“Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy” By Charles Bronfman and Howard Green— Thoughts on a Family

Bronfman, Charles with Howard Green. “Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy”, HarperCollins, 2017.

Thoughts on a Family

Amos Lassen

Charles Bronfman shares his thoughts on his own life, family, career and his significant accomplishments in sport and philanthropy. He chronicles key events in his life never letting us forget that he is heir to one of Canada’s great fortunes. Charles was born in 1931 into the fabulously wealthy Bronfman family and grew up in a 20-room mansion with a large staff. Because of and by way of their control of the distilling giant Seagram, the Bronfman family dominated the liquor business with brands such as Crown Royal, V.O. and Chivas Regal. By the 1980s, Seagram was also the biggest shareholder of DuPont and by the 1990s, the family’s wealth was in the billions, but with the $35-billion sale of Seagram to France’s Vivendi, financial and family disaster followed. Here Charles looks at all of it–his relationship with his parents, his brother Edgar, working in the family business, landing Canada’s first big league baseball franchise living a philanthropic life by promoting Canadian identity through and supporting Israel through countless innovative initiatives including the universally respected Birthright Israel. We then see how the Bronfman family splintered over the sale of Seagram.

This is quite a magical and magnetic story of how one man dealt with business, philanthropy, education, and the public interest without ever losing his sense of compassion or balance. Charles Bronfman is a man of generosity and determination.

He was a great statesman and visionary who brought wisdom and integrity to sport and to life. While this is not yet public knowledge, the book was ghostwritten by Howard Green who is credited along with Bronfman as author. That is not a negative statement in light of the fact that everyone wants to write a book these days but not everyone has the ability to do so. I get books all the time that should never see the light of day and rather than criticize them openly, I ignore them by not posting a review. In the case of Charles Bronfman who had something to say, he wanted to make sure that it would be said in the most correct way.

There are poignant and candid stories here and we read a good deal about he Bronfman family. Charles says that his father never loved him and that his older brother Edgar was imperious and his two were querulous sisters. We read of the failed marriages and of his nephew, “swingin’” Edgar Jr., who took over the business and then quite skillfully destroyed it.

Bronfman writes candidly about the rumors that his father’s wealth began with bootlegging during Prohibition and he states that from a legal standpoint they paid their taxes to the Canadian government and how and where they shipped goods were unknown to him. He writes candidly about Edgar, his older brother who was chairman of the board of the company and we can only wonder if he would have written what he did if his brother was still alive.

As far as his nephew, Edgar Jr., he does not see him as a businessman but then we did lose the company. Today, Forbes Magazine says that the family is worth $2.3 billion and Bronfman says the important word is family.

In writing about Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Bronfman simply states that he does not see him as a favorite and never has seen him that way. Bronfman believes that a two-state solution for Israel is the only way to make sure that Israel has a future. He also feels that there won’t be a formal or even informal alliance of the so-called moderate states in the Middle East unless the Israelis and Palestinians make a deal. On the other hand, he states that Netanyahu has been, is, and will no doubt continue to be a real believer in Birthright and through this we see the government’s support of the project that reflects the outward reach that Israel now has to the Diaspora and it is very healthy.

Bronfman sees Trump as a very strange character who is different every day. Bronfman sees the story of Israel as incredible. It is, he says, the story of the only people in the world who had a religion and a peoplehood and “got beat up and kicked out and have remained on that land ever since”. He is sure that his father loved him even though he could not express that love but “he was who he was”. And yes, he misses his brother who is no longer alive. He regrets that they were never the partners that they should have been and admits that he was also at fault about this.

 

“In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume I, 1957-1969” by Samuel Delaney, edited by Kenneth R. James— Private Journals, Private Thoughts

Delany, Samuel. “In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume I, 1957-1969”, (edited by Kenneth R. James), Wesleyan, 2017.

