“The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel” by Bayard Taylor and edited and annotated by L.A. Fields— Rediscovering a Lost Classic

Taylor, Bayard. “The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel” edited by L.A. Fields, Lethe Press; Annotated edition , 2018.

Rediscovering a Lost Classic

Amos Lassen

There is some discussion as to whether Bayard Taylor wrote the first American gay novel. L.A. Fields says that this is indeed the first, a nineteenth century book “Joseph and His Friend” that is often unknown to contemporary readers of queer fiction. Author and researcher L.A. Fields wants to change that with her new book, “The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel”. She supplies notes to each chapter that move from the private life of the man who inspired the story (Fitz-Greene Halleck), through the secrets of its author (Taylor), noting especially his private love for and public rivalry with poet Walt Whitman. The notes expand on Whitman’s unique position in gay and American history: especially on the coming-out letters Whitman called ”avowals” from such people as Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. There are notes about Whitman’s witnessing of the Civil War, the Lincoln presidency, and his lover’s attendance at Ford’s Theater the night of Lincoln’s assassination; as well as Whitman’s own understanding and defense for writing honestly about the love of men. This study combines Taylor’s original 1870 novel with American history, contemporary anecdote, and curiosities from a more secret history. A new topic is positioned behind every chapter, providing the background that shows just how important this novel was at the time, how rare it is now, and how daring it’s always been to tell the truth. I do have the odd sense of wondering if it was so important to its time, why do we not know more about it or at least heard of its existence. I am not arguing either for or against the book’s standing but I am curious as to why I had not heard of it except in passing at a very scholarly seminar on early American LGBT literature.

Nonetheless, it is very good that we now have this to refer to and as an annotated edition. We must congratulated writer L.A. Fields on her effort. However, if this is such an important book, I cannot help but wonder why it was not picked up by a major publishing house.

“Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable” by Eviatar Zerubavel— A Look at Dominant Culture Norms

Zerubavel, Eviatar. “Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

A Look at Dominant Cultural Norms

Amos Lassen

How much attention do we pay to the words we use when we speak about the subjects of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social status, and more. Have you noticed that this kind of speech is filled with unspoken assumptions—- think about why we say, for example, “male nurse” or “working mom” or my favorite, “white trash”. These are word choices that we make without realizing we are doing so and we do so every day.

Eviatar Zerubavel in this book describes how the words we use–such as when we mark “the best female basketball player” but leave her male counterpart unmarked provide telling clues about the things many of us take for granted. By using terms such as “women’s history” or “Black History Month,” we are also reinforcing the apparent normality of the history of white men. “When we mark something as being special or somehow noticeable, that which goes unmarked such as maleness, whiteness, straightness, and able-bodiedness is assumed to be ordinary by default.” Zerubavel shows how we tacitly normalize certain identities, practices, and ideas in order to maintain their cultural dominance including the power to dictate what others take for granted.

“Taken for Granted” shows us what we implicitly assume to be normal and in the process disturbs the very notion of normality. Zerubavel shows us how we think and speak and that we consider some things simply unremarkable and comfortably normal. But others are remarkable and uncomfortably abnormal. We often act on these assumptions and we do so lucidly, without guilt tripping. In this way we can live together–with greater justice and understanding.

I was reminded when I lived in Israel for many years and had a conversation with several Israelis about how Americans love to add labels—– she is so pretty for an Italian girl and he is such a good cook for a gay man.

Zerubavel has the gift of the ability to see things about the way we human beings behave and think that we are for the most part unaware of. He is also able to convey what he can see in a way that becomes instantly clear to us. I am totally fascinated by all of this and find this to be an interesting and remarkable read. Zerubavel shows us how to see our world differently. By linking semiotics, social theory, and contemporary issues with great facility, we gain wonderful insights into how we speak and what we say. This is a little book about a very big idea.

“SODOM’S CAT”— Make Love First

“SODOM’S CAT”

Make Love First

Amos Lassen

“Sodom’s Cat” runs just over 30 minutes. It was shot back in 2016 and has been touring film festivals for more than one year, earning praise from both audience and critics.

