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September Reviews

Discussed in this post: 13 Books (The Cultural Politics of Emotion; Disagreement; Hyperobjects; The Fire Next Time; Half-Breed; Bad Feminist; Speak, Memory; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick; My Life in the Bush of Ghosts; Cathedral; Turtle Island; and Calling a Wolf a Wolf); 1 Movie (Alice); and 3 Documentaries (Patagonia Rising; Lorena; and Voyeur).


1. The Cultural Politics of Emotion by Sara Ahmed.


For several years, in my own thinking, I have repeatedly gone back to the basic emotions—joy, sorrow, fear, wonder, love—because I think a lot of times we overcode these feelings with other things to our own detriment, or to the detriment of others. Discovering some of what theorists are writing about affect (e.g., Lauren Berlant’s book on cruel optimism) has been something of a revelation to me and one that I think will guide some of my own thinking and writing in coming years. So, I was excited to read Sara Ahmed’s book which critically engages affect studies, while also working in a slightly different niche (since affect and emotion are often distinguished from each other). I especially appreciated what she had to say about fear, disgust, shame, and love—and her criticisms of the idea that we can (or should) form our politics around love are especially striking to me because I have been thinking about how we go about doing that. She helped me to see that, of course, even the most hateful politics claim to be guided by love and so, if that’s the case, perhaps love is not the ideal tool to use in our struggle against such hatred. Anyway, tons of good stuff here. Highly recommended.

2. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy by Jacques Rancière.


Politics only emerges and becomes a possibility, Jacques Rancière argues, when those who have been assigned no place, who been erased from history and society (homo sacer, in Agamben’s terms), rise up and claim a place, claim a voice, refuse to be erased. Everything else that passes for politics, these days, is essentially the policing of peoples and populations and diverse interests in order to prevent politics from actually breaking out. I’m rather late to this text, but Rancière is my favourite social theorist whom I have hardly read and so I’m working to rectify this. It’s a good book and its central thesis now operates as something of a truism amongst many theorists. I don’t disagree with it although, granted, the word “politics” is something of an empty signifier (but aren’t they all?).

3. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World by Timothy Morton.


Apparently, people rooted within the Object -oriented Ontology (OOO) camp claim Jane Bennett as one of their own but I didn’t know that when I read Vibrant Matter. I only learned this while working through Timothy Morton’s much more curious (and much less satisfying), and also much more explicitly OOO text, Hyperobjects. Now, granted, I am very sympathetic to what Morton sets out to do with this text and I do accept his basic premises regarding the demotion of humans within the domain of time/space and meaning/matter. I also accept his premise regarding hyperobjects—these super massive entities that are far vaster than we are (in all dimensions) and which we can only experience partially and inadequately. All this is good and, in my opinion, feeds the mixture of humility and wonder that I have been pursuing in some of my own ontological reflections as of late (although, despite what I’ve read to the contrary, OOO still seems a bit too infected with Kantianism for me). However, I found Morton’s tone to be a bit off-putting. You know when some academics write in a way that lets you know how smart they are, and how diverse they are in their engagement with various texts, arts, or mediums? So they drop twenty-four different (and radically different!) names in the space of two pages and, okay, they’ve worked it into their argument but it all feels a bit like a peacock preening? Yeah, Morton felt a little bit like that to me.

4. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.


Two short pieces—the first a brief letter to his nephew (which was the inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me), the second a longer reflection on race, religion, and oppression in America—this volume is quintessential Baldwin. It should be required reading for White American Settlers, and they should read it twice if they are also Christians (this is actually my second time reading the book—I first read it about twenty years ago but I felt a refresher was due, and it was, it most certainly was). James Baldwin is an inspiration as an author, as a critic, as a man, as a moral human being. If you haven’t been reading him, this is a good place to start.

5. Half-Breed by Maria Campbell.


The history of Métis people in Canadian-occupied territories is a very complicated one. Situated in a liminal space where settlers and Indigenous peoples overlap, they have frequently been rejected by both or exploited by the federal government for colonial ends. They well-illustrate that ways in which imperial powers so effectively deploy a “divide and conquer” methodology while those same powers continue to ruthlessly oppress all sides. However, other doing some previous readings about (and by) Louis Riel and the (so-called) Northwest Rebellion, I haven’t read much by our about the Métis history. So, when one of my brothers mentioned being profoundly affected by Maria Campbell’s memoirs, I thought I would check them out (although, NB, the editor removed a critical component of the text—when Campbell was fourteen years old and raped by an RCMP Officer—and you can learn more about that here). It’s a well-told and moving story. Not easy reading but Campbell does a good job (imo) of presenting her life as she lived it without filters and without excuses. It reminded me of many people and places I know in Vancouver’s downtown eastside (where Campbell also ended up spending some time). There are so many incredible, strong, and wise women out there. We need to spend more time following their lead and listening to them and spend less time abusing them.

6. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay.


I’ve been tentatively delving a little more into books that are collections of essays rather than sustained arguments from start to finish. So, having heard a lot of good things about Roxane Gay, and given my focus on reading more feminist theory this year, I figured I’d pick up this highly praised collection. I found it to be a very mixed bag. Some essays lived up to the praise. Some fell well short. Which, you know, reminded me about why I’ve tended to shy away from this kind of book. Anyway, not the best feminist theory, or the best essay collection, I’ve read this year.

7. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.


Nabokov does this thing where he slowly establishes a mood, creates a space, lures you in, and then, halfway through the final sentence, he takes a sudden turn and springs something different and unexpected (but, to your surprise, not unrelated to what came before), and it ends up causing you to feel all the feels or feel the feelings you were already feeling anew, in a different light, with a different intensity. That said, Nabokov is an aristocrat (or at least he was before the Revolution) and he also writes with the vanity that only the aristocracy, assured of their superiority for generations, can write with (unlike the ostentatious pretentious of the capitalist class and the nouveau riches). The vanity of the businessman is still infected with the Protestant ethic and, as such, it knows vanity to be a vice (but one, like other vices, that the businessman celebrates). The vanity of the aristocrat is different. It is natural, good, and a part of the way things are and the way things are meant to be. In other words, it is what the aristocrat feels is natural due to him—whereas the businessman knows that his vanity is only as good as his investments. This, at least, is some of what I was thinking as I worked my way through these very enjoyable memoirs (plus, having read Lenin and Trotsky and Goldman and Berkman and Kropotkin and so on, it was amusing to read about the Russian Revolution from the perspective from a disenfranchised, but like totally over the whole thing, I mean the Revolution itself hardly bears mention here, aristocrat).

8. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.


Mr. Palomar is one of my all-time favourite novels. And so I’ve been wanting to read more Calvino and, given its reputation, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler seemed like a good place to go next. It was a very different kind of story (which, of course, is kind of the point of the book), but it did have some hallmark Calvino humour and mischievousness. I enjoyed it, although I felt like Calvino overplayed his hand a little. I’m still curious to read more by him.

9. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke.


Handke is one of the authors I like to read because he appeals to my snobbery. A German author who is very highly praised but little known in English-speaking circles outside of a pretty elite circle of literati, I read his very intimate account of surviving the death of his mother last year and liked it a fair bit. Enough to pick up The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick when I stumbled upon it last month. Reading it makes me think that Handke either personally knew what it was like to experience psychosis or was very closely connected with someone who did. That said, I find it a bit regrettable that the psychosis is linked with random violence as the overwhelming majority of people whom I have known were not violent (and certainly not randomly violent) when they were psychotic. That said, it seems that men who are randomly violent, and who can engage in this violence with impunity, seems to be a marker of German literature (from Döblin to Handke) so maybe this has more to do with patriarchy or, perhaps, classism. Anyway, the book was okay … not great … just okay.

10. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola.


I’ve been on an African lit reading kick this year and so when Achille Mbembe dropped some names of authors I hadn’t heard about, I stored ‘em in the back of my mind. Then, what do you know, I was at a used book store in a small beach town and there was Amos Tutuola sitting on the shelf just waiting for me to bring him home. So I did. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a curious, fantastical tale about a boy who flees from a war and gets lost  in, um, yep, the bush of ghosts, from which he cannot escape for many, many years, and wherein there are many cities of ghosts, many different kids of ghosts, and he learns to be ghostly and has many adventures until finding his way home. Tutuola writes in a raw and episodic manner which was fun for awhile although, by the end, I was ready for it to be over.

11. Cathedral: Stories by Raymond Carver.


Ray Carver makes me believe in short stories. The guy can write. Reading him does strange things to my feelings—it causes dissonance between what I feel and the seeming mundane, nothing, everydayness about which he writes. It makes me feel uneasy for no obvious reason. Which then makes me feel like he’s tapping into something large, something massive, that is lurking just below the surface of our suburban lives (even if, at times, that something massive lurking just below the surface is precisely what is on the surface as well). Recommended. For sure.

