Monthly Archives: August 2020

“Dying with Ease: A Compassionate Guide for Making Wiser End-of-Life Decisions” by Dr. Jeff Spiess— Death as a Fact of Life

Spiess, Dr. Jeff. “Dying with Ease: A Compassionate Guide for Making Wiser End-of-Life Decisions”,  Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

Death As a Fact of Life

Amos Lassen

Death is one of the topics that we tend to shy away from even though we are well aware that we are all going to die. We just do not want to believe it. Instead of looking at our options and considering the possibilities that can impact our final days, we ignore the idea  of death because we are afraid of it. This increases the pain and grief we experience at the end of life, and also impacts the suffering of those we leave behind.

Dr. Jeff Spiess has cared for the dying for some thirty years and he explains here that if we face the ideas of death and our mortality, we will make wiser decisions and thereby live our lives more fully and with less stress. He usescultural and religious references and poignant narratives to inform, inspire, and challenge “our cognitive and emotional understandings of our own lives and deaths.”

Spiess gives us practical ideas and information about planning ahead, hospice and palliative care and ethical and legal issues that are part of death in this country.

Heanswers such questions such as how to plan for the last part of life, the options against unbearable suffering, what religion and spiritual philosophy say about dying and what it feels like to die. Because of Covid-19, we have all become more aware of death and the fact that we could be gone tomorrow. We are all afraid and now the great unknown seems closer than ever. If we can push those fears aside, we will be able to make smarter decisions and see that fearing death can be dealt with.

COVID-19 has made many of us more aware of our own mortality. By putting the fear of our final days to rest, we can make wiser and more authentic decisions throughout the rest of our lives—however long they may be. Death may be inevitable, but fearing the end-of-life is avoidable.

Spiess finds additional insights in depictions of dying in literature, including sacred texts, music, and popular culture. He gives us information and inspiration and we are challenged to deal with our lives and our deaths.

“Self-Evident Truths: 10,000 Portraits of Queer America” by iO Wright Tillet— Portraits pf LGBTQ America

Wright, iO Tillett. “Self-Evident Truths: 10,000 Portraits of Queer America”, Prestel Publishing, 2020.

Portraits of LGBTQ America

Amos Lassen

“Self-Evident Truths: 10,000 Portraits of Queer America” is a collection of photographic portraits of 10,000 people from across the US.

iO Tillett Wright began an ambitious project to photograph the faces of people across the country who identify as anything other than 100% straight or cisgender. Looking for 10,000 people from all fifty states and shot over a nearly ten-year period, this is an inspirational book in which we meet all kinds of people. Some of these are famous and most of them are familiar. We see ourselves in the people we meet here. Each image is a story and each story is part of our history. Stereotypes are broken and become complex through these photographs. As we view them, we face questions about identity and freedom and see that ideas of sexuality and gender are filed with variations.

“PS BURN THIS LETTER PLEASE”— New York’s Gay Drag Scene in the 1950’s and 1960’s

“PS BURN THIS LETTER PLEASE”

New York’s Gay Drag Scene in the 1950’s and 1960’s

Amos Lassen

Set among the drag balls of the 1950’s, mostly in New York City, “PS Burn This Letter Please” mixes oral and epistolary history— interviews we see from the still-living participants of the balls and letters from a box left in a storage locker. Taken together, we get the story of the gay scene of New York and the broader United States.

In 2007, John Maloof was  a young graduate working on a history project. He bought a suitcase full of photographic negatives in a Chicago auction hoping to be able to use them in his research.  What he discovered was a fine collection of street photography that was the work of one person, Vivian Maier, who was a complete unknown. Then in 2014  letters were found in the storage locker of Los Angeles DJ and talent agent, Reno Martin. These letters were about the lives of New York City drag queens during the 1950s and 60s.  

The letters came to from  producer Craig Olsen and fiolmmalers Jennifer Tiexiera and Michael Seligman who used them to make this film, a unique look at LGBTQ history that takes us a world, pre-Stonewall days.The filmmakers spent four years finding those who wrote the letters. We never learn who the real Reno Martin is but we do meet his friends, most of whom are still alive. They live all over the country and are in their 80s and 90s. They had come to New York because of the freedom that they thought they would find.

The letters describe the balls and friendships of the period, and are written in vocabulary we seldom use today showing the evolving language of identity. We also see photos and snapshots of queens wearing chic dresses and celebrating. Here are  some misconceptions of New York’s LGBTQ scene, such as asking about The 82 Club; a popular mob-owned drag bar that were normalized and open 1950’s America and the fear of punishment by the authorities and the courage to live freely.

Here were the days when homosexuality was illegal as was dressing up in women’s clothing.  The film capturesthe joyof these gay men as they lives their lives in a restricted society. The letters are mixed in with vintage home movies, and photos.  The interviews are wonderful as we hear how happy these men were to have found a place where they belonged.

