Books of 2012 (2/3)

So looks like my two part series, turned into a three part series… sorry for the brevity of some of these (that’s what I get for doing this all at once at the end of the year instead of monthly)…
19. Germinal by Émile Zola.
Germinal has been on my books to read list for a long time.  I’m very glad that I sat down and read it this year.  It was a really phenomenal narrative exploring matters related to class, industrialization, the rise of the capitalists, and the crushing of the proletariat in France.  Characters from various classes (from the owners to the miners) are presented as having depth and complexity and are not caricatured or presented as “bad guys/gals” vs. “good guys/gals”.  I highly recommend this book — it was one of my favourites this year.
As I was reading it, I was struck by the absence of this kind of literature in the contemporary scene.  Folks like Franzen and Wallace are (or were) writing really good books but this whole struggle with matters related to class, not to mention matters related to justice and inequalities regarding class, labour, wealth, and the distribution of goods, seems to be completely missing from our stories.  I wish somebody would write a book like this rooted in the present day.  Regardless, this is really highly recommended reading and reminded my as to why I fell in love with 19th century literature in the first place (think I may go reread some Hugo now).
20. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.
I joined a book club when I moved to London and this was the book they were reading when I joined.  It is the tale of a few small town gangsters in a British resort town back in the 1930s.  It was a fun read although I didn’t feel that it had the depth of character and plot that I found in The Power and the Glory (although it has been some years since I read that book, so I might be wrong there).  There were a few things I found fairly interesting though.
First, the ways in which the villains are caught up in the social imaginary and moralism of Roman Catholicism, whereas the woman who represents justice (Ida), has shed that moral system.  The mobster kill people are are convinced they are going to hell.  Ida drinks and fucks her way to justice — even, it should be noted, if that ends up being costly to other people along the way (Lady Justice, standing blindfolded with her sword and scales came to mind more than once).
Secondly, I found it interesting how the most ruthless mobster was always contemplating his damnation and the possibility of redemption or forgiveness (which he seemed to desperately desire, even though he repeatedly stated that this was out of his reach).  In this regard, he kept thinking about an old saying that if a person repents in the split second when they are dying (in the time it takes from them to fall “from the stirrup to the ground”) then that person will be saved.  Now this is interesting because when another gang tries to kill Pinkie he is so distracted and shocked that he doesn’t even think about repenting.  This terrifies him.  However at the end [SPOILER about to happen!] when he falls from the cliff something funny happens — those who were there remark that they never hear a splash… as though he were simply lifted out of existence.  Keeping in mind the remarks about finding salvation while falling, I like how Greene leaves this open to the possibility of Pinkie being saved.
Thirdly, as another possible interpretation of this last point, I was struck by how some of the characters involved in the gang thought that they were already living in hell (i.e. — we’re not going to hell, we’re already there, baby).  What if this is actually true and “Brighton Rock” is Greene’s vision, not so much of hell but (since he was a Catholic) of purgatory?  Then, there is no splash when Pinkie falls because, having done is time and repented, he is lifted out of purgatory?  This is a bit of a stretch, but it’s fun to play with the text in this way.
21. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
I have read various political essays Roy has written (mostly about Maoism and revolution in contemporary India) and so I was happy to finally get around to this Booker Prize winner this year (my wife had been telling me I should read it for years). I enjoyed her voice and the ways in which themes of family, and class, and communism, and caste where woven together with a little magic and a lot of tragedy thrown in.  It was pretty and sad… but just seemed to be missing the certain something that would push it from going “good” to being “exceptional.”  I don’t know… maybe I was flying high from reading Wallace and Zola and so I was in the wrong head space to get the most I could have from this book.
22. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.
Prior to reading this book (the second one selected by my book club since I joined), I didn’t know anything about Ned Kelly or his time as an outlaw in the Australian outback.  Seems like a pretty interesting character and something of a Robin Hood/Jesse James kind of figure in Australia (and if you want to read a letter written by Ned and his gang, see here).  It was a fun story to read and Carey did a good job in inhabiting the character of Kelly in order to tell it (even though, it should be noted, that means we may not always want to believe the claims made by the narrator). I enjoyed the ways in which matters of race, poverty, religion, resistance and violence where woven together.
It’s funny — we can look at gangsters or outlaws or criminals or fugitives from different eras of history and we can actually view them sympathetically or even as heroes or, at the very least, recognize that they acted nobly given their circumstances.  Yet we are completely blind to this kind of reading of criminals or fugitives or “terrorists” in our context.  Shit, I mean we have a First Nations chief who is on her third week of a hunger strike here in Canada because of the Canadian government’s consistent practice of violence, law-breaking, treaty-breaking, and genocide against her people and she is the one settler society is calling an “extremist” and “terrorist.”  That doesn’t make much sense to me but, then again, Ned Kelly, Robin Hood, and Jesse James were all white men so maybe that makes a big difference.
23. Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe.
I was recently looking over my list of “Books that I have read” I noticed a LOT of gaps in my reading (actually, it’s a bit embarrassing to have that list posted because of the massive gaps in pretty much every area, but I don’t mind a little embarrassment).  One of the gaps I noticed in my reading is the absence of literature from outside of North America and Europe.  I’m intending to work towards rectifying that so I picked up this book by Achebe late in the year.
I found it to be enjoyable and it was good to read a narrative exploring colonialism, the spread of Christianity in Africa, and traditional ways of structuring life together in parts of Africa, that come from the perspective of an African author.  A pleasant and quick read.
24. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.
So, you would think about book filled with technical tax information and terminology, telling the stories of workers at an IRS office would be boring as hell but, hey, you would be wrong!  This book was well on it’s way to being one of my favourite books ever before it’s rather abrupt termination (Wallace killed himself before he completed the manuscript… I thought it was further along than it was when I picked it up, so I was really pretty sad that we don’t get to see the story and the threads come together [or not] in a manner comparable to “Infinite Jest”).
I really love Wallace’s voice.  It is hypnotic and it was that, sometimes more than the plot or the characters, that pulled in through “Infinite Jest” (in the same way that Proust’s voice pulled me through “In Search of Lost Time”).  However, I think Wallace’s writing got better with this story.  There were points where I laughed out loud several times in a single chapter and I pretty much never do this when reading (even when reading things I find funny, I usually just smile or laugh in my mind but not out loud).  It was really a delight to read and a major disappointment that it ended where it did.
Although, you know, given the way that “Infinite Jest” ended (i.e. by leaving the plot threads pointing towards one another and a certain conclusion but not actually completing the story and leaving it to the reader to work out that conclusion on his or he own), maybe this was part of Wallace’s intention.  Instead of an “infinite” story (which one could read in a loop forever) one has a permanent rupture and the literal death of the author.  In this situation, what is the role of the reader?
25. I Am a Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings by Franz Kafka (edited by Nahum N. Glazer).
I remember  a writer once saying that she would always disappoint her fans when they sought her out to discover more, to dig deeper into the the depths out of which she drew her stories, to find further answers to their questions, and all that.  She stated something like this: “the best of me, the very best part of me, are those stories.  There is nothing deeper behind them or greater beyond them — they are the best I have to give.”  I’ve often thought of that quotation when learning about authors and scholars.  It’s a good quote to keep in mind when coming to Kafka because, shoot, reading these autobiographical writings made me think, “Man, what a miserable prick” (and then made me note to my self that I should post less autobiographical material!).
26. Scorned and Beloved: Dead of Winter Meetings with Canadian Eccentrics by Bill Richardson.
This was a fun little book to read on the side when I felt like being distracted from more serious things.  Richardson, a CBC radio personality, traveled across Canada and dug into the archives and folk tales in order to dig up stories of various eccentrics from across Canada.  It was fun to read but not spectacular (although the bushman who lived in the middle of nowhere and, at one point, cut off his own hand and healed and survived on his own without medication was pretty spectacular).  A lot of the “eccentrics” where fellows who like wearing dresses or were gay before such things were what they are today.
I was struck by the ways in which small communities back in the day used to accept these so-called “eccentrics.”  Yeah, so Timmy likes to wear dresses and he’ll steal your buttons, and maybe sneak into your kitchen, and steal some of your wife’s clothing off the line if he gets a chance… but that’s just Timmy, he’s a part of our community, he don’t mean no harm, and we look after him, I suppose.  That sort of care and understanding seemed pretty common.
The same point was pretty strongly made in a documentary I recently watched called “Brother’s Keeper” about four brothers who are illiterate, may have other developmental or psychosocial barriers, and sleep in a tiny shack together (one brother is accused of murdering another brother and this is the central drama driving the documentary).  Along the ways, it turns out that the brothers all share a bed together and there are rumours that they have sexual relations with each other.  Based on our perceptions of tiny, rural, poverty-stricken communities in the United States, one would expect the brothers to be ostracized and vilified because of this… but the local people actually are very accepting of the brothers and very non-judgmental — “How’s it my business what goes on in there home?” and that sort of thing.
A third time I came across this point was reading Venturi’s “Roots of Revolution,” about the history of social and populist movements in 19th century Russia.  I was reminded of how socialist and anarchist-based groups, back in the 1860s in Russia, where already adamantly proclaiming the equality of women and the equality of people of all races.
This made me rethink the story that contemporary urban, Western, liberal society tells itself about itself — i.e. that we are a recently new and improved phenomenon wherein queer people, people who are differently-abled, women, different races, and “eccentrics” are all accepted as equals.  I’m still thinking through what the implications of this might be and have a few ideas… but that’s probably the subject of another post, if I ever get around to writing.
27. Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire.
I really enjoyed Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy — it is amongst my favourite graphic novels — so it was fun to come across this earlier work.  It is a poignant and sad story, with a lot of violence, few words, and no redemption.  Not as good as Essex County but I really like the way in which Lemire is able to communicate so much in rough broad stroke pictures and little use of language.

