Monthly Archives: December 2017

“The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years” by Ricardo Piglia— A Great Work of Argentine Literature

Piglia, Ricardo. “The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years”, translated by Robert Croll, Restless Books, 2017.

A Great Work of Argentine Literature

Amos Lassen

Argentine novelist Ricardo Piglia’s secret magnum opus was a compilation of 327 notebooks that he composed over nearly six decades, in which he imagined himself as his literary alter ego, Emilio Renzi. Renzi is a detective who is a bit tired of the world but he is also so much more than that. In the t diaries we see a multilayered reconstruction of the self.

We watch as Piglia develops as a writer, read about when he fells in love, argues with his father and we get new perspectives on the history of Latin America in the twentieth century. When Piglia was diagnosed with a fatal illness in 2011, he rushed to complete the diaries.

Naturally there were rumors about the book and this simply intensified the wish to read them. They were first released in Spanish as a trilogy to great acclaim and they secured Piglia’s place in the world canon. He had no idea that they “would become a lesson in literary genius and the culmination of one of the greatest works of Argentine literature.” Today he is celebrated as the rightful heir to legends like Borges, Cortázar, Juan Jose Saer, and Roberto Arlt.

“The Diaries of Emilio Renzi” is Piglia’s secret story of his shadow self and as such is “a book of disquiet and love and literary obsession that blurs the distinctness of each and the other.”

“Ramayana: An Illustrated Retelling” by Arshira Satter— A Classic, Retold

Sattar, Arshia. “Ramayana: An Illustrated Retelling”, Illustrated by Sonali Zohra, Restless Books, 2018.

A Classic, Retold

Amos Lassen

“Ramayana” is an unforgettable tale of love, adventure, divinity, and flying monkeys that has been treasured by readers around the world for thousands of years. Now we have an authoritative, gripping retelling by the renowned scholar Arshia Sattar that gives readers a new chance to explore this wonderful story.

Rama, a brave young prince, is exiled by his stepmother. His brother and his wife, the beautiful princess Sita, follow him into the mysterious forest where they encounter strange and dangerous creatures. The most terrifying is Ravana, the ten-headed demon king who kidnaps Sita and takes her to a fortified city in the middle of the ocean. In order to rescue her, Rama enlists the help of thousands of magical monkeys and bears to fight the demon army and win her back. Even the gods witness the harrowing battle.

The original Ramayana is attributed to an ancient Indian poet, Valmiki and it has been legendary and this new translation also adds to its mystique. Sattar goes deeply and beautifully into the vulnerabilities of an uptight character. The easy language makes for a very smooth read and her narrative is magical. The characters come alive both in the readers’ imagination and on the pages with Zohra’s wonderful drawings. We get the true spirit of a storyteller who knows the story.

“Moon Brow” by Shahiar Madanipour— An Imaginative Love Story

Mandanipour, Shahiar. “Moon Brow”, translated by Sara Khalili, Restless Books, 2018.

An Imaginative Love Story

Amos Lassen

Shahiar Mandanipour’s “Moon Brow” is an imaginative love story narrated by two angel scribes who sit on the shoulders of a shell-shocked Iranian soldier in search of the mysterious woman who visits his dreams. Before he was injured by shrapnel that required the loss of his left arm, Amir Khan was a carefree playboy. Now he is in mental hospital for shell-shocked soldiers from which his mother and sister bring him home to Tehran. He has few memories yet he is haunted by visions of a mysterious woman he believes is his fiancée. He never sees her face but he does see a shining crescent moon on her forehead so he names her Moon Brow.

Amir has not lost his sense of humor even though he might have lot his sanity. He manages to get his sister, Reyhaneh to help him find the woman thinking that it might help the family. Amir has been tormenting their religious parents with his lovers and parties. Amir leave his parents’ house— his father’s guards hail him as a living martyr to the cause of Imam Khomeini and the Revolution, but thy treat him like a dangerous madman. Amir decides there’s only one solution to his dilemma and that is to return to the battlefield and find his severed arm and the engagement ring he bought for his fiancée.

The twin scribes, the angel of virtue and the angel of sin, continue to sit on Amir’s shoulders and narrate the story that is both wildly inventive and radically empathetic. It is a story that is steeped in Persian folklore and contemporary Middle East history and it is an epic look at love, war, morality, faith, and family. Shahria Mandanipour is one of the leading novelists of our time and one of Iran’s most important living fiction writers. His writing is exuberant, clever, profuse and filled with literary-political puns and references.

