“Ceremony & Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks— The Central Jewish Holidays

Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. “Ceremony & Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays”, Maggid, 2017.

The Central Jewish Holidays

Amos Lassen

“Ceremony & Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays” is collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s introductions to the Koren-Sacks Mahzorim in which he reveals the stunningly “rich interplay of the biblical laws, rabbinic ordinances, liturgical themes, communal rituals and profound religious meaning of each of the five central Jewish holidays”.

Rabbi Sacks is one of the important voices of Judaism today and he is an international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice. The holidays include here are Rosh Hashanah (“The Anniversary of Creation”), Yom Kippur” (“Seeking Forgiveness”), Sukkot (“Season of Joy”), Pesah (“Finding Freedom”) and Shavuot (“The Greatest Gift”). Not only do we get detailed descriptions of the holidays and the traditions that go along with them but little secrets that we might never have uncovered alone. Each chapter is divided into subheadings and we are given all the information that Rabbi Sacks has been able to share and there is plenty.

For example, the chapter on Yom Kippur is broken down into these subchapters:

“SEEKING FORGIVENESS”

A Brief History of Forgiveness

The Idea of Freedom

Before God Forgives, Man Must Forgive

Two Types of Atonement

The Aftermath of Sinai: Penitential Prayer

The Second Yom Kippur

Priests and Atonement

Prophets and Repentance, and so on. My purpose in listing these topics is to show just how thorough this book is. I have studied Judaism for a long time and only recently did I discover Rabbi Sacks’ writings. They are so clear and illuminate so much that it is always a pleasure to turn to him when necessary. While the answer may not be there, he provides steps to reach an answer and I love that since it gives a part in the process.

“RAW”— A Flesh-Eating French Thriller

“Raw”

A Flesh-Eating French Thriller

Amos Lassen

“Raw” is a cleverly written, impressively made and incredibly gory tale of one young woman’s awakening to the pleasures of the flesh (in every sense of the term. This is French director Julia Ducournau’s first feature film and she guides a young cast through blood, guts and sexual awakening. “Raw” is an emotionally driven coming-of-age movie set at a Gallic veterinarian college. It takes the horror genre into another domain.

Following in the footsteps of her parents (Joanna Preiss and Laurent Lucas) and older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), Justine (Garance Marillier) shows up for her first year of vet school and before she can even unpack her bags and get acquainted with her gay roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella), she is forced into a vicious hazing process by the older students, who ridicule and insult the freshmen while forcing them to party hearty.

In the middle of this, Justine reunites with her sister Alexia, who only barely helps her younger sister to learn the ropes and she is bathed in animal blood. Justine is a devout vegetarian, so making it out of freshman hell will mean she has to start doing the impossible and become a carnivore herself.

But Justine likes it so much that her appetite for uncooked meat begins to take hold of her in some highly unsavory ways, driving her to commit acts of savagery.Justine’s unquenched sexual urges turn into an appetite for flesh, whether animal or human. However, please note that the real focus of the film is the sticky relationship between Justine and her elder sister and this relationship is complicated by a major plot twist.

Director Ducournau seems to know where she’s going at all times and we see that this picture is all hers. The performances are captivating and imposingly physical, especially during what may be the most painful sequence of feminine hygiene education ever shot, as well as a sisterly catfight of a rare and disturbing brutality. The arbitrary repulsiveness of the practices that we see and the institution’s familiarly apathetic attitude toward them break through our cultural de-sensitivities.

The narrative pivots on the protagonist’s escalating reactions to the hazing. Justine is somewhat odd, a gifted student and late bloomer who’s endearingly resistant to the groupthink that’s imposed on her by older classmates, including her sister, who resents Justine’s intelligence and idiosyncrasy. Since Justine is a vegetarian, she is alienated her from her peers and causes problems when she’s forced to eat animal parts. She acquiesces to peer pressure though, and the exposure to meat turns her into a rabid carnivore who progresses from eating raw chicken to human flesh. No matter what’s going on in the film, we sense that there’s intelligence at work here – “a look at emerging female sexuality, dysfunctional families, the eruption of desire, society descended into a Lord Of The Flies insanity, and perhaps most pertinently that no matter how much you try and hide and ignore what’s inside a person, attempting to repress it isn’t going to stop it emerging”. Some may take the humor of the film as deliberate irony and smile about it, while others will just laugh at something that they feel is taking itself way too seriously for something so silly.

