“Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein’ by Jamie Bernstein— An Intimate Look

Bernstein, Jamie. “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein”, Harper, 2018.

An Intimate Look at Bernstein

Amos Lassen

Jamie Bernstein is the oldest daughter of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein and she shares with us offers a rare and intimate look at her father on what would have been his 100th birthday. Bernstein was “chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a television star, a humanitarian, a friend of the powerful and influential, and the life of every party.” Leonard Bernstein was an enormous celebrity during one of the headiest periods of American cultural life. To Jamie, he was the man in the scratchy brown bathrobe who smelled of cigarettes; a jokester and compulsive teacher who enthused about Beethoven and the Beatles; the insomniac whose 4 a.m. composing breaks involved feeding the baby. He taught his daughter to love the world in all its beauty and complexity.

As we enter Bernstein’s life, we meet a fantastic set of characters: the Kennedys, Mike Nichols, John Lennon, Richard Avedon, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, and Betty (Lauren) Bacall.

This is an intimate meditation on a complex and sometimes troubled man, the family he raised, and the music he composed. This is both a moving and often hilarious read. It is also a great American story about one of the greatest Americans of the modern age. Jamie Bernstein gives us a picture of the Bernstein family, especially her parents, Lenny and the much-loved Felicia and at the same time she writes about growing up as the child of a legend “—or, for that matter, as anybody’s child.” Her childhood was as fraught as it was charmed and her book is “beautifully written and unflinchingly courageous… expression of love, exasperation, amazement and forgiveness.” Bernstein brought the same magic that he brought to music to his family.

Before you sit down to red, make sure you clear the day because once you begin this book, I doubt you will be taking time to do anything else.

“This Young Monster” by Charlie Fox— A Celebration

Fox, Charlie. “This Young Monster”, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018.

A Celebration

Amos Lassen

“This Young Monster” is a “hallucinatory celebration of artists who raise hell, transform their bodies, anger their elders and show their audience dark, disturbing things.” We look at what it is to be a freak, why it is we wise to think of the present as a terrible time and how the concept of the monster affects our thinking about queerness, disability, children and adolescents.

While Charlie Fox writes about scary and fabulous monsters, but he is really writing about culture. In doing so, he invites his readers to become monsters. In the book we have biographical essays, a “dumb fan letter” to the Beast, a meandering confession from Alice, bombed out after her many years in Wonderland and other writings that are impossible to expect. Thus this is a look at life on the margins, and a thank you to a group of people who “embraced their misfit status to lead beautifully unconventional lives.”

It might take a while to get used to Fox’s writing but once you do, you are in for quite a read that is audacious and original.

The book opens “with a letter addressed to the Beast (of Beauty and the fame, of La Belle et la fame) and closes with a series of diary entries about Arthur Rimbaud.” Another fascinating essay is “Spook House” written as an imaginary screenplay.

Charlie Fox clearly knows his stuff, even if he does insist on writing it as an experimental play script. What this really is, I believe, is a compendium of essays about the art, film, poetry and celebrity of monstrousness.

 

“Sweet and Low: Stories” by Nick White— Maculinity, Identity and Place

White, Nick. “Sweet and Low: Stories”, Blue Rider, 2018

Masculinity, Identity, and Place

Amos Lassen

The characters in Nick White’s story collection “Sweet and Low” are trying to figure what is the next step in life and that makes them just like us and certainly identifiable. They are all trying to figure out their next steps. These are all different kinds of people—widows, ex-lovers, teenagers and disillusioned yet all struggle with questions and decisions that will ultimately impact their lives. I found it hard not to like a book in which you realize you are reading about yourself.

White’s stories are beautifully written and beautifully compelling. White is quite a storyteller. We have both random stories and those that are lined and follow Forney Culpepper from boyhood to adulthood. I am not going to summarize all of them but I will share with you about a few. “The Lovers” is about a widow who is dealing with life without her husband and his lover who wants something back that he gave his man before he died. In “The Exaggerations”, we read about a young guy who lives with his aunt and uncle and is just entering the world of what adults do. A high school senior has to deal with a scandal in the family while at the same time cannot stop thinking of his school’s coach. This is the story of “Lady Tigers”.

The Forney Culpepper stories are built around the character of Culpepper (duh) and I really enjoyed those and am ready for more. In fact I am ready for more Nick White. It is his prose style more than the stories that kept me reading. It might also be that since I am originally from the south and educated there that these stories pulled me in. There is a grand touch of the moonlight and magnolias that we find in Southern literature here. On the other hand, these stories are deconstructed versions of Southern literature as we see via the flaws of the characters. One cannot anticipate what will happen in the stories and that adds to the great fun of reading them. With characters that are searching for who they are, you cannot go wrong by reading this collection. In fact, it is more of an experience than a read.

