Monthly Archives: July 2020

“Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring” edited by Rita Stephan and Mounira M. Charrad— Before and After the Arab Spring

Stephan, Rita and Mounira M. Charrad, editors. “Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring”, NYU Press, 2020.

Before and After the Arab Spring

Amos Lassen

“Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring”is a collection of essays by female activists and scholars that document women’s resistance before, during, and after the Arab Spring. Rita Stephan and Mounira M. Charrad bring together a group of scholars, activists, artists, and more, to show the first-hand experiences of women at that time. 

In this relevant and timely volume, Stephan and Charrad paint a picture of women’s political resistance in sixteen countries before, during, and since the Arab Spring protests first began in 2011. Contributors provide insight into a diverse range of perspectives across the entire movement, focusing on often-marginalized voices, including rural women, housewives, students, and artists. By reading these essays, we come to understand
an important twenty-first century movement that is the story of Arab women’s activism.

Here are Arab women’s voices and the forms of activism before, during and after the Arab uprisings. The editors use a variety of forms of expression ad include art and literary production in political commentary. The present a challenge to misrepresentations of Arab women’s agency and their ongoing roles in the struggle for democracy.

The essays cover a wide range of Arab countries and contexts as they explore the activism of women before, during and after the Arab Spring uprisings. Here are distinctive features of Arab women’s struggles and the national and local origins of their protests. Women, through their very presence in protests, transformed the relationship of women to public space. They become bold  through their organizations and increased political representation and they have brought about legislative changes as well as claiming their creative agency “through literature, film, street art, the photographic lens, and many other forms of expression.”  

What we really see is that the Arab Springs is hardly over and the efforts of women will continue to he heard in calls for reform, revolution and resistance. The Arab Spring is a critical point of history for Arab women as they face tremendous odds. The collection extends the boundaries of the study of feminist resistance. Theoretical debates, empirical nuances are seen through a sophisticated lens that captures the experiences of Arab women.

“EINSTEIN’S UNIVERSE— Celebrating Albert Einstein


“EINSTEIN’S UNIVERSE”

Celebrating Albert Einstein

Amos Lassen

“Einstein’s Universe” is a documentary from 1979 that celebrates the centenary of the birth of Albert Einstein and is narrated and hosted by Peter Ustinov and written by Nigel Calder, the author of the accompanying book of the same title. Set at the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory,  a staff of renowned scientists and physicists take us through a hands-on experience of the various facets of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Peter Ustinov leads a discussion of the Theory of Relativity with luminaries such as John Archibald Wheeler, Irwin Shapiro, and Roger Penrose. In it, we see  numerous thought experiments of the type Einstein thought up.

The filmhas been re-mastered and digitally enhanced and we become thoroughly enlightened on the great physicist’s theories, especially General Relativity, by a renowned team of scientists including Dennis Sciama, Roger Penrose, John Wheeler, Wallace Sergeant, Irwin Shapiro, Sidney Drell, and Ken Brecher.

The experiments we see help us understand gravity, warped space, how light responds to gravity, the “Doppler effect” and how radio waves, as used in police radar, are an unbeatable way of measuring speed. From these simpler experiments, larger concepts are drawn, such as the discovery of a Binary Pulsar, the nature of black holes and how they are created, and the ultimate theory of how the universe was formed. Other demonstrations measure the speed of light, how time passes more slowly for people traveling in an airplane, the incredible accuracy of the Atomic Clock in Washington, DC and how time itself would appear to stop at the surface of a black hole. We see Einstein as a great humanitarian who although known as the “father of the Atomic Bomb”, had great concern for the potentially devastating effects splitting the atom could have on the future of mankind. His famous letter to President Franklin Roosevelt warned that although the splitting of the atom to detonate an atomic bomb could be used to end World War II, it could also potentially be used for far more deadly ends.

“ The Jefferson Bible: A Biography” by Peter Manseau— the Bible As a Guide for Living

Manseau, Peter. “ The Jefferson Bible: A Biography”, Princeton University Press, 2020.

