in Book Reviews, Books

December Reviews

Reviewed in this post: 9 books (Conflict is Not Abuse; Solidarity and Difference; Paul and the Stoics; Personal patronage under the early Empire; Seiobo There Below; Giovanni’s Room; The Story of a New Name; teaching my mother how to give birth; and The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni), 3 movies (The Battleship Potemkin; Andrei Rublev; and On the Silver Globe), and 5 documentaries (Author; Little Hope was Arson; An Open Secret; Rape in the Fields; and Rape on the Night Shift).


1. Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman.

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This is my book of the month and the reason why I stuck it at the top of these reviews.  It explores how situations of normal conflict or even of self-defense, whether in intimate relationships or in relationships between nations (or between colonizers and the colonized), can be treated as abuse and so meet with a disproportionate escalated and escalating response that is often violent.  Schulman explores some of the causes of this escalation – noting similar reactions from people on opposite ends of the spectrum (those rooted within a “Supremacy ideology” and those suffering from trauma) – but also observes who benefits from reactions like this (generally centralized hierarchies of power, like the State), and proposes some ways in which we might better respond to conflict (especially through friendships that are part of a broader community of care, honesty, questioning, and accountability).  It’s very much recommended reading.  I won’t say more about it at the moment, however, because I will be doing an interview with the author next week.  More to follow then.

2. Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics by David G. Horrell.


I thought this was a very good book on Pauline ethics.  It’s right up there with the best of them (although, sure, not a ton of books have been pumped out on this specific topic and, yeah, the classic ones that launched this whole area of focus are kind of dry and, okay, the boundaries of what are considered books that deserve the word “ethics” in the title can be a little odd, but the point stands nonetheless!).

I appreciated a number of things about it.  First, Horrell’s sum of the two key metanorms of Paul’s approach (solidarity and other-regard) are both, to my mind, quite accurate, and also quite useful for thinking about ethics today (that they can be spoken of rather generally is both a strength and a weakness).  Second, and related, I like how Horrell tries to use this study to think about ethics today (largely drawing on the conflicting voices of Hauerwas’ communitarianism and Habermas’ liberalism).  I might be more inclined to try and relate Paul to other sources, but that Horrell even engages in this effort is something I respect a great deal and something I wish more NT scholars would attempt to do in a manner that is as engaged and serious as Horrell’s.  All too often NT scholars either (a) never get around to talking about how this might relate to our experiences today or, even worse, think they can easily understand how it relates to our experience today and so end up proposing something either overly simplistic are just kinda, well, awful (oh, hey, NT Wright — his mistake is not studying the contemporary context nearly as much as he studies the context of the NT; he seems to simply assume he understands our context because he lives in it… which is kinda like assuming one understands the NT because one can read it).  I didn’t always agree with the conclusions presented herein, and I think it’s neglect of more explicitly political matters is a serious blindspot (which is mostly true of so-called NT “ethics” in general), and this leads, to pick just one example, to a curious reading of Ro 13.1-7 (where problems related to the passage are flagged but never dealt with in the interpretation that is then provided), but, all in all, I’m very glad I decided to go back to this book and read it in detail.

3. Paul and the Stoics by Troels Engberg-Pedersen.


This book was a rough go for me.  I found it to be really… dull.  I thought maybe it would be worth revisiting some of the works that try and explore the letters attributed to Paul in light of some Greek and Roman philosophical traditions (given that I explore a lot of P&Co.’s stuff in relation to the imperial ideology of Rome).  I was also especially interested in this book because I know comparisons have frequently been made between Christianity and Stoicism.  I’ve always found this somewhat odd since Stoicism was so popular in the Roman military, whereas the early Jesus movement was so opposed to Roman militarism.  So this book by Engberg-Pedersen seemed like a good place to start.  I think I was wrong about that.  I believe that the model he creates is too vague and also does too much of a disservice to the particulars of what P&Co. are on about to be overly useful.  And, damn, was it dry.

4. Personal patronage under the early Empire by Richard P. Saller.


This is a book about personal patronage under the early Roman Empire.  Yep, that’s what it is.  If you are interested in that sort of thing, then you might be interested in this book.

5. Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai.


