“Pnina, My Comrade in Arms” by Lucienne Marode Skopek— A Life

Skopek, Lucienne Marode. “Pnina, My Comrade in Arms”, Editions Allewil Verlag, 2017.

Å Life

Amos Lassen

Lucienne Marode Skopek has a PhD in sociolinguistics and lives between Washington and Geneva and is the author of various books. In this book, she pays tribute to a friend, a comrade in arms she met during her military service in Israel. The themes include friendship, the Holocaust, homosexuality, the passing of time and she deals with them with thoughtfulness and sensitivity about these episodes in Pnina’s life. Despite the tragic aspect of historic events that form the background of the book, Skopek is never accusative, moralizing or sentimental. she approaches her subject by bringing everything into clear focus even when some of the moments are for those with strong stomachs.

“The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves: A Novel” by James Han Mattison— The Mystery of Life

Mattison, James Han. “The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves: A Novel”, Little A, 2017.

The Mystery of Life

Amos Lassen

Through first-person narratives, e-mails, gay chat-room exchanges, and other fragments “The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves” looks at the mystery of a life through the themes of despair and regret, humor and wonder, courage and connection.

A heartbroken and humiliated Ricky Graves was a heartbroken kid who had been humiliated one too many times and he took the life of a classmate and himself. Some five months after this his small New Hampshire community is still in shock and mourning. Ricky’s sister, Alyssa, comes home to confront her mother and deal with her guilt over the brother she left behind. Mark McVitry was the only survivor of the shooting that was sparked by his own cruelty and he is now tormented by visions of Ricky’s vengeful spirit. Ricky’s surrogate older brother, Corky Meeks, struggles with doubts about the young and fragile boy he tried to protect but who he may have doomed instead. Jeremy Little, Ricky’s long-distance Internet crush from San Francisco who never met him searches for atonement for not hearing his friend’s cries for help.

Shock and grief have given way to soul searching, as those who were closest to Ricky are forced “to confront their broken dreams, buried desires, and missed opportunities.” As they search for meaning and redemption, they find a common purpose of learning to trust their feelings and fight for real intimacy in a selfish and insincere world. We are taken into the relationships between mother and child, brother and sister, mentor and protégé, and bully and victim. Everyone is broken and painfully human. We have not yet had many novels that look at the real lives behind social media users and we quickly see the differences between what we show the world and how we see ourselves. We see the Internet as a transformative experience for rural youth. Each decision the characters of the book make goes through the web and back to them as consequences they could not expect. Ricky Graves, the character, shows us that social media has created a new place “for friendship and heartbreak, hope and torment.”

Here are the messy complications of technology in our lives and a story of finding forgiveness and a heartbreaking look at today’s current social moment. Six intertwining narratives take us into love, loss, and tragedy and remind us that sexual identity is a struggle for many who live in small-towns.

Here is the nature of adolescence, identity, and the complex politics of small town communities. As we start to read, we assume that this is the story of a bullied, conflicted kid who is so overwhelmed by his life that shoots others and then himself. Multiple narrators make us wonder how the story will ultimately come together and in fact, they do not. We are left with questions about multiple characters and how they connect and how their choices worked for them. We see something about modern technology and detachment from life and the many ways of coping with the results from the shooting.

We read about the dangers of social media as the plot slowly comes to light and even though everything revolves around a shooting, it is only briefly described as the psychological aspects of it are what impact us the most. Each chapter gives another layer to the story and many of the characters are not likable yet there is redemption.

 

 

“Out: LGBTQ Poland” by Maciek Nabrdalik— LGBTQ in Contemporary Poland

Nabrdalik, Maciek, “OUT: LGBTQ Poland”, The New Press, 2017.

LGBTQ Life in Contemporary Poland

Amos Lassen

No one in the Polish LGBTQ community could have foreseen how quickly this deeply conservative and Catholic country would change since it joined the European Union. As close back as 2004, gay rights marches were banned in Warsaw and homosexuality was a taboo subject. Since then, as the economy has grown, the LGBTQ community has become more widely accepted.

Award-winning Warsaw-based photographer Maciek Nabrdalik takes us into the Polish community where we explore issues of identity and citizenship. We have dozens of formal color portraits of writers, artists, and everyday people working in a variety of occupations across Poland. Each portrait is accompanied by a short interview and through color shading we see how comfortable that person is with revealing his or her own sexuality publicly.

The book is a look at the advancements that can be made in the struggle for LGBTQ rights in a short space of time and should be an inspiration to other countries where the queer community does not enjoy the same freedoms.

“Jewboy of the South” by Don Koplen— A Mess

Koplen, Don. “Jewboy of the South”, CreateSpace, 2017.

