Monthly Archives: January 2020

“Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions” by Andy Warner— A Graphic Memoir

Warner, Andy. “Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions”, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2020.

A Graphic Memoir

Amos Lassen

“Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions” is an intimate graphic memoir about author Andy Warner’s semester abroad in Beirut where he grows close to a crowd of mostly LGBTQ students, and suffers a mental breakdown while the city erupts into revolution.

In 2005 Andy Warner travelled to Lebanon to study literature in Beirut.  He was then twenty-one years old and had recently broken up from his girlfriend. He felt that his life is both intense and directionless. In Beirut, he became involved with a group of LGBT students, many of whom were ex-pats from different cultures and they were experiencing the freedoms of this multicultural city. He and his friends party, do drugs, and hook up as violence takes place in the city with the remains of Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war re-emerging with a series of political assassinations and bombings. Beirut becomes chaotic and violent and Warner feels that his grip on reality is slipping away.  The traumas in Warner’s past return to him and he senses the anxiety over his future.

This is the story of a young man’s attempt to gain control over his life as well as a portrait of a city and a nation’s violent struggle to define its future. The parallels between Lebanese political unrest and his own mental health struggles become great worries for Warner. Through cartons we see what his collapsing around him reflecting his own psychological state crumbling within. The memoir is both of the city and the man, both of whom  are on the brink.

Warner often hallucinates, he’s paranoid, and experiences disturbing and realistic dreams. While I did not understand what caused him to “lose it” for a few monthsI was glad to see him fully recover. I would have liked a bit more background as to how he reached the state that he did.
Amid political assassination and unrest, Andy has his first sexual experience with a man, and this makes him understand that his breakup with his girlfriend was a mistake. This incident and others show us just how vulnerable a person he was and I appreciate the honesty with which he wrote this book.

The Wisdom Years: Unleashing Your Potential in Later Life” by Zvi Lanir— A New Period of Human Life

Lanir, Zvi. The Wisdom Years: Unleashing Your Potential in Later Life”,  Exisle, 2020.

A New Period of Human Life

Amos Lassen

We do not yet fully understand the rise in life expectancy.  We now have more years of old age. This implies the formation of a new period in human life: the Age of Wisdom.

When author, Dr. Zvi Lanir, reached retirement age, he realized and was ready to admit that he was no longer young, but he also did not feel old. “The Wisdom Years” is the result of Lanir’s investigation of this ‘hidden age’ and then learning out how to make the most of it. He shows us that people who are able to prepare themselves for this new period in their lives will be able to enjoy an active, wise and satisfying stage of life, which will  also enable them to delay their “old age” to the very end of their life. I have been working on this myself and have learned so much from this book.

It is a practical, thought-provoking and life-changing read for both people beginning retirement and for those younger people who would like to prepare themselves in advance. Dr. Lanir’s uses his lifetime of work experience in identifying mindsets that are no longer helpful, revealing how to reframe our thought processes so that we can live life on our ‘functional age’ rather than our ‘chronological age’. The message is that life after retirement is meant to be enjoyed as “a new, exciting and uplifting journey of personal evolution.”

I know that I will not live forever and that I am thought to be old, something that used to bother me a great deal.“The Wisdom Years” changed that through Lanir’s analysis of how things are and his research. He gives us a  new paradigm for the later years of life.

Lanir gives is a new language and new and applied tools designed to transform later-life and turn it into a period of satisfaction, creativity and meaning. It is presented to us in simple terms that we all know but do not want to accept or deny.

“Always There by Leaving” by Lou Dellaguzzo— A Loner

Dellaguzzo, Lou, “Always There by Leaving”, Beautiful Dreamer, 2020.

A Loner

Amos Lassen

Paul is just twelve years old and is already a loner. He has stepped back from everything including withdrawing from his school, his family, and his own body. He hardly has a connection with the reality in which we all live. But he meets Hal, another angry youth, who carries his brother’s guilt (his brother was arrested for a violent home invasion). Even though the sources of their anger and loneliness are different, the two boys manage to bond by fighting but eventually  evolves into something more even while being unequal. There is affection between the two, but it is always tested  by Hal and his behavior, which is risky. They become involved in a shoplifting scheme that goes wrong—  they play dangerous games, and are present when the police raid on a gay bar.

