in Book Reviews, Books, Uncategorized

November Reviews

Discussed in this post: 9 books (Organism and Environment; Weird Life; Illness as Metaphor; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams; The Robber; Go Tell It on the Mountain; The Vanishing Hitchhiker; Collected Shorter Poems; and Burma Chronicles); 4 Movies (The Dance of Reality; Solaris; Loving Vincent; and Songs My Brothers Taught Me); and 2 Documentaries (Voyage of Time; and Jodorowsky’s Dune).


1. Organism and Environment: Ecological Development, Niche Construction, and Adaptation by Sonia E. Sultan.


Easily one of the most exciting books I’ve read in the last few years, Organism and Environment is full of all kinds of fascinating research exploring ecological development, niche construction, and adaptation in a manner that seriously challenges Darwinian, neo-Darwinian or “New Synthesis” conceptions of evolution. It calls us to rethink how organisms go about sharing life together and, in fact, where exactly we draw the line between forms of life. It offers, in other words, a new way of seeing. And it is a way of seeing that fills me with wonder. I highly recommend this book. It’s intended for an academic audience but even if your background isn’t in a related discipline, you’ll be able to follow along (you may just need to look up a few words and concepts online). This eco-devo area of biological science, exploring the relationships and interrelationships between different kinds of things (say trees and soil and water and fungus and bacteria and deer, whose difference may be… different… than we used to think), is some of the most captivating stuff I’ve ever read.

2. Weird Life by David Toomey.


I thought this book was about extremophiles (organisms that can live in environments that would kill other organisms – fungi that feed off of very high levels of radiation, fans that live at the opening of hydrothermal vents under the ocean, other wee critters that live in super salty environments, microorganisms that spend their entire life cycle in clouds, and so on) and there is a part of the book dedicated to these beings but then it gets even “weirder” and starts asking questions about the possibility of entirely different forms of life, from a shadow biosphere to the possibility of silicon-based life on Titan (one of the moons of Saturn) or Triton (one of Neptune’s moons) or elsewhere in the universe. I knew nothing about these theories and found them fascinating and fun to think with. I have often wondered , given the great diversity of stars and planets that exists in the universe as we know out, and given the great amount of time that has passed up until now, if looking for life that resembles us is a kind of bonkers idea and if, instead, we might be better served in trying to explore if other things we don’t recognize as living actually are. Year ago, I had the idea that, if we ever encountered alien life, we would never be able to recognize it as such. We’d just think it was a rock or a gust of wind or a shadow or maybe we wouldn’t register anything at all. David Toomey’s book also plays with some of these ideas but is full of all kinds of interesting hypotheses and science. It’s written above the base level of “people are idiots who need to be constantly entertained and lightly amused” that seems to guide best-selling works of nonfiction but it’s still accessible to a popular audience. If you want to play with some totally new ideas that are a wee bit mind-blowing, feel free to pick this one up.

3. Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag.


Looking at how people have tended to talk about TB and cancer, Susan Sontag’s essay explores how these illnesses have frequently been used as metaphors for other things, reflecting class biases, religious beliefs, or political alignments, and concludes that illness is best discussed in a non-metaphorical manner. It’s interesting to read this essay forty years after it was published in a context where health care has become all-encompassing and the discourse of health – deployed very literally, incorporating a biopsychosocial perspective that defines health much more broadly than simply “the absence of disease” – has become the dominant ideology used to justify the use of force upon bodies that are considered to be deviant (and, more generally, to provide the moral force under-girding how we claim to go about structuring our communal life together). Sontag desired to limit the ways in which we talked about illness because she disliked the ethics that substantiated the metaphors but now discussions of disease are ubiquitous and much more literal. Thus, for example, speaking of poverty as a disease is no longer a metaphorical manner of speaking. Within our context, poverty is quite literally a disease. And so definitions have changed but, I suspect, much of the ethics – or at least the motives for the ethics explored by Sontag – have not.

4. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story by Peter Handke.


One of the good things about reading good writers is that they often recommend good books. I picked up Peter Handke’s reflection on the life and death (by suicide) of his mother (written, I believe, in the winter after his mother died) because Maggie Nelson praised it in one of her books. It’s a gentle and moving story about an Austrian peasant woman and the kind of life that was possible and likely for women such as her in the mid-twentieth century. Her spirit emerges at times, rebellious, triumphant, or playful, but it never seems too long before circumstances (and men) intervene to ensure that all of that is pressed back down again so that she can get busy doing what women are supposed to do. Keeping house. Cooking. Cleaning. Raising children. Being grateful for the invention of various new home appliances. And so on. Until in her old age headaches begin to dominate her life. Ultimately, she takes her own life. Her son grieves. But it is possible that she was only able to act in the end because her rebellious, triumphant, and playful spirit was never totally crushed.

