THE BEST OF LGBT FICTION— 2018, My Personal Choices

Castellani, Christopher. “Leading Men: A Novel”, Viking, 2018. Fidelity, Desire and Ambition Amos Lassen I am often asked what makes me decide if a book is worthy of praise. My answer from now on is to say read Christopher Castellani’s “Leading Men” and you will know. Set in Italy in the 1950s, it has a good plot, wonderfully drawn characters and prose that makes me tingle. It does not happen often but my eyes filled with tears because of the beauty of the reading experience. Of course, the fact that one of the characters is someone who was close to me influences my opinion. We join the “beautiful people in Portofino, Italy in July in the 1950s at a party given and hosted by Truman Capote and filled with members of literary and film circles. An expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy. Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. This meeting totally changes their lives forever. We move forward a decade and Frank is dying in Manhattan. He is waiting for Tennessee’s last visit. The mysterious Anja is now a legendary film icon Anja Bloom and lives as a recluse. But then a young man who was connected to the events of 1953 lures her r back into the spotlight after he learns that she has the only surviving copy of Williams’ final play. Christopher Castellani brings fact and fiction together so that we can better understand the private lives of public people. Through the character of Anja Bloom we see what allows two people to stay together and what pries them apart. Most of us never have had to face major negotiations in life as great people because we have not reached that plateau and what might seem relatively minor to us can be a tremendous obstacle for those living in public. This becomes an “ultimately heartbreaking story about the burdens of fame and the complex negotiations of life in the shadows of greatness.” Through Anja Bloom we see the hidden machinery of one of the great literary love stories of the twentieth-century. I started reading this book this morning early and just closed the covers some nine hours later. I spent a while stunned and decided to sit down and start writing while everything was fresh in my mind. This is not only a meditation on fame but also a look into private lives of those who live publicly. It is  a love story that is sensitive and bold. I can say that from my own personal knowledge of Tennessee Williams, the man and the playwright, everything here rings true. I love that every once in a while we hear of the discovery of the manuscript of his final play. He has as many final plays as Cher has had farewell tours. Yet I am also convinced that there are still manuscripts of plays that have not been yet found. Hence we get a legend and Williams was indeed legendary. For those of us who were aware, the love story of Williams and Merlo was extraordinary and I do not believe that Williams ever loved anyone  the way he loved Frank. Here are Merlo’s final days set against memories of an Italian summer in 1953 that changes him and his world forever. I doubt that many of us are aware of to what great lengths artists are driven to just as most of us are unaware of what it takes to create something that lasts . Castellani seems to know as he created this wonderful story of love, fame, forgiveness and life. We see that sometimes we are so anxious to make sure that we have a place in the future that we do not realize that we are losing the present. All of us are victims to time; we all age and we all change. I am constantly aware of that two word sentence in James Joyce’s short story, “Eveline”. It simply says, “everything changes”. I do not think that we understand what being genius means and while it appeases on one hand, it can destroy if not used correctly. While “Knowledge is Power”, power is not always knowledge. Castellani has beautiful insight into the characters he creates here and also to the ones he adapts to his story. I must admit that even though I heard great things about “Leading Men”, I approached it with caution because I knew and loved one of the main characters and I did not want anyone tampering with my memories of him. Castellani did not tamper; he enhanced my memories—  of personages, activities and life. In effect this is a novel akin to playing “what if”. We explore the possibilities of what might have happened. I am an emotional reader and I often shed tears not only because of what happens but also because of how it is told. I want to say that “Leading Men” is more than a read; it is a total experience and Christopher Castellani is more than a storyteller; he takes us where we need to be.
