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August Reviews

Continuing the longest running series that nobody reads, I present my August Reviews!  They make mention of: 6 Books (An Act of Genocide; The Son of God in the Roman World; The Argonauts; Dangerous Love; The Slap; and Marbles); 1 Movie (Crimson Peak); and 4 Documentaries (The King of Kong; Tony Robbins; High School; and The Thin Blue Line).


1. An Act of Genocide: Colonization and the Sterilization of Indigenous Women by Karen Stote.


Were I to put together a course of crucial texts for Canadians to read, this would be one of them.

Stote looks at the history of the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada between 1930 and 1970.  After that, sterilizations became unnecessary because abortions became legal and doctors could abort a pregnancy against the will of the parents if the doctors deemed a baby to be a health risk to the mother (and if the mother lived in poverty, which Canada had kinda made into a universal condition for living as an Indigenous person in the lands Canada occupied, then simply having another child could be considered a sufficient health risk).  Many of these abortions were performed without any kind of anesthetic or pain medication, especially in Northern communities.

Much of this work of sterilization was done at federally funded Indian hospitals (about which I’m currently reading another book that I believe is very important) with the full complicity of medical experts and the Canadian government.  Assaulting women was a crucial part of Canada’s colonial project.  Indigenous nations were not interested in adopting the ways in which settlers were intent on exploiting and ripping up the land in order to make profits off of “natural resources.”  Systems of private property ownership that resulted in massive destruction of land, water, and air, and massive accumulation of wealth for some (paired with massive dispossession of many others) was not particularly appealing to a lot of people who were here before the settlers.  And so to uproot, disarm, and either annihilate or assimilate (two genocidal options that the Canadian government has continually pursued in one way or another from its inception until the present), it was necessary to attack Indigenous women.  Not only because Indigenous women gave birth to Indigenous babies (hence, continuing the existence of Indigenous nations and treaties and sovereignty), but also because Indigenous women were often leaders in their nations.  And so the Indian Act transfers power to men, and men are selected who are willing to work in conjunction with what the government and the capitalists want.  Women are turned into male property, only have status given to them based on their relationships with males (and lose Indigenous status if they marry settlers) and have property rights restricted.  Their children are taken away and sent to residential schools.  They are encouraged to not have children.  Forcibly sterilized for many decades in the 20th century (during the lifetime of my parents — this is not the distant past) and the forced abortions take place and foster care (and jails) replace residential schools and Indian hospitals.  And in all of this hundreds of Indigenous women go missing and/or are murdered and word on the street is that members of colonizing paramilitary force — the RCMP which has always been the hammer brought to bear on Indigenous sovereignty — may have played a large role in some places.  So it’s no wonder people ask for years for an Inquiry into these things but to no avail (and now there is an inquiry it’s wise to remember Razack’s words about how Canada performs inquiries into Indigenous deaths in police custody and it’s also wise to remember the inquiry that was performed in relation to the Pickton farm).  Canada doesn’t care about missing and murdered Indigenous women.  Canada has been disappearing, sterilizing, and otherwise torturing and killing them for decades.

Ahem… got kinda angry there… back to the book.  One of the things I think Stote does really well is tie in the acts of sterilization to the broader goals of the Canadian government to dispossess Indigenous people of land, culture, and of a will to resist (and of life, too, quite often of life).  She does a good job of situating her particular case studies within the broader scope of things.  In this regard, I think it is appropriate and admirable that she calls a spade a spade — this is genocide, from Canadian origins to the present, we have been pursuing genocide and Stote does a fine job of looking at how genocide is understood internationally and how Canada really tried to fuck with that understanding to get itself off the hook.  As she expores this, I discoverd this fun fact: when Canada granted Indigenous people the rights of citizens (i.e. transformed them into Canadian citizens) in 1956, the citizenship was granted retroactively so that it was recognized as being in effect from 1947 onward. Why was this done?

Well, in 1948 the UN passed its convention on genocide. Canada had opposed this convention (managing to get significant portions of prior drafts removed — with the aid of the UK and the USA — and Canada would go on to create its own still even narrower definition of genocide and what was a prosecutable offense in relation to it in Canada) but the convention passed. However, only nations could charge other nations with genocide. Yet the British Royal Proclamation of 1763 had recognized the Indigenous nations as independent nations and treaty partners and Canada took on this relationship via the British North American Act of 1867. Consequently, the Canadian government became worried that Indigenous nations would bring a charge of genocide against the settler state of Canada. Consequently, Indigenous peoples were turned into Canadians to prevent this from happening. And, just to be sure that no charge could be brought from any time that the Genocide Convention existed, Indigenous folks were turned into Canadians retroactively as far back as 1947. Thus, all Indigenous folks were said to be Canadians before the UN Genocide Convention was passed thereby preventing Indigenous peoples from being able to charge Canada with genocide.