The intensity of the film is what many people seem to have responded to and I must say that the film is fun and it is quite unique. However, Justine’s gay roommate comes across as oddly tokenistic. Whether deliberately or not, he’s rather treated like the disposable female love interest in a lot of more typical movies, at least in terms of the fact he existence is solely about furthering the straight character’s journey. It’s difficult to reach a conclusion about “Raw”. It is a somewhat intense and interesting horror movie that is both intelligent and a farce.

“BD. VOLTAIRE”— Terror

“Bd. Voltaire”

Terror

Amos Lassen

It is not often that I see a film that is so stunning that I find myself at a loss for words. “Bd. Voltaire” affected me such and I have no idea how to review it. Quite basically, “Bd. Voltaire” is about a group of friends that get together for a night of fun on Friday, November 11 just two days before the series of coordinated terrorist attacks that took place on Friday, November 13, 2015 in Paris, France and the city’s northern suburb of Saint Denis. The attackers killed 130 people, and another 368 people were injured.

Directed by Alex Valles with a screenplay by Valles and Andre Schneider, this is a movie about words and we hear a lot of them as the world heads toward a terrible fate. We focus on three couples and how they are affected not only by the attacks but also by the mood of Paris as we move closer to that fateful date. We get to know the characters through what they have to say and there were times I thought I was in the middle of an existential philosophy debate for which there was no end. Yet was is said is important and allows us to get to know the characters better.

The film is shot in beautiful black and white and the images that you see will stay with you forever. With little action, we concentrate of what the cast that includes Bastien Gabriel, Walter Billoni, Rudy Blanchet, Xavier Theoleyre, the already mentioned Schneider and Valles as well as others and this is where I get lost trying to figure out what to say.

Did I love the film? Yes I did for more than one reason. First, the film deals with a difficult topic and as gay people who have experienced homophobia in the past, we need to be aware of the terrorist movement. Secondly, the entire cast is outstanding and we do not get enough movies where each and every character turns in an excellent performance. (If you get a chance to see the National Theater’s filmed production of “Angels in America”, you know what I mean. Thirdly, this is a film that makes you think and stays with you long after you have seen. I doubt I will ever forget the first part that is set in a cemetery as we listen to the conversation between two men separated by years yet find a reason to be together. We see how these characters were affected by a terrorist attack and I believe it is important to remember that no matter where we live and where an attack takes place, we all suffer. The very idea that human life is so expendable is something we need to keep in mind all of the time.

I do not doubt that there will be some who will look t this as an intellectual gay movie because of the amount of dialogue and I suppose it is if we consider thinking to be an intellectual activity. I find it really nice to have a different kind of LGBT movie in that we light up one more color of the rainbow.

“New Intimacies, Old Desires: Law, Culture AND Queer Politics In Neoliberal Times” edited by Oishik Sircar and Jain Dipika— Queer Rights in Neoliberal Times

Sircar, Oishik and Dipika, Jain (editors). “New Intimacies, Old Desires: Law, Culture AND Queer Politics In Neoliberal Times”, Zubaan Books, 2017.

Queer Rights in Neoliberal Times

Amos Lassen

In the last fifteen years, we have made great strides in advancing the rights of LGBT people. In the same period that these victories have been secured by queer movements, we have also seen the “rise of crony capitalism, violent consequences of the war on terror, the hyper-juridification of politics, the financialization of social movements, and the medicalization of non-heteronormative identities and practices”. Do we know how to critically read the celebratory global proliferation of queer rights in these neoliberal times?

“New Intimacies, Old Desires” is a collection of answers to this question. The book analyzes laws, state policies, and cultures of activism to show how new intimacies between queer sexuality and a neoliberalism that celebrates modernity and the birth of the liberated sexual citizen, are in fact, a reproduction of the old colonial desire of civilizing the native. By paying particular attention to race, religion, and class, the essays here “engage in a rigorous, self-reflexive critique of global queer politics and its engagements, confrontations, and negotiations with modernity and its investments in liberalism, legalism, and militarism—all with the objective of queering the ethics of global politics”.