The Bible As a Guide for Living

Amos Lassen

 August,  2020 is the 200th anniversary of the completion of one of Thomas Jefferson’s retirement projects, “The Jefferson Bible” in which he eliminated all the miracles in the New Testament leaving the holy book as a guide to living. Peter Manseau, Smithsonian curator and writer gives us the full story of the creation and legacy of “The Jefferson Bible” through the present day.

This is also the story of the reception of the controversial project. We see how generations of Americans have tired to understand the Jefferson Bible. Through reading this biography of the work, we also lean about Jefferson, the man, the history of his bible and how, through it, Jesus has been seen by Americans as way as the cultural history of biblical interpretation. Jefferson’s intellect is seen above all else. His perspectiveon the larger history of religion in America and how it relates to American cultural differences regarding the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith is another major theme here.

Retiring from politics, Jefferson took it upon himself to edit the bible looking at the ideas of the enlightenment, he attempted to reconcile Christian tradition and reason by showing that Jesus of Nazareth was a great moral teacher but that he was not divine. We see how each new generation has reimagined the book in its own image. Readers have struggled with Jefferson’s legacy and where religion fits in the life of America.  

The Jefferson Bible was lost for decades and then rediscovered by chance in the late nineteenth century. It has meant different ideas to different people. Some see it as evidence that America is a Christian nation founded on the lessons of the Gospels while others see it as proof of the Founders’ wanted to root out the influence of faith. Manseau explains Jefferson’s personal religion and philosophy giving us the influences and ideas that inspired him to revise the Gospels. Here is a broad search for the historical Jesus and the part that Jefferson’s bible played in American religious disputes over the interpretation of scripture. The intrigue surrounding the loss and rediscovery of the Jefferson Bible is explained and we see the bible’s  reception history from its first planned printing in 1904 for members of Congress to its power “to provoke and enlighten.”

“THE WOODS”— A Polish Miniseries

“THE WOODS”

A Polish Miniseries

Amos Lassen

“The Woods” is a six-episode Polish miniseries based on the novel by Harlan Coben. It is split between two time periods, opening with a flash-forward to prosecutor Pawel Kopinski (Grzegorz Damiecki) who has a gun pressed to his head. We then before flash back to 1994, when a teenage Pawel (Hubert Milkowski) is at summer camp. Something very bad happened in the woods there, leaving two teens dead and two others—including Pawel’s sister, Kamila (Martyna Byczkowska)—missing. The discovery of a dead body connected to the murders brings Pawel back to the case in 2019.

In the present-day timeline, Pawel reconnects with his former girlfriend, Laura Goldsztajn (Agnieszka Grochowska). Laura is now a college professor, and the two attempt to figure out what happened all those years ago. Pawel has been prosecuting a rape case in which one of the accused perpetrators is the son of a rich TV personality, Krzysztof (Cezary Pazura), who has promised to use his resources to ruin Pawel’s life if he doesn’t drop the charges.

The change of setting from New Jersey to Poland has little impact on the story. The most distinctive local element here is an exploration of anti-Semitism. We see grieving families searching for someone to blame following the initial crimes. But even that turns out to be something of a red herring.

Coben’s characters are morally compromised, and finding out who killed or kidnapped a story’s central victim doesn’t necessarily lead to an anticipated catharsis. Pawel’s handling of the rape case is especially strange, and his determination to stand up for the accuser is about his own pride and seeking justice for a young woman who’s been attacked.

Pawel and Laura share a personal connection to every aspect of the case  and this gives us a kind of revelation. The story’s rush of exposition can be mystifying but the pieces fall into place in ways that aren’t entirely unbelievable.

Up to the final moments, “The Woods” is filled with twists and turns and plot threads remain untied by the end. We are hooked by Pawel and want to know what happened all those years ago.

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The large cast makes the plot complicated and it is not always easy to keep track of who’s who. “The Woods is both a mystery and a love story. The romance is somewhat hit and miss. Damiecki and Grochowska are both excellent but the stoicism that drives them as adults makes it hard to get an emotional connection with them. But there’s not even that much time for love as corpses pile up There is a sharp critique of the concept of justice here too as police brutality, trial by media and the massive influence that money can affect who we see as guilty or innocent.

