“James Merrill: Life and Art” by Langdon Hammer— The First Biography

james merrill

Hammer, Langdon. “James Merrill: Life and Art”, Knopf, 2015.

The First Biography

Amos Lassen

James Merrill had a fascinating life and we are finally able to read about in the first biography of the poet to be published. Merrill was the son of Charles Merrill, cofounder of Merrill Lynch, the famous brokerage firm. His mother, Hellen Ingram was both a muse and an ally but she was also an antagonist throughout her son’s life. When his parents divorced, young Merrill looked for a way to repair the damage he felt had been done and he turned to poetry and love that he did not find at home. His life is the story of a young man finding escape from his parents while at the same time dealing with the same energies and obsessions as they had. He built a gay identity going in the opposite direction that the rest of America when the gay community was dealing with the closet, the quest for liberation and the agony of the AIDS epidemic. Merrill was a gifted poet who was dedicated to his craft and turning it into art.

 This is the story of a young man escaping, yet also reenacting, the energies and obsessions of those powerful parents. It is the story of a gay man inventing his identity against the grain of American society during the eras of the closet, gay liberation, and AIDS. Above all, it is the story of a brilliantly gifted, fiercely dedicated poet working every day to turn his life into art.

Merrill studied at Amherst and then went to Europe seeking adventure, returning to the States in the 50s and became friendly with a host of literary people— W. H. Auden, Maya Deren, Truman Capote, Larry Rivers, Elizabeth Bishop, and he began publishing poems, plays, and novels. In 1953, he met the love of his life, an aspiring writer, David Jackson. They it the bars and the boys together and set up house first in Connecticut and later in Greece and Key West. Both had an addiction for the Ouija board that led them into conversations with the spirits of the other world. For Merrill, the Ouija board became poetic inspiration for Merrill and it brought him his amazing “The Changing Light at Sandover.” In his poetry, we see his combined perspectives and his diaries and letters provided many of the sources for this wonderfully readable biography. His comic self-knowledge gave hope to a world that was threatened by nuclear war and environmental disaster.

In this biography, Yale professor and author Langdon Hammer gives us what he calls Merrill’s “chronicles of love & loss” as well as the personal journey that he undertook. Having had access to so much of the Merrill estate gives Hammer the ability to write with candor, great depth and insight. His portrayal of Merrill is intimate yet it is an emphatic look at the man’s life (in 978 pages). We get a sense of how Merrill felt about the world as well as “lust for life” and this is what brought him to be such a fine lyric poet.

Because of his father, he was very, very wealthy as well as wonderfully gifted. However Merrill saw himself as cold and he enjoyed the occult. He was, like so many gay men of his time, HIV positive (which he hid) yet he emerged as one of the great poets of the AIDS generation. Merrill was meticulously formal and Hammer captures all of this in the book.

Regarding his sexuality, he was the picture of gay domesticity that generally ignored his homosexuality and he challenged the idea of “queerness” in literature and in the world at large. It would have been enough had Hammer just given us a picture of Merrill’s life but he goes beyond that and shows us what a biographer and a good biography are all about. Hammer gives us brilliant narrative, wonderful observation and a true analysis of one of the great poets of the modern age.

“Picturing the Closet: Male Secrecy and Homosexual Visibility in Britain” by Dominic Janes— The Development of Queer Readings

picturing the closet

Janes, Dominic. “Picturing the Closet: Male Secrecy and Homosexual Visibility in Britain”, Oxford University Press, 2015.

The Development of Queer Readings

Amos Lassen

Dominic Janes uses “the closet” as a concept that gives unity to the history of same-sex desire from the eighteenth century forward to today. His study goes well beyond the concept that the homosexual was an end of the 19th century construction and he maintains that this construction began long before that time. With new source material, Janes uses various methodologies in case studies in order to show that literature, art, history, philosophy, film, social history and other approaches can give to the queer readings from the past.

Before the concept of homosexual came into being, Janes questions how people could think that they could identify a homosexual and asks if secrecy and denial played into the concept before the idea of the closet was developed in the late twentieth century.

Before that was there a concept of what homosexuals looked and acted like? Were those gay men who were not obvious in flamboyance distinguishable from the rest of society? Did those who wanted to look “normal” achieve that?

It was these cultural constructions that have been attacked time and again and quite notably by writer Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her “Epistemology of the Closet” and she labeled this concept as ‘the defining structure for gay oppression in this century’.

