Monthly Archives: August 2017

“In HIs Eyes” by Larry Benjamin— Four Men

Benjamin, Larry. “In His Eyes”, Beaten Track, 2017.

Four  Men

Amos Lassen

It does not happen often that you pick up a book whose prose is so beautiful and mesmerizing that you have tears in your eyes. Be prepared for that to happen with Larry Benjamin’s “In His Eyes” which aside from the glorious writing there is a very beautiful story. We meet four guys and read their stories in 139 vignettes, each about a single event. Our guys meet when they are in college and from there they move forward some twenty years and find their ways in the adult gay world. They are guided by a piece of advice that quite simply says,

 “When you boys fall in love, fall in love with his smile – because his smile will never age or change – and his eyes because in his eyes, you will always see the truth.”

Many have tried to write about gay life but few have succeeded in painting the picture of the reality that it is. One of the reasons for that is the fact that we really do not want to share it since it is ours exclusively. Those of you who are old enough to remember the scandal that Larry Kramer brought about with his roman a clef, “Faggots’, a book that parodies our lives while at the same time let people see how many were living and acting back then. Many were outraged that Kramer dared to let straight society see how we lived our lives (although I have my doubts about how many straight people actually would have considered reading it). Even Andrew Holleran in “His Dancer From the Dance” was ostracized for writing about what goes in gay bars. But those two books are from the 70s and so much has changed. We learned from that experience that not every writer can give an actual picture of gay life and those who try must be very careful about what they write.

Larry Benjamin has succeeded in doing so by being playful and using a bit of imagination. He never ignores the reality that we live in a world that has been hostile and is just now beginning to deal with acceptance. The first chapter shows us this by giving us a discussion on throwing a gay son out of the family and then moving on to wondering if someone can tell that someone else is gay just be looking at him.

We are taken on quite a journey and we are with the guys when they mature and fall in love, struggle to maintain relationships, suffer disappointments and have broken dreams all the while searching for internal and external acceptance. I remember a gorgeous poem that states, “love doesn’t die, people do” and we certainly see here that after we think love is gone, it is reborn in another time and place.

How could I not love a book that is about all of us. Micah, Skye, Reid and Calvin could be Paul, Henry, Michael and Clark—their names are not important because they are us. So there are four different points of view but then there are some of us who also have four different points of view in the same body and mind. Yet, it is easier to read about four different entities and as we do, we grow to love each one. As I read, I laughed, cried, went into myself, cursed and so on and we see about all else that love is undeniable.

I could say so much but I would rather you have the experience of this book yourself without me spoiling one word. Life is all about friendship and maturing and it is that much more difficult when one is part of a minority that is often marginalized. Knowing what love is certainly helps us to find our way as does friendship. I was totally taken into this book and know that I will reread it and reread it. I believe most of you will do the same.

“The Château: A Novel” by Paul Goldberg— An Election

Goldberg, Paul. “The Château: A Novel”, Picador, 2018.

An Election

Amos Lassen

In January 2017 William M. Katzebnelebogen believes that he has hit rock bottom. He had been a successful science reporter at the Washington Post but was fired and his resources are severely limited. Then he learns that his college roommate, Zbignew Wronski, a plastic surgeon known as the “Butt God of Miami Beach,” has fallen to his death under suspicious and salacious circumstances. Having nothing to lose, Bill catches a plane to Hollywood Florida (aka Florida’s Gold Coast) to begin his own investigation and perhaps a chance to revive his career. However, there is a catch; Bill’s father, Melsor.

Melsor Yakovlevich Katzenelenbogen is something of an everyman and a who-is-who. He is a poet, a literary scholar, a political dissident and small time crook who now wants to gain control of the condo board at the “Chateau Sedan Neuve, a crumbling high-rise in Hollywood, Florida, populated mostly by Russian Jewish immigrants.” Melsor considers some of those who are presently on the board to be “fraudsters levying ‘special assessments” on residents” and he will use whatever means necessary to win the board election. He also thinks that the best person to help him do so is his son Bill, even though they have been estranged for some time.

