Discussed in this post: 7 Books (Atom Land; Lichens; White Fragility; Feminism for the 99%; Palace Walk; What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; and the mermaid’s voice returns in this one); and 5 Documentaries (Cielo; Minding the Gap; Lo and Behold; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; and Two Worlds Colliding).
1. Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (and Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics by Jon Butterworth.
Physics sure as hell isn’t what I was taught it was back in the day. I mean, sure, Newtonian mechanics are useful but Quantum physics is hella weird and wonderful and fascinating and the world of particle physics is so strange and incredible that I find it hard to get my mind around it. Or maybe that’s just all the maths. Turns out maybe I should have paid attention in those classes after all. Thankfully, there are texts like this one by Jon Butterworth which do their damnedest to communicate something of the wonder and complexity of the particle world in language that ding-dongs like me can understand. So, yeah, I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s mind-blowing to me. And, even though this is a very, very simplified presentation, I’m not sure I understood everything. In particular, I find myself wanting to understand the weak atomic force more. So strange. And lovely. It makes me grateful to be alive and a part of all of this. If you find books that make you feel that way, read them.
2. Lichens by William Purvis.
Lichens are fascinating forms of life. They are hybrid organisms—holobionts or endosymbionts—composed of a combination of fungi and algae—fungi and algae that unite together to make a new and distinct form of life. That are fascinatingly diverse, incredibly sensitive to their environments, but still able to live in places where not much else that European traditions of power/knowledge identifies as life can live and, as a result, were like a large factor in the first move of that life from the primordial oceans to the land. So, given that I think they are so interesting (both on their own and as a glimpse into the hybridity of all life forms and the ways in which all forms of life can be taken for an “organism” or an “environment” depending on what level of focus we bring to our study of them), I was initially quite happy to find this beautifully illustrated book. Unfortunately, I found the content to be about a 10th grade(ish??) reading level so I was a bit disappointed by that. That said, there is one especially interesting story I came across in this book. In 1829, during the war between Russia and Persia, many of the of the town around the Caspian Sea were experiencing famine conditions. One day, a large section of land on the south-west shores of the Caspian was blanketed with lichen that “fell like rain from heaven.” After noticing that the sheep could eat the lichen without experiencing adverse effects, the people in that region baked the lichen into bread and, by doing so, were able to avoid starvation. It turns out that the lichen was an unattached species known as Lecanora esculanta or, as it is more commonly called “Manna lichen” (as some people imagine that this explains the stories told in the Tanakh about escaped Hebrew slaves surviving in the desert by baking and eating “manna” that fell from heaven). How ‘bout that, eh?
3. White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White people to talk about racism by Robin Diangelo.
This book is a pretty good primer on why White people are so frequently self-absorbed (and harmful) idiots when it comes to matters of race and racism, and on basic things that White people can do to start becoming better people. Anyone already rooted in race theory or conversations about White supremacy and neo-fascism won’t find much that is new here. The presentation is pretty basic and assumes that the reader is coming from a place of being interested enough to read the book but not really having much understanding or background in exploring the subject matter. There are a lot of people I really wish would read this book. Sadly, part of the problem is that those people aren’t inclined to read books like this. However, I would recommend it to friends who are just awakening to the ubiquitous and insidious nature of White supremacy in our context and who are wanting to get their minds around some of the ABCs of how to understand and approach this matter.
4. Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser.
I think the purpose of manifestos is to inspire action. Manifestos assume a considerable amount of knowledge, distill years of analytical work into tightly compressed points, don’t get caught up in academic tangents or proofs, and give scholars the opportunity to have a lot of fun while writing something that, hopefully, is equally fun for the reader to read—while also stirring the readers’ hearts to such a degree that they go forth and join the struggle for freedom from oppression. At least I think that’s the idea of manifestos. And Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser put together a good one demonstrating the central role feminism has to play within labour movements and the struggle against capitalism and ecocide. I enjoyed it although I find myself a little burnt out when it comes to reading manifestos (there is no shortage of them on Lefty circles). Still, recommended reading for those who want something inspiring and who are looking for a model of feminism that is entirely different than the bougie White feminism of millionaire Liberals.
5. Palace Walk (the Cairo trilogy Vol. 1) by Naguib Mahfouz.
I was in the mood for a long novel and Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy has been on my list for awhile so I was excited to finally dig into it now (as it also fits into my current African lit kick). For the most part, I enjoyed the book. It’s a smart book (although at times it feels like Mahfouz is just having fun sounding smart—but, yeah, people in glass houses, etc., etc.). However, part of what makes it smart in a way that works well is that it is a novel that obviously has European literary sensibilities (Mahfouz names folks like Proust as his great influencers and one highlighted review calls it Dickensian) but it deliberately sidelines European characters (WWI and the British and Australian occupation of Egypt, along with some Egyptian hopes for Germany) are all really background material for what is presented as an Egyptian story, focused on Egyptian characters, with Egyptian interests. I think I see why Mahfouz ended up winning a Nobel. This is the kind of move that the literati totally dig and, I’m not gonna lie, I enjoyed it as well. I look forward to reading the subsequent volumes.
6. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories by Raymond Carver.
In the past, I have read some of Carver’s poems (especially after watching and briefly obsessing over Birdman—Michael Keaton got robbed at the Oscars… which is a weird but true thing to say) but I never picked up his short stories. But I found this edition at a used bookstore and the combination of the price, the author, and the cover art convinced me to give it a shot. I was thinking I would maybe read one story a night before going to sleep, but I became completely engrossed and didn’t stop reading until I finished the whole thing. These stories are quietly devastating. They bring to life so much of unspeakable, subconscious dread, disappointment, confusion, and nameless longing that lie just below the surface of day-to-day life in the ‘burbs. Between this and Roupenian’s latest collection, I may have to change my mind about short stories.