Boyne, John. “A Ladder to the Sky”, Hogarth, 2018. A Ruthless Man Amos Lassen Maurice Swift is handsome, charming, and has great desires for fame. He seems to have everything but what he needs to be famous—talent. He knows he does not have talent but he’s not about to let a detail like that stand in his way. After all, writers can find stories anywhere and they don’t need to be his own. Maurice was a waiter in a West Berlin hotel in 1988 and finds the perfect opportunity: a chance encounter with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann, a desperately lonely older writer. Maurice manages to tease out of Erich a terrible, long-held secret about his activities during the war. This gives him just what he needs to write his first novel. Once Maurice tastes literary fame, he knows he can stop at nothing in keep the high it gives him. He moves from the Amalfi Coast, where he matches wits with Gore Vida to Manhattan and London and perfects his talent for deceit and manipulation by preying on the talented and vulnerable in his calculated and cold-blooded climb to the top. What he does not realize is that the higher he climbs, the further he has to fall.  “A Ladder to the Sky” looks at Maurice, a relentlessly immoral man and a story thief who will steal your stories, and, in essence, your soul. Maurice can write but his stories are boring so he uses his physical beauty and charm to get to famous writers in order to steal from them. Maurice is a story thief, he uses people for their ideas and throws them away when he gets what he needs. He drains people’s souls and leaves them with nothing. Erich Ackermann was Maurice’s first act of destruction. When he was done with Erich, he simply discarded him and moved onto his next victim doing whatever necessary to get the stories that he needs. Once he has achieved his first conquest, he continues to take and take and take. His story is told in three parts by three different narrators. It is hard not to be enthralled and charmed by Maurice and as much as I came to really abhor him , I was anxious to see what he would do next. The character of Maurice is brilliantly drawn and intriguing. Boyne’s writing is wonderful and his novel is intricately plotted and filled with multi-dimensional complex characters and even though we could predict how all of this would end, we could not predict how far Maurice would go for fame. After meeting Gore Vidal which makes him uncertain of how far his looks can help him succeed, he moves from literary circle to literary circle, from the U.S. to London and all over the world, in search of his next opportunity. As he moves through his life, the stakes get higher and higher—until there’s nothing he won’t do for fame. He is a totally amoral character, and as much as we dislike him, we admire his cunning and ambition. We are pulled into the story from the first page and stay engrossed until we close the covers. Boyne gives us an unforgettable protagonist who is both dangerous and irresistible and who shows us a cynical portrait of the literary world.
Ampersant, Michael. “The Fountain of Geneva: The Secret Story”, Self-published, 2018. Looking at Hadrian Irreverently Amos Lassen Michael Ampersant gives us the true history of the Fountain of Geneva, the monument built by Roman emperor Hadrian to commemorate the most important moment of his love life. After the death of his lover Antinous, he visits Geneva, where he is told about the Muttoni, a ravishing, oversexed Nordic tribe which terrorizes the neighborhood. Hadrian finds this so interesting that he produces a cunning plan: he issues an empire-wide call for the first edition of “ROME HAS SEXUAL TALENT”, a reality contest designed to put an erotic SWAT team together. (You did not really think that you were going to get real history here, did you?). I had a great time reading this new and revised history of Hadrian in Geneva. Ampersant is a wonderful satirist and he writes so casually you actually feel like you are having a conversation with him. I am sure that there are some historical facts here but they are really not as important ot as much fun as what we read here. It was just over to soon. At only 26 pages long, Ampersant has to be succinct and he had to set up the story so that it sounded authentic. After all the Fountain is a major tourist attraction and I feel sure that from this point on LGBT tourists will include this on their itinerary. Richard, the librarian of the Geneva City archives, shares the secret information with two men in Geneva on their honeymoon. One reviewer stated that,  “This is so unbelievable, it must be true: Roman Emperor Hadrian—yes, him of the liaison with the Greek youth Antinous—is asked to help the Swiss with a crazy, all-male Nordic tribe.” The story is basically told through dialogue and I can promise you that you will have quite a few laughs.