The film follows the lives of five young men from Taipei who meet for a group-sex party after contacting each other through a dating app. The film is about so much more than just explicit gay sex, it looks at the psychological and emotional consequences of contemporary hookup culture.

“Sodom’s Cat” was an immediate critical smash at the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival and it was shortlisted for the prestigious Iris Prize Award. The film was directed by Huang Ting-Chun who says he was heavily influenced by the French gay film “Paris 05:59”His goal for “Sodom Cat” is to examine casual gay sex and relationships that are still considered taboo in Taiwanese culture.

“This is a film that is about love through sex,” Ting-Chun says. “Though it is X-rated, it is the emotions behind our current sex culture that I want to explore.”

Dating apps and online dating have been a feature of many LGBT stories of late. These apps and online forums have revolutionized the way LGBT people meet for dating, romance or just “no strings” fun.

This film asks what it must be like to be a part of this world, and yet feel strangely distant from it. Sun is a young man who attends a sex party that was with four other men organized via a dating app. While the others seem to be enjoying themselves, Sun is unaroused despite the others’ best efforts turn him on.

Challenging contemporary ideas of what it means to be gay and sexually active and depicting gay sex with great frankness and honesty, “Sodom’s Cat” is a controversial film.

“THE RABBI”— Unspoken Desires

“The Rabbi”

Unspoken Desires

Amos Lassen

Israel has produced excellent LGBT cinema in the last 15 years but while many aspects of life in Israel have been explored, including its politics, the country’s fraught relationship with its neighbors and military conscription, it isn’t often we see Judaism in a gay drama. Uriya Hertz’s  short film “The Rabbi” introduces us to Michael (Gur Yaari), a charismatic and much-admired Rabbi at a Jerusalem Yeshiva. A revealing confession by Gadi, his favorite student, shakes the rabbi’s familiar and secure world.

Michael finds that he must confront his own sublimated desires. This subtle, understated drama is more about those things which go unsaid than full-blown arguments. A dinner scene, where Gadi joins the Rabbi’s family for supper, fizzes with pent-up energy and emotion.

“In a Whirl of Delusion” by J.R. Greenwell— Becoming the Queen

Greenwell, J.R. “In a Whirl of Delusion”, Chelsea Station Editions, 2018.

Becoming the Queen

Amos Lassen  

Chester Davis narrates J.R. Greenwell’s comical take on Southern drag queen pageants. Chester finds himself in bed with Zac Efron and Ryan Reynolds. However, he is really hallucinating as the result of a concussion. Such is the stuff of dreams and wishes.

Next we go back a year in time to find twenty-one year old Chester escaping from the Morning Glory Trailer Park where he was living with his abusive, homophobic grandmother outside of Birmingham, Alabama. It was there that Chester became Daphne DeLight, the name her prefers being known by. Now we already have a drag queen and a trailer park and there should give you ideas where this book is going and it is certainly not the Vatican or the White House.

Daphne has her heart set on winning the title of Miss Gay Drag Queen Alabama and she has strong supporters at Club Diva. They help Daphne hone her craft and pursue her dream to be queen. Sam and Mike, a gay couple are the first two characters to offer Daphne a helping hand and we learn from overhearing them that Daphne has developmental issues and is extremely socially awkward. Sam doesn’t really care for the term retarded and prefers to think of Daphne as “challenged, slow, low IQ, autistic, whatever the term. She can barely even read, for God’s sakes.” Writer J.R. Greenwell gives us a Daphne who is a babe in the woods who needs almost everything explained to her (Bless her heart). Daphne interprets language literally and I suspect that you non-Southerners might be at a disadvantage here and might just have to wait for a translation from one of Daphne’s mentors (Bless their hearts).