Using interdisciplinary case studies in order to explore both before the closet and the present day, looks at key moments and issues within British cultural experience and does so by using sources that range from “art to fashion, literature, philosophy, theology, film and archival records.”

Janes uses the potential of visual culture to reveal patterns of expression and obfuscation that go beyond the verbal bringing us the idea that the closet existed before the homosexual identity was spoken of. In fact, Janes tells us that the closet “offered its own spectacular forms of ‘self-fulfillment and expression.'” Janes traces the history of the closet by going back to its origins in the 18th century and he reminds us that this space that was both literal and metaphorical was more than just a place and a symbol of a minority that was oppressed. It was also a place where creativity was nurtured and it produced some very important ideas and images not only about homosexuality and the homosexual’s place in society but also it was a source of “subversive queer subjectivities.”


Below is the table of contents to give you an idea of what is included in Janes’ book.

Table of Contents

Ch. 1, Introduction: Picturing the Closet

Part One

Ch. 2, Hogarth’s Panic

Ch. 3, Burke’s Solution 

Ch. 4, The Decorative and the Damned

Part Two

Ch. 5, Athletics and Aesthetics

Ch. 6, Strachey in Earnest

Ch. 7, Expulsion

Part Three

Ch. 8, Criminal Practices

Ch. 9, The Unliberated

Ch. 10, After the Outrage






Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s” by Richard Goldstein— How It Was

another little piece of my heart

Goldstein, Richard. “Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s, Bloomsbury, 2015.

How It Was

Amos Lassen

Anyone who lived during the 1960s will always carry a piece of that era with him/her. However, not all of us have the ability to share that in the way that Richard Goldstein does in his memoir “Another Little Piece of My Heart”. When he was 22, he went to “The Village Voice” with an idea. He told them that he wanted to be a rock critic and the editor was a bit befuddled and claimed not to now what that meant. At that time, it was a fair question since up until then that has not been such a thing. Yet Goldstein got the job and he became the first person to write regularly in a major publication about the music that changed our lives. Goldstein believed deeply in the power of rock, and long before anyone else did so, he claimed that rock music was an art form that was serious. Because of his position he was able to see how rock music shaped culture and politics in the 1960s—and he was also a participant in it as well. He toured with Janis Joplin, spent a day at the Grateful Dead house in San Francisco, and dropped acid with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. He was there during Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he witnessed the student uprising at Columbia, and took part in the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Norman Mailer challenged him to a boxing match and he took Susan Sontag to her firs discothèque.

He had friendships and relationships with some of the legends of rock including Joplin and Morrison as well as others. Early deaths of some of his heroes made him disillusioned and he watched the music that he loved so dearly become an industry. He also saw the possibility of a social upheaval die.

Goldstein was a young man with serious ambition and an important member of an important decade in American life. He gives us an honest look at the 60s that few others are able to do. He was a pioneer who reported from the happenings themselves and he gives us in depth looks at those who stood out and who represented the dreams that America did not fully achieve.

Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial” by Kenji Yoshino—“Hollingsworth v. Perry”: The Definitive Story

speak now

Yoshino, Kenji. “Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial”, Crown, 2015.

“Hollingsworth v. Perry”: The Definitive Story

Amos Lassen

In 2010, the case of “Hollingsworth v. Perry” was in court for twelve days and has since become the watershed for marriage equality. That trial legalized same-sex marriage in California and opened the door for other states to follow. The case questioned the nature of marriage, the political status of LGBT Americans, the best circumstances for raising children and if democracy has the ability to protect fundamental and basic rights. That trial has become the most potent and powerful argument for marriage equality in this country.

 “Hollingsworth v. Perry” changed America and now Kenji Yoshino “brings abstract legal arguments to life by sharing his own story of finding love, marrying, and having children as a gay man.” The prose and writing here are clear and we get a look into the vulnerabilities if the mind and of the heart. Yoshino acknowledges his personal interest in the case and because of this his personal life mixes freely with the facts of the case giving it humanity. His legal reasoning at times is poetic and he celebrates the judicial process as human drama as well. We clearly see why facts matter, why trials are important and why courts are able to discover complex truths. While the courts have failed us many times in the past, in this case they succeed triumphantly. More than that, we see “why love matters and the law can make love visible.” Once again we see proof that marriage is that place, “that sacred place where love meets law”. This is the story of human rights as told by one whose own life has been changed and transformed”. Here are two civil ceremonies, a trial and a marriage that awaken our culture to what it needs to be and to do. We see transformative law here and we can now take pride in our legal system. Trial courts have the responsibility to evaluate legislative facts in ways that can prove equality and liberty and this case definitely shows us the success of that.