Arditti, Michael. “Of Men and Angels”, Arcadia, 2018. The Myth of Sodom Amos Lassen The divine vengeance wreaked on the city of Sodom is one of the most enduring and influential myths of all time. Michael Arditti’s monumental work explores its creation, dissemination, and application in five key historical epochs. The characters that we meet here include exiled Jews, Babylonian temple prostitutes, a playwright, a Renaissance artist, a Bedouin escorting a Victorian canon and a Hollywood movie star with AIDS. The novel extends over five historical periods, from the earliest days of the Hebrew Bible through to 1990s Los Angeles. Angels begin and end the book and these angels are guardians, messengers and intermediaries with distant deities and they hold the story together. The story is centered the story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible about the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone brought down by angels on God’s orders. Only Lot and his daughters are spared the destruction. This is a story we all know well. Christianity argues that the fate of Sodom, and its neighboring city Gomorrah, was the result of its inhabitants “embracing” homosexuality. Thus the church condemns same-sex attraction is “the sin of Sodom”. Arditti looks at how three millennia of homophobia has been based on how we read this text since the Bible tends to be unclear about what happened and its cause. The “sin of Sodom”, according to the words used in the Authorized Version of the Bible (authorized to whom?), is an absence of hospitality, over-attachment to other deities, or lack of trust in God. As A Jew, I have been taught that the sin of Sodom is the lack of hospitality and the fact that the stranger was not welcomed. There are strains of Judaism that focus on homosexuality as well. We also sometimes forget what happens after the destruction and I do not believe I have ever heard a sermon about Lot’s two daughters who fill their father with wine and sleep with him to propagate the race. This is a novel about religious hypocrisy. Each of the five sections of the book tells the story of its victims. In the first section, we meet Jared, a young scribe who has been exiled with his fellow Jews to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. His job entails creating new written versions of the Genesis stories after the originals have been lost in the aftermath of battle. He really struggles to reconcile the teaching of Judaism on the sin of Sodom with his private exploration of a more tolerant attitude to human love in the city in which he is captive. The second episode is set in mediaeval York where the Guild of Salters is acting out a Miracle Play telling about Lot’s wife who supposedly was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back on the destruction of Sodom. Simon Muskham whose faith leads him to take part enthusiastically in a re-enactment of Lot’s escape from Sodom as part of the city’s mystery plays, sees his same-sex attraction as a gift from God, an act of heresy that costs him at the hands of the church authorities. The third section moves to the late 15th century in Florence where Sandro Botticelli paints the Destruction of Sodom, as the city is caught up in the religious fervor of Friar Savonorola’s revolutionary Puritanism, and the conflict between the Renaissance’s depiction of the human body and the strict sexual morality of Christian orthodoxy. In the fourth section, we begin in Egypt with the story of an English Anglican priest who while visiting the Holy Land is determined to locate the ruins of Sodom. His narrow and very English self-assurance and self-righteousness is undermined by his companion, his nephew who has been in the employ of the East India Company. He witnessed the horrors of mutiny and has bitter and sad memories but what the hook is here is that he is an unrepentant “sodomite” and his stories easily disturb the parson’s narrow understanding. The last section in set in Hollywood, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It begins with an entry from a mock-Wikipedia about the film “Flesh and Brimstone” that has been condemned by religious groups for its revisionist interpretation of the biblical stories of Abraham, Lot and Sodom. Nonetheless, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for actor Frank Archer in his last screen appearance. Archer had been a star for several decades and he was a closeted gay who could not be open about his sexuality and his relationship with his Russian-émigré lover Gene. Rumors that Frank is gay began to circulate after Gene’s death. Frank is HIV positive and his appearance in the film was courageous. This was at a time when an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence. One of the problems of writing about five different periods is that the story could feel “fragmented, repetitive, or didactic”, but Arditti is such a fine storyteller that this is a challenging and exciting read. Quite basically, “Of Men and Angels” is an unstinting look at the biblical roots of gay persecution but it is also so much more. We feel Arditti’s position, that those who have engaged and those that engage in gay sex have been subjected is revolting attitudes and punishments over time. Arditti combines education and research with his art of storytelling to give us a walk through Judaeo-Christian and Islamic history. 
He maintains “that the rules and legends these traditions have bequeathed are tainted by falsification, intimidation or opportunistic lies.” 
The angel Gabriel introduces each of the five episodes that question what actually happened at Sodom. 