“THE LIMEHO– USE GOLEM”— Fantasy and Reality


“The Limehouse Golem”

Fantasy and Reality

Amos Lassen

A series of murders has shaken the community to the point where people believe that only a legendary creature from dark times – the mythical so-called Golem – must be responsible. This murderer is stalking the streets of Limehouse in Victorian London, killing viciously and spreading panic. The killer has become known as the Limehouse Golem; named after the medieval Jewish monster made of clay. Police Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is brought in to investigate and he begins to wonder if the killer might be the recently dead John Cree (Sam Reid). As he investigates, he comes to Cree’s wife, Lizzie (Olivia Cooke), as well as the world of the music hall theatre where she used to work. The music hall is run by a cross-dressing comedy star Dan Leno (Douglas Booth). Meanwhile, the number of potential suspects continues to grow.

Inspector Kildare has been ostracized by Scotland Yard for not being a guy who gets married and he seems to think that the reason he has been given the random string of murders is because he can be blamed for the Yard’s inevitable failure. This is the works hard to prove them wrong. Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) is on trial for poisoning her writer husband (Sam Reid). This is significant to Kildare because Mr. Cree was one of four visitors to the British Library when a weird sort of confession was penned into a volume called “Murder, Considered as one of the Fine Arts”. The others were real-life novelist and opium addict George Gissing, obscure political theorist Karl Marx, and theatrical star Dan Leno.

Leno is the man to watch. He is the most popular music-hall performer of the time and place. Director Juan Carlos Medina places emphasis on the strange and the creepy that pays off in the many grotesque imaginings of the unseen Golem’s murders. There is a lot of love in the theatrical scenes. The film is an adaptation of a murder mystery by the British critic and historian Peter Ackroyd. The Limehouse Golem is thought of as a hulking figure in black that suggests a conjuring of all of Britain’s latent psychosexual sickness.

The film is preoccupied with violence as either a response to oppression or an embodiment of the same. The fictional Limehouse Golem is notable for the arbitrariness of his murders and this is a reflection of the democracy that cannot find a motive for the crimes. Prostitutes are killed and hung as declarations of war, but so are garment sellers, actors, and Jewish intellectuals. Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), who studies at the British museum where the Limehouse Golem is known to go, is questioned about the killings. The performances are excellent all around but it is Bill Nighy who will be best remembered for his performance as Kildare.

What I found to be intriguing is that several of the lead characters are LGBT. As it’s set in Victorian times, no one comes right out and says it, but there are hints towards the fact Dan Leno, Lizzie, Kildare and his sergeant, George Flood (Daniel Mays), are probably not straight. It is frustrating that this is never completely resolved and these sexualities are important to the movie. To solve the killings, Kildare must unravel the story of Elizabeth’s life. Since they are both sexual outcasts who’ve suffered abuse and discrimination, Kildare and Elizabeth bond over their mutual alienation from patriarchy and this connects them to a killer who yearns to highlight Britain’s insidious and hypocritical methods of re-exploiting the already exploitive culture of violence and sexual stigmatization through newspapers and theater, essentially selling the country’s cruelty back to itself.

The story is told in flashback as Kildare questions Elizabeth to formulate a defense and he’s also interrogating other suspects so he can prove the late John Cree guilty by process of elimination. The Limehouse Golem, as the serial killer calls himself, has to be one of the few people who were in the There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot but the problem comes when fantasy and reality fail to meet.

“Heartland” by Ana Simo—An Alternate, Pre-apocalyptic United States

Simo, Ana. “Heartland”, Restless Books, 2018.

An Alternate, Pre-apocalyptic United States

Amos Lassen

Ana Simo’s “Heartland” is the story of a thwarted elaborate revenge on the woman who stole her lover. It brings together telenovela, pulp noir, and dystopian satire. Marcy McCabe is a SoHo art dealer who once was our narrator’s rival for Bebe. When she discovers that McCabe squandered Bebe’s affections after taking her away, she realizes that revenge is not enough: she must admit her guilt, sentence herself, and beg for her own execution, Soviet-style.