 This is a dense but compelling watch, beautifully directed by Leszek Dawid and Bartosz Konopka. Atmospherically, “The Woods” is amazing and the flashback scenes in 1994 are captivating as we wonder who is and isn’t trustworthy.

“Diary of a Foreigner in Paris” by Cuzio Malaparte— Among the Famous

Malaparte, Curzio. “Diary of a Foreigner in Paris”,  translated by Stephen Twilley, NYRB Classics, 2020.

Among the Famous

Amos Lassen

With Stephen Twilley’s brilliant translation of Curzio Malaparte’s “Diary of a Foreigner in Paris, we are taken back to postwar Europe and meet famous characters and we read of the restlessness in Paris after the war had ended.

Malaparte returned to Paris in 1947 for the first time in fourteen years. He had been condemned by Mussolini to five years in exile but when he was released he was repeatedly imprisoned. During the intervals when he was free, he had been dispatched as a journalist to the Eastern Front, and even though though many of his reports from Poland and Ukraine were censored, he used his experiences as a basis for his writing. Returning to France where he had always treated well, he became a celebrity of sorts something of a star. 

Keeping a diary while in Paris, he wrote about his meetings with ramous people including Jean Cocteau and Albert Camus. As Malaparte reflects on his life and the temper of the time, he is ambiguously humorous while exposing his life to the world. He was eccentric to a degree and French found him to be strange and a puzzle. In fact his odd behavior became grounds of persecution when he goes to Austria.

Malaparte’s writing flows freely; yet he constantly had to struggle with his own experiences under fascism. He was able to find his way back into Paris’s Bohemian elite and was fueled with vigor. His life was something of an odyssey with his moving from place to place. He was able to be in the right place with the right people. In his wonderful prose, he is an observer of those people around him and his description of them are stunning. While his nature and position in culture remain questionable, he is nonetheless fascinating.

Malaparte was born in Prato at the end of the 19th century. He enlisted in the Garibaldi Legion during World War I and fought alongside French troops. When the war ended, he remained attracted to violence and published two books that denounced the political class’s handling of the conflict, He was attracted to the Fascist Party movement led by Benito Mussolini and in 1924, he threw his  weight behind Mussolini and openly spoke about the virtues of fascism as editor of the powerful newspaper “La Stampa”. In a misconceived effort to take down the fascist minister of the air force, Italo Balbo, Malaparte was exiled to the island of Lipari.

When he was freed from exile, he rejoined Mussolini’s regime until it fell and Mussolini was executed. He then joined the Allied forces and reported on the battles for the communist newspaper “L’Unità”.

Most of Malaparte’s life in Paris was not good. The Left Bank was not the best of places for a former Italian fascist and it was no secret that he was in Paris to avoid arrest or worse in Italy. He was surprised by the reception of the French and he wrote of his many humiliations. It often seemed that the intelligentsia of Paris disliked him.

Malaparte was a compulsive liar who played with ideas and went in the opposite direction of others. However, he cannot be tossed aside. He did go the places that he said he did and his stories were only partial lies.

“The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis ” by Norman Ohler— Leading the Resistance

Ohler, Norman. “The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis ”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.

Leading the Resistance

Amos Lassen

Through the story of Harro and Libertas Schulze-Bowen Nelson Ohlen’s “The Bohemians” tells us about the resistance of the titular Bohemians in war-time Berlin. The Bowens  engineered their activities within and around the Nazi party. They are young people from good families who become part of a group  of young artists, writers, musicians, activists and others who became known as The Red Orchestra and they attempt to undermine the fascist control of the Nazi party over the citizens of Germany. Harro was an idealist from a young age had been tortured by the Nazis because of his  writing in the leftist-liberal magazine “Der Gegner”. When he meets Libertas, she has become disillusioned with her life and joins him and his friends in performing acts of espionage and anti-Nazi propaganda activities. The group was eventually discovered through a radio counterintelligence operation.

Ohler had access to much information about his subjects through surviving family members and de-classified information. It is not enough that he shares this information with us but he does so in fine prose filled with revelations of intimate details. As we read, we feel that we are part of the group. The Nazi party tied to kill everything about the Red Orchestra and the way they do this makes for a fascinating read. The characters that we meet are both amazing and flawed who risked their lives to fight fascism. 

