in Book Reviews, Books

May Reviews

[Pardon the delayed posting, I was in Iceland.  When I have forgotten enough of that experience to think I can speak of it, perhaps I will write something about it.  Until then, there are reviews to be done.]

Discussed in this post: 5 books (Waiting for the Barbarians, The Will to Change, Dying From Improvement, My Struggle: Volume Five, and Child of Woe) and 2 documentaries (Requiem for the American Dream, and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution).


1. Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee.


This is my second Coetzee.  I read and didn’t much enjoy Disgrace (I’m beyond weary of the subgenre of literary fiction that essentially ennobles sexual predators) but I had heard so many good things about Waiting for the Barbarians and it had been long enough since I read Coetzee that I thought I’d give him another go (plus the book was short enough that it could be knocked off in a day or two in between other longer books).  I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much.  I think it is still too infected with notions of the noble colonizers (which, admittedly Coetzee tries to problematize, but I don’t think he problematizes it enough to escape falling into it… it’s more that he recognizes problems with it in order to try and redeem it) and a lot of the same gender-based criticisms I had about Disgrace are present again in this text.  Well written?  Yep.  Keeps you turning the pages? Sure.  ContSubject matter?  Meh.

2. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks.


I talked a fair bit about this book in my last post exploring my complicity with patriarchy.  Suffice to say here that I very much enjoyed this book, as I have enjoyed everything I have read by bell hooks, and it is recommended reading for others who identify as men or who perform maleness.

3. Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody by Sherene H. Razack.


A very important book.  I highly recommend you read it instead of looking for insights in my rushed and woefully inadequate review.

In this book, Sherene Razack looks at how Canadian inquests and inquiries into Indigenous deaths in custody (and there have been a lot of them — hundreds of them, in fact) end up producing narratives that reinforce the fundamental stories of colonization.  These are stories of Indigenous people who are disposable, who are less-than-human, who occupy a liminal space of permanent displacement, constantly in need of the strong arm (or boot) of the law in order to try and make them fit into civilization.  If they fail to fit, if they die, then the only conclusion the government seems to be able to reach is that nobody was at fault (the Indigenous people are all about to die for some reason or another anyway, so they really can’t be murdered).  The only fault found seems to be that noble, well-intentioned people (like cops who beat harmless and incapacitated people to death) simply just don’t know what else they can do to care for people who seem hellbent on not caring for themselves.  Razack explores all of this in detail.  If you do not find the brief sketch compelling, I suggest you read her work and then see how it sits with you.

4. My Struggle: Volume Five by Karl Ove Knausgaard.


I think Knausgaard and I have this in common: we both despise elitism (especially when it comes to things like literature or art) while simultaneously desiring to be recognized as elite writers.  Consequently, when we write, we make sure to include portrayals of ourselves within our texts that others are bound to dislike.  We strive for as close to honesty as we can come in order to attempt to achieve three contradictory things at once: obliterate ourselves (don’t admire me simply because I can write, I’ve done these really horrible things you don’t know about), transcend ourselves (and have the reader focus on the subject matter or their own lives and experiences in relation to the story being explored), and also succeed as ourselves (attaining the position of an, if not admired person, then an admired writer).

In Volume Five of My Struggle Knausgaard tries to do that early on, when accepted as the youngest student to attend a Writer’s School, but he fails.  His best efforts at self-deprecation and honesty are still too infected with a pretentiousness of which he is unaware, because he is not self-aware enough to realize such things about himself.  He succeeds more in his mature work.

5. Child of Woe by Maury Blair.


This book was given to me by a coworker.  It was written by her uncle.  It is his story of the appalling abuse he experienced as a child and, ultimately, of how his life was changed when he felt like he experienced the personal love of God in his life.  It’s a horrendous story of abuse and a vivid reminder of the kind of things that often go on unnoticed in the lives of children around us.  The stuff about God I found less compelling, although I don’t mean to knock it.  It did make me miss how god talk could be used as a tool to communicate a person’s loveliness to him or her without it being complicated by other factors.  Sometimes it’s easier to have an intermediary (God) that can be deployed as a way of telling another person that s/he is lovely that makes it less weird or creepy than saying, “I think you are lovely”… but, of course, that’s not always the case.  For Blair it seems to have helped him and and that, in turn, seems to have helped others so that’s nice.  For me, though, the sticking point isn’t whether or not there might be a God who lives me.  The sticking point is where this loving God is or has been for so many others.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’d rather be with the godforsaken than with the God who forsakes.


1. Requiem for the American Dream (2015) directed by Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott.


Classic Chomsky and plays to the fanboys and -girls.  If you’ve read him a fair bit, there’s nothing much new here and if you’re new to him it probably goes to fast and superficially to be compelling or even comprehensible at times.  So, yes, one for the fans.

But, still, I think it highlights some of my own reasons for my drift from Chomsky.  It is good classic Marxist analysis of class struggle and the hoarding of wealth by the elite… but the focus tends to be on white or European workers and it lacks the kind of intersectionality that makes Marxism rich and relevant and appropriate within the colonial context of occupied Turtle Island.  Chomsky, as portrayed in this documentary, is still too infected with the myth of America as terra nullius and the place of great opportunity for workers of the world to unite and make something great.  It’s something of a Marxist (well, Anarcho-Marxist, but I also have issues with how Chomsky’s anarchism doesn’t really seem to have any substance) variation on the question of how to make America great again.  That, at least, is how the documentary comes across.

All that to say, there is no denying Chomsky’s brilliance and the importance of some of his work (especially when it comes to analyzing American foreign policy, war mongering, and propaganda).  He was fundamental in my own life when I stumbled across Necessary Illusions about sixteen years ago and suddenly had my whole perception of the world shift.  But he has limits and they are significant ones.  For a fuller, more substantial, and more embodied analysis, listen to those living out the struggle on the street, in the mountains, on bridges, and on the barricades.

2. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015) direct by Stanley Nelson Jr.


I found this documentary to be rather odd.  It received some strong reviews and I came to it with a fair bit of excitement… but felt like it didn’t come close to meeting my expectations.  It seems like a very superficial and extremely selective overview of the Panthers… which, given the breadth and depth of the movement and given the way in which there was an ebb and flow in membership between the Panthers and other movements (SNCC, Nation of Islam, MOVE, BLA, etc.) is somewhat inevitable but, I don’t know, some of the selections are pretty curious to me.  The fall of Huey Newton gets a lot of attention, as does Eldridge Cleaver and while it’s good to see some focus on Fred Hampton folks like Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael (although his image appears once or twice), and Assata Shakur (who remains on the FBI’s most wanted list and whose position is possibly in jeopardy as Cuba and the USofA renegotiate their relationship), Bunchy Carter and John Huggins (not to mention several other police assassinations of Panther organizers) are noticeable in their absence.  If you know nothing about the Panthers, this may be worth checking out but then also check out The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 and make sure you read Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party.  That’s a book that will inspire you for a long time.

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