Books of 2012 (Part 1/3)

Usually, I post reviews of the books I have read each month on the month in which I read them, but this year I got a bit behind, then a lot behind… by the time I actually started writing the reviews, I kept adding more to the list before I finished reviewing what I had already read.  So, the end result of this was that all my book reviews got bumped to the end of the year.  That means that my already too short, too personal, and too idiosyncratic reviews may be even worse than usual.  I’m okay with that.  I was originally planning on organizing these into categories (philosophy, fiction, history, etc.) but have just decided to post them as I complete them.  Here is part one.
1. Empire in the New Testament ed. by Stanley Porter and Cynthia Long Westfall.
Many thanks to Christian at Wipf and Stock for this review copy.
This collection of essays comes out of a conference that was at MacMaster Divinity School.  The first two essays lay some of the foundation for an imperially-nuanced reading of the New Testament by looking at matters related to empire in the Davidic literature and in Isaiah.  We then have three essays dealing with material from the Gospels, two essays dealing with the Pauline and deutero-Pauline material, one essay dealing with the non-Pauline epistles, and one concluding essay looking at the ways in which the Church Fathers interacted with the traditions they inherited (from both the Jesus Movement and the Roman Empire).  Notably absent from any of this is any comment on Acts.  I found this disappointing as I think some of the most exciting work has yet to be done in relation to Acts.  Pair that with the observation that some of the essays collected here were a much higher quality than others (I found the essay on Isaiah to be repetitive and dull and the essay by Warren Carter was essentially restating things he has written elsewhere) so this felt like a missed opportunity to me.
For the sake of brevity, I would like to single out two essays: Tom Thatcher’s piece about Jesus’ crucifixion as it is presented in John’s Gospel and Gord Heath’s article about the Church Fathers and their relation to the Roman Empire (aside: about ten years ago I played in a floor hockey tournament with Gord Heath; we used to call him “short shorts” because of the clothes he wore during games).
I want to begin with the Thatcher essay because I think it was one of the strongest in this collection (maybe actually the strongest).  What he does is engage in a reading of the crucifixion of Jesus that draws attention to the ways in which crucifixion functioned within the ideology of Roman imperialism.  Crucifixion enacts a certain kind of drama that communicates a certain kind of message — about the gods, about Rome, about conquered peoples, about justice and salvation — and Thatcher spends a fair bit of time drawing this out.  He does this very well (Brigitte Kahl does something similar in Galatians Re-Imagined, so it’s good to see this kind of reading gaining some traction — it is very compelling).  Thatcher then argues that the Gospel of John recasts the crucifixion of Jesus so as to create what Foucault has called a “countermemory” in order to still affirm the ideological importance of this crucifixion — along with the whole cluster of themes related to it — but in subversive manner that reveals a surprising reversal: the crucifixion of Jesus reveals God’s conquest of the Roman Empire.  I really recommend this essay.  I think the perspective being provided by people like Thatcher and Kahl is crucial for understanding the cross of Jesus and, I dare say, the development of a Christian soteriology.
Gord Heath’s article deserves comment because it strikes me as a good example scholarship that is intelligent but shockingly acritical.  A good deal of conservative or reformist scholarship seems to exhibit these seemingly contradictory traits — on the one hand you have somebody who is obviously intelligent and capable of scholarly work but, on the other hand, the same person seems to be unable to step back from the material and has the most basic critical questions.  In relation to Heath’s essay this plays out in the following ways:
Heath spends a fair bit of time highlighting and developing the complexities related to the ways in which various Church Fathers interacted with the Roman Empire in light of the traditions they had inherited from the New Testament and the early Jesus Movement.  His emphasis tended to fall on those voices that were more sympathetic to the empire (compare this, for example, to the more developed arguments of Justo Gonzalez in Faith and Wealth — an important work lacking from Heath’s bibliography — where a whole different emphasis comes to light).  Ultimately, he concludes that most were quite sympathetic to and supportive of the empire, apart from its ever-present violence and idolary (which, I believe, Heath only understands in the most obvious and superficial manner and which he does not seem to relate to some of the other areas where violence and idolatry operate — areas that have been highlighted by social theorists and philosophers who work in the domain of “postmodernism” that Heath rejects and, not surprisingly, misunderstands).
Hence, on the one hand, we see Heath acting as an historian should (dealing with primary source material… even if he is a little selective with it… who isn’t, right?).  But, on the other hand, we see him dismissing major scholarly endeavours without any critical engagement.  Heath can’t imagine any reason why the early Jesus followers would be anti-empire — and his “hunch” is that the early Jesus followers would better understand the “relative benefits of Roman rule” — and so he concludes that counter-imperial readings of the New Testament are simply grounded an assumption made by the interpeters who favour this reading: the New Testament is said to be counter-imperial because the interpreters are counter-imperial.
Of course, Heath is open to being faced with the same charge since he concludes that we are to act the same way today as he says the Church Fathers acted.  After all, he concludes his essay with these words: “They were good citizens, appreciative of the empire, and loyal to the emperor, but never completely a part of the empire, for their ultimate loyalty lay elsewhere (much to the chagrin of the imperial authorities).  This was the tension then, as it is today.”  But I think this just shows the vacuity of the charge he is making — if you’re going to dismiss a position simply because you believe the conclusions that are drawn support or are supported by the values of the person drawing those conclusions then you can dismiss almost everything that has ever been said.
That said, one more remark on the Church Fathers.  I find it interesting that so much focus has come upon the Church Fathers amongst Conservative or Evangelical scholars in the last decade or so (at least that’s my impression).  It seems as though they have gained something akin to canonical status in some circles.  Especially when it comes to interpreting the New Testament.  I find this troubling.  I believe that, in many ways, the Church Fathers betrayed the values we find in the New Testament (perhaps not even consciously for they came from a long line of people who were vying for power and control over the early Jesus Movement and we already see the seeds of this betrayal in the Pastoral Epistles or in the parties with whom Paul is struggling in Corinth).  Many of the Church Fathers are simply those who were most successful in gaining power of the Jesus Movement, gain the more powerful imperial patrons, killing or silencing their enemies (the “heretics”), and so on.  Why we would want to privilege them to the extent that many do is beyond me.  So sure, some Church Fathers wanted to be good citizens and appreciated the Roman Empire (as they had moved well away from the call of Jesus and Paul and were already well situated in places of power), but why we should see that as a model for our own actions — or as the lens through which we should interpret Jesus and Paul — is beyond me.  This is the case, not simply because I find that model unappealing, but also because I believe a good historian should take these kind of things into consideration.
2. Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson.
This book is a very good study of the ways in which First Nations peoples have been presented in the mainstream Canadian media over the last 120 or so years.  What becomes markedly apparent is the ways in which the mainstream media presents a vision of Canada and of First Nations peoples that is deeply entrenched in the mythical narratives of colonialism.  The media both recycles racist white, colonial representations of both settlers and indigenous peoples, and further entrenches those portrayals within the social imaginary of Canadians.  This study shows just how deeply colonialism is embedded into the core of Canada and being Canadian (therefore, recalling a somewhat distant — in internet time — conversation with a fellow at at Conservative blog, I would assert that the history of Canada’s relationship with Native peoples does indeed have “some sort of controlling relationship over the whole of Canadian action” [see here if you want]).  Of course, the problem is that the general public remains indoctrinated by the sort of thinking exemplified by the Canadian media and refuses to see a need to educate themselves further on this matter.  Hence, any assertions that challenge the dominant ideology tend to fall on deaf ears.
I’ve been thinking about this problem more since moving to a small predominantly white industrial city that relies upon jobs in plants that are poisoning the local First Nations community (and the town, too, although people don’t really talk about that).  I’ve tried to take the advice of Taiaiake Alfred seriously (who follows Malcolm X in suggesting that well-meaning white people stick to trying to educate and change other white people [if, that is, they are unwilling to assassinate the Minster of Aboriginal Affairs and Nothern Development, although I think he was joking about that]).  I’ve had many conversations at the bar with different people about matters related to the First Nations community here and nobody sees the problem and actually gets offended by what I say — charging me with “reverse racism” and a rude for of “exclusivity” and so on.  I’ve tried to present the broader picture and issues and so on, but all this falls on deaf ears.  I’m not sure how to better go about having these conversations but any suggestions are welcome.
Anyway, this is a really good book.  Recommended readings for any other living in these occupied territories.
3. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger.
Continue reading

Books of 2011

Well, I did meet some of my reading goals for 2011.  I got into Nietzsche a bit and finished off McCarthy’s novels and Proust’s masterpiece.  I also finished nine books related to indigenous issues in North America.  I also ended up spending more time reading material written by anarchists.  Surprisingly, I started enjoying reading poetry more than I have previously, so I may continue that trajectory next year (any suggestions? or, for that matter, any reading suggestions at all?  I’m open to whatever).
However, I didn’t end up reading any Spinoza, I didn’t manage to finish Being and Time before the end of the year and, for the first time in the last six years, I didn’t read a volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics… I’m having trouble feeling excited about reading theology these days (or philosophy… a lot of things actually seem rather pointless these days… maybe I’m depressed!).  In total, I read 65 books in 2011 and I’ve finally admitted to myself that I’m not gonna ever be able to read more than that — at least not for the next handful of years.
My top three works of fiction completed (for the first time) this year are: In Search of Lost Time by Proust, The Age of Reason by Sartre, and the graphic novel Essex County by Jeff Lemire.
My top three works of non-fiction completed (for the first time) this year are: Remember the Poor by Bruce W. Longenecker, Imperialist Canada by Todd Gordon, and A National Crime by John Milloy [Edit: Actually, Wasáse, by Taiaiake Alfred should probably be in this list, if not at the front of it.]
Here is the complete list for 2011:
Continue reading

December Books

Rushed due to being overly busy and tired these days…
1. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown.
This book traces the impact of white settler expansions into the West, as the United States grew and developed, from approximately 1860 until Decemeber 29th, 1890, the date of the Wounded Knee massacre, where Blackfoot and his companions were slaughtered as they were surrendering their arms.  Not surprisingly, it is a tale of misrepresentations, lies, treaties set (by whites) that were never intended to be followed (by whites), massacres, displacements, betrayals, and on and on it goes.  Essentially, it is a document of certain period of the genocide targeting First Nations people (a genocide that continues to this day).  The perpetrators?  Primarily white Christians with a sense of manifest destiny.
Required reading, I reckon.
2. No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism (Book One) by Daniel Guérin.
I was already familiar with a fair bit of the content in this volume — particularly the material related to Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin (who dominate this volume) — but I thought it would be good to refresh a bit on some of it and also discover some new (to me) anarchist voices.  Kropotkin is really my first love when it comes to anarchism and I fail to see how any can read him without seeing this as an expression of the way of Jesus being practiced in a different context.  I also enjoyed the section on James Guillaume, whom I had not read before.  Really, however, I am most looking forward to reading Guérin’s second book which contains a number of anarchist voices whom I have not yet read — most excited to read Malatesta, Makhno and the Kronstadt sailors.
3. Russian Fairy Tales collected by Aleksandr Afans’ev, translated by Robert Guterman, illustrated by Alexander Alexeieff.
This was a fun volume to slowly chip away at over the last year (the tales are short — from one or two paragraphs up to about eight pages — so it’s easy to pick up and put down).  I always enjoy reading old stories, it’s fun (for me) to think about the contexts in which these stories were first told and to then think that I am reading them now.
I was thinking a bit about James C. Scott’s work on “hidden transcripts” and “public transcripts” when I was reading these folks tales.  Some of the stories were obviously told in order to reinscribe and affirm the dominant social order of the day — talking about the miraculous power of Christianity, or talking about how the women should never lead men and that what such women need are a good beating, which will transform them into faithful loving wives (there were a fair number of tales like this).  However, the tales that were told about So-and-So “the fool” or So-and-So “the sluggard” were interesting in that they encouraged and rewarded those who “dropped out” of the roles assigned to peasants, refused to work (and hence were seen as foolish or lazy) but who, in the end, became wealthy, respected or masters of themselves and others.  These stories are, in some ways, much more subversive.
Definitely an interesting collection for those who are into this sort of thing.
4. Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass.
I read this book thinking I was going to participate in the book reading group being lead by Brad Johnson over at AUFS.  However, due to a mixture of busy-ness and lack of inspiration I ended up dropping out of that (which was just as well because the contributions that were made were way out of my league).
I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed reading this book.  Just not the sort of writing style that I find aesthetically pleasing, as far as my personal tastes are concerned.  The whole “stream of consciousness” thing (from Joyce to Pynchon) doesn’t really excite me.  Plus, looking beyond the structure and the prose to some of the themes developed by Gass in the story, well, none of them seem mind-blowing to me.
This is not to say that there was no parts that I enjoyed — I actually liked the opening and I found some of the ramblings of Furber to be pretty exciting.  So, hey, if you’re into this kind of literature, I’m sure you’ll love it.  As for me, well, I enjoyed Gaddis a lot more.