 

“The Sidekicks” by Will Kostakis— Four Guys

Kostakis, Will. “The Sidekicks”, Harlequin Teen, 2017.

Four Guys

Amos Lassen

Ryan, Harley and Miles are very different people—the swimmer, the rebel and the nerd and the only thing that they’ve ever had in common is Isaac, their shared best friend. 

When Isaac dies unexpectedly, the three boys have to come to terms with their grief and the impact Isaac had on each of their lives. In his absence, Ryan, Harley and Miles discover things about one another they never saw before, and realize there may be more tying them together than just Isaac. 

The story is told in three parts and it is a look at loss, grief, self-discovery and the connections that tie us all together. Each of the three novellas is from the perspective of a different friend of Isaac. They fill in the gaps in each other’s story and provide insight into each character’s grieving process and personality. While the story deals with a very serious topic, there is just enough wit and dark humor. We learn that Isaac died as a result of substance abuse indirectly and he left behind issues facing each of the three friends. What they don’t realize is that they need each other to fill in the blanks of their friendship to properly move on from this tragedy.

Although we don’t get to know Isaac much, we know that he was able to connect and touch each one of them even though they are all vastly different from each other. Writer Will Kostakis created three very different characters with separate personalities. Through them we begin to think about love and loss.

 

“Vanitas” by Joseph Olshan— Reconciling Life

Olshan, Joseph. “Vanitas”, Simon and Schuster, 2013.

Reconciling Life

Amos Lassen

In my efforts to make my review site a comprehensive place where the very best of LGBT literature can be found, I often go back in time to look for titles that I have not reviewed so that they can be included. I read Joseph Olshan’s “Vanitas” when it was first published but for whatever reason I did not review it then.

Sam Solomon finds himself transfixed by an erotic drawing that hangs in the apartment of a dying art dealer, Elliot Garland and is soon dealing with confusion and desire. Garland has AIDS and has hired Sam to write his memoirs but manages to withhold crucial information about his life. Sam suspects, however, that the drawing, “Vanitas”, is the relic of a dramatic, and secret, history that could provide answers to the questions that Garland has refused to address.

Author Olshan explores the intersections between the disparate worlds of art and art restoration, publishing, and urban relationships and all of these are being taken over by the AIDS epidemic. As Sam looks at romance, and mystery, he becomes part of a culture in which individual’s connections tenuously as the world around them is shot to pieces. He finds himself face to face with a familiar existential dilemma — the desire to raise a child despite society’s condemnation of nontraditional families.

“Vanitas” is the story of the lonely, painful search for happiness in unconventional choices. Even though we know that Garland is dying from AIDS, the word is not mentioned and remains an unacknowledged motivator for Sam. While interviewing Garland in order to ghostwrite his autobiography, he sees a stunning, highly sexual drawing of a near-naked young man on a bed cradling a skull. This startles Sam and sets him off on a journey to not only discover the artist and subject, but into his own life to resolve his conflicting emotional needs: to find what he considers to be the security of heterosexual family life and yet pursue emotional and sexual relationships with men.

Olshan understands here how sadness, fear, and even death are the most common shapers of important emotional and erotic experiences and he fills his novel is hope and love, and maintains that these life-affirming emotions are only achieved after “facing the deepest horrors, fears, and terrors of living in the world”.

Using the pretext of book research, Garland sends Sam to London to meet Bobby LaCour, Garland’s lost lover, and take the erotic “Vanitas” drawing to him; the same drawing that Sam loved when he saw it hanging in Garland’s apartment. Even as Sam and Bobby fall in love, Sam lives with his ex-girlfriend and is dating a married man.

At first, we think that Olshan is taking us on a mundane journey through the lives of 4 people and a painting. But as the novel moves forward, we sense that we are moving toward quite an ending after using the Vanitas to connects three different lives. Sam is bi-sexual who was in love with a woman for a time and with whom he wishes he had a child with as he struggles with the fact that she had a child with someone else; Garland, a dying and very manipulative art dealer’ ex-lover Bobby and man who posed for the painting. As we read, we remember how AIDS has changed all our lives and how it continues “to raise its specter in seemingly coincidental ways”.