Set in Newark in the late 1960s, life seems to fall apart around Hal and Paul. Hal’s schemes become wilder and they lead to a messed up drug deal and deadly violence. We learn of Paul’s dysfunctional family life and about the dangerous men who are willing to take advantage of boys whose families do not seem to care and who search for love. More than just a story, we get a look at “class, family, sexual difference, urban decay, and passionate friendships.”

I have always felt that a good read comes from the author’s plot ideas and construction, the development of characters, the quality of prose and “Always There by Leaving” excels in all three areas. I was unable to stop reading once I began the novel. There are rare twists and turns throughout and something about the two boys made me care about them. Lou Dellaguzzo brings us two characters that are unforgettable but then all of the characters found their way into my thoughts and are likely to remain there for a long time. Paul and Hal share a friendship that is far from the way many of us think about the word. They two boys build a love that began as a fight (and their relationship is often dangerous and violent) yet they have each other. Even though that does not always seem like the best thing, they both learn a great deal about love. Dellaguzzo takes us back to a time when being gay carried a lot of baggage. Hence, we are reminded of how lucky we all are today.

“Walking In My Son’s Footsteps: David’s Fight For Freedom” by Harmohan Singh— A Dedicated Father

Singh, Harmohan. “Walking In My Son’s Footsteps: David’s Fight For Freedom”,  Thinktosee, 2020.

A Dedicated Father

Amos Lassen

As a loving and dedicated father, Harmohan Singh has had one main mission in life: to honor his son’s David’s wishes and his legacy. He runs the blog Think to See, which is dedicated to raising issues that mattered to David, including mental health awareness, women’s rights, and justice for the LGBTQIA community and other minority groups.

David Singh was a brilliant writer, a talented student, and a loyal friend. He had a sarcastic sense of humor that was both funny and incisive. He was also an activist who was ready and willing to take on Singapore’s oppressive government –including its mandatory conscription law. He believed in non-violence and considered himself a conscientious objector, but the government did not  care and drafted him anyway.

When the government refused to honor his wishes, he felt he had no other choice: he took his own life. He left behind a prodigious body of work–poems and plays that captured his feelings about Singaporean politics and life at large–as well as a clear message to his father: “Do not silence me,” he wrote, “Let my work live.”

Harmohan Singh does just that in “Walking in My Son’s Footsteps”. He works to finish what his son started, speaking out against the National Service and Singapore’s tyrannical laws, while at the same time paying tribute to David’s life and work.

Harmohan brings together research, letters, David’s poems, and his own memories and regrets for a powerful portrait of a young man’s life and work–and a demand for change.

 

“The Passover Mouse” by Joy Nelkin Wieder, illustrated by Shahar Kober— Kindness, Community, Tradition and Forgiveness

Wieder, Joy Nelkin. The Passover Mouse”, illustrated by Shahar Kober, Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2020.

Kindness, Community, Tradition and Forgiveness

Amos Lassen

A little mouse disrupts a town’s preparations for Passover when it steals a piece of leavened bread—just as all the houses have been swept clean in time for the holiday. On the morning before the start of Passover, the villagers have swept their homes clean of leavening, one of the traditions of the holiday when a small mouse steals a piece of bread and runs through the town, ruining the hard work done by everyone. It seems that the townsfolk will never be ready on time for their Seder but what the little mouse has done is to bring them all together to work as a group to save the holiday. 

This is a beautiful rendering of a  story based upon one of the tales in the Talmud and it is all about community and friendship. The prose with its refrain, “A mouse! A mouse! Brought bread into our house!”—and the wonderful illustrations by  Shahar Kober assure that this will become a children’s Passover classic.  Not only is it a fun and creative read, it opens the Talmud to children at a young age and focuses on Jewish tradition as it  highlights community and cooperation. While “The Passover Mouse” is a Jewish story, it is a wonderful way for children of all religions to learn about Seder and the many traditions and details associated with before Passover.