November Books

I had been feeling a little uninspired in my reading lately and then realized that, apart from research for my Paul book, I hadn’t really been engaging biblical studies too much.  I did some reading in that area this month and remembered how much I love it.  For whatever reason, I just really enjoy that genre.  Some good reading this month.  Reviews are also longer this month, but that’s not a bad thing, in my opinion.
1. Jesus, Paul, and Power: Rhetoric, Ritual, and Metaphor in Ancient Mediterranean Christianity by Rick F. Talbott (2010).
Many thanks to the kind folks at Wipf and Stock for this review copy.
Within this book, Rick Talbott “explores how Jesus and Paul responded to and used power to address various issues of conflict in their own communities” (p2).  Over against prior scholars, that have tended to defend one of two poles — on one side arguing that Jesus and Paul exercised a dominating form of “power-over” others and, on the other side, that Jesus and Paul empowered others by sharing “power-with,” Talbott proposes a more nuanced third alternative.  In order to engage in such a study, Talbott employs an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural methodology that relies especially upon social-scientific, feminist, rhetorical, and postcolonial criticisms.  All of this is explained in the first chapter.  The next two chapters are devoted to Jesus, the fourth and fifth chapters focus on Paul, and the final section is a conclusion that highlights some of the similarities and differences regarding the ways in which Jesus and Paul responded to and used power.
Within the section about Jesus, Talbott pushes back against, and enriches, multiple streams of scholarship.  First of all, Talbott pushes back against the now dated form of Conservative or traditional Jesus scholarship that sees Jesus as divorced from any economic or political interests or actions.  Jesus, as has now been firmly established in New Testament scholarship, was a member of an oppressed minority who embraced the interests of other oppressed people and gave his life in a struggle against the death-dealing powers and institutions of his day — notably the imperial colonizing force of Rome and the base of Jewish power that was rooted at the Jerusalem temple, which was working hand-in-glove with Rome to profit themselves and oppress the people.
Secondly, however, over against historical critical scholars who tend to stress the positive and life-giving side of the movement that gathered around Jesus (notably, Richard Horsley), Talbott emphasizes the difficulties Jesus would have caused, not only for those who chose to participate in the fictive kinship he helped to establish but also for any who were related to those Jesus-followers (from relatives to other members of the local community.  This is largely the focus of Chapter Two (entitled, “Nazareth’s Rebellious Son”).  Precisely because Jesus was instrumental in the organization of an alternative group that was “antikyriarchal”– that is to say, a movement that resisted the various networks of power, control, and domination that were inscribed in Jesus’ context through everything from gender relationships, to one’s economic status, to one’s state of physical and religious health and purity, to cultural conceptions of honour, shame, and kinship, and to the all pervasive pyramids of patronage and benefaction — those who gathered around Jesus were bound to suffer.  By challenging the inscribed social order, Jesus and his companions would have suffered shame, economic losses, and potentially death (given that economic losses would be devastating to folks who were living at or near the subsistence level, which is where Jesus and most of his companions would have been situated).  This is what occurs in Nazareth in the story told in Lk 4.16-29, which Talbott links to the Torah’s prescription for dealing with rebellious children, as described in Deut 21.18-21. Therefore, against the sometimes overly optimistic visions presented of the new family and new economy that was formed in the Jesus movement, Talbott stresses that Jesus did not simply “rescue peasants from economic hardship” but actually brought further economic hardships onto those who were already poor (p39).  What is interesting about Talbott’s presentation here is that he highlights the ways in which this may have also devastated the families of those who left to follow Jesus.  Not only would those families lose honour in a community wherein honour was everything but a family living at or near the subsistence level may have been unable to survive if it lost a son who was capable of working and assisting in the provision of food.  Hence, Talbott asks a fascinating question: “why did Jesus appear to be so callously insouciant towards the plight of Zebedee and other families, including his own, left to endure such losses in honor and economic status?” (p54).
Thirdly, in the next chapter, dealing with the eunuch pericope in Mt 19.3-12, Talbott argues against some feminist counterimperial scholars who have postulated that Jesus (subtly and perhaps unintentionally) reinscribed kyriarchal and patriarchal power dynamics into the fictive kinship he helped to create.  Talbott notes a number of antikyriarchal teachings and practices both as described in Jesus’ ministry and as emphasized in the Matthean narrative — from downplaying the significance of Jesus’ birth father, to emphasizing that only God is the father in the new community, to connecting Jesus to Sophia, to supporting the establishment of antikyriarchal meals, to teaching against standard gender hierarchies in marriage (cf. pp74-79, 87-88).  Talbott sees this as supporting a consistent antikyriarchal/antipatriarchal ethic in the Jesus community.  Hence, he see the eunuch teaching in Mt 19 — the assertion that men must become like eunuchs in the kingdom of God — to mean that men must give up the authority and status that society has granted them in relation to women if they are to participate in the new family of God.
Turning to Paul, Talbott first spends one chapter summarizing various scholarly perspectives on Paul and power, before turning to examining Paul’s approach “in [Paul’s] own words” by doing a brief case study of some of the issues that come to the fore in 1 Cor.  In his survey of scholarly approaches to Paul, Talbott pays especial attention to those who have employed Foucauldian lenses to reading and analyzing Paul’s letters (cf. esp. p102-118).  These critics have the advantage of being more nuanced and careful readers than earlier scholars who tended to read Paul in more black or white terms (i.e. Paul as a kyriarchal misogynist or Paul as a proto-feminist).  However, Talbott feels that these critics have still not adequately captured the “bifurcated” and “vacillating” approach Paul takes to power, nor do they pay sufficient attention to the circumstances that prompt Paul’s vacillations.  Therefore, Talbott proposes a reading of Paul wherein kyriarchy and “kyridoularchy” coexist in a contentious dynamic wherein neither one eviscerates the other (p118).  “Kyridoularchy” is a term Talbott creates in order to describe a way of utilizing power in order to serve and elevate those within the fictive kinship of the body of Christ who have less status or honour (cf. pp99-100).  Thus, while Paul was striving to create a community of equals, wherein everybody was ascribed equal honour and value, he would still employ kyriarchal power and rhetoric in order to fight against any who did not share that goal and who challenged him and sought to reinscribe other hierarchies into the body of Christ (cf. pp126-27).
In the subsequent chapter, Talbott looks at some representative conflicts in 1 Cor in order to demonstrate how this plays out in Paul’s own words.  Specifically he looks at matters related to marriage and sexuality (1 Cor 7), matters related to Paul’s own representation of his authority (1 Cor 9) and Paul’s words on how table fellowship was being practiced in Corinth (1 Cor 11).  One of the central points Talbott makes here is that, because Paul employs kyriarchal methods and rhetoric in order to support kyridoularchy, the signs of kyriarchy that we see in Paul’s letter cannot be used to justify any kyriachal practices today (cf. p161).
By way of conclusion Talbott summarizes the similarities and differences between the ways Jesus and Paul responded to and handled power within their communities and the conflicts they negotiated there.  The fundamental difference, Talbott argues, is that Paul still sought to redeploy (kyriarchal) power as kyridoularchy, and so is somewhat bifurcated and vacillating in his approach, whereas Jesus was much more thoroughgoing in his rejection of any kyriarchal structures or practices (cf. pp167-68).
All in all, this was a really excellent book.  I appreciated Talbott’s nuanced approach and feel that he did a better job of making sense of Paul and power than a lot of prior efforts.  My only (substantial) objection to Talbott’s presentation is his understanding of the relationship of material loss of poverty to membership within the community that gathered with Jesus and Paul.  On multiple occasions, Talbott feels that it is necessary to stress the observation that neither Jesus nor Paul “seems to have required those who served as patrons to relinquish their means and become poor as a standard requirement” (p164).  Or, again: “Jesus did not require all disciples to become wandering, itinerant disciples who left their families to follow him in an ascetic life of poverty” (p49); and “patrons like Zacchaeus would suffer some depletion of their holdings but would not have necessarily become poor, let alone destitute” (p59).  While this may be true, and while Talbott mitigates some of what he is saying by pointing out the ways in which even patrons like Zacchaeus may have been drawn into a threatening trajectory of downward mobility by giving to the Jesus movement (cf.p63), I still feel that Talbott doesn’t adequately grasp what is occurring in this regard.
In order to explain this, it is worth comparing the Jesus Movement to the Occupy Movement.  Who are the members of the Occupy movement?  Well, at one level, any member of the “99%” is represented by the movement.  However, within that 99% of our general population, different people participate to varying degrees.  Some people will only attend the major rallies.  Some people will go to a General Assembly five days a week.  Some people will actually set up a tent at an occupied site and dedicate most of their time and their energy to the movement.  They key point to realize here has two sides: first, that all of the groups of people mentioned are, in fact, members of the Occupy movement but, second, the goal of the movement is for people to become ever more involved in the struggle and in participation at ground level.
A similar thing is happening with the Jesus movement.  Who are the members of the Jesus movement?  Well, at one level, Jesus is claiming that all of Israel is represented in the movement (the “99%”).  On another level, there were those who would participate when the movement passed through their locality.  On still another level, there were those who chose to leave their villages and families behind to live and travel with the Jesus movement.  All, of course, are members of the Jesus movement, but, just as with the Occupy movement, the goal was for people to become ever more involved in the struggle and in participation at ground level.
With this in mind, we can see how Talbott’s observation is accurate — yes, not all the people involved in the movement participated, gave or risked to the same extent — but misses the intention of the movement (which was for all to participate fully so that all could have full and abundant life).
Finally, in relation to this matter of Jesus and poverty, Talbott states that Jesus did not “concentrate on the marginalized or the destitute in general to make up the bulk of his movement” (p49).  This is an odd assertion to make, within the context of Talbott’s book because, apart from a few people, like Zacchaeus or some wealthy women mentioned by Luke, everybody else mentioned in the Jesus movement appears to be precisely from that socioeconomic location.  It seems to me that Jesus does concentrate on precisely that group of people, as examplified in his “mission statement” in Lk 4, and so when Talbott makes this sort of assertion, without seriously backing it up and then going on to assert things that appear to disprove it, I’m left a little puzzled.
However, don’t let these few criticisms take away from any of the strengths of this book.  I enjoyed reading it very much and recommend it to others.
2. From Patmos to the Barrio: Subverting Imperial Myths by David A. Sánchez.
In this award-winning book, David A. Sánchez explores the ways in which those who ave been subjugated by the myths of the dominant, take those myths and reshape them in a manner that subtly subverts them in order to meet the interests of the subjugated while simultaneously producing the illusion of acquiescence.  He does this by look at the story of the woman and the dragon deployed in Rev 12, which then becomes the foundation for myths that rise about the Virgin of Guadalupe in 17th century Mexico, which in turn is the foundation for the prominence of images of the same Virgin in Chican@ art that appeared in East L.A. in the 1960s and ’70s (where Sánchez was born and raised).  Thus, the book is divided into three main sections. First, Sánchez examines the ways in which John’s narrative subverts imperial Roman ideology by redeploying the story of Apollo slaying Python (which had been incorporated into a pro-Augustan myth), by telling a similar story in a manner that undercuts Roman imperialism in order to push the messianism of the early Jesus movement.
Second, this passage from John’s Apocalypse then becomes the foundation for the stories of the Virgin of Guadalupe that arose in Mexico in the 17th century, especially amongst the Creoles (who were considered second-class, and potentially dangerous, citizens by Spaniards born in Spain).  Although the Virgin was originally deployed as an advocate of Spanish nationalism, imperialism, and conquest, the Creoles (and some indigenous Mexicans) redeploy that myth in a manner that undercuts the Spanish ideology and promotes an ideology that favours the oppressed.
Finally, Sánchez argues that something similar occurs in the deployment of images of the Virgin which were deployed by members of the Chican@ movement that appeared in East L.A. in the 1960s and ’70s.  Over against American nationalism, imperialism, and conquest — especially buttressed by a mythology of manifest destiny (well exemplified in the painting, “American Progress,” by John Gast, which Sánchez deploys in his text — and which is interesting to compare with other stories of American Progress as told in, for example, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or Stolen Continents), Sánchez argues that the Chican@ movement utilized images of the Virgin of Guadalupe to support an Mexican ideology of independence, nationalism, and chosenness.
Sánchez then concludes by offering some remarks upon postcolonial theories — especially as developed by Homi Bhabha and James C. Scott — and stresses the importance of creating antimythologies in a counterimperial project of resistance and liberation.
I enjoyed reading this book.  It is always good to see scholars who critically engage both the biblical texts and our own histories and moments within history.  Would that more scholars were engaging in this sort of endeavour, especially with some of the postcolonial and counterimperial lenses and tactics that Sánchez deploys.  I do, however, have a few critical questions I would like to raise.