It is quite difficult to classify this book genre-wise. It is investigative reporting; it becomes something of a crime novel and it is a black comedy. Then there is the idea that it indeed is a microcosm of the America we live in under the lack of leadership of the 45th president whose name is best left unsaid for fear of ugly retaliation or something like that. Now I did not say that this novel is a look at Fascism but you can surely say so. By the way, if you have not caught it, the name Melsor is an anagram for Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and the October Revolution.

Most of us are familiar with condo associations and their boards but until you live in a condo in Florida with an entire Jewish population, you really have no idea about how they work (or in this case, don’t work). After reading this you might never want to live in a condo, anyway. We also get a look at “petty crime, Jewish identity, kleptocracy (and yes this is a word), vodka, Fascism and Florida’ but forget what you knew about them before reading “The Chateau”.

 

“#Parasha: Weekly Insights from a Leading Israeli Journalist” by Sivan Rahav-Meir— Great Timing

Rahav-Meir, Sivan. “#Parasha: Weekly Insights from a Leading Israeli Journalist”, Menorah, 2017.

Great Timing

Amos Lassen

I bet I read at least ten commentaries on the Torah portion each week which means that I usually get ten (or more) opinions about what the Five Books of Moses has to say. I tend to read a couple of classical takes and then I enjoy the more modern ones and the amazing thing is that no matter when it was written, the commentaries like the Torah are relevant and when we consider how long people have been reading the Torah, we realize that is contains a great deal of wisdom about just about everything.

I am always on the lookout for new commentaries and am so glad to have found Sivan Rahav-Meir’s “#Parasha”. Rahav-Meir is an Israeli journalist who has interviewed heads of state and senior political officials. She has uncovered exclusive stories that have impacted life and discourse in Israel and she knows Torah. Here she shares her journalistic and life to the weekly Torah portion.

Rahav-Meir shares brief reflections on the Torah from sources past and present and gives a thought-provoking message for the entire family. She began doing short posts shared on social media and those posts actually brought about conversation amongst religious, traditional and progressive families. Now, with the translation of this book from the original Hebrew, she brings ideas to the English-speaking public and we are very lucky. Meir-Rahav is respected by religious and secular Jews and as a prime time anchor on Israel’s TV, she finds her way into people’s homes as reports on politics, the courts, the religious sector, and the government. She knows life, and addresses it in this easy to read fascinating book. She manages to bring the Torah into daily conversation by adding new voices to the ones we usually hear. She has several very brief essays on each of the 54 weekly portions. Each commentary is usually four to five pages and is devoted to each parasha. Her commentaries are rational and practical and there is much to be learned here.

“Lou Sullivan: Daring To Be a Man Among Men” by Dr. Brice D. Smith— Becoming a Gay Man

Smith, Dr. Brice D. “Lou Sullivan: Daring To Be a Man Among Men”, Transgress, 2017.

Becoming a Gay Man

Amos Lassen

Lou Sullivan was told that he couldn’t live as a gay man, but he died a gay man. Lou was from the Midwest where “girls did not grow up to be gay men and die from AIDS.” Lou was a transgender pioneer and one of the most tragically overlooked people in LGBT history. He marched for Civil Rights, embraced the 1960s counterculture. He came of age in the gay liberation movement, transformed medical treatment of trans people, institutionalized trans history, created and forged an international female-to-male transgender community and died from AIDS. He overcame tremendous obstacles to be who he was and dedicated his life to helping others to do just that. Sullivan inspired a generation to rethink gender identity, sexual orientation and what it means to be human.

What author Brice Smith has done here is give us well-informed understanding of transgender issues by framing these through Sullivan’s life in a way that systematically introduced and expands understanding and fill in gaps about the trans movement.

Sullivan’s Milwaukee roots were instrumental in the making of LGBT history and we see that the trans community has unique qualities that have influenced the LGBT movement.

“Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students” by Jacques Berlinerblau— An Examination

Berlinerblau, Jacques. “Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students”, Melville House, 2017.

