Monthly Archives: May 2019

“Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide” by Tony Horwitz— On the Trail of America’s Greatest Landscape Architect

Horwitz, Tony. “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide”, Penguin Press, 2019.

On the Trail of America’s Greatest Landscape Architect

Amos Lassen

In the 1850s, the young Frederick Law Olmsted was adrift. He was a restless farmer and dreamer in search of a mission that he found it during an extraordinary journey as an undercover correspondent in the South for the up-and-coming New York Times.
Olmsted was a  Connecticut Yankee with the pen name “Yeoman” and to whom the South was alien, often hostile territory. Nonetheless, he traveled it for 14 months, by horseback, steamboat, and stagecoach looking for dialogue and common ground. His dispatches about the lives and beliefs of Southerners were revelatory for readers of his day, and his remarkable journey  also reshaped the American landscape, as he sought to reform his own society by creating democratic spaces for all. The result was Central Park and Olmsted’s career as America’s first and foremost landscape architect.

Tony Horwitz rediscovers Yeoman Olmsted in the discord and polarization of our own time. He looks for an answer to “Is America still one country?” As he searches for  answers, he follows Olmsted’s tracks and often his mode of transport (including muleback): through Appalachia, down the Mississippi River, into bayou Louisiana, and across Texas to the contested Mexican borderland. on far off beaten paths. Horwitz “uncovers bracing vestiges and strange new mutations of the Cotton Kingdom.” His journey takes him through an outsized American landscape.

Horwitz is a fun guide, self-deprecating, smart, and adventurous. It is fascinating to see through him that two of the most politically divisive eras in the US occurred prior to the Presidential elections of 1860 and 2016. In each of these timeframes, the country was more or less divided (North versus South and Red versus Blue, respectively) and thought the other half was wrong. 

This is what  drives the Horwitz’s narrative as he follows the path Fred Olmstead took in the 1850s and describes his encounters with others below the Mason Dixon line. He meets a very colorful cast of characters and helps to understand the differences and common threads among all Americans. 

Horwitz combines historical text with historical narrative nonfiction giving us a memoir of one man’s present day journey into the South. Horwitz is a seasoned guide. He is inquisitive, open-minded, and prefers observation over judgment and he brings humor, curiosity, and care to the characters he meets. This is unique reportage from a region that tells us a whole lot more about the country than the country wants to admit to. We get views of the South unlike any others along with “an enduring American spirit of generosity, and commonweal, and curiosity.” 

 

“Saint Unshamed: A Gay Mormon’s Life: Healing From the Shame of Religion, Rape, Conversion Therapy & Cancer” by Kerry Ashton— Becoming “Unshamed”

Ashton, Kerry. “Saint Unshamed: A Gay Mormon’s Life: Healing From the Shame of Religion, Rape, Conversion Therapy & Cancer”, Lynn Wolf Enterprises, 2019.

Becoming “Unshamed”

Amos Lassen

In the first paragraph of Kerry Ashton’s memoir, we learn a great deal and therefore am quoting it directly.

“I told this story once as fiction in the 1980s, but this time I tell the truth. I even tell the truth, in #MeToo fashion, about being violently raped by another man when I was 18, with a knife held to my throat–a secret I kept from everyone, including myself, for over 40 years. The rape, like other experiences I endured while a student at Brigham Young University, where I came out in the early 1970s, had a profound impact on my later life. But this story is not so much about my rape or my coming of age at BYU, as it is about the lifelong effects of shame itself, not only about how I internalized and inherited a wounding shame from my Mormon upbringing, but also how I eventually unshamed myself. It is about a lifetime journey of spiritual growth, self-discovery and healing, including many miraculous events along the way that pushed me forward through the darkness toward the light.”

Lately we have seen a great deal written about gay shame and I have often wondered why it took so long for it to surface. Then I read this and totally understood. We have all, to some degree, felt it but few of us have ever verbalized it or even wanted to do so. Kerry Ashton shares his experiences during his four years at Brigham Young University including the rape, falling in love for the first time, police surveillance, harassment and arrest, and going through three years of conversion therapy that included two years of electroshock treatments. He also writes of growing up Mormon in Pocatello, Idaho, and stories from his adulthood. His stories are poignant, some are quite graphic, some are dramatic and some are very, very funny. I was mesmerized by them all and found myself falling in love with Kerry as I read his stories.