.As the widow Rivka works hard to clean up her house in preparation for Passover, piling up the bread that is still in her kitchen, a little white mouse sneaks in and grabs a piece of bread. There is no way for the people of the village to know if the mouse didn’t bring the bread into their house. It becomes even more complicated when a black mouse runs out of one of the houses with a piece of bread in its mouth. Then a cat runs out of another house and it has a piece of bread in its mouth. The villagers go the town’s rabbi to find out what to do. The rabbi tells them that these houses must be searched for chometz (leavening) once again. Passover is about to begin and suddenly there is more work to be done. The villagers soon realize that when help ing one another, this is not something that is easy to do and we see that working together is the only way.

 In the Author’s note, we get an explanation of the Talmudic debate about a  possible situation when a mouse brings chometz into a clean house. This debate remains undecided toddy. A glossary gives us definitions and the correct pronunciation of the terms is the story.

 

“The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life” edited by Barry H. Block— Analyzing the Parshot

Block, Barry H., editor. “The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life”,  Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2019.

Analyzing the Parshot

Amos Lassen

This Mussar-based commentary is an important resource for Torah study. It provides a thoughtful analysis of each reading of the 54 week Torah cycle. Each essay in this anthology brings a portion into juxtaposition with one of the character traits as described within the Jewish school of ethics known as Mussar), giving an applied lens of teachings that allow us to go deeper into the Torah and the middot with mindfulness and intention.

The authors featured here regularly engage in both Mussar study and practice and they provide a valuable means to deepen their exploration of the middot that are part of each weekly Torah portion. For those who are new to Mussar, this is a helpful informative introduction and helpful guide to the middot and the literature of Mussar. For all those who are already involved in Torah study, this commentary adds to the resources that are commonly used and  shed new meanings the Torah.

As a whole, the book  gives structure to explore the Torah in a new and fresh and lets us bring Torah into daily life. Our study of Torah usually sees the Torah in one dimensional  as the story of the Jewish people and from it we learn the responsibility to God, the Jewish community and the larger world. With Mussar commentary we can see the text as not only as our people’s story, but also as each of our personal story. Each weekly portion can therefore guide our own spiritual and moral growth. The essays here explore the personal qualities that are our aspirations and by we build lives that are filled with meaning and beauty.

 

 

“The Girl with the Louding Voice” by Abu Dare— Girls Who Dare to Dream

Dare, Abi. “The Girl with the Louding Voice”,  Dutton/Plume, 2020.

Girls Who Dare to Dream

Amos Lassen

Abi Daré’s powerful debut novel, “The Girl With the Louding Voice” celebrates girls who dare to dream “and those who help unfurl their wings so that they might soar.”  The story is narrated by a young Nigerian woman who is trapped in a life of servitude but determined to get an education so that she can leave it and choose her own future.

Adunni is a fourteen-years-old and she wants: an education. Her mother has told her that education is the only way to get a “louding voice” (the ability to speak for herself and decide her own future). However, Adunni’s father sells her to be the third wife of a local man who is eager for her to produce a son and heir for him.

Adunni runs away to the city, hoping to find a better life but sees that the only other option she has is servitude to a wealthy family. “As a yielding daughter, a subservient wife, and a powerless slave, Adunni is told, by words and deeds, that she is nothing.” Even though she faces misfortunes, she does not lose the ability to speak up. She realizes that she must stand up not only for herself, but for other girls as well and especially for the ones who came before her and were lost, and for the next girls, who will follow; she finds that she has the resolve to speak, however she can until she is heard.

Adunni narrates her own suffering with depth and texture and beauty and she cultivates her own humanity even while everything around her seeks to hinder it. She becomes an ambassador for girls everywhere. We get a beautifully real portrait of Adunni as she forms her destiny in modern day Nigeria. Her voice is on every page. Her journey is transformative  and through her we see “the full scope of the young woman’s widening world.”

 

“How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish” by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert— Influences and Inspirations

Stavans, Ilan and Josh Lambert. “How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish”, Restless Books, 2020.

Influences and Inspirations

Amos Lassen

I think that most of us are aware of the contributions the Yiddish language and culture to American life—just think bagels, delis and brisket. Yiddish voices in America have been “radical, dangerous, and seductive, but also sweet, generous, and full of life”. Award-winning authors and scholars Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert have collected these voices in their new anthology “How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish” from Restless Press.

Yiddish is a language that has no country yet it has influenced this country tremendously. “Is it possible to conceive of the American diet without bagels? Or Star Trek without Mr. Spock? Are the creatures in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are based on Holocaust survivors? And how has Yiddish, a language without a country, influenced Hollywood?”

