Monthly Archives: June 2018

““My Life as a Goddess: A Memoir through (Un) Popular Culture” by Guy Branum— Sharp Essays

Branum, Guy. ““My Life as a Goddess: A Memoir through (Un) Popular Culture”, Atria, 2018.

Sharp Essays

Amos Lassen

Guy Branum’s “My Life as a Goddess” is a collection of essays by the stand-up comedian who from a young age felt as if he were on the outside looking in. Branum is self-taught and introspective. He hails from a stiflingly boring farm town where he couldn’t relate to his neighbors. While other boys played outside, he stayed indoors reading. He was gay and overweight and became used to diminishing himself. However, through his reading, he started learning from all the other sad, strange, lonely outcasts in history who had come before him, and he actually developed a sense of hope.

This is a collection of personal essays in which Branum talks about finding a sense of belonging at Berkeley as well as stirring up controversy in a newspaper column that led to a meeting with the Secret Service. He writes about being typecast as the “Sassy Gay Friend,” and how, after beginning law school, he found stand‑up comedy and artistic freedom. He looks at and analyzes how society deprives us of personhood and does so with calculation especially regarding fat people, and how, it has taken him a while to accept who he is and has one can accept himself but it often takes patience and humor.

The essays are filled equally with wit, guile, and rumination yet they are sensitive and moving. He dares to say what most of us are afraid to utter and he has the guts to make it sound 100% correct. Yes, he is funny but he is also empowering, and very different from anything we’ve ever read. I found myself thinking deeply as I was laughing while I read. It is his intellectual curiosity and moral sure-footedness that make wonderful. He blesses us with insights into “walking paths less traveled” as well as into what self-acceptance means in a world that is still not ready to accept difference.

“Making Oscar Wilde” by Michele Mendelssohn— The Untold Story

Mendelssohn, Michele. “Making Oscar Wilde”, Oxford University Press, 2018.

The Untold Story

Amos Lassen

Today we regard Oscar Wilde is one of the greats of English literature. His plays and stories are beloved around the world but we are all well aware tat it was not always so. He has received in death what he so desired in life and was denied him— legitimacy. “Making Oscar Wilde” is the untold story of young Wilde’s career in Victorian England and post-Civil War America. It is set on two continents and follows a larger-than-life hero on an unforgettable adventure to make his name as a serious writer.

Writer Michele Mendelssohn combines new evidence and cultural history to dramatize Wilde’s rise, fall, and resurrection. She brings to life the charming young Irishman who wanted to captivate the United States and Britain and ultimately conquered the world. Mendelssohn shows sensation-hungry Victorian journalism and popular entertainment alongside racial controversies, sex scandals, and the growth of Irish nationalism. This is revisionist history that shows how Wilde’s early life embodies the story of the Victorian era as it sluggishly moved towards modernity.

There is a lot to think about here. This biography is as complex and political as it is fascinating and devastating. It is also the study of the construction of celebrity and reputation. Through looking at Wilde’s trip to the United States in 1882, Mendelssohn shows how stereotypes of the Irish immigrant and the minstrel show influenced us and how the strategies of Wilde and his tour manager, made him a controversial star. We see how Wilde’s being Irish played into the story of race relations in post-Civil War America.

Mendelssohn in effect rewrites history by giving us a Wilde caught in a complex web of social and racial prejudices. We see how Wilde invented himself, and was invented, as an international artist-celebrity. His world was of his making even though he could not choose the conditions. Wilde believed that the best way to intensify a personality is to multiply it.” We will never see Wilde the same way again.

“Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day” by Peter Ackroyd— An Interesting Historical Take on London

Ackroyd, Peter. “Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day”, Abrams Press, 2018.

An Interesting Historical Take on London

Amos Lassen

The first generation of lesbian and gay scholars after the Stonewall showdown compiled evidence proving that men had gone to bed with men, and women with women, early in history and often thus saying that Homosexuality was not something new. Because the social stigma against homosexuality was still potent, “these writers armored their books against condescension, brandishing complex theories about representation and identity, and thorning their texts with source notes.” Yet, even with this care the authors took to be sophisticated, however, they still provided a thrill that depended in large part on a simple intellectual— the list.