Sam compares Daphne to a young Elizabeth Taylor but then feels compelled to add: “Well, thinner, blonder, and younger…you do have blue eyes. Not violet, but blue. Close enough.” (Take that for what its worth but remember that Liz Taylor did have some successful roles as a Southern woman). What is fun about drag queens is playing with stereotypes and Greenwell does that just great here (Although Daphne is her own stereotype, Bless her heart). By the end of the book, Greenwell reveals the cause of Daphne’s concussion as well as what has caused her social and academic difficulties.

Now you should know that a book about a drag queen has to be campy and this one certainly has its share of camp and in good, clean fun. I am sure that it is Daphne’s/Chester’s naiveté that opens the door for camp that is experienced on the road to the throne.

I actually felt that I was involved in helping Daphne win the crown and let me tell you, the Alabama drag world is a rough place to be. The would be ladies (Bless their hearts) show no compassion for competition even when it is as slow as Daphne.

This is no drag “Gone With the Wind” and I am not sure it is even literature. I am sure, however, that it is a fun read and was perfect for me to read today when everything is rainy and overcast in Boston. Besides there is some kind of butch race or marathon going on outside in the rain.

“Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century” by James Loeffler— The Forgotten Jewish Roots of International Human Rights

Loeffler, James. “Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century”, Yale UP, 2018.

The Forgotten Jewish Roots of International Human Rights

Amos Lassen

James Loeffler gives us an original look at the forgotten Jewish political roots of contemporary international human rights, told through the moving stories of five key activists.

2018 marks the seventieth anniversary of two important events in twentieth-century history: the birth of the State of Israel and the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The two are tied together in the ongoing debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global anti-Semitism, and American foreign policy. However, the surprising connections between Zionism and the origins of international human rights are completely unknown today. In “Rooted Cosmopolitans”, James Loeffler explores this controversial history through the stories of five remarkable Jewish founders of international human rights. He follows them from the prewar shtetls of eastern Europe to the postwar United Nations, a journey that includes the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, the founding of Amnesty International, and the UN resolution of 1975 labeling Zionism as racism.

The five men we follow are:

Peter Berenson, British lawyer, Jewidh youth activist and Holocaust rescuer turned Catholic convert and founder of Amnesty International.

Professor Hersch Lauterpacht, Polish Zionist and founding father of international human rights law and key drafter of the Israeli Declaration of Independence

Dr. Joseph Robinson, leader of the interwar Lithuanian Jewry and legal pioneer behind the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials and the International Refugee Convention

Jacob Blaustein, American Jewish leader and chief human rights booster in postwar American foreign policiy

Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, British Zionist leader turned UN human rights activist

Here is a book that challenges long-held assumptions about the history of human rights and offers a surprising new perspective on the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are several surprises here and they alone are worth the cost of the book but there is also so much more. I was totally surprised in that I consider myself knowledgeable in Jewish and Israeli history, yet I knew nothing about the five men at the core of the book. I was also somewhat shocked at what the book has to say about Hannah Arendt who, while I do not always agree with her, I have always been stunned by her knowledge and discourse. I believe her to be one of the great mines of the twentieth century.

We see and better understand the complex aspirations for global justice. Here is reshaped Jewish and human rights history. Loeffler’s research reconstructs the forgotten role of Jewish leaders in creating the architecture of human rights and gives us a nuanced account of the common origin of Zionism and human rights organizations “and of their increasingly tortured relationship.”

The book challenges orthodoxies both on the right and on the left and it can transform popular understandings of this critical period of history. Loeffler rewrites our received narratives about human rights and Zionism.

 

 

 

“The “Talmud”: A Biography” by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer— A Remarkable Story

Wimpfheimer, Barry Scott. “The “Talmud”: A Biography”, (Lives of Great Religious Books) Princeton University Press, 2018.

A Remarkable Story

Amos Lassen

The Babylonian “Talmud” is a post biblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary. It was written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic and is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have great appeal. Yet the “Talmud” has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer shares the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia.

It may sound silly, but I have always been afraid of the Talmud, thinking that it is a work by scholars and written for scholars. I would picture old rabbinic looking men sitting around a table and arguing and I always felt that I would never made the grade to be able to partake of such activities, which seemed to be integral parts of male Jewish life. I still fear the Talmud but not as much as I once did and that is probably because of how I live today as an observant Jew.

