in Book Reviews, Books

October Books

Kinda busy… proofreading to follow later… hopefully… apologies for sparse reviews.
1-2. The Plains of Aamjiwnaang and Ways of Our Grandfathers: Our Traditions and Culture by David D. Plain.
These two short books were written by a member of the Ahnishenahbek at Aamjiwnaang.  That is to say, they were written by a member of the First Nations people who live on the land where I now also live.  Given that I am keen to become involved with the First Nations community here, I was very pleased to discover these educational texts by a local author.  In fact, I’m not just keen to become involved, what is going on in their community — essentially, they are being murdered, especially their children, by chemical pollutants released from industrial plants that surround them; a few documentaries like Toxic Trespass, The Beloved Community, The Disappearing Male, and Waterlife cover this in some detail and I highly recommend them, not only for locals, but for any who want to get a sense for both the environmental destruction and the colonial project of genocide against indigenous people that continues to occur not just in the two-thirds world, but here in Canada.  Just to get a sense for the damage the pollutants cause the community, while male to female birth rates are generally sitting at 51% males born to 49% females, the birth rate in the community is 67% female and the rates at which pregnancies are lost are about three times higher than the national average.  This is because pollutants related to the plants here disrupt the endocrine system.  Speaking of pollutants, 21% of the greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario come from these plants.  According to the World Health Organization, this town has the worst air quality in Canada.  The folks who live close to the hazardous waste processing plant, called “Clean Harbors” (the largest in North America) have to be evacuated from their homes on a semi-regular basis.  Think something along the lines of Delillo’s “airborne toxic event” (people usually know it’s time to go when nausea, migraines and fainting spells set in, although this also happens elsewhere in the city depending on what and how much the plants are releasing)… only that has occurred more than half a dozen times over the last two months.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, I could go on and on… apparently something like 80% of the oil-based products used in the industrial world are somehow connected with this chemical valley (all the oil giants are here or were here)… maybe in a future post…
Anyway, back to the books.  In the first book, The Plains of Aamjiwnaang, David Plain recounts the history of the Ahnishenahbek in the Aaamjiwnaang region and beyond from the late fifteenth century til the mid-twentieth century.  He focuses upon his own lineage, the Plain family, who include a number of historical chiefs (both civil and war chiefs).  Personally, I found the history to be both fascinating and useful.  I never knew the historical significance of this region, nor did I know of the battles fought in this area (one hears a lot about battle grounds in Europe but we don’t know the history of our own regions).  Not surprisingly, one of the things that comes through pretty clearly is just how dishonest and brutal the Settlers were in their actions toward First Nations people.  Broken promises, theft of lands, betrayals, manipulation of peoples by trying to create internal divides and create powerful parties who are interested more in themselves than in the good of the community… all that happened in this location, just as it happened everywhere else colonialism goes.
The second book, Ways of Our Grandfathers, was also a useful read for me as I get situated here. While the first book explores events and people, this book examines cultural practices, religious beliefs, political and economic structures, and healing practices (including a list of regional plants, how they were prepared, and what they were used to heal).  All in all, recommended reading for any local folks.
3.  A Second Birthday: A Personal Confrontation with Illness, Pain, and Death by William Stringfellow.
Many thanks to the folks at Wipf and Stock for this complimentary copy.
This is the second book in Stringfellow’s autobiographical trilogy (my review of the first volume is here).  I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as the first.  Having witnessed some very close friends and family members deal with serious illnesses or lifelong pain, I was hoping for a more sustained reflection upon that subject (as the book is roughly structured around the time in Stringfellow’s life when he became very sick and almost died until a last-ditch-effort surgery saved his life).  However, the book was more of a rambling series of tangents about a wide variety of subjects.  Much of it did not seem as exciting as some of his other reflections, although some of the sections were quite good — his criticisms of nostalgic American family television shows and his reflection on the dangers of simply going with the “default” option one has in society were especially good (but too short!).  Also, his section on why he despised being relegated to the role of a “theological gadfly” and why he began to cease given lectures in contexts where he was perceived that way is worth quoting:

Too often the difficulty with that task, I found, was that the ecclesiastical authorities, bureaucrats, and flunkies whom I addressed actually relished criticism as a means of further avoiding reformation or renewal.  They were flagellants, morbidly enjoying punishment for misbehavior in which they fully intended to persevere.  My involvement as “gadfly” or whatever-you-call-it was becoming a charade.
I would drop out of it.  And I did.