A Mess

Amos Lassen

Because I am a gay Jew who was raised in the South, I looked forward to reading this. Not only was I astounded by the book’s inaccuracies, I was ashamed of the stereotypes here. The story goes something like this— Donny is a Jewish high school student in a small town in the Southern United States. We meet him as he is dealing with his religion, sex-life and the southern justice system’s false imprisonment of his black carpenter/philosopher hero. By accident, he learns that his girlfriend’s father, a prominent Klan minister, is having an affair with the Orthodox rabbi. Our characters here include Donny, his black prostitute friend, her war hero minister lover, and others who come together to free Donny’s hero.

This is not a book about being Jewish in the South, but an overlong look at self-obsession, raunchy vulgarity, and how many feel towards Southerners, blacks, and Jews. The characters and experiences they have are inauthentic. The sex scenes are pornographic and without feeling. The dialog is extremely vulgar and the prose is awful. Racist stereotypes are offensive. The Jewish characters are seen as liars, nasty and sex-starved. The rabbi comes is an ignoramus and unlike any rabbi that I have ever known. As for Jewishness what we do have, we see through Jewish caricatures. I have never read a book that is so self-indulgent. Overall, it is an “outrageous amalgam of Jews, Rednecks and African Americans”.

 

“China in Drag: Travels with a Cross-dresser” by Michael Bristow— A Different Look at Modern China

Bristow, Michael. “China in Drag: Travels with a Cross-dresser”, Sandstone Press, 2017.

A Different Look at Modern China

Amos Lassen

Michael Bristow had been in Beijing for eight years and when he time approached for him to leave, he decided that he wanted to write about the country’s modern history. He asked his language teacher, who was born just two years after the communist party came to power in 1949 to help to do so. It is fascinating that the country has moved from communist poverty to capitalist wealth in just a single generation but the biggest surprise for Bristow was to learn that his teacher was a cross-dresser and he understood that his teacher’s story is the story of modern China.

Michael Bristow is Asia/Pacific editor for the BBC gives us a wonderful story of one man and modern China and a special friendship. We gain insight into the lives of ordinary Chinese people and an exploration of life in another culture including learning about the realities of life under State control.

 

“Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home” edited by Sheila R. Morris— A Collection of Essays

Morris, Sheila R., editor. “Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home”, University of South Carolina Press, 2017.

A Collection of Essays

Amos Lassen

“Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home” is a collection of essays edited by Sheila R. Morris Sheila R. Morris that look at how South Carolinians look their gay identities and activism from the emergence of the HIV-AIDS epidemic to marriage equality in the state some thirty years later. Each of the nineteen essays is about an aspect of gay life, from coming-out acts in earlier decades to the creation of grassroots organizations. All the contributors have been involved publicly in the gay rights movement.

We hear from “a banker, a drag queen from a family of prominent Spartanburg Democrats, a marching minister who grew up along the Edisto River, a former Catholic priest and his tugboat dispatcher husband from Long Island, the owner of a feminist bookstore, a Hispanic American who interned for Republican strategist Lee Atwater, a philanthropist politician from Faith, North Carolina, and a straight attorney recognized as the “Mother of Pride” who became active in 1980, when she learned her son was gay.”

When taken together, the essays place wise and time wise challenge the conventional understanding of the LGBTQ movement in the United States. We see that unlike the pride marches and anti-AIDS activism on both the east and west coasts that are rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s and Stonewall in New York City, in the South there has been little public or scholarly memory. Southerners have faced an aggressively hostile environment and queer political organization came late. Yet it was “the very unfriendliness of Southern political soil that allowed a unique and, at times, progressive LGBTQ political community to form in South Carolina.”

Contributors include:

Jim Blanton

Candace Chellew-Hodge

Matt Chisling

Michael Haigler

Harriet Hancock

Deborah Hawkins

Dick Hubbard

Linda Ketner

Ed Madden and Bert Easter

Alvin McEwen

Sheila Morris

Pat Patterson

Jim and Warren Redman-Gress

Nekki Shutt

Tony Snell-Rodriquez

Carole Stoneking

Thomas A. Summers

Matt Tischler

Teresa Williams

“MAKTUB”— Redeemed Thugs

“MAKTUB”

Redeemed Thugs

Amos Lassen

The word “Maktub” means fate and we see here that fate changes the destiny of two small-time enforcers for a Jerusalem mob protection racket changes when they survive a suicide bombing and wind up fulfilling the wishes of those who leave notes at the Western Wall.

Steve and  Chuma are two rough and tough thugs who collect protection money for Keselsy, a Jerusalem-based crime organization. At the end of their collection round they decide to go to a restaurant. After dinner, when they are both in the men’s room, they hear a deafening blast from within the restaurant. They come back and discover that they are the only survivors of a deadly attack. They flee straight to the Western Wall to pray Hagomel – a Jewish prayer giving thanks to God for saving their lives. Chuma believes that they are the onlysurvivors is a sign from God and that they have to stop doing what they had been doing. From that time forward, they practically live at the wall where they pick and choose the lucky messages whose wishes they will help grant.

