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July Reviews

After wrapping up my major writing project of the last twelve years, I went on a bit of a fiction bender.  Therefore, very briefly discussed in this post are: 7 Books (Reading Lolita in Tehran; The Assistant; The Summer Book; Bro; Ice; milk and honey; I hope this reaches her in time); 2 Movies (Isle of Dogs; and A Quiet Place); 2 Documentaries (HyperNormalisation; and Pornocracy).


1. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi.


I picked this up on a whim (for $1.25!) and it ended up being my favourite book this month.  Nafisi loves women, literature, and her homeland and so Reading Lolita in Tehran, which covers Nafisi’s time teaching English Literature during the years of the Iranian Cultural Revolution, is both a celebratory hymn and a lament.  It is an erudite work of love.  Along the way, Nafisi engages with several texts (around which her narrative is roughly structured), and I found her chapters discussing themes or characters from Nabokov or James or Fitzgerald or Austen to be just as interesting as the rest of the book.  It certainly made me rethink my own thoughts on Lolita (although, while I appreciate Nafisi’s reading of that text, her interpretation does not resonate with me personally, even though it opened me up to the possibility of how some people might appreciate that book).

Some Lefties, especially those who wish to identify as radical Lefties, have a tendency to romanticize any movement that claims to resist capitalism or imperialism or “the West” or whatever.  I have never understood this (and it is part of the reason why I am more comfortable with anarchists that those situated in other Lefty camps because the anarchists won’t justify the Stalinist purges or defend any dictator but, instead, insist that we should be leveling all hierarchies of power), but even very intelligent scholars have fallen into this way of thinking at times (something, something, Foucault…).  On the other hand, those on the Right, have a tendency to demonize any of those who rise up against their financial interests and the ideologies that are used to maintain them.  So it can be difficult to try to understand the Iranian Revolution, the Cultural Revolution that followed shortly thereafter, how the two events are related and how we, as outsiders, are to think about those things.  What I appreciate about Nafisi’s work is the way in which it avoids these poles and gives a personal, insider perspective.  Of course, as a personal perspective it is just one person’s point of view and it is the point of view of a person with a certain amount of status, privilege and wealth (themes that are never explicitly explored in Nafisi’s book), but that does not negate its force.  Revolutions are nice.  Ideologies are grand.  But, at the end of the day, we’re all people living our lives as much as we can, as best we can.  And, really, the outcome of the Iranian Revolution sure strikes me as very similar to the outcome of the American Revolution.  The Ayatollah and Trump seem to me to be more similar than different.

2. The Assistant by Robert Walser.


I continue to appreciate Walser’s gentle voice and rambling narratives, although The Assistant seemed more coherent and “traditional” in its structure than the other books I have read by him.  It was a pleasant read (and a small book, and so I brought it to read in Iceland while hiking the Laugavegur Trail) but I found it didn’t jump out at me as much as The Robber or The Tanners.

3. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.


After spending more time in the wildnerness and distancing myself (again) from social media, I have been thinking that maybe I want to spend less time reading and viewing things that are triggering to me.  Tove Jansson’s Summer Book is a peaceful, playful, but honest classic of Scandinavian literature about the relationship between a small girl and her grandmother and the things they explore and experience together on a small Finnish island where they spend their summers.  It was pleasant but not outstanding.  I do look forward to reading her Moomin stories with my kids.

4. & 5. Bro and Ice by Vladimir Sorokin.


I learned a little while ago to be suspicious of glowing reviews related to anything in the NYRB Classics Series.  Granted, there are some great books in that series, but I have never encountered such disparity between the praise the highlighted reviews pile upon some of the books and the actual content of those books as I experienced them.  As a result, when I first learned about Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice trilogy – a contemporary work of science fiction that is also praised as literature – I was excited and then suspicious.  I am always interested in checking out genres to which I am unaccustomed as long as the writing holds up (and I am a bit of a Russophile…).  But I have long been disappointed by the quality of writing on many highly praised science fiction works.  Given the source (the NYRB Classics Series), I decided the reviews were unreliable.  However, I recently saw a positive review from a different source that I consider more reliable and so, when I saw the trilogy for sale in a bookstore in Reykjavík (and an amazing bookstore it was, too), I bought it and read the first two books at the airport and on the flight home.  A regrettable decision.  I should have picked up the books they had by Italo Calvino, dangit.  Sorokin’s writing is crap, dully repetitive, and smells rather like misogyny and fascism.  Not recommended.

6. milk and honey by rupi kaur.


A beautiful and difficult collection of contemporary poetry, rupi kaur writes in a manner similar to amanda lovelace and explores similar themes related to womanhood, friendship, male violence, patriarchy, and love – although, at times, kaur writes in a more sensual manner than lovelace.  I found reading her poems to be moving and, because they were so moving, I also found them to be exhausting.

7. I hope this reaches her in time by r.h. sin.


sin’s work is interesting.  It begins very well – exploring intimate partner violence, the ways in which abusers colonize the subjectivities of those whom they abuse, and the ways in which those who love people who are abused long for the liberation of the person abused – but then it drifts into jilted and (in my opinion) somewhat creepy, unrequited love territory.  sin begins by writing some truly beautiful love poems but then ends with poems where sin appears to be conflate the way in which the abuser abuses the woman sin loves with the way in which the woman sin loves responds to sin by choosing to remain with her abuser.  Suffice to say, this is a deeply problematical conflation – and it may point to why, despite all of sin’s beautiful words, sin remains alone.