That said, I wonder what it is about short stories that make them particularly suited to undertones of horror, tragedy, and dread. “The Box Social” by James Reaney is the only short story that I still remember from highschool English classes. And DFW’s “Incarnations of Burned Children” is probably the most perfectly crafted tale of horror I have ever read. I also enjoyed Lovecraft’s stuff and I think both Roupenian and Carver fit within this genre. And thinking about reading short stories that don’t contain these elements almost instantly bores me (although I basically read no longer works of horror qua horror)—as if I want to sit down and read a bunch of short stories that end on really funny or happy notes. So why are these tones particularly well suited to this genre? Is this just a personal taste thing or is there something else going on here?
7. the mermaid’s voice returns in this one by amanda lovelace.
amanda lovelace is one of a few contemporary poets whom I follow. The mermaid’s voice returns in this one is the third and final volume in her “Women are Some Kind of Magic” series. I enjoyed the first two volumes quite a lot, although I feel like something of the punch fades from volume one to volume two, and then again from volume two to volume three. Still, I recommend her to those who are curious. Worth checking out.
1. Cielo (2017) directed by Alison McAlpine.
Oddly, this is the second documentary I have watched that is set in Chile’s Atacama desert and, like the first one (Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light) this is an awe-inspiring work of staggering beauty. It is an ode to the stars and what life is like to still live beneath them. There are stories in the stars, spirits, and ancestors, too, and those who dwell in the desert – misfits and rustics and goatherders, all of whom are more articulate than most urbanites I have ever met – still live in those stories. I think we should listen to them. Watch this movie.
2. Minding the Gap (2018) directed by Bing Liu.
What on the surface appears to be a well-shot, insider take on a “skateboarders coming of age” story is actually a really brilliant, vulnerable, and tender exposition of the intra-connectedness of matters related to race, class, gender, and domestic violence in Anywhereville, USA. It helps that the Director, Bing Liu, grew up with the people whom he is filming and the nature of the relationship with the people he interviews contributes a great deal to the end product. It’s a top-notch work and I highly recommend it. It’s the kind of movie I want everyone I know to watch so that I can hear what they think about it. So watch it and then tell me your thoughts!
3. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016) directed by Werner Herzog.
Werner Herzog has made a lot of movies and, at this point in his career, everyone is in agreement that he can make whatever kind of movie he damn well wants to make. Part of it is the brilliance of his films. Part of it is his voice and the perspective he brings. I think I could be entertained listening to him comment on just about anything.
That said, some of his films are better than others and, while I found Lo and Behold to be entertaining enough, I didn’t find it to be exceptional. I’m not sure what it is about looking at the internet specifically that tends to inspire a sort of basic level discourse (that then gets praised as if it is more than that – from this film to Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind) but maybe there is a connection? Or maybe I’m just looking at the wrong stuff. Either way, I’ll keep looking around.
4. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) directed by RaMell Ross.
There seems to be a trend in documentary films in recent years for critics to really love raw, non-linear montages of shots that are loosely related to each other (rooted in a particular place, in a specific person’s life, or whatever else) and that communicate more of an affect or aesthetic than anything distinctly propositional or conceptual. It’s sort of a resurgence of the cinema verité style, although with far more technical abilities than Directors had available to them in 1960s and a lot more postmodern “loss of meaning,” “death of the author,” rejection of linearity stuff thrown in. I think some people feel that this style produces films that feel more “authentic” or “true to life” but I feel likes that’s a pretty large ideological pill to swallow. That said, I’m usually into this kind of film-making but only to a certain extent. I like films that weave seemingly unconnected elements together in surprising ways (the already mentioned Nostalgia for the Light is an exceptional example of this—it’s maybe not the best documentary I’ve ever seen [although it’s among the best], but it is the kind of documentary I would try to make if I could make one), but I still like that weaving to produce something more like a tapestry than simply a montage of screenshots one might collect from falling down a rabbit trail of suggested videos on Youtube.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening had me thinking these things because, while there is no denying RaMell Ross’s technical mastery of his craft, the whole thing felt a little too much like a Youtube montage for my own personal tastes. Still, if this type of film is to your liking, this one is for you.
5. Two World Colliding (2004) directed by Tasha Hubbard.
Tasha Hubbard’s documentary, nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up—about the murder of Colten Boushie and the exoneration of his killer, and what this teaches us about White Settler and Indigenous relationships in Canada—recently opened the largest documentary film fest on Great Turtle Island. It looks hella good and hella relevant to what is going on with folx living in Canadian-occupied territories. This was the first I heard about Hubbard’s work and it prompted me to look up some of her earlier stuff. In particular, Two Worlds Colliding, which is a glimpse into some of the instances when Police Officers in Canada forced Indigenous men into patrol cars and then drove them outside of the cities where they lived and left them (sometimes to do) jacketless and alone the heart of winter when temperatures were dropping to around -40 degrees Celsius. It turns out that this practice is known as “Starlight Tours” and it has been found to be a common practice of police in several Canadian cities. Hubbard does not get into too much detail about the larger systemic issues (for that, see Sherene Razack’s book, Dying From Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody) but, instead, focusing on the testimony and experiences of specific people caught up the deaths of two Indigenous men and the survival of one other Indigenous man. It’s an important short documentary. But, yes, I strongly recommend the viewing of the film be complimented by Razack’s book.