5. The Robber by Robert Walser.


This is another book I read because an author whom I love – in this case, W. G. Sebald – speaks very highly of the author. Prior to this, I hadn’t heard of Robert Walser even though, it seems, he was highly esteemed by Robert Musil and, when Kafka first started making the rounds, he was compared to Walser (although I found Walser to be almost incomparably more enjoyable and, I think, talented, than Kafka). I can see how Walser influenced Sebald – gentle, rambling reflections, flowing seemingly at random but ultimately circling back around each other to gradually build a structure around several major themes that feel simultaneously intimate and out of reach, erupting here and there in passages that annihilate the reader (and which the reader goes back to read over and over again), is a very Sebaldian thing to do and it appears that he learned it, in part, from Walser. Ditto for the complex sentence structures.  In one line (“But how prosaically I speak, though there is perhaps a dose of poetry after all in these unadorned nature descriptions”), the narrator of The Robber could be describing Sebald’s writing. That said, Walser differs from Sebald (thus far, based on just one novel), in that he explores intimate, romantic relationships (something Sebald never touches) and he injects more humour into his writings (whereas Sebald’s writings are much more suffused with a gentle grieving). I liked Walser’s sense of humour, which is not overbearing and which arises throughout the text like an apparition in a house that it has haunted for generations. I very much enjoyed this novel.  Walser will be showing up again in these reviews.

6. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.


Although I have been a big fan of the books I have read to date by James Baldwin (not to mention the videos I have watched of him speak and documentaries that have featured him), I really struggled with Go Tell It on the Mountain. I think it was the church setting that made it difficult for me. All this preaching and praying, good Lord. Furthermore, although it was groundbreaking at the time it was written, I feel like I’ve already read six other versions of this story. That’s fine – they were all well written and this one was, too – but it just means I had to fight to get to the end of it.

7. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Burnvand.


Folk and fairy tales from around the world have been an ongoing interest of mine and so, when I stumbled across this collection of mid-twentieth century urban legends from the USofA (with analytical remarks included), at the local library book sale, I picked it up. It was a fun and very easy read. I remembered a number of the stories from my childhood, recognized others from the horror movies that were popular in the mid to late ‘90s, and was completely unfamiliar with several others. Up until seeing the book, I hadn’t thought about urban legends as a contemporary version of folks and fairy tales but I think that makes a lot of sense. As with traditional folk and fairy tales, there are values, lessons and (very often) gendered roles, coded into the stories. However, whereas older fairy tales tend to have stories with contradictory values (for example, a story that praises a man who is willing to beat his wife in order to make sure she knows her place in life versus a story that praises a woman for setting out into the world and refusing to play the role assigned to her; or, to pick another example, there are many stories about fools and tricksters in various cultures who don’t play by the rules but who manage to get what they want or live happier lives because of that), it seems like contemporary urban legends have a singular focus upon supporting the dominant social values. Is there, then, another genre of contemporary folks and fairy tales that offers the counterpoint to this? And what might folk and fairy tales of the 21st century look like? I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are but I’m thinking about them now.

8. Collected Shorter Poems: 1927-1957 by W. H. Auden.


My ongoing effort to engage poetry has helped me in two ways. First, it has made me a more careful reader. Engaging in pop-level writings can incline a person to skim reading but it’s hard to skim read poetry. You lose the rhythm and, often, entirely lose track of what is going on (especially if you’re reading Celan but, in that case, there’s a good chance you never knew what was going on to begin with). Second, it has helped me to read playfully and with a sense of humour. I was surprised by this shift since, you know, poetry is such a serious, serious endeavor, but it happened for me first with Heine and continued along with my reading of Auden (“Doom is darker and deeper than any sea dingle,” ya know?). I enjoyed Auden. It took me a bit to get into his voice but once I did it made for some pleasant reading while walking to and from the grocery store and the kids’ school.

9. Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle.


I’ve often considered picking up one of Guy Delisle’s travelogue graphic novels but every time I have waffled, reconsidered, and put the book back down. However, at the behest of a new acquaintance who knows a thing or two about comics, I thought I’d give him a go and I was happy to find a copy of Deslisle’s Burma Chronicles for a steal of a deal. It was a fun read. I enjoyed the way Delisle portrays fatherhood and some of the challenges that come with traveling with and caring for an infant, while also never coming across like he didn’t want to be a dad. There’s often fine line between romanticizing parenthood and coming across as resentful about being a parent – and how to parent well is generally a thing that is learned in the process of parenting – and I felt that Delisle walked this line well. I also liked how Delisle portrays his time in Myanmar, capturing well experiences of foreigners passing through spaces where all kinds of things are going on outside of their line of sight, although they get a sense for those things every now and again and are peripherally impacted by them. Speaking of Myanmar, I found it interesting that Delisle used that name throughout the book – noting on page one that only those countries that refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the government of Myanmar, like France, Australia, and the USofA, persist in calling the country Burma – but still used the name “Burma” in the title of his book. I wondered if this was his choice or one made by the publisher. Lastly, I couldn’t help but note how, ten years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was an honoured recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize but, today, she is supporting the genocide of the Rohingya. She reminds me of that other super good-looking, super death-dealing Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama.