It is not often that we get a book about our legal system that is written so beautifully that we do nit want to stop reading it and that is what Yoshino gives us as he brings litigation over same sex marriage and insights into the power of trials together. Here is a book you will want to read again and again. It is also not often that we get to see

:how the careful and respectful procedures of the courtroom can separate fact from prejudice, and perhaps even allow the distilled light of reality to mend passionate social divisions.”  By skillful narrative, we get Yoshino’s family’s experience as it fought for legal recognition.



“The Wisdom of Perversity” by Rafael Yglesias— Three Friends, Three Stories

the wisdom of perversity

Yglesias, Rafael. “The Wisdom of Perversity”, Algonquin Books, 2015.

Three Friends, Three Stories

Amos Lassen

Brian and Jeff grew up in New York City during the 1960s and they were the best of friends. But something happened that pulled them apart and this destroyed their friendship and their childhood. They did not speak about it to each other or to anyone else until some forty years later. Their secret was exposed and it forced them to come together again and were joined by Jeff’s cousin, Julie. Now they had face the consequences of the many years of silence that they endured. The time had come to admit how their lives had been changed by a predator, a man who was exposed by other later victims and was about to escape punishment because he was wealthy and had influence.

All three had terrible feelings of guilt and anger because they did not speak out and he was allowed to abuse others. The three united to bring about an outcry that will cause him to face the justice that he should have had to deal with years before. This is frightening book that is shocking and compassionate and it cries out to be read.

Author Yglesias shows us the feelings of shame and helplessness that s many were intent on hiding. The memory of Stein, their predator never goes away or even fades. He also shows us that abuse is abuse even if it takes different forms. Brian genitals were only played with and Brian had been raped anally. The sexual acts caused the victims great harm and pain but even more than that it was responsible for emotional trauma. Stein was very clever in that he took time to become close to his victim’s parents so that the children were not able to ask them for help.

This is not an easy novel to read but it should be read. Their reunion forty years forced them for the first time to come face to face with their silence and the results of the repercussions of their molestations and silence. Their stories are told alternately in the past. As I read, I felt as if I had been one of Stein’s victims as I found myself struggling to understand how this could have happened. What we read is graphic and is necessary to bring the message home. As children those who were affected by Stein lived lives of constant confusion and questioning.

Their trauma, abuse and guilt they go through hits us hard and I know that it will be part of my memories for a very long time. The subject of the book is one about a subject no one wants to read about but should. The author concentrates on how children are gradually seduced by their molesters, and exactly what is child sexual abuse and the confusion, shame and guilt of the young victims and the long-term effects of the abuse on their lives. While this is a novel, what we read about has been going on for a very long time and still does.

“Planning and LGBTQ Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces” edited by Petra Doan— The Politics of Gentrification

planning and lgbt communities

Doan, Petra. “Planning and LGBTQ Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces”, Routledge, 2015.

The Politics of Gentrification

Amos Lassen

Every time I think about how much everything has changed for the LGBT community, I have to pinch myself to make sure that it has really happened (except for Indiana, Louisiana and Arkansas). Even with our new freedom, LGBT residential and commercial areas have come under increasing pressure from gentrification and redevelopment initiatives. Because of this many of these neighborhoods are losing their special character as safe havens for sexual and gender minorities. Urban planners and municipal officials have often ignore the transformation of these neighborhoods yet at other times been complicit in these changes.

In “Planning and LGBTQ Communities” experienced planners, administrators, and researchers in the fields of planning and geography come together to discuss the evolution of urban neighborhoods in which LGBT people live and examine a variety of LGBT residential and commercial areas to highlight policy and planning links to the development of these neighborhoods. Each chapter in the book deals with a particular urban context and questions how the field of planning has enabled, facilitated, and/or neglected the specialized and diverse needs of the gay community. The central theme of the book is that city and urban planners have to think beyond “queer space” because LGBT populations are more diverse and dispersed than the white gay male populations that once created many of the most visible “gayborhoods.” We get practical guidance for cities and citizens seeking to strengthen neighborhoods that have an explicit LGBT focus as well as those that are LGBT-friendly. What is needed is broader awareness of the needs of this marginalized population and the establishment of more formal linkages between municipal government and a range of LGBT groups. The five major topics discussed here are:

The book is a collection of essays that address how to plan for the gay community and a call to action for student, academic and practicing planners and politicians to listen, to see and to consider the question of sexuality. It is so important to realize that today’s gay community is very diverse along all lines and here we see how planners contribute to building urban societies that are truly diverse and inclusive.   We have moved beyond the area that was once known as the gay ghetto and the time has come to think about what comes next.Below is the table of contents to give you an idea of what you can find here.