Private Journals, Private Thoughts

Amos Lassen

For fifty years Samuel Delany has charmed us with language and his works of fiction, criticism, and memoir. His newest book is the first in a series of a his private journals, beginning in 1957 when he was still a student at the Bronx High School of Science, and ending in 1969 when he was living in San Francisco and on the verge of writing the novel that would become “Dhalgren”.

We read his musings on the writing of the stories that established him in the genre of science fiction wunderkind, the early years of his marriage to the poet Marilyn Hacker, his performances as a singer-songwriter during the heyday of the American folk revival, travels in Europe, experiences in a New York City commune, and much more. We learn of his relationships with other writer who were them working in many genres, including poets such as Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, and Marie Ponsot, and science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and Joanna Russ. Delany scholar Kenneth R. James presents the journal entries as well as samples of story outlines, poetry, fragments of novels and essays that have never seen publication as well as provides biographical synopses and an extensive set of endnotes that give contextual information and connect journal material to Delany’s published work.

We see Delany’s wit, sensitivity, penetration, playfulness and the incandescent intelligence that have come to will characterize Delany and his work. The journals clarify questions of the writer’s process, and his development. Near the end of December 1957, Delany began carrying around a spiral notebook and in which he noted his thoughts, observations, poetry, sexual fantasies, notes for stories, and many other things. It is very possible that he is doing so today as well.

 

 

“THE DAYDREAMER’S NOTEBOOK”— Seven Short Experimental Films

“The Daydreamer’s Notebook”

Seven Short Experimental Films

Amos Lassen

Over the last forty years, director Michael Saul has been obsessed with daydreams and we see that in this anthology of seven short, experimental films. I, personally have loved his work and these films are a special treat. This collection contains his short films “Nightcrawler”, “Euphoria”, “Cons”, “Idol”, “Boat 14”, “Subterranea” and “The Cipher and the Boar”, all of which are new to me. Saul provides an informative and moving narration as he reflects on his work and the biographical elements in his films.

These are experimental films so it might take a bit of patience until it becomes clear where these films are going and those that stick with them receive wonderful rewards. Some of the films are hypnotic and dreamy and reflect the filmmaker’s childhood. To summarize them here would not be fair for those who want to see the anthology but I can say that we see emotion, love and sensuality. The casts include David Allan Payne, Austin Jolly, Rob Westin, Jeffery Payne, Gabriel Paal, Lindsay Marquino, Vince Perez. Saul also wrote the screenplays and produced the anthology.

“UNCHECHEN”— The Terrifying Situation in Chechnya

“Unchechen”

The Terrifying Situation in Chechnya

Amos Lassen

We have been hearing horrifying reports about what is going on in Chechnya where gay men are undergoing a purge and being forced into the first concentration camps in Europe since the Second World War. When gay men are imprisoned and tortured, they are forced apparently to name other gay people. Most recently it has been claimed that at least 30 people have been killed, either by the authorities or by being outed to their families with the police suggesting the family take care of it. We have heard that a teenage boy was thrown from a ninth floor balcony by his uncle (who was following the wishes of other family members) after being outed to them by the authorities.

The Chechnyan government has insisted nothing has happened and there can’t be a purge as gay people don’t exist in Chechnya. Vladimir Putin was had intense international pressure put upon him to investigate do so but there’s l little evidence that he’ll do anything.

Take Back, a theatre collective led by Julie Hesmondhalgh, commissioned a stage version of Unchechen which was performed at Contact, Manchester in May 2017. The response to the piece was so strong that it created a momentum to film the piece, in order for it to reach a much wider audience. Stephen M Hornby, the original writer, adapted it for screen. Dean Gregory and Martin Green play the lead roles.

The men fleeing from what is happening in Chechnya are too terrified to go on camera and this film is really all that we have to fill the silence with something that attempts to make this crisis real and human.

“OUT OF IRAQ”— The (Un)Impossible Love of Two Gay Soldiers

“Out of Iraq”

The (Un)Impossible Love of Two Gay Soldiers

Amos Lassen

Coming out of the closet for most of us means facing social and family barriers, which most of us eventually overcome. However, for most people in the Middle East (except Israel), coming out of the closet almost inevitably translates as coming out of the country or being murdered. Homosexuality is mostly perceived as some sort of contagious disease for which the only solution in death.