Note that the change does not take place because the Canadian government undergoes some kind of decolonizing conversion. The change happens reluctantly and strictly so that Canada can cover its ass (and continue to pursue genocide by others means — now assimilating Indigenous folks into a “minority” status that, it should be noted, is not appropriate for First Nations… but that’s a topic for another time).

Finally, another very important thing that Stote does is show how all-encompassing the Canadian project of colonization has been.  I think a lot of Canadians tend to associate colonialism with either (a) English and French soldiers and settlers from long ago; or (b) residential schools, which are seen as projects of Christian churches and some government bureaucrats.  What Stote helps to show is that many other layers of society are involved.  Specifically, the medical community has been involved in very devastating ways which First Nations for many decades now.  This is important to recognize because, especially today, the medical community has supplanted faith communities as the great arbiter of how and when force is used in society (hence, in a recent talk, I speak about how homelessness has become a health issue and it is now a medical discourse that permits the supposedly altruistic use of force against deviant populations — like those experiencing homelessness — and which replaces outdated and no longer enforceable Christian discourses).  No wonder, then, that Indigenous communities or Indigenous folks experiencing homelessness aren’t jumping up and down with joy when this transition to medically-based best practices is announced.  They’ve already experienced white medicine before.  And white healthcare workers are as little to be trusted as white social workers or white missionaries or any other supposedly well-intentioned white person (T2 comes to mind) who comes along with the next best plan of how to save ’em.

2. The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context by Michael Peppard.


This morning I completed E. P. Sanders recent 777 page book on Paul (more on that in my September reviews… but I suspect if the format, spacing, and font size were adjusted it would only be a 150 page book on Paul).  Sanders never once mentioned anything to do with the Imperial cult, the divine Caesars, or the veneration of the Emperor and members of his family.  Not in any sections about persecution, not in any sections about calendars, feast days, or festivals, not in any sections about Paul’s christology, not in any sections about the Graeco-Roman context of the cities Paul visited or to which he wrote letters, nothing.  “That’s weird,” I thought to myself.  Because, although Sanders follows the trajectory of folks likeW. D. Davies and focuses a lot on Second Temple Judaism(s) at the expense of all else (reading his book makes you think Paul was really only preoccupied with Jew/Gentile relations and admittance into the people of God via faith, which then leads to union with Christ and other members of the body of Christ… and that’s about it, really) but surely he must have come across not just one but several texts highlighting the importance of understanding the influence and ubiquity of the Imperial cult, not only on Paul’s context but quite possible on Paul’s writings as well.  But Sanders, well, Sanders doesn’t say a single word about it.  So, yeah, “that is weird,” I said to myself again.  Because this can’t just be an example of missing or overlooking something, it’s gotta be an example of deliberately not mentioning something.  I’ll not that now but save this point for discussion when I actually review Sanders’ book.

Luckily for all of us, however, there are a lot of good books that do pay attention to the ideo-theology of the Roman Empire and Michael Peppard’s book about divine sonship is one of them.  Stepping back from several centuries of theological overcoding, Peppard asks about what divine sonship (being a son of a god) was all about in the context of the New Testament writings.  In that context, the Caesars are easily the most ubiquitous, powerful, well known, and relevant (divine) sons of gods.  The more one digs in this regard, the more convincing the case it and any effort to make sense of Paul’s christology that doesn’t seriously engage this seems to me to be woefully inadequate.

However, the whole issue of adoption has tended to constrain Christian theologians looking back at Jesus because they want him to be really, really divine all the time, always, in every way.  If Jesus is adopted as a (or the) son of god, then this seems to suggest he is somehow less than god (hence the whole homoousios debate at Nicea).  Peppard does a good job of deconstructing and reconstructing all of this showing how all of these later theological anxieties are unnecessary and how adoption is really something that points foward (to things like purpose and inheritance) rather than looking backwards (at genetics or ousia, which really weren’t an overwhelming concern at that time, although something like that debate does pop up at times).

