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September Reviews

Highlighted in this post: 8 Books (Eating the Sun; Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony; Decolonizing Methodologies; Half a Yellow Sun; The Lover; Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; Jerusalem; and Hasib & The Queen of Serpents); 4 Movies (The Karamazovs; Old Czech Legends; Marketa Lazarova; and Eighth Grade); and 3 Documentaries (London in the Raw; The Most Unknown; and Blood on the Mountain).


1. Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet by Oliver Morton.


Truly a beautiful book full of “wow” moments, leading to an incredible picture not only of how photosynthesis works at the molecular level, but of how life itself is and has been playing out over the lifespan of this living planet that we call home. From the transfer of electrons across cellular membranes involved in the production of adenosine triphosphate, to the carbon cycle of the planet, from the most cutting edge technologies, to millions of years of atmospheric history, Oliver Morton has produced a breath-taking book that combines an incredible scope of learning with an overflowing awe and wonder and gratitude that we are a part of all of this. Some parts are a bit technical but, if you don’t find that off-putting (because, while science-ish, they are still understandable to a non-scientist like me), this is very highly recommended reading. Might end up being my favourite book this year.

2. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind by Kevin N. Laland.


One of the central insights of ecological development evolutionary biology is that organisms engage in acts of niche construction to alter their environments to better suit their perceived needs and these environmental alterations then lead to changes in how those same organisms evolve. Thus, organisms are not simply passive subjects exposed to whatever environment they find themselves in (wherein the fittest then survive) but, in actual fact, are active participants in their own evolution. Kevin Laland takes this central insight and, over the last thirty odd years, has used it to explore how the human mind evolved. His conclusion is that human cultural developments and the biology of the human mind have been engaged in a mutually reinforcing feedback loop over the last several thousand years. Culture – notably teaching and the ability to record, transmit, and deepen knowledge across generations – gives birth to changes in the mind, these changes in the mind advance culture, and these changes in culture go on to create further changes in the mind, and so on.

I think Laland’s central thesis is solid. I sometimes question some of his asides, particularly as they pertain to human uniqueness (for example, Laland seems unable to see that other organisms are able to think and feel without minds and is quick to poo-poo more popular level science writers who have argued for such things… but the evidence is against Laland in this case), but this was a decent, if sometimes rambling, read.

3. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith.


A classic in the field of Indigenous studies, and how exactly one goes about engaging in those studies in a way that is respectful of and useful to Indigenous peoples, I was happy to finally get to this text this month. Given the influence of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s work, I feel that I have already absorbed most of her key insights through other texts that I have read in this area, but it was still good to review this content. I especially appreciated her emphasis that research pertaining to Indigenous communities should bring concrete, on the ground, here and now, benefits to Indigenous communities (as those benefits are identified by the members of those communities). In order to accomplish that researchers must be in much more intimate, long-standing relationships with the researched (something along the lines of Gramsci’s organic intellectuals or Freire’s pedagogue or what Latin American liberation theologians tried to teach us years ago or what members of pretty much any marginalized or oppressed community today have been repeating for years – “nothing about us without us!”). There is considerable insight in Smith’s work and anyone involved in research relating not only to Indigenous peoples but to any oppressed or marginalized group would benefit from reading it.

4. Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.


I haven’t read as much African literature as I had hoped this year, so with Jess’ encouragement, I finally read Half a Yellow Sun. It is a powerful presentation of the events related to the Biafran succession from Nigeria, as experienced by twin sisters, their partners (one of whom is Nigerian and one of whom is British), and one of their house boys. Adichie moves effortlessly between these various perspectives, presenting very human people, in very human situations, driving home the horrors of colonization and the thrill and devastation of revolt in a way that history books can’t always capture (colonization, one discovers, is a specter haunting the history of every country outside of Europe – one needn’t travel very far to discover mass graves covered over by the British or French or Spanish or Portuguese or Belgians or Germans or Dutch or…). Half a Yellow Sun is technically excellent, emotionally compelling, and urges the reader onwards like more popular level page turners. It’s very well done.

5. The Lover by Marguerite Duras.


I have been puzzling about this book since I finished it some weeks ago. Although Duras later spoke condescendingly of it (and actually rewrote it!), I think the praise it has received is well deserved. Granted, it is well written and the combination of grief and acceptance and nostalgia and hindsight it presents the reader is very moving.  But I think the true power of the text is the way in which it complicates moral discourses related to sex, love, and intersectional power dynamics. I have frequently observed that I think Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra and the Wolf is the antidote to male authors who romanticize, exonerate, humanize, or otherwise defend men who exploit power to have sex with their subordinates or with children while also obliterating, sidelining, silencing, or marginalizing those who are fucked (cf., for example, Williams, Coetzee, and Nabokov – although Nafisi’s reading of Lolita has made me reconsider my thoughts on Nabokov), but it seems to me that Duras’ Lover is the text that should be read alongside of Karapanou’s Kassandra. I think this would raise really interesting questions about power, agency, abuse, morality, empowerment, norms, and deviance, and so what and so on. I was hoping I could find an online essay juxtaposing the two texts but, alas, I could not. If anybody wants to write that and send it to me, that would be great.

6. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick by Chabouté.


When I was young, my father had a collection of Classic Comics, which took works of classic literature (The Three Musketeers, Tom Sawyer, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and so on) and presented them in comic form. I loved those comics and I remember how excited I was when I got older to find out that their stories actually existed in much longer, more detailed, and more immersive novels. I suspect these comics played a large role in my love of reading classic novels and I also suspect that reading novels has had a significant (and mostly positive) influence on the development of my character. Therefore, because my son has been enjoying reading a lot of graphic novels, I have started looking for graphic novels based on classic literature and then reading them with him. Chabouté’s rendition of Moby Dick was a good starting place because Chabouté expertly crafts graphic novels that show what the medium can do. He is a proper artist and a proper story-teller and combines words and images in a masterful way. I had a lot of fun working through this with my son.

7. Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle.


Guy Deslisle has a disarming way of presenting himself as an average joe wandering through some of the most politically, economically, socially, and religiously complicated environments in our world. The simplicity of his drawings compliments this tone. I found myself drawn in by him but also wondering what people who don’t know much about the broader context – in this case the Israeli colonization of Palestinian territories and the ongoing genoicidal creep taking place there – might make of Delisle’s presentation (I had to give a fair bit of contextual explanations to my son, who couldn’t understand why people were upset and being so mean to each other). I feel that Delisle wants to just present everyday people and not get too caught up in the dynamics that structure their lives and while this can sometimes come across as a more subtle (and sometimes, for that reason, more powerful) criticism of abusive power dynamics, it can also sometimes come across as a more subtle disregard for those dynamics (precisely because it can pretend to be more of a more subtle criticism than it actually is… and where is the line between subtle criticism and inadequate criticism and how does one go about evaluating levels of adequacy?). There is something of an ambiguity to Delisle’s text and, while I appreciate the need to highlight grey areas in many moral and political discourses, there are times when I feel a more black and white presentation is desirable (see also: Joe Sacco).

8. Hasib & the Queen of Serpents: A Tale of a Thousand and One Nights by David B.


I first came across the work of David B. many years ago, when I read his autobiographical work, Epileptic. I was excited to stumble across Hasib & the Queen of Serpents. The stories told here derive from the Thousand and Ones Night and B.’s illustrations are top notch. My son and I had a lot of fun reading this one (although I had to help him negotiate the plot as it embeds stories within stories within stories). Good times.


1. The Karamazovs (2008) directed by Petr Zelenka.


This first of three Czech films I watched this month, The Karamazovs is Petr Zelenka’s presentation of a theatre troupe putting on a play based on Dostoyevsky’s most read work in an old factory as a part of an arts festival that is trying to mix high art with the day to day life of the workers there. So, yeah, there’s all kinds of meta going on here – the actors and audience relate to the characters in the play, the play relates to the context of the characters, these things relate to the content of other presentations that are taking place simultaneously in the factory, the present moment relates to what this site whas historically, that history, in turn, relates back to the context of Dostoyevsky’s novel, and so on. It works, in that it doesn’t come off as pretentious, and a few scenes work very, very well, but, for the most part, I didn’t find myself too invested in the film. “Yeah, that was alright” was about the sum of my thoughts afterwards.

2. Old Czech Legends (1953) directed by Jiri Trnka.


I find that I am increasingly drawn to the aesthetics of stop motion animation movies and so when I found out that one of the most praised Czech films, Old Czech Legends, was a stop motion animation film from the ‘50s and was available to watch on youtube, I jumped at the opportunity. I loved the film. I think it appealed to the child in me who grew up dreaming about knights and woods haunted by more things than are human. It was also interesting to think about the origin stories of various European people. Because we tend to blur Europeans into a single entity (and then make them the default entity for what it means to be human), we miss the fact that most of European history was not a shared history but was divided amongst peoples who saw themselves as very distinct from each other (even racially – as Nell Irvin Painer demonstrates in The History of White People). I find it interesting to explore these things as I think about my own roots.

3. Marketa Lazarova (1967) directed by František Vláčil.


How come Eastern Europe produces so many beautifully shot black and white films? What’s up with that? Anyway, this film reminds me of the Czech variation of Richard Thorpe’s Ivanhoe or Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood (so, like, imagine those films but much more artfully shot, with a fair bit more moodiness, and a much less fantastical, much less romantic, much less glossed over, presentation of feudal violence and the people who inhabit that world). I felt this was a good follow up to Old Czech Legends and I think it appealed to me for the same reasons as that film.

4. Eighth Grade (2018) directed by Bo Burnham.


This is his debut feature film so it might be a bit early to conclude that Bo Burnham is a genius but, if he is a genius, surely part of his genius is trusting the subjects he wants to portray in his film. Thus, when he casts for thirteen year old kids, he hires thirteen year old kids. And when those thirteen year old kids tell him he is doing things wrong, that he is missing the mark, that he’s not up to date on what kids are doing these days, he listens and he changes the film (for example, Burnham originally had the kids communicating via facebook and they were like, yo, only old people use facebook; we’re all on snapchat, so he changed the movie to reflect that). This willingness to trust his subject matter is probably part of the reason why I had to remind myself, “oh wait, this isn’t a documentary” multiple times throughout the film. Because Burnham captures something that feels really honest and (although I almost never use this word) really real about what it is like to be in junior high, what it feels like to not fit in, what it’s like to want to be one thing but to actually be another, and how close a person can come to believing what they want about themselves until the world (once again) collides with that perception. And, hey, this is all part of growing up for most of us and, hey, we’re okay-ish now, right? (And who hasn’t longed to know a father like the one portrayed in this film – so, so good to see a kind, gentle loving man appearing in cinema – men need more models like that in film!) I really enjoyed this film. It terrified me (seeing the girl stand awkwardly in the house before going to join the cool kids in the pool is probably the scariest scene I’ll watch in advance of Halloween this year) but it also comforted me and, in general, moved me. I am grateful for this film.


1. London in the Raw (1964) directed by Arnold L. Miller and Norman Cohen.


When I heard about a movie from the sixties that claimed to shed light on the underbelly of London England at that time, I was curious to see what it turned up. Having spent many years in the so called “underbellies” of multiple cities, I thought it might be interesting to see how my experiences of those environments compared to another time and place. Mostly, I was disappointed. Not much of a rigorous or well-thought-out documentary, it is more designed to titillate and shock (even though what accomplishes those goals in ’64 looks quite tame compares to efforts to do the same in 2018 – with the exception of the section that showed close-ups of hair plug transplants taking place; holy moley, I reckon that’s pretty gross at pretty much any time!). I’d give this one a pass.

2. The Most Unknown (2018) directed by Ian Cheney.


Bringing together the likes of microbiologists, dark matter physicists, particle theorists, and neuroscientists, The Most Unknown gives the viewer a glimpse into some cutting edge areas of science, how they do (or don’t) fit together, and what light they shed on the human quest for both understanding and meaning. It’s a fun little snapshot into various areas I’ve been trying to explore in more detail in my readings. As they do with me, I hope these things inspire a sense of excitement, adventure, wonder, and gratitude in others. We are very much in need of those feelings. Especially now as fascism, toxic masculinity, class war, and the annihilation of the earth proceed at an ever more rapid pace. It is the wonder, excitement, and gratitude that will inspire us to fight, not because we hate, but because we love and don’t know any other way to be.

3. Blood on the Mountain (2016) directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman.


I have been increasingly interested in the Appalachian Uprising and what dynamics resulted in a group of rural white workers taking up arms and striking back at the rapacious forces of State and Capital that were decimating them. Such histories, and what we can learn from them, are highly relevant to our context since poor whites are increasingly (re-)entrenched in racial allegiances rather than allegiances based upon class or where one is situated in a context defined by exploitation and oppression. Unfortunately, Blood on the Mountain spends less time on this event than I had hoped and, instead, reads more like a catalogue of the various abuses and horrific acts of destruction that mining companies and the State have been able to get away with over the last two hundred years. It’s a bleak story and one that would have benefited from a closer look at what motivated resistance, what resistance was successful and why (and why this resistance was not continued; and what resistance was not successful and why), and what other factors are at play to enable the impunity with which State and Capital operate. Blood on the Mountain shows that workers (and the environment more broadly) in West Virginia are fucked. But it doesn’t get much below the surface of things.

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