobes and their homes as a way to get there and promote an ideology.

 

“London Skin and Bones: The Finsbury Park Stories” by Ian Young— London in the 80s

Young, Ian. “London Skin and Bones: The Finsbury Park Stories”, Squares and Rebels, 2017.

London in the 80s

Amos Lassen

The world is so different today than it was 20 or thirty years ago and I realize that on every page of Ian Young’s collection of stories about London in the early 8Os. This is one of those books that makes you saw “wow” all the way through. Not only are the stories fascinating but the prose is gorgeous. Young takes us to Finsbury Park, a neighborhood where the residents included “fascinating habitués long gone—gay skinheads, anarchist poets, and stoned stamp collectors—resisting the dark forces of a Thatcherite government.” It is the diversity of the people who live there that make this such a fascinating place and the fact that the residents are all friends shows that getting along is very simple— all we have to do is want to get along. Aside from the human characters in these stories, there is also the character of the place itself. The friends that we meet here are an unlikely group and we see skinheads and gay working class men share friendships and there is a real sense of community at Finsbury Park. What glues these people together is friendship, as unlikely as it may be.

This is a book about “Lad Culture” (and thanks to Jack Fritscher for that title) that is made up of stories that come together to form a whole. But it is important to remember that this is a book about a certain place and time and even though what we read here could happen anywhere, it happened there first. The worth of a city is based upon the worth of its inhabitants. We surely see that are characters weave in and out of the stories and I love having had the chance to meet them. While each is extraordinary in his/her own way, they are all citizens of an ordinary world.

We get quite a different look at gay life here manly because we see it in an unlikely place, a neighborhood so diversely populated where being a man is what its all about. Our gay people here are radical and radically political and I feel as if I already know each and every character (and I am so glad that I do). Rather than look at each story individually I am going to give the collection five stars and let you discover it for yourselves.

Sacrifice in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” by David L. Weddle—The Practice and Philosophy of Sacrifice in Three Religious Traditions

Weddle, David L. “Sacrifice in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam”, NYU Press, 2017.

The Practice and Philosophy of Sacrifice in Three Religious Traditions

Amos Lassen

Many think that the purpose of Abraham being told by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac is to stop human sacrifices that existed at the time of the writing of the Five Books of Moses. This is certainly a valid explanation as to why would tell Abraham to kill his son and then stop him from doing so. The three major religions are bound by Abraham and they share a common admiration for him

The religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam also promote the practice of giving up human and natural goods to attain religious ideals. Each tradition deals differently with the moral dilemmas found in Abraham’s story while retaining the willingness to perform sacrifice as an identifying mark of religious commitment.

“Sacrifice in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” looks at how Jews, Christians, and Muslims refer to “sacrifice”—not only as ritual offerings, but also as the donation of goods, discipline, suffering, and martyrdom (or in the case of Judaism, prayer). We also read of objections to sacrifice within these traditions as well and learn of the voices of dissent and protest in the name of ethical duty. “Sacrifice forfeits concrete goods for abstract benefits, a utopian vision of human community, thereby sparking conflict with those who do not share the same ideals”.

Weddle uses sacrifice as a means of examining similarities of practice and differences of meaning among these important world religions. He takes the concept of sacrifice across these three religions, and gives a cross-cultural approach to understanding its place in history and deep-rooted traditions. To do so, Weddle must struggle with a central dilemma in the study of religion and that is why believers so readily embrace and engage in practices that involve some form of self-denial and renunciation. We see the crucial interdependence between continual acts of sacrifice and formative religious beliefs. The book sheds new light on the practices and meanings of sacrifice.

Not only is this an introduction to sacrifice, it is also “a proposal for a theory of sacrifice, a nuanced moral critique of sacrifice, and a vibrant study of ideas and practices of sacrifice in the Abrahamic traditions.”  These dimensions come together to give us a cogent and compelling argument about the meaning and nature of sacrifice. If you have ever wondered why humans sacrifice and why sacrifice is at the heart of so many religions, this is certainly a book for you.

“Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel” by Eli Valley— A Collection

 

Valley, Eli with Peter Beinart. “Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel”, Or, 2017.

A Collection

Amos Lassen

Eli Valley uses noir, horror, slapstick and science fiction to show us the outlandish hypocrisies at play in the American/Israeli relationship. Valley’s work is sometimes banned, often controversial and is always funny and in this graphic collection, he looks at American complicity in an Israeli occupation that is now beginning its fiftieth year. This, the first full-scale anthology of Valley’s art and it gives us an essential retrospective of America and Israel at a turning point. Valley’s artistry is meticulous (as you can see below) and his satire is strong.

 

We have “perseverating turtles, xenophobic Jedi knights, sputtering superheroes, mutating golems and zombie billionaires”. We also get the “historical background and contexts, insights into the creative process, selected reactions to the works, and behind-the-scenes tales of tensions over what was permissible for publication”. Brutally irreverent, the comics in this volume are a vital contribution to the centuries-old tradition of graphic protest and polemics.

“WES CRAVEN’S SUMMER OF FEAR”— In the Family

“Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear”

In the Family

Amos Lassen

When Julia Trent’s (Lee Purcell) parents are killed in an accident, she comes to live with her aunt Leslie Bryant (Carol Lawrence) and Uncle Tom (Jeremy Slate). At first, their daughter Rachel (Linda Blair) accepts Julia as a new friend while her older brother Peter (Jeff East) lusts after Julia and her younger brother Bobby (James Jarnigan) doesn’t seem to notice. Basically, this is a film about an evil witch who brings about destruction for some inadequately explored reason. Julia realizes that there is something strange about Rachel while everyone is on Julia’s side.