What had the men of that town done to cause God to decree its destruction? Why were angels sent there and what was their essential identity? Why did Lot protect them to the extent of offering his daughters in their place to his menacing neighbors? What about the incest of Lot’s daughters’ with him after they have fled? Why does Lot’s wife look back at the town when she had been warned not to? These are not new questions and most of us have asked them many times. The dilemmas of the five main characters are concerned with whether or not homosexuality is a sin, a crime, against nature, tolerated, celebrated or concealed. We are reminded of ideologies that have caused gay baiting, hating and martyrdom. Religion and its tales have been complicit in oppression, along with men’s paranoia and weakness. What Arditti depicts here are innocent expressions of natural urges, impetuous moments of pursuit of pleasure and/or compensation for what might otherwise be a “thankless and punishing existence.” We feel the author’s zeal in retelling history from a point of view that will comfort those who feel that they have been prey to unmerited criticism, or worse, for too long. Arditti’s intellectual understanding of his subject is sharp, disturbing yet satisfying. I am in total awe of the man and his novel.
Makkai, Rebecca. “The Great Believers”. Viking, 2018. Friendship, Redemption and AIDS Amos Lassen Set in 1985, we met Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, who is about to bring in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Just as his career begins to flourish, the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico’s funeral, the virus gets closer and closer to Yale himself and it did not take long before the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister. We move ahead some 30 years and find Fiona in Paris looking for her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. Fiona is staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago AIDS crisis and now she is finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. We begin with the stories of Yale and Fiona whose intertwining stories take us into the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both characters struggle to find something good while in the middle of disaster. We read of friendship and redemption in the face of loss and great tragedy. set in 1980s Chicago and Paris. I am so glad that we are not losing the literature of AIDS and that we seem t have a renaissance in writings about it. We do not ever want to forget what we lost. But let me say that this is an emotional read especially for those of us who lived through the epidemic. Writer Rebecca Makkai asks some very big and important questions about connection and redemption as her story attempts to answer them. Like the characters here, we start with heartbreak and move toward hope. This is a story about the families we choose and how we feel about the families we are born into. We see how tragic illness changes our lives and how it never leaves those who managed to get through it. Makkai’s well drawn characters struggle with painful pasts yet fight to love one another and find joy in the present in spite of what is to come. Makkai gives us a brilliant look at Chicago and Paris in the 80s and Paris during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. More than a story about the epidemic, this is the story about hope and resilience that had me on the first page and would not let me go. We forget that AIDS affected us all as it randomly selected its victims and ultimately too something from each of us. The trauma of the early days was filled with anger and love and while it devastated us, it did not destroy us. We were not defeated even in the face of death. We read of young men lost to AIDS and those who survived. “The Great Believers” is funny, scary, tender, devastating, and suspenseful.  It was a time that we shall never forget nor can we allow ourselves to forget. What I love the most about this novel is the brutal and emotional truthfulness with which it was written. Makkai has brilliantly captured the rage and the panic, the ire and the hope of a moment in time during which so much was lost. Not only did I shed tears over the story but also over the beauty of language with which Makkai wrote.
Fallenberg, Evan. “The Parting Gift”, Other Press, 2018.  The Underside of Love Amos Lassen There is something about a book by Evan Fallenberg that makes me realize what literature is all about. His two earlier books, “Light Fell” and “When We Danced on Water” mesmerized me and I knew that even before I opened the covers, the same would be true of “The Parting Gift”. I cleared my day, according to the advice of another reviewer and sat down and prepared to be lost in words and story and to be taken back to my second home in Israel. “The Parting Gift” is an “erotic tale of jealousy, obsession, and revenge is suffused with the rich flavors and intoxicating scents of Israel’s Mediterranean coast.” The story is told by an unnamed narrator who writes to Adam, a friend from college. It so happens that Adam is sitting across the room from him as he writes. He has been staying at Adam’s since he abruptly came back to the States from Israel. He has decided that the time has come to move on and he shares with Adam how he came to get to him and that this was all the result of a coincidental encounter with Uzi, a spice merchant. His very first meeting with Uzi brought him to completely change his life and spend more time in the small village north of Tel Aviv. There was some kind of animal magnetism between the two men and as passion grew, the more the narrator became involved in not just Uzi’s life but also the life of Uzi’s ex-wife and children. From his first meeting with Uzi, the narrator is overwhelmed by an animal attraction that will lead him to derail his life, withdraw from friends and extend his stay in a small town north of Tel Aviv. As he becomes increasingly entangled in Uzi’s life—and by extension the lives of Uzi’s ex-wife and children—his passion turns sinister, ultimately threatening all around him.  