Chapter 1 Why Plan for the LGBTQ Community? – Petra L. Doan


Chapter 2 Gay Commercial Districts in Chicago and the Role of Planning – Curt Winkle

Chapter 3 The Dallas Way: Property, Politics, and Assimilation – Andrew H. Whittemore

Chapter 4 Fractures and Fissures in “Post-Mo” Washington, DC: The Limits of Gayborhood Transition and Diffusion – Nathaniel M. Lewis


Chapter 5 Thinking Beyond Exclusionary Gay Male Spatial Frames in the Developing World – Gustav Visser

Chapter 6 The Pervasiveness of Hetero-Sexism and the Experiences of Queers in Everyday Space: The Case of Cambridge, Massachusetts – Sarah P. Nusser and Katrin B. Anacker

Chapter 7 Identifying and Supporting LGBTQ Friendly Neighborhoods in the American South: The Trade-off Between Visibility and Acceptance – Petra L. Doan


Chapter 8 Finding Transformative Planning Practice in the Spaces of Intersectionality – Michael Frisch

Chapter 9 Southern Discomfort: In Search of the LGBT-Friendly City – Joan Marshall Wesley

Chapter 10 The Queer Cosmopolis: The Evolution of Jackson Heights – Arianna Martinez

Chapter 11 Lesbian Spaces in Transition: Insights from Toronto and Sydney – Catherine J. Nash and Andrew Gorman-Murray


Chapter 12 Act Up versus Straighten Up: Public Policy and Queer Community-Based Activism – Gail Dubrow, Larry Knopp, and Michael Brown

Chapter 13 Place / Out: Planning for Radical Queer Activism – Kian Goh

Chapter 14 The Racial Politics of Precarity: Understanding Ethno-specific AIDS Service Organizations in Neoliberal Times – John Paul Catungal

Chapter 15 Beyond Queer Space: Planning for Diverse and Dispersed LGBTQ Populations – Petra L. Doan

“Tiny Pieces of Skull or a Lesson in Manners” by Roz Kaveney— Trans Life on the Street

tiny pieces of skull

Kaveney, Roz. “Tiny Pieces of Skull or a Lesson in Manners”, Team Angelica, 2015.

Trans Life on the Street

Amos Lassen

Roz Keveney wrote “Tiny Pieces of Skull” in the 1980s and it is about trans street and bar life in Chicago and London in the 70s. However, as much as the manuscript was admired this is the first time that the book is being printed. It is the story of Natasha who manages to persuade Annabelle to run away and find adventure with her and the two have adventures that they could not have dreamed of.

The book is beautifully written and is a brilliant portrait of trans people who live on the margins of society. These are the novels we need to help break down the way trans people are treated in society. No review can do justice for this book—it is one of those books that simply must be read.

“When Everything Feels like the Movies” by Raziel Reid— Glamorous Jude

when everything feels like the movies

Reid, Raziel. “When Everything Feels like the Movies”, Arsenal Pulp Press 2015.

Glamorous Jude

Amos Lassen

We have all known someone like Jude, a young boy who is just too fabulous for words. Now we meet the fictional Jude who lives as if always on a movie set. School especially, for Jude, is like making a movie. The problem is that no one wants him in a movie— he just doesn’t fit in. Perhaps, he is just too much of a sissy.

Jude’s best friend is Angela and the two of them are legendary at school because of the melodrama that follows them wherever they are. This is Raziel Reid’s first novel and if this is a sign of what he can do, I think we will be hearing a great deal about him. He wonderfully and brutally shows us the queer imagination especially when it is used for survival. His character, Jude Rotheasy is brassy and glamorous and he is totally committed to himself.

As I said a few sentences ago, Jude sees school as a movie set with players and the roles that they play. Now on this movie set, Jude plays himself and that is because no one else can do like he does and he does fabulously. Since his self-definition is limited by the expectations of others, he plays right into that role. Jude and Angela are “crude, stupid, vindictive, reckless, and cruel” and they demand to be heard. Reid gives us a novel that examines Jude as he moves toward becoming an adult and is realistic and sexual. Reid gives us Jude in an allegory that is just a fantastic read and I sure wish I had a book like this when I was younger.