“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai— Friendship, Redemption and AIDS

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.

 

 

 

 

“A TASTE OF PHOBIA”— 14 Directors

 

“A TASTE OF PHOBIA”

14 Directors

Amos Lassen

“A Taste of Phobia” is made up of fourteen directors and 90 minutes running time that give us fourteen short films. The directors are Domiziano Cristopharo, Michael J Epstein, Lorenzo Zanoni, Sophia Cacciola, Chris Milewski, Jason Impey, Sunny King, Sam Mason-Bell, Tony Newton, Rob Ulitski, Dustin Ferguson, Alessandro Giordani, Alessandro Redaelli.

The films are filled with chills and great visuals that reflect reflecting the styles of the directors who work on them. It is really difficult to review this film because it is basically a series of horror films. In attempting to write about each film, it is impossible top do so without giving away spoilers. I don’t feel good about this because I am used to reviewing and I can’t really do so.

What I can tell you is that each of the films is about a phobia and we see how they can affect and afflict us . You will learn about phobias that you never knew existed and I bet you will never forget them. This is the kind of movie that you just sit back and watch and let it take you wherever its goes. You can always turn it off but I bet you won’t.

“FRACTURES”— Israeli “Me Too”

“FRACTURES”

Israeli “Me Too”

Amos Lassen

A first cinematic outcome of the “Me too” campaign: Oded, a renowned professor and research scientist,is on his way to receive a prestigious award, accompanied by his wife Merav. Unexpectedly the police call and ask him to stop by to answer a few questions. In an instant their world crumbles.

  

Noa, one of Oded’s undergraduate students, has accused him of sexual coercion. In a confrontation with Noa Oded denies any romantic liaison but when faced with evidence, and on the advice  of the family attorney, he confesses to lying about their affair.

At the police station there is a harsh reckoning between Oded and Merav. The media reports the story and the shaming in the social networks hits hard. When Oded and Merav’s youngest son gets wind of the situation he demands explanations.

 Noa must confront her mother, who demands that she coverup the whole business and Merav, who pressures her to stop the disaster. The film takes place during a single day when the family’s life comes apart.  Merav maneuvers between her anger at Oded, who she accuses of ignoring her for their entire relationship, and her instincts to protect her family. She stands by Oded but knows that their lives will never be the same.

“LARGER THAN LIFE: THE KEVYN AUCOIN STORY”— A Personal Look at Kevyn Aucoin

“LARGER THAN LIFE: THE KEVYN AUCOIN STORY”

A Personal Look at Kevyn Aucoin

Amos Lassen

I remember being at some kind of LGBT meeting in Lafayette, Louisiana years ago and meeting Kevyn Aucoin’s parents. They were very proud of their son who was the talented gay man who was responsible for putting make-up the conic faces of the fashion industry. In this wonderful new, we get a personal look at the life of legendary makeup artist Aucoin and learned that he survived childhood abandonment and bullying in the Deep South to become one of international fashion’s most sought-after style people. Decades before the iPhone and the selfie, Aucoin was constantly documented himself (and his clients) with a video camera giving us a picture of brilliant yet tormented artist.

The documentary features interviews with many of the women he worked with as well as with the woman who gave Kevyn up for adoption. We come to see Aucoin as a man who spent a lifetime looking for love and who never realized that it surrounded him.

He struggled to get out of rural Louisiana and when he did he became the most sought after makeup artist of his time. We have here never-before-seen archive footage of some of the most iconic moments in fashion history and they were captured by Aucoin himself throughout his life and career. Putting these together with intimate and uncensored moments with personalities from the world of fashion and pop, we get a look at culture in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1980s, Aucoin rose from nothing to become the most sought after fashion and celebrity makeup artist ever. He was a key creative player in the pop culture storm that became the supermodel era of the 1990s. Soon afterwards, celebrities began to seek him out and he was confidante and friend of A-listers in music and film. In fact, he was something of a celebrity himself, having written three best-selling books, appearances on Oprah and his own line of makeup. He used his celebrity status to fight for gay rights and acceptance. Aucoin died in 2002 at the young age of 40.