An Examination

Amos Lassen

Having spent most of my adult life as an academic, I have drawn conclusions that I have rarely shared with others in my profession although I am sure that there are those who think they way I do and was therefore not surprised at some of the things that Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau has to say in “ Campus Confidential”.

There is “a huge gap between rhetoric and reality, between the “sanctimony, hypocrisy and doublespeak” of academic leaders and the way colleges operate in reality and statements like this are what makes this book come to life for so many of us. Berlinerblau sees himself as a contrarian who deviates “from the tenured professoriate to give aspiring students and their parents the lowdown on how their dream schools actually work.”

We read about professors being underpaid, marginalized and over-reviewed yet the success of education depends on them. Something has happened to teaching in this world of industry and the time has come for it to be redeemed.

Berlinerblau has seen it all. He began teaching at a community college, and has been everything from a abused adjunct to an assistant professor to a coddled administrator. He knows what is going on in the world of higher education today. He does not see a bright future.

There is a gap between how professors are trained, what they aspire to and for what they are rewarded. Then there is the for, and the day-to-day work of teaching undergraduates and graduates. Like Berlinerblau I have been an adjunct professor, a graduate and undergraduate professor and an administrator and have seen students come to schools attracted by the faculty only to be shocked to learn that said faculty really wants nothing to do with them. I saw this myself as a student.. Instead, Education, today, will likely be guided by part-time teachers and graduate students, who are paid a few thousand dollars a course. However, “While teaching undergraduates is normally a very large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.”

Graduate training emphasizes research as opposed to teaching. We have lost the golden age “when devoted professors cared selflessly for their students and were rewarded and respected in return. The publish-or-perish aspect of the research university is nothing new. Sigmund Freud said that teaching is one of the “impossible professions” of which we one can be sure “beforehand of achieving unsatisfying results” whose intimate rewards are too closely “associated with other kinds of caring labor for it to command prestige on its own”.

The wholesale acceptance of business norms by many academic institutions, has recently changed and this has resulted, among other things, in the willingness to charge students ever-higher tuitions while driving labor costs down, and in the adoption of a star system. There have been various attempts to challenge these norms.

Toward the end of the book, Berlinerblau writes about “thoughtfulness” as the quality that good teachers most want to encourage in their students..

“My Journey Home” by Steve Riback— Choosing Judaism

Riback, Steve. “My Journey Home” with Herb Jaffe, Movement Publishing, 2017.

Choosing Judaism

Amos Lassen

Steve Riback was born Jewish but whose family never practiced Judaism and growing up, he had no idea of what being Jewish meant. . Admittedly, during his growing-up years he could not conceive what it meant to be Jewish. Today, however, Riback regularly attends synagogue with his wife and children, and who religion is an integral part of him. Riback is a member of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department who, for many years, fought a battle against the derisiveness from non-Jewish peers this is because he chose to wear a beard and a head-covering and he even when to the courts and the U.S. Constitution and he was granted the right to do so. It was not an easy fight but he was controlled by his own passion to do what he thought was right. This is Steve Riback’s story of his journey home.

“BOBBY JENE”— Ambition

“Bobbi Jene”

Ambition

Amos Lassen

Elvira Lind’s “Bobbi Jene ” is a love story in which we see the dilemmas and consequences of ambition. It is a film about a woman’s fight for independence by a woman trying to succeed with her own art in the competitive world of dance. The film profiles dancer/choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith as she leaves Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company and returns to America to advance her career. Smith just turns 30 when the film begins and she is at a crossroads that calls for tough decisions. She loves dancing in Ohad Naharin’s company and she is in love with a fellow dancer, Or Schraiber, who is ten years her junior. Dancing with Batsheva, however, meant relegating herself to the ensemble this making her simply a part of Naharin’s stage. As challenging and rewarding as Smith finds the dancing to be, she wants to establish herself in her own right and make the leap that will a secure a career for her as she ages.