Ashton has had a professional career as an actor and writer, both in Los Angeles and New York City and he describes his personal encounters with stars like Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis and Julie Harris, while sharing his experiences with writers Tennessee Williams, James Leo Herlihy, and John Rechy and his affair with Steven Sondheim. It was a long and arduous road he traveled— years in therapy, a battle with cancer, kinky sex,  S&M, the leather scene and finally the loving monogamous relationship that he is part of today. He also shares the shame that he has had to deal with all along the way and how he was able to deal with it and  “find a way out of a culture that would silence him.”

Ashton sees shame as “an insidious disease that threads through the body and the psyche, slowly destroying and devaluing everything it touches.” It came to him early–from his parents, from his Mormon faith, from his burgeoning understanding of his own sexuality and we soon understand that we are not only reading  Ashton’s story, but also the stories of many gay men who struggled with their sexual identity and health during the end of the twentieth century. It took Ashton a while to  understand a lot of what he had been through and now can speak about what he  spent many years trying to achieve. This included being shamed by his family for being effeminate and the hell he went through at Brigham Young University and the electroshock therapy that forever damaged his nervous system and a disturbing and violent rape.

Ashton also writes about friends who lost their lives, including gay men to suicide, to HIV/AIDS or who lost themselves in heterosexual marriages. He shares his opinions on cruising for sex, rest stops and their necessities and dangers they represented. Ashton also writes of his religious and family life. Strict Mormon laws regarding sex, from masturbation to intercourse to anything in between were responsible for much of Ashton’s suffering, but if he were to deny his religion, he would have lost his family, his faith, and, in many ways, his identity as a young man. The book introduces us to a generation of Mormon men who were hurt and sometimes destroyed by the church’s positions on their sexuality and to a man who grew up gay and Mormon in a small Idaho town. 

Religion and sexuality crash into each other and the painful result comes to us through Ashton’s beautiful and painful prose. I cannot say enough about this book aside from it must be both read and experienced.

“As One Fire Consumes Another” by John Sibley Williams— A New Kind of Poetry

Williams, John Sibley. “As One Fire Consumes Another”, Orison Books , 2019.

A New Kind of Poetry

Amos Lassen

In “As One Fire Consumes Another”, John Sibley Williams creates a new kind of poetry that brings metaphysics and social critique together. It is extremely tense and filled with “transcendent vision and trenchant social”. Williams shows how we, as individuals, as fathers and as citizens see the violence that makes up a good part of the history of this country. We even venture a step further by  looking what is behind the violence that has become such a part of the way we live.

From the moment that I opened the book I felt transcendence and as if I walked into a cemetery and was surrounded by bodies of those who had given their lives for the sake of country. But this was no peaceful cemetery and the dead do not rest quietly. And so I began to read the poems that ranged from elegy to prayer with so many different  forms in between. The elegance of the language draws you in and then you are slapped with the reality of what you are reading.

Americans love to label, to put things together under one overall name and this is something I have not seen in other parts of this world where I have lived. The poems here fit into such categories but we understand here that the reason for the label is  way of escape. Having extensively studied philosophy, I understand that the human condition is the result of resistance and despair and that these are essentially important to define who we are. I love that poet Williams sees our experience as a series of mistakes and that we can never get it quite right.

I got the sense that desire is what we feel throughout the volume and desire is not always fulfilled yet always there. This is not  the desire of  to covet but rather the desire that develops with us as we pass through the various stages of life.

When I review poetry, I am often told that I am obtuse for not exploring the text as much as I do in prose. This is deliberate. Of all forms of literature, poetry is the most personal and t say too much deprives the reader of his chance to identify with the poet. I see my job as one of introduction to the texts and it is your job to take them for yourself. Grab this one as soon as you can.

“ALL IN”— A Crime Comedy from Israel

“ALL IN”

A Crime Comedy from Israel

Amos Lassen

Four guys, best friends from high school, meet 20 years later.  Morad , a powerful union leader at the Ashdod Port, divorced and with a broken heart; Tzofi, tall, blue-eyed and an AA; Benson, a bar owner with bleached blond hair; and our hero, Yaki who is handsome and sweet as chocolate.

 All four receive invitations to take part in a secret  but prestigious poker game in the south of Israel. The only problem is that the game is organized by Oren Kleers, the arch-enemy of the high school friends who embarrassed them in front of TV cameras when they  were children.  

They took revenge on him in high school and now, 20 years later, he is challenging them with a high-stake poker game. “All In” stars Tzahi Grad, Shlomi Koriat, Yael Bar Zohar, Tzachi Halevi (Fauda), Dina Sanderson,  Dana Frider, Maor Cohen…

“Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America ” by Martin Duberman— The Definitive Account

Duberman, Martin. “Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America ”,  Plume; Reprint edition , 2019.

