Monthly Archives: August 2020

“The Death of Vivek Oji” by Emezi Awaeke— Understanding a Child

Emezi, Awaeke. “The Death of Vivek Oji”, Riverhead, 2020.

Understanding a Child

Amos Lassen

On an afternoon, in Aba, a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother finds at her front doorstep,  her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric. Following this we have a family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Vivek, the child had been raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother and suffers from disorienting blackouts and moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As he matures from teen to adult, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the boisterous daughters of the “Nigerwives”, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. His closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence hides a very guarded private life. As their relationship deepens, Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis and this gives way to a “heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.” 

This is the story of family and friendship that challenges expectations, faces loss and a kind of transcendence that is incredibly moving. It is a work of social criticism, and a story filled with suspense. It revolves around an actual death, but also around the mystery of the dynamic of human relationships.

 Vivek Oji is the beloved son of a Nigerian father and an immigrant mother from India, and we learn in the first sentence that he dies. The question of how and why drives the narrative. 

The story is told in alternating chapters by an omniscient narrator, Vivek’s cousin Osita and Vivek himself. Vivek was born with a mark on his foot that looks exactly like a scar his grandmother, who died the day he came into the world, had. Vivek also suffers from an enigmatic “illness” which drives him into a deep depression. Not only Vivek queer, he is gender-variant and doesn’t know how to live his truth. He also Vivek senses a strong, mystical connection to his deceased grandmother. 
We seehow the people around him struggle with Vivek’s shy attempts to show and speak himself, including his feminine side. There are complicated relationships between friends and family, their love, their friendship and their sexual relationships, both straight and queer.

A subplot is based on the concept of “otherness” and we see this through the Nigerwives, foreign women who are married to Nigerian men and their stories show the challenges they face as immigrant wives. The Northerners who live nearby have different clothes and customs than the people living where Aba is found.

At one point in the novel, Aba asks why people are afraid of something different than what they are used to. They do not understand themselves but loving him is enough. We do get a hint that there will be a better future for those who are gender non-conforming.

I see the major themes are identity, belonging and sadness. We get a look at Nigeria and its culture as we move from small city to rural village and read about the variety
of cultural and religious traditions, daily life and conflict and intolerance. The large issues of gender identity and sexuality are present throughout the novel. Vivek is at the center of the novel even though he is dead in the first sentence.  

“A Saint from Texas” by Edmund White— Two Sisters

White, Edmund.  “A Saint from Texas”,  Bloomsbury, 2020.

Twin Sisters

Amos Lassen

Almost every summer, I look forward to reading something new from Edmund White and it is always a highlight of my literary experiences. This summer was no different with “A Saint from Texas”, White’s new novel that tells the storyof twin sisters, one set for Parisian nobility and the other moving toward Catholic sainthood. 

Yvette and Yvonne Crawford are twin sisters who were born on an East Texas prairie. Their destinies turned out to be dramatic and we are with them as they follow them.  Each girl has secrets and dreams which will take them  from Texas and from each other. As the years pass, Yvonne becomes a member of the elite of Parisian society while Yvette enters to a lifetime of worship and service in Jericó, Colombia. Even though, they are separated,  and live very different lives, they share the bonds of family and the past. 

Beginning in the 1950s and taking us to the recent past, these two Texas women’s lives are bound together even though they are very different from each other. From the newly rich of Dallas, the society of Paris and Colombian convent, we see the lines of class and sexuality.

Edmund White explores love, sex and family over 50 years bringing the non-believer and the totally-committed to God together and we share their lives. Yvette and Yvonne are finely-drawn characters and we sense White’s sympathy for them. He explores sin and envy, in-depth, through them.

This is a story about us as well. As the sisters find themselves through losing themselves, so do we. We have human love and divine love alongside of passion and sin and desire. As the novel moves forward, secrets come to the fore and revelations explode on the pages It is White’s wit and irony that makes “A Saint from Texas” so wonderfully readable.

The storyis told from Yvonne’s perspective  and as she tells about her life (through letters to her sister), she also tells the story of  Yvette. Yvonne went to Paris in college and married a Baron there. Yvette converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun.

In a world of morally corrupt and unlikeable characters, Yvette is able to maintain some decency even with the difficult life she has led. Her timidity and self-effacing and both sisters ultimately become being sex-obsessed. Since they are from a very homophobic part of Texas, we would expect them to be bothered by desires for other women but they are not.