The new footage takes us behind the scenes of his life and is filled with h the celebrated photographers, models and actresses of the era. There are also many beautiful and poignant personal moments that help tell the story of Kevyn’s extraordinary life. This is Kevyn via Kevyn. However, we see, that his great gift almost did not come to be because of the persecution of gay people in hissouthern hometown. Aucoin fought the facts about his adoption as well as undiagnosedrare disease that took his life at such a young age. . The film shows us someone who was able to achieve all of his dreams and help create so much beauty struggled to see the beauty within himself. More than anything he wanted to be loved never realizing the love that surrounded him.

There are amazing interviews with Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Amber Valetta, Andie MacDowell, Paulina Porizkova, Lorraine Pascale and candid conversations with colleagues, family, friends and lovers. We are taken back to a time when supermodels ruled and Aucoin was an integral part of that world.

“Returning” by Yael Shahar— Remembering

Shahar, Yael. “Returning”, Kasva Press, 2018.

Remembering

Amos Lassen

I have a very difficult time reading about the Holocaust. I have a very hard time with anything about the Holocaust even though it is I am well aware of its importance to history. Like many others, I went through a period during which I read as many books about it as possible and saw as many movies. But I soon had enough and found that thinking about the Holocaust was holding me back from doing many other things so I stopped. Yes, my religion and my ethnicity are important to me, perhaps the most important things about me but I was tired of reading about death and the levels to which one could sink.

Then because of renewed interest in Hannah Arendt, I found myself back reading about the Holocaust and trying to understand it. As a Jew, I understood that the Holocaust is part of our collective memory and we simply cannot avoid it. It is a memory yet it is part of who we are.

I have read so much and yet I was not prepared for a new way of reading about the most terrible period in the history of the world. Yael Shahar comes at the Holocaust differently. She relates a true and haunting story that is unforgettable even after we close the covers of the book.

We meet a 17 year-old–Jewish/Greek male who is sent to Auschwitz where he is known as Alex and is sent to work in the crematoriums after first directing other Jews to the gas chambers. Sixty years pass and we meet him again but now his name is Ovadya and he is dealing with grief and remorse about his time at the camp. He needs to face what he did and now feels ready to do so. He has questions that are basically unanswerable (the same kinds of questions Jews everywhere have had about the Holocaust). He asks for help from a rabbi knowing that his questions deal with faith and wondering at what point one’s death becomes a moral obligation. He has questions about responsibility and if we still have it when there are no choices left. How do we accept that which is unacceptable and can we forgive someone who has committed acts so terrible that we cannot speak about them?

We are now moving toward a time in which all of the survivors of the Holocaust will soon be gone. We will no longer have first person accounts of what happened. Shahar asks, “What happens to memory when there is no one left to remember and to tell it forward? How will we now learn about the Holocaust?

We know that it can happen again and that it has, to a lesser extent, happened. The questions are both philosophical and based in reality.

At seventeen, Alex was taken from his family and sent to Auschwitz. He managed to outlive his family, his faith, and his culture. His memories will never leave him as they filled with those who are no longer here and who met their ends much too soon. Alex cannot speak of what he did to survive and he has lived out the rest of his years in silence. We can imagine what he thought and we stay with him. He is a noble soul.

“Returning” is about memory and it shares a descent into hell and then a return to life. It looks at the choices we make in a time when there is no choice. I doubt I will ever be the same after reading this. As I read I joined the 6,000,000 already dead at the hands of the Nazis and those who died in more recent times because of anti-Semitism. I will never understand and I will never have answers to my questions as often happens when I read about the Holocaust, I begin to question what kind of God could have let this happen? Where did the strength come from to survive? How do the survivors deal with their pasts and the burdens they carry? Should we all not carry what they do?

I may never be the same after reading “Returning”. I do not have to return because I never left. My religion is who I am and it gives me to right to question and to argue. It gives me the right to look for answers and it allows me to chose which answers to believe. Any journey we take is not as significant as the memories that come out of it. If I seem to ramble it is because I am stunned by the impact that this book has had on me.

“House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Road— Tommy and David Nutter, Brothers

Richardson, Lance. “House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row”, Crown Archetype. 2018

Tommy and David Nutter, Brothers

Amos Lassen

Lance Richardson shares the strange, illuminative true story of Tommy Nutter, the Savile Row tailor who changed men’s fashion—and his rock photographer brother, David, who captured it all on film.

 Tommy and David Nutter grew up in an austere apartment above a café that catered to truck drivers and they both boys seemed to be headed to lead rather humble lives in post-war London. Tommy became a civil servant and David was a darkroom technician. However, the strength of their imagination (and a little help from their friends) changed them into unlikely major players in a swinging cultural revolution.