We look at these and other questions in this wonderful collection of essays.  We learn that the influence of Yiddish begins with the arrival of Ashkenazi immigrants to New York City’s Lower East Side and  then we follow Yiddish in Hollywood, on Broadway and in literature, politics, and resistance. Cuisine, language, popular culture, and even Yiddish in the other places of the world are  examined. Aside from essays, the book includes memoir, song, letters, poems, recipes, cartoons, conversations, and much more. Among the authors are Nobel Prize–winner Isaac Bashevis Singer and luminaries such as Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, Chaim Grade, Michael Chabon, Abraham Cahan, Sophie Tucker, Blume Lempel, Irving Howe, Paula Vogel, and Liana Finck. 

Here are personal stories of assimilation and stories of people from a diverse variety of backgrounds, Jewish and not, who have made the language their own and that it is a language “full of zest, dignity, and tremendous humanity.” Yiddish is not an endangered language; it is more vibrant than ever.

“Yiddish is so deeply woven into the fabric of the United States that it can sometimes be difficult to recognize how much it has transformed the world we live in today.”

Some of what you will find here includes ““Oedipus in Brooklyn”, a story by Blume Lempel (1907-1999) that begins with the line, ‘Sylvia was no Jocasta.’ Emma Goldman (1869-1940) [who] writes fiercely about marriage, which she compares to an ‘iron yoke.’ There is a poem about Coney Island [in which] Victor Packer (1897-1958) writes, ‘Beauty and crudity / Go hand in hand and / Launch a united front / Right there are on the sand.’ [Cynthia] Ozick (b. 1928) compares Sholem Aleichem to Dickens, Twain, and Will Rogers. ‘He was a popular presence, and stupendously so. His lectures and readings were mobbed; he was a household friend; he was cherished as a family valuable.’”

This is the story the “epic survival story of a singular culture, requiring no foreknowledge of Yiddish”.  The editors provide portions of some of the major works of Yiddish literature, poetry, comics, and political thought as well as a chapter on culinary offerings with some recipes included. There is a chapter about the influence of Yiddish in Canada, Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, and Columbia, that gives us a peek at “Yiddishkeit outside Eurocentric views”. It is impossible not to love this anthology and not to respect its contributions to  Yiddish culture, Jewish history, and linguistics.

 

 

PREMATURE”— A Romance at the Wrong Time

“PREMATURE”

A Romance at the Wrong Time

Amos Lassen

Director Rashaad Ernesto Green introduces us to Ayanna (Zora Howard), a high school senior riding the subway home to Harlem. At first, we do not that realize she’s with friends, she seems to be alone with her thoughts, but she’s thinking of them. She sees  a guy on the other end of the car looking at them and she takes matters into her own hands when he’s too shy to approach, making sure she gets his phone number for her friend. She’ll never be the one to call him herself; she is good at having guys’ numbers.

Howard co-wrote “Premature” with Green. Ayanna never has to speak about her distrust of men; we see it everywhere from her mother cuddling up with a different guy on their couch depending on the day or her friend T, caring for a baby with no father around. Ayanna will soon be at college at Bucknell, so it’s easy for her, at first, to avoid the advances of Isaiah (Joshua Boone), a handsome and thoughtful friend of a friend who  has just arrived in Harlem, but when they meet again at a laundromat but his persistence and charm wear her down.

In one gorgeous scene as night turns into morning, Isaiah asks her to stay and we see her thoughts on her. It is the first time she hears that she did not have to go and we see that she thinks she can trust him. She surrenders to what she feels rather than what she suspects the end result could be and this is quite a moment.  “Premature” lets us know early that its sympathies are totally with Ayanna. Although we worry that she looks for reasons to protect herself and misinterprets Isaiah’s work with a singer as a music producer for flirting. She keeps some things from him that he might be able to ease her mind about, the film rather shows how her instincts can serve her well just as much as they can hurt her happiness.