I thought that this was going to be quite a light read so I was surprised  that it is much more than that.  Collections of stories make up the plot and as I hinted, the characters are strange. Each sister searches for her own sense of perfection and we see that faith drives Yvette while Yvonne is by status. They both mature when they realize that there is no such thing as perfection. This is, in effect, a comedy of manners and I was totally and completely drawn into it— so much so that I read it from cover-to-cover in a single day. Since I am a huge Edmund White fan, this is not surprising. The clashes between cultures are hilarious while, at the same time, explore the characters. There were moments that my feelings toward the twins bordered upon love and disdain. Their experimentations with them themselves teach them about who they are.

There is a lot to think about as we read making this an intellectual experience to a degree. While the pace, at first, seems swift do not be surprised if you find yourself stopping to think several times. We root for the sisters as they face societal demands of conformity and subservient women.

“Anna’s Dance” by Michele Levy— Love, Intrigue and Betrayal

Levy, Michele. “Anna’s Dance: A Balkan Odyssey”, Black Rose Writing, 2020.

Love, Intrigue and Betrayal

Amos Lassen

When I lived in Israel (and I did so for many years), one of the things I loved the best was meeting Jews from all over the world and learning of their customs and traditions. What is interesting about this is that, at that time, I was a secular Jew who went to the land for the purpose of building the country and there was not much room for God in my life. However, I loved almost everything else about Judaism. (That has since changed and I have once again become observant). Coming across Michele Levy’s “Anna’s Dance” rekindled my desire to learn about a Jewish community I knew very little about, the Jews of the Balkans.

In 1968, twenty-three-year-old Anna Rossi, sees that the world is in a mess and she questions everything about her life and this includes her mostly Jewish background and heritage and her fear of intimacy. (If you were around in the 60s, you know that this was something that many of us did). She decided to go to Europe with a childhood friend, hoping to find out who she was. But things with her friend did not work out and Anna found herself alone and decided to continue her adventure alone or with strangers. She soon found herself in the midst of conflict in Eastern Europe when she arrived at the Balkans. She was as fascinated by the history and culture of the Balkans as she was conflicted about her own Jewish/American identity. Yet, she was able to emerge as a woman of courage through her experiences. As she cones-of-age, she becomes enlightened about her identity and her spirituality.

Levy’s gorgeous prose brought me a new friend with whom I realized that I had many shared experiences. In terms of her religion, Anna faces many questions and conflicts— she does not want to being Jewish but  feels vulnerable and insecure when she hears anti-Semitic remarks.

A young German male suggested they continue traveling together and as they did, Max offers them a ride in his new luxury car and Anna decides to ditch her hitchhiking friend and travel with Max who was on his way to Yugoslavia and the Balkans. She soon learns that Max is smuggling contraband and that she is to be his cover at the border to which Anna agrees. Arriving in Yugoslavia, Anna falls in love with the culture and the people who live there under constant chaos. As the two travel, Anna meets Max’s business friends while dealing with her internal problems and soon becomes Spiro’s (one of Max’s associates) lover and finds herself part of the intrigue of Eastern Europe. This is interesting because anti-Semitism was a way of life there for many and she is struggling with her Jewish background.

Unfortunately, as close as I felt to Anna and what she was dealing with, there was something about her that did not resonate with me. She does not seem to have passion for much and we see, by her becoming involved with the smugglers, that she lacks a sense of responsibility and is not really aware of what she getsherself into. (But then she was young and easily impressed). She soon allowed herself to become something of a housewife to Spiro’s demands, taking case of the domesticity and chores of their rustic home.

Like Anna, Eastern Europeans were struggling with their cultural identities and it took her time in Yugoslavia for Anna to finally accept herself. Love and revolution led her to engage in the introspection that she needed and she is finally able to move on.

Michele Levy obviously knows the Balkans and the people, their languages and the history of the region and she imparts that knowledge in lyrical, beautiful prose (I actually stopped on certain sentences and reread them several times in order to luxuriate in Levy’s wonderful use of words and structure). Her connection to and empathy for the characters is palpable throughout. I love reading a book that mesmerizes and educates at the same time and that is exactly what “Anna’s Dance” does.

Going back to my opening paragraph about learning about the Jews of the Balkans, I must recommend a recent essay by Michele Levy, “A Brief History of Balkan Jews and the Story of the Synagogue of Zagreb”. You can find it at Jewish Book Council.org.

“United Queerdom” by Dan Glass— LGBTQ Activism

Glass, Dan. “United Queerdom”, Zed Books, 2020.

 LGBTQ Activism

Amos Lassen

During the 1970s the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) led an anarchic campaign that permanently changed the face of Britain. It was inspired by the Stonewall riots in the United States and its demand was for a global “Queer Nation.” Now, some fifty years later, we still have LGBT+ inequality even as we understand that complete LGBT+ liberation means housing rights, universal healthcare, economic freedom and more. Even though there are some who believe that we are free now and should behave and assimilate and become part of the larger society. However, only with full liberation can we really expect further discrimination and harassment.