I like this book and would recommend it to people who are into this sort of thing.  Peppard spends most of his time in Mark and it was fun to read along with him there (he does go elsewhere in the NT though).  He does a fine job showing how, although the early Jesus followers are clearly engaging the ideo-theology of Rome, they are trying to do so in a subversive way (hence the juxtaposition of the imperial eagle with the lowly, peaceful dove and so on).

Tangentially, I think the early Jesus followers only partially succeed at their subversive efforts.  I’d say the same of Left-leaning NT scholars today who are talking about King Jesus or Jesus as King, over against whichever ruler of the world they have in mind — America, The Stock Market, Whatevs — and this is all well and good and subversive… but doesn’t really get to the point that Jesus both mocked and totally rejected any notion of kingship applied to him.  This is the danger of subversion — adopt too much of what you are trying to overthrow and you can easily slide into being that which you were opposing.  Jesus gave up on being subversive… and that’s when he went to die.  Bonhoeffer, whose legacy is blunted because Conservatives and Evangelicals have worked very hard to claim him as their own, did the same.  I’m not saying that is a better way.  I’m just saying Jesus wasn’t any kind of king at all and the first person to call him that officially was the Roman official who crucified him so anybody else rushing to designate him as such should probably pause to consider that.

But now I’m well away from the topic at hand.  Because one need not be a king to be a child of (a) god.  In fact, far from it.  It is imperialism that wants to pair the two.  The Jesus tradition wherein the adoption of Jesus as a son of a god is then replicated in the adoption of all the colonized, vanquished, enslaved, and oppressed people who gather in memory of him and others who were filled so much with the Spirit of Life that they were not permitted to live too long.  Such people have no need of kings or crowns any more than the Great Sioux Nation needs the fucking Dakota Access Pipeline.

3. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.


I’m glad I read this book after I finished my own novel.  Nelson and I have very similar writing styles (if I do say so myself — because this book is brilliant and moving and beautiful).  Very different experiences reflected in the texts, but similar styles in terms of how we work theory into our narratives, how we write in short bursts, and how we weave different times and thematic elements in and out of each other.  Of course, the content itself is different in a lot of ways — Nelson is much more focused upon matters related to sex and gender (she is a queer woman with a trans partner and they live in the USofA) but I do think we have somewhat similar objectives as writers.  It’s a bit scary because once or twice I found myself thinking, “uh-oh, am I going to seem derivative?” or “will people say she pulls this off in a way that I never can?”  Interesting thoughts.  I know what parts of my writing are more or less influenced by various authors — I can point out sections I wrote under the influence of Rilke or McCarthy and so on — but it’s a new thing to me to feel my writing is so generically (as in genre) like another text.  Maybe that’s just my ignorance (most likely) but it’s interesting if there is another writing style that is popping up across the board.

Of course, I’m jumping the gun and shouldn’t really be presuming to speak of myself as a writer since I haven’t published any kind of story yet…

All that aside, this book really does deserve the praise it has gotten.  It’s thoughtful and poignant and abrupt and poetic and all kinds of other good things.  One evening visiting with Jess and some other friends (holler, Lyf and Jen!) I just sat and read some quotations from the book out loud and Jess later said that was one of the highlights of our weekend away.  So, yeah, highly recommended (and I should mention that I first came across this book from a source I often go to for books I might not otherwise come across — Brad Johnson’s book reviews over at AUFS).

4. Dangerous Love by Ben Okri.


I thought Okri’s novel, The Famished Road, was wonderful and magical and could easily stand alongside of stories told by Rushdie or Marquez or Llosa.  I had high hopes coming to Dangerous Love and, although it is a well-written story, I felt somewhat disappointed by it.  I didn’t find myself drawn into the characters, or their world, as much as with Okri’s previous work.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps because the story of this kind of tragic love has been told many places before and the elements that were unique to Okri’s telling of it – life in Lagos after the civil war, and how various disparate people are trying to make life together in the slums there – seem to be less central to the story than they otherwise might have been.  Although, I don’t know, I’m not sure that that comment is fair or accurate.  Still, if you want to read something fabulous be a Nigerian author, The Famished Road is highly recommended.

5. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.