In this America, the inconceivable becomes ordinary: corruption and greed have led to mass starvation in the heartland; thousands of refugees have escaped from resettlement camps and attack the cities; a puritanical Caliphate has toppled Constantinople, with America in its sights. At the same time, our heroine who is escaping her New York life in disguise, lures McCabe to her home turf: a hilltop house in the Great Plains where her parents worked as domestic servants. Her nemesis, though, is crafty, and McCabe disappears, threatening to ruin a homicidal master plan so detailed as to be akin to love.  

Here is a hilarious, genre-defying debut novel that deals with taboos of race, assimilation, and sex through a story of love, language, and revenge.

“ANIMAL KINGDOM”: The Complete Second Season— They’re Back

“Animal Kingdom”: The Complete Second Season”

They’re Back

Amos Lassen

“Animal Kingdom” centers on 17-year-old Joshua “J” Cody, who moves in with his freewheeling relatives in their Southern California beach town after his mother dies of a heroin overdose. Headed by boot-tough matriarch Janine “Smurf” Cody and her right-hand Baz, who runs the business and calls the shots, the clan also consists of Pope, the oldest and most dangerous of the Cody boys; Craig, the tough and fearless middle son; and Deran, the troubled, suspicious “baby” of the family.

The ties that have held the family together during season one now are about to be stretched to the limit as “Animal Kingdom” comes back for Season Two. As the second season opens, the Cody clan is back to their old ways and in the midst of a heist. But when things don’t go as planned, the family dynamics become more fractured than ever as some members advocate for independence from Smurf.

Here is a bit of recap from season one. The Cody family is comprised of: Baz, Craig, Deran and Pope, who’s recently returned from jail, and Smurf, the mother and ringleader of the family. “J” who is a nephew of the Cody brothers by his mother who died of a drug overdose and was the twin of Pope is reluctantly welcomed into the family and eventually brought along on jobs which culminates at the end of season one in a major heist on Camp Pendleton for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Season one saw the police hot on the Cody trail, Baz’s wife’s murder by way of Smurf’s decree, Craig’s drug habit, Deran’s closeted relationship and you have quite the family drama.

Season two picks up with the Cody family still living off of their Pendleton job money, and the small cracks of division that began between the brothers and Smurf in season one have now grown into large fissures that threaten the Cody way of life. Pope, having been asked by Smurf to do unspeakable acts in the first season (murder), is now distancing himself from her altogether because he sees her for who she truly is and what she is slowly doing to his brothers. Using her best efforts to keep the boys under her ruling thumb, she is becoming strained in attempting to hold all of them from scattering and going off in different directions. This will undoubtedly come to a vicious conclusion, one that will be sure to draw lines between the family with casualties along the way.

Ellen Barkin (Smurf) and Scott Speedman (Baz) hold their own but the standout He is eerily silent and his character possess a quiet anger that gives off the vibe that make us think that he is ready to snap at any given moment. Anytime his character is onscreen, whether a major player or not, we cannot take your eyes off of him and his unpredictability gives his character great depth.

From the very beginning of the first episode, the viewer sees that the Cody brothers were not the first to grace Smurf’s doorstep and steal for her. What is even worse is the thought of how she might go about replacing the brothers if they end up going their own way because we know that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

The second season builds perfectly off of the tension-filled foundation that was laid in its first, and continues the turmoil of the Cody family as they ward off inquiring police, outsiders from the family, past relationships and more. And yes there is a gay character. Jake Weary plays Deran Cody, the gay son who’s just trying to make a life for himself outside of the family crime business. We also get to see many hot men in various states of undress.

“DADDY AND THE MUSCLE ACADEMY”— The Mystique of Tom of Finland

“Daddy and the Muscle Academy”

The Mystique of Tom of Finland

Amos Lassen

For most gay men, Tom of Finland is a household name when thinking about biker gear and leather regalia. “Daddy and the Muscle Academy,” a documentary by the Finnish filmmaker Ilppo Pohjola, shows us the dedication of Tom’s fans. He influenced both fashion and fantasy and this documentary tries to show why he became so important and recognizable.

The film spends most of its time studying Tom’s drawings and analyzing the elements of Tom’s mystique. Because of the explicit nature of his art, he used a pseudonym. In his early years, he tended to go for images that were wholesome men but this eventually led him to his idealized erotic images for which he is best known. These included friendly, muscular men who “share many forms of sex and companionship, always in a spirit of affectionate ease.” The film shows us hundreds of these drawings and it seems that each is each “more acrobatically and anatomically miraculous than the last.”