As they make other people’s wishes come true, Steve and Chuma find themselves dealing with their own secret wishes too. The notes they choose to deal with (and help realize) are consistent with their own lives and secrets, secrets that threaten to unravel their friendship.

“FOXTROT”— A Satire of Israeli Military Grief

“FOXTROT”

A Satire of Israeli Military Grief

Amos Lassen

Writer-director Samuel Maoz’s family war drama has some knockout sequences that can certainly bowl you over. Despite its polished visuals, and flawless performances, it is not an easy watch, as it deals with extreme emotional pain and life’s horrible ironies.

Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Daphna (Sarah Adler) Feldman are troubled Israeli parents who are informed that their son Jonathan (Yonathan [Yonaton] Shiray) has been killed on active duty at his desolate military post. This is only the start of their troubles.

“Foxtrot” starts out as a claustrophobic chamber drama exploring what unfolds when word of horrors reaches families back home. Middle-aged couple Dafna and Michael receive the most unwelcome houseguests conceivable – soldiers, visiting to break the news that their son Jonathan has fallen in the line of duty. Dafna faints immediately, while Michael freezes on the spot for what feels like minutes.

As we watch, in uncomfortable close-up, the couple’s world comes crashing down around them. Ashkenazi is staggering when plumbing the depths of Michael’s despair. While attempting to comfort Michael, the soldiers bizarrely fixate on the importance of remaining hydrated. They even set his phone to issue hourly reminders to drink water, ensuring that this inane advice is reiterated at the most inopportune moments. And then, a bleakly hilarious twist that renders much of what we’ve seen thus far meaningless.

We are then taken to a remote roadblock on Israel’s northern border where we see a young soldier dancing the foxtrot, using his rifle as a partner and dwarfed by the expansive blue sky above. This begins a playful, melancholic reflection on the inanity of everyday modern military life. Conscription in Israel ensures that a majority of its citizens squander years of their youth in such conditions.

The film tells three stories preoccupied with young Israeli conscripts, the Holocaust and the country’s uneasy relationship with its neighbors. Each section has its own unique style. The first takes place with Michael and Dafna receiving the tragic news that their son has died whilst on military duty. The second tale is located at an unspecified checkpoint in the desert, where four young conscripts watch as camels and a few Arabs in cars pass by, and it’s quirky and humorous. Then, for the third part, the tone is bittersweet, as we are back with the parents reminiscing about the past over late-night dessert.

Director Maoz is show that even when characters live under a permanent dark cloud, there are also moments of laughter. Jonathan’s body has not been found and there is a lack of information about the death that frustrates the parents. The dialogue has plenty of implied criticism of the Israeli state, especially when the procedure for a soldier’s funeral is explained and it seems that the government is more concerned with its own image than the emotional wellbeing of the parents. The conversation is tragicomic and insensitive, rather than patriotic.

For the four young men at the checkpoint, Maoz uses quirky humor to show how unstable their lives are. They are bored, they fear that their lives could end at any moment. The boys amuse themselves by playing a game, rolling a can across an uneven floor that is slowly sinking into the soil. There are moments of surreal brilliance: an amazing solo dance scene, a demonstration of the foxtrot that is used to emphasize the circle of life. These visuals reinforce the fact that this is a reality that should not be considered normal. The boys tell stories of their parents and grandparents, and behind it all, almost as if it is the start of history, is the Holocaust. It’s an inescapable collective trauma, governing all of the lives that we see on screen; the point at which everything begins and, possibly, ends.

There are many moments of heart-breaking brilliance, but the plot veers in so many different directions that it eventually spins out of control. The tonal shifts are brave but do not always work like in an animated sequence recalling the Holocaust, where the visuals seem vulgar and heavy-handed. Even though this is a beguiling and ambitious film, it is occasionally infuriating because Maoz tries to pull the rug from under the audience’s feet too many times and there are moments that the film trips over its dependency on coincidence.

“Foxtrot” does the foxtrot, as the character Joseph explains to his captive audience. 3 steps, and you return to the same place – or, rather, 3 very different acts bookended by the same scene. A lot of the surprises and finesse of the movie come from the way in which director Samuel Maoz deftly switches tones and style. We start with a devastating tale of grief as the parents spiral into an oblivion that threatens to eat them alive. It’s an emotional, powerful piece of work that could have formed the bulk of the movie, but which ends unexpectedly in a masterfully Hitchcockian twist.

This is followed by a look at a surrealist nightmare of epic proportions. We turn to the Foxtrot unit where biggest threat to safety is a lone camel. The checkpoint, with all its vintage equipment, posters, and cultural debris feels like a forgotten relic from the 1950s; and the men who inhabit it, slowly sinking into the mud, have become distanced from temporal reality in this film about the pointlessness and banality in war: There’s just anticipation and boredom, regret and loss.