We see that here in Peter Ackroyd’s “Queer City,” that covers two millenniums of lesbians, gays, trans people and other queers who have lived in London. Ackroyd starts with a list of words for non-heterosexuals, including “catamite,” “sapphist,” “ingle,” “pathic,” “mollie,” “jemmy,” “tribade,” “tommy,” “indorser,” “fribble” and “madge,” and quickly moves on to names, famous and forgotten. Unlike his predecessors, Ackroyd doesn’t include philosophical puzzles about the nature of sexuality, or its lack of a nature. What he is saying here is that we have arrived and that our history no longer has anything to prove.

“Anh Sang” by Barry Brennessel— A Chance Metting

Brennessel, Barry. “Ánh Sáng”, Manifold Press, 2018.

A Chance Meeting

Amos Lassen

Since I began reviewing seriously some twelve years ago I have been lucky go meet some of the nicest people in our LGBTQ community. One of these was Barry Brennessel who I met at the Lambda Literary Awards after party some seven years ago. He introduced himself and asked if I would review one of his books back then and of course I agreed and since them I wait for him to have something new out. He always remembers to send me a copy. What I really like about Barry’s work is that he doesn’t follow formulae and writes as he feels. This means that everything is not tied together and there is no guarantee of a happy ending.

“Anh Sang” is set in French Indochina or French occupied Vietnam (whichever you prefer) during the First World War. We meet Minh who shares that French colonials treated the local citizens inhumanely and he was having quite a difficult time taking care of himself and his blind mother. The Vietnamese were forced to take a false French pride as they struggled against their colonial masters. I am quite sure that most of us have never read a gay story set in this part of the world and therefore we have to appreciate the writer’s research in daring to learn the background of what he is writing about and then presenting it to us. What I like about the writing here is that it is clear and to the point—- there are no literary or syntax surprises. Brennessel is also excellent at writing emotions and he takes us through the gamut of fear and confusion and ultimately rage.

Bùi Vân Minh had to grow up quickly when his father left home and went to the northern provinces. He had a responsibility to his family and he knew that his mother relied upon him. By chance, Minh meets Ngô Công Thao and he suddenly finds himself confused regarding how he feels for him. Ngo also feels what Minh feels and they both realize that they share something stronger than just friendship. However, life is difficult under the rule of the French and what happens as a result of World War I will change their lives completely. I really love the tenderness and the care of the writer in developing a first love story set against such a terrible time.

Life in Thái Nguyên City was difficult at best and the love that the two men feel hangs over it—at least in our minds. During wartime, it is difficult to live much less foster a romance and in this story, it is that love that brings light into the darkness.

Minh and Thao manage to find the short moments to express their feelings for one another and to give them hope that better times are coming for them. But then there is nothing traditional about this story so to expect it to end with a traditional happy ending seems to be too much to ask for. Everything comes to a head during the Thái Nguyên uprising of 1917 in which the anti-colonials destroyed the French rule. So what happened top our two young lovers? Do we get the happy ending we hope for or….. We do see them together one more time in the last pages of the story. I see no other way this story could have ended and it totally shook me for days.

“Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration” by Mary Cappello, James Morrison and Jane Walton— Enchantment and Regret

Cappello, Mary, James Morrison and Jane Walton. “Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration”, Spuyten Duyvil, 2018.

Enchantment and Regret

Amos Lassen

It seemed to be that I was heading into a summer of fiction reading when I was pleasantly surprised to get a copy of “Buffalo Trace” but even more than that is that I saw so much of myself in the text of the three short autobiographical texts. They reinforced my thinking that there is never only one ad that someone somewhere has experience the same (but different) as myself. I returned to grad school with reading this and the accounts we get here are so honest that I found myself having to wipe away tears from my eyes several times. Those who were grad students in the humanities will immediately see so much of themselves in what is written here. I read a lot of memoirs and autobiographies and I have always wondered why intellectual growth is rarely included as part of coming of age. Here we get, and I quote because it is so well said, “the romance of learning and pedagogy merging with an education in Eros.” Here

three wonderful share how the became who they are (Nietzsche—a person “becomes who one is.”). I have, like the three writers here, always felt that “love, self-becoming, and thinking cannot be separated.” Now I could give you a summary of what each of our trio of writers have to say about this but then you would not have to read the book and I think that is such a beautiful book that it cries out to read and handled with care. While this is a book about our three writers, it is also a book about education. It is also a look at a generation; a generation that came of age, came out and discovered themselves in the process. They share with us the mysteries of their lives which also just happen to be the mysteries of our lives and as we share their consciousness, they become part of ours (and we have never met).

