Monthly Archives: October 2021

“Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life” by Alan Cumming— Who is Alan Cumming?

 

Cumming, Alan. “Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life”, Dey Street Books, 2021.

Who is Alan Cumming?

Amos Lassen

Alan Cumming is a man, an actor, an advocate and a happy human being. He shares how that came to be in “Baggage”. “There is absolutely no logical reason why I am here. The life trajectory my nationality and class and circumstances portended for me was not even remotely close to the one I now navigate. But logic is a science and living is an art.

The release I felt in writing my first memoir, Not My Father’s Son, was matched only by how my speaking out empowered so many to engage with their own trauma. I was reminded of the power of my words and the absolute duty of authenticity.” He goes on to say that no one can ever fully come to terms with their past and to deal with it, it is necessary to “manage and prioritize it”. Once you have triumphed or overcome something, you have only decided “to stop being vigilant and embrace denial as your modus operandi.”

“Baggage” follows Cumming’s  life in Hollywood and how, since he recovered from a nervous breakdown at 28, work has taken him away from personal problems. Cumming writes about marriage(s): the break-up of my first (to a woman) and the second (to a man) with so much in between. He shows what he has learned and how he became who he is today.

“Bi: Bisexual, Pansexual, Fluid, and Nonbinary Youth” by Ritch C. Savin-Williams— Gender and Sexual Identities

Savin-Williams, Ritch C. “Bi: Bisexual, Pansexual, Fluid, and Nonbinary Youth”, NYU Press, 2021.

Gender and Sexual Identities

Amos Lassen

Even with greatervisibility of LGBTQ people in American culture, the understanding of bisexuality is superficial even though five times as many people identify as bisexual than as gay or lesbian, and as much as 25 percent of the population is estimated to be bisexual. In his new book “Bi”, scholar of youth sexuality, Ritch Savin-Williams, looks at bisexuality as Gen Z and millennial youth and young adults are rejecting traditional labels altogether. Through interviews with bisexual youth from a diverse racial, ethnic, and social class groups, he shows us how bisexuals define their own sexual orientation and experiences and in their own words. We see how and why people might “identify as bisexual as a result of their biology or upbringing; as a bridge or transition to something else; as a consequence of their curiosity; or for a range of other equally valid reasons.”

We gain a way to think about bisexuality as part of a continuum seeing that “many of the young people who identify as bisexual often defy traditional views, dispute false notions, and reimagine sexuality with regard to both practice and identity.” Many young people experience a complex, nuanced existence with multiple sexual and romantic attractions as well as gender expressions, which are rarely and move back and forth over their lives.

This is an important new understanding of bisexuality as an orientation, behavior, and identity.  Bisexuality is seen as a valid sexual identity and we get a timely insight into the experiences of bisexual youth themselves.

There are those thatdoubt that bisexuality really exists, while others think that bisexuals are ‘closeted gays, curious heterosexuals, or maladjusted people who can’t decide what they want”. Savin-Williams’ book changes that by letting diverse individuals speak their own truths. through clear and compelling looks at bisexuality. Savin-Williams explains why young adults want to disrupt the binaries of their parents’ generation and create their own ways of understanding themselves and each other.  We see all of the many ways bisexuality has been misunderstood.

 

“Until We Fall” by Nicole Zelniker— Present and Future

Zelniker, Nicole. “Until We Fall”, Jaded Ibis Press, 2021.

Present and Future

Amos Lassen

Isla is a Black, transgender student who, with her teacher, is arrested by the government for revolutionary activity. Because of this, she becomes an activist working for social justice. Through her journey, writer Nicole Zelniker has something to say about authoritarian government: loss of civil rights, violence, suppression, and the countermovement— a movement in which all human life is valued and fought for.

Before her arrest, Isla did not see herself as an activist but everything changed and she became part of a resistance movement fighting the government’s implementation of its “family values” campaign.

While this is fiction, it could very well happen anywhere and this is a story we can all relate to. I think many of us have recently shared the experience of fighting the powers that be during the Trump administration. We are certainly aware of how powerless we feel because of

misogynist, racist, homophobic and transphobic politics but we see here that there is something we can do to change things. That is what we really see in this book.