Beyond providing a showcase for Tom’s trademark-worthy version of the male pinup, director Pohjola gives some minor analysis. He points out that Tom’s men favor boots, sideburns, mustaches and motorcycle caps and that they often smile engagingly even in the midst of group sex. Tom’s fascination with military and particularly fascist iconography (swastikas appear in some of his work) his work is actually becomes an effort to sexualize images of power. Unfortunately the film’s analytical and biographical aspects are shallow and hover over everything else

While the name Touko Laaksonen is not a familiar one, the pseudonym of Tom of Finland, is known worldwide. Long before hyper masculine male sexuality was seen in public, Tom of Finland was among the first to present gay male sexuality as “uncompromising, unapologetic and undeniably masculine.” The film does provide some intriguing insights into the man and his work. Tom said, ” I took all of the properties that I myself did not have and put them into this comic figure,” and here we see the difference between the man, his fantasies and the type of men he idolized. His robust, handsome and refreshingly forthright male figures gave positive role models for confused adolescents as well as adults.

Tom’s men don’t appear to be even remotely conflicted by their “deviant” sexuality and they come across as adjusted individuals who thoroughly and shamelessly indulge in and enjoy their same-sex activities. According to Tom himself, his “work stems from the school of photo-realism, characterized by extremely meticulous depiction of detail.” He exaggerated the male genitalia and this became one of his trademarks. Tom of Finland’s major innovation was to subvert the macho image and this has had profound effect on pop culture. I did find it to be disturbing to learn that Tom of Finland discovered his sexuality with German soldiers during WWII, and he admits to the influence Nazi propaganda had on his artwork–a provocative but understandably controversial factor that was unexplored by this film.

Tom himself is interviewed, shortly before his death in 1991 at the age of 71.

“Daily Writing Resilience: 365 Meditations & Inspirations for Writers” by Bryan Robinson— Keys to Success 

Robinson, Bryan. “Daily Writing Resilience: 365 Meditations & Inspirations for Writers”, Llewellyn Publications, 2018.

Keys to Success

Amos Lassen

I have been something of a writer myself for many years. Notice that I say “something of a writer” and this is because I do not believe that it is possible to call oneself a writer; it is a title given by others. I have also taught writing for many years—- that is to say that if writing can be taught, then I have tried to do so. I believe we can teach the rules of writing but I am not sure we can actually teach others to write and that is where Bryan Robinson’s “Daily Writing Resilience: 365 Meditations & Inspirations for Writers” comes in. Writing is a discipline and we need to have certain things going on to make us realize the dedication we need in order to produce a quality written peace. I can think of no better way to do this then to have meditations for everyday of the year. Knowing that I have to refer to something everyday before I sit down to write gives me a needed pattern to my life. By becoming involved in the meditations, I discover tips and surprises that will help me form self-discipline and this is something all of us needs. The fact that I start everyday basically the same way gives structure.

I am very self-disciplined and when I have writing to do, I close out the rest of the world. Friends, for example, know not to call me between 1 and 4 PM every day. One of the hours is for my personal Torah study and the others are for my personal writings. Having that structure makes me produce and because I am closed in by time, I tend to produce more.

Writer Robinson gives us tips and support that we get through meditation and other methods and these give us the structure we need. By following what he has to say we soon find ourselves developing habits and finding ways to navigate the practice of writing. Having taught writing on the college level, I think I have tried each of the books that are out there and some are very good but honestly, I never got the results I felt I should have had. When I stand n front of a class of writing students, I want them to become good writers even though there are not many chances of that happening. Over time, we have learned that perseverance and resilience are absolutely necessary today if one wants to be a writer. Writing is not all about craft; it involves so much more—- setbacks and rejection are a part of the journey. Sometimes, we just have to sit down and look around to see where and who we are. We have to understand that rejection is not an end-all. I just received a letter from a friend who is a prize-winning author and who is married to an author who changed to course of the written word. This friend sent me a copy of a rejection letter he got from a publisher about his book (which had already been published and won major awards) telling him that the book falls outside of what they usually publish.

This is an easy book to use and in fact, it is also quite readable and interesting. The 365 meditations help us to navigate the writing practice. They also help to create positive habits that will “guide us toward the success and fulfillment that you’ve been seeking.” I began using it myself today.

“The Wild Book” by Juan Villoro— Boy and Uncle

Villoro, Juan. “The Wild Book”, translated by Lawrence Schimel, Restless Books, 2017.