 

“When Heaven Strikes” by F.E. Feeley, Jr.— Will Love Survive

Feeley, Jr. F. E. ”When Heaven Strikes”, Independently Published 2017.

Will Love Survive?

Amos Lassen

Artist Ted Armstrong lives a solitary and eccentric life and not necessarily because he wants to do so. He is the survivor of child abuse disguised as religion and because of what he went through, he has cut himself off from the world. Then Ted meets Anderson Taylor, a cardiac surgeon whose passion for his work is all consuming. He fears he’ll never find a partner. Things happen fast, but both men know what they feel is right.

We meet Anderson while at the beach with his family as a child at the beginning of a tornado. At the same time, Ted runs away from home while still a child to survive the Christian fervor of his devout parents. The two men are drawn together by their common loneliness. The need to connect allows them to see to the possibility their being together. There is always a challenge of in building a relationship, choosing to meet their needs and they are determined to do just that.

It is through Anderson’s grandmother that the two men meet. She commissions Ted to paint a portrait of her garden in Indianola, Iowa, outside of Des Moines. The two men and in their late thirties and immediately are attracted to each needs to deal with the emotional hurts of his past and be willing to risk the self-imposed, if comfortable, isolation of their lives.

There is plenty of drama in this story, but not from the developing relationship between Ted and Anderson who know to take it slow at the beginning. Even though Ted and Anderson are the two romantic protagonists in this story, there are other characters. Josiah and his preacher father Jeff play only a small but pivotal part in the first half of the story but their story becomes important in the second half.

Jeff, even with all of his religiosity lives in his own private hell, and he has also created a hell for his wife and sons. While “When Heaven Strikes” is a beautiful love story, it is so much more than that. It’s a story about faith, family and loyalty and it is beautifully written.

 

 

“A Natural” by Ross Raisin— Coming-of-Age

Raisin, Ross. “A Natural: A Novel”, Random House, 2017.

Coming-of-Age

Amos Lassen

When Tom Pearman was just nineteen, he felt his future slipping away. He had release from a Premier League academy and only contract offer he received was from a lower-level soccer club. He was away from home for the first time and struggled on and off the field trying to avoid the pranks and hazing rituals of his teammates. Then a taboo encounter changed what little stability he had, forcing him to deal with suppressed desires while trying to succeed.

Chris Easter, the team’s popular captain, is in denial about the state of his marriage. His wife, Leah, has almost forgotten the dreams she once held for her career. As her husband is transferred from club to club, and raising their first child practically on her own, she is lost, disillusioned with where life has taken her. Two lonely men who are in the world of professional soccer feel “the pressure, the loneliness, the threat of scandal, the fragility of the body, and the struggle of conforming to the person everybody else expects them to be”. “A Natural” explores masculinity, fear and desire.

Tom has not lived up to his early promise as a football player, but is doing well for himself on a Town team in Great Britain. Everything seems good on the outside but he is dissatisfied with his professional and personal life, although why is not shared with the reader at first. What we do know comes to us in hints. We are exposed to the homophobic environment in the world of soccer while reading about Tom’s conflicted feelings regarding his sexuality. When Tom decides to act on his attraction to Liam, the grounds man at the club, things become more complicated, particularly as Tom is still in the closet to his family and teammates. As the relationship between the two progresses, the risk of being outed increases, as eventually Tom and Liam face some hard decisions. Tom must deal with his sexual orientation in a profession that is rampantly homophobic. When he finds a sexual partner, he needs to hide and meet in secret.

Athletes tend to need to suppress their inner lives in order to be successful and none of the characters in this book are particularly likable. They are not good at saying the right thing at the right time. They are footballers first and foremost and they are honest. Author Ross Raisin does a great job at getting the details right about them. They are flawed, and often unpleasant to read about and I believe this is all deliberate.

“IS IT SAFE TO BE GAY IN THE U.K.?”— Homophobia in Britain

“IS IT SAFE TO BE GAY IN THE U.K.?”

Homophobia in Britain

Amos Lassen

Filmmaker Mark Henderson’s documentary shows us that homophobia is still very much alive in the United Kingdom. We see that homophobic hate crime are daily occurrences and on the rise in Britain through the conversations with victims who share their stories about being attacked. These crimes are both physical and verbal.