The Definitive Account

Amos Lassen

It is the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall this year and as we might have expected, we have many new books published this year. We also have the reprinting of the definitive account of the Stonewall Riots, the first gay rights march, and the LGBTQ activists at the center of the movement by Martin Duberman. While all of the books about Stonewall are fascinating, this is the one that outshines them all. 
On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, was raided by police. But instead of responding with typical compliance that the NYPD expected, patrons and a growing crowd decided to fight back. The five days of rioting that followed forever changed the face of gay and lesbian life.

Historian and activist Martin Duberman tells the full story of this l moment in history and he does so with “riveting narrative skill [as] he re-creates those revolutionary, sweltering nights in vivid detail through the lives of six people who were drawn into the struggle for LGBTQ rights.” Together, these six stories come together to give us an unforgettable portrait of the repression that led up to the riots to the culmination when the LGBT community and these six individuals  triumphantly participated in the first gay rights march of 1970, the roots of today’s pride marches. 

What makes Duberman’s book so fascinating, I believe, is that we feel the human touch of those involved and we see how what they did  still profoundly affects life today. He shows that Stonewall marked a generational, organizational, and ideological shift that brought gay liberation into the world of social protest. He also
“chronicles how long and tortuous the road to Stonewall actually was.”

The six people that Duberman focuses on are Yvonne a black lesbian; Ray a transvestite; Foster a conservative upper-class man; Karla a militant lesbian; Jim an actor and Yippie leader and Craig a teenage radical. They share their insights about growing up gay in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. There were many gay organizations before Stonewall happened and the book chronicles every single one of them in detail. There are many characters and groups and Duberman shares them all with us. His writing about the actual riots is profound. great and spares no details. We read about what happened after Stonewall and where all the six characters are.

Duberman states that he wanted to place Stonewall along a timeline of events instead of the Stonewall Inn demonstrations being the launching point of gay civil rights history and he does all this within a narrative framework of “novelistic immediacy”. As the book heads into the 60’s, the emotions and political upheaval of the times arrives in the narrative and we begin to really feel the events that came together that set off the Stonewall riots

For those born after Stonewall, this is an important look at the beginnings of the gay civil rights movement and the people who helped ignite it. For those children of us who were alive in the 60’s and 70’s, Duberman brings back memories of a time in our lives where everything was possible and it all began to change.

“Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business” by Frank DeCaro— Celebrating Drag

DeCaro, Frank, “Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business”, with a foreword by Bruce Vilanch, Rizzoli, 2019.

Celebrating Drag

Amos Lassen

Frank DeCaro’s “Drag” is a  celebration of the fabulous, current and historical influence of drag and its talented and inspiring performers. We cannot deny the influence that drag plays on our culture and it is fascinating that drag artists have managed to “snatch the crowns as the Queens of mainstream entertainment.”
This is an informative and witty collection of essays that chronicle over 100 years of drag and reading them is like going on a journey through our culture. readers will embark on a Priscilla-like journey through pop culture, “from television shows like “The Milton Berle Show”, “Bosom Buddies”, and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” films like “Some Like It Hot”, “To Wong Foo”…, and “Tootsie”, and Broadway shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “La Cage aux Folles”, and “Kinky Boots.”

“Drag includes contributions from today’s most groundbreaking and popular artists, including Bianca del Rio, Miss Coco Peru, Hedda Lettuce, Lypsinka, and Varla Jean Merman, as well as notable performers as Harvey Fierstein and Charles Busch. More than 100 photos–many from performers’ personal collections are included as well as a comprehensive timeline of drag “herstory.”

Frank DeCaro has been a fan of drag since he was three years old and his new book goes into the history of drag, profiling the big names and unsung legends alike who built drag into what it is today.

Modern drag as we know it – more or less – goes back at least to the early 20th Century. The performer, Julian Eltinge, the considered grandmother of drag, had a Broadway theater named after him in 1912. He was a star of high-profile stage shows, early Hollywood movies, and he even had his own lifestyle magazine for women. Then there was what they used to call “the smart set ”,  those who always sought out drag entertainment. “It wasn’t truly mainstream the way it is today, and yet, it kind of was. It was a way to take a walk on the wild side, but not too wild, and people did.”

This book was written for younger people and anyone who thinks drag began with season one of “Drag Race”. DeCaro says that he wanted these kids to “know how long the tradition of crossdressing in show business truly is. It’s very rich and so worth diving into. The genuinely brilliant queens of today – from Mama Ru on down – know the “herstory” of drag. They can quote Divine and Flip Wilson’s drag character, Geraldine, sing Sylvester songs, and dance the Time Warp like the best “Sweet Transvestite.” One of the reviews of the book said, “Drag” is a history lesson for some and a walk down memory lane for others.”

