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November Reviews

Discussed in this post: 9 Books (The Sleepwalkers; Hitler [vol. 1]; Landscapes of Collectivity in the Life Sciences; Automating Inequality; Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women; The Emergence of Memory; Abdullah’s Feet; Split Tooth; and Their Eyes Were Watching God); 4 Movies (A Fantastic Woman; Zama; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; and Cam); 1 Documentary (Free Solo).


1. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark.


In my efforts to understand fascism and its ongoing influence, I realized that much of it tracks back to the lasting impact of the First World War. I also realized that I was pretty clueless about the causes of that war (some Serbian guy shot some Austrian archduke named Franz Ferdinand and then everyone went batshit crazy?). I really appreciated Christopher Clark’s analysis of what was going in in Europe and lands that Europeans were keen to colonize in the period before the outbreak of the war. Networks of alliances had aligned the European superpowers like a line of dominos, just waiting for one push for them all to fall. And, what I especially appreciated about Clark’s presentation, was his refusal to villainize Germany (who, after being defeated, ate a lot of the blame for the war). Instead, Clark does a good job of showing how the French pushed the Russians into being aggressive and how the Russians, in turn, pushed the Serbians into being aggressive (even though everyone claimed this were acting in self-defense), and how this resulted in the annihilation of millions of lives and set the trajectory for the twentieth century. I learned a lot from this book. I reckon I’ll compliment it by giving Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August a read in the near future.

2. Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris by Ian Kershaw.


So, after launching into a series of books about anti-fascism, which led me back to some books about fascism more generally, which in turn led me back to studies of the First World War, I felt that I was finally equipped to read something more sustained about Hitler. Kershaw’s two volume biography is quite famous (I got the pair for $10 at a library book sale!), but Knausgaard is fairly critical of Kershaw’s presentation of Hitler as a person, and so I was curious to read Kershaw in light of Knausgaard’s comments. And, yeah, it’s true—Kershaw really doesn’t like Hitler very much. That’s not a bad thing. I don’t think anyone should like Hitler very much. However, this dislike does seem to cause Kershaw to overreach with some of his conclusions about Hitler as a human being. He often makes disparaging comments about the kind of person Hitler was early on in life… even when the evidence doesn’t seem to warrant these comments. As Knausgaard observes, this has the result of othering Hitler so that we lose track of how much he had in common with other Europeans at that time (and, perhaps, others now as well). Now, in my opinion, some of Knausgaard’s efforts to rehabilitate the humanity of Hitler are a bit suspect because, I think, he leans towards some pretty suspect (pseudo-fascist? fascist?) political beliefs himself, but I agree with him to the extent that he criticizes Kershaw as an historian qua historian and to the extent that his remarks can be made to fit with Arendt’s comments about the banality of evil and all that.

That said, I enjoyed this first volume of Kershaw’s study. It helped me understand more about how the conclusion of the First World War really paved the way for the Second. It also helped me understand how Hitler was able to strike such a strong chord with so many Germans and helped me understand how Conservative governments in the West have really paved the way for the resurgence of fascism today. Things ain’t looking too good for us.

3. Landscapes of Collectivity in the Life Sciences edited by Snait B. Gissis, Ehud Lamm, and Ayelet Shavit.


This book is a collection of papers presented at a conference and, like all such collections, it is a bit of a mix of the dull and the interesting but, when it’s interesting, it’s super interesting and there are one or two essays here that, by themselves, are worth the price of the book. The chapters exploring collectivity in various species of insects (from ants to co-operative spider species – which creep the hell out of me!) were great, as were some of the theoretical examinations of collectivity and how that is understood, but the most exciting section was the part dealing with holobionts, hologenomics, how they are understood, and what that suggests for our understanding of life itself. This is really, really fascinating stuff and is on the cutting-edge of evolutionary biology. Yet it also has fascinating parallels with very old spiritualities that suggest that ecosystems (other than humans – because, of course, we are ecosystems) could be considered life forms. Life, I think, is like a fractal. I suspect it goes all the way up and all the way down ad infinitum. Wonderful stuff.

4. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks.


After reading Willse’s excellent study of how the techniques of neoliberalism have transformed people who are deprived of housing into a statistically monitored population of people treated as surplus life, I was keen to dive into Eubanks’ more detailed study of how the influence of technological data collection and management is use to further drive social work in the direction of the seemingly objective, algorithm-dominated, policing and punishing of people experiencing poverty (i.e., oppression). This is a very well thought out and historically rich study that demonstrates, despite the rhetoric of “solving” or “curing” or “ending” homelessness, how technological shifts are primarily designed to reduce costs and justify cutting people off from much needed financial support. This is highly relevant to my own context as a lot of Canadian municipalities are rolling out data management systems similar to those Eubanks analyzes and criticizes in territories colonized by the USofA. Would that everyone thinking and talking about homelessness here read this book! Very strongly recommended.

5. Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women by Sylvia Federici.


