Monthly Archives: June 2021

“PAUL LAWRENCE DUNBAR: AN AMERICAN POET”— Remembering Our Virtues

 

“PAUL LAWRENCE DUNBAR: AN AMERICAN POET”

Remembering Our Virtues

Amos Lassen

I am always amazed when a short ten-minute film can say so much in such a short period of time. From only having heard the name of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, I was eager to learn about him. He has achieved a certain national fame and as an avid poetry reader, I wondered why I had never read his poems.

Filmmaker Kane Stratton takes on the story ofan 18th-century runaway slave who became a member of the Shawnee tribe in Ohio. We are at a dinner in 1904 at the home of Dunbar’s mother Matilda and where Dayton’s mayor C.A. Snyder is a guest. The reason for the dinner is to talk about Dunbar’s  participation in the Fourth of July extravaganza and there ensues a disagreement. The mayor is eager to have Dunbar but is apprehensive about any controversy that might arise.

Dunbar (A. Slate) is eloquent and quite dignified exudes dignified eloquence. The mayor (Timothy J. Cox) is a politician who is calculating and determined that all go according to his plans. Matilda (MyJoy Filer)  bridges the gap between the two men. As Dunbar and the mayor debate a small matter, we see the larger divisions that have caused a rift in America for years. We also see  the stubbornness that is only relieved by Matilda’s common sense and Dunbar’s beautiful language. Reading his poem “Sympathy,” we see the power of his words.

We are reminded  that in order to heal, art may be the best way to do so and it is clear that this should never be forgotten.

“Monkey Boy” by Francisco Goldman— Divided Identity

Goldman, Francisco. “Monkey Boy”, Grove Press, 2021.

Divided Identity

Amos Lassen

Francisco Goldman’s “Monkey Boy” is a story about the impact of divided identity and the quest to heal a damaged past and find love.

Francisco Goldberg is an American writer who has been living in Mexico but who flees to New York City because of a threat provoked by his journalism. He hopes to start afresh. His last relationship ended badly five years before and he might be beginning a new love affair with a young Mexican woman he meets in Brooklyn. But Francisco is soon beckoned back to his childhood home outside Boston by a high school girlfriend who was part of his youthful humiliations, and to visit his Guatemalan mother, Yolanda, whose brings back memories of the past. On this five-day trip, he is reminded of his  recently deceased father, Bert, an immigrant from Ukraine  who had been abusive yet endearing  and the Guatemalan woman who helped raise him  and the high school bullies who called him “monkey boy. 

The story is a look at  family and growing up “halfie,” and the cruelties of a predominantly white, working-class Boston suburb where Francisco came of age. Now he explores the pressures of living between worlds all his life. 

Like Gold­man, the fic­tion­al Fran­cis­co is the child of a Catholic Guatemalan moth­er and a Jew­ish Ukrain­ian father who grew up in Boston and is now a nov­el­ist and journalist.

Fam­i­ly pain everywhere in the book. Francisco looks back on his child­hood and teenage years and we see how a sen­si­tive son both despis­es his father for his vio­lent nature yet craves his approval as does his mother’s waver­ing between leav­ing her hus­band and stay­ing with him.

Frankie shows no ear­ly promise as a writer or stu­dent, but  finds his voice as nov­el­ist and inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist in Latin Amer­i­ca. The polit­i­cal and per­son­al are intertwined in the nov­el as the nar­ra­tive moves back and forth between dif­fer­ent times and loca­tions. Frank strug­gles to make sense of the pain of the dis­tant and recent past. He is can­did about his large­ly failed rela­tion­ships with women. He explores his own iden­ti­ty, includ­ing the dis­cov­ery of a sur­prise African grand­par­ent, and strug­gles for self-under­stand­ing while com­ing to terms with his past and present life.

The narrator’s scarred child­hood and ado­les­cence, failed romances, and encounter with the bru­tal crimes of the Guatemalan dic­ta­tor­ship weigh on him. The seriousness of topics is counterbalanced by Goldman’s beautiful language, straightforward prose and sense of humor and distinct style.

Goldman brings together autobiography and invention to give us intense fiction. We read of the painful intimate violence in a suburban New England home, to racial cruelty among high school teenagers, to the US government’s political and military interventionism in Latin America and we see how connected they in fact are.