Zelniker gives us the experiences of danger, close calls, and betrayals, yet love and friendship are the rewards. The similarities of Zelniker’s world in “Until We Fall” and the world we live in now are amazing and quite disturbing. We are reminded of just how quickly we can lose freedom and what it takes to get it back.

“The Last Checkmate: A Novel” by Gabriella Saab— Playing Chess for Life

Saab, Gabriella. “The Last Checkmate: A Novel”,  William Morrow, 2021.

Playing Chess for Life

Amos Lassen

Maria Florkowasa is a young Polish resistance workerwho isimprisoned in Auschwitz as a political prisoner. Sheplays chess in exchange for her life, and in doing so fights to bring the man who destroyed her family to justice.

Maria, as a member of the Polish underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, is very brave. She is captured by the Gestapo, imprisoned in Auschwitz and is very lucky. When her family is sent to their deaths, she is spared. She is well aware of her ability to play chess. The sadistic camp deputy, Karl Fritzsch, decides to use her as a chess opponent to entertain camp guards. However, he plans to kill her when he becomes tired of exploiting her skills.

When she is befriended by a Catholic priest, Maria struggles to overcome her grief and vows to avenge the murder of her family. She plays chess for her life. During four terrible years, her strategy becomes “Live. Fight. Survive”. She manages to provoke Fritzsch’s volatile nature in front of his superiors while planning his downfall. She wants to see him punished for his evil-doings.  As she carries out her plan and the war nears its end, she challenges him to one final game which will surely end in life or death, in failure or justice.

She was just fourteen-years-old when she was captured by the Gestapo while delivering documents for the resistance. After a brutal interrogation, Maria and her whole family are sent to Auschwitz, but only she survives the first day and that was because of Fritzsch who learns she can play chess and he can use her to entertain the camp guards. She knows he will kill her when he becomes bored with their matches. She is filled with guilt over the deaths of her family members and only finds the will to live when she becomes friends with a kind Catholic priest and the only other woman prisoner in the men’s camp. Her only wish is to survive long enough to bring down her family’s killer. It all comes down to one final chess match.

This is a  compelling story of courage, perseverance, friendship and love.  It is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. Saab’s writing is polished, understated, and engaging. The characters come alive for me and the descriptions are vivid. I found myself turning pages as quickly as possible as I became a part of Maria.

 

 

“A Tale of Two Omars: A Memoir of Family, Revolution, and Coming Out During the Arab Spring” by Omar Sharif, Jr.— A Memoir of Self-Discovery

Sharif Jr., Omar “A Tale of Two Omars: A Memoir of Family, Revolution, and Coming Out During the Arab Spring”, Counterpoint, 2021.

A Memoir of Self-Discovery

Amos Lassen

 In “A Tale of Two Omars”, Omar Sharif, Jr. writes about the intersection of Arab and queer identity. He is the grandson of Hollywood royalty on his father’s side and Holocaust survivors on his mother’s and learned early on how to move between worlds. He was always protected by his famous and in the wake of the Arab Spring, he made the difficult decision to come out in the pages of “The Advocate”, knowing his life would forever change. However, he didn’t expect was the backlash that followed. 

Sharif’s life was one of bullying, illness, attempted suicide, sex trafficking and death threats by the thousands, revolution and never being able to return to the country he once called home. Yet he has managed to overcome tremendous challenges. Here he shares the process and the struggles and successes that come with a public journey of self-acceptance and a life dedicated to serving others.  As he learns to accept himself, he faces the difficult road of being gay, Muslim and Jewish. His story is a plea for the place calls home and equal rights for everyone. Holding nothing back, we share his life.

Sharif’s life is the story of freedom and accepting the challenges he faces. We see how important it is to live. This is a powerful and essential memoir of self-discovery. filled with beautiful memories of his grandfather and horrible stories of abuse and homophobia.

“Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot” by Jonathan Alexander— Personal Trauma and Culture

Alexander, Jonathan. “Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot”, Fordham University Press, 2021.

Personal Trauma and Culture

Amos Lassen

In “Stroke Book”, Jonathan Alexander shares his story of personal trauma and how a culture still toxic to queer people can reshape a body.In the summer of 2019, Jonathan Alexander had a minor stroke that his doctors called an “eye stroke.” The result was a permanent blind spot in his right eye. Alexander writes about the immediate aftermath of his health crisis and his experiences as a queer person who became. subject to medical intervention. 