Howard is amazing in the part. She projects a Bronx bravado that’s been Ayanna’s shield as she figures out who she wants to be. Boone is also excellent— he is smooth and sensitive enough to be a compelling enough reason for her to get rid of all her plans, yet we see his nerves in unexpected ways. The screenplay is both tender and alive is both timeless and relevant for today in its observations of what possibilities there are for the pair romantically and otherwise as well as what stands in their way. While the future isn’t promised, this film makes it feel like anything is possible for those who make it.

When Ayanna meets Isaiah everything changes for her. She’s in love. She deals with her friends, her love and her family and when certain things happen that prove to be life-changing that’s yet something else for Ayanna to deal with.

The script takes place in the different days of Ayanna and the story works through some of its potential melodrama with finesse and truth. Some of the developments feel like normal affectations of Ayanna’s most dramatic summer yet. 

As we move from one major life experience to the next, Green and Howard are the crucial forces that make “Premature” feel so wise as it tells its story of coming-of-age. The charisma comes from the film’s lived-in moments, scenes that are filled with Ayanna’s friends joking with each other, or show Ayanna finding ways to take on the world’s latest new adventure. While this is a film about love, it is also about age, opportunity and timing.

“The Handyman’s Summer” by Nick Poff— That Summer

Poff, Nick. “The Handyman’s Summer”,  Old Spruce, Productions, 2019.

That Summer

Amos Lassen

I have been a fan of Nick Poff for a very long time having each of his five volume (so far) of his “Handyman” series. In fact one of the first books I reviewed was “The Handyman’s Dream” in 2005.

“The Handyman’s Summer” is set in 1987 in the late spring, Our handyman, Ed Stephens, and his partner for life, Rick Benton are thinking about their plans for a lazy summer but as might be expected, “the best laid plans…” They are suddenly thrust into mystery, scandal, surprises, and a lesson about the kindness and cruelty of people. 

It all begins when Evie Fountain, the local bag lady, died unexpectedly and suddenly from a stroke. Now her house, rundown as it is, has aroused interest in the two men. They discover that not only is the house in a poor state but that is filled with secrets and Ed and Rick are drawn into a world they did not expect. They are, however, determined to learn the truth behind the rumors that have been circulated throughout their town of Porterfield, Indiana, for almost three decades. It is when a personal journal is found in the house, that they learn of and become immersed in a shameful story of small town bigotry and its terrible results. 

But that is not all that was going on that summer, They have been mentoring and taking care of Neal Soames, a gay teenager who has now graduated from high school but is having second thoughts about going away to college. He moves into Penfield Manor and Ed and Rick try hard to convince him to leave Porterfield for his own future. Then Ed’s friend, Dr. Paul Klarn, calls Ed for help when one of his patients is an unidentified victim of a queer-bashing. Ed and Rick decide to take this young man in as well and they create what their friend Gordy calls, “Uncle Ed’s Home for Wayward Homos.” 

Ed’s mother, Norma, also adds to the mix when she involves Ed in her troubles with the local garden club. “Ed develops a scheme to turn the tables on a pushy, obnoxious woman who is determined to run the club in her own best interests. Norma will have another surprise for Ed before the summer is out. “Expect the unexpected,” Norma tells him.”

But that is not all. Muriel Weisberg, a “self-proclaimed vision-impaired bitch goddess” is also around for the summer and she gives Ed the comic relief that he needs. She is now a  columnist for the local newspaper to solve problems and share her sometimes unconventional wisdom and is there to helpt in the mystery of Evie’s house. Who said thus was going to be a lazy summer? The summer will change the lives of Ed and Rick forever. They have been trying to provide a sense of freedom and acceptance in small town America and they never lose sight of their goal to do so.

Like the other four volumes, I was mesmerized from the first page and I recommend clearing your day before you start reading. I literally devoured the book’s almost 300 pages in one sitting. I simply did not want to stop reading for a moment. While this is a light read, there is plenty to think about. Because I have read all of the books when each first appeared, I was well aware of Nick Poff’s excellent character development and I feel I am aging with the two men. I love their courageousness in being out and proud in a place where it can be very difficult to be so, especially in the 1980s. Poff writes about some difficult issues including homophobia, a hate crime, the Aids crisis and being who you are.  No matte what Ed and Rick are able to rise above it all and even are willing to take gay youth into their home. There is also great sensitivity in the plot and Poff’s prose. Our heroes are those we can identify with and do not want to forget.