And it’s that time of year again—time to select the best of the best and the worst of the worst books, films, and documentaries that I reviewed in 2019. As usual, I will begin with the books, turn to the movies, and conclude with the documentaries before providing the comprehensive of list of what I read and watched.
This year was a record setting year of reading for me—I finished a total of 119 books! As usual, good ol’ story books dominated (34 fiction books read—and I tried to prioritize reading a lot of African lit this year), but poetry moved well up the list (15 books read), and graphic novels still hung around (only 4 read… but they were all solid… I would read more but the price versus the amount of time it takes me to read them is hard to justify… goals for 2020: use the library more). I read less Science & Nature books than I intended (only 10) and my number of Indigenous studies books also dropped (down to 7). Readings related to the psy disciplines, as well as more therapeutic stuff in general popped up out of the blue (sitting at 11), and I really engaged in some sustained readings pertaining to sex and gender (13 books) as well as dabbling further in some matters related to race (5) and fascism (also 5). Picked up some more “religious” type books for the first time in years (3), and also knocked of some stuff related to gentrification and urban studies (2). Social theory and philosophy was lower than some other years (10) but I read a good mix of some classics that I have neglected as well as some fun new things. All in all, I’m quite happy with this although I plan to step back from all media (including books!) at the beginning of 2020 to spend some time thinking about where I go from here, and doing a bit more writing. January 2020 will likely be the first month I don’t read a book since, um, 1987??
And now for the best of the year! This year, I have three books that stand out from the rest: Meeting the Universe Halfway by Karen Barad, Male Fantasies by Klaus Theweleit, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Karen Barad is an experimental physicist and feminist social theorist and her “agential realism,” which draws heavily from quantum theory, is the best answer I have encountered to the questions of “what is ‘the real’?” and “how can we know it?” Brilliant and engaging, Barad draws together streams that I love (quantum science, evolutionary developmental biology, and social theory) but that are often left apart. This is one of the most formative texts of theory that I have ever read on any year. However, I have also been reading a lot of theory related to race, toxic masculinity, and the resurgence of fascism and Klaus Theweleit’s examination of the ways in which particular formations of masculinity are integral to the rise of Nazism in post-WWI Germany (observations that, alas, are all too relevant to our own times). His writing is brilliant, verging on madness at times (and I mean that as a compliment, as per mad studies), and utterly intriguing. And then there is Ocean Vuong, whose book of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, also very nearly made it onto this list of the best of the very best. However, when certain poets cross over from poetry to story-telling they sometimes end up producing novels that leave you in such a swirl of feelings that it’s almost ecstatic (Maggie Nelson did this with The Argonauts; other poets can’t always achieve this–Rilke being a good example of that). Reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a very physical experience and few books touch me so powerfully and in such a sustained way. If, then, we were to bring together these three books I would say we have brilliance, relevance, and beauty all swirling together. If you only read three of the books I recommend, these are them. I do have honorable mentions in each category as well. These are in bold in the list provided below.
As for the worst of the worst? Hmmm… I was disappointed with If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, in part because it has received so much praise, in part because it felt very repetitive, and in part because Mr. Palomar and his collection of Italian folk tales are so, so good. I also felt like Wolf in White Van fell well short of the kind of story-telling John Darnielle does in his songs. Virtuous Violence by Fiske and Rai was also a let-down and, really, can be skipped without missing, um, anything really. I also thought that Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis was a lot of hot air and a major disappointment precisely because his seminars on Anxiety were so damn good. However, tied in dead-last are Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf and JT LeRoy’s the heart is deceitful above all else. These books suuuuuuuucked. James was a huge letdown, given that A Brief History of Seven Killings was so good (although the signs of his decline are already present there… kind of like how George Lucas was much better when he was restrained and got waaaaay worse once people bought into his hype about himself).
