in Book Reviews, Books

July Books

1. St. Paul Among the Philosophers edited by John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff.
This is a good collection of essays based upon the papers presented at a conference by a series of heavy hitters — from Badiou and Žižek to Dale Martin and Ed Sanders.  It was fun to read philosophical appropriations of Paul engaged explicitly by historical appropriations of Paul.  Especially interesting, were the moments of exchange tcaptured in the roundtable discussion that is recorded as the final chapter of this volume.  This collection of essays seems to stand above others in this genre (like the one edited by Douglas Harink).  It’s clarity is admirable and the contributors don’t feel like they are constantly stretching to create connections, nor do they feel like they are simply having a bit of fun showing how smart they are and how capable they are of playing around with conceptual short circuits.  I felt that Dale Martin’s contribution was the strongest (perhaps because I think he demonstrates the greatest knowledge of the discussion or perhaps because his understanding of things seems similar to mine?).  All in all, a decent read.
2. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System — 1879 to 1986 by John Milloy.
This is the sort of book that not only should be required reading for every person who lives within the imagined borders of something called “Canada,” it is also a book that should be read by any member of the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and United Churches.  It is a damning report on the history of the death-dealing practices of colonialism as those practices found expression in this nation, by means of the State and the Church working together to “solve the Indian problem” (although the business community was and remains part of the motive and means by which this is addressed today, that community was not very involved in residential schools so I will leave them aside for now).
For those who don’t know, the indigenous people of Canada were subjected to ongoing and sustained campaigns that intended to destroy their cultures, their identities, their family structures and (if all else failed or if it was more convenient) their lives, in order to assimilate them into white, Christian society and ensure that they were contributing productively to Canadian economic development.
One of the ways this occurred was through the development of residential schools.  Indigenous parents were legally required to surrender their kids to residential schools that were far removed from their family homes.  These schools intended to “kill the Indian in the child” and so the children were not permitted to dress, eat, wear their hair, or speak as they desired.  Their hair was cut.  Their clothes were changed.  They were fed proper white food in proper white settings.  They were taught Christian doctrines.  They were taught in English or French.  They were taught white ways of owning property and working as wage labourers or farmers.
However, the schools were never properly staffed, funded or managed and so even this (horrendous) colonial goal of assimilation was never accomplished.  Instead, the schools became the stuff of nightmares.  The buildings were run down and not heated or ventilated properly.  The clothing provided was inadequate.  There was never enough food and the food provided was often of a despicable quality.  “Discipline” was harsh.  Children were regularly beaten, locked alone in dark places, whipped, and so on and so forth.  Sexual abuse was also rampant.  Studies suggest that 100% of children at some school were sexually abused.  It was not uncommon for children to die because they tried to run away and find their way home… in the middle of winter… with no jackets on their backs or boots on their feet.  And these were not the only kids who died.  The studies reveal that anywhere between 30-65% of the children who attended residential schools died while there due to the mixture of these conditions and other things like TB or influenza outbreaks.  In British Columbia, it is estimated that over 80% of the kids died.  Not to mention the people who later went on to die due to substance use, at their own hands, or at the hands of others, because of the scars left be this experience.  Not to mention the ways in which this abuse and trauma has then been based on to the children of survivors.
In other words, what Milloy documents is a fucking Holocaust, one that still impacts people today, one which has never been properly addressed and, indeed, one which is sustained today by other means.  Anybody who proudly claims the titles “Canadian” or “Christian” should pause and think again after reading this history.  This is a must read.  Not only that, but it should prompt action.
3. Broken Circle — The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools: A Memoir by Theodore Fontaine.
Moving from academic reflections upon the historical records of Canada’s history of residential schools for indigenous children, I thought I would also read some of the personal memoirs written by survivors and victors.  Fontaine’s story exemplifies some of the common threads found in the stories that have gained publicity — experiences of violence, sexual assaults (one of the priests would regularly wash the genitals of the younger boys because, he said, they did not know how to properly clean themselves), experiences of being torn away from family and having that rupture manipulated in such a way so that the children would blame their parents or siblings and not the priests, nuns, or school administrators.  However, unlike many others, Fontaine was able to gain the right to attend school without residing there — he ran away twice, the second time after having his face seriously bloodied, and when his dad took him back to the school and spoke with the head priest, it was arranged that Fontaine would no longer live at the school.  I suspect that this is part of the reason why Fontaine was able to heal more than some others.
In reading some of the reviews on the back cover of this book, and in the front pages, it is interesting to note how the commentators are quick to praise Fontaine for writing about his experiences but for doing so without being vindictive or overly angry.  I’m curious why people feel that this is praiseworthy and what the expression of this sort of praise communicates to the public and to others who have stories to tell.  Personally, I feel that it would be fully appropriate for Fontaine to be vindictive, if he chose to be that way.  Others should not be denied the space to speak or act in this way.  Given the atrocities committed, liberal Settler society need to suck it up and move beyond the flowery language of “reconciliation” and admit that restitution and vindication may be more appropriate avenues towards a better future.  Thus, by praising Fontaine’s account for lacking a vindictiveness, I feel that stories of residential school experiences simply end up being twisted to meet the interests of the ongoing oppressive system of power and exploitation that continues to exist in Canada in relation to the indigenous people.
4. Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom by Taiaiake Alfred.
Speaking of the ongoing oppression and exploitation of the indigenous people of Canada, Taiaiake Alfred — a member of the Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) people — turns to exploring ways in which this people can resist oppression and, moving beyond resistance (or submission) to resurgence and new life.  The title, Wasáse, refers to the warrior dance of unity, strength, and commitment to action, and much of what Alfred writes comes out of his reflections upon what it means to be a warrior in today’s world.  There is a great deal of depth and richness in Alfred’s text.
Really, this book deserves it’s own post… and I’m actually hoping to post an interview with the author.  For now, I will say that this is very highly recommended reading.
5. In the Garden of Men by John Kupferschmidt.
This book was actually written by the brother of a friend whom I love and respect a great deal.  It was the winning submission of the three day novel contest a few years back.  And it’s a really good book.  The author tackles some pretty grand themes — good and evil, submission and resistance, beauty and meaning — and wraps them together in a wonderful tale about a paper-pushing somewhat embittered nobody working under the Communist party in Czechoslovakia.  Recommended reading (and quick reading, too!).
6. The Captive and The Fugitive by Marcel Proust.
Shoot, this bit of “In Search of Lost Time,” was easily the worst part yet.  I know I’m dealing with sections that Proust had not fully edited before he died, but I’m not bothered simply by the incompleteness and the lack of those beautifully polished sections and sentences that Proust used to produce with more frequency in earlier volumes.  Beyond those details, its the subject matter itself that I found dull and unattractive.  Hundreds of pages of reflection about jealousy, revealing the protagonists pettiness, insecurity, mommy-issues, and so on (and on and on and on).  I’m actually kinda nervous to now read the final volume.  After starting so strongly, this story has taken a major downward turn in the last two installments and I’m wondering if that slide continues or if Proust pulls it together and pulls off the sort of conclusion that the first three volumes deserve.
7. Paying For It: a comic strip memoir about being a john by Chester Brown.
In my life and work, I have encountered a lot of different voices speaking about the morality and legality of sex work — I’ve gotten to know a number of sex workers over the years, I’ve known some who worked independently but most of them were pimped (and I’ve known a fair number of pimps).  I’ve also read some of the feminist literature on the subject, and have heard opinions of ex-sex workers, supports, advocates, social workers and that of other members of the community with some concern or interest related to the subject (seems like everybody has something to say about sex work… actually everybody seems to have something to say about everything…).  However, what I have not encountered a lot is the voices of johns — those who pay to have sex with others.  Of course, I have known johns (both through my work and in my personal life… I suspect that they might be far more common than most people think) but they don’t seem to be as involved in the public conversation about the matter of sex work.
Therefore, when I stumbled onto this autobiographical graphic novel by Chester Brown (who gained fame previously for the biographical graphic novel he created about Louis Riel), I picked it up with some interest.  I’m glad I did.  Brown is, in many ways, a model john (although I suppose that some will say that is an oxymoron).  He has also spent a lot more time thinking and reading about sex work and the legal and moral issues involved.  For the most part, I actually agree with his conclusions regarding decriminalizing (but not regulating) sex work in Canada.  I also agree with a lot of the conclusions that he draws related to the morality of paying people money for sex (i.e. that, in an ideal situation, it isn’t a big deal).
However, Brown still ends up being somewhat naive and a little self-serving in some of his arguments.  I don’t think he takes seriously enough the issues of pimping, human trafficking, and exploiting those who have been traumatized and have fallen into sex work from a very young age — for example, fourteen is the average age of entry into the trade in Vancouver (forty is the average age of death) — and for less than ideal reasons.  In the world that Brown imagines exists, everybody is a fully developed, fully rational, and fully willing participant in the exchange of sex for money.  This is simply not the case and, here is my biggest issue with Brown’s narrative, for the most part the john has no way of ascertaining what is or has gone on with the sex worker.  Based on his stories, I strongly suspect there were times when he visited women who were being pimped, and quite possibly women who had been trafficked (although he finds ways of drawing conclusions different than mine, despite the evidence… although he likely lacks the eyes to discern what sort of evidence builds a compelling argument in this regard).
It is also these issues that makes me think that decriminalization is a more complicated matter than Brown makes it out to be.  Law-makers should be cognizant of the ways in which laws impact the most vulnerable members of a community and while decriminalization may be of immediate benefit to a minority of sex workers (women who work independently and make quite good money for what they do) a good many other women and may find that this makes it that much more difficult for them to break free from pimps or traffickers.  Thus, while I do favour decriminalization, the process must be done with this in mind.
Anyway, there is quite a lot more I could say about this book but instead I’ll just recommend it to the reader.  At times it can be repetitive, but it is a quick read that should spark a lot of thought and discussion.  I think it would be especially appropriate for reading groups.