12. Turtle Island by Gary Snyder.


A very dear friend of mine spoke highly of this collection of poetry a number of times so I thought I would check it out. I’ve never been much of a fan of the beats, especially their poets, but I did find this collection to be mostly enjoyable. I do feel like it was a bit unfair to Snyder to read him after reading such phenomenally good poets as Vuong, Fulton, and Akbar (see below), but I also think there are different syntaxes, grammars, and affects that appeal differently to different generations (which is why all poems must continually be written anew). So, yeah, a number of good poems but none that totally carried me away.

13. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar.


Continuing my foray into contemporary poetry, I’ve noticed Kaveh Akbar’s work get mentioned alongside of Ocean Vuong’s a few time so I purchased this collection. It’s very good. Highly quotable with a much larger than usual percentage of poems that I starred to read again. There is a sorrow here, and a loneliness, and a coping with alcohol, with which I am intimately familiar. There is also a lot of beauty and love, more love than one knows what to do with or how to handle, undergirding these words. What more can one ask for?


1. Alice (1988) directed by Jan Švankmajer.


In this stop-motion animation film that also uses live actors, Švankmajer brings Alice in Wonderland to life in 1980s Poland in some fantastic and nightmarish ways. Jess was horrified. I was intrigued. I feel like the Alice story has been done to death but Švankmajer brought some really original elements to his (otherwise very faithful) retelling. You probably have to be in the right mood to watch this one but, if you are in that mood then, hot damn, it’s a treat!


1. Patagonia Rising (2011) directed by Brian Lilla.


Patagonia, a mountainous region on the southern tip of South America, full of glaciers, rivers, and wilderness (with a few people living a very rugged existence there), is one of the few mostly untouched regions left on this earth. However, due to the rivers there, and due to Chile’s interest in develop its hydroelectric power in order to become less reliant on foreign energy providers (although, of course, Chile’s own energy companies are owned by foreign investors), and because investors see a way of going from being hella rich to being hella richer, proposals were made to damn the two major rivers in Patagonia, thereby causing mass flooding and the mass death and dislocation that accompanies such flooding. Thankfully, a lot of pressure was brought to bear upon the agents pushing for these dams and, as Brian Lilla documents in this film, they were not built. However, the energy companies are still trying (to this day) in the courts and several new dam proposals are also moving forward. In the meantime, it turns out that Chile’s southern glaciers are extraordinarily fragile and cannot survive even the slightest bit of warming. They are all dying or already dead. So it goes.

2. Lorena (2019) directed by Joshua Rofé.


When I was thirteen years old, I remember a news story going viral about a woman named Lorena Bobbitt who cut off her husband’s dick while he was sleeping and threw it in a ditch by a 7-11. I remember there were a lot of jokes made about this. I remember thinking, “ermahgerd!” but what I don’t ever remember thinking was why a young woman might end up feeling compelled to engage in that kind of act. So now, more than 25 years later, I’m glad that this four-part docuseries brings our attention back to this matter. Because, yeah, it turns out that John Wayne Bobbitt was (and is) a serial rapist, abuser, sadist, and wannabe murderer of women. Of course, a lot of adults became aware of the kind of person he was (and is) pretty quickly, so it’s amazing (but not really) how many men rallied around him and how quickly he was able to cash in on the incident, while Lorena was left as the butt of many jokes, quietly and steadily working to improve her own life and then the lives of other women who have been abused by men. Here, Rofé shows patriarchal rape culture at work more than he actually analyses it or brings it to the foreground. It’s constantly present, it infects the whole series, and you can’t miss it if you have the eyes to see it, but Rofé’s focus is more on the drama of a biopic about Lorena. It would be a good film to dissect in a class. Props to Lorena for getting free.

3. Voyeur (2017) directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury.


Voyeur is an odd film. The voyeur who purchased and modified a motel so that he could walk above the rooms and look down (and masturbate while doing so) without being seen by those in the rooms below, becomes something of a crush that a somewhat voyeuristic and very famous journalist (Gay Talese) can’t let go. Gay Talese, in turn, is the object of a crush and a fair bit of the voyeuristic attention of Directors Kane and Koury. And, of course, here we all are watching this documentary with B-grade re-enactments mixed in with real life peoples and what are we to make of ourselves for watching? But this is not to suggest that, “hey, Gerry Foos (the original voyeur who contacted Talese because he wanted the world to know what he got away with) is just like all of us.” No, no. There’s a world of difference between watching a soft-core B-grade film, and actually spying on people. It’s the same difference between fantasy and reality. In one, you can do whatever. In other, free and informed consent is necessary. However, it does highlight how people are kinda odd. And complicated. And selfish. And, when they’re selfish, they do selfish things with other people regardless of if they are brilliant and award-winning New York socialites or just an everyday nobody running a Motel in Colorado.

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