 

Moving to New York brings its own challenges. One major hurdle is the choice to continue a long distance relationship. Schraiber doesn’t feel ready to leave Israel, so Smith and her beau stay connected through Skype. We see the passion of their relationship in Israel and when they reunite after being an ocean apart. Smith weighs love with her career and strives to have both.

Smith knows that the success of dance is fleeting and doesn’t bring financial security. “She supports her passion by teaching and mentoring. Having danced in Naharin’s company brings a measure of esteem to the New York dance scene that gives her an edge. We see that dancing has its own therapeutic rewards.We get a very intimate look at Smith’s personal and professional life. She first met choreographer Ohad Naharin  and his unique form of contemporary dance and she as able to gain a position with the Company and moved to Israel. She worked her way to the top of the Company’s ranks and even though she and Naharin were no longer lovers, they remained extremely close.

With her dancing days numbered because of her age, she wanted to fulfill a passion to develop her own work as a choreographer which meant that she had to leave the company. Aside from a six-month teaching residency at Stanford University, Smith had no plans. It was not only leaving Batsheva but also leaving fellow dancer Or Schraiber with who she was madly in love.  Schraiber was just at the very start of his career, and in fact in a similar situation as Smith was in when she came to Israel as a complete unknown. Despite his commitment to their relationship, Schraiber had no desire to settle in the U.S. or leave his extended family whom he was very close too.

Because she was a star at Batsheva, Smith had a credibility in NY but as work opportunities were not as plentiful as she may have hoped. We see her discuss the career/life limitations of being a contemporary dance professional and these make her absence from Schraiber very difficult. On the rare times the two are together, they can hardly take their hands off each other. We see a very impassioned performance piece that she has been commissioned by the Jewish Museum to do and this becomes the focal point of the documentary. It was certainly a big risk because of its eroticism. But with it, Smith has realizes that no amount of success however is worth it unless she can share it with Schraiber on a full time basis.

“BEAUTIFUL AND GAY: VOLUME1”— Love and Happiness

“Beautiful and Gay: Volume 1”

Love and Happiness

Amos Lassen

I met Wade Radford online and he introduced me to his and his friends’ work. He is a young (some may call him a “twink”) British actor, writer and filmmaker and together with Jason Impey the two have quite a film history. Unfortunately Impey’s films are not well known here. He has directed nearly 80 shorts and features and is now rereleasing them so that we get a chance to appreciate his work. “Beautiful and Gay: Volume 1” is made up of two touching stories of true love and the struggle for happiness and freedom of expression in today’s world.

“Fall Away” is the story of a young singer who is on the verge of being discovered. He is the lead singer for up-and-coming country folk band “65 Home” but dies violently in a back alley. We follow Handsome Jake’s friends and lovers of Handsome Jake as they try to deal with his untimely death. “Everyone knows a different side of this man and the conflicted and seemingly contradictory aspects of his life”.

“Last Chance at Paradise” is the story of Kai and Tobi who share one last night together before the world ends and they remember a beautiful weekend they once had far away from the oppression of Tobi’s homophobic mother. Two lost souls experience true love and romance as everything around them ends.

“I’M FINE”— Relationships and Friendships

“I’m Fine”

Relationships and Friendships

Amos Lassen

Set in West Hollywood, “I’m Fine” is the story of Nate, who just broke up with his boyfriend but he is okay with that. This is a fresh, honest, and humorous look at gay male relationships and friendship, and the line between the two that is often blurry.

Produced by Dekkoo, it is what they call a “pocket series.” Season 1 is made up of eight short episodes, each around 5 minutes in length. Director Brandon Kirby crafted each episode as a way to challenge long-format series and capture the short attention spans of today’s streaming television viewers. We look at the question, among others, as to whether loneliness leads to bad decisions.

After a late night out with his best friend, Nate finds himself ready to go home and spend another night alone. But before he can walk through his door, his iPhone dings and this is followed by a string of graphic texts. He reads them and considers them to be a sigh. We next see him sitting awkwardly on his hookup’s couch staring at the guy’s cat. He attempts to maintain his sense of pride by saying that he is not an easy catch and that he deleted Grindr a long time ago. His unconvinced and unamused hookup swiftly goes down on him before Nate can say any more.