“VALENTINA”— Not Your Average Girl

“VALENTINA”

Not Your Average Girl

Amos Lassen

Valentina (Thiessa Woinbackk) is your average teen girl in Brazil. She likes music, argues with her mom, can be temperamental and has a lot of drama in her life. She is also transgender.

Valentina and her mom (Guta Stresser) have moved from Sao Paolo to a small country town to get a new start. She had been the victim of bullies at her old school and she is eager to go to the new school under her new identity. The problem is that the school won’t let her do that without the signature of both parents. Her father (Romulo Braga) who is no longer with her mom and has had a hard time adjusting to the change of Valentina.

At school, she is wary about telling anyone her secret because she does not want to be a victim again. She starts making friends but chooses not to tell them that she wasn’t born a girl. However, complications start when she is groped by a young man who works in the butcher shop who had been sweet on her. He tells her bigoted brother who wants Valentina to be thrown out of school and is willing to go to extremes to see that this happens and he rallies parents in school to sign a petition. However, nothing is going to keep Valentina down, especially after her father turns up in her corner.

Woinbackk is a trans activist and popular YouTube personality in her Brazil and we  wonder how much of Valentina’s story is her story.

Valentina is portrayed not as a transgender first and a girl second, but as a girl who just happens to be transgender. We get to meet the person and not a stereotype. Valentina could be any teen girl.

The classroom confrontation at the end of the movie between Valentina and the bigot, however, seems contrived.

“TWO EYES”— Love, Life and Growth


“TWO EYES”

Love, Life and Growth

Amos Lassen

“Two Eyes” is made up of three intertwining stories about three main characters in three distinct time periods. We go to the late 19th century Montana and meet an artist (Benjamin Rigby) who seeks inspiration for his art. With his Native American guide (Kiowa Gordon), he explores the landscape and his conceptions of himself and the world around him are challenged. In 1979 in Barstow, California, the mundane existence of a questioning youth (Uly Schlesinger) questions the ennui for her existence and is given a pick-up with the arrival of a new exchange student (Jessica Allain) with whom lust  ensues. In present-day Wyoming a trans teewhomager (Ryan Cassata) deals with his self-destructive feelings with his perceptive, non-binary therapist (Kate Bornstein).

The film explores the themes of gender, love, grief, and the power of art to transcend time and the three narratives that seem to be unrelated come together into an emotional story.  

Director Travis Fine looks at love, sexuality, gender, and life in all of their expressions. Through the beautiful cinematography and wonderful musical score, ideas come together to bring us a beautiful film with deep meaning. Here is the power of community, especially among LGBTQIA+ people. We see a potential for growth that has existed through centuries, and that looks to the future with hope and a belief in our ability to heal.

“In a Midnight Wood: A Jane Lawless Mystery” by Ellen Hart– Uncovering Secrets

Hart, Ellen. “In a Midnight Wood: A Jane Lawless Mystery”,  Minotaur, 2020.

Uncovering Secrets

Amos Lassen

Private investigator Jane Lawless and her best friend, Cordelia Thorn are off on a vacation to Castle Lake to visit Emma, their old friend. Emma is a participant in thetown’s local art festival and with that and the high school reunion (class of 1999), a lot of people are coming in.

In 1999, Emma’s boyfriend and Castle Lake high school senior Sam Romilly disappeared and rumor had it that his father murdered him.  Now, within a week of his class’s 20th reunion, Sam’s remains are found in someone else’s burial plot. Those who knew Sam–friends and enemies alike–will be in town for the much anticipated reunion and Jane has to separate the guilty from the innocent before something else happens.

Jane Lawless is a private investigator turned Minneapolis restaurateur who has a true-crime podcast innwhich she looks at cold cases. Now, back in northern Minnesota visiting with friends the case of a popular boy with an abusive father has come back to light. His remains including his backpack with wallet are found under a coffin. We quickly have plot swings between that night of murder and present day and we keep reading as quickly as possible.

While half the town suspected his father killed him and the other half thought he ran away but now the past has come back to haunt his classmates who have returned to town for their 20th reunion.

Jane begins to delve into the mystery and it seems there isn’t much faith in the local police getting to the root of what happened twenty years ago since they couldn’t solve the case back then either. Jane wants to find answers and help Emily and the town find closure to this terrible tragedy of years earlier.

If you are not familiar with Jane Lawless, it is time you meet her. This is the 26thbook in the series and each is a great read. Because it is a mystery, I can’t say much without spoiling the plot. I can say, however, that it is the perfect book for these shut in days of Covid-19. Ellen Hart is a wonderful writer and storyteller who is able to distinctly give us a sense of place and character.  

 

“Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate” by Daniel Mendelsohn— The Randomness of Lives

Mendelsohn, Daniel. “Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate”,  University of Virginia Press, 2020.