First of all, I want to question Sánchez approach to the creation of antimythologies and the kind of subversive work that he encourages, especially by means of (what Bhabha terms) hybridity and mimicry.  It seems to me that is is overly optimistic about what this sort of project and and what it can accomplish.  Some representative quotes should help bring this out.  In describing Jewish and Christian adaptations of the Apollo/Python dragon-slayer myth, Sánchez writes that “[t]he genius of these two adaptations is that they both employ important aspects of imperial propoganda in a completelysubversive way” (p46; emph. added).  This isn’t the only time that Sánchez describes this approach as “genius” and he thinks that it is not only genius in and of itself but also in relation to other tactics employed in resistance.  Thus, he writes that “resistance is most commonly accomplished with subtle acts of subversion, rather than outright rebellion or revolt” and to the important thing to do is to “undermine not the structures of oppression but the ideologies that stood behind those structures” (p74; emph. added).  This is why Sánchez stresses that one should engage in a counterimperialism rather than an anti-imperialism (cf. p120).  He writes: “To create an antimythology is as futile as armed resistance, so instead, they choose to create a countermythology… This form of resistance is realistic and brilliant. It has proved so effective historically, that it is a phenomenon that has transcended time and cultures” (p122).  Therefore, in his concluding remarks about Bhabha’s notions of hybridity and mimicry, Sánchez presents an overwhelming positive perspective: one that sees hybridity and mimicry and unambiguously good and brilliant forms of subversion, for, quoting Aschroft et al., in their reader on postcolonialism, mimicry can “locate a crack in the certainty of colonial discourse” and is “always potentially destabilizing to colonial discourse” (p118).  While for Ashcroft et al. the world “potentially” operates as an important modifier of the destabilization that mimicry might produce, for Sánchez it is almost as though the word “potentially” is removed and mimicry becomes “always potentially destabilizing to colonial discourse.”
The problem here is twofold: first, Sánchez is overly optimistic about subversion by means of the production of countermythologies in and of itself, and Sánchez is too pessimistic about other means of resistance or subversion that involve more direct action.
Beginning with Sánchez’s overly optimistic view of countermythologies and subversion by means of hybridity and mimicry it must be emphasized that, by utilizing the discourse, images, and tools of the dominant, oppressed people often carry forward violent, discriminatory, and exclusionary views and practices into their countermythologies.  Redeploying, albeit in a subverted or warped manner, the myths of the dominant still ends up producing domination.  Often this redeployment simply changes up who are to be dominant and who are to be dominated — it does not challenged the fundamental context of domination itself.  So, yes, there may be exploitable “cracks” in the discourse of colonial domination, but that may not point to a crack in overall context of domination.  This is part of the reason why, for example, so many liberatory revolutionary movements end up reinscribing violence, terror and oppression after they overthrow the previously dominant powers (so, for example, the legacies of the French revolution, wherein the bourgeois sell-out the proletariat — and fight against the Haitians who revolted based upon the belief in “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, which the French clearly believed only belonged to those who were white and not below the bourgeois class — the American revolution — which led to American imperialism both now and (for example) against the indigenous people from the moment of its inception — or the Russain revolution — wherein a push for freedom from the dictatorial power of the Tsar quickly leads to Lenin’s incarceration of the Anarchists or the famous Stalinist purges — and so on).
Now there are at least two things intrinsic to Sánchez’s project that should have brought this challenge to his attention, so I find it somewhat perplexing that he is as optimistic as he is.  First of all, studies of the New Testament, and especially of John’s Apocalypse, have increasingly raised the questions of how folks like the author of the Apocalypse (or of the letters penned in the name of Paul) may be trying to work in a subversive manner but may still, despite their best intentions, be replicating oppressive structures and expressions of power, even as they try to work against the death-dealing imperialism of their day.  Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has done a lot of work to bring this project into focus in her rhetorical analysis of the New Testament and with her emphasis upon the notion of kyriarchy, which seeks to extend feminist analyses of patriarchy into the broader webs of power, control, and domination that operate within a given milieu (Schüssler Fiorenza has also written explicitly on John’s Apocalypse so I find it odd that Sánchez did not engage her).  Thus, for example, while claiming to be participants within a movement wherein life triumphs over death and those in bondage are liberated, John’s Apocalypse still seems to require God to violently overthrew, destroy, and massacre, the enemies of the movement.  So, sure, mimicry and hybridity may be at work here, but it is pure, genius, unadulterated subversion?  No.
The second thing that should bring this to the attention of Sánchez is his study of the ways in which the Creoles deployed the Virgin of Guadalupe in the 17th century.  The Creoles, so Sánchez tells us, created a countermythology that not only combated the dominant ideology of the Spaniards but also sought to undercut any indigenous claims to the apparition tradition (cf. pp75-76).  Now, the Creoles (Spaniards born in Mexico) were marginalized and lacked some of the power and authority granted to those who were born in Spain but were not nearly as decimated or oppressed as the indigenous people themselves were.  So, what you see is the redeployment of the Virgin tradition not in order to bring liberation to the oppressed (like the indigenous people) but in order to favour the interests of a relatively marginalized subset of the elite — and the tradition is redeployed in a way that explicitly tries to negate the myth from being appropriated by oppressed people (cf. pp75-76). Sánchez never explains how this observation fits into his optimistic reading of this form of subversion (thus, while Sánchez identifies himself as a postcolonial critic over against some liberation theologians who may not be sufficiently critical of oppressive power structures that are perpetuated within the biblical texts [cf. p125], it seems that he is not sufficiently critical of his own sources).
Thus, in and of itself, subversion through the production of countermythologies does not seem to be the glorious agent of salvation that Sánchez takes it to be.  Is it “completely subversive”?  No.  Is its historical track record as brilliant and glorious as Sánchez suggests?  No (as our revolutionary examples make clear).
Similarly, I am unsure as to why Sánchez is so critical of other tactics that may be employed to pursue life-giving change.  Why should one attack the ideologies of oppression but not the structures of oppression?  Why is armed resistance futile?  Seems to me that Sánchez is picking and choosing what he wants to see in the historical record.  Armed resistance has often been successful — in fact, as Todd Gordon suggests in Imperialist Canada, the First Nations people in Canada have pretty much only and exclusively been successful in defending their land claims when they have engaged in armed resistance.  Furthermore, Sánchez also ignores the ways in which a diversity of tactics, employed by various groups at the same moment, actually tend to produce greater success for a common goal.  Thus, for example, the civil rights movement in the United States achieved what limited success it was able to achieve in part because the Black Panthers were simultaneously trying to arm the ghettos.
Additionally, shouldn’t assaults upon ideologies ultimately lead to assaults upon structures?  Shouldn’t we cross that line at some point?  Or does Sánchez think that structures will simply crumble and disappear (structures that exist in order to buttress the already massive wealth and power of some people–people who will kill to maintain that wealth and power, regardless of what others believe) once some people start espousing a different ideology?  That strikes me as naive.  Doesn’t ideological criticism seek to inspire new actions and doesn’t an ideology of resistance seek to inspire actions of resistance?
Furthermore, isn’t is suspiciously self-serving for a person rooted in the Academy — i.e. a person situated in a place of (relatively) high status and wealth — to suggest that the way things are overthrown is by producing texts (which the academic is paid to produce) and not be acting to massively overhaul the system?  Doesn’t this ideology permit an academic to say any sort of radical text, while simultaneously benefiting from the death-dealing status quo?  Thus, the academic does not need to change his or her socioeconomic location, but can continue to benefit from the way things are while believing that s/he is on the cutting-edge of producing life-giving change.  Like I said, this strikes me as suspicious and so assertions like those Sánchez makes about fighting ideologies versus fighting structures need to be supported by a sustained argument.  Here, perhaps Sánchez’s inability to recognize the compromised nature of most countermythologies makes it difficult for him to recognize the compromised nature of his own context (or vice versa… or both).
This, then, leads me to my final critical question for Sánchez.  Sánchez writes that he chooses to employ postcolonial criticism because it is practical, praxis-oriented, and liberative (p8).  What is unclear to me is how exactly this book meets those criteria.  Perhaps Sánchez would respond by saying it meets those criteria in that it encourages people to subversively engage the mythologies of the dominant on behalf of the dominated… but all of that practical, liberative praxis remains on the domain of the word or letter — the sign and symbol.  What I do not see, is much cross over into concrete action (I am reminded of the following exchange in Camus’ Les Justes, a play about a group of Russian conspirators planning to blow up a member of the Tsar’s family.  The first character states that one of the conspirators “dit que la poésie est révolutionnaire” to which another conspirator responds: “La bombe seule est révolutoinnaire”).
Anyway, lest my criticisms lead the reader to conclude I did not enjoy this book, let me be clear: I very much enjoyed this book, in part, because it prompted these thoughts in me.  I would be curious to see what Sánchez might say in response (and we were exchanging emails about a possible exchange), so perhaps this conversation will continue.
3. The Prostitute and the Prophet: Hosea in Literary-Theoretical Perspective by Yvonne Sherwood.
This book was a lot of fun to read.  Sherwood has a strong grasp on both the Old Testament text and contemporary approaches to deconstruction and literary theory.  Thus, she reads folks like Jamison, Eco, Rorty, Fish, Barthes, Saussure, Peirce, Kristeva and (most especially) Derrida, alongside of those who have commented on Hosea — from ancient Jewish sources, to contemporary biblical scholars, to modern playwrights.  There are a lot of riches to be found here and one of the strengths of Sherwood’s approach is the way in which she is able to explain complex notions or systems of thought in a manner that is both substantial and accessible to the uninitiated (I think).
Sherwood’s goal in this book is to explore why Hosea is seen as a problematic text.  In particular, she wants to know why readers react to this text in the ways that they have and why (some) readers highlight some elements of the — often confusing or contradictory — passages in Hos 1-3 and why they neglect other passages.  Of course, reading as a feminist critic, Sherwood is particularly interested in what these readings communicate about the ways in which gender and patriarchal hierarchies are inscribed within the story of the prophet and the “woman of harlotry” — a text produced and analyzed by men.  As an ideological critic, Sherwood is also interested in the ways in which readers of the text often wish to protect (one understanding of) God against another (possible) understanding of God communicated by Hos 1-3.
All in all, good reading.  I remember reading some of Sherwood’s essays a few years back in a book she co-edited called Derrida and Religion.  At that time I wasn’t too impressed with the whole endeavour, but it may have been because I didn’t understand nearly as much on that matter as I do now.  Maybe it just went over my head.
4. Essex County (a trilogy) by Jeff Lemire.
I have sometimes felt that I spoiled the graphic novel genre from the beginning by reading the very best book first.  Granted, it was the right book for the right time, but every since I read Craig Thompson’s Blankets, most graphic novels, including the most highly rated ones (likes Maus, or Epileptic, or Black Hole) have seemed at least a little disappointing (by the way, Thompson’s newest, and largest, offering, Habibi, has now been published!).  Then I stumbled onto Jeff Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy and finally, at long last, I discovered a book that at least rivals Blankets.  Lemire’s artistic style is quite different than Thompson’s — much less ornate, much more stripped down and bare — but he is able to do what Thompson does — convey very powerful emotions in very few words.  Lemire is particularly good at drawing out feelings of loneliness and longing and the desire to love others and be loved one’s self (a desire that often goes unmet because of circumstances beyond our control or flaws in our own characters that we don’t know how to overcome).
Part of what made this graphic novel interesting to me is that it is set in Essex County in southwestern Ontario, not too far from where I now live and where I once lived as a child.  The places, themes, and kinds of characters are familiar to me, on a personal level, so I’m sure that helped me to connect with the story.
That said, this is highly recommended reading.  Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year and I will read it again before the year is out.
5. Septuagenarian Stew: Stories and Poems by Charles Bukowski.
My wife recently surprised me with this book — she found it in a bargain bin somewhere and pulled it out for me I (given that I flirt with some of Bukowski’s character traits and given that my wife would like me to go in a somewhat different direction, that was pretty generous of her).  I’ve kind of gone back and forth on what I think of him over the years, but I think I’ve gradually made my piece with enjoying his writing and I enjoyed this volume more than some of the others I’ve read.  Additionally, I actually quite enjoyed some of the poems contained here, and that was another pleasant surprise, given that I usually struggle to enjoy any poetry (apart from Rilke… see below).  Part of what I enjoyed here was the way in which Bukowski is able to capture the beauty of the things which other people see as destructive or immoral or disgusting.  When he writes about being an alcoholic, for example, one gets a glimpse of why people are alcoholics.  He doesn’t romanticize it — the poverty, and squalor, and hangovers, and sickness, all of that comes through — but he doesn’t demonize it either.  Hell, booze becomes like any close friend in your life — sometimes a cause of great grief, sometimes a cause of great joy, but mostly a faithful companion whom you wouldn’t trade for the world.
It seems to me that Bukowski understands brokenness, he understands that people are often overwhelmed by things greater than themselves, things outside of their control — like an abusive father, or an unfaithful spouse — and so we all bears up in our own ways, finds a way to survive and make it through til the next day, sometimes just getting by, sometimes breaking down, sometimes being able to forget everything and laugh for awhile, and sometimes choosing to end it all because it has become unbearable.  Bukowski seems to get all this, and seems to also get this: all the things that people do, as they try to struggle on or as they give up the fight completely, are okay.
Recommended reading.
6. Uncollected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke.
After rereading the Duino Elegies and being struck by the amount of different material that jumped out at me (compared to the material that jumped out at me in my first readings), I thought I would reread this collection of poems.  I’m glad that I did.  It would be hard to tire of Rilke’s writings.  Here’s just one example:

Do you remember: falling stars, how
they leapt slantwise through the sky
like horses over suddenly held-out hurdles
of our wishes–had we so many?–
for stars, innumerable, leapt everywhere;
almost every look upward was wedded
to the swift hazard of their play,
and the heart felt itself a single thing
beneath that vast disintegration of their brilliance–
and was whole, as though it would survive them!

October Books

Kinda busy… proofreading to follow later… hopefully… apologies for sparse reviews.
1-2. The Plains of Aamjiwnaang and Ways of Our Grandfathers: Our Traditions and Culture by David D. Plain.
These two short books were written by a member of the Ahnishenahbek at Aamjiwnaang.  That is to say, they were written by a member of the First Nations people who live on the land where I now also live.  Given that I am keen to become involved with the First Nations community here, I was very pleased to discover these educational texts by a local author.  In fact, I’m not just keen to become involved, what is going on in their community — essentially, they are being murdered, especially their children, by chemical pollutants released from industrial plants that surround them; a few documentaries like Toxic Trespass, The Beloved Community, The Disappearing Male, and Waterlife cover this in some detail and I highly recommend them, not only for locals, but for any who want to get a sense for both the environmental destruction and the colonial project of genocide against indigenous people that continues to occur not just in the two-thirds world, but here in Canada.  Just to get a sense for the damage the pollutants cause the community, while male to female birth rates are generally sitting at 51% males born to 49% females, the birth rate in the community is 67% female and the rates at which pregnancies are lost are about three times higher than the national average.  This is because pollutants related to the plants here disrupt the endocrine system.  Speaking of pollutants, 21% of the greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario come from these plants.  According to the World Health Organization, this town has the worst air quality in Canada.  The folks who live close to the hazardous waste processing plant, called “Clean Harbors” (the largest in North America) have to be evacuated from their homes on a semi-regular basis.  Think something along the lines of Delillo’s “airborne toxic event” (people usually know it’s time to go when nausea, migraines and fainting spells set in, although this also happens elsewhere in the city depending on what and how much the plants are releasing)… only that has occurred more than half a dozen times over the last two months.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, I could go on and on… apparently something like 80% of the oil-based products used in the industrial world are somehow connected with this chemical valley (all the oil giants are here or were here)… maybe in a future post…
Anyway, back to the books.  In the first book, The Plains of Aamjiwnaang, David Plain recounts the history of the Ahnishenahbek in the Aaamjiwnaang region and beyond from the late fifteenth century til the mid-twentieth century.  He focuses upon his own lineage, the Plain family, who include a number of historical chiefs (both civil and war chiefs).  Personally, I found the history to be both fascinating and useful.  I never knew the historical significance of this region, nor did I know of the battles fought in this area (one hears a lot about battle grounds in Europe but we don’t know the history of our own regions).  Not surprisingly, one of the things that comes through pretty clearly is just how dishonest and brutal the Settlers were in their actions toward First Nations people.  Broken promises, theft of lands, betrayals, manipulation of peoples by trying to create internal divides and create powerful parties who are interested more in themselves than in the good of the community… all that happened in this location, just as it happened everywhere else colonialism goes.
The second book, Ways of Our Grandfathers, was also a useful read for me as I get situated here. While the first book explores events and people, this book examines cultural practices, religious beliefs, political and economic structures, and healing practices (including a list of regional plants, how they were prepared, and what they were used to heal).  All in all, recommended reading for any local folks.
3.  A Second Birthday: A Personal Confrontation with Illness, Pain, and Death by William Stringfellow.
Many thanks to the folks at Wipf and Stock for this complimentary copy.
This is the second book in Stringfellow’s autobiographical trilogy (my review of the first volume is here).  I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as the first.  Having witnessed some very close friends and family members deal with serious illnesses or lifelong pain, I was hoping for a more sustained reflection upon that subject (as the book is roughly structured around the time in Stringfellow’s life when he became very sick and almost died until a last-ditch-effort surgery saved his life).  However, the book was more of a rambling series of tangents about a wide variety of subjects.  Much of it did not seem as exciting as some of his other reflections, although some of the sections were quite good — his criticisms of nostalgic American family television shows and his reflection on the dangers of simply going with the “default” option one has in society were especially good (but too short!).  Also, his section on why he despised being relegated to the role of a “theological gadfly” and why he began to cease given lectures in contexts where he was perceived that way is worth quoting:

Too often the difficulty with that task, I found, was that the ecclesiastical authorities, bureaucrats, and flunkies whom I addressed actually relished criticism as a means of further avoiding reformation or renewal.  They were flagellants, morbidly enjoying punishment for misbehavior in which they fully intended to persevere.  My involvement as “gadfly” or whatever-you-call-it was becoming a charade.
I would drop out of it.  And I did.

I have had very similar experiences when it comes to speaking in Christian contexts (from churches, to universities, to conferences) about matters related to poverty, restitution, and oppression, and these experiences have also made me question the whole process and look to other angles of action beyond the written word (I’m beginning to wonder if the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that the pen is mightier than the sword).
Anyway, all that to say, this book was quick and easy and mostly pleasant reading with a few bright moments but not nearly as inspiring as other things written by Stringfellow.  The groupies will like it, the others could skip it without much loss.
4.  The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics edition).
Found this in an old box of books my wife brought from her mom’s farm and thought I would give it a read.  I reckon that I’ve probably read the whole epic in bits and pieces over the years but it was good to sit down and read the whole thing.  I find it absolutely fascinating to read literature that was written thousands of years ago… I love reading old stories (even if they’re not all that exciting on the surface).  It blows my mind to think that such things have endured over the years and that I am now reading, in the year 2011, a text that was originally recited in ancient Mesopotamia.  I definitely want to prioritize other such texts as I look for reading material next year
5.  Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
I had read a number of beautiful quotations from these letters, so when I saw the collection in a used book shop for a few bucks, I was happy to pick it up.  The letters are enjoyable — some good reflections on creativity, writing, love, and loneliness — but don’t come close to matching some of Rilke’s poetry.
6.  Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
Some time back, Brad Johnson recommended this book when I asked him to list some of his favourite novels, and so I finally got around to reading it.  I’m very glad that I did.  It’s a great story about how one person — in this case, an unnamed black male who moves from the South to New York in the early twentieth century — constructs his own identity in light, especially, of the ways in which a wide variety of others, construct his identity in other ways (i.e. in ways that don’t really see him, hence the title).  Recommended reading.
Bonus Crazy Christian Book: Love and Sex Are Not Enough by Charles P. de Santo.
So, I was visiting with a friend who passed this book onto me.  I sort of have a thing for reading wacko Christian books from previous decades.  I think they offer a different way of reading a lot of contemporary Christian books — i.e. they may be just as wacko — and I think this is particularly true in relation to the subjects at hand in this work: love, sex, and marriage (also, reading books like these is an amusing way of killing time on the can).  Of course, like most Conservative Christian books about how to live life, this one is full of lines about how we cannot permit our culture to dictate our values (Christians need to espouse to traditional, universal values) and then it goes on to embrace a slew of culturally-conditioned values from hetero-normativity to patriarchy to the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism.  Now, what makes this particular book stand out, is the way in which it employs an appeal to sociology in order to affirm both racism and classism.  Essentially, the authors central point boils down to the fact that “love and sex are not enough” to make a good marriage.  Furthermore, it’s not enough to also share the same religious outlook as a prospective partner.  Rather, one has the best odds of producing a good marriage if one also dates within one’s class (poor people are especially bad marriage prospects, according to De Santo, as are atheists), and within one’s race (I quote: “While it is not immoral to marry outside one’s race, it probably is unwise).  Again, it bears repeating that it may be easy to unveil the absurdity of pretty much all of this book, but the point then is to turn the critical lenses on any present day Christian texts that address these matters and ask if they will not be considered equally absurd in a few years.