For some this is uncomfortable and difficult to watch since it so neatly captures many relatable experiences that gay men face; in this case, the awkward encounter of a hookup with a stranger.

Because the episodes are so short, the viewer can get in and get out and still walk away from these quickly. In a very short time, the characters come to life and the drama quickly grabs our attention. We see the hypocrisy of Nate’s character, shaming Grindr users while he is constantly online looking for friends. We see that Apps seem to have become the nature of the game in modern dating. The possibilities of apps quickly turns into addiction. Nate’s bring left by his ex-boyfriend leads him not only into a stranger’s arm, but also to engage in risky sexual encounters once he starts meeting strangers, . Even though the character lives in West Hollywood, the signifier of hope for many marginalized gay men, he still suffers from the intense loneliness he feels even though he’s surrounded by close gay friends and peers. During his hookup with the cat-owning man, Nate has unprotected sex.

The web series is one of the first to have a discussion about Prep, the risk-reducing drug that is becoming ingrained in gay culture as it becomes more attainable for a majority of men.

Although the show portrays deeply complicated issues like loneliness, it does so with an outrageous and perverse humor.

“Other characters, like Nate’s BFF, Jeff, display aggressive, confrontational behaviors so brazen, you can only but laugh at Nate’s inability to take ownership for his own miserable truths. But no matter how much is on Nate’s troubled mind, he finds it difficult to open up to his closest friends, and so he sweeps everything under the rug.” His answer remains, “I’m fine” and this is how the series got its name—from the phrase that is said over and over again when people are clearly not fine. This is a great and fun way to see at how we look at gay men experiencing friendships and relationships, and all done with tongue-in-cheek.

“The Blue Spong and the Flight from Mediocrity” by St. Sukie de la Croix— Chicago, 1924.

De la Croix, St. Sukie. “The Blue Spong and the Flight from Mediocrity”, Lethe Press, 2017.

Chicago, 1924

Amos Lassen

Something strange is happening with Charlotte and Maude, the Clam sisters and it has to do with one of them getting the bird (or does it?). Set in 1929 in Chicago, one of the sisters bought a blue spong, a very rare bird, from a dealer of songbirds and this changes their lives and also the lives of those that work for them.

I have not reviewed St. Sukie de la Croix is several years now and this is not the kind of book I expected from him (but do not understand that as a negative comment). I expected to read Chicago gay history as I did in his earlier book. “Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall”. Yet when the book arrived, I could see that it was something completely different and is historical fantasy that shows what goes on in some “heteronormative, misogynistic, repressive lives” and the follies that accompany them.

The sisters are exposed to a flying koan that provokes them “to cast off their commonplace mores, their staid lives, for something altogether bold and ribald”. Forget any comic books you have ever read before when you read this. This is a graphic novel without the graphics and historical characters take on new personas here that will astound and shock you. You might just wonder what drug you took before reading this until you realize that this is a recipe for a joyous life that is filled with unpredictability.

I am rarely at a loss for words bit this time I must say that I have absolutely no idea how to describe this book. It has an irreverence (that I always find to be fun) and the descriptions of societal scared cows such as religion and sex will most likely surprise most readers. It is a short book that is a quick read but I did find myself immediately reading it a second time just to make sure I caught everything.

I remember my father telling me when I was much younger that all through life we strive for excellence but make peace with mediocrity. That was not good enough for the Clam sisters and in order to avoid that mediocrity, one of them buys the Blue Spong and we meet some of the most bizarre characters ever. The allegory is great and the twists and turns that the novel takes are a delight. The only word that I can find to use to describe the prose is elegant and while it took me a while to realize what I was reading, with that came the realization that this is one of the most rewarding books I have read in a long time. Mediocrity is just, so well, mediocre and if you want to avoid it here is a way to do so. I am in awe of St. Sukie de la Croix’s writing and I believe that all who read this will feel the same way.