Wimpfheimer takes readers from the Talmud’s prehistory in biblical and second-temple Judaism to its present-day use as “a source of religious ideology, a model of different modes of rationality, and a totem of cultural identity.” We learn of the book’s origins and structure, its centrality to Jewish law, its reception and “its golden renaissance in modernity.” We learn “why reading the Talmud can feel like being swept up in a river or lost in a maze”, and why the Talmud has come to be venerated as well as excoriated and maligned in the centuries since it first appeared.

The Talmud is “a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.”

The cover of this book is quite amazing. It is actually a work of feminist protest art that resembles a rainbow tapestry with shading from red to blue and composed of thousands of small pieces of paper rolled up intro scrolls. Each of those pieces of paper is a small section of a printed Talmud page. American-Israeli multimedia artist Andi Arnovitz entitled the work If Only They Had Asked Us and it suggests that had women been involved in helping to write these books, the laws would be far more colorful and vibrant.

This piece of art is one of the many approaches to Talmud that Wimpfheimer considers here. He was anxious to write about the Talmud because (in his words), it “really lends itself to a biography because it’s had various many periods of existence, and it has lived in various types of ways, and it continues to live in various types of ways: There is the text as it is interpreted and understood in quite different ways and the symbolic register of the Talmud having meaning beyond the meaning of the words inside it. The Talmud can mean so much beyond what is contained within it.”

This study is focused less on what the Talmud contains and what it says, and more on how it has been read and what it has come to mean. Wimpfheimer has explained that “My premise at the outset was that I would embrace the conceit of biography and try to pretend the Talmud was a person, and identify those moments when the Talmud is personified and embodied in its history”. “I began to realize that so often when the Talmud was personified and embodied, it did so in this symbolic register. Thus biography might be the ideal way to articulate this register.”

Unlike most introductions to the Talmud, Wimpfheimer’s book does not include an overview of the topics covered in the Talmud, nor does it systematically lay out the various historical layers of the text. Instead, it considers the Talmud as a work of religious literature produced at a particular historical moment. The Talmud became the central canonical work of the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Temple and it still serves as “the ultimate symbolic representation of Judaism, Jewishness, and Jews.

Wimpfheimer tries to show the experience of studying Talmud by focusing on two particular passages of Talmudic text, one more legalistic—about liability for the damages caused by starting a fire—and one more literary, about how Israel came to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai. He explains these passages in depth and then he demonstrates how they have been understood by various commentators over time giving us an introduction to the classical medieval commentators as well as to Jewish philosophy and to Kabbalah. He distinguishes between traditional readings of the Talmud, in which the Talmud is taken at face value as the record of a historical conversation among the rabbis featured in its pages, and critical readings, in which the Talmud is a literary construct designed by a set of active anonymous redactors to resemble a conversation among those rabbis.

 

“Global Gay: How Gay Culture Is Changing the World” by Frederic Martel— The Globalization of LGBT Rights

Martel, Frederic. “Global Gay: How Gay Culture Is Changing the World”, translated by Patsy Baudoin and with a foreword by Michael Bronski, MIT Press, 2018.

The Globalization of LGBT Rights

Amos Lassen

Frédéric Martel visits more than fifty countries and documents a revolution underway around the world: the globalization of LGBT rights. He takes us from Saudi Arabia to South Africa, from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv, from Singapore to the United States and we meet activists, culture warriors, and ordinary people who are part of the Global Gay movement. Martel interviews the proprietor of a “gay-friendly” café in Amman, Jordan; a Cuban-American television journalist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; a South African jurist who worked with Nelson Mandela to include gay rights in the country’s constitution; an American lawyer who worked on the campaign for marriage equality; an Egyptian man who fled his country after escaping a raid on a gay club; and many others We learn that homosexuality is neither prohibited nor permitted in China and that Chinese gay life takes place on social media; that in Iran, because of the strict separation of the sexes, it seems almost easier to be gay than heterosexual; and that Raul Castro’s daughter, a gay rights icon in Cuba, expressed her anti-American sentiments by calling for Pride celebrations in May rather than June. Ten countries still have the death penalty for homosexuals. An activist shares that “Homophobia is what Arab governments give to Islamists to keep them calm.”