Beneath the surface of the story, we explore how men assume or are forced to take on various roles and in this case we are speaking of the roles of lovers, fathers, Israelis, Palestinians. Just as these roles are often complex, so is our story. As we read, we look at ourselves and the roles we play and it should come as no surprise that there are roles that we would really rather not deal with but are forced into. Of course, there is lust and it should come as no surprise that the roles that sex and lust play in our daily lives is tremendous; they are both part of the human condition but it is man who decides how they are to be dealt with. I cannot imagine how anyone can read this in pieces; it is a book that demands to be read straight through and then thought about afterwards. It is not enough that each page leads us to the next page but in Fallenberg’s gorgeous prose, each word leads us to the next word. I must admit that there were times when I almost shook from the profundity of what I read. Here we find love’s underside to be brute sex between two men that makes us them and us to be selfless and selfish. Love can often be stubborn and even evil and while in love we often feel fear. Some may find this to be a new idea but I believe everyone ultimately will agree that this is true. I see three distinct themes in “The Parting Gift”—sexuality, acceptance, and Middle Eastern culture. Everything seems to come out in the very long letter that the narrator writes. He explains what led up to his arrival. He had been visiting Tel Aviv with his friends when he met Uzi and was taken in immediately. He decides to leave his friends and stay with Uzi and the two become involved in an animalistic sexual relationship. Uzi invites the narrator into his home, to the surprise of his family, namely his ex-wife, who lives across nearby. But homosexuality is not important to Uzi’s family—their main concern is why this happened at the time it did. Uzi and the narrator lead a typical life and the narrator helps with the expansion of Uzi’s spice business. Everything goes well until Ibrahim, the son of a friend of Uzi, arrives to undertake an apprenticeship and brings jealousy, mistrust and resentment into the relationship of the two men. Feeling these, the narrator loses his mind. So perhaps the underside of love is heartbreak and not lust. The characters here have to deal with guilt and inadequacy and these feelings bring about their downfalls. There is something naughty about reading someone else’s mail and this novel is written in the form of Adam’s letter and it punches us hard with the very first sentence. The story becomes complicated as we read about codes of honor and familial expectation as they hit business and acceptance, family and lovers, and self-realization head-on.
Sakal, Moshe. “The Diamond Setter”, translated by Jessica Cohen, Other Press, 2018.
Inspired by True Events Amos Lassen  “The Diamond Setter” traces a complex web of love triangles, homoerotic tensions, and family secrets across generations and locations. We get a new look at life in the Middle East as it really is. Written by Moshe Sakal this is his first novel to be translated into English. The story is related by characters whose lives intertwine and revolve around a rare diamond. In his first novel to be translated into English, Israeli writer Sakal uses elements of his own biography and weaves them into a story that is part mystery, part family history, and part myth. Tom narrates the story that starts when he begins an apprenticeship in his uncle Menashe’s jewelry shop in Tel Aviv. A customer comes into the shop with what she claims belongs to Menashe: a long-lost blue diamond known as “Sabakh.” Tom and his boyfriend, Honi, become involved with a young man from Damascus named Fareed, who may be connected to the diamond in some way. From this point, the story moves backwards as the characters’ lives are traced back through their respective family trees and into the history of the Middle East. We learn about the mysterious diamond and the lives it’s touched as it is set against the backdrop of the founding of the State of Israel and the deepening conflict that developed at that time. Sakal plays with boundaries while reality and fiction come together when Tom discusses the book he’s writing (also called “The Diamond Setter”) as the story progresses. As the mystery of the diamond unfolds, characters’ lives cross in unexpected ways and we are reminded that we are all connected to each other in some way. There is a fascinating obsession with property here. The question of who will inherit Israel when the time comes is never answered. We never really understand the meaning of the word “inherit”. On opposing sides are Menashe Salomon, the moral jeweler with an intricate history of its own and Amiram Kadosh, Menashe’s scheming, money-driven landlord who plans to renovate the building where the jewelry shop is and turn it into a boutique hotel. Between the two is a large cast of characters that includes respective children, friends, intimates, confidents, and forbears, some of whom the two men actually have in common. This story is about Israel today as she is in her most liberated and existence. complex, acculturated, even liberated format. This is about Israel without looking at war, religion, disagreement, etc and t is sort of like a state of little America where there is a constant flow of cultures and languages. Several of the men and women here are gay or bisexual, and little is made of it and even the older characters have no problem with sexuality. The past is constant throughout and it provides solace and grounding. and grudges and arguing. The symbol of the past is “Sabakh,” the blue diamond. It had once been given to Gracia, a beautiful, talented, great aunt of Menashe’s, by a Turkish sultan as a reward