A very short collection of very short essays, most of the content of this booklet is a massively simplified restatement if Federici’s thesis in Caliban and the Witch regarding the persecution of “witches” as a part of the enclosure of the commons that was necessary to the rise of capitalism in Europe (I picked this book up because it is part of the reading for a “Feminism for the 99%” reading group I have joined). However, Federici does break new ground in two areas: first, in her study of “gossip” and how a term used to refer to an intimate and trusted female friend devolved into a derogatory label; and, second, when she looks at the rise of contemporary witch-hunting as a partner to the spread of capitalism, (neo)colonialism, and Christianity in the global South today. I great admire Federici and her work and I don’t regret reading this. It has me thinking in new ways about “involuntary celibates,” and the rise of more blatant manifestations of misogyny, and violence against women, here on Turtle Island and how this might relate to witch-hunting and the various permutations of capitalism’s war on women and women’s bodies.

6. The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W. G. Sebald edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.


I was craving some Sebald and this collection of essays and interviews focused on him was just what I needed to remember his melancholy, circumspection, gentleness, wit, and talent. In the midst of the fandom, it was also interesting to read some more critical comments about Sebald’s work and legacy that related his melancholy to gothic literature (and that pointed to some, well, what appear to be plagiarisms from Kafka).  It was a nice little fix for my Sebald itch.

7. Abdullah’s Feet by Hafid Bouazza.


I decided to read Abdullah’s feet as the next book of my foray into Dutch literature. I found it to be difficult reading, largely because of the ways in which it speaks of sexual violence and because of that sexual violence is presented as a common feature of a group of people commonly othered by Europeans. Not only is the subject manner difficult but I found the mode of presentation to be unsettling – and, equally unsettling, was the way in which so many reviewers found it all to be rather hilarious. As I was trying to figure out what to make of this collection of overlapping and interrelated short stories, and how they were received, I found this article to be very helpful. I can’t say I enjoyed a lot of what I read – although Bouazza is undoubtedly a talented writer – but, after reading Louwerse’s article, I do respect the book more and am reconsidering my ability to sit with texts that make me feel uncomfortable.

8. Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq.


When a famous artist makes a name for herself in one genre, and then receives high praise when moving to another genre, I am cautious about taking that praise at face value. I have found that it often has more to do with the celebrity status of the artist than it has to do with their ability to cross genre lines. Thus, when Tanya Tagaq – easily one of my favourite musicians and performing artists – received a lot of praise for publishing a novel, I was both excited and skeptical. If Split Tooth were written by a “nobody,” would it still stand up to the critics and receive the praise it has received? For the most part, I think it would. The first two thirds are a wonderful blend of magical realism, blunt exposure to what it is like growing up in the Arctic after the people have been devastated by colonization, Inuit or Inuinnaqtun spirituality, and poetry. I only found the book declined in the final third when it settled into a more linear form of story-telling that seemed to prioritize plot resolution over the affect that dominates the earlier vignettes. So, yes, even as a secret (or not so secret?) literature snob, I think Tagaq successfully crosses genre lines.

9. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.


Although neglected in the later portion of her life, there is no doubt that Zora Neale Hurston is one of the roots not only of women’s literature and black literature, but of American literature as a whole. One senses her footprints in the stories of Toni Morrison, Wallace Stegner, and even Cormac McCarthy. She feels like kin to John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, and Mark Twain. Their Eyes Were Watching God is the first book I have read by her. Her attention to intersectional questions pertaining to race, class, and gender seem well ahead of her time. But this is not primarily a sociological or philosophical text – it is a story, and it is well-told. I enjoyed it.


1. A Fantastic Woman (2017) directed by Sebastián Lelio.


Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless was, in my opinion, one of the most profoundly moving films to be released last year (or any year) and so, when I heard that Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman had beaten Loveless and taken home the Oscar for best foreign film, I was both curious and skeptical. I figured I had to see the movie for myself to decide. So I did. There is no doubt that Daniela Vega (who is a trans identified actor) is a tour de force as she plays a trans woman mourning the loss of her tender-hearted older lover (and negotiating the hatred she experiences from his family as they grieve). There are a lot of different ways she could have taken her character, but, in the midst of her mourning, while experience discrimination from the police and medical professionals, while being blamed by her lover’s family, while trying to just get through her day-to-day life, I found her performance neither over-stated nor understated—she was just right. This is part of the reason why, as Sean Baker has also reminded us lately, trans folks should play trans folks (and Indigenous folks should play Indigenous folks, and differently abled or disabled folks should play differently abled or disabled folks and, as Bo Burnham convincingly shows, eighth graders should play eighth graders, and so on). Let people who have lived things take the lead and what you will get is something far more magical and real (because what is magical if not reality?) than anything else.

Thinking about A Fantastic Woman in comparison with Loveless is an interesting exercise. There is no doubt that there is an immediate urgency to the subject of A Fantastic Woman, given the ways in which queer and gender non-conforming communities are once again under attack south of the border, but I would suggest that the same degree of urgency is present in Loveless… it’s just that we are so resigned to lovelessness, isolation, and abandonment that we may have already lost that battle decades ago. No doubt, they are both great films.

2. Zama (2017) directed by Lucrecia Martel.


My second movie from South America this month, I found Zama to be an odd film with moments of brilliance that, after puzzling along for an hour or two, actually made me gasp. There is not much that jumps out of Zama in terms of plot or character development – although the settings, scenery, and costumes are splendidly on point. This initially led me to suspect that Zama is more of a feast for the eyes, a visual representation of a specific time in history now gone, like a painting (say Bruegel’s “The Hunters in the Snow”), and nothing more (or less!). However, I think this first impression was misplaced. Scratch the surface and one begins to be disturbed by themes related to slavery, colonization, male entitlement, and even genocide that linger just out of sight or, like the Indigenous peoples in the long grasses, are hiding in plain sight. I’m really not too sure what to think about this film, although it has made me interested in watching Martel’s earlier work.

3. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.


In this series of short stories, the Coens let loose with their signature mixture of morbidity, humour, directorial talent, and a whole lot of childlike delight and playfulness which, just like the playfulness and delight that come so easily to young children, is chock full of insights about people, what we value, what we laugh at, what we do, why we matter, or why we don’t. I had a whole lotta fun watching this. Recommended viewing.

4. Cam (2018) directed by Daniel Goldhaber.


Cam is written by Isa Mazzei who used her experiences as a cam girl to write a psychological thriller that asks questions about identity, virtuality, and reality. Given my ongoing involvement with sex work professionals over the last two decades, I was curious to see what kind of spin a person with lived experience of cam work would bring to this presentation. I have mixed feelings about it. As a thriller, it excites and then disappoints. Too many plot threads are suddenly abandoned and left dangling and there are significant holes in the resolution it offers at the end (I feel like J. J. Abrams is a negative influence on everyone in this regard… but that’s a digression). I suspect that it is because of this that the critics, who almost all love this movie, seem to inevitably turn to discussions of what Cam shows us about life in a virtual world where our online identity/identities matters more to us than our offline identity/identities. Fair enough, I suppose, although all of that will feel a bit old hat to anyone familiar with thinkers like Baudrillard, Žižek, or Alone (who was, in my opinion, the most interesting blogger to ever blog).

That said, one thing I appreciated about the way in which Goldhaber realizes all of this on screen is that he is able to present cam work in a way that avoids pandering to the male gaze. Given that cam work ostensibly exists to do precisely that, this is a pretty admirable feat and, no doubt, owes much to his collaboration with Mazzei (I say that cam work “obstensibly” exists for this purpose because, as with much sex work, there is a lot more to it than simply naked bodies and certain movements or acts – there is a lot of fantasy, emotion, soothing, story-telling, and meaning-making going on with this kind of work).

That said, this film got me thinking a bit about how the ubiquity of online porn, and the increasing mainstreaming of violent or taboo forms of sex (like incest fantasies) through online pornography, has a dramatic impact on young men and women (and, as Ovidie shows, it also has a dramatic impact on performers, gutting their rights and profits in ways similar to other globalizing market shifts that gutted the blue collar job market on Turtle Island). But much of the discourse on porn is fractured – you have a lot of moralizing horror stories. And then you have people who support sex workers rights and who are sex positive. What I would like to read is a study of pornography by a researcher who is sex positive and pro sex workers (which means being pro legalization of sex work) but who also is open to concerns about the impact that online porn is having on young people (or men more generally). Anybody know of a study along these lines?


1. Free Solo (2018) directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.


Alex Honnold climbed the 3,000 foot face of El Capitan without any ropes or supports to prevent him from falling to his death if he made a mistake. I knew in advance that he makes it but, holy moley, I was sweating watching him do it. His professional climber friends, who were filming, and who had seen him practice (with a rope) and fall many, many times, frequently couldn’t look through their cameras to watch him as he made his ascent. They didn’t want to see him die. There were moments when he was attached to the wall by only the tiniest hold under one big toe and the tiniest outcropping he had wedged his thumb under. One slip and he was a goner. Sounds like a whole lotta nope to me.

Still, there is a very sad subtext running through this film. Honnold’s father, whom he loved dearly died when Honnold was young and, as he tells things, he was never able to be good enough to satisfy his mom. If he was good, he should have been best. If he was best, he should have been better. So, Honnold does increasingly risky and death-defying climbs because he is never happy with himself (although, briefly, after achieving a free solo – “the closest a person come to doing something perfectly, since one mistake means dying” – he feels good… but the feeling passes and, even after summiting El Capitan, he is back doing exercises the same afternoon).

Anyway, this is a solid nail-biter (it’s amazing the shots they can capture now with drones) full of spectacular scenery but also a very human element. I enjoyed it and am glad Jess brought it to my attention. Thanks, Jess – you’re my favourite partner at the movies (and pretty much anywhere else… except when you take over the bed… seriously, keep your swamp cold froggie flipper feet on your own side! Xoxo).

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