The story begins in the summer of 1935 on a lake near Berlin where Harro sees Libertas and is smitten. This is the beginning of their romance and one of history’s greatest conspiracies. The couple soon leadsa network of antifascist fighters that across Berlin’s bohemian underworld. Harro infiltrated German intelligence and began sending Nazi battle plans to the Allies, including the details of Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union. Harro and Libertas suffer betrayals in a struggle in which friend and foe are indistinguishable.

Harro and Libertas were the center of a number of circles of resistance. In the beginning there were mostly discussion groups; then they distributed anti-Nazi postcards and plastered walls with provocative statements. But when, as a result of his Luftwaffe work, Harro learned that Germany planned to break the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and attack the USSR and he knew he had to step up his activities. He knew that this attack would destroy Germany since if it was successful—nothing would be able to stop Nazism bringing about the end of Harro’s mother country. He decided to work with a Russian to warn the Soviets. 

Stalin could not be persuaded that Hitler would betray him, and Harro was implicated when one of his compatriots was captured and tortured into giving up an encoded key that allowed the Nazis to crack communications that identified Harro. Harro and Libertas were arrested in August, 1942, tortured, and executed in December. Many resisters connected to them faced the same fate.

Ohler has done great research to bring us this story of love, bravery and self-sacrifice. This is a fascinating look at life in Nazi Germany, where self-assertion of youth was political act and daily life was dangerous.

“A Star is Bored” by Byron Lane— The Assistant

Lane, Byron. “A Star Is Bored: A Novel’, Henry Holt, 2020.

The Assistant

Amos Lassen

Byron Lane’s “A Star id Bored” is influenced by the author’s time assisting the late movie star, Carrie Fisher. We meet Charlie Besson as he prepares for a job interview and he is quite tense. He idles his car just as he has idled his life but his car is outside the Hollywood mansion of Kathi Kannon, star of stage and screen. Unfortunately, Kathi is on “People” magazine’s Worst Dressed list. She’s an actress who needs assistance. Charlie is adrift and needs a lifeline. Kathi is an icon, a bestselling author, and an award-winning movie star who is most famous for her role as Priestess Talara in a blockbuster sci-fi film. She’s also known as outrageous as Charlie quickly finds out when he gets the job.

Charlie begins three years filled with late-night shopping sprees, last-minute trips to see the aurora borealis, and a welcome to the famous job of personal assistant. Kathi who is just supposed to be his boss is so much and the two becomes friends. Charlie realizes that he is jut on the sidelines and that his chances of becoming more than that are very slim.

While this is fiction, I don’t doubt that some of what we read is based on actual experiences making it all the more fun. While he was growing up Charlie idolized Kathi and now has the chance to work for her since his job as a TV news writer on the graveyard shift is getting him nowhere. He has had no personal life because he’s always sleeping when everyone else is living and having fun He is filled with anxiety and suffers from low self-esteem. With Kathi, he begins to heal and grow as a person and as a result of their friendship. They both have many flaws and virtues making for a strange relationship that is both tender and very funny.

We see the “ridiculous, bizarre and oft-magical world of Hollywood” through the ideas of a personal assistant and his boss. There is a lot of dish and wit as we explore
Kathi’s mostly acerbic personality and her attachment to Charlie. This is also a love story which I did not expect. “The pitch-perfect absurdity and sharp heartbreak of this story come to life so vividly that the last page left me aching. Completely outrageous and positively lovely.”
The book is a reflection of today’s obsessionwith celebrity culture. Here is Los Angeles and the people who live there, who chase dreams. We sense that not all is well with Kathi whose story is about  the mutual love that existed between her and Charlie.  We read of love, loss, acceptance, and overcoming adversity. It is really a fun read.

“Heroes and Jerks: The Best and Worst Who Ever Lived” by Ed Daly— A Fascinating Look at History

Daly, Ed. “Heroes and Jerks: The Best and Worst Who Ever Lived”,  Independently Published, 2020.