I think it is Tsiolkas’ intent to write a story about unlikeable people.  I think he does this to reflect the nastiness he thinks is intrinsic to bourgeois – middle class and upper middle class – society.  I get this.  A Vanity Fair for 21st century Australians.  Okay.  However, I also end up feeling that Tsiolkas, as an author and particularly as an author who writes women, is also rather unlikeable.  Because, for example, when writing about the women, whom the men all tend to call sluts at various moments (which is in keeping with their unlikeableness), the women themselves as call themselves sluts at various moments as well (and this is not a form of reclaiming a formerly derogatory word or an effort to counter slut-shaming – it is very much slut in the pejorative sense).  It isn’t just that every woman Tsiolkas writes is a slut (according to the male characters), they are, in their core, sluts as well (all women are truly, verily and fundamentally sluts in Tsiolkas’ world).  So, yeah, while Tsiolkas tries to expose a world of selfish, superficial people, I’m not convinced he does so from a place that is any different from the world of his characters.  And I just didn’t think the writing itself was that good (I was surprised, after reading it, that it won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2009… seems more like Dan Brown than literature by great Australian novelists like Peter Carey or Christina Stead; heck, Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram is more literary than this… but now I’m just being a snob).

If you’re looking for something to read, I’d give this one a pass.  (I’d pass on the TV show, too… although I only made it 3 or 4 minutes into that before I said, “nope” and turned it off.)

6. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me. A Graphic Memoir by Ellen Forney.


Reading Marbles is kind of like reading a comic version of a book by Kay Redfield Jamison.  It’s moving, poignant, funny, sad, honest, and hopeful.  It’s a good reflection of what makes a life and how life is lived, in this case, for someone with Bipolar Disorder (BP-I).  I’ve often thought that the graphic novel genre is best utilized for the telling of memoirs (Blankets, Epileptic, Maus, and Essex County all come immediately to mind) and Forney’s work continues to confirm this.  There is something uniquely moving about how graphic novels combine words and images (in a way that is different than both standard novels and films).  I haven’t been able to put my finger on it, but I enjoy it.  Recommended reading.


1. Crimson Peak (2015) directed by Guillermo del Toro.


Crimson Peak is very much a gothic set piece.  It has all the elements – a rotting isolated mansion, machines that look like beasts with teeth, ghosts, innocent women and evil women, male detectives and victims, blood and a love that is not what it seems, Victorian wardrobes, inclement weather, candles and poison, and dead bodies that refuse to stay buried in a place below the house that visitors are not supposed to see.  Even the lighting refers to earlier gothic works (some of the white red and brown contrasts were great but the constant use of green lighting – which harkens back to gothic films from an earlier era – kinda drove me nuts).

I really like some of del Toro’s films – The Devil’s Backbone was great and Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my all-time favourites.  This film does have some trademark del Toro moments – notably the sudden outburst of violence that is portrayed with an unflinching realism (like when the Captain smashes the peasant’s face with a bottle in Pan’s Labyrinth) – but mostly it fell a little short for me.  It wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t great.  Just so-so.  Perhaps this is because the whole gothic genre never really floated my boat.


1. The King of Kong (2007) by Seth Gordon.


I got way more emotionally invested in this documentary than I thought I would.  I only decided to watch it because it got so many glowing reviews I figure, okay, I’ll check it out.  I’m glad I did.  It was a lot of fun.

Again, much like in “Fursonas” (which I reviewed last month) we see how a somewhat ostracized minority (of people definitely considered “geeks” or “misfits”) dominated by some strong, charistmatic, but also manipulative personalities who end up replicating the abusive power structures that are found within mainstream society (in this case, it is the fellow who holds the world record for Donkey Kong who plays all kinds of nasty games in order to try and stop another fellow from beating his record).  Still, I found myself more emotionally connected to the characters in this film.  I’d recommend it if you want to watch something fun.

2. Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru (2016) directed by Joe Berlinger.


Joe Berlinger is an unabashed and explicit fan of Tony Robbins.  And Tony Robbins had a lot of say in the making of this documentary.  It’s essentially a two hour long infomercial for the six day Date With Destiny conference Tony Robbins holds in Florida ever year (tickets cost between $4K and $8K depending on where you want to sit).  I wouldn’t recommend going.  But a lot of other people think otherwise.  And that’s kind of interesting.

(Aside: a lot of the people who admire him are really rich and so a class-informed analysis of his success would be pretty interesting but, despite my usual inclinations, I’m not going that route this time.)

From the perspective of standard counseling or social work or chaplaincy work or whatever, Tony Robbins says a lot of outlandish and potentially very harmful shit.  A lot of people admire him for this — for being such a straight shooter, for calling it like it is, for not sugar coating things, etc. — but, in my opinion, that observation doesn’t adequately explain the following he has.