Worst Title Ever?

I recently found this amongst donations in a church library.  I challenge anybody to come up with a better title and cover page for a Christian book (in other news, I think Ratzinger distributed this one to priests throughout his empire).

September Books

1. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives by Phyllis Trible.
This is one of those books you read about in a lot of places and so, coming across it in a friend’s library this last week, I thought I would give it a read.  For those who know the literature around OT scholarship or feminist-critical readings of the B.I.B.L.E. there probably isn’t that much new here — so many people have picked up and ran with what Trible wrote since this book was published that a lot of people have probably pretty much read this book already.
However, that doesn’t take away from any of its significance.  More than most I know, Texts of Terror is the sustained work of exegesis that absolutely damns any superficial understanding of the Bible as the plain and simple, divinely inspired Word of God.  In exploring the stories of four women — Hagar, Tamar, the unnamed raped, murdered and dismembered concubine of a Levite, and the daughter of Jephthah — Trible demonstrates not only the atrocities and violence performed by the human characters within the stories but also of the narrators and of God as God is portrayed in those stories.  Any acritical approach to the the biblical stories is pretty much impossible after one encounters Trible’s text.  And thank God for that.
2. Time Regained (Vol 6 of “In Search of Lost Time”) by Marcel Proust.
I’ve gotta say that, after Vols 4 & 5, I was pretty nervous to get into the conclusion of In Search of Lost Time.  Those contributions were so disappointing that I was worried the story would continue its downward slide and end in disappointment.  Thankfully, however, this volume really does rise up to meet the expectations set by the first two (maybe three) volumes.  Once again, the sort of insight Proust demonstrated earlier surfaces and some of his descriptive moments put into words things that we take for granted but perhaps would never know how to actually express (here Proust lives up to the role of the writer as he describes it in this volume: “The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator”).
I very much enjoyed this volume and, all in all, am glad that I undertook the reading of this story. I very much enjoyed Proust’s reflections not just on time but on the ways in which people move through time, the ways in which people construct their identities, and the ways in which each individual person is, in fact, a whole host of beings — (each one a multitude that signals: “I am legion” to borrow from Hardt and Negri’s borrowing from the Gospels).  Thus, we are, all of us, constantly in the process of creating and recreating ourselves and others and, at any given moment, who we are is rather different depending on who describes us (and who is to say whether one person’s description of us is more accurate than any other person’s description or our own?  Are we not, rather, all at once, everything we are taken to be?).  To share simply one quote from this volume in this regard:

As I made my way home, I reflected upon the speed with which conscience ceases to be a partner in our habits, which she allows to develop freely without bothering herself about them, and upon the astonishing picture which may consequently present itself to us if we observe simply from without, and in the belief that they engage the whole of the individual, the actions of men whose moral or intellectual virtues may at the same time be developing independently in an entirely different direction.

Consequently, Proust sets out to explore the “notion of Time embodied, of years past but not separate from us.”  In this regard, memory is also an ongoing theme throughout the book as, for example, demonstrated in this passage:

I understood that the reason why life may be judged to be trivial although at certain moments it seems to us so beautiful is that we form our judgment, ordinarily, on the evidence not of life itself but of those quite different images which preserve nothing of life–and therefore we judge it disparagingly.  At most I noticed cursorily that the differences which exist between every one of our real impressions–differences which explain why a uniform depiction of life cannot bear much resemblance to the reality–derive probably from the following cause: the slightest word that we have said, the most insignificant action that we have performed at any one epoch of our life was surrounded by, and coloured by the reflexion of, things which logically had no connexion with it and which later have been separated from it by our intellect which could make nothing of them for its own rational purposes, things, however, in the midst of which… the simplest act or gesture remains immured as within a thousand sealed vessels, each one of them filled with things of a colour,k a scent, a temperature that are absolutely different one from another, vessels, moreover, which being disposed over the whole range of our years, during which we have never ceased to change if only in our dreams and our thoughts, are situated at the most various moral altitudes and give us the sensation of extraordinarily diverse atmospheres.

To close things out, here are a few final references and quotations.
First, of all, on a somewhat interesting trivia note, I found it interesting that Proust refers to the air battles fought over Paris during WWI with several references to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”  Of course, Francis Ford Coppola ended up using that same piece of music for what might be the most famous scene in Apocalypse Now–when the American helicopters fly in and assault a Vietnamese village.  The parallels are pretty striking and I reckon he must have borrowed this from Proust.
Secondly, in this volume, characters reflect in more than one instance about the role that media plays in the formation of perceptions that people than internalize and take to be their own.  To quote M. de Charlus: “”What is astonishing,” he said, “is that this public which judges the men and events of the war solely from the newspaper, is persuaded that it forms its own opinion.”  I reckon the same is true of people today, although the nature of the media has changed — instead of newspapers, people rely on sources like twitter, facebook, and wikipedia in order to discover their own opinions.
M. de Charlus also as some good things to say about war:

The creation of the world did not take place once and for all, you said, it is, of necessity taking place every day… ‘Now that Germany has determined on war, the die is cast,’ the truth is that every morning war is declared afresh.  And the men who wish to continue it are as guilty as the men who began it, more guilty perhaps, for the latter perhaps did not foresee all its horrors.

Something that we should keep in mind today both as we sustain old wars and create new ones (pardon the overlap with our contemporary context but, as Proust also observes in this volume: “In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.  The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself”).
Moving on to a related theme, I also enjoyed the following passage on love, wherein Proust quotes Jean de La Bruyère:  “Men often want to love where they cannot hope to succeed; they seek their own undoing without being able to compass it, and, if I may put it thus, they are forced against their will to remain free.”  Although, some pages later, Proust slightly alters what this may mean in his own reflections on love: “to the woman whom we have loved most in our life we are not so faithful as we are to ourself, and sooner or alter we forget her in order… to be able to begin to love again.”  This, quite a bit later, leads to further reflections upon love in relation to the ways in which we construct our selves:

In the past the fear of being no longer myself was something that had terrified me, and this had made me dread the end of each new love that I had experienced (for Gilberte, for Albertine), because I could not bear the idea that the “I” who loved them would one day cease to exist, since this in itself would be a kind of death.  But by dint of repetition this fear had gradually been transformed into a calm confidence.  So that if in those early days, as we have seen, the idea of death had cast a shadow over my loves, for a long time now the remembrance of love had helped me not to fear death.  For I realised that dying was not something new, but that on the contrary since my childhood I had died many times.

So, anyway, I hope that you all get a glimpse of Proust’s ability to write well and also see the ways in which he anticipates many of the themes that arise in twentieth-century social theory, philosophy, and hermeneutics.  Really it is quite incredible and I am glad that I undertook the task of reading this book.
3. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton.
Not that long ago, I read an essay by Žižek reflecting on this story by Chesterton.  So, seeing it sitting on a friend’s shelf, I sat down and read it the other day.  I can’t say I found it all that exciting.  In fact, I found it mostly mildly annoying.
On the meta- level, Chesterton is reflecting upon questions about good and evil and how such things can exist in the company of a God who is both powerful and loving.  He does this by writing a story about secret police officers (who belong to the special “thought police” section of the force) who are on the tail of an international anarchist conspiracy.  Neither level of the story plays out all that well.  In relation to matters of evil, this isn’t entirely Chesterton’s fault.  As far as I can tell, nobody can offer a satisfactory answer to that issue.  Chesterton’s proposal is that when we focus in on evil and suffering and pain, we are basically seeing the back of God — or of the world — which appears monstrous, but our encounter with the face of God makes everything seem beautiful and playful and makes the monstrous stuff appear as some sort of joke just awaiting its final revelation.  So, for those who are desperate for some sort of romantic ideological overcoding of life, I suppose this might sound nice… but, for myself, it just sounds like the sort of story told by people who don’t want much to do with suffering.
Moving to the details of the story, Chesterton shows (a) an obvious love of law-and-order and (b) a total lack of comprehension about anything related to anarchism as a political philosophy or as something that has inspired people to try and act on behalf of life-giving change in the world.  Really, he ends up sounding like one of the “good old boys” who seems to think that British imperialism is essentially a benevolent force for good in the world (speaking of being a good old boy, Chesterton’s story also lacks any significant female presence — just one woman shows up for a few pages at the start and then is mentioned again at the very end — all the other main characters and speaking parts are male; plus, a lot of the story seems like a school boy’s fantasy about running around saving the world from bad guys [like “anarchists”] and wearing flashy clothes and carrying a sword will sitting on a throne or a horse… yippee).
Of course, Chesterton realizes that just doing what you’re told to do seems less flashy and exciting than being involved in some sort of revolutionary action, and so that’s why the God in his story goes around creating a plot that adds a whole lot more excitement to the lives of those who both follow and enforce the laws of society.  “I was just following orders… and, boy, was it exciting!”  Unfortunately for Chesterton, this line of thinking is about as accurate as R. R. Reno’s recent assertion that the true way to demonstrate a preferential option for the poor is to wear a tie and not watch trashy TV.
Not really recommended reading.  Also not really something that makes me interested in reading much of anything else Chesterton wrote.
4. Soldier X by Don Wulffson.
This book is the story of a German soldier who fought on the Russian front during WWII.  I enjoyed it quite a bit because it brings a human face to people — German soldiers/Nazis — who are generally treated as animals or as those who deserved to die, in our more culturally dominant reflections upon that war.  This story is written as fiction, but the author claims that what occurred accurately reflects the experiences of two people.  I don’t want to say too much about the plot because there are some very interesting twists that make this story a little different than other war memoirs I have read… and because the book is so small that you could sit down and read it in a few hours to find out for yourself what it says.  All I can say is that war is fucking hell, I have no ability to imagine what it is like to live through something like that, and I hope I never find out.
5. Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland.
Coupland tends to have a bit of a cult following up here in Canada and Hey Nostradamus! has probably become his most highly praised novel (prior to that, I think it was Life After God).  Some of my friends really love this guy and can offer pretty captivating readings of his books, but I’ve always had a bit of trouble connecting with Coupland’s writing.  This book wasn’t really that different than his others in terms of the impact I felt from it.  It was… good… not great or stunning.  There were moments when it began to verge on something more exciting and the writing started to feel like it was rising to another level, but those came and went quickly and mostly it remained in the realm of… good.  Enough to keep you turning the pages and feel interested, but that’s about it (the story, by the way, centres upon a high-school shooting that occurs in the ’80s and the impact that has upon four related characters over the years).