A Fascinating Look at History

Amos Lassen

I have no idea why I was sent a copy of Ed Daly’s “Heroes and Jerks: The Best and Worst Who Ever Lived” since it is not the kind of book that I usually review. Since I am quarantined and always looking for something to read, I decided to give it a go and I was very pleasantly surprised. This is an unorthodox journey through history, the people that make history and the world by looking at the best and worst people who have ever lived. Daly compares quite a diverse collection of people over a two million year period and while many of the characters are instantly recognizable, there are others that you will read about for possibly the first time. All of the people mentioned share the fact that theyhave had a lasting impact on humankind. Daly examines the best and worst over time, those who have most influenced the world as we know it. Each hero and jerk is explained in quick, easily digestible Top 10 Lists. We have  world leaders, Hollywood actors and regular people who have made an impression  and the entries about them are short, informative and often humorous.

“More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic” by Matt Adler— The Unseen Israel

Adler, Matt. “More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic”, Matt Adler, 2020.

The Unseen Israel

Amos Lassen

Israel is one of those places where no one seems to have anything neutral to say about. The truth is that although Israel is a tiny country, there are vast differences throughout the country. In “More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic”, writer Matt Adler becomes our guide Jewish guide to the country but he uses Arabic to explain some of the lesser seen parts of the country. I lived in Israel for many years and for before the time that gays were (at least in Tel Aviv) recognized as equal citizens and before Tel Aviv Pride became a gay destination. It was a time when people did not openly speak of their sexuality. Adler shows how much it has all changed. He shares his gay identity with a questioning teenager, hitchhikes on golf carts in a rural Druze village, and celebrates Shabbat and he does so in Arabic and with humor and compassion as he visits Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities. We are taken into contradictions and intricacies of one of the most diverse places in the world.

While I was in Israel (and it was for many years), I worked with both Arab Israelis and Druze Israelis but I would never have considered discussing that I was gay with them. We had come together to build a city in the Golan Heights and while we spent days and nights together as well as lots of free time, the topic never came up so I was anxious to read how Adler dealt with the situation. For me, there are few lesser known places in Israel— I took it as my responsibility to get to know the country’s every nook and cranny so I spent a lot of time exploring. Adler shares his stories with an open mind and we sense his identification with the characters he writes about. The writing is fine and many will find it enlightening. When Adler writes about food, we can almost taste it.

“If These Ovaries Could Talk: The Things We’ve Learned About Making an LGBTQ Family” by Jamie Kelton and Robin Hopkins— The New Family

Kelton, Jamie and Robin Hopkins. “If These Ovaries Could Talk: The Things We’ve Learned About Making an LGBTQ Family”,  LitRiot Press, 2020.

The New Family

Amos Lassen

We live in world that is changing quickly and one of the major changes we see is the new definition of the word “family”. Jamie Kelson and Robin Hopkins, the creators and hosts of the popular and award-winning podcast “If These Ovaries Could Talk” have not written a book (out late September) that challenges many of the definitions of family that we have known throughout the years and it is innovative and a pleasure to read.

They focus on non-traditional families, the LGBTQ community and divide the book into two sections,  “Making A Baby When You Are An L, G, B, T, OR Q” and “Your LGBTQ Family Has A Baby: Now What?” The book came into being as the result of the realization that the time has come to understand that there is more than just the one traditional way to bring a child into the world. The authors’ own families came into being in different ways realized the world needed to know there was more than one way to make an LGBTQ family. Each of their families came about in different ways but these ways are unknown to many of us and we need to know. First the writers concentrated on their podcast learning about the many stories that exist and they did this by interviewing LGBTQ families and asking important questions. Now they have taken and through dozens of interviews, they gained insight and learned about the many and seemingly constantly recurring questions that come up on how you make a family. These include surrogacy,  choosing an egg donor, sperm donor, and the surrogate, adoption and foster care. Then then there are topics of growing up with gay parents and being out as a family and talking to children kids about their LGBTQ family.

This is more than a book—it is an experience and a journey that takes us to places we may never have thought of. It is filled with the emotions of laughter, joy and it celebrates  the concept of family both humorously and seriously. I have been reviewing LGBTQ literature for years yet I was amazed at how much I learned here about issues I never really thought about but are so important to the world we live. More than anything, though, is that the book is so needed. It is certain to find a special place in the LGBTQ canon.