1. The Dance of Reality (2013) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.


I am inclined to want to like surrealism but, often, theoretical surrealism is a lot better than really existing surrealism. I personally think it is difficult to do surrealism well and it is a genre that is very vulnerable to all kinds of pretentious dingdongs doing all kinds of pretentious dingdong things (although I guess that happens everywhere). Without knowing much about Jodorowky, other than the fact that he’s kind of a big name and that his attempt to make a movie about Frank Herbert’s Dune was a colossal failure (more on that below), I decided to watch The Dance of Reality because I saw a trailer for Endless Poetry and liked it but thought I should watch the first movie in the series first. For the most part, I found this semi-autobiographical movie about Jodorowski’s youth highly entertaining. I thought the costumes and characters and scenes, and the ways in which the mundane and sacred, the trivial and the bizarre, were all mixed up together, very well rendered. I also liked how the general trajectory of the narrative is one that leads to a disavowal of patriarchal violence and, ultimately, connects men who are violent with their children to men who are violent dictators – even if the violent fathers claim to oppose those dictators.

That said, there are some scenes in this movie that some viewers may find difficult to watch… like when the actress who plays Jodorowksy’s mother (and who only speaks by singing in an operatic style) cures Jodorowsky’s father from the plague by peeing on him and, well, yep, she pees on him and there is certainly no denying what you see because you see it all (and, thematically, it wraps around to the way in which Jodorowsky’s father would pee on the things that made him angry – no doubt about that either because you see it all then, too – and so it’s no surprise that this scene signals the beginning of the father’s transformation, but it still may be a little much for some folks… like if you’re a pastor this is probably not the clip you want to play as a sermon illustration… or maybe it is… whatevs, you do you).

2. Solaris (1972) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.


I’ve been eyeballing this movie for awhile and, after reading the Toomey book, it made sense to finally watch it now given that the ocean on Solaris is a prime example of something like the “weird life” Toomey is discussing. For the most part, I enjoyed it although some of the gendered violence was troubling to me. What’s with all these great directors, adored across time around the world, and their relationships with women? Also, this really didn’t need to be two hours and forty minutes long. But, that’s Tarkovsky’s thing, a three minute scene of a car driving through tunnels with no dialogue, a one minute scene of the side of a man’s head with the camera slowly zooming in on his ear, and so on. I guess it’s supposed to make you reflect on the movie as you watch it, in ways that other movies don’t allow, but it’s also a good chance to check your messages or facebook since, otherwise, it’s hard to do that with movies that have subtitles. Or, you know, it’s a good test to see how well we can slow down these days and it does end up producing some sublimely beautiful scenes, like this one:

3. Loving Vincent (2017) directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman.


Given that it took ten thousand artists from eight different planets four centuries to paint the thirty-two billion individual frames of this movie, you might feel like a bit of a jerk if you conclude that this is a pretty crappy movie. Unfortunately, this is a pretty crappy movie. The plot and character development were roughly at the same level that you find in those hidden object mystery games you can download for a buck or two (“Redemption Cemetery: One Foot in the Grave, Collector’s Edition”! “Mystery Case Files: The Revenant’s Hunt”!) and, yeah, nobody actually plays those games for the plot and character development, you just play the games to try and find hidden objects and, in that way, pleasantly pass time until you die. And, so, as long as you go to this movie with the same motives (you can keep a tally to see who spots more Van Gogh paintings throughout and pleasantly pass time until you die) you should be good (although I should note that the way these pictures move also gave me a headache and I felt like I had to unfocus my eyes the way you do when watching a 3-D movie, which also gives me a headache, so look out for that).

4. Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) directed by Chloé Zhao.


Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a film like Gummo, only instead of following white kids living in poverty in a small town in Ohio, it focuses on the experiences of some youth and soon to be adults living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It walks an uncertain line between being a documentary and being a scripted film with actors. Here, some actors seem to be asked to play themselves and, unlike established professional actors (who I suspect of being most dishonest when we are asked to watch them as themselves – as in that most overrated of movies, Kate Plays Christine), a lot of the acting comes across as quite genuine. However, unlike Harmony Korine, Chloé Zhao isn’t out to shock us but, rather, seems to be inspired by Terrence Malick. She wants us to feel a little and take some time to reflect upon what we feel and what it prompts us to think. I thought the film was pretty decent although I don’t know why it seems like every movie made by non-Indigenous people about Indigneous communities decides to focus on things like illicit drug or alcohol use and broken homes (especially when taken out of the context of the ongoing history of colonization that Indigenous peeps experience).  this is part of what makes Taiaki Waititi a genius, in my opinion; he does a good job of showing context while also highlighting strength, resilience, joy, humour, and so on, even in the midst of adverse circumstances). I’d like to see either a film circuit or Hollywood film produced by a non-Indigenous Director that focuses on some of the wonderful and brilliant things going on in various Indigenous communities (this is part of what makes the Indigenous Director Taika Waititi brilliant — he does a good job of showing context while also highlighting strength, resilience, humour, and life, in the midst of adverse circumstances). I mean, let’s put this in perspective.  Earlier this year, a film student at Ryerson made a very short doc about the dark side of Niagara Falls – it’s called “As Niagara Falls” and is less than four minutes long – and this prompted a large outcry from the political and business communities in Niagara falls leading Ryserson issuing a public apology for how the city was depicted in the student’s film. Yet we have hours and hours of film about the dark side of life on some reservations and these films continue to be made and they continue to be praised by the critics, and it’s like nobody who isn’t Indigenous is raising any kind of outcry or suggesting, hey, maybe there’s a lot more to Indigenous communities than what we are being shown and maybe it’s offensive that this is all we ever focus on and maybe we’ve totally lost perspective, and maybe we should actually make some films about some of the amazing and incredible things happening in Indigenous communities.  So, yeah, there’s that.


1. Voyage of Time (2016) directed by Terrence Malick.


Up until the last twenty minutes or so (which focus upon the appearance of human or at least the ancestors of humans), this is a stunningly beautiful documentary with Malick turning his signature gaze to everything from bacteria, ova, supernovas, glaciers, and (in a segment I especially loved), octopus. It’s gorgeous.  The Cate Blanchett voiceovers are done in a stereotypical Malickian manner (mother… how did we get separated from you… mother… something something something… mother…) but most of the images are so moving and so wonderful that the dialogue hardly registers (which is fine because, for the most part, if you’ve seen any of Malick’s last four movies then you’ve pretty much heard this all already – especially since Voyage of Time was created from surplus video that Malick had collected for his Tree of Life project which, I think, remains his greatest film). I recommend this film.  Take some time and journey to the wonder.  I can’t wait to go back to Iceland.

2. Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) directed by Frank Pavich.


Jodorowksy’s Dune is a documentary that claims to be about the best science fiction movie never made. With music by Pink Floyd, storyboards by Moebius (Jean Giraud), concept art by H. R. Giger, and Salvador Dali and Orson Welles recruited as actors, Jodorowsky was well on his way to building his team of “spiritual warriors” (women being noticeably absent… more on that in a minute). There was only one problem – Jodorowsky himself. The studios did not trust him enough to invest in him. This was so for two reasons. First, he wanted fifteen million dollars (which was a lot of money in the early ‘70s and it seemed clear he was going to go over budget) and, second, he wanted to make a movie that was twelve to twenty hours long, absolutely refusing to compromise and shorten it to make something that people would actually watch. It’s no wonder the film was never made although one can see how infectious Jodorowksy’s passion and creativity can be.

Unfortunately, after watching this documentary, I came away mostly thinking about how infected Jodorowksy is by male visions of power, strength and violence. To prep for the movie, which was to star his son (his son regularly stars in Jodorowsky’s films), he forced his then 12 year old child to train in various martial arts for six hours, every day, seven days a week, for two years straight. His son does not remember this time fondly.  It made me reconsider the father-son relationship portrayed in The Dance of Reality. Perhaps, it seemed to me, Jodorowsky is not only working through how his father abused him, he is also working through the ways in which he abused his son and, perhaps, fictitiously absolving himself. Equally off putting, was the way in which Jodorowsky deployed rape as an analogy (an analogy he really loved) when describing what he did to Frank Herbert’s book while adapting it to a different medium. Rape, it seems to me, appears to be fundamental to Jodorowksy’s understanding of creativity with marriage, in his understanding, being the perfectly legitimate and exciting institutionalization of rape in order to create children. I found this very disturbing and so I finally did some actual research on Jodorowsky and discovered that not only are portrayals of sexual violence prominent in his earlier works but he himself claims to have raped a co-star and used that as footage in one of his films. I’m not sure how Jodorowsky is getting a pass right now. He was mentioned when Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci were finally very publicly called out for what they did in Last Tango in Paris (Maria Scheider’s claims had been ignored for years) but, for whatever reason, Jodorowsky ended up getting a pass and, even now, in light of all the recent events in Hollywood and elsewhere, Jodorowsky still seems to be getting along just fine.

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