“Jacob’s Ladder” by Louis Flint Ceci–Volume Three of the Croy Cycle

Ceci, Louis Flint. “Jacob’s Ladder”, Les Croyens Press, 2021.

Volume Three of the Croy Cycle

Amos Lassen

Louis Flint Ceci follows his “Comfort Me” and “If I Remember Him”, the first two novels in the Croy Cycle with “Jacob’s Ladder”. Jake, Joanie and Randy, their school mates, parents and neighbors back with us in a place where basketball holds great importance and characters explore their sexuality. They are in the process of self-acceptance even though their parents and friends do not always agree. This is the story of coming-of-age in this country as seen through the lives of the residents of Croy, a rural American town. Differences of generations fuel the plot.

After spending the summer in New York City, Mally Jacobs comes home to Croy, Oklahoma. He had seen the Stonewall riots and he had kissed a boy and has now decided to call himself Jake and is determined to use his basketball skills to impress his friends and make a name for himself. He knows that Croy is nothing like the freedom he found  in New York and now he has a big secret.

Beginning in 1868, we are with Jake and his friends, Randy and Joanne as they attempt to find their places in the world.

 

“Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture” by Aaron Lecklider— The Intersection Between Queerness and Radical Politics

Lecklider, Aaron. “Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture”, University of California Press, 2021.

The Intersection of Queerness and Radical Politics

Amos Lassen

Before Stonewall there was a broad cross section of sexual dissidents who took advantage of their space on the margins of American society become involved in leftist campaigns. They were already sensitive to sexual marginalization and they saw how class inequality was increased by the Great Depression while being witness to bread lines and bread riots of the time. They became involved in radical labor organizing; they sympathized with the early prewar Soviet Union; contributed to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; opposed US police and state harassment; fought racial discrimination, and took their places with the dispossessed. Whether or not they were straight, gay, or otherwise different, they brought sexual dissidence and radicalism into the Left’s influence on American culture.
 
Writer Aaron Lecklider has brought together archival research with analysis of art and literature in “Love’s Next Meeting” to explore the relationship between homosexuality and the Left in American culture between 1920 and 1960. We meet s cast of individuals and works that show progressive engagement with homosexuality among radicals, workers, and the poor. Leftists connected sexual dissidence with radical gender politics, antiracism, and challenges to censorship and obscenity laws through the 1920s and 1930s. As they did, a wide collection of activists, organizers, artists, and writers to lay the foundation for a radical movement in which homosexual lives and experiences took shape and new political identities came into being. We look at questions about socialism, \sexuality, the supposed clash between leftist politics and identity politics in the history of America and we get a dramatic story of struggles for liberation across the twentieth century.

Sexual dissidence and radical Left politics were compatible but there was a complex, uneven relationship. Gay leftists fought for sexual freedom and political revolution and as they did,  they shaped “every aspect of twentieth-century American culture&;race, class, labor, psychology, visual culture, literary art, sexuality, maritime culture & and the Left.”

We learn how artists, writers, poets, sex workers, hustlers, intellectuals, and many others saw their sexual desires as an extension of their politics. The relationship between homosexuality and the American Left was complex  and we see that in every aspect  of American life there was a kind of hope that class- and race-based liberation politics could be pen to LGBT people. “While sexual dissidents opened the Left to the question of full sexual freedom, both independent and Soviet-affiliated US Left cultures struggled to meet queer people’s desires.”

 Aaron Lecklider shows how queer liberation and gay rights were connected to and yet excluded from radical social movements.

 

“Transmutation: Stories: by Alex DiFrencesco— Margins of Trans Lives

DiFrancesco, Alex. “Transmutation: Stories”,  Seven Stories Press, 2021.

 Margins of Trans Lives

Amos Lassen

Alex DiFrancesco pushes the boundaries of transgender awareness and filial bonds in “Transmutation”. We read of the hate between 16-year-old Junie, who is transitioning, and their mom’s boyfriend Chad when the family moves into Chad’s house on Lake Erie and the love being tested between Sawyer and his dad, who named his boat after his child and resists changing it from Sara to Sawyer now. DiFrancesco dared to go to places that are violent and comfortless in some of her stories, testing the limits of what it means to be human. We have

“moments of in-betweenness that are familiar to transgender people who are not legible, temporarily or purposefully, to others or themselves. Here is “love in all forms, belonging, reckoning, and reclamation.”

“The Queer Bible: Essays” edited by Jack Guinness— Queer Heroes Speak

Guinness, Jack (editor). “The Queer Bible: Essays”, Day Street, 2021.

Queer Heroes Speak

Amos Lassen

Jack Guinness’s “The Queer Bible” is a beautifully illustrated collection of essays written by today’s queer heroes including Elton John, Tan France, Gus Kenworthy, Paris Lees, Russell Tovey, Munroe Bergdorf, and many others.It isa celebration of LGBTQ+ history and culture.

In 2016, model and queer activist Jack Guinness decided that the LGBTQ+ community needed to be reminded of its history of stardom and the following year, QueerBible.com was born, an online community devoted to celebrating queer heroes, both past and present. So much queer history is hidden or erased and The Queer Bible” has become a home for all those personal stories and histories.

Contemporary queer heroes pay homage to those who helped pave their ways through illuminating essays and gorgeous illustrations. “The Queer Bible” is a powerful and intimate essay collection of gratitude as well as an enduring love letter to the queer community. 

 

 

 

 

“Home Stretch” by Graham Norton— The Aftermath of Tragedy

Norton, Graham. “Home Stretch: A Novel”,  HarperVia, 2021.

The Aftermath of Tragedy

Amos Lassen

Graham Norton explores the aftermath of a tragedy on a small-town to illuminate the shame and longing that can flow through generations and how the secrets of the heart cannot stay be buried forever in “Home Stretch”.

Set in 1987, a small Irish community is preparing for a wedding. The day before the ceremony, a group of young friends, including the bride and groom, are involved in an accident. Three survive and three are killed. The lives of the families are shattered and problems between them are everywhere in the small town. Connor survived, but living among the angry and the mourning is as hard as dealing with the shame of having been the driver. He leaves the only place he knows for another life and takes his secrets with him. He goes to Liverpool, then London and eventually makes a home for himself in New York, where he finds shelter and the possibility a new life. However, the secrets haunt him and Connor has to confront his past.

This is a story of stigma and secrecy and their devastating effect on ordinary lives. As time goes by, Connor has no contact with his family, trying to forget the events of that tragic day and the way that everyone blamed him and brought shame on his family. Twenty-fiveyears pass and Connor has never returns home or contacted his family except for one brief postcard, but a chance meeting brings back all those memories and force him to decide whether to face up to the aftermath of that day and return home to see his family. 

There is a huge cast of characters in a very short space of time making it difficult, at first, to get into the novel. It moves back and forward a lot from character to character and back and forth in time yet for the most part, it all comes together in a very well written book and a very enjoyable read.

Basically, this is the story of a small town tragedy and the deceit and lies around it as well as the story about a young man’s sexuality and finding himself.  We see that the pain from a single incident can extend far into the future. We also see that fleeing home because you don’t feel you belong there is a major theme.

Connor Hayes has a double burden: responsibility for a horrific car accident that killed three people, and his status as a gay man in an era when homosexuality in Ireland was both a sin and a crime. He moves away and when he returns years later, the book’s come together into a story of change and growth.

“A Play for the End of the World: A Novel” by Jai Chakrabarti— An Unlikely Romance

Chakrabarti, Jai. “A Play for the End of the World: A Novel”,  Knopf, 2021.

An Unlikely Romance

Amos Lassen

The beauty of literature is that we never know what to expect before we open the covers of a book. I could never have imagined a story about the Holocaust and India so I was totally surprised by Jai Chakrabarti’s “A Play for the End of the World”.Set in the early 1970’s in New York and rural India, this is the story of a unlikely romance and the terror of the horrors of the Second World War as a man searches for forgiveness and acceptance.

Jaryk Smith survived the Warsaw Ghetto. Lucy Gardner, a southerner, came to New York from the South and the two fall in love, The catalyst was Jaryk learning that Misha, his oldest died under mysterious circumstances in a rural village in eastern India. Jaryk goes to India to get his friend’s ashes and is soon involved in local politics and a play being staged that protests the government. It just happened to be the very same play in which he performedas a child in Warsaw as an act of resistance against the Nazis. The survivor’s guilt that has part of him since the end of the war along with his feelings for Lucy (who is pregnant with his child and he does not yet know this), makes him reach a decision as to how to honor both the past and the present, and how to deal with the  happiness that he is not sure he deserves.
 