 An audio companion from Audible is coming in late May  and Lady Bunny co-narrates it with DeCaro.  

“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” Audio CD –– Audiobook, CD, Unabridged

“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”

Audio CD – Audiobook, CD, Unabridged

Amos Lassen

I have had many great experiences in my life and three of them have to do with Tony Kushner’s masterpiece. “Angels in America”. The first was getting to see the original on Broadway with the Broadway cast. I believe I sat there with mouth agape for the entire performance. The second was watching the HBO production with an all star cast (I still watch this version faithfully on DVD at least once a year). Then the third was watching this version in Brookline, Massachusetts on the screen of the Coolidge Corner Theater about two years ago and many years after the original. It had not lost any of its power and the actors were all sublime. I had hoped that there would be a DVD release of the National Theatre’s production but as of yet, there has only been this CD. I am not complaining—- this CD is brilliant all the way through

In this production, adapted especially for the listening experience, Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, and the entire cast recreate their acclaimed performances from the 2018 Tony Award-winning National Theatre revival. It adds a narration by Bobby Cannavale and Edie Falco, and a musical score by Adrian Sutton, and it is a compelling and immersive theatrical listening experience.

Kushner’s drama is a complex and insightful look into identity, community, justice, and redemption. New Yorkers grapple with life and death, love and sex, and heaven and hell as the AIDS crisis intensifies during a time of political reaction–the Reagan Republican counterrevolution of the 1980s.

The full cast is made up of:
Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter
Nathan Lane as Roy M. Cohn
Susan Brown as Hannah Pitt 
Denise Gough as Harper Pitt
Beth Malone as The Angel
James McArdle as Louis Ironson
Lee Pace as Joseph Pitt 
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize
With narration by
Bobby Cannavale (“Millennium Approaches”) 
Edie Falco (“Perestroika”)

The National Theatre production was directed by Marianne Elliott. 

 

 

“The Many Deaths of Jew Süss” The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew” by Yair Mintzker— A Re-examination of an Infamous Episode in the History of Anti-Semitism

Mintzker, Yair. “The Many Deaths of Jew Süss” The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

A Re-examination of An Infamous Episode in the History of Anti-Semitism

Amos Lassen

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer or “Jew Süss”, is an iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.” Then on February 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was hanged in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart.  Today, he is remembered today through several works of fiction, chief among them a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made in 1940 as requested by Joseph Goebbels.

Yair Mintzker’s “The Many Deaths of Jew Süss” is a new study of Oppenheimer’s trial. Mintzker uses a wealth of rare archival evidence as he investigates “conflicting versions of Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in the criminal investigation, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.” The result is a story  of greed, sex, violence, and disgrace. Of course, we must consider if the four narrators to be trusted. We have here a meticulous reconstruction of the social world in which Oppenheimer and the others lived. What we really get in this book is  an unforgettable, moving, disturbing, and profound picture of “Jew Süss” in his last days. We also get a lesson about Jewish life as it transitioned to modernity.

I found each sentence to be fascinating and often the story was mesmerizing. It is no wonder that it was winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in History (Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award) and finalist for the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature from the Jewish Book Council.

Oppenheimer was executed almost three centuries ago but his trial never quite ended. Even as the trial was unfolding, it was already clear that Oppenheimer had committed no crimes and the verdict of death pronounced in his case conspicuously did not give any specific details about the reasons for the death sentence. The significance of the trial, and the reasons for Oppenheimer’s public notoriety ever since the eighteenth century, seem to come out of the fact that Oppenheimer’s rise-and-fall story has been seen and understood by many as an allegory for the history of German Jewry in general. Oppenheimer was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to do so for a time, but was eventually rejected. He was a Jew who enjoyed much success but then fell from power and met a violent death. Whenever the status, culture, past and future of Germany’s Jews have hung in the balance, this story comes up again. Mintzker reminds us that “Jew Süss is to the German collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to the English-speaking world.”

There are close to thirty thousand handwritten pages of documents from the time period of the trial in the Stuttgart archives and among these pages are the materials collected by the inquisition committee assigned to the case; protocols of the interrogations of Oppenheimer himself, his alleged accomplices, and many witnesses; descriptions of conversations Oppenheimer had with visitors in his prison cell; and a great number of poems, pamphlets, and essays about Oppenheimer’s final time. However, even though the abundance of sources about Oppenheimer’s trial is truly remarkable, the sources themselves never tell the same story twice.