I’m really happy with the “fiction” I read this month.  Every text – story or or poetry collection – was really solid and it’s nice to be on a bit of a streak.  Seiobo There Below is exceptional.  It takes a while to become accustomed to Krasnahorkai’s voice (and his sentences that go on for ages – so don’t hold your breath looking for a period like I do, which then makes me read faster and faster and feel more and more panicked until I hit a break marker – until I acclimatized).  It’s very difficult to describe but I think it is comparable to Sebald (so I was happily surprised to see that Sebald actually blurbed the book).  Krasznahorkai builds and builds and circles and circles and stretches and relaxes only to be able to stretch a little further then relax again, and so on, as a way of gesturing at something that can’t be so easily expressed in words.  Although sometimes his crashing conclusions come pretty close – so perhaps there is more of McCarthy or Rilke in Krasnahorkai than there is in Sebald.  Regardless, I really dig this style of writing and I plan to read more Krasznahorkai very soon.  I believe that, between reading him and Sebald, I’m really maturing as a writer (I have another novel I’m working on where I’m seeing this impact, but I think this kind of voice comes through a bit in my last blog post).

6. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.


Baldwin is more famous for his books Go Tell It On The Mountain and The Fire Next Time but I thought I’d start with this story about a love affair between two men in Paris because it was one recommended by David Foster Wallace in a syllabus he compiled for a writing class he taught (I’ve slowly been working through texts from that syllabus, as I’ve also been slowly working through DFW’s writing).  I enjoyed the story.  It was my first time reading Baldwin and I very much enjoyed both his descriptive voice and the ways in which his characters are complex in very realistic ways that really bring them to life – while simultaneously giving voice to the real complexities of life as we live it.  I’ll be reading more by him.

7. The Story of a New Name (Neapolitan Series Vol. 2) by Elena Ferrante.


Ferrante continues to rock my socks.  Volume 2 of this series was just as strong as Volume 1 and I’ve got Volume 3 lined up and ready to go.  This is highly recommended reading and it continues to hit me like water in a desert that I didn’t realize I was wandering in for so long.

8. teaching my mother how to give birth by Warsan Shire.


I don’t read a lot of poetry but I think that’s mostly because I never knew where to look to find the kinds of poets I wanted to read (the classic British or Irish poets really bored me to tears back in the day when I tried to read them in order to be cultured and whatnot).  I think I’ve gotten a bit better at looking and, holy moley, Warsan Shire is up there with the very best to ever write poetry (in my opinion).  I’ve always thought Rilke’s Duino Elegies were about as close to perfect as a poem (or a piece of writing) can get but Shire is really giving Rilke a run for his money in teaching my mother how to give birth.  Every poem explodes with poignancy.  These are expressions that cause you to feel the inexpressible.  I very highly recommend her.

9. The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998 by Nikki Giovanni.


Nikki Giovanni was a bit hit and miss for me.  I really liked her early stuff, when she was involved heavily with the Panthers and the Black Power movement, but then she starts to write more about things like love and it feels almost like she has lost her muse and, yes, she can still write and surely desires to write, but I don’t know if what she writes about is as inspiring (for the most part) as what she wrote about early on.  So, yeah, I was constantly exclaiming and cheering and laughing for much of the first portion of the book, but as I got deeper into the second half, I started feeling like I was finishing the book just for the sake of finishing it.


1. The Battleship Potemkin (1925) directed by Sergei Eisenstein.


In 1905, sailors on board the Russian battleship Potemkin were served borscht that had maggots wriggling in the soup because the meat that was used was rotten.  A sailor named Valenchuk complained about this to an officer and the officer shot him dead, on the spot, for being so bold as to speak plainly about the matter (after the ship’s doctor had already examined the soup and declared the maggots to be “fly eggs” and therefore pronouncing the soup fit to eat).  Immediately after Valenchuk was shot, other sailors grabbed the officer, threw him overboard, and shot him dead in the water.  Multiple other officers were killed, the rest imprisoned, and the ship was taken over by the sailors, led by a self-created peoples’ committee, chaired by a fellow named Matyushenko.  They decided to raise the red flag of the revolution and sail into port in Odessa.

Eisenstein’s film represents this moment, the way the town folks celebrated the rebellion and were crushed by the Cossack police force.  This was very movingly captured in the film in a way that I found very moving and surprising.  I didn’t expect such poignant images of the shattered bodies of children or the shooting down of a mother protesting the death of her son in a film from 1925… but I forget, sometimes, that a lot of the censorship of films as we know them only came later).  Eisenstein doesn’t mention that the revolt of the sailors was actually quite short-lived and ended in defeat — even if they were valorized later on by the victors of the October Revolution.  I had fun watching this movie.

2. Andrei Rublev (1966) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.


I’m not sure how I feel about Andrei Rublev.  By this I don’t mean that my primary feeling is that of confusion. I mean that I am confused by what I’m feeling.