Before I get into why I think Robbins is so successful, I want to note that I see no reason to doubt his sincerity.  I think Robbins believes in what he is doing.  I don’t think he is a snake oil salesman deliberately conning people.  I think he really believes he can help people.  And here’s the other thing: a lot of people sincerely believe they have received a great deal of help from him.  I see no reason to doubt the sincerity of a good many of the testimonials.

So why does Robbins have such a cult following?  After watching the documentary, I think it’s because he is incredibly talented at making a deeply comforting emotional connection with others.  And I think he can do this not just in his one-to-one conversations, but also with rooms full of people.  Of course, the deck is stacked in his favour — he is preaching to the choir, talking with people who already believe in him enough to shell out several thousand dollars to sit in a room with a crowd of people listening to him talk.  But, that said, he still makes the connection.  Not with everyone, but with a lot of ’em.  This makes me wonder two things.

First, it seems to highlight that the emotional connection that is made between someone who is hurting and someone else can be much more powerful than the actual content of the words spoken or the advice given.  Of course, there are limits to this but Robbins says some amazingly boneheaded things, and seemingly wonderful things result.  I suspect that is because people feel a kind of connection — they feel some kind of comfort, some kind of release, some kind of companionship, that impacts them in a big way.  How transitory this impact is, is hard to say.  For some, it is likely short term.  For others, there are longer term benefits.  What percentage falls where is impossible for me to say.  But, for some at least, something happens that breaks them open, that sets them free.

However, and this is my second thing that I wonder, what this suggests is that the power that creates change lies within the people seeking healing and not the so-called healer.  It is not Tony Robbins who makes these people better (or whatever) but, rather, it is that a connection is made and then people do or change or feel differently.  At best, the healer is the catalyst that opens a way for the person to heal him- or her- or zirself.  Robbins, in this case, is kinda like the placebos that test so well against a number of antidepressants.  But, of course, we know this is true more generally — women know best what women need, Indigenous folks know best what Indigenous folks need, members of the Queer community know best what the Queer community needs, etc., etc.  Life and life-giving change are always rising up, and are especially rising up in places where Death is pressing down most strongly.

But sometimes people get stuck and an “aha” moment or a catalyst or a breakthrough of sorts is really helpful for getting unstuck.  I think Robbins is that for some people.  For other people, however, it’s hard to know if he is a part of Death pressing down.  Either way, it’s highly profitable and seems to make a positive impact on a lot of people experiencing wealth.

And, okay, I said class analysis wasn’t going to enter the picture but maybe the hoarding of wealth is the underlying cause?  And that doesn’t get addressed.  It gets reaffirmed (Robbins is very rich and doesn’t mind people knowing that about him).  To me, this is kind of like sweatshop workers taking antidepressants in order to feel happy about their lives as sweatshop workers.  Really the underlying problem is the exploitation of their bodies and their labour (and everything that goes along with that), although I don’t mean to begrudge any worker feelings of peace or happiness.  Perhaps the same thing might be said about the rich.  Perhaps they, too, are just managing symptoms without addressing the underlying pathological.  And so these illnesses get labeled as chronic and long-term and we are medicated all our lives — not because things must be that way but because the situation that produces the illness does not change.

3. High School (1968) Frederick Wiseman.


So, when people talk about the good old days, I guess they are referring to a time when teachers were total bullies to students and nobody thought it was weird for a documentary film crew to come in and videotape the rear ends of high school girls while they did their exercises in gym class.  No wonder so many men in my dad’s generation grew up to beat their kids and their wives.  The male role models presented to them are all dicks.  And the women, while all told to be chaste and modest (in a very conservative way), are also constantly having sexual attention paid to their bodies, or are shamed for not having the right kind of body, or anything else to make them all about their bodies.  It’s an equally fascinating and disturbing documentary — fascinating because it is a look into a world totally alien to me (at least in terms of how people interact, speak, dress, and so on), but disturbing because Wiseman films his subjects the way Tsiolkas writes his.

4. The Thin Blue Line (1988) directed by Errol Morris.


I imagine this documentary might have been a lot more shocking in ’88, when the general middle-class, white public may have been more naive about things like police abuse of power.  Now, I think most people are pretty aware of that.  However, this story of how the police framed an innocent man for shooting a cop and then how the rest of the justice system collaborated with that, despite the evidence, dropped like a bomb when it first came out (and, in fact, the fellow falsely accused was released after the documentary gained a lot of attention).  It’s fairly dry — mostly a lot of talking heads — but I found it interesting enough.


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