for her singing. The diamond’s journeys and the subsequent “curse” attached to it become a major theme in the novel. Eventually it comes to Fareed, a handsome young Syrian who met Rami on Grindr. Rami introduces Fareed to Honi, another young gay man whose father is Amiram Kadosh, and from there the story begins to move. Fareed will return the diamond to its rightful owner and we will learn about the intertwining destinies of almost all of the many characters. What we really see is a portrait of modern Israel that is good and positive. We read about the movement to equalize wealth and opportunity, and that understands that Israel cannot exist without its Palestinians and their own history and culture. It is all about economic justice and this is quite a different Israel than the one I lived in. Fareed came to Tel Aviv with the intention of returning the diamond to its rightful owner and is soon swept up in Tel Aviv’s vibrant gay scene, and a turbulent protest movement. He falls in love with both an Israeli soldier and his boyfriend and shares the story of his family’s past that turns out to be a tale of forbidden love beginning in the 1930s that connects Fareed and the jeweler. Writer Sakal presents us with a wonderful mosaic of characters, locales, and cultures that allow us to look beyond the present military conflicts. This is a fascinating look at the Middle East through the intergenerational lives and loves of its characters.
Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “Prodigal Children in the House of G-d”, Austin Macauley Publishing, 2018. A Personal Book, A Personal Review Amos Lassen Every few years, a book comes along that represents so much of my own personal feelings that it becomes one of those special volumes that sit on my desk so that I can refer to it often. This is such a book but it is even more than that—it is a symbol of friendship that grew out of my respect for Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s writing. First and foremost, Taub is a poet who I first met through his poetry as I slowly moved through his first four books. Then about four years ago he came to Boston for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and I not only had the chance to meet him and hear him read but he read at my Temple and wowed the congregants. Two more books of poetry came, one in Yiddish and then there was a translation of stories from Yiddish to English and now this collection of ten short stories. “Prodigal Children in the House of G-d” is an exploration that takes us into the themes of family, community, and exile largely from ultra-Orthodox Jewish and/or queer perspectives (with that sentence, some of you already understand why this book is so important to me). There are no specific locations in the stories thus making them truly universal as they can be set anywhere. They are set in the present, or perhaps the past or the future—it does not matter. What does matter is how the characters deal with religious tradition as they take steps to reshape their lives and, in many cases, do so at great personal risk. We meet an elderly woman who lives alone and reflects on a love from long ago; we read of a trip that changes a mother and daughter forever and of a married Torah scholar who comes upon romance in an unexpected place. As in traditional Orthodox Judaism the stories are separated by gender; there are five stories of daughters, five of sons yet they come together in amazing ways thus showing the oneness of both the Jewish and “other” communities. We sense the love with which Taub created his characters, they are part of the gentleness and sensitivity of the author himself and it would not surprise me to learn that the characters are different aspects of his own life. Like so many of us (and I do not mean just those who grew up in traditional Jewish homes), the characters question the lives they have inherited or chosen. Some have made good choices and others not so good. All of them are on journeys.  With a background in poetry, it is no surprise that Taub’s prose is lyrical with each word carefully chosen. It is amazing to read what he is able to share in just a few words and/or sentences.  In each story we have a look at a lonely soul dealing with the demands of ultra-Orthodox or other conservative tradition.  They are lesbians, heterosexuals, gay men and they struggle to live on their own terms. Taub uses a bit of psychological insight into the minds of his created characters and I was reminded of the way that Aviva Zornberg looks at Torah. There is always more than meets the eye. We are all aware of the gaps in the way parents see faith and in the way their children do but here it is sweet and tender. We see courage and we see love and respect but more than anything else we see the beauty of life and the beauty of words on a page. I debated with myself as I wrote this review whether or not to summarize each story but I realized that this would be a disservice to those who have yet to read them. Let me say that not only was I moved by what I read but I was also led to think about how others have dealt with the same issues that I dealt with and the place of religion, God and faith in my life. (A note on the spelling of the name G-d—many feel that we should only use the full name in prayer, hence the middle letter is deleted when not at prayer. I did this for many years but I no longer feel the need to do so since I have established my own relationship with the Divine). Do not think that once you have finished reading the book that your relationship with the characters is over. They will stay with you. I read this over a month ago and I think about it every day. What I really found to be amazing is that everyone, regardless of religion and/or faith, will have something of him/herself here. *A note on transliteration and pronunciation and a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms appear at the end of the book. The book includes two pairs of interlocking stories.