It’s a very highly praised film by a very highly praised director – it regularly appears in lists compiled by critics regarding the best films of all time – and I can definitely feel its influence on other movies.  This includes ones I have loved (oh, hey, Terrance Malick) as well as onesI really didn’t love (like Alexei German’s Hard To Be A God), and it’s interesting that it could be so influential at both ends of that spectrum.  I could go on in this vein, talking like film people talk about a movie’s place in the history of cinema, its influence, what was innovative about it, and all that jazz, but that’s not what has me puzzled about Andrei Rublev.  What has me puzzled is how I actually feel about the story itself.  And that’s kind of  a fun way to feel.  Although, granted, since I can’t really talk about how I feel (since I don’t really know how I feel) that doesn’t make for a very good review.  Maybe just watch the movie yourself and tell me what you think?  I would appreciate that.

3. On the Silver Globe (1988) directed by Andrzej Żuławski.


You know what probably never took off in Eastern Europe?  Haikus.  Between their literature and their films, I’m starting to think that the Russians and the Poles are kinda long-winded.  Hence, we go from Dostoevsky, Pasternak and  Tolstoy, to Tarkovsky, German, and Żuławski.

On the Silver Globe was another film loved by the critics (and a secondary inspiration for Hard To Be A God, in more ways than simply the story-line of visiting an earth-like civilization on another earth-like planet – it also took a lot of years to produce and was ultimately presented in a form that was not the complete or final form desired by the director).  It’s fairly multi-layered in terms of the basic storyline (which isn’t too, too relevant to the movie so don’t worry if you get lost, although this may be a rare instance when it helps to read a review or two before you watch the film… if you want to spend 2.5 hours watching it).  As I watched it I had a sudden realization that sometimes it’s hard to tell a movie the critics love at Cannes apart from the kind of movie you might find playing on the Space Channel at three in the morning.  I think the thing the ended up bothering me the most about the it wasn’t so much the disjointed monologues, the multiple (never really explained) layers to the story (which makes me wonder how reviewers pieced things together they way they did — maybe Żuławski explained it to them in a press release?), or the lack of sense that a lot of it appeared to make, but the fact that everyone was yelling all the time.  Okay, let’s have a movie with lengthy semi-philosophical, esoteric, often kinda sorta maybe totally pretentious monologues, but can we please not have all of them yelled with really dramatic gestures and poses?  For 2.5 hours?  I get enough of that outside of movie watching!  It’s kinda like reading a thirty page long all caps facebook comment or something.  I don’t care if it was Derrida who wrote the damn thing (and this film feels kind Branch Derridean to me), after awhile I’m gonna think, “please stop yelling at me.”


1. Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016) directed by Jeff Feuerzeig.


In the ‘90s, JT LeRoy rose from his obscurity as the child of a sex worker who worked truck stops in Virginia (and who, himself, had overcome childhood abuse of all kinds, who had done sex work as a teen, who had been an injection drug user, and who sometimes identified as male and sometimes identified as female) and became a darling of the literary scene in the USofA writing multiple best-selling fictional novels that were supposedly based upon his life.  A lot of the celebrities really loved him – from Tom Waits to Billy Corgan (who, at one point, in a recorded phone conversation with JT, identifies himself as “the Corgan-ator,” at which point, if this didn’t do it for you, you kinda realize that the Siamese Dream is over) – and he is also a major hit in Europe, at Cannes, but especially in Italy.  The only problem with all this is that JT LeRoy was actually made up by a middle aged woman who lived in San Francisco – and the public face of JT is her sister-in-law.  It’s all pretty wild and Feuerzeig does a good job of guiding us through it.

One thing that the documentary really brings out is how difficult it is for people to separate the artist from the art (it also makes me question the desirability of this).  Of course, critics, especially the professional ones, are constantly claiming to do this but the acclaim of JT, followed by her subsequent rejection after her exposure (I don’t think she penned any best-sellers after she was exposed – although I think the producer of a show called Deadwood stood by her, as did the good ol’ Corgan-ator, which made me respect more in the end) makes it a bit difficult to find these claims credible.

Really, I think Laura Albert (the author behind JT LeRoy) did something pretty great in creating the character of the author as well as the stories the author wrote (it’s worth remembering that all authors are works of fiction).  I think her only mistake was asking celebrity friends to double down and reaffirm the reality of JT after journalists had already done the dirty work of digging up her true identity.