Boy and Uncle

Amos Lassen

Juan Villoro is one of Mexico’s most popular author and in “The Wild Book” he tells the story of a boy who goes to live with his book-obsessed uncle in a library where books have supernatural powers.

Thirteen-year-old Juan’s summer was not going to be a good one. His parents separated and Juan is sent away to his strange Uncle Tito’s house for the entire summer. Uncle Tito is a strange recluse who drinks fifteen cups of tea a day, and lives inside a very large and mysterious library.

As Juan becomes used to his new life among teetering, he notices that the books move on their own. He shares this with Uncle Tito, who lets his nephew in on a secret: Juan is a “Princeps Reader”, which means books respond magically to him, and he’s the only one who can find the elusive, never-before-read Wild Book. This is an adventure story about books, libraries and reading as well as being the first book that Villoro wrote for children.

Juan learns about the power of stories when he explores his uncle’s library of shape-shifting books. Lawrence Schimel has translated Villoro’s gorgeous prose. The story can be read on several different levels, has a wonderful cast of characters and is written in a style that all can enjoy. Perhaps that is why I have refrained from calling it a book for young adult readers. It is a book for everyone. In effect, this is book about the power of books and it is a very enjoyable reading experience.


“Koren Rav Kook Siddur” by Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook— Speaking to the Soul

Kook, Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook. “Koren Rav Kook Siddur”, Koren, 2017

Speaking to the Soul

Amos Lassen

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi in pre-state Israel and is considered one of the fathers of religious Zionism. 

Kook wrote that the land of Israel was the spatial center of holiness in the world. It sent out holiness vertically to the Jews who lived upon the Land as well as horizontally to other portions and peoples of the earth. Harav Kook felt that the spirit of the land was entirely pure and clean, while spirit elsewhere was impure.

Kook argued that the Jewish imagination outside the Land had become stunted and it was not merely that assimilation to Gentile cultures had much less light and holiness than Israel. Since the entire world was poor in holiness and filled with wickedness, the Jews were expected to bring about light and spirit. Israel’s return to the Land would thus be the end of a worldwide era of darkness and initiate the redemption of all humanity.

The Jewish spirit that was meant to guide the rest of creation had fallen and at the same time, Jews were in exile and to a degree were impoverished. Because of oppression, there was little expression and for Harav Kook, this explained a phenomenon, which was a contradiction in terms: Jewish atheism. Many Jews of thoughtful and moral character had cast off their inherited faith, only because that Jewish faith had degenerated to the point where superstition passed for true belief, and Jewish practice had become frozen in old forms. Now this may sound like a very long introduction to get to the prayer book that is receiving a review but I feel that this background information is necessary.

The people of Israel are inseparable in the essence from God. Many Jewish souls had expressed their rebellion, therefore, precisely by returning to the Land of Israel, where God’s spirit most reposed and thereby releasing the light trapped in exile, and facilitating the renewal of Jewish religion. Both thought and practice would return to their original purity once the nation had returned to full life in the land of Israel. Atheism and rejection of the commandments would gradually disappear.

Kook could therefore embrace the Zionist project even though he knew it was secular. Qualms about the legitimacy of a movement led by professed atheists and characterized by public disregard of the commandments were silenced by the confidence that in God’s good time, soon to be upon us, such deviance would be seen as the “arrogance” that tradition had said would accompany the first footsteps of the Messiah. Kook criticized departures from Jewish law. Kook explained the law’s insufficiencies as the result of exilic darkness, and needed correction.

The Koren Rav Kook Siddur is a wonderful new prayer book that offers a dimension of spirituality sorely lacking in our world today. Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel. He was renowned for his blending of both the body and the soul of the Torah, as represented in Jewish law and legend.

The notes we read in the siddur are from Kook’s own commentary to the Siddur, “Olat Re’iyah” and from other writings. We also have anecdotes from Rav Kook’s son and major disciples; The Koren Rav Kook Siddur speaks to the soul, while it connects us all to the sacred soil of the Holy Land. This is a prayer book that not only speaks to the soul but also look at other writings so that we a have a better understanding

The Siddur includes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ immensely popular English translation, while it features a digest of Rav Kook’s commentary, never before seen in English. The work includes an introduction about Rav Kook’s overall philosophy of prayer, adapted by Rabbi Bezalel Naor, acknowledged interpreter of Rav Kook’s thought.