Jaffe, Daniel M. “Yeled Tov”, Lethe Press, 2018. A Good Jewish Gay Boy Amos Lassen I always look forward to a new book by Daniel Jaffe and that is probably that is because he says what I think (and much better than I could day it). I have managed to get over the Jewish guilt I used to have about my religion and my sexuality and have learned to embrace them both knowing that these parts of my life have made me who I am. I always wanted to be a “yeled tov” or a good boy but it was difficult to do so before reconciling those two important aspects of my life and my being. Jaffe takes us back to 1974 to meet Jake Stein who also wants to be a good Jewish boy but who finds himself struggling to reconcile his traditional beliefs and his strong faith in God with his growing attraction to other boys (now this sounds very familiar). At school he was in the school play, “The Diary of Anne Frank” and while he should be overjoyed to get cast, he is upset because he knows that he should be thinking about the terrible suffering that Jews went through but instead he is falling for the kid who’s playing Peter van Daan. Things get no better for him when he gets to college and meets his very handsome roommate who seldom wears clothing. Jaffe shares the story of a young boy and man who fights hard to find a middle ground between “desire and devotion”. He asks God for advice and what he hears back is what he imagines what God would say about doing the right thing. do the right thing (I am not sure that God knows how to answer questions about lust). Jake seems, on the other hand, to know a great deal about lust since he deals with it so often—he finds himself lusting after men at the synagogue;, he lusts after his best friend and he lusts after his college roommate, he lusts after schoolmates. He feels that God is not sympathetic with his plight and the more he lusts, the more he feels shut into himself and shut out of society. He sees only one way out and that is abhorrent to God. I have read many gay coming-of-age stories and there are some that are very good and there are some that are the same old story with different names. Here we have something very different in that we are with Jake on his journey and we feel what he feels (due to the skill of writer Jaffe). Jake so wants to be slutty and promiscuous but he knows that is not the way good Jewish boys act (he obviously does not know the same Jewish boys that I do). Now let me explain something here. Jewish boys have the same urges and lusts that everyone else does but there is a difference that is based on faith. Those who are raised in Orthodox homes have a great deal of trouble trying to understand how faith and sexuality can work together. It is indeed possible that they can but to make this happen it must come from within. Once you accept who you are it is a great deal easier. Sure, you might lose a seat at the family Sabbath dinner but there are other places that will welcome you quickly. Let me give you an example. When I decided that it was time to come out to my family, I sat down with my father and told him how I felt. To my surprise, he did not say “get out”. Rather, he stroked his beard and said, “I don’t like what you are but I would rather you find someone to love instead of never knowing what love us.” No one was more surprised than me and, in effect, my father saved my life. We later feel out over other things so it did not end well but a brief time, I was very proud of him. We read the Torah incorrectly and we find admonitions that are not there like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not about homosexuality as so many claim but about the lack of hospitality. Misunderstandings can cause dire results. There were several times as I read that I wanted to call out to Jake and tell him to come and sit with me for a while but remember that the story is set in 1974. Things were very different then. Basically, Jake is a “yeled tov” of the title. He lusts passively and we really never know if the reason he makes no moves on someone else has to do with his not wanting other people to know that he is gay or because he is afraid of rejection. When he was young his father told him that regardless of what he does, he is to never hurt the girl that he is with. Obviously Jake changed that to mean that if he can do this, he will always be a good boy, a yeled tov. However, he can only be a good boy when he himself realizes that he is. There is so much to like in this book and first among those is the plot that shows Jaffe’s own familiarity with Judaism yet while this is a book about a Jewish guy there is no need to be Jewish to enjoy it. The Yiddish phrases used are all either defined or easily understood by their usage. Jaffe’s dialogue is excellent and is his character development. I just wonder if he anticipated what he was getting into with Jake who appears on almost every page. Jake’s conversations with God are amazing and as you near the end of the book, you should be prepared to shed a few tears. God tells Jake, “There are times when a man must make his own decisions. You’re a man now Jake. It’s time I let you decide for yourself how to live… Yes, being a man is scary, indeed. Give yourself time… I’m going to step aside now. But I’ll always be here. Make Me proud of the life I granted you. Be good to yourself”. Let me close by saying the same thing to all of you, my friends and readers—  “Be good to yourselves”.
