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January Reviews

Discussed in this post: 9 Books (Meeting the Universe Halfway; Hitler (vol. 2); God’s Being is in Becoming; Kingdom Cons; The Transmigration of Bodies; Area X (The Southern Reach Trilogy); and The World Goes On); 2 Movies (The Favourite; and One Cut of the Dead); and 2 Documentaries (Surviving R. Kelly; and Missing Mom).


1. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning by Karen Barad.


I am hoping to write a post dedicated solely to this book because I believe it is the most paradigm-shifting thing that I have read in a long time.  So, I am only noting it here but hope to follow-up on it soon.  It is a jaw-droppingly good book.  I know I finished it in January, but I suspect it will end up being my pick for book of the year in 2019.  More to come.

2. Hitler: 1936—1945 Nemesis by Ian Kershaw.


This being Kershaw’s second (very large) volume on Hitler, I admit that by the time I was on the last couple of hundred pages, I was thinking, “Jesus, will this guy please just die already?”  That said, I really did learn a lot about the Second World War, the various dynamics at play, and (most importantly) the importance of the Eastern Front campaigns.  It’s kind of amazing that Germany did so well for so long despite Hitler’s repeated mistakes in those campaigns.  Granted, very early in the war he made some brilliant moves but, after that, it seems he was blinded by his own success and, given how untouchable he was, simply drove all of Germany (and several millions of others) into total annihilation.  Not that the German people, as a whole, weren’t complicit in this.  They seemed to be very, very happy with everything when Germany was winning (and that seems to be the case with most imperialist nations). Of course, there were Germans who resisted Nazism, initially in large numbers, but they were rounded up pretty early on.  Pockets of resistance remained and the relatively innocent few suffered and died alongside of the relatively guilty many, but that is always the way things go (although, yes, woe to those on all sides who are willing to sacrifice innocents in the pursuit of the guilty … even if the categories of “innocence” and “guilt” are hugely problematical when assessing situations like these).  For the most part, according to Kershaw, it seems the Germans reaped what they sowed.  This is not to suggest that the British or Americans (or any other Empire) is any less evil than the Third Reich, or any less deserving of being overthrown at whatever cost, it just means that victory goes to those with better arms, more weapons, and smarter strategies.

Anyway, Kershaw’s account is thorough but rather dry at times.  I’m glad I finished it.  I was thinking about taking a break from my readings about fascism but, I’m not sure.  Two books have caught my eye – Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem (which seriously challenges Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil—something I have been rethinking a lot lately) and The New Faces of Fascism by Traverso.  Both look very interesting, so I guess I’ll see how things go.

3. God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth by Eberhard Jüngel.


I have been thinking a fair bit about being as evental and, given what I have been reading from ecological developmental evolutionary biology microbiology, and quantum physics, I have also been thinking about how the world is not populated by things that are distinct in and of themselves but, rather, any being is a composition of entangled beings, suggesting that life is better mapped within a fractal geography (going all the way up and all the way down).  So, for the first time in years, I thought maybe I would read a theology text given that Jüngel’s trinitarianism touches on some of these core themes (after all, we are all something like a Trinity whose being is in becoming). I can’t say that I found anything particularly inspiring or moving here.  This was the case, in part, because Jüngel and I are operating with very, very different presuppositions about what we can speak about with confidence and what we cannot really know well or at all.  Basically, like Barth, Jüngel begins with a conclusion (God is revealed to us in Jesus) and then builds an argument back to that in order to show how that is the case.  But if the initial conclusion is not immediately obvious to you, a lot of what comes after may sound somewhat interesting … but irrelevant.  It’s like standing in an art gallery viewing something by an artist with obvious talent but with whom one finds few (if any) points of connection.

4. Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera.


Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World was one of the best books I read in 2018, or any year, and so I very quickly went out and picked up two others by Herrera (all published by And Other Stories, which seems to do a really good job of putting a book together).  Kingdom Cons (Trabajos del Reino, is the original and, in my opinion, better title) is a well-written short story about an ambitious street musician who becomes incorporated into the court of a semi-prominent drug lord.  You can sense that Herrera is still finding his footing in this earlier work and some of the depth, subtlety, and sympathy that comes through in Signs Preceding the End of the World is absent here.  However, I still enjoyed the book.

5. The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera.


Even more narco-noir than Herrera’s other books, this was the story I enjoyed the least by him. I’m not sure that it provides as much insight into the Mexican drug wars (or life in general) as some critics and advertisers suggest.  It strikes me more as pulp fiction written by a very clever, literate author who is indulging his own guilty pleasures.  Which means that it is well-written, but that I didn’t find it particularly exciting.

6-8. Area X (The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff Vandermeer.