Is there a correlation between intellectual and sexual awakenings? Is there an answer to that question? We forget sometimes that we must embrace ourselves with all of our contradictions and limitations. If love is the highest goal in love, are we aware of how to really reach it? I was so reminded of learning how to deconstruct a piece of literature in order to get to its inner meaning and in this love story between three friends, we see their own personal smart, honest, and beautifully written, deconstructions as was favored by themselves and each other. This was how we once lived— amid the craziness and the belief that we could change the world. The book is subtitled “A Threefold Vibration” and I understood this to mean that we would vibrate as we read.

As a former student of the liberal arts and philosophy, these are the kinds of books I love to read. I also love to agree and disagree with some of what I read. I did that here throughout. As I read James Morrison’s contribution, I so identified especially the desire to write about almost everything. There is one statement that I have always agreed with my father about and that is when there is nothing left to learn, it is time to close the coffin. Not only do we see that practically in James Morrison’s piece but also in the writings of Mary Cappello and Jean Walton. I could go on and on but I must lave some of the brilliant surprises to be found here. It is a bit early to think about “My Bests” lists but I have a feeling that this will be among the top ten. I close the book feeling invigorated and hopeful and ever so lucky that I got to read “Buffalo Trace”.

“The Last Time I Lied” by Randy Sager— “Two Truths and a Lie”

Sager, Riley “The Last Time I Lied: A Novel”, Dutton, 2018

“Two Truths and a Lie”

Amos Lassen

In “The Last Time I Lied” by Riley Sanger, a young woman returns to her childhood summer camp to uncover the truth about a tragedy that happened there fifteen years earlier.

Vivian, Natalie, Allison, and first-time camper Emma Davis, the youngest of the group played games all the time in their cabin at Camp Nightingale. THowever, he games ended the night when Emma watched the others sneak out of the cabin into the darkness. The last anyone saw of them was Vivian closing the cabin door behind her and signaling Emma to be quiet.

Fifteen years later, Emma is a artist in the New York art scene. Her paintings are based on her past and she creates massive canvases filled with dark leaves and trees that cover ghostly shapes in white dresses. The paintings catch the attention of Francesca Harris-White, the wealthy owner of Camp Nightingale, she begs Emma to return to the newly reopened camp as a painting instructor. Emma sees this as an opportunity to find out what really happened to her friends all those years ago and agrees to do so. She finds familiar faces, the same cabins and the same dark lake. We learn that the camp is opening for the first time since the disappearances.

Emma is assigned to the same cabin she slept in as a teenager and she discovers the only security camera on the property pointed directly at its door. She remembers the cryptic clues that Vivian left behind about the camp’s twisted origins and ass she digs deeper, Emma soon finds herself sorting through lies from the past while at the same time facing mysterious threats in the present. She realizes that the closer she gets to the truth about Camp Nightingale and what really happened to those girls, the more expensive closure will be.

As you can understand from what I have written here, this is a thriller and because of that I am limited in what I can say about the plot. As I read, I was on the edge of my seat yet could not stop reading even though this kind of thriller is far from new. The tension never stops and the conclusion knocks you out.






“Last Looks: A Novel” by Howard Michael Gould— A Rogue Thriller

Gould, Howard Michael. “Last Looks: A Novel”, Dutton, 2018.

A Rogue Thriller

Amos Lassen

“Last Looks” is a thriller that is sharp, fast moving and lots of fun. Howard Michael Gould introduces us to Charlie Waldo, an ex-detective who is a bit strange and very smart and hives us a lampooning look at Hollywood. I do not real a lot of thrillers and in order to keep me interested, they must catch me on the first page and “Last Looks” did just that.

Waldo was once a superstar on the Los Angeles police force but now he has chosen to live in solitude deep in the woods and totally determined to never own more than one hundred items of possession. Not only has he walked out on his career, he also left his girlfriend, Lorena and has chosen to live in self-imposed exile as a form of penance for a terrible mistake of a move on an old murder case. We shall see that this cannot last for long.