August Books

Finished off a number of books this month.  Mostly lighter stuff, as I’ve been writing again (Hello, Paul-and-kinship-honour-patronage-economics-and-power-chapter!  It’s nice to finally meet you!).  Too lazy to proof-read right now… will follow-up later.
1. Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” by Mother Teresa (ed. with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk).
Throughout her life, Mother Teresa made it a point of always submitting to the Roman Catholic hierarchy and chose to view her bosses as though they were Christ himself.  She would make her requests, plead her case, and then totally submit to their decisions — which they would make based upon criteria other than those Mother Teresa had chosen.
The publication of these private writings — letters, retreat notes, and so on — are a fine example of that sort of submission and authority.  Mother Teresa had begged her bosses to destroy these documents (she was always wishing for less and less of a focus upon herself as an object of any sort of interest) but they chose, instead, to publish them after she died.  They decided that the ways in which the writings would edify others trumped any thoughts Mother Teresa had about sharing her most intimate reflections.
Of course, like a vulture, I swooped in, disregarded what Mother Teresa requested, paid my money to the authorities who also disregarded her, and read the writings.  And, my goodness, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt as connected to a “religious” or “spiritual” text as I felt to this one.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I ain’t no Mother Teresa but, shoot, her reflections on godforsakenness absolutely capture what I have been experiencing the last three years.
Because this is what few people knew about Mother Teresa during her lifetime: ever since she founded the Missionaries of Charity at the end of the 1940s, she felt as though God had completely and utterly vanished from her life.  This feeling continued unabated until her death in the ’90s.  Part of what made that so devastating for her was that, prior to founding the Missionaries of Charity, she felt as though she was in constant intimate communion with God (and it was this communion, in their conversations, that drove her to founding the M.C.s).  This was the cornerstone of her life so when God vanished, she was left with a wound that never stopped hurting her.  Now, I won’t claim anything like what Mother Teresa experienced but, this is what I’ve been feeling as well.  The emptiness of the last three years has been hard, not just because they are empty, but precisely because I know what the alternative can be like — as she writes: “this darkness and emptiness is not as painful as the longing for God.”
Thus, she remains constantly on the edge of breaking — and speaks of no longer feeling any love or trust or faith — yet she persists with her labour, she continues to serve others, she tries to smile more and more… and for some reason those who come near to her feel as though they are closer to the presence of God.  A funny twist, no?
In thinking through the work Mother Teresa did and the changes she helped to create, it was startling to see how totally submissive she was to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church (which, we should recall, is just as death-dealing and corrupt as pretty much any other political or corporate hierarchy).  The catch is that it was (partly) be means of her submissive to this oppressive hierarchy that resulted in Mother Teresa being able to do what she did.  For those of us who want to more actively resist the death-dealing Powers this is a somewhat disconcerting observation…
Anyway, this is highly recommended reading.
2. The Twenty-Piece Shuffle: Why the Poor and Rich Need Each Other by Greg Paul.
A little while ago, somebody left a comment on my blog suggesting that the primary people saved by liberation theology are liberation theologians.  The theology they develop is ultimately their own road to salvation.  This comment came to mind while reading Greg Paul’s book — although full of many good stories, and obviously written with a lot of love for a lot of people — because it seems to me that the implicit theme of this book is really Greg’s defense of his own lifestyle in light of the work that he does.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing such self-reflective books (indeed, I think this is the implicit theme of a lot of writing — even outside of the realm of memoirs or autobiographies).  However, I do think Greg’s conclusions are problematical.  Before saying why, however, I should mention how much personal respect I have for Greg and the folks at Sanctuary — the place he helps to organize and run in Toronto.  I really to think Greg is a wonderful man and Sanctuary is one of two churches-that-call-themselves-churches that I think do an excellent job of actually being the way that churches should be (the other being The Mosaic here in Vancouver… in comparison to these two churches, every other one that I have attended falls far short).
That said, Greg’s argument in this book is pretty bad.  He remains strictly at the personal level of analysis and never moves beyond that to anything structural.  In fact, by writing in this way, Greg’s argument fits easily into the perpetuation of oppressive social structures.  This happens because Greg thinks that the poor and the rich need each other.  He shares stories about the brokenness of people on both sides of that divide, and he shares stories about how people have their lives enriched on both sides when they cross that divide and get to know others from different socioeconomic backgrounds.  Hence, their need for one another.
What Greg never does is challenge wealth and poverty, what creates it, what maintains it, in any sort of thoughtful manner.  In fact, his focus on the personal level of things, his assertion that the poor and the rich need each other, leads pretty straightforwardly to the conclusion that we need to live in a world (or in local communities) where there is always wealth and poverty.  According to this argument, there is no point in challenging that, no point in looking at moving beyond wealth and poverty to a community wherein there is neither poverty nor riches but enough for everybody (the sort of community that was to exist in Israel according to the Law and the Prophets, that was developed by Jesus in Palestine, and that Paul tried to expand into the Roman Empire).  Such a suggestion seems totally foreign to what Greg writes in this book.  Instead, Greg focuses on life stories, the personal divorced from the structural, and — despite many of his more “radical” stances — ends up writing a basic defense of the forms of charity that make a difference in the lives of individuals but end up perpetuating and strengthening the death-dealing status quo.
Finally, on a personal note, it’s interesting to observe how different it is for me to read stories like these now, compared to how I used to read them ten years ago.  When I was first getting involved with homeless folks, I read a number of journals or memoirs written by folks associated with this population.  Truth be told, at that time, a lot of the stories struck me as romantic, exotic, wonderful, and exciting.  Adventures dripping with pathos, ruptured by the in-breakings of Death or Life.  It’s a bit shameful to admit this (if I ever felt shame anymore…), since I was actively engaging in a process of Othering, dehumanizing and exploiting an already oppressed and vulnerable population by reading in this way.  Thankfully, I realized that I no longer read stories like those Greg offers in this way.  Having moved more and more into the context of the street-involved (in both “personal” and “professional” ways), the romance and exoticism have disappeared.  That’s probably a good thing, since what remains, more and more, is just people.  Peoples is peoples, to quote a character from one of the Muppet movies.
3. The Diaries of Louis Riel by Louis Riel (ed. by Thomas Flanagan).
So, given that I’ve been exploring more about the history of Canada’s First Nations’ people, the topic of the Northwest rebellion has always lingered around, and I stumbled onto Riel’s diaries in a bookshop and picked up a copy (I’d already read Chester Brown’s pretty fascinating graphic novel about Riel).  It comes through quite clearly in Riel’s diaries is that he was obviously very much committed to his religion (which began as Roman Catholicism, morphed into something of his own creation, and then kinda sorta returned to Catholicism in the end when he was trying to avoid execution).  The other thing that comes through pretty clearly is that Riel was a self-absorbed prick who thought he had some sort of divine calling that justified him in being a self-absorbed prick.  He speaks penitently and contritely about his “gluttony” or his drinking, but all this humility just masks (probably from Riel himself) that he seems to be largely motivated by a desire for wealth, status, and power.  God make me rich and smite my enemies!  Egad.  And all the time acting like he is on the side of the Natives, when really he only cares about the Métis (probably only because he is a Métis), and he has no vision of the Natives being present in the new nation he wishes to create.  Even then, despite all his revolutionary talk, he was still secretly writing letters to John A. MacDonald offering to sell-out the revolution.  Double egad.
It’s interesting to compare the diaries of Mother Teresa with those of Riel.  Some folks might be inclined to see them both as nuts based upon their visions, ecstatic experiences, voices or signs from God and so on.  Both also claimed to want to try and make a positive difference in the lives of people who were suffering and oppressed.  The major difference, is that Mother Teresa tried to abolish any sense of pride she had, whereas Riel was so in love with himself that he couldn’t even recognize how prideful he was.  I’m not saying that this is the only factor leading to the different end results they experienced (it’s not!), but I think it’s an interesting comparison.
4. Hope Dies Last: Keeping Faith in Difficult Times by Studs Terkel.
Studs Terkel is an historian who interviewed a good many of interesting people around America over the span of the twentieth century.  In this compilation — very roughly structured around the theme of hope — Terkel interviews everyone from politicians to priests, union organizers to veterans, activists to workers.  There are some big recognizable names who did big recognizable things, but there are also a good number of people who are unknown to the broader public who did just as big and exciting things.  It’s really a beautiful collection.  I often think there should be more work done to document and share the news of those who work in their own communities to create life-giving changes.  Personally, the section I think I found most interesting was when Terkel interviewed people — both students and (mostly illegal migrant) workers who became involved in in the movement for a living change for workers at Harvard, which occurred from around 1997-2001.  Like all major universities, Harvard (despite its billions of dollars in funding) employed migrant workers to do the cleaning and cooking and so forth.  These workers did not receive a living wage.  The students coordinated a number of efforts to try and change this policy and, after reviewing everything that was submitted the President of Harvard essentially said: “That’s an interesting idea but, no, we’re not going to give the workers a living wage.”  This prompted a moment of less-legal direct action, wherein about fifty students occupied some of the main admin space in the university for over twenty days.  The police tried unsuccessfully to remove them.  The President tried unsuccessfully to over to negotiate with them if they left (they refused — having already seen what happened with that kind of negotiation).
Along the way, and this is what I found so incredible about the story — the workers and the students united with each other.  Previously, the workers had been like an invisible non-human slave force to the students, and the workers had viewed the students as a bunch of rich assholes.  However, once students realized the humanity of the workers and once the workers realized the sincerity of the students, a wonderful community of creativity and resistance was born.  The end result?  A living wage for the workers.  And this caused a ripple effect throughout university campuses in the United States.  Wonderful stuff.  Now if only the students, or young activists, could be doing more in our time to be co-ordinating their efforts with the working classes and the poor…
5. Holocaust Poetry compiled by Hilda Schiff.
I’ve been trying to read a little more poetry lately, since falling in love with Rilke’s writings, and I figured it had been enough years since I touched this genre and, who knows, I might end up connecting with it more deeply than I have in the past.  Anyway, I don’t know if this collection was the best place to turn — it’s terribly sad and it feels almost sacrilegious to read and even more sacrilegious to review… so instead I’ll just post one poem from the collection, written by Lily Brett.  I think I was drawn to it because it circles around the unspeakable, without quite speaking it but, by doing so, thereby communicating something of it.  It’s called “My Mother’s Friend”:
my mother
had a schoolfriend
she shared the war with
my mother
looked after her friend
in the ghetto
she laid her out
as though she was dead
and the Gestapo overlooked her
in Auschwitz
she fed her friend snow
when she was burning with typhoid
and when
the Nazis
emptied Stuthof
they threw
the inmates
onto boats in the Baltic
and tried
to drown
as many as they could
my mother
and her friend
after the war
my mother’s friend
patted my cheeks
and curled my curls
and hurled herself
from the top
of a bank.
6. Baltasar and Blimunda by José Saramago.
I enjoyed reading Blindness awhile ago, and so I was feeling like a change of pace and tone (what with working through Proust) and so I thought I would pick up Saramago again.  I can’t say that I enjoyed this story all that much.  There were some moments when it felt like it had potential (especially early on) but nothing ever really materialized… it almost felt like Saramago didn’t really know where he was going with the story and so was just having fun rambling on with his descriptions, and lists, and names, and so forth.  I would suggest giving this one a pass.
7. Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke.
Speaking of Rilke, I decided I would reread the Duino Elegies.  I think they just get more rich and breath-taking with every reading.  There’s no point in even making little marks in the margins — the pages would just fill up.  I’ve decided that this is probably the closest thing to a perfect piece of writing that I have ever read.  Stunningly good.
8. Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs.
A friend recommended this autobiographical series of sketches to me.  It’s in the same sad/comedic vein as some if the things written by David Sedaris.  Although I didn’t laugh a ton (when do I ever, right?), there were definitely parts that made me chuckle and Burroughs does a pretty decent job of entwining the painful or sorrowful with laughter and courage.  I liked it enough that I decided I would read his more famous book — Running With Scissors.  My wife told me to read it years ago, so I’ll see how that goes.