After watching Annihilation, and after hearing a friend I trust praise the trilogy upon which that movie was based, I thought I would read the books.  I’m glad I did—they were a lot of fun.  For years, I have been frustrated by my efforts to try and find something I connect with in the Science Fiction genre (to be honest, a lot of it feels like it would connect best with teenage boys, which is probably a totally unfair way to paint an entire genre, but that’s just my experience of it and some of the texts that people immediately suggest from the genre).  So, it was really nice to find this fun and creative take on what it might be like to encounter an entirely alien (in the fullest sense of that word) form of life.  I feel like Lovecraft understood something about this, and I suspect he is a founding influence on the New Weird genre to which Vandermeer belongs (although I didn’t see his name come up in interviews that I read with Vandermeer).  Anyway, The Southern Reach Trilogy is a quick and fun read.  Recommended reading.

9. The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai.


I confess that I was very disappointed with this book. I had high hopes going in because, while Satantango was a bit hit-and-miss for me, Seiobo There Below was stunningly good and profoundly moving (I found myself going back to it many times to read some parts over and over again). Given that Seiobo There Below was the more recent work by Krasznahorkai, I was hoping The World Goes On would build on the affect it created.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.  I confess to being bored and frustrated.  Krasznahorkai writes in a way that deliberately challenges easy readings and the expectations readers bring to stories and, while this has very strong pay-offs in some of his other writing, I didn’t find that to be the case here.  Not particularly recommended.


1. The Favourite (2018) directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.


I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I’m a bit of a Lanthimos groupie.  I’ve watched all his films and so, although I’m not much of a fan of Elizabethan-style period pieces, I decided to watch this one anyway.  Because, you know, Lanthimos.  I enjoyed the movie, although not as much as some of his others.  I am a bit worried that he is falling into the trap that other highly-praised, visionary directors can fall into—that of favouring style over substance (see, for example, the trajectory of P. T. Anderson’s films, culminating with Phantom Thread).  Of course, directors like Lanthimos and Anderson are so good at their craft (from a technical perspective), that even their worst films are better than a lot of other directors’ best films.  However, for those of us who enjoy their movies for the ways in which their technical prowess was combined with creative story-telling, character formation, and affect, well, this trajectory isn’t so great.  But I’ll withhold any more judgment about Lanthimos until I see what he does next.

2. One Cut of the Dead (2017) directed by Shinichiro Ueda.


If you watch a lot of nature documentaries, you’re going to see a lot of mountains and coral and trees.  Mountains are mountains and coral is coral and trees are trees, but if you love watching nature documentaries, each mountain and coral and tree will be beautiful in its own way, and you’ll come back again and again because you love them all and each little distinctive element is enough to may you go “wow!” and “thank you!” and “please, can I have some more?”  The same applies to zombie movies.  For those who don’t particularly enjoy the genre, once you’ve seen a few, they start looking the same.  But, for those who love the genre, it’s enough to make just the smallest tweak to the template to inspire words of gratitude and requests for more.

I think I fall somewhere in the middle between the fans and those who are bored of the whole thing.  I started paying attention to zombie movies some years ago (and went back to watch a lot of the classics) because I thought they were saying interesting things about matters related to race and class (and, as I argue here, I still think The Cabin in the Woods is one of the best commentaries of class war that I’ve watched in any genre).  Plus, I started thinking more about what the popularity of various genres of horror say about us as a society, our hopes, dreams, fears, fantasies, desires, and so on (and I do think the popularity of various kinds of horror movies – from zombie films to vampire movies to the occasional werewolf resurgence – do tell us something about ourselves).  However, it didn’t take too, too long for the zombie genre to start feeling redundant to me.  But One Cut of the Dead got some pretty rave reviews in the horror underground (i.e., outside of the mainstream which, given that much of mainstream horror is simply about providing men with masturbatory fantasies related to sexualized violence, is where most of the good horror is found – although, of course, there is a shit ton of shit and things worse than shit to be found underground as well).  So, I decided to check it out.

I enjoyed it.  I actually laughed out loud during several scenes, which is not something I do much when watching movies (especially movies intended to be funny … which I mostly avoid).  Granted, there are a few clever-enough layers to the movie (which are fun to watch if you’ve ever wondered how different effects are accomplished in zombie movies) that turn the whole thing into something more meta than a B-grade zombie show (there are actually at least five layers to the movie and none are as straightforward as they initially appear to be to the viewer – in fact, the suggestion is that the layering could be endless and I’ve had fun thinking about that).  However, what really makes the movie is the balls-to-the-wall, playful, joyful, OMG WTF, performances of the key actors.  Nic Cage would be proud.