This is a love story that explores of the role of art in times of political upheaval as well as a  reminder of the power of the past to shape the present..

Jaryk realized that the trip to India would not be an easy one especially when he learns that Misha had been staging Rabindrnath Tagore’s “The Post Office” there. It was the very sae play that had performed in Paris the night the Germans took the city, and in Bangladesh during the crackdowns of General Tikka Kahn, and in the Warsaw orphanage where Jaryk grew up as an act of resistance against the Nazis. Jaryk takes on the mission on going to see the play in the Indian village. As he becomes more involved with the play and community, Jaryk must deal with the survivor’s guilt and how to accept a happiness with Lucy. As we read, we find ourselves dealing with the same issues.

“The Vampire’s Witch” by Damian Serbu— The Realm of the Vampire Council #3

Serbu, Damian. “The Vampire’s Witch”, Nine Star Press, 2021.

The Realm of the Vampire Council #3

Amos Lassen

Those of you who follow my reviews know what I am something a fan of vampire novels (I was raised in New Orleans and that might explain that) and I am a huge fan of Damian Serbu. In fact, I consider some of his vampires to be friends of mine. It as if my reviewing and Serbu’s books have gone together since I first began this aspect of my life. I am always looking for writers whose style I love and Damian Serbu is at the top of that list.

It is so good to be back in Serbu’s literary world and to become reacquainted with Jaret Bachmann whose life is changing after he meets a handsome stranger who saves him from an attack while on a bike path on Lakeshore Drive. As of that is not enough, Jaret is being stalked by his former high school sweetheart and the angry ghost of his ancestor is playing havoc with his family and the guy who saved him and became something of his lover leaves him after he learns that Jaret is a witch. A family tragedy had made him depressed and he needs understanding. Jaret hopes to find comfort in a secret community of vampires. His need for family brings him to establish one of his own with Xavier, Thomas, and Catherine.

I love a novel that pulls me and takes me to places that otherwise I cannot go. There is something very real about Jaret’s world and it is amazing how both familiar and foreign it is. I do not want to say anything else about that world for to do so would spoil a wonderful read and Serbu’s lyrical prose. There is a problem though and that is we have to wait in between books. When Serbu’s characters become your friends, you want them around as much as possible.

“Covenant (A Jericho Novel, 4)” by Ann McMan— Returning to Jericho

McMan, Ann. “Covenant (A Jericho Novel, 4)”, Bywater Books, 2021.

Returning to Jericho

Amos Lassen

Jericho, Virginia is a town in the Appalachian Mountains where twists and turns are parts of the daily life there. “Covenant” opens  six weeks after the fourth of July celebration and it was not any celebration but one cloaked in events that has residents questioning the death of Mayor Gerald Watson.  Was his death an accident or was he murdered? There are suspects everywhere and as many secrets as there are residents. These secrets could ruin the sense of community of the town. The characters come together and try to find a way to keep that community as pasts and presents are exposed.

This is Dorothy’s story and it is a story of love and friendship. Ann McMan really knows how to tell that story, so much so, in fact, that it reads as very real. I felt that I was in Jericho listening to the voices and seeing a world that once was with people who care for one another. It is one thing to meet new characters but it takes a skilled writer to be able to take us into their hearts.

Witnesses and suspects are interviewed about Watson’s death and the situation is very tense. Dorothy is staying with Maddie’s mother Celine who encourages her to play the piano.  Celine is attracted to Byron, the town sheriff. Henry is having a rough time at school and often stays with Syd and Maddie, his guardians, while his father is in the army where he is a member of a logistical unit and drives trucks. David and Syd are planning  a spectacular wedding for Syd and Maddie and  Roma Jean Freemantle and her girlfriend Charlie spend a lot of time together. Then the past becomes the present when  someone from Charlie’s past returns and put their relationship in a dangerous position. By having these backstories, we get to know the characters and in learning about them, we also learn about ourselves.

With all that is going on, we see that there is still good in the world. Roma Jean’s relationship with Charlie shows that are good people in the world. Roma Jean’s parents support her and stand up to those who are against her. What we really see in “Covenant” is that even in a world where there is ignorance, there can also be love and acceptance.