July Books

1. St. Paul Among the Philosophers edited by John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff.
This is a good collection of essays based upon the papers presented at a conference by a series of heavy hitters — from Badiou and Žižek to Dale Martin and Ed Sanders.  It was fun to read philosophical appropriations of Paul engaged explicitly by historical appropriations of Paul.  Especially interesting, were the moments of exchange tcaptured in the roundtable discussion that is recorded as the final chapter of this volume.  This collection of essays seems to stand above others in this genre (like the one edited by Douglas Harink).  It’s clarity is admirable and the contributors don’t feel like they are constantly stretching to create connections, nor do they feel like they are simply having a bit of fun showing how smart they are and how capable they are of playing around with conceptual short circuits.  I felt that Dale Martin’s contribution was the strongest (perhaps because I think he demonstrates the greatest knowledge of the discussion or perhaps because his understanding of things seems similar to mine?).  All in all, a decent read.
2. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System — 1879 to 1986 by John Milloy.
This is the sort of book that not only should be required reading for every person who lives within the imagined borders of something called “Canada,” it is also a book that should be read by any member of the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and United Churches.  It is a damning report on the history of the death-dealing practices of colonialism as those practices found expression in this nation, by means of the State and the Church working together to “solve the Indian problem” (although the business community was and remains part of the motive and means by which this is addressed today, that community was not very involved in residential schools so I will leave them aside for now).
For those who don’t know, the indigenous people of Canada were subjected to ongoing and sustained campaigns that intended to destroy their cultures, their identities, their family structures and (if all else failed or if it was more convenient) their lives, in order to assimilate them into white, Christian society and ensure that they were contributing productively to Canadian economic development.
One of the ways this occurred was through the development of residential schools.  Indigenous parents were legally required to surrender their kids to residential schools that were far removed from their family homes.  These schools intended to “kill the Indian in the child” and so the children were not permitted to dress, eat, wear their hair, or speak as they desired.  Their hair was cut.  Their clothes were changed.  They were fed proper white food in proper white settings.  They were taught Christian doctrines.  They were taught in English or French.  They were taught white ways of owning property and working as wage labourers or farmers.
However, the schools were never properly staffed, funded or managed and so even this (horrendous) colonial goal of assimilation was never accomplished.  Instead, the schools became the stuff of nightmares.  The buildings were run down and not heated or ventilated properly.  The clothing provided was inadequate.  There was never enough food and the food provided was often of a despicable quality.  “Discipline” was harsh.  Children were regularly beaten, locked alone in dark places, whipped, and so on and so forth.  Sexual abuse was also rampant.  Studies suggest that 100% of children at some school were sexually abused.  It was not uncommon for children to die because they tried to run away and find their way home… in the middle of winter… with no jackets on their backs or boots on their feet.  And these were not the only kids who died.  The studies reveal that anywhere between 30-65% of the children who attended residential schools died while there due to the mixture of these conditions and other things like TB or influenza outbreaks.  In British Columbia, it is estimated that over 80% of the kids died.  Not to mention the people who later went on to die due to substance use, at their own hands, or at the hands of others, because of the scars left be this experience.  Not to mention the ways in which this abuse and trauma has then been based on to the children of survivors.
In other words, what Milloy documents is a fucking Holocaust, one that still impacts people today, one which has never been properly addressed and, indeed, one which is sustained today by other means.  Anybody who proudly claims the titles “Canadian” or “Christian” should pause and think again after reading this history.  This is a must read.  Not only that, but it should prompt action.
3. Broken Circle — The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools: A Memoir by Theodore Fontaine.
Moving from academic reflections upon the historical records of Canada’s history of residential schools for indigenous children, I thought I would also read some of the personal memoirs written by survivors and victors.  Fontaine’s story exemplifies some of the common threads found in the stories that have gained publicity — experiences of violence, sexual assaults (one of the priests would regularly wash the genitals of the younger boys because, he said, they did not know how to properly clean themselves), experiences of being torn away from family and having that rupture manipulated in such a way so that the children would blame their parents or siblings and not the priests, nuns, or school administrators.  However, unlike many others, Fontaine was able to gain the right to attend school without residing there — he ran away twice, the second time after having his face seriously bloodied, and when his dad took him back to the school and spoke with the head priest, it was arranged that Fontaine would no longer live at the school.  I suspect that this is part of the reason why Fontaine was able to heal more than some others.
In reading some of the reviews on the back cover of this book, and in the front pages, it is interesting to note how the commentators are quick to praise Fontaine for writing about his experiences but for doing so without being vindictive or overly angry.  I’m curious why people feel that this is praiseworthy and what the expression of this sort of praise communicates to the public and to others who have stories to tell.  Personally, I feel that it would be fully appropriate for Fontaine to be vindictive, if he chose to be that way.  Others should not be denied the space to speak or act in this way.  Given the atrocities committed, liberal Settler society need to suck it up and move beyond the flowery language of “reconciliation” and admit that restitution and vindication may be more appropriate avenues towards a better future.  Thus, by praising Fontaine’s account for lacking a vindictiveness, I feel that stories of residential school experiences simply end up being twisted to meet the interests of the ongoing oppressive system of power and exploitation that continues to exist in Canada in relation to the indigenous people.
4. Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom by Taiaiake Alfred.
Speaking of the ongoing oppression and exploitation of the indigenous people of Canada, Taiaiake Alfred — a member of the Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) people — turns to exploring ways in which this people can resist oppression and, moving beyond resistance (or submission) to resurgence and new life.  The title, Wasáse, refers to the warrior dance of unity, strength, and commitment to action, and much of what Alfred writes comes out of his reflections upon what it means to be a warrior in today’s world.  There is a great deal of depth and richness in Alfred’s text.
Really, this book deserves it’s own post… and I’m actually hoping to post an interview with the author.  For now, I will say that this is very highly recommended reading.
5. In the Garden of Men by John Kupferschmidt.
This book was actually written by the brother of a friend whom I love and respect a great deal.  It was the winning submission of the three day novel contest a few years back.  And it’s a really good book.  The author tackles some pretty grand themes — good and evil, submission and resistance, beauty and meaning — and wraps them together in a wonderful tale about a paper-pushing somewhat embittered nobody working under the Communist party in Czechoslovakia.  Recommended reading (and quick reading, too!).
6. The Captive and The Fugitive by Marcel Proust.
Shoot, this bit of “In Search of Lost Time,” was easily the worst part yet.  I know I’m dealing with sections that Proust had not fully edited before he died, but I’m not bothered simply by the incompleteness and the lack of those beautifully polished sections and sentences that Proust used to produce with more frequency in earlier volumes.  Beyond those details, its the subject matter itself that I found dull and unattractive.  Hundreds of pages of reflection about jealousy, revealing the protagonists pettiness, insecurity, mommy-issues, and so on (and on and on and on).  I’m actually kinda nervous to now read the final volume.  After starting so strongly, this story has taken a major downward turn in the last two installments and I’m wondering if that slide continues or if Proust pulls it together and pulls off the sort of conclusion that the first three volumes deserve.
7. Paying For It: a comic strip memoir about being a john by Chester Brown.
In my life and work, I have encountered a lot of different voices speaking about the morality and legality of sex work — I’ve gotten to know a number of sex workers over the years, I’ve known some who worked independently but most of them were pimped (and I’ve known a fair number of pimps).  I’ve also read some of the feminist literature on the subject, and have heard opinions of ex-sex workers, supports, advocates, social workers and that of other members of the community with some concern or interest related to the subject (seems like everybody has something to say about sex work… actually everybody seems to have something to say about everything…).  However, what I have not encountered a lot is the voices of johns — those who pay to have sex with others.  Of course, I have known johns (both through my work and in my personal life… I suspect that they might be far more common than most people think) but they don’t seem to be as involved in the public conversation about the matter of sex work.
Therefore, when I stumbled onto this autobiographical graphic novel by Chester Brown (who gained fame previously for the biographical graphic novel he created about Louis Riel), I picked it up with some interest.  I’m glad I did.  Brown is, in many ways, a model john (although I suppose that some will say that is an oxymoron).  He has also spent a lot more time thinking and reading about sex work and the legal and moral issues involved.  For the most part, I actually agree with his conclusions regarding decriminalizing (but not regulating) sex work in Canada.  I also agree with a lot of the conclusions that he draws related to the morality of paying people money for sex (i.e. that, in an ideal situation, it isn’t a big deal).
However, Brown still ends up being somewhat naive and a little self-serving in some of his arguments.  I don’t think he takes seriously enough the issues of pimping, human trafficking, and exploiting those who have been traumatized and have fallen into sex work from a very young age — for example, fourteen is the average age of entry into the trade in Vancouver (forty is the average age of death) — and for less than ideal reasons.  In the world that Brown imagines exists, everybody is a fully developed, fully rational, and fully willing participant in the exchange of sex for money.  This is simply not the case and, here is my biggest issue with Brown’s narrative, for the most part the john has no way of ascertaining what is or has gone on with the sex worker.  Based on his stories, I strongly suspect there were times when he visited women who were being pimped, and quite possibly women who had been trafficked (although he finds ways of drawing conclusions different than mine, despite the evidence… although he likely lacks the eyes to discern what sort of evidence builds a compelling argument in this regard).
It is also these issues that makes me think that decriminalization is a more complicated matter than Brown makes it out to be.  Law-makers should be cognizant of the ways in which laws impact the most vulnerable members of a community and while decriminalization may be of immediate benefit to a minority of sex workers (women who work independently and make quite good money for what they do) a good many other women and may find that this makes it that much more difficult for them to break free from pimps or traffickers.  Thus, while I do favour decriminalization, the process must be done with this in mind.
Anyway, there is quite a lot more I could say about this book but instead I’ll just recommend it to the reader.  At times it can be repetitive, but it is a quick read that should spark a lot of thought and discussion.  I think it would be especially appropriate for reading groups.