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  1. Dan,
    I noticed on your “About” page that you are working on a project entitled, “Paul and the Uprising of the Dead: Eschatology, Ethics and Empires.” Two things: First, when do you expect to have that finished? I am very eager to read it. Second, the title is astonishingly good–the uprising of the dead. It’s very Walter Benjamin, or so it seems to me. And it captures exactly the revolutionary reality of resurrection, especially as presented in Paul’s manifesto, Romans.
    Thanks for your blogs. They are always very interesting and challenging. For example, the reviews of the books on the residential schools. Two years ago we held a conference at The King’s University College on the residential schools, with most of the presenters having first-hand experience (including a couple of teachers). Your description, “a fucking Holocaust,” is not wide of the mark.

    • Hi Doug,
      Sometimes I wonder if I’m only writing these book reviews for myself, so thanks for commenting. Thanks also for the kind words.
      Regarding my writing project, well, I’m working on the last chapter now and hope to have it finished by the end of October (it’s a big chapter… might turn into more than one chapter… that tends to happen with me… this undertaking has actually already turned into a two volume project…). Don’t know how long it will take for this volume to go from draft form to print though. As for the title, well, I’m more indebted to Badiou than Benjamin for that, as Badiou was the first person I encountered who explicitly translated “anastasis” as “uprising” — although Badiou doesn’t follow through on this as much as he could.
      Anyway, if you would be interested in reading a draft form of my project, I would be open to sharing it with you. Just let me know.

  2. Hey Dan, at that Wiconi camp we were texting you from last weekend there were 6 or 7 elders that had gone through the residential school system in Canada. I was in several small discussion groups with them. None of them wanted revenge but most were dealing with anger, seeking restitution, and struggling with their past. All were followers of the “Jesus Way’ as they call it, (many seem to have a problem identifying as ‘Christian,’ go figure). I also met some women (i don’t recall their names but Christian knew them) who work on the Eastside of Van with sex workers and feminist issues and they knew you or who you are. They are ardent opposers of decriminalizing prostitution, maybe y’all ought to hook up and have some discussions? The book on Paul and the philosophers looks interesting I may check it out if I get a real hankering for some Pauline theolajyzing, obliged, daniel. oh, and Doug above is right on in his praise of your title (you sell the sizzle not the steak!) and you can never go wrong when your resonating with W.B., and Christian said he had read a few chapters and that it was great, so market anticipation is growing! get cracking!

    • Hi Dan,
      Yes, the discussion related to sex work is extremely polarized in all camps. Feminists make opposite arguments. Former sex workers make opposite arguments. Advocates make opposite arguments. And so on and so forth. That said, I’m not surprised that the folks you met via Christian would disagree with me… most Christians tend to gravity to a different pole than I do on this matter, and I’m guessing they were of the Christian persuasion.
      Regarding the survivors of residential schools, and the absence of a desire for revenge, well, that’s all well and good (and actually very, very admirable) but I reckon there should be space for the exploration of vengeance when it comes to these things. I’m reminded of the words of the good Lord as quoted by somebody employing the name of Isaiah:
      Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, be still. Your God will come. He will come with vengeance. He will come with divine retribution. He will come and save you.”

  3. Amen DanO, it’s amazing how much grace is shown to us (white, N.) Americans (and our tag along little brothers and sisters up north) by those the ‘collective we’ have screwed over. Jehovah knows I got a righteous thumping coming, even though my people came here first in 1914; still, we’re guilty of receiving stolen property, depraved indifference murder, the unconscionable exploitation of natural resources, the a quiescence and complicity with a murderous military machine, etc.,etc., And yet, why does the lord hold back his wrath? Seems like a third of the time the prophets are telling their own kin that God’s gunna whack em for their sins, a third of the time God’s people are praying for God to whack their enemies, and the other third they are waiting for God’s deliverance that too often never seems to come. When it comes to figuring out who, why and when God delivers a shitstorm of judgement, the bible is a bit difficult to pin down. Have you been to Berlin lately? The richest most powerful country in Europe, and now without those pesky Jews!!! Sure we got some payback for Coventry and D-Day, but the bombs dropped on Hamburg and Dresden fell mostly on women, children and old people. All that is to say that the revenge business is problematic. Grace, it surprises us sometimes, the giving and the getting, that’s all that keeps me going. obliged.

    • Yes, I agree with what you say about grace and revenge. That, certainly, is the road I want to travel. But I also want to make space for others who don’t feel the same. Just because I want to try and embody something I define as “grace” does not mean that I expect others to do the same — and I think I want to say that their road is okay as well… or at least as okay as mine or that of anybody else. As you imply, and as I’ve said before, it’s a clusterfuck, this thing called life.