The name Wes Craven is synonymous with horror, and in 1978 when this film was made it was then known as “Stranger in our House” and was a ‘movie-of-the-week’ for television and even tough it has two big names going for it— Blair and Craven, there are not many good things to say about it. . Rachel is welcomed into the family home, until strange events turn her against her. Strange things begin to happen; Rachel’s horse gets spooked, her skin breaks out in hideous pustules, her boyfriend Mike (Jeff McCracken) dumps her for Julia, there are burnt matches everywhere in Julia’s room and a strange object is hidden in her drawer. The old professor from across the street (Macdonald Carey) who specializes in the occult falls mysteriously ill, and everyone seems to prefer Julia to Rachel. What is really going on here? Is Rachel just going through all the petty jealousies and anxieties of an average teenager who feels displaced in her own family, or is her cousin in fact a powerful sorceress hell-bent on bewitching the family? The film’s opening shots of a car ‘accident’ with a superimposed image of Julia laughing maniacally are something of a giveaway and a spoiler at the same time.

It is possible that the whole film is an allegory of adolescent angst until the end.

“Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy” by Laura Lee— Battling for the Legacy

Lee, Laura. “Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy”, Amberley Publishing, 2017.

Battling for the Legacy

Amos Lassen

With the death of Oscar Wilde there was a battle between two of his closest friends and former lovers, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the playwright’s greatest love, and Robert Ross, Wilde’s friend and literary executor. The battle was over who would control the narrative about Wilde’s life, and who history would blame for his death. It led to the revelation of sexual secrets and personal letters, blackmail, stalking, and five lawsuits. It greatly affected the two participants and also how we remember Wilde today.

Each man tried to use the secrets from their former intimate moments with Wilde. Some of us are aware of this battle against the other but this is the first book to focus just on the feud. At it’s most basic, this is about Wilde’s life and how it affected the lives of two former lovers. We read stories that we heard in court that pretended to be the truth and we read stories about identity and stories about how we find ourselves as part of a larger community. We soon realize that these stories are our lives especially when they all come together. This is a book about how Wilde wrote “De Profundis” and what happened afterwards with between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Wilde wrote this while in prison after his conviction for `gross indecency’. He used the writing as a kind of rehabilitation for his reputation that was severely hurt by his personal life style and his conviction. “De Profundis” is written as a long essay (50,000 words) and in letterform to Douglas, his former lover, who he repudiates in this letter. Wilde entrusted the manuscript to Ross, another former lover (of both Wilde and Douglas), who did not allow the intended recipient to read it and it was not until 1913 that Douglas learned of its existence. It was then used as evidence against him during a libel trial that he had instigated against Arthur Ransome. Wilde, by then, had already been dead for ten years and Douglas had converted to Roman Catholicism. and Ross who had once been Douglas’ best friend now hated him.

We get the background and the context, meet the main characters and learn how they met Wilde and each other and see the interconnections between them. The book examines  Wilde’s trial and imprisonment and examine the ramifications of Wilde’s writing of “De Profundis”. Ross, as Wilde’s literary executor, sought to restore Wilde’s literary reputation, and would use the essay as part of this larger goal for Douglas who ended up spending most of his remaining life responding to the essay and attempting to negate that he only interested in Wilde for his money, and was responsible for Wilde’s death.

Both Ross and Douglas attempted to control the narrative of Wilde’s life and death in the courts, where Douglas and Ross both tried to present the “real story” of what happened and to do this they had to get through number of lawsuits. The media impacted public perception of Wilde’s legacy and their decisions depended upon the salacious nature of the testimony. A great deal of the book is about the trials since it is through them that we get our perceptions of the two men. It is quite a story.

“Miss Burma”— A Look at Modern Burma

Craig, Charmaine. “Miss Burma”, Grove Press, 2017.

A Look at Modern Burma

Amos Lassen

We get a look at modern Burma through the eyes of married couple, Benny and Kihn and their daughter Louisa. Benny settled in Rangoon after having gone to Calcutta for school. At that time Rangoon was sill part of the British Empire and after being there a while, he met Khin and fall in love with her.

Members of Khin’s family were members of long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. When World War II came to Southeast Asia, Benny and Khin went into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation and from this point on, we take a journey with them and it is a journey that will change the country’s history. After the war, the British authorities make a deal with Burmese nationalists, who were led by Aung San. The group gained control of the country. Then when Aung San was assassinated, his successor ignored the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and this set off the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin’s eldest child, Louisa, lived through a world filled with danger yet; Louise became Burma’s first beauty queen right before Burma became a dictatorship. As Louisa deals with her newfound fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the covert dealings of the West in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people.

The story is based upon author Charmaine Craig’s mother and grandparents. Strong bonds are tested and fractured by the weight of constant war, ethnic conflict, and revolution. It’s also a nod to another Louisa, during the course of the novel, will become both a renowned warrior and a complicated symbol of national unity as the winner of the Miss Burma beauty pageant.) At the center of the novel is the marriage between Benny, who is Jewish and Khin, a Karen, one of Burma’s long-persecuted ethnic minorities. The lives of her characters are part of the larger story of Burma’s history.

While the novel only spans the years from 1926 to 1965, it seems to cover so much more. The characters experience the major events in Burmese history as well as their own personal experiences of torture, arrest, deaths and disappearances of loved ones. “They live and struggle and fight for themselves and for their country in an atmosphere of ever-changing alliances, personal breakdowns, and deepening suspicions” The description here is amazing and difficult yet our characters persevere.

This is a different kind of history here in that it looks at the roles of ethnicity and non-Burmese points of view and puts them at the center of the story. We see the emergence of modern Burma as it moves through British colonialism, wartime occupation by the Japanese, and independence. I believe the message of the book to be that “we are all actors in our histories and the histories of our nations” and this changes how we look at the past and how we think about the future. This is a powerful novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and blood ties.