Even though it has been fifty years since the partial decriminalization of homosexuality, the graphic reality of homophobic attacks is exposed here and it is shocking. The moving testimonies given here show that it is not always safe to be gay in Britain.

Long-term partners James and Dain who open up about the pressure put on their relationship after they were assaulted in supposedly gay friendly Brighton; a brutal attack that left both of them with multiple injuries and Dain with a broken eye socket and wondering if he would ever be able to see again. Their story is far from unique and we see this as Jenny loving talks about her brother, Ian Baynham, who died of injuries sustained in a frenzied homophobic attack in the centre of London, having been kicked to death on the ground.

We hear Connor’s horrific tale of being habitually bullied at school, with the words “you’re gay – you should be dead” constantly being thrown at him. He thought that things would get better after he moved into his own flat, but he was attacked by another resident with a hammer with such force that it was still embedded in his head when the ambulance crew arrived. He was in a coma for four weeks while surgeons fought to save his life. They had to remove a quarter of his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. Connor not only survived, but has since found love in the arms of boyfriend Dom. Yet once again he was not alone, as victim after victim recall painful memories of being kicked in the face until unconscious, of being repeatedly stamped on the head and so on just for being who they are. These victims and so many others cry out for justice to be served.

Alex and Becky have been groped, punched and slammed into a street light, on what was meant to have been a quiet night out. Justice was not served, with one defendant having fled to South Africa to avoid sentencing, leaving the couple struggling to move on from both the assault and the court case itself. And even though the man responsible for the vicious attack on Connor was duly sentenced to nineteen years for attempted murder, Connor is left unable to run or use his right hand, having to take medication every single day, with epilepsy and severe migraine now with him for the rest of his life. Jenny meanwhile is starting the restorative justice program in the hope of gaining peace of mind, whilst James and Dain’s relationship has notably changed and sadly not for the better, with their views of being out in public now at odds with each other.

We might think that we are living in enlightened times but we see here that it is not always safe to be openly gay and that homophobia hasn’t gone away. This documentary also questions the motives behind homophobia and it shows what is often overlooked; the repercussions of such unprovoked attacks on the victims, their families and friends; many mourning the loss of loved one and the void that is left behind. A film like this makes us angry as it should and we need to be outraged at the sickening reality that is still with us and that can get worse.

“MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS”— Meet Manolo Blahnik

“Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes For Lizards”

Meet Manolo Blahnik

Amos Lassen

Manolo Blahnik is a self-confessed ‘cobbler’ and the man regarded by most influential fashion figures as ‘the best shoe-maker of the 20th and 21st centuries. I understand that Manolo only agreed to making this film if it was more about those who testify to his genius and not about himself. Director Michael Roberts does just that but he also manages to have Manolo, who is now 74, appear on the screen and we see him as quite an eccentric character who is obsessed with becoming the new Cecil Beaton who was famed for his designs for dressing film stars.

Manolo was born in the Canary Islands. His father was a wealthy Czech pharmacist and his mother was a Spanish plantation owner. They educated their son to be a diplomat, but he went to London and got his first job in fashion managing a boutique. Just two years later, in 1970, during a chance meeting with Diana Vreeland in NY (who looked through his portfolio of sketches) took him to his focus of designing footwear.

In 1972 he designed shoes for Ossie Clark’s runway show, which Blahnik admits could have been the end of his career. He had   harmed several of the models as he had naively omitted to put steel in the heels making the shoes pretty but dangerous. However they were a big success and soon he was designing shoes for a whole coterie of leading British designers of the day.

America beckoned him and his creations were carried by Bloomingdales and it did not take long before his clientele was a who’s who list of fashion celebrities. Of course, he received a tremendous push by “Sex and the City”. Today women are happily paying $1000 or more for a pair of his shoes and Blahnik lives the life of a semi-reclusive English aristocrat.  He is a man who loves fame but who also avoids any personal intimate relationships beyond his collection of close friends. These include Blahnik’s very good friends John Galliano and David Bailey, Naomi Campbell, Paloma Picasso,  André Leon Talley and Rihanna, and they all pay tribute to him here.