The Randomness of Lives

Amos Lassen

In “Three Rings”, Daniel Mendelsohn explores the mysterious links between the randomness of the lives we lead and the artfulness of the stories we tell. He brings together memoir, biography, history, and literary criticism together through the stories of three exiled writers who turned to the classics of the past to create their own masterpieces that look at the nature of narrative itself— Erich Auerbach, the Jewish philologist who fled Hitler’s Germany and wrote his classic study of Western literature, “Mimesis”in Istanbul,  François Fénelon, the seventeenth-century French archbishop whose sequel to the “Odyssey”, “The Adventures of Telemachusis a veiled critique of the Sun King and the German novelist W. G. Sebald, self-exiled to England, whose narratives explore Odyssean themes of displacement, nostalgia, and separation from home.

Mixed into these tales of exile and artistic crisis is an account of Mendelsohn’s struggles to write two of his own books–a family saga of the Holocaust and a memoir about reading the Odyssey with his father. Both are tales of oppression and wandering. As we read we get a revelation about the way in which the lives of its three heroes were linked across borders, languages, and centuries and we reconsider the relationship between narrative and history, art and life.

This is a book about telling stories that provokes thought with its originality.

“Same Old Queer Theory, Literature and the Politics of Sameness” by Ben Nichols— A Rethinking

Nichols, Ben. “Same Old Queer Theory, Literature and the Politics of Sameness”, Manchester University Press, 2020.

A Rethinking

Amos Lassen

“Same Old” is a rethinking of positions that have defined queer theory since its inception in the early 1990s.  Through philosophical and political commitments to ‘difference’, queer theoretical frameworks have tended to assume that ideas related to ‘sameness’ only hinder and question queer forms of life. Writer Ben Nichols takes a number of these ideas as his focus – uselessness, reproduction, normativity and reductionism  and shows their unexpected formal and thematic importance to a range of queer literary genres from across the long twentieth century including fin-de-siècle aestheticism, feminist speculative fiction, lesbian middlebrow writing, and the ‘stud file’ or record of serial sex. He demonstrates how queer cultural objects are often at odds with the frameworks that have been meant to help interpret and comprehend them. Nichols interrogates the genealogy of the aversion to sameness that has kept those frameworks in place.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

Introduction: Same old
1. Useless
2. Reproductive
3. Normative
4. Reductive
Coda: Same again
References

“Angel on a Freight Train: A Story of Faith and Queer Desire in Nineteenth-Century America” by Peter C. Baldwin— Reconciliation

Baldwin, Peter C. “Angel on a Freight Train: A Story of Faith and Queer Desire in Nineteenth-Century America”, SUNY Press, 2020.

Reconciliation

Amos Lassen

 

“Angel on a Freight Train” examines the experiences of Samuel Edward Warren (1831–1909), a teacher and college professor in Troy, New York, who struggled to reconcile his same-sex erotic desires with his commitment to a Christian life. Warren discerned no fundamental conflict between his faith and his attraction to younger males. He grew up in the post war Northeast, in a culture that permitted and even celebrated emotional bonds between men and he strove to build emotionally intense relationships in many overlapping forms—friendship, pedagogy, evangelism, and romance which would allow him to enjoy intimacy with little effort at concealment. However, as he matured into adulthood and had quite a prestigious career, Warren began to feel that he should have grown out of romantic friendships, which he now felt had become emotionally and physically excessive.

The book is based on Warren’s deeply introspective and previously unexplored diaries and it traces his youthful freedom and sensuality, his attempt to join with younger men in a spirit of loving mentorship, and, finally, his tortured introspection of a man whose age seemed to shut him out of a lost world. Warren “came to believe rather sorrowfully in a radical division between his angelic, ideal self and what he called “the freight train of animal life below.”

There was social disdain for the acting out of same-sex attractions so nineteenth-century men were reluctant to record their feelings or describe in their diaries the serious flirtations or relationships in which they were engaged. Through the discovery of that a memoir that offered some behavioral details of queer erotics important aspects of Warren’s relationships with other boys/men are revealed.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments

Introduction: Words, Flesh, and Spirit

1. Friendship

2. Teaching

3. Evangelism

4. Fatherhood

Epilogue: The Cross, the Grave, the Skies

Abbreviations in Notes
Notes
Index

 

“Tom of Finland: The Official Life and Work of a Gay Hero” by F. Valentine Hooven— Another Look at Tom of Finland

Hooven, F. Valentine. “Tom of Finland: The Official Life and Work of a Gay Hero”, Cerunnos, 2020.

Another Look at Tom of Finland

Amos Lassen

 Tom of Finland or Tuoko Laaksonen (1920-1991) “was an iconic and provocative artist who rose to cult status in the international gay community and beyond for his work celebrating gay archetypes and masculinity during a time when being gay was taboo.” In partnership with the Tom of Finland Estate, F. Valentine Hooven brings us “Tom of Finland: The Official Life and Work of a Gay Hero”, a detailed visual biography of never or rarely seen documents from his archive. The text was completed just a few months before the death of the artist and was fully approved by him. This book the only 100% approved biography of this gay legend who created the muscled, mustachioed gay archetype of the 1960s and ’70s. 

It includes an extensive biography, and suggestive photos and illustrations, and it one again  brings to life the man whose erotic illustrations of men influenced many artists.