2. Little Hope was Arson (2013) directed by Theo Love.


I had flagged Little Hope was Arson on my “documentaries to watch” list a few years ago and so I was happy to stumble onto it on Netflix this month (it’s got such a great title and it reviewed well).  It’s the story of two teenage boys who end up burning down a lot of churches in Texas (in “the belt buckle of the bible belt” as one character describes their location).  Both boys end up getting sentenced to life in prison even though nobody was hurt in any of the fires (apparently it’s a capital offense to destroy buildings that are designated at places of worship in the USofA… so I wonder if the folks who have burnt black churches in the south or mosques anywhere there?).  It’s a pretty tragic story – both boys had experienced quite a bit of childhood trauma and heartbreak.  One boy had found Jesus as a child and then brought his parents to church where they got clean from drugs and all that, but then his mom got some kinda rare form of cancer and he thought surely God would hear his prayers and heal her just like God heard his prayers and saved them and got them off the drugs but she died pretty damn quick and in a lot of pain, I think, and then his dad started drinking again pretty heavy and one night when he was drunk he tried to hang himself from a tree in their front yard but the boy saw him and caught him and held him up so he wouldn’t suffocate, while someone else ran to get a knife to cut the rope and get his dad down, and he was only a little boy when all this happened and that’s a lot for a boy – for a man, for anyone – to handle and so I guess he burned some churches down but nobody got hurt, even if feelings were hurt (a lot of folks said that God might forgive the arsonists but they never could) and so they sent him to prison for life and that was the reduced sentence he got for a plea bargain; but his dad got sober again and went to him in prison and brought him back around to Jesus so some would say that was a miracle, I guess, but I think maybe the miracle was the youth pastor of his church who had been saying terrible things about other pastors not caring for their wounded and that’s why people were burning churches down but then this youth pastor learned that it was youth he had been caring for who were doing all the fires and he kinda snapped and broke and I don’t think he recovered and he quit his job at the church and now he drives truck and he goes to see people who would never step foot into a church (like JT LeRoy’s mom) at truck stops and he tries to meet with people who are lonely and kinda just hurting all the time but maybe not in any real noticeable way, but, still, lonely people tend to congregate at certain places and that’s where he tries to go on the road and he tries to be a companion to them there.

3. An Open Secret (2014) directed by Amy Berg.


In my reviews last month, I reiterated, yet again, my discomfort with representations of sexual violence in the medium of film.  However, a problem I have had with my own position is that sexual violence is very much a part of the daily life of people in our culture and so it seems both odd and inappropriate to try and exclude it from film.  However, I think I should clarify that it is the representation of the sexual violence itself on the screen, acted out by actors (who might not actually be acting – which is a major part of the problem – as recent revelations about Last Tango in Paris have reminded us, although Last Tango is certainly not alone in doing this sort of thing as I explore in my main blog post on this subject).  Consequently, I decided to watch some documentaries this month that deal with the topic of sexual violence but that don’t actually portray the violence on the screen.  Amy Berg’s documentary about the rampant sexual abuse of child actors, especially boys and teenage boys, in Hollywood was the first I chose to watch (I had already watched her two previous documentaries on sexual abuse: Deliver Us From Evil, about the sexual abuse of children and subsequent and cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church, and Prophet’s Prey, about the sexual abuse of children and subsequent cover-ups in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints).  It’s a pretty damning presentation of what seems to be a very common practice within the industry – one that is widely known and exploited (by some very prominent people like possibly Bryan Singer, the Director of X-Men – although if you do your research on him you find a lot of recanted stories and scrubbed articles with apologies attached to the links, so interpret that how you will).  A lot of agents for child stars seem like little more than pimps (who like to test out their products before sharing them with others).  It’s all pretty appalling but it’s worth remembering that some Conservatives and Right wing dingdongs actually do have very legitimate concerns about what Hollywood finds acceptable in the people whom it praises (Singer is far from alone – Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bob Villard, not to mention the anonymous producer and others who are said to have passed around Corey Haim and Corey Feldman back in the day).

4-5. Rape in the Fields (2013) and Rape on the Night Shift (2015) from PBS Frontline.



These are two short PBS documentaries about the prevalence of sexual violence as it is experienced by women working as migrant workers (primarily in fields but also in factory farms) and on the night shift, primarily as cleaners in office buildings.  It’s a pretty damning presentation of the ubiquity of this form of violence and of the prevalence of rape culture and how it can also colonize non-dominant populations.  Lateral violence was a major focus here (migrant male supervisors, exploiting migrant female subordinates) and this wasn’t always contextualized well.  Granted, some named major corporations were targeted for their apathy, their failure to protect female employees, and the ways in which they protected abusers, but I still felt that these docs risked perpetuating racist white and colonial stereotypes about men from racialized populations.

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