“Out of Iraq” is documentary that follows Nayyef Hrebid and Btoo Allami from the days when they met in a US military camp in 2004 in Iraq (following the American and British led invasion of the country), through their struggle to stay together and to leave the country, all the way to their marriage in Seattle here in the United States. Nayyef worked as a translator and had a university degree, which helped his entry to the US. Btoo was denied refugee status several times, and he fled to Lebanon, where he lived in a limbo for several years waiting for an application with United Nations Human Rights Commission to be approved. Nayyef and American human rights lawyer and activist, Michael Failla, supported him throughout his dangerous situation. Btoo only left the Middle East when a gay Canadian vice-consul helped and because of that he moved to Vancouver.

The resilience of the two men’s love is remarkable. They never gave up hope, and they communicated daily and several times through Skype throughout the years they were apart. Nayeef had a very large wallpaper with a picture of Btoo right next to his bed and the two men remained an integral part of each other’s life during the ordeal, constantly emphasizing that they have a physical, emotional and spiritual connection. In the west, it is easy to become desensitized to love because of the tremendous availability of channels for relationships (night clubs, phone apps, etc), and they may find it difficult to relate to such an epic and profound relationship. This documentary reminds us long-lasting love does exist.

The movie reveals that US refugee policy is not easy. There were concerns that Btoo may have witnessed torture in Abu Ghraib (and therefore became a whistleblower) and this prevented his consecutive applications from succeeding. What this shows is Americans weren’t so supportive at all. Yet towards the end of the movie Nayyef does literally fly the American flag, oblivious to the fact that the US caused the war that destroyed his country. He recognizes that gay men enjoyed far more freedom under Saddam Hussein than now. Ultimately Btoo and Nayyef embrace the American dream and settle here.

In 2004 when the two men were in the army, the last thing either expected to find love. But that’s exactly what happened. The beauty here is that they were in danger and could have killed at any moment but it was their love that made them forget that and fight for a better life where they would be together.

The film follows their journey from their first encounter on a battlefield in Iraq to their marriage in the United States a decade later. We see what a difficult journey this was. Members of the LGBTQ community are severely oppressed in Iraq and in a recent survey, it was found that 43 percent of respondents in the country believe being LGBTQ should be a crime.

Then in 2009, when militants started targeting Iraqi translators, Hrebid was put into an increasingly dangerous position and was then granted asylum in the U.S. and he came to Seattle. Allami, however, had a much longer road to asylum. The film follows the emotionally painful and physically dangerous years the two men spent apart, as they tried every option they could think of to be reunited again.In addition to their love story, the film also explores in detail the difficulties Allami faced while trying to seek asylum. Many of the agents he faced also did not seem sensitive to the issues of LGBTQ asylum-seekers. Today, the couple is now advocating for changes to the process in order to prevent others from facing similar setbacks.

“SATURDAY CHURCH”— Shedding the Stigma

“Saturday Church”

Shedding the Sigma

Amos Lassen

In “Saturday Church”, director Damon Cardasis introduces us to Ulysses (Luka Kain), a 14-year-old boy, struggling with gender identity and religion, who starts using fantasy as a way to escape his life in the inner city and find his passion in the process. The film works to help shed the stigma that some people on homosexuality and transgender people that still exists in today’s world. The film tells a simple story while letting everyone know that being gay or different shouldn’t matter and it doesn’t.

Ulysses deals with bullies, both at school and at home. He is fatherless, and has just been “taken under the wing” by his religious and stubborn aunt Rose (Regina Taylor). Ulysses is an innocent young man who is just starting to discover who he is sexually and as a young adult. Rose detests some of his behavior while Ulysses sees what he does as acts of freedom in a society that sees them as shameful.

He goes into the West Village world of Christopher Street in New York City, where homosexuality is commonplace and nothing to be ashamed of and discovers Saturday Church”, an establishment that Ulysses is welcomed into with open arms by a group of transgender women. He is shy and reserved at first and does not know what to make of this place and its inhabitants. As he continues his journey toward adulthood, he meets a love interest and forms a strong bond with his fellow “churchgoers.”

He faces some very complex moments that are filled with charm and beauty. We watch Ulysses break out in dance in some really wonderful musical moments that are scattered throughout the film. In fact, we are watching something of a musical and the dance numbers are spectacular making this an original looking at growing up and coming out.

The scenes in the streets are gritty and real and the film is not only deep and meaningful, but it is also visually stunning. This is a human story that is relatable to all and is really a journey of self-discovery.

Luka Kain has great emotional depth and he carries the film. The themes of love and acceptance remind us that people come in different shapes, sizes, genders, race and at the end of the day, none of that is really important. What’s important is the human connection and acceptance and love and truly being oneself. The actual Saturday Church program

was held at the St. Lucas Church in the West Village of New York City and it provided social services, food and a safe space for LGBTQ kids from the surrounding area every Saturday. The kids would come in and talk to somebody about what was going on in their lives, or for job advice, or counseling or housing advice. There was a gymnasium that was adjacent to the cafeteria, and the kids would vogue and dance and perform there.

For the first 15 minutes, “Saturday Church” but after about fifteen minutes into it, it changes when we meet Ulysses is like so many other countless teen movies, from “Pariah” to “Viva,” to name just two semi-recent breakouts. (Because teens tend to reject anything older than six months, the LGBT film circuit has a near-unquenchable appetite for virtually identical coming-out stories, as otherwise-generic offerings prove revelatory to virgin eyes.)

However familiar his predicament, it’s still heartbreaking to watch as fatherless 14-year-old Ulysses who associates shame and anguish with each of this desires. He wrestles with what he believes to be a damnable identity in private, especially after his aunt Rose threatens to kick him out of the house if he doesn’t shape up. Director Cardasis invites us to discuss issues of intolerance and hypocrisy as we see that it still exists right here in the United States.

 

“We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart— A New Deluxe Hardcover Edition

Lockhart. E. “We Were Liars”,  (Deluxe Edition), Delacorte Press, 2017.

A New Hardcover Edition

Amos Lassen

Imagine if you will, one book a beautiful and distinguished family, a private island, a brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy, a group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive, a revolution, an accident, a secret, lies upon lies, true love, and the truth. This is what we have in “We Were Liars”, a modern, sophisticated suspense novel. We have read and reread this book and for many it has become part of their lives. Now we have the collector’s edition that includes never-before-shared letters from Gat to Cadence, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the author’s creative process, the author’s hand-drawn map of Beechwood Island and the Sinclair family tree, unique ideas for book discussions (Sinclair family–style), and an excerpt from E. Lockhart’s upcoming novel “Genuine Fraud”, a psychological thriller that will leave you breathless. If you do not know what I am talking about then here is your chance to get

The New York Times bestseller as a not-to-be-missed hardcover deluxe edition and to give you an idea as to how many have enjoyed this book, on the Amazon cite there are over 2000 reviews. Did I mention that the first printing is signed by the author!?).



“We Were Liars” follows young Cadence, who is part of a wealthy family known as the Sinclairs. Her story takes place shortly after a terrible where she suffered something that was so traumatic that she has no recollection of what happened. Now she wants to pick up the pieces and find out what happened that night and the doctors also feel she needs to come to the realization on her own.

The focus is on Cadence’s real health issues; migraines that are so bad that they leave her “nauseous and unable to move.” We are all aware of the pretentiousness of adolescence and we meet rich white teenagers who exude that pretentiousness by trying to be deep.

One of the aunts of the Sinclair family moved out of her house because she couldn’t bear to live it anymore. Now the next few sentences are written in the style of the book so be prepared for some strange sentences.

The main house

had been leveled

and rebuilt.

Cady’s mother tells her she is spending too much time alone.

The Littles are acting out.

The twins steal pills and read about paranormal stuff.

One little gets scared at night and thinks the house is haunted.

Merrin is sick and doesn’t get better.

The Liars magically appear when Cady wants them and never clean up after themselves.

Cady doesn’t remember what happened for a whole summer.

The aunts are pretty much drunk 24/7 and being nice to each other because they are all grieving.

The Liars ignore Cady when she doesn’t return.

Her aunt walks around the island crying into her son’s jacket and keeps asking Cady if she has seen him. His little brother has nightmares so fierce he wakes up at night screaming while his mother wanders around aimlessly. And so on and on but you get used it and begin to miss it when it is not there.

This is not a love story and even without the details we know what happened that summer 15. After all, the novel is something of a mind game that is fun to play.

The story is incredible and the writing style makes it a fun read. Here are the summers of a girl who harbors a dark secret, and it gives us a satisfying, yet shocking twist ending

 

“The Twelve-Mile Straight: A Novel” by Eleanor Henderson— “An Audacious American Epic”

Henderson, Eleanor. “The Twelve-Mile Straight: A Novel”, Ecco, 2017.

“An Audacious American Epic”

Amos Lassen

In 1930, in Cotton County, Georgia, 1930, there is a house full of secrets. There two babies, one light-skinned, the other dark, are born to Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter. Field hand Genus Jackson has been accused of raping Elma and is lynched and dragged behind a truck down the Twelve-Mile Straight, the road to the nearby town. In the aftermath, the farm’s inhabitants are forced to contend with their complicity in a series of events that left a man dead and a family irrevocably torn apart.

Elma begins to raise her babies as best as she can, under her father, Juke’s roof and with the help of Nan, the young black housekeeper who is as close to Elma as a sister. She does so despite the prying eyes and curious whispers of the townspeople. It does not take long before we realize that the ties that bind all of them together are much more intricate begin to come forth, the lies that have surrounded the family begin to be exposed and the world becomes shakier as the family is forced to deal with the painful and shocking truth.

Themes of racial violence, social division, and financial crisis propel the story. Eleanor Henderson’s writing style pulls us into the story and I actually felt that the characters were standing around me as I read. Poverty, hate and prejudice as well as just plain evil surround Elma and her family and it is all very real. Having been raised in the South, I was aware that such things happened but I really never had to face them head on. Rape, lynchings, cowardice and violence make this a very intense read and while there are those who do the right thing, there are also many who do not. This is certainly no “Gone With the Wind” where love seems to hover above the plot. The book will be published in September

 

 

 

“All the Rivers: A Novel” by Dorit Rabinyan— An Untenable Love Affair

Rabinyan, Dorit. “All the Rivers: A Novel”, (translated by Jessica Cohen), Random House, 2017.

An Untenable Love Affair

Amos Lassen

When Liat meets Hilmi on an autumn afternoon in Greenwich Village, she realizes that she is unwillingly drawn to him. Hilmi is a talented young artist from Palestine who is handsome and charismatic. Liat is an aspiring translation student who plans to return home to Israel the following summer. Even though they knew that their love can be only temporary and that it can exist only away from their conflicted homeland, Liat nonetheless lets herself be enchanted by Hilmi. His wise eyes spoke directly to her and he was both sweet and devoted to her.

Together the young lovers explore New York City and as they do they shares their thoughts and their homesickness for their countries. However, the joy that Liat feels is filled with guilt that comes from hiding him from her family in Israel and her Jewish friends in New York. As her departure date nears and her feelings for Hilmi deepen, Liat must decide whether she is willing to risk alienating her family, her community, and her sense of self for Hilmi’s love.

The book has been banned from Israeli school classrooms by Israel’s Ministry of Education. It is quite basically the story of a forbidden relationship, a love story and a war story. It is also a New York story and a Middle East story that dives into the forces that bind us and divide us. Hilmi reminds Liat that the land is the same land and all of its rivers flow into the same sea in the end. What we really see here is how public events play upon the private lives of those who attempt to live and love in peace with each other. This is a very human story of rapprochement and separation that brings together reality and emotions.

Liat and Hilmi’s chance meeting sparks a love affair that takes readers on a five-month journey through New York City. But the young lovers have to deal with the knowledge that their secret love is forbidden by their families and will have to end when Liat returns to Israel in just five months. Back in Israel they are separated physically by just forty miles but those forty miles are quite a distance ideologically.

We know when we meet that this relationship is essentially on a timetable. We see both sides of the conflict well and we understand that the two characters passionately believed they were right in the way they felt. While I wanted to find the love story to be convincing, I felt something was missing but the book does help us to understand both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from two very personal and opposing views.

“A Love Like Blood” by Victor Yates— Sexuality, Race and So Much More

Yates, Victor. “A Love Like Blood”, Hilmont Press, 2015.

Sexuality, Race and So Much More

Amos Lassen

Carsten Tynes is half Somali and Cuban who are the age of seventeen deals with sexuality, race, Americanism, belief and migration while living with his abusive, dying father. It is 1998 and Carsten’s family has relocated to Beverly Hills to expand their photography business. His father has a lung disease and promises to give Carsten the business if he marries his ex-girlfriend. Now he has to face an unwanted marriage and the slow death of his father causing him to retreat behind his camera and it is that camera that becomes the catalyst for the unraveling of the relationship between father and son and opens Carsten to the world of “men who move at night.” Carsten’s infatuation with his neighbor, Brett, however is what really splits father and son yet it is death that brings his father and Brett together and causes Carsten to make a dangerous decision to protect them.

Differences between father and son are certainly not something new in literature but that is only the starting point in Victor Yates’ poetically written novel. We meet Carsten as a teen who is coming to terms with his sexuality in the face of his father’s disapproval and rejection. Although Carsten’s sexuality is an important issue here, the plot is about family and expectations and it is how he deals with both of these and the choices he makes that make this a must-read. It is important to notice the details because they are what make Carsten such an unforgettable literary figure. We really only know what Carsten wants us to know, i.e., what he captures in his camera lens.

Carsten’s father is certainly not a man that anyone would like but He is not the villain of this story even though he abuses his sons. The neighbor Brett sees the situation from the outside in and he sees something that the sons do not but Carsten stops us for having any sympathy for his father by showing us how he has been and there is violence there that is intense and graphic.

Carsten’s vicious father is thoroughly unlikable, however, he isn’t necessarily the villain despite his ongoing abuse of his sons. We catch glimpses of how Carsten’s friend Brett views the situation as an outsider, and it’s tempting to agree with him. Carsten won’t allow it, however, revealing the details as though he’s developing the film for us. Readers should be forewarned that there are scenes of violence; I found them to be more intense than graphic, but because of the sensitive nature of family abuse cycles, some readers may find it more difficult to read those parts. Pushing the father to the side, we see that the story is really about family, one’s place in it and about where we come from and where we are headed.

Ultimately, this is far more about family, about where we come from and where we are going, than anything else. It’s rich and detailed and absolutely gorgeous. I cannot wait to read more from Victor Yates, especially if this is the quality of writing we can expect.

The characters and the plot focus on diversity both culturally and racially. In portraying the characters, author Yates interwove childhood parental physical abuse, homophobia and hate crimes and these sections are uncomfortable to read (especially for those who have experience any of this). We see how both abusers and victims think and behave and feel their anger and guilt. You might think it is an oxymoron to say that the prose reads like poetry but you only need experience the book to understand what I mean by that.

I suppose that we say that quite basically this is a m/m romance novel but it is also much more than that with its layers of emotion and dark threads running through it. Carsten found that it was much easier to deal with life as he saw it though his camera lens than to take it on as it really was. We sense his fear of facing life as it is.