This is a provocative read from a man who helped change the world and who maintains that protest is necessary and essential to queer identity. Glass shares the hard work of fighting injustice. He gives us his ideas about life-changing activism and methodologies to attain it making this something of a manual for those who want to change the world.  He is both outrageous and controversial but he writes from deep within his heart.

This memoir lets us feel his “rage, solidarity, and tactical hope.” We immediately sense that his reason for being is to make a difference and we see that he has. We can see this as a manifesto to fight back yet it is a memoir that is historical and a how-to-guide. We are called upon to act and to act now.

We are experiencing a “Second Silence” with budget cuts, rising HIV transmission rates, and a belief that AIDS is history. We read of those who have “been beaten, deported and marginalized by bigotry, patriarchy and fascism across the planet” and see his as a call to action.

 

“What Happens at Night” by Peter Cameron— The Beauty of Language and Ideas

 

Cameron, Peter. “What Happens at Night”,   Catapult, 2020.

The Beauty of Language and Ideas

Amos Lassen

Get ready for a gorgeous read with Peter Cameron’s suspenseful story of a couple’s struggle to adopt a baby while staying in a once grand European hotel.An American couple travels to a strange European city to adopt a baby, who they hope will resurrect their  marriage that is on the skids. The journey is arduous and the wife, who is struggling with cancer becomes desperately weak, and her husband worries that this will prevent the orphanage from giving them their child.

They stay at the somewhat deserted Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel where the bar is always open and the restaurant serves thirteen-course dinners based on the past. The people they meet both attempt to help and hamper them claim their baby is both helped and hampered by the people they encounter. These include an ancient and flamboyant chanteuse, a debauched businessman, a mysterious faith healer, and a stoic bartender who serves addictive, lichen-flavored schnapps. This is a world frozen in time and the more time the couple spends there, the less they seem to understand about the state of their marriage, who they are and life.

Written in elegant prose with shades of terror, this is one of the most beautiful books I have read in a very long time even from Peter Cameron, a writer I have loved for a long time. There is humor and heartbreak in the story and Cameron successfully manipulates our emotions as we read. We really never know what is real and what is not but we do know that we reading real literature.

We recognize the world of the setting even though there is something eerily strange about it. Because I was anxious to know what was coming, I turned pages as quickly as I could after devouring the luscious prose that I read here. This is a story of morality and love in which Cameron carefully balances humor and catastrophe and “cynicism and sincerity”.

“White Fright: The Sexual Panic at the Heart of America’s Racist History” by Jane Dailey— Advance Information

Dailey, Jane. “White Fright: The Sexual Panic at the Heart of America’s Racist History”, Basic Books, 2020.

Fighting for Racial Equality

Amos Lassen

You will have to wait until November to read Jane Dailey’s new history of the fight for racial equality, “White Fright: The Sexual Panic at the Heart of America’s Racist History”. In it, Dailey argues that “fear of black sexuality has undergirded white supremacy from the start.” With this she turns the way we understand the struggle for African American rights on its head. We see here that “those fighting against equality were not exclusively motivated by a sense of innate superiority, as is often supposed, but also by an intense preoccupation with the question of interracial sex and marriage.” Dailey looks at how white fears played a part in the battles over lynching, in policing of black troops’ behavior overseas during World War II, in the violence that followed the Brown v. Board decision, and in the aftermath of the Loving v. Virginia ruling, which finally declared marriage is a “fundamental freedom.” By placing sex at the center of civil rights history, we get a different look at  one of the most misunderstood issues of American history.

Dailey shows that the United States has always been obsessed with governing Black sex and marriage. White slave masters demanded sex from their Black slaves and Jim Crow-era laws presumed that Black men have an inborn tendency to sexual predation on white women. She examines how African American rights were closely tied, both by law and in the white imagination, to the question of interracial sex and marriage. To overcome  uniting sexual and civil rights is a long-time issue and this is the greatest challenge that black equality faces.

We must never allow ourselves to forget the importance of sex in history, especially in the history of civil rights history.

“The Fixed Stars” by Molly Wizenberg— Identity, Sexuality and Family

Wizenberg, Molly. “The Fixed Stars”, Abrams Press, 2020.

Identity, Sexuality and Family

Amos Lassen

While serving on a jury, thirty-six-year-old Molly Wizenberg realized that she was drawn to a female attorney she hardly knew. At the time, she was married to a man and had been for ten years and the couple had a child. Wizenberg tried to return to her life as she knew it, but something inside her had completely changed. She learned that how we live our lives is not always as logical as we would think.  She understood that we are born with our

sexual orientation and it is part of who we are. Her life story soon became complicated and began to deal with this aspect of her life by accepting this new change.