1. Isle of Dogs (2018) by Wes Anderson.


In a lot of highly praised films, I often feel that aesthetics, composition and the craft of filming, framing a shot, and so on, has become increasingly prominent and has made advances at the cost of story-telling and character.  I feel many renowned Directors are truly gifted when it comes to practicing their craft… but they just aren’t very good story tellers.  Despite the reviews, I feel like a lot of film has become increasingly emptied of content as the focus moves more and more to the surface of things.  I was thinking about all of this again because I love Wes Anderson movies for all of the reasons why all these other Directors disappoint me.  To me, his aesthetics are absolutely impeccable.  Almost every shot is a work of art.  And I like his tone.  It rings of tenderness mixed with playful humour… and something brutal or awful.  And that’s life, right?

2. A Quiet Place (2018) directed by John Krasinski.


Back at the start of the year, I flagged A Quiet Place as one of two horror-type films to look out for in 2018 (the other one being Hereditary).  It received a lot of praise from the critics but, after viewing it, I walked away feeling that it was significantly overrated.  I’m a bit baffled as to why it received the praise that it did.  I mean, okay, it’s not a bad movie but it didn’t strike me as great.  Maybe it has the kind of gimmicks that make people want to like a movie – the director is also the star, and he has moved from a comedic persona in a television show to a serious role in a horror film, his co-star, the wife in the film, is his wife in “real life,” and sign language is the primary means of communication in the film (I enjoyed watching the sign language and debated it if was exploitative given that deaf actors are not used… and I do think it is used to better affect in films starring deaf people like The Tribe by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, where the sign language isn’t subtitled at all… although that movie was too horrific for me – not because of monsters or anything like that but because of the realities it graphically portrayed, like back alley abortions, which may become more of a thing in America in the near future…).  Still, I was especially disappointed by the conclusion of A Quiet Place, wherein the weak spot of the monsters is found.  It struck me as so obvious that it rendered the whole film entirely implausible and somewhat ridiculous.


1. HyperNormalisation (2016) directed Adam Curtis.


This is my first time watching an Adam Curtis film and, yep, it’s a doozey.  I think his central point is that we live in a world where it is increasingly impossible for members of the general public to be engage in politics in a meaningful (or even informed) way.  This is accomplished in order to provide stability to the trajectory of a status quo built by and for the economic elite (the massive transnational corporations, banks, and the uber rich, whom politicians now serve instead of serving the people whom they claim to represent).  Given that this trajectory benefits so few people and is premised upon the annihilation of so many others, the depoliticization of the masses (something the capitalists have wanted to accomplish ever since the bourgeoisie came to power and betrayed the proletariat) becomes necessary.  As Curtis shows, we live in a context where this is all but a fait accompli.  But, really, there is so much more to this documentary than its core thesis and the ways in which Curtis ties all of this to the history of Syria, the rise of Trump, and the lasting power of Putin, while chasing all kinds of other fascinating rabbit trails, is truly remarkable.  Recommended viewing (and you can watch it free you Youtube!).

2. Pornocracy: The New Sex Multinationals (2017) directed by Ovidie.


Lately, I have been wondering about the ubiquitous consummation of violent pornography (NB: I don’t think all pornography is violent), and about how formative this is to young people (say 25 and under), and what role this might play in the resurgence of toxic masculinity and the mass killing of women.  It’s hard to find good sources for commentary on porn, especially in the mainstream, but when I stumbled onto this documentary by a former feminist porn actor and producer, which takes a critical look at how “tube” sites on the internet have transformed the porn industry, I thought I’d give it a watch.  Ovidie doesn’t address the questions I’m asking (which is totally fine), but she does do a good job of showing the toll that the shift to the internet has taken on the actors and performers, especially the women.  I like the “workers’ rights” lens that she applies to the matter and how she relates this to contemporary dynamics related to a global free market and the flows of capital.  Turns out workers in the porn industry are gutted and exploited to another degree, just like workers in the electronics industry, or the soy bean industry, or pretty much any industry in the world of transnational capital.  Thus, current porn actors make about ten times less than they made before 2006-2008, while also being expected to participate in far more violent forms of pornography (or enact much more taboo fantasies).  I was also surprised to discover that pretty much all the major tube sites are owned by a single organization which, as of a few years ago, could boast that they received 450,000,000 unique visitors per month (and which also was running monthly profits in the tens of millions at that time by selling ad space – which is how they make profits; the tube sites steal the content from porn movies or other outlets—and frequently don’t name or credit actors as they do this – and give it away for free but then sell their audience to advertisers).  To my surprise, I discovered that the most recent iteration of this corporation, MindGeek, has its headquarters in Montréal, Canada (although with bank accounts and satellites in Luxembourg, South Africa, and all over the world in tax havens that don’t respect copyright laws and have no extradition treaties with Europe or North America, it’s really hard to get a grasp on who or what or where this corporation actually is and how much money they actually have – making it ideal for other ventures as well, which is why some investigators have suspected that various criminal organizations are using it for money laundering).  Anyway, a decent but rather depressing documentary.

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