The final portion of Foxtrot returns to the Feldman house for a concluding act that’s alternately tragic, hilarious, and surprising in equal measure. For a section of the film that is filled with more subtle glances and actions rather than dialogue, it’s compelling and believable stuff: we see a rollercoaster of emotion, regret, and hope that perfectly encapsulates all we’ve seen so far in the film. It highlights everything that is wrong with a damaged culture.

It is the unifying factors and themes that run through each of these portions that make “Foxtrot” an exciting experience. It is a brutal dissection of Israeli life seems to be Maoz’s main concern. The constant threat of conflict, combined with the requirement of national service and the specter of the Holocaust that hangs over everything, gives diverse meanings to the images presented onscreen and presents a portrait of a society in retrograde. The film is totally unique and compelling. here

This is a film that goes to great lengths to show everything wrong with a damaged culture, yet one that sidesteps the main issue. Not only does it show the banality and pointlessness of death, it is a rich cultural study of the Israeli people. The tragically poignant final frames face an audience that does not know whether to laugh or cry.

“Our Happy Hours: LGBT Voices from Gay Bars” edited by Renee S. Bess and Lee Lynch— Listening to Ourselves

Bess, S. Renee, and Lee Lynch, editors. “Our Happy Hours: LGBT Voices from Gay Bars”, Flashpoint, 2017.

Listening to Ourselves

Amos Lassen

The gay bar has always played a prominent role in gay life. For many years it was the place where we could find a sense of community with others like ourselves. Today with online meeting sites the place of the bar has diminished yet I believe it is an institution that will never totally disappear. During the days and nights following the shooting massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, we heard people try to explain what the gay bar/club means to LGBT people and words “safe place,” “refuge,” “free to be ourselves” were mentioned many times.

Story collectors (as they prefer to be called) Renee s. Bess and Lee Lynch have brought together the way writers dealt with the terrible tragedy from the point of view of being different and how we do not conform to the heterosexual world. We all were devastated by what happened in Orlando even though we may have not known the victims. After all, it could have been any of us there that night.

What happened at Pulse could have happened anywhere— It was an invasion of our private space; a place where we could be ourselves and feel as part of a community.

The stories and poems explain the importance of just that. We hear from Ann Aptaker, Dontá Morrison, Rae Theodore, James Schwartz, Jennifer Morales, Cheryl Head, Heather Jane, Beth Burnett, Cindy Rizzo, Stephen Reigns, Clay Kerrigan, Earlon Sterling, Sallyanne Monti, Karen DiPrima, S. Renee Bess, Richard Natale, Mercedes Lewis, Martha Miller, Liz McMullen, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Penny Mickelbury, Johnny Townsend, Merril Mushroom, Brian Heyburn, Lee Lynch, Joan Nestle, Ian Cassidy, Angela Garrigan, Nahshon Anderson Fuentes, Ardy Tibby, Katharine E. K. Duckett, Rachel E. Bailey, Darryl Denning, Lisa Carlson, Katherine V. Forrest, Jen Silver, Shelley Thrasher, Kitty Kat, Jamie Anderson, Shawn Marie Bryan, Ann Laughlin, JP Howard, L. K. Early, Patrick Coulton, Michael Ward, Karin Kallmaker and Bonnie J. Morris.

All proceeds from the sale of the books will benefit LGBT Youth Charities.

“Census” by Jesse Ball— Father and Son

Ball, Jesse. “Census”, Ecco, 2018.

Father and Son

Amos Lassen

It does not happen often but every once in a while a book comes along that is both powerful and beautifully written. Such a book is Jesse Ball’s “Census”. I was totally riveted to each word as I read and it is a bit difficult to describe its emotional impact. Two unnamed characters, a father and a son set off on a journey after the death of the mother and the father’s receiving news from this doctor telling him that he his days are numbered. The father worries about who will take care of his son now that both parents will be gone. The son has Down syndrome and the father loves him deeply. He has no answer to this but he does want to see his country one last time so he signs on as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and he and his son set out. 

As they travel they find towns that are named only by letters and they encounter all kinds of people and the spectrum of human experience. They are welcomed into the homes of some of the people while others who have had bad past experiences with the census are unsure of their presence. They continue to move on to what are considered to be “the edges of civilization” where “the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay.” As they approach the town of “Z,” the father knows that he must deal with a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census and why do we have one? Is he complicit in its mission? How will he learn to say good-bye to his son? 

We often forget that death is a fact of life and we do not know how to deal with it. We certainly see that in the father here but this is about so much more than death—- we confront the themes of “free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love”. We are challenged to think about these even if we have never done so before and herein lies he beauty of “Census”.