This year I watched 21 movies. Not a super high number but, as you will see from the list below, I’m turning into a total film snob (and I have no ragerts about that, baby!). My top three films were Capernaum (2018) directed by Nadine Labaki, Custody (2017) directed by Xavier Legrand, and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) directed by Alain Resnais. Labaki’s Capernaum does an amazing job of showing what it is like for everyday people to negotiate spaces that have been devastated and abandoned by imperial powers and how, people there, are left in this limbo where things like the Law or traditional morals are not always the best judges or guides. But its real power is the whole-hearted, and all-too-human ways in which the children who are the leads play their roles. Extraordinarily moving. Also moving, but with very different feelings, is Legrand’s Custody, about how an abusive man tries to manipulate courts and custody arrangements in order to maintain his power over the woman who has fled from him (with their son). The terror is utterly mundane—this is the day-to-day reality of life for so many—but it is fully palpable and this movie left me with a far greater and longer lasting sense of dread than pretty much any so-called horror movie. Also, the sublty present in the performance of the abusive man is top-notch. We are shown not only how he is an abuser, but how he views himself as a victim, how he cannot grasp that others cannot see him how he sees himself, and how he is just a regular guy. I would love to discuss this film with a group or a class. And then there is Last Year at Marienbad, a work of art that does not feel pretentious and that offers an excellent meditation, not only on memory in general, but also on how men who have been violent cycle through memories, trying to force them to be what they want them to be, looping and looping until they have constructed a past that they find livable but which, ultimately, is a trap. That, at least, is my reading of Resnais’s work although part of the brilliance of this film is that it invites several other readings. So, yeah, those are my top three. Honourable mentions are in bold below.
As for the worst of the worst, well, the zombies really let me down this year. I thought a zombie-horror-Christmas-musical would be a lot of fun but Anna and the Apocalypse ended up being totally dull (the exact opposite of Polish-horror-killer-mermaid-musicals, like The Lure). One Cut of the Dead was also clever and all (and surely has to be inspired a bit by Calvino?), but it wasn’t enough to make me want to sit through the kind of zombie scenes we’ve all seen over and over by this point. I was also fairly disappointed with the latest offerings from Lanthimos and Peele. I had high hopes! Too high, apparently.
As for documentaries, I watched 30 this year. A number of them were really, really good so it’s hard for me to narrow the best of the best down to a few. I have six favourites: two exposées of rape culture, men who are rapists, and how they use things like wealth and patriarchy to get away with it (Leaving Neverland  directed by Dan Reed and Surviving R. Kelly  directed by Nigel Bellis and Astral Finnie), one about the brutality and legality of murderous settler colonialism in Canada (nîpawistamâsowin  directed by Tasha Hubbard), one that shows the devastating mixture of toxic masculinity, impoverishment, and White supremacy in the USA (Minding the Gap  by Bing Liu), one about the criminalizing of abandoned, traumatized and abused teenage girls based on legal and moral codes in Iran, (Starless Dreams  directed by Mehrdad Oskouei), although this is obviously applicable to the settler colonial states on Turtle island, and one about the beauty and power of water (Aquarela  directed by Viktor Kossakovsky). Each one of these is outstanding and highly recommended.
As for what I don’t recommend, no one documentary stands out as super awful. Chicken People bored me, though, as did If I Had Four Camels, and Lo and Behold (which was extra disappointing since that one was by Herzog). But, yeah, nothing stands out as being deserving of the “worst of the worst” label. Honourable mentions are also in bold below.
And that’s 2019. Not really sure where 2020 will take me. Peace out.
Science & Nature (10)
- Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.
- Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things.
- Butterworth, Jon. Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (and Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics.
- McAuliffe, Kathleen. This is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society.
- Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.
- Okasha, Samir. Evolution and the Levels of Selection.
- Purvis, William. Lichens.
- Turner, J. Scott. The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures.
- Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.
- Zimmer, Carl. She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity.
- Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1936—1945 Nemesis.
- Lyons, Matthew N. Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire.
- Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies (2 Volumes) by Klaus Theweleit.
- Traverso, Enzo. The New Faces of Fascism.