 In 1969, when he was just twenty-six, Tommy opened an unusual new boutique on Savile Row. While shocking a haughty establishment resistant to change, “Nutters of Savile Row” became an immediate sensation among the young, rich, and beautiful and it charmed everyone from Bianca Jagger to the Beatles who wore Tommy’s designs on the album cover of “Abbey Road”. At the same time David’s across the Atlantic to New York City, where he found himself stars (Yoko Ono, Elton John) who enjoyed his dry wit almost as much as his photography.

This is quite a story about two gay men who influenced some of the most iconic styles and pop images of the twentieth century. Richardson uses interviews with more than seventy people and unparalleled access to never-before-seen pictures, letters, sketches, and diaries to give us a dual portrait of brothers improvising their way through fifty years of extraordinary events as their personal struggles played out against backdrops of the Blitz, an obscenity trial, the birth of disco, and the devastation of the AIDS crisis. Brothers Tommy and David

Tommy had no formal education as a fashion designer, and no advanced training as a tailor aside from his own “in-built feeling for clothes.” Nonetheless, he immediately found himself outfitting everyone from rock stars to members of parliament, Twiggy to Diana Ross. Within a few years, the “Evening Standard” pronounced Tommy “as established and as important as any British tailor or designer.” He gained quite a following in America that stretched from New York to Los Angeles. People raved about his Savile Row suits and his legacy is in menswear today.

 Today, his suits are now safeguarded in the Victoria & Albert Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tommy was friendly with Princess Margaret and joined her at galas in Venice and Munich. He was a gay man who managed to pull himself out of the working class using nothing more than his own imagination.

 Tommy Nutter was obsessed with his public image and was also gay. He personalized forty years of critical gay history. Tommy’s focus on outward appearances might have been a way for him to take control and overcome the more challenging aspects of his own experience. Tommy ultimately died from AIDS-related pneumonia in August 1992. The lives of many artists, performers, and designers were lost pre- maturely to the plague and have since been unfairly marginalized in the collective memory.

Tommy and David were two gay brothers, two halves of a larger, stranger whole and the book about them is an analysis of the British class system and the fashion industry, gay liberation and the Aids crisis, and it is written with flair and erudition.

It is the story is of two brothers who rose from modest north London origins to the fringes of international stardom.

What is unique here is that we are frequently reminded of the unremarkable humanity of celebrities and the variety of experiences in the book.

“Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Books Heroes: 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now”?  by Travis Smith— Conducting Our Lives

Smith, Travis. “Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Books Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now”?  Templeton Press, 2018.

Conducting Our Lives

Amos Lassen

We might not realize it but superheroes play an important, if not major, part in our lives. Regardless of their silly costumes and their ethnicities and power, they are not just for kids. Travis Smith shows us that “they really are profound metaphors for different approaches to shaping one’s character and facing the challenges of life.”

In his “Superhero Ethics”, Smith takes ten top superheroes and pits them one against another, chapter by chapter. The hero who better shows how we ought to live moves on to the final round. By the end of the book, a single superhero emerges is named most exemplary for our times.

Below are the matches that we read about:

  • How can we overcome our beastly nature and preserve our humanity? (The Hulk vs. Wolverine)
  • How far can we rely on our willpower and imagination to improve the human condition? (Iron Man vs. Green Lantern)
  • What limits must we observe when protecting our neighborhood from crime and corruption? (Batman vs. Spider-Man)
  • Will the pursuit of an active life or a contemplative life bring us true fulfillment? (Captain America vs. Mr. Fantastic)
  • Should we put our faith in proven tradition or in modern progress to achieve a harmonious society? (Thor vs. Superman)

We find ourselves on an intellectual adventure in which we have fun while we think. We see that costumed characters have a bigger purpose in our modern world than just entertainment. Smith shows that they can teach us plenty about right and wrong. We are reminded to look beyond the special powers and find the role model.

Smith has worked hard to put a superhero in a political context. Every superhero has such a context and governs the world in which the superhero finds himself. His world is the precedent of the real world.

Smith uses the super heroes as a jumping off point to discuss issues in our daily basis. He looks at ethics, mores, folkways, and right from wrong. It is here that we learn about ourselves and our friends when we talk about what makes a hero.

By exploring the ethics of the characters we learn a great deal. Superheroes speak to people in profound ways and there are not always appreciated.  What a fun way to show our concern for popular and political culture in modern America.