Alastair Pinch is one of the most difficult actors in Hollywood. He has had better days and that includes having once been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Today he plays a “wise” Southern judge on a tacky network show. This is quite a comedown. Alastair also happens to be ridiculously wealthy, belligerent, and usually drunk. He found his wife dead on the living room floor and is unable to he remember what happened.

Waldo’s old girlfriend Lorena, draws him toward the case, and Alastair’s greedy network convinces Waldo to take it on. However, it has been such a long time away from both civilization and detective work, Waldo remains unsure plus there are many people want him gone. Now he must deal with complicated ego and deceit to either clear Alastair’s name or confirm his guilt.

The dialogue here is very sharp, there is a lot of intrigue and a fast moving plot that makes it a bit difficult to believe that this is a first thriller for writer Gould whose blend of humor and suspense is amazing. Eco-maniac Charlie Waldo is an eccentric and compelling hero and the story keeps you turning pages. It is a great summer read.

“On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” by Charlie Harmon— Day-to-Day with Lenny

Harmon, Charlie. “On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius”, Imagine Books, 2018.

Day-to-Day with Lenny

Amos Lassen

With this year being what would have been the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein we have had a large number of books about him being published although every year there seems to be a new “definitive” biography of the maestro. In “On the Road…”, Charlie Harmon makes no such claim as this is not a biography but rather a fascinating look at a fascinating man and it is a fun read. There is also a bonus foreword by Broadway legend Harold Prince.

I met Lenny several times while I was living in Israel and sure enough Harmon captured him beautifully and brought back memories of the penthouse at the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Harmon’s job was twofold— he was hired to manage the day-to-day activities of Bernstein’s life and to make sure Bernstein met the deadline for an opera commission. That deadline was consistently being disturbed by things kept getting in the way such as “the centenary of Igor Stravinsky, intestinal parasites picked up in Mexico, teaching all summer in Los Angeles, a baker’s dozen of young men, plus depression, exhaustion, insomnia, and cut-throat games of anagrams.” That sentence alone should give you an idea of what this book is all about. It is very obviously not a doctoral dissertation but then dissertations are rarely fun to read.

Harmon saw Bernstein everyday for four years and during that time he was Bernstein’s social director, gatekeeper, valet, music copyist, and itinerant orchestra librarian. He was an active participant in his boss’s life and did everything from packing and unpacking suitcases to making sure Bernstein got to concerts on time, made plane connections and knew how to speak to luminaries. There was always music as well (as if that is not the main reason for the adoration of Bernstein).

You are probably wondering whether this book is gossip and I must say that it is, indeed. However, it is not malicious and harmful gossip, rather it is a series of anecdotes that come together to give us a great musician. Now I love gossip as much as the next person and I have my own Bernstein stories that I will never share so I must read other’s stories instead and what I find amazing is that they all sound pretty-much alike.

But it is not all gossip. Bernstein was a superstar and so we have to expect some gossip and of course, we have expected someone to tell these stories. I am glad that it is Harmon that does because his writing is so clear He was just 30 when he got the job after a three hour interview and was not sure that he was not sure he could handle the job. He felt sure he could deal with handling phone calls, mail, and appointments but the packing and unpacking many suitcases for every trip; taking notes during rehearsals and performances; and making sure that Bernstein did not generate negative publicity might have been beyond him. Nonetheless, reservations and all, in 1982, Harmon set off with Bernstein and his entourage to Indiana University for a six-week residency, during which his boss began work on an opera. This was just four years after the death of LB’s wife, Felicia, and he was demanding, impatient, and given to “bouts of fury and bratty behavior.” Harmon figured that Bernstein was still grieving over his wife’s death. Then there was also the Bernstein entourage that included a large and sometimes-divisive cast of characters. Harmon shares that LB was a cruel bully and he drove Harmon to seek help. Yet, on the other hand, Harmon admits that his intimacy with LB’s musicianship gave him “a remarkable education.” So what we have here is salacious gossip about and insight into Leonard Bernstein’s later-life artistry. Be prepared for the name-dropping.