1. Surviving R. Kelly (2019) written by Nigel Bellis and Astral Finnie.


In 2013, I remember being utterly baffled and infuriated when I learned that R. Kelly was going to be performing at Coachella.  Granted, the fans at Coachella already had a reputation for giving zero fucks about some oppressed groups (as exhibited in the attitude many of them displayed towards Indigenous concerns about cultural appropriation and the reinforcement of dehumanizing colonial stereotypes that takes place when rich white kids wear Indigenous regalia at the festival), but I mean, look, everybody plus everybody knows that R. Kelly is a child molester who got off on utterly degrading the girls he sexually abused (I mean, Jesus Christ, there’s a video of him pissing on an underage girl he was fucking).  I imagined a bunch of rich white kids going to his show and thinking that this somehow made them “edgy” or whatever and I felt a little nauseous.  What the fuck, white people?

Part of the brilliance of Surviving R. Kelly is that it is a film made by black folks, with black folks for black folks about black folks.  I think it was about halfway through the second episode when I realized this.  All the talking heads—the criminal psychologist, the social theorist, the professor in this-or-that subject—they are all black in this documentary.  And, what’s telling about our culture, is that this is a notable thing.  So, this documentary is by the black community for the black community and white people who watch it should think carefully about how they choose to engage it.

Specifically, white people need to support the outcome desired by Nigel Bellis and Astral Finnie. They need to work towards ending a culture that enables powerful men like R. Kelly to do what they do with young girls (and I’m glad to see that the outrage that followed the documentary led Sony Music to finally end their contract with R. Kelly, and also led to several venues canceling his shows), but white people need to be careful to act as good allies and not engage with this in a way that either supports a white saviour syndrome or contributes to further oppressive stereotypes about black people in general and black men in particular.

One of the points that the directors (and several people within the series) make is that R. Kelly is able to get away with doing what he does, in part, because his victims are young black females.  If they were white, people argue, R. Kelly would not have been able to do what he did and does.  Consequently, the directors expose some of the lateral violence that takes place within black communities, especially in relation to class divisions.  However, there is a very important proviso that is unstated here—while it is true that R. Kelly would likely have more trouble if he targeted young white females, this is because R. Kelly is a black man and not because the black community is more prone than other communities to turn a blind eye to the violence that takes place within it.  That is to say, there are white men who are able to get away with harming young white females with the same impunity shown by R. Kelly.  Think, for example, of the recent case of Roy Moore who ran as the GOP Candidate for a Senate seat in Alabama about a year ago.  Moore was a known pedophile who cruised for young girls in ways comparable to those used by Kelly. Several people victimized by Moore came forward, but he was still backed by very, very powerful men (including Donald Trump, another white man who has been able to rape white women with impunity).  Furthermore, just as many rich, powerful black pastors backed R. Kelly, so also many rich, powerful white pastors backed Moore (some using the young age of Mary when she conceived Jesus to be a justification for men having sex with young girls).  Not only this but there were dire consequences for those who shed light on Moore’s abuses during his campaign—there were death threats throughout and, afterwards, one of them had their house burned down in an act of arson.

I emphasize all of this because I think white people looking in on matters unfolding within the black community, who are not sufficiently in tune with matters in the white community, can end up drawing ill-informed conclusions that feed into racist stereotypes.  What we need to do is draw inspiration from the fight of all those who very courageously spoke in this series (and produced this series), and then do something about the violence, not only of R. Kelly, but of white men (who are, far and away, more likely to get away with this kind of shit).

2. Missing Mom (2016) directed by Robert McCallum.


There is a sub-genre of documentary films that involve directors who think they are exploring one thing and who then stumble into something else entirely and it turns into a massive, holy fuck, what the fuck?! and it makes for some really great viewing.  The Imposter is probably the very best of this genre (I highly recommend it!) but Tickled is another example, as is the utterly heart-breaking Dear Zachary. So, when I heard about Robert McCallum’s doc about trying to track down his mother, who simply up and vanished twenty years prior, I figured, “hmmmm, this might be another fun one.”  And, okay, it kept my interest (in part because some of it is filmed in my hometown of London, Ontario) but I don’t think it met the standards set by the other films I’ve mentioned.  Once McCallum finds his mother (I’m not giving away anything more than the trailer shows), I was left with a lot of unanswered questions about her relationship with her parents and whether or not her parents (who raised McCallum) really were as noble as they made themselves out to be.  I strongly suspect that they abused her for many years and then swiped her child from her (which is why they are so quick to “forgive” her when she comes back into their lives, even though they said they never would… classic abuser behaviour).  There are enough points of disconnect that bring this to my ind, although McCallum glossed over a lot of it.  That’s his prerogative, of course.

The other thing that came through strongly in this film is how difficult it can be to get anywhere with a missing person’s case unless you have inside connections with the police.  Due to personal family connections, at least three people from three different police forces gave McCallum information that would not generally be accessible to members of the public.  It was because of this that McCallum was able to track down his mother.  Without this, he would have been at a dead-end almost immediately.  It shows how important connections are to negotiating the system (and it shows how easily those connections do things outside the boundaries of the Law)—and it also shows what can be accomplished if people bothered to care about these cases.

Anyway, not the best doc I’ve ever seen but not the worst either.

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