I have had very similar experiences when it comes to speaking in Christian contexts (from churches, to universities, to conferences) about matters related to poverty, restitution, and oppression, and these experiences have also made me question the whole process and look to other angles of action beyond the written word (I’m beginning to wonder if the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that the pen is mightier than the sword).
Anyway, all that to say, this book was quick and easy and mostly pleasant reading with a few bright moments but not nearly as inspiring as other things written by Stringfellow.  The groupies will like it, the others could skip it without much loss.
4.  The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics edition).
Found this in an old box of books my wife brought from her mom’s farm and thought I would give it a read.  I reckon that I’ve probably read the whole epic in bits and pieces over the years but it was good to sit down and read the whole thing.  I find it absolutely fascinating to read literature that was written thousands of years ago… I love reading old stories (even if they’re not all that exciting on the surface).  It blows my mind to think that such things have endured over the years and that I am now reading, in the year 2011, a text that was originally recited in ancient Mesopotamia.  I definitely want to prioritize other such texts as I look for reading material next year
5.  Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
I had read a number of beautiful quotations from these letters, so when I saw the collection in a used book shop for a few bucks, I was happy to pick it up.  The letters are enjoyable — some good reflections on creativity, writing, love, and loneliness — but don’t come close to matching some of Rilke’s poetry.
6.  Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
Some time back, Brad Johnson recommended this book when I asked him to list some of his favourite novels, and so I finally got around to reading it.  I’m very glad that I did.  It’s a great story about how one person — in this case, an unnamed black male who moves from the South to New York in the early twentieth century — constructs his own identity in light, especially, of the ways in which a wide variety of others, construct his identity in other ways (i.e. in ways that don’t really see him, hence the title).  Recommended reading.
Bonus Crazy Christian Book: Love and Sex Are Not Enough by Charles P. de Santo.
So, I was visiting with a friend who passed this book onto me.  I sort of have a thing for reading wacko Christian books from previous decades.  I think they offer a different way of reading a lot of contemporary Christian books — i.e. they may be just as wacko — and I think this is particularly true in relation to the subjects at hand in this work: love, sex, and marriage (also, reading books like these is an amusing way of killing time on the can).  Of course, like most Conservative Christian books about how to live life, this one is full of lines about how we cannot permit our culture to dictate our values (Christians need to espouse to traditional, universal values) and then it goes on to embrace a slew of culturally-conditioned values from hetero-normativity to patriarchy to the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism.  Now, what makes this particular book stand out, is the way in which it employs an appeal to sociology in order to affirm both racism and classism.  Essentially, the authors central point boils down to the fact that “love and sex are not enough” to make a good marriage.  Furthermore, it’s not enough to also share the same religious outlook as a prospective partner.  Rather, one has the best odds of producing a good marriage if one also dates within one’s class (poor people are especially bad marriage prospects, according to De Santo, as are atheists), and within one’s race (I quote: “While it is not immoral to marry outside one’s race, it probably is unwise).  Again, it bears repeating that it may be easy to unveil the absurdity of pretty much all of this book, but the point then is to turn the critical lenses on any present day Christian texts that address these matters and ask if they will not be considered equally absurd in a few years.

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  1. one has the best odds of producing a good marriage if one also dates within one’s class (poor people are especially bad marriage prospects, according to De Santo, as are atheists), and within one’s race (I quote: “While it is not immoral to marry outside one’s race, it probably is unwise).
    All of these things are factually true, so that I think what you’ve posted rather argues more or less the opposite of what you’ve concluded: it seems like this book is evidence that Christian truths are universal and unchanging.