Most of us do not realize what being Leonard Bernstein meant. His schedule was unbelievable and when Harmon was with him, LB was already in his 60s. With all that went on between the two men, Harmon held and still holds great respect and love for Bernstein. You will not find a narrative or a plot here since this book is primarily a collection of stories, I must also compliment Harmon for not mentioning the negatives he had to deal with. He really does not criticize and he had many reasons to do so. He does write about several drunken episodes and other inappropriate behavior but I had the feeling that he knew so much more and just looked the other way. As far as Bernstein’s sexual relationships with other men, there were no real secrets. As far as the Dexedrine use getting out of control, Harmon says that it seemed “like a sensible way to get everything done.” Bernstein’s affairs with various men were never serious and actually took place as “passing asides.” In the epilogue, Harmon says people have asked him if LB was gay and she says he answered ambiguously because it is a non-issue. (Do not share that with the boys in the park in Tel Aviv. I can remember all too well often hearing “Lenny’s back, you know what to do”.

Harmon gives us a man who loved music and loved teaching. He gave of himself to students and if one thing stands out about him it is that he cared. Ultimately, Harmon resigned as personal assistant yet he continued to work for Bernstein as his archivist and editing Bernstein’s scores after his death.



“Woman Is The Future Of Man, Tale Of Cinema”

Two Films By Hong Sangsoo

Amos Lassen

This DVD/Blu ray brings together “Women is the Future of Man” and “Tale of Cinema”, the fifth and sixth films by Hong Sangsoo, the South Korean filmmaker who has been compared to Eric Rohmer that great French director and observer of human foibles.

“Women is the Future of Man” is the story of two long-time friends, a filmmaker (Kim Taewoo) and a teacher (Yoo Jitae), who have had an affair with the same woman (Sung Hyunah). They decide to meet the girl one more time and see what happens…

“Tale of Cinema” is something of a film within a film that tells two stories—- one about a depressive young man (Lee Kiwoo) who forms a suicide pact with a friend (Uhm Jiwon); and the other, the story of a filmmaker (Kim Sangkyung) who sees a film that he believes was based on his life, and who meets the actress from the film hoping to turn their onscreen relationship into reality. Hong Sangsoo employs his style to create two compelling and truthful looks at human emotion and behavior.


High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation

Original 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio

Newly translated optional English subtitles

Newly filmed introductions to both films by Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns

Interviews with Kim Sangkyung, Lee Kiwoo and Uhm Jiwon, the stars of Tale of Cinema

Introduction to Woman is the Future of Man by director Martin Scorsese

The Making Woman is the Future of Man, a featurette on the film s production

Interviews with the actors of Woman is the Future of Man

Stills gallery

Original trailers

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Michael Sicinski

“DETECTIVE BUREAU 2-3 GO TO HELL BASTARDS”— Redefining Japanese Crime Drama

“Detective Bureau 2-3 Go to Hell Bastards!”

Redefining Japanese Crime Drama

Amos Lassen

Seijun Suzuki’s “Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!” is a ‘hard hitting, rapid-fire yakuza film that redefined the Japanese crime drama.’

Detective Tajima (Shishido Jo) is tasked with tracking down a consignment of stolen firearms and as the investigation progresses things take an anarchic, blood-drenched grudge match. This is a rapidly paced, darkly funny, and stylish film that I predict will achieve cult status one day. “Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!” is also cheesy and mundane. An annoying jazz-pop score bounced around as our star grimaced across the screen, looking more like a man with the runs than a man on. Tajima is a freelance PI who wants in on the shady dealings of the underworld and convinces the police to let him go undercover and work his way into this new mysterious gang. He finds his way into their cool garage and in the rest of the film, the yakuza are suspicious to the point of overkill.

Shishido Jo is as tough and debonair as he finds his way through a seemingly endless stream of hoodlum warriors. I understand that this is a parody of the whole yakuza/police drama but often the acting is stiff and the humor is just not always and I believe that is because the film did not age well. The idea of broadcasting live a prisoner’s release where gangs of yakuza await outside the police headquarters is classic but it is also over the top. Also, the fact they have yakuza with swords is funny in that whole yakuza thinking they are modern-day samurai. It is a B movie and has its moments but overall it just doesn’t date well.


High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation

DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0

Newly translated optional English subtitles

Interview with historian and Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns

Gallery of original production stills

Theatrical trailer

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin