“South Pole Station: A Novel” by Ashley Shelby— Problems

Shelby, Ashley. “South Pole Station: A Novel”, Picador, 2017.

Problems

Amos Lassen

Have you ever wondered what it takes to survive at the South Pole. Moist of us never even think about that part of the world and certainly as a place to live. The average temperature is 54 degrees Fahrenheit and there is no sunlight for six months of every year.

Cooper Gosling believes that she has what it takes to live there and although she is not sure that this is a positive quality, she nonetheless feels that she has nothing to lose by doing so. She is thirty years old and dealing with a family tragedy. Her career goal of being a painter is not working well and so she accepts a place in the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program and goes to Antarctica. There she comes into contact with others who are motivated by ambiguity like herself and the only thing that those who live at the South Pole have in common is that that they don’t belong anywhere else.

When a fringe scientist arrives, claiming climate change is a hoax, the group is shaken and the community there becomes part of a global controversy that threatens where they are and where they call home. This is a comedy of errors set in the last place you would expect to find one. Our story becomes one about “the courage it takes to band together when everything around you falls apart”. What I found here was that everything we deal with in our world today—science and politics; art, history and love are dealt with at the South Pole as well but with the addition of frostbite.

We meet the scientists, researchers, misfits, lovers, medics, plagiarists, cooks and artists who live in an insular society at the bottom of the world. This group of people might be misfits but we soon love them as we learn about family, grief, creativity and science. Quite simply, this is a fun read that mirrors the lives we lead but in a place where most of us would never consider living.

 

“The Aura of Torah: A Kabbalistic-Hasidic Commentary to the Weekly Readings” by Rabbi Larry Tabick— Creatively Interpreting the Five Books of Moses

Tabick, Rabbi Larry. “The Aura of Torah: A Kabbalistic-Hasidic Commentary to the Weekly Readings”, Jewish Publication Society, 2014.

Creatively Interpreting the Five Books of Moses

Amos Lassen

One of the ways of revealing the holiness of the Torah (which is often hidden under a plethora of details) is to interpret it with creativity. This is what Jewish mystics and spiritual teachers have done in their attempts to reveal the aura. What we have are the attempts in an effort to bridge the gap between the Torah text and the modern Jewish spiritual quest.

This is a collection of a wide variety of interpretations of Torah passages, commentaries, and midrash that come the mystical side of Jewish tradition and have been translated by Larry Tabick. The original Hebrew and Aramaic texts are included. The authors we have span many centuries and speak from many schools of thought including “kabbalists writing within the tradition of the Zohar and other gnostic works; Hasidic teachers, from the modern movement founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov in eighteenth-century Ukraine; and German pietists, or Hasidei Ashkenaz, of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries”. Tabick looks at how these texts build on the underlying principles of the Torah (the supremacy of God, the interconnectedness of nature and morality, and the unique (though not exclusive) role of the Jewish people in the divine plan for all humanity and we see the deep spiritual truth as a result.

In Jewish tradition, Kabbalah is the secret knowledge in the Torah given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and it has been passed down orally through the ages until it was finally written down in the “Zohar” by Shimon bar Yochai, a second century rabbi who did so while living in a cave to escape Roman persecution. Scholars, however, tend to believe that Moses de León, a thirteenth century Spanish kabbalist, is the actual author of the “Zohar” and that Isaac Luria, a rabbi and mystic who lived in the fourteenth century, drew upon to gives us modern Kabbalah as we know it today. Ḥasidism and Kabbalah become connected through Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, an eighteenth century rabbi who was known as the Ba’al Shem Tov and who founded Ḥasidism based upon reinterpretations of Kabbalah of Luria.

Rabbi Tabick uses three separate verses from each weekly Torah portion and each quote is followed by the verse’s scriptural context, a brief biography of the commentator, the commentator’s interpretation of the verse, notes on the expressions used in the interpretation, and Tabick’s observations and insights. Each interpretation is numbered and link to two appendices, one of which is the exegesis in its original language and the second is linked to an alphabetic listing of authors with their respective biographies.

In the Introduction, we get the information on how to understand the “secret interpretations” of the Torah portion and its imagery. is employed.

Some of the mystical explanations require understanding of the rabbinic use linguistic wordplay in which each letter of a Hebrew word stands for a full word but this is not always necessary to get an understand of what Rabbi Tabick has to say.

Most interpretations do not rely on esoteric symbolisms, but on such Ḥasidic concepts as achieving closeness to God through intense praying and performing good deeds; improving one’s character through quiet contemplation and deep introspection and love for the congregation of Israel and taking personal responsibility.

The exegeses are taken from the heart of Kabbalah and the writings of Ḥasidic masters that have historical value and give the modern reader insights into the ways eighteenth and nineteenth century Eastern European rabbis wanted their congregations to think about life and the Torah. Many of us think of Torah in terms of story or law; the mystics feel that the words contain an inner depth beyond the literal text and look at the hidden meaning itself as a vehicle to self-improvement.

The book is arranged in the order of the weekly Torah reading. Here we have explanatory notes and Tabick’s short commentary. The original Hebrew is printed at the back. Tabick explains the sentiments of the original and we sense his apparent liberalism.

Pertaining to Torah, “aura” is the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by certain spiritual persons. This emanation often connotes a person of particular power or holiness and was most certainly associated with Hasidic rabbis. Here we see that Torah inspires the same.

“The Aura of Torah” is so much more than a commentary to the weekly Torah portion and while what is written here can be confusing, it requires time and patience to reap the rewards that are contained within. There are Kabbalistic and Hasidic commentaries that are accessible to all, and this is place from which to start understanding them.

 

“White Creek: A Fable” by Bart Yates— Family and Friendship

Yates, Bart. “White Creek: A Fable”, Culicidae Press, 2017.

Family and Friendship

Amos Lassen

It has been quite a while since we heard from Bart Yates but he is back now and as good as ever. This time he gives us a story of “family and friendship, regret and redemption” that is set on a remote Wyoming cattle ranch in the height of winter. The White Creek Ranch has belonged in Hap Cobb’s family for over a century and a half. Hap is eighty-two-years-old and the last of his family and he is not what we would call a nice guy. He lives in misery and has a sharp tongue. Aaron is his best friend and ranch hand and he refers to Hap as “a miserable old fart”. But Hap has his pluses— he is a fantastic cook and he has the finest and best-stocked private library in the state. He knows he is difficult and he is proud of his “’God-given ability’ to exasperate everyone he meets”. He inherited the big ranch house long ago from his grandfather but these days it is mostly empty aside him Aaron and himself. The two men have a good life together and stay busy. Hap often loses himself in thinking about how things once were and the realizes that his life is coming to an end.

Then during a surprise and sudden blizzard one January evening, however, he and Aaron open the door to find a young woman and a teenaged boy seeking shelter from the storm and everything began to change. The White Creek Ranch soon become a place of mystery and possibility. To find out what that means you will have to read the book and find that you are pulled into the story by Bart Yates’ wonderful prose and story telling. He has created characters that we care about and will remain with us long after closing the covers.

 

“The Mighty Franks: A Memoir” by Michael Frank— Quite a Family

Frank, Michael. “The Mighty Franks: A Memoir”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

Quite a Family

Amos Lassen

The Franks are an unusual and eccentric Hollywood family. Michael Frank once overhears his aunt say to his mother when he is a boy that she wished that Michael was her son. Michael’s childless Auntie Hankie and Uncle Irving are screenwriters in a family where brother and sister married sister and brother. The two families live just blocks away from each other in Laurel Canyon. This is a strangely intertwined family in which even the author’s two grandmothers share an apartment together.

Aunt Hankie took charge of Michael’s education and she was the kind of aunt that everyone dreams of having—smart, talented, loving and wealthy. She showed Michael what to read, which artists and houses to admire and which people who should respect and love. She trained him well but never thought that he would have liked to discover things on his own.

From the moment I began reading, I found myself pulled into a family like no other. Auntie Hankie is an antihero who is not only narcissistic but feral. She is a character that is not soon forgotten. She is also talented and seems to have money to burn. She

takes charge of Michael’s education and shows him which books to read, which painters to admire, which houses to like, which people to adore. In other words, she trains him in the finer things of life.

However, that doesn’t last forever and when he moods begin to change and become dark, we see that she is not what she appears to be and beneath her loving exterior is rage that can become dangerous at times. In fact, she goes so far as to almost totally devastate Michael and he is forced to rebuild himself almost from scratch. Michael tries to find a way to reconcile himself to the woman he once loved and cherished and to the troubled person she becomes. As we read, we ask ourselves about the boundaries of family and who should make the decisions about what a family should be.

Make sure you clear your day before you start to read because you will not be able to stop once you do. It is impossible not to see the honesty in this narrative and you will be turning pages as fast as possible to see what comes next.

 

 

 

“FRAGMENTS OF LOVE”— Twisted and Erotic

“Fragments of Love”

Twisted and Erotic

Amos Lassen

Fernando Vallejo’s twisted and erotic “Fragments of Love” follows perfectionist composer Rodrigo’s (Jose Angel Bichir) new obsession with the mysterious Susana (Angelica Blandon). The two begin a torrid love affair as Susanna opens up and tells Rodrigo stories of sexual encounters with her past lovers. Rodrigo becomes both artistically inspired and romantically tormented by Susana’s stories but we see that they are the least of Susana’s dark secrets.

Their romance is passionate and it unites Susana and Rodrigo. They never seem to leave Susana’s apartment and while Rodrigo is reluctant to hear Susana’s stories at first, he soon becomes involved in helping her relive her sexual past. lovers live a boundless passion cocooned in Susana’s apartment. Every night, Susana opens up and tells Rodrigo a story about her sexual encounters with past lovers. Reluctant to hear the stories at first, Rodrigo will soon let go and together they will relive each and every one of Susana’s sensual memories.

The film is based on Colombian novelist Héctor Abad Faciolince’s novel “Fragments of Furtive Love” which in turn was inspired by “A Thousand and One Nights”. This is really a film about charged erotic tale of seduction and destruction. Rodrigo is a composer who is still grieving the loss of his wife who was also his muse. Since her death he has not been able to write music. Susana tries to help unlock his creative block by telling him about her past loves, in great and titillating detail. Her stories inspire the greatest pieces of his career and he is soon hooked on hearing them. For Susana, these stories have a purpose as well— they provide a shelter from the street violence of the outside world.

Rodrigo’s fascination leads him to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, and his obsession with Susana’s stories turns to jealousy that threatens to tear him and the lovers apart. Blandón and Bichir turn in amazing performances.

“GLAMOUR DOLLS”— Getting Into Show Business

“Glamour Dolls”

Getting into Show Business

Amos Lassen

John De Luca’s “Glamour Dolls” is the story of two male prostitutes who want to become professional actors and how they struggle to get into show business. Adam (Dominik Danielwicz) and Ben (De Luca) live together and are close friends that support each other. They to party. They have a good life and have lots of money that they have received from their clients. pockets full of money, money that comes from their clients. Ben’s sweetheart just moved in with them and doesn’t really get along with Adam. Larry (Laurence Christopher), their pimp, also has a cabaret show and after a problem with the two lead actors he is forced to find replacements as soon as possible. He offers the job to Adam and Ben and suddenly they are involved in this new world of underground theatre and are performing as drag queens. On their road to success, Adam and Ben meet many people from the media industry, journalists, actors, producers, rich and powerful people; and they learn everyone is after something. They also see how perverted and dangerous it can be to become involved in show business but also how tempting and rewarding it is. “Glamour Dolls” shows us just what show business is all about and while this is far from being a great movie, it is a lot of fun.

“THE UNTOLD TALES OF ARMISTEAD MAUPIN— More From Maupin

“The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin”

More from Maupin

Amos Lassen

We know Armistead Maupin as a great storyteller and one of the first gay writers to gain crossover status. What some of you might not know is that Maupin is also a man who captures the mystery of history, especially the history of the LGBT community. There is a great deal more that we did not know about him before this wonderful documentary was made.

Maupin was born at the end of World War II into an aristocratic Southern family. He had a privileged childhood and was raised in North Carolina. He did two tours oversees with the Navy and began to write while working for What was even more surprising  we discover is that after young Maupin did a couple of spells overseas serving in the US Navy, he cut his writing teeth working for Jesse Helms, the segregationist senator who was also one of the ugliest and nastiest homophobes in the Senate at the time.

In 1971 he was offered a job with the Associated Press’s San Francisco Bureau from which he never looked back. Maupin says that he was still a virgin until he was 26 years old, and didn’t come out as gay until he was 30.  He shares fascinating facts with filmmaker Jennifer M. Kroot including that even though he came out late, he made up for it by having many sexual experiences, one of which was with movie star, Rock Hudson. (I also have a wonderful Rock Hudson story so feel free to ask about it sometime).

In 1974 Maupin began his “Tales of the City” novels about San Francisco, the place that many considered to be the gay capital of America. At first, he wrote it in daily installments for the San Francisco Chronicle chronicling what was going there. He was not afraid to also add stories about the AIDS epidemic that took so many people from us. Maupin has said that he does appear in “The Tales of the City” but as a composite character. He has stated that “I’ve always been all of the characters in one way or another.”  In fact Michael Tolliver’s letter to his parents by which he came out as gay was actually based on what Maupin wrote to his parents.

Maupin was one of the first to write about AIDS and, like so many of us, still cries over those we lost and can never be replaced. Maupin shares his happiness about his husband who is 30 years older than him and he tells us about ‘outing’ closeted gay people. We learn that Maupin is writing his memoirs that will be published in the fall and he shares that another “Tales” television miniseries in the works.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyI_aOQdZ9_qZdDfdqtGtcQ

“Boystown: Sex and Community in Chicago” by Jason Orne— The Importance of Sex to Queer Communities

Orne, Jason. “Boystown: Sex and Community in Chicago”, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

The Importance of Sex to Queer Communities

Amos Lassen

“Boystown” is based on three years of ethnography in Chicago’s gay neighborhood and examines the importance of sex to queer communities. Today it seems that Boystown is swapping its radical sexual culture for normality, transforming into a “gay Disneyland” due to commodification by business owners. “The “sexy communities” that embody radical sexuality foster racial diversity by building sexual kinship through ritual moments of collective effervescence, what I call ‘naked intimacy.’”  Orne maintains that “Boystown”is “really about the power of sex to connect across racial boundaries, the commodification of gay male culture, and the “intersectional knot” that supports respectability (a word with a very fluid definition.  

All over this country, formerly gay communities and neighborhoods are reaching new standards of “normalcy” although I an not quite sure what normalcy means. As straight people buy into these “gayborhoods”, the gays leave. I had already seen this happen in New Orleans’ French Quarter where rental rates have risen steadily and the straight people who consider themselves to be intellectuals have moved in

There are scholars who label this assimilation, and some argue that all of us, gay and straight are reaching a “post-gay” period. We have already seen the shift in public opinion about gay people and this could very well be the result. Orne, however, maintains that this is not “post-gay” but rather “post-queer” and that America is losing the radical lessons of sex.

Orne takes us on a detailed, lively journey through Chicago’s Boystown, which serves as a model for “gayborhoods” around the country. The neighborhood has now become an entertainment district where people get lost in the magic of the night. Originally, “gayborhoods” created differences that are now celebrated. By having a space outside the mainstream, we could develop an alternative culture—“a queer culture that celebrates sex”.

Orne spent three years doing fieldwork and finding ways to ask new questions about the “connective power of sex and about what it means to be not just gay, but queer”. This book is the result and it is replete with street photography by Dylan Stuckey. Today people are using the bar scene to forge what Orne calls “naked intimacy.” Orne takes us to the Boystown where sex is the vital center and an “antidote to assimilation”.

We meet characters and they add to the narrative here as we learn about race, class and gender. Orne manages to walk the line by keeping this foray into urban sexuality rigorous with a light touch.” While this is an ethnographic study of Chicago’s Boystown, it is also a rallying cry against the dangers of centrist LGBT politics, of assimilation, and of the threat of “queernormativity as ideology and practice”. Orne sex to be brought out of the private and the focus become one about pleasure. These communities illustrate the ways how pleasure, can be at the center of social change and it is a challenge to inequality. Orne puts himself into the neighborhood and see that those who do not do so, are left out.

“DONNIE DARKO”— The Man in the Rabbit Suit

“Donnie Darko”

The Man in the Rabbit Suit

Amos Lassen

After narrowly escaping a strange accident, a troubled teenager, Donnie Darko, is plagued by visions of a man in a large rabbit suit who manipulates him to commit a series of crimes, after he narrowly escapes a bizarre accident. Donnie is introverted, medicated and dreams that he is being stalked by a tall rabbit who warns him of the oncoming Apocalypse. Set in suburbia in 1988 on the eve of Halloween, we meet Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) who captivates us as the titular anti-hero of the plot. The film has become a cult classic with an endless amount of lines to quote and several images that remain in the memories of the viewers.

This is director Richard Kelly’s debut and it is a tale of adolescent angst ripe with enigmatic sci-fi underpinnings. Regardless of whether Donnie is seemingly deranged or merely on the brink of saving humanity from itself, his time-warping fantasies are metaphors for confused teenage male development. By film’s end, Kelly has expertly transformed his comfortable ’80s milieu into a look at moral complacency and heartbreak.

This is director Kelly’s idea of what life was like in the ’80s. After Frank saves Donnie from the plane engine that crashes into his bedroom, Donnie comes to believe Frank’s prophecy that the world will end in 28 days. Halloween’s arrival and the Bush/Dukakis race pitch-perfectly compliment the film’s apocalyptic wind-down. With doomsday nearing, Donnie becomes a messianic character who rids the town of self-righteous false prophets, while also finding time to have a romance with Gretchen (Jena Malone). Donnie is determined to get to the new-age gym teacher who makes little emotional allowances outside her fear/love lifeline. Her downfall is followed by and linked to the fiery demise of a self-help guru played by Patrick Swayze, whose motivational shenanigans Donnie hysterically shoots to the ground.

In search for enlightenment, Donnie does away with the town’s false prophet, whose participation in a kiddie porn ring seems to shatter the entire town’s sense of complacency. The film is an affront to ’80s naiveté that is mindful of strange events that seemingly happen for a reason though not always for the better good.

Special features include:

– Brand new 4K restorations of both the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut from the original camera negatives produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release, supervised and approved by director Richard Kelly and cinematographer Steven Poster

– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of both cuts

– Original 5.1 audio

– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

– Audio commentary by writer-director Richard Kelly and actor Jake Gyllenhaal on the Theatrical Cut

– Audio commentary by Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick and actors Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross and James Duval on the Theatrical Cut

– Audio commentary by Kelly and filmmaker Kevin Smith on the Director’s Cut

– Brand-new interviews with Richard Kelly and others

The Goodbye Place, Kelly’s 1996 short film, which anticipates some of the themes and ideas of his feature films

The Donnie Darko Production Diary, an archival documentary charting the film’s production with optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster

– Twenty deleted and alternate scenes with optional commentary by Kelly

– Archive interviews with Kelly, actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, James Duval, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle and Katharine Ross, producers Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Hunt Lowry and Casey La Scala, and cinematographer Steven Poster

– Three archive featurettes: They Made Me Do It, They Made Me Do It Too and #1 Fan: A Darkomentary

– Storyboard comparisons

– B-roll footage

– Cunning Visions infomercials

– Music Video: Mad World by Gary Jules

– Galleries

– Trailers

– TV spots

– Illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing by Nathan Rabin

– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp

“WOLF GUY”— Going Undercover

“Wolf Guy” (“Urufu gai: Moero ôkami-otoko”)

Going Undercover

Amos Lassen

“Wolf Guy” has been one of the rarest and most sought-after cult films produced by Japan’s Toei Studio. Until now it has never been released outside of Japan but now everyone is able to see this unclassifiable trip into phantasmagoric funk. Directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi it is one-of-a-kind and filled with violence, action, nudity, real surgical footage, and a psychedelic musical score that come together to create an unforgettable trip to the heights of Japanese cinematic weirdness.

Sonny Chiba stars as Akira Inugami, the only survivor of a clan of ancient werewolves. He depends on his supernatural powers to solve mysterious crimes. After a series of bloody killings perpetrated by an unseen force, Inugami uncovers a conspiracy involving a murdered cabaret singer, corrupt politicians, and a plot by the Japanese CIA to harvest his blood in order to steal his lycanthropic powers. At the same time, Inugami also discovers the truth behind his family heritage, and that he may not be the last of his kind.

When reporter Inugami sees a crazed man running through the streets screaming something about a curse and a tiger, and is suddenly torn to shreds by invisible claws, he takes the dead man’s story about the curse totally seriously. The coroner ruled the death a case of “Death by Spectral Slashing” and Inugami sets out to investigate. He learns that Miki, the singer for the band The Mugs, was raped, given syphilis, addicted to heroin and has some sort of power that allows her to attack people with her mind and tear them apart with an invisible tiger. She was raped by a gang. The rape was performed by a gang who were paid to do it by the band’s management company because Miki began to show an attitude problem. As it turns out, this could be much more serious than thought and perhaps the government is involved.

It just so happens that Inugami a descendant of a village of lycanthropes who were massacred by an angry mob. When there is a full moon, Inugami cannot be killed and he superhuman strength. However, his appearance remains unchanged. A sinister group wants to use both Miki as a brainwashed assassin and Inugami to help them create more lycan killers via his blood and organs. We do not learn this straight-out but rather we get this piece by-piece and have to piece it together ourselves. From this point the movie begins to jump around and introduce new characters.

Many will see that the movie does not seem to make much sense yet it captivates the audience. This could be because it is fast moving and constantly introduces new characters and plotlines. For me what makes it worth watching is the mix of genres, the gore and violence.

Special features include:

– High Definition digital transfer

– Original uncompressed mono audio

– New optional English subtitle translation

– New video interview with actor Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba

– New video interview with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

– New video interview with producer Tatsu Yoshida

– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Wes Benscoter

Those who are lucky enough to get one of the first pressing will also receive an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Patrick Macias and a history of Japanese monster movie mashups by Jasper Sharp.