We have doubts, uncertainties, and outright contradictions about who Oppenheimer was and what he did or did not do. Mintzker explores four different accounts of the trial, each from a different perspective. The result is the uncovering of new documents and these documents refuse to reduce the story of Jew Süss to only one narrative and we get an unforgettable picture of Jew Süss in his final days. However, because the world looks different from different perspectives is not the bottom line of a good work of history.

“TRADE”— Accepting Your Real Identity

“TRADE”

Accepting Your Real Identity

Amos Lassen

Trae Brier’s (writer/director/producer)  “Trade” is a story about how a casual meeting between two very different men turned into something that neither could have predicted. Michael (Austin Miller) is a very successful corporate lawyer who lives in a luxurious villa on the beach in Malibu with his wife of ten years,  Ashley (Tiffany Fallon). Their relationship is a strong and happy one, and the couple want for nothing, except a baby that is . Although Michael seems reluctant to take this next step, Ashley is quite desperate to proceed and pressures him to take part in a fertility treatment.

One day on the way home from work, he stops to get a bottle of wine for dinner and meets Shawn (T. Ashanti Mozelle), a young and gay African/American as he was being hassled by the police. The two have a chat and Michael offers Shawn a ride home. It seems that Michael is a bit interested in Shawn who is trying to figure why Michael has offered him a ride.

Shawn is a transsexual street hustler who makes his living as a sex worker. Unable to find legitimate employment since he is an ex-felon (he had unknowingly taken the wrap for one of his John’s  crimes).  Shawn has confidence in accepting who he is and attacks Michael (you’ll understand). The two men have hot gay sex together.  Shawn dressed as Coco excites Michael, and he reveals that he too dresses up as a woman in the privacy of a secret apartment he has.

He persuades Shawn to let him dress as ‘Honey’  and joining him on the streets hustling.  The difference is he wants to do it for sexual kicks whereas for Shawn this is the way he has to earn a living.

As Michael gets involved in his “new life”, he withdraws from his wife, and it is inevitable that any suspicions she has will lead to discovering his secret.  Before he gets to that point, Michael’s new identity is uncovered by one of the biggest clients of his law firm, and, of course, this is the beginning of the end. 

The story is based on a real story and we see two very different men coming to terms with their true identity and this is a sensitively portrayed look at gender acceptance is such a topical issue right now. We clearly understand here that coming out affects others.

“THE SOWER”— When the Men Are Gone

“THE SOWER”

When the Men Are Gone

Amos Lassen

“The Sower” is a true story that tells us what happens when all the men disappear from a remote Alpine village that needs to procreate and regenerate in order to survive. Set in 1852 after the army of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte crushes the resistance of the Republicans.
 Violette (Pauline Burlet) lives in the foothills of a remote Alpine mountain village. With all the local men of the resistance arrested by Napoleon’s troops, the girls spend months in total isolation. Violette and the other girls, encouraged by her, thereby take an oath: if a man comes they will all share him.

Not long afterwards a stranger wanders into the village, Jean (Alban Lenoir), who is a travelling blacksmith. Tensions erupt over the vow made by the ladies, as matters of love arise. With the background of the grape harvest as symbolism for the feminist subtext, the film moves forward raising emotional tensions among the women but without violence. After Napoleon’s December 1851 coup d’état, Republican forces and sympathizers all over France were ruthlessly suppressed. Many adult men were killed or deported, leaving whole communities populated solely by women and children. Tumultuous early scenes depict the bloody crackdown in kinetic detail, after which Violette and her fellow survivors run to a hilltop village  and safe refuge.

With the arrival of Jean, Violette is deputized to make the newcomer welcome, and the two bond over literature, Violette being one of the few women in the area able to read and write. Passionate feelings quickly develop, clouded by Violette’s knowledge of what the women have in store for Jean.

Living without men and away from the trappings of civil society — in effect there is no church, no police, no government — the females, most of whom are instinctively of a free minded Republican persuasion, quickly come up with new social rules and norms as their circumstances demand. This aspect gives an intriguing political and philosophical subtext to a film which works perfectly well as a moving, sensual love story between the innocent Violette and her worldly love interest. The ensemble cast is excellent; Burlet is particularly affecting (as a character some years older than her literary equivalent) and visually the film is gorgeous to watch. Cinematographer Alain Duplantier achieves some fleeting moments of transcendent pastoral beauty while conveying the restrictions of this remote microcosm by concentrating on bodies and faces.

BONUS FEATURE: Bonus Short Film – Les Voisins(Directed by Marine Francen | France | French with English subtitles | 20 minutes) — Violaine, a shy twenty-year-old woman, spends her time photographing people in secret. One day she rescues her neighbor from a gas leak, an event that brings her out of seclusion to learn more about the man she saved.