There is a lot of gender bending, carrying on and melodrama. Reid does not hold back as he shares Jude’s fantasies with us—his writing captivates the reader as he opens our eyes about so much and shows just how much has changed in high school and the world.

“PAPER DREAMS”— The Gay Adult Magazine Industry

paper dreamsa

“Paper Dreams”

The Gay Adult Magazine Industry

Amos Lassen

For you youngsters out there, we did not always have the plethora of gay porn like we do now. Before the days of video and DVD, we only had physique magazines and if we wanted to see pictures of nude men, that was what we had to look at. It took a long time to have pictures of naked men without g-strings and posting straps and it really was not until the 70s that we even able to buy movies of gay sex. In fact, in order to even get the magazines, we had to hunt down places that carried them and it usually required a long ride to actually be able to buy them (and they were not cheap).

Toby Ross is a legend in gay filmmaking and one of the early men who dared to give us movies in which gay men were actually having sex and he is one of the men responsible for kicking the door of the gay film closet open. Once this happened there was no turning back. Today gay film and the LGBT community have come of age and like Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”, you can get anything you want (and at fair prices).

In his new film, “Paper Dreams”. Ross takes an “unapologetic look at the gay adult magazine industry with all its glories and misfortunes stretching from 1955 to 1973.” We see here that before 1966, as I said, we really only had magazines in which men had their private parts covered but with 1973 hard core videos made the magazines seem like kindergarten books. The magazines were there during the transition period from paper to film and young men began posing for photographers of which many did not use their real names and there were those in which photographers used no name at all. Models were available for small money. While movies took over, we did not see the guys in the magazines making them in most cases. Little by little they faded away but it was these guys that oiled the porn machine. Ross searched for models to re-enact that period and he assembled many to do so.

In this documentary there is a lot of frontal nudity and it features the “Bazooka Boys” as well as clips and total re-enactments of what we once had. Watching this is a trip down memory lane for many and a surprise for those who were not around yet. I have been a fan of Toby Ross for a very long time and have most of films and am so glad to have another to add to my library. This is one you do not want to miss. Ross is the man behind such films as “Straight Boys, Gay Boys”, “Live for Sex, Die for Love”, “Bowser Makes a Movie” and To Fetch a Predator” just to name a few.

“I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son” by Kent Russell— A Book of Essays

i am sorry

Russell, Kent. “I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son”, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

A Book of Essays

Amos Lassen

”I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son” is a collection if deeply personal essays about author Kent Russell’s attempt to understand his relationship with his father. At the same time he gives us a portrait of an America and “a paradigm of American manhood” that is unlike anything we have never seen. Most of the essays have previously appeared in alternative journals. Russell questions different aspects of masculinity in this country and each essays is about some place he has visited in search of the all American definition of what is a man. He went to a convention of Juggalos, the group of fans that cluster around the hip-hop/horror duo Insane Clown Posse. He met John Brophy, a former hockey player and coach bruised by years of fighting and further reduced by age. He gives us a profile Tom of Savini, a film makeup artist best known for his association with the zombie movies of George Romero. There is a snake handler, Amish baseball and a man’s voluntary desert-island exile. Russell questions everything.

This is also autobiographical. At one point early on, we learn about Russell’s friendship with Ryan, an adolescent who is in jail and who claims that his life has been one of bad luck. Ryan uses that bad luck and joins the military. This grants him a certain status in the Russell family— a place in a long line of military men in the Russell family. However, Russell finds his vocation in writing. He watches and this leads him to his exploration of manhood. The book moves back and forth between personal narrative and reflection on man. He goes where he does not belong and then is not quite sure where he is and/or why. He uses his own life as a site of resistance surrounded by subcultures of temporary liberation.

Russell uses his father as an ombudsman who challenges the entire book from within. When he goes on a search of the family tree for research purposes, his father discourages him by dismissing the family history because his father is skeptical over how he will use what he finds. He sees the nature of gender as violent and to him, masculinity includes conflict with authority, with enemies and with himself.

The book is well written and funny and sad at the same time. Russell is committed to his own ideas and indeed he has something to say. It is at its best when Russell writes about his own family. It does not matter if we agree with him or not—the important thing is that he wrote this book and got it published. I can many discussions arising out of it.