- Jüngel, Eberhard. God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth.
- Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human.
- Warwick, Tarl (ed.). Grimorium Verum: The True Grimoire. First Edition 18th Century.
- Bitek, Juliane Okot. 100 Days.
- Breton, André. Nadja.
- Calvino, Italo. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
- Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories.
- ________. Cathedral: Stories.
- Coutu, Mia. Sleepwalking Land.
- Darnielle, John. Wolf in White Van.
- Döblin, Alfred. Berlin Alexanderplatz.
- Etchells, Tim. Endland.
- Handke, Peter. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.
- Herrera, Yuri. Kingdom Cons.
- ________. The Transmigration of Bodies.
- James, Marlon. Black Leopard Red Wolf.
- Krasznahorkai, László. The World Goes On.
- Le Guin, Ursula K. The Earthsea trilogy.
- LeRoy, JT. the heart is deceitful above all things.
- Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace Walk (the Cairo trilogy Vol. 1).
- Makumbi, Jennifer Nansubuga. Kintu.
- Moravia, Alberto. Boredom.
- Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory.
- Power, Richard. The Overstory: A Novel.
- Proust, Marcel. The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust.
- Rugero, Roland. Baho!
- Roupenian, Kristen. You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories.
- Roy, Arundhati. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
- Tutuola, Amos. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
- Vandermeer, Jeff. Area X (The Southern Reach Trilogy)
- ________. Veniss Underground.
- Vuong, Ocean. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel.
- Zerán, Alia Trabucco. The Remainder.
Sex & Gender (13)
- Arruzza, Cinzia, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser. Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto.
- Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Aggressive Men.
- Bhattacharya, Tithi (ed.). Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression.
- Bray, Abigail. Misogyny Re-Loaded.
- Dawn, Amber and Justin Ducharme (eds). Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry.
- de Alba, Alicia Gaspar (ed.) with Georgina Guzmán. Making a Killing: Femicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera.
- Eisenstein, Hester. Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World.
- Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist: Essays.
- Gilligan, Carol and David A. J. Richard.s Darkness Now Visible: Patriarchy’s Resurgence and Feminist Resistance.
- Jenkins, Alan. Invitations to Responsibility: The therapeutic engagement of men who are violent and abusive.
- Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era.
- Rodríguez, Sergio González. The Femicide Machine.
- Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity.
Philosophy, Politics, & Social Theory (10)
- crow, scott. Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Grounds Collective.
- de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life.
- Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975—1976.
- Fiske, Alan Page and Tage Shakti Rai. Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End and Honor Social Relationships.
- Goodchild, Philip. Theology of Money.
- Hegel, G. W. Phenomenology of Spirit.
- Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason.
- Lagalisse, Erica. Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples.
- Phelps, Hollis. Jesus and the Politics of Mammon.
- Rancière, Jacques. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy.
- Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time.
- Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism.
- Diangelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White people to talk about racism.
- Maynard, Robyn. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present.
- Mbembe, Achille. Critique of Black Reason.
Graphic Novels (4)
- Brogsol, Vera. Anya’s Ghost.
- Carrol, Emily. When I Arrived at the Castle.
- Sabaaneh, Mohammed. White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine.
- Watts, Irene N. Seeking Refuge: A Graphic Novel.
- Akbar, Kaveh. Calling a Wolf a Wolf.
- Apollinaire, Guillaume. Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916).
- Césaire, Aimé. Return to My Native Land.
- Cull, Tom. bad animals.
- Fulton, Alice. Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems.
- Larkin, Philip. The Whitsun Weddings.
- Limón, Ada. The Carrying: Poems.
- ________. Bright Dead Things: Poems.
- lovelace, amanda. the mermaid’s voice returns in this one.
- Nelson, Maggie. something bright, then holes.
- ________. The Latest Winter.
- Nguyen, Diana Khoi. Ghost Of.
- Smith, Danez. Don’t Call Us Dead.
- Snyder, Gary. Turtle Island.
- Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky with Exit Wounds.
Indigenous Studies (7)
- Campbell, Maria. Half-Breed.
- Campbell, Tenille K. #IndianLovePoems.
- Elliott, Alicia. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.
- Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. This Accident of Being Lost.
- Skeet, Jake. Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers.
- Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and the American Indian Genocide.
- Starblanket, Tamara. Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State.
Urban Studies (2)
- Moskowitz, P. E. How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood.
- Stein, Samuel Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State.
Psychoanalysis & Mental Health (11)
- Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion.
- Bowlby, John. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development.
- Lacan, Jacques. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X.
- ________. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI.
- Phillips, Adam. On Balance.
- ________. Promises, Promises.
- Purser, Ronald E. McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality.
- Rogers, Carl R. On Becoming a Person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy.
- Rose, Jacqueline. Women in Dark Times.
- , Yannis. Lacan & the Political.
- Szasz, Thomas. The Medicalization of Everyday Life: Selected Essays.
- Tosh, Jemma. The Body and Consent in Psychology, Psychiatry, and Medicine: A Therapeutic Rape Culture.
- Benson, Justin and Aaron Moorhead. The Endless (2017).
- Clapin, Jérémy. I Lost My Body (2019).
- Dumont, Bruno. Slack Bay (2016).
- Fedorchenko, Aleksei. Silent Souls (2010).
- Grassadonia, Fabio and Antonio Piazza. Sicilian Ghost Story (2017).
- Knight, Travis. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016).
- Korine, Harmony. The Beach Bum (2019).
- Labaki, Nadine. Capernaum (2018).
- Lanthimos, Yorgos. The Favourite (2018).
- Legrand, Xavier. Custody (2017).
- Mazzetti, Lorenza. Together (1956).
- McPhail, John. Anna and the Apocalypse (2017).
- Mitchell, David Robert. Under the Silver Lake (2018).
- Möller, Gustav. The Guilty (2018).
- Øvredal, André. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019).
- Peele, Jordan. Us (2019).
- Phillips, Todd. Joker (2019).
- Ramsay, Lynne. Morvern Callar (2002).
- Resnais, Alain. Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
- Švankmajer, Jan. Alice (1988).
- Ueda, Shinichiro. One Cut of the Dead (2017).
- Bellis, Nigel and Astral Finnie. Surviving R. Kelly (2019).
- Chamberlain, Marsh. We Breathe Again (2017).
- Gage, Jenny. All This Panic (2017).
- Grabham, Tim and Jasper Sharp. The Creeping Garden (2014).
- Gras, Emmanuel. Makala (2017).
- Haimes, Nicole Lucas. Chicken People (2016).
- Herzog, Werner. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016).
- Hubbard, Tasha. Two World Colliding (2004).
- ________. nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up (2019).
- Kossakovsky, Viktor. Aquarela (2019).
- Lane, Penny. Hail Satan? (2019).
- Lilla, Brian. Patagonia Rising (2011).
- Liu, Bing. Minding the Gap (2018).
- Lough, Adam Bhala. Alt-Right: Age of Rage (2018).
- Loveridge, Steve. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (2018).
- Marker, Chris. If I Had Four Camels (1966).
- McAlpine, Alison. Cielo (2017).
- McCallum, Robert. Missing Mom (2016).
- Müller, Ray. The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993).
- Neville, Morgan. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).
- O’Bomsawin, Kim. Quiet Killing (2018).
- Oelman, Jake. Learning to See: The World of Insects (2016).
- Oskouei, Mehrdad. Starless Dreams (2016).
- Portillo, Lourdes. Señorita Extraviada (2002).
- Reed, Dan. Leaving Neverland (2019).
- Rofé, Joshua. Lorena (2019).
- Ross, RaMell. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018).
- Sandiford, Mark. Qallunaat! Why White People are Funny (2007).
- Williams, Alex. The Pass System (2015).
- Yan Chun Su. Drokpa: Nomads of Tibet (2016).