He writes about the pressure that the queer ill feel is at fault for their conditions, of having somehow chosen illness as punishment for their queerness, even if subconsciously. Some queer people experience psychic and somatic pressures that both decrease their overall quality of life and can lead to shorter lifespans. We are taken on a personal journey of facing a health crisis while trying to understand how one’s sexual identity affects and is affected by that crisis. Written in the form of a  diary Alexander shares his experiences in lyrical prose. He struggles with his shifted experience of time as he addresses the aftermath of what he comes to call his “incident” and he meditates on how a history of homophobic encounters can be manifested in embodied forms. 

“SWEET THING”— A Look at Race and Poverty In Childhood

“SWEET THING”

A Look at Race and Poverty In Childhood

Amos Lassen

“Sweet Thing” is director Alexandre Rockwell’s story of the strength of children in the face of neglect, warring parents, and identity crisis. It is a meditation on an impoverished childhood that filled with innocence and imagination Rockwell’s own daughter Lana is Billie, the daughter of unreliable, alcoholic but loving Adam (Will Patton) and older sister to Nico (Nico Rockwell, the director’s son). Billie is a talented singer who was named after Billie Holliday, whom she sees as her guide. This guidance and emotional support is necessary: her mother, Eve, (Karyn Parsons) has left the family to be with her controlling, abusive boyfriend Beaux (ML Josepher). Adam is ineffectual even when sober, and Nico is too young to be independent, thus Billie ends up the caregiver for her father and brother.

Adam moves between tenderness and tyranny regarding his children. One moment he gives Billie a cheap ukulele for Christmas and the next he pulls her into the bathroom and cuts her gorgeous hair off as punishment while mumbling regrets for doing so.

When Adam, who has been earning casual money as a Santa-for-hire, gets arrested and sent to rehab to dry out, the kids go to live with Eve and Beaux, where they become friends with teenaged Malik (Jabari Watkins) but when Beaux turns sexually predatory toward Nico, Eve refuses to believe Billie when she shares this and te three kids run off in a stolen car, hoping to get to  Florida, where Malik’s absentee father lives.

Even though the film is set in New Bedford, Massachusetts, it really could play out anywhere. “Sweet Thing” looks at the misery of children of alcoholic parents, and has something to say about race. Blackness is not a foregrounded theme, but it is important to this story of marginalization. Billie and Nico fight to find joy within the struggle. Sincerity and optimism are everywhere in “Sweet Thing” and we see that youth can handle anything that they face in life.

“Everything Within and In Between” by Nikki Bathelmess— Assimilation, Family Bonds and Identity

Barthelmess, Nikki. “Everything Within and In Between”,  Harper Teen, 2021.

Assimilation, Family Bonds and Identity

Amos Lassen

Ri Fernández has been told for her entire life that “We live in America and we speak English.” Her strict Mexican grandma, Ri, who raised her has never allowed Ri to learn Spanish. Her grandmother has also pulled Ri away from the community where they once belonged and Ri has grown up trying to fit in among her best friend’s elite world of mansions and country clubs as she tries to become part her grandmother’s version of the “American Dream.”

Ri has always believed that her mother, who disappeared when Ri was young, would accept her exactly how she is and not try to make her into someone she’s never wanted to be. When Ri finds a long-hidden letter from her mom begging for a visit, she decides to reclaim her heritage and her mom. However, it doesn’t work out that way. Her mom isn’t who Ri imagined she would be and finding her doesn’t change anything. Ri and no one else has any idea of who Ri really is. 

Nikki Barthelmess’s “Everything Within and In Between” is the story of  one young woman’s journey to rediscover her roots and redefine herself. It examines intergenerational cultural dynamics and racial microaggressions through Ri’s journey of self-discovery. We read of biracial identity complicated family dynamics, and the discovery of identity while bridging two worlds.

Barthelmess writes about heritage and family and pulls us into Ri’s story the moment we begin to read. Ri passes for white simply because she is whiter than the other Latinx kids in her school. Her grandmother wants nothing to do with her own heritage and wants to pull Ri from all things Mexican in this story of identity. This personal coming-of-age narrative is filled with changing friendships and loves in the larger picture of history and community.