McCauley, Stephen. “My Ex-Life”, Flatiron, 2018. A Formerly Married Couple Amos Lassen You are going to have to wait until May to red Stephen McCauley’s new book but I have been lucky enough to get advance news about it. “My Ex-Life” is about a formerly married couple that haven’t seen each other in many years. David has spent the last twenty years as a gay man who helps spoiled San Francisco teens get into colleges and Julie, is a twice-divorced mother and a middle-aged pot-head who has turned her falling-apart house into a Bed & Breakfast. David’s is getting no pleasure from his job and boyfriend, Soren, has left him for another man and he. David’s life seems to be spiraling downhill and he has put on weight. The only pleasure he gets is looking at the view of San Francisco he has from his under market value apartment. But his landlord has decided to see the building and to add further insult, he is selling it to Soren and the surgeon. Julie is also having problems. isn’t having much of a better time herself. She has become friendly with Carol, the woman that Harry, her second husband, left her for and Julie ignores bills by throwing into them into the back seat of her car. Mandy, her teenage daughter refuses to apply to college and Julie can’t seem to quite smoking marijuana. Harry lets her know that if Mandy does not begin applying to colleges, she will come and live with him and Carol. A surprise comes when Mandy lies says that she’s been working with David Hedges, Julie’s first husband. Julie calls David and asks if he’ll help Mandy who tells him that he should come visit them and stay in one of their B&B rooms and he accepts. It does not take long before David and Julie are living together and pick up where their marriage ended. There is still chemistry between them but… Below is praise from those who have read the book. My Ex-Life is a pleasure of the deepest sort; it’s a wise, ruefully funny, and ultimately touching exploration of mid-life melancholy and unexpected second chances. Stephen McCauley is a wonderful writer, and this may be his best book yet.” ―Tom Perrotta, bestselling author of Mrs. Fletcher My Ex-Life is a rich, yet delicate ragout of wonderfully vivid characters, hilarious dialogue, and spot-on cultural criticism. It satisfies on every level.” ―Richard Russo, bestselling author of Everybody’s Fool “Before you read My Ex-Life, make sure the person you sleep with is willing to be woken constantly by your laughter. Stephen McCauley writes sparkling, graceful, witty prose with an ease and fluency that seems like sleight-of-hand. If I were the kind of reader who highlighted brilliant passages, the whole entire book would be underlined.” ―Katherine Heiny, author of Standard Deviation “From the first page of My Ex-Life, I was sending Stephen McCauley mental valentines and figurative fan notes, thanking him for this delicious, smart, funny novel, its endearing characters, and his wry, big-hearted cynicism. Oh, if all books could be like this one!” ―Elinor Lipman, author of On Turpentine Lane My Ex-Life is Steve McCauley’s best novel so far and that’s saying a lot. For those of us who devoured his previous books and eagerly awaited another, My Ex-Life is cause for celebration. McCauley’s trademark wit and cultural commentary is all here, as is a cast of smart, complicated, heart-sore characters…. You’re going to love My Ex-Life.” ―Anita Diamant, author of The Boston Girl and The Red Tent “This wonderful novel has its finger on the pulse of the present, but the questions it asks about family and the ineluctable past and the strange, sustaining grace of friendship are as timeless as the elegance and craft of its prose. Stephen McCauley is a master, one of our wisest and funniest observers of American life.” ―Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

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