Martel shows that although the “gay American way of life” has created a global template for gay activism and culture, each country has distinctly local variations. Yet, it is interesting that the status of gay rights has become a measure of a country’s democracy and modernity.

“Global Gay” has been adapted into an award-winning television documentary. Hopefully we will have a chance to see it here.

“Discovering Human Sexuality” by Simon Levay, Janice Baldwin and John Baldwin— An Introduction to the Study of Sexuality

Levay, Simon, Janice Baldwin and John Baldwin. “Discovering Human Sexuality”, Fourth Edition 4th Edition, Sinauer Associates, 2018.

An Introduction to the Study of Sexuality

Amos Lassen

“Discovering Human Sexuality” is an evidence-based, accessible introduction to the study of sexuality and the many different ways in which it brings joys and challenges to our lives. Now in its fourth edition, the book has established itself as a popular and widely read text that respects diversity both in the sexual world and among the students who read it. The backgrounds of the three authors (biology, sociology, teaching, and writing) make this an multidisciplinary, authoritative, sex-positive an easy and pleasurable read.

The authors cover the scope of human sexuality from homosexuality in ancient Greece to the recent Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal as well as a diverse array of topics. We look at questions such as: How does the menstrual cycle work? What’s “splitting the bamboo”? Can premature ejaculation be treated? If a man has undetectable levels of HIV, can he have sex without condoms? Which sex offenders will repeat their crimes? Is there a gay gene? What’s wrong with polygamy? Is emergency contraception abortion? Which bathrooms should trans women use? This book gives us factual answers to important questions and provides material for informed debate for issues that have no single or easy solution.

I would not usually say that this kind of book is enjoyable reading but in this case it actually is. I always enjoy when Simon LeVay has something to say and I must say the same about the Baldwins.

The emphasis here is on biology and the idea that each new volume is up to date, we get the best information and in a timely manner. Changes in legal issues related to sexuality are always included and the visuals as well as the out-takes/side boxes give points of view or case studies within them.

“Echoes of a Queer Messianic: From Frankenstein to Brokeback Mountain” by Richard O. Block— A Reconsideration of Literature

Block, Richard O. “Echoes of a Queer Messianic: From Frankenstein to Brokeback Mountain”, Suny Press, 2018.

A Reconsideration of Literature

Amos Lassen

Richard O. Block reconsiders mostly German narratives from around 1800 to recover echoes of a queer messianic that still resonate today. Up until now, queer theory has basically focused on North American and contemporary contexts. Now Block wants to expand that and he brings together the asocial and the reparative currents. To do this he must go back to German narratives from the 1800s and then relate them to current literature. Block suggests readings from Mary Shelley, Heinrich von Kleist and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He tells us that these early writings are a “creative font” for later work in sexology. Thee same texts give us echoes of love that was overlooked or suppressed in order to appease the political climate or to make gay people model citizens.

Block follows the possibilities for queer love in an attempt to map a future for gay politics in the age of homonormativity. Not only is this a compelling read but it is original in its provision of a major intervention into queer theory, while at the same time gives us wonderful literary and film criticism.

Table of Contents:

Acknowledgements

Introduction

  1. A Man’s Best Friend Is His Monster: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”

2. Peter Schlemihl’s “Wondrous Story” or the Genesis of a Queer Jewish Outlaw

3.Queer Prosthetics or Male Tribadism in Kleist’s “On the Puppet Theater”

4. Queer Echoes Traversing Great Spaces: Roland Barthes’s “A Lover’s Discourse” and Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”

5. “I’m nothin’. I’m nowhere.”: Echoes of a Queer Messianic in “Brokeback Mountain”

Notes

Bibliography

Index