In “The Fixed Stars” she explores important questions about who she was and who she is. She looks at desire, identity, and the limits and possibilities of family. She writes beautifully of her journey through  separation and divorce, coming out to family and friends, learning to co-parent a young child, and realizing a new idea of love.  She has let go of definitions that once seem fixed and ideals that had once been part of her but had changed as she came to terms with who she really was.

She writes candidly and that were times that I felt that we were sitting opposite each other as she shared her story. She became a friend who confiding in me in a very personal way, holding nothing back. Because she is so personal, I find it difficult to say how what she says has affected me.

Wizenberg has the ability to describe and express feelings while examining gender and sexuality and the way we speak about these and their meanings. She includes what others have previously written on the subjects and the differences among them. We see that sexuality is fluid. I am quite sure that this was not easy to put down on paper yet she is able to do so eloquently especially as she writes of

“her marriage; the love, care, and mutual respect they had for one another, along with the complexities that can bring relationships to an end.” The way we change is often unplanned and unexpected.  

 

“Like Crazy: Life with My Mother and Her Invisible Friends” by Dan Matthews— Mother and Son

Matthews, Dan. “Like Crazy: Life with My Mother and Her Invisible Friends”, Atria, 2020.

Mother and Son

Amos Lassen

Dan Matthews’s “Like Crazy” is both a very funny  and heartbreaking memoir about an outlandish mother and son on a voyage of self-discovery, and the wild community that came together to help them as the mother was in the final phase of her life.

Mathews knew that Perry, his mother, who was witty, bawdy, unhinged mother, Perry, was unable to maintain her independence at seventy-eight so he flew her across the country to Virginia to live with him in an 1870 townhouse that was falling apart. Dan was soon overwhelmed with two fixer-uppers: the house and his mother. 

Together, Dan and Perry formed a fun life together of  costume parties, road trips, after-hours gatherings, and a wonderful sense of humor as they dealt with hurricanes, blizzards, and Perry’s decline. They got help from a large group of friends including  Dan’s boyfriends (past and present), ex-cons, sailors, strippers, deaf hillbillies, evangelicals, and grumpy cats and with them they were able to change the parent-child relationship. 

It was with a trip to the emergency room that Dan learned the cause of his mother’s unpredictable and sometimes caustic behavior— Perry had lived her entire adult life as an undiagnosed schizophrenic. 

Filled with emotion and irreverence, this is darkly comic story about the perils and rewards of taking in a fragile parent without losing life in the process. We read about about mental illness with an uplifting conclusion and see the remarkable growth that takes place when a wild child settles down to care for the wild mother who raised him. Matthews gives us a beautifully written celebration of familial love. He tells his mother’s story in a way that shows the seriousness of severe mental illness while capturing the absurdity and humor that was part of caring for his mother and loving her. We have humor, tenderness, and compassion as we read about the author’s journey to self-acceptance and finding love.

 

“Born to Be Public” by Greg Maina— Life as a “Pariah Prodigy”

Mania, Greg. “Born to Be Public”, Clash Books, 2020.

Life as a “Pariah Prodigy”

Amos Lassen

There have been many coming-out memoirs over the years so in order to have something new and different, it is not easy. Greg Mania succeeds wonderfully with “Born to Be Public”. He brings us a unique and vert funny look at his life as what he calls a “pariah prodigy”. He came out to his Polish immigrant parents without meaning to do so and then jumped into the New York nightlife scene where we was able to find a place in the world of comedy and his own identity. We read how he did this as he explored himself through sex, mental health and various relationships. This was not easy as his life was filled with both mistakes as well as successes. He holds nothing back and he is raw as he is relevant and relatable.

Mania is a fine writer and I was soon turning pages as quickly as possible. He was born near Trenton, New Jersey and from an early age he knew that he was special and different. When he entered the New York scene, he did so with is special ideas about the world and at first, he was a hair stencil artist, then a go-go boy  and a studious student. New York then was changing and he discovered that there was more than just one Manhattan.

Yet he was self-assured and confident as he tried to find himself (he claims to be still trying to do so).  He exudes charm on every page and is very, very funny. Mania shares how he was able to reach self-expression and how to make people laugh. It seems that he can make people laugh about anything and he certainly had me laughing as I read. I was reminded how when in high school, we often try to break into the “A” group and when we finally do, we discover that there is an “A+” group.

“Born to Be Pubic” is a poignant memoir on self-reflection that is filled with ideas that we all can use.