Discussed in this post: 13 Books (Conquest; Theology of Money; The Body and Consent in Psychology, Psychiatry, and Medicine; Women in Dark Times; Black Flags and Windmills; A Secure Base; Invitation to Responsibility; This is Your Brain on Parasites; the heart is deceitful above all things; Veniss Underground; Return to My Native Land; Anya’s Ghost; and When I Arrived at the Castle); 2 Movies (Force Majeure and Silent Souls); 3 Documentaries (Aquarela; We Breath Again; and Hail Satan?).
1. Conquest: Sexual Violence and the American Indian Genocide by Andrea Smith.
By no means an easy read, Andrea Smith engages in a comprehensive exposition of the various ways in which colonization and conquest, in territories occupied by the USA, have been connected with deliberate, vicious, and lethal campaigns of violence (especially sexualized violence) against Indigenous women. From rape, to boarding schools, to forced sterilizations, to medical experimentation, to spiritual appropriation (another form of rape), Smith does a rapid but scholarly survey of this ongoing history before offering some criticisms of mainstream responses to this and proposing more useful alternatives based on her ongoing involvements with some super-rad grassroots groups and movements. Hard truths, but the kind that colonizers need to hear. And not just hear but actually do something about, godammit. Recommended for any on Turtle Island.
2. Theology of Money by Philip Goodchild.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for years but it was only after finishing Hollis Phelps’s Jesus and the Politics of Mammon that I decided, okay, I should read this now (also, having read so much “theology” in my younger years, I was a bit put off by the title but, really, this is an exceptional work of economic, political, and philosophical theory as much as it is theology so my concerns, in this regard, were unfounded). This is like reading Marx if he had lived in the age of speculative finance and transnational capital flows—heavy on the economics at times, but always with an idea to politics and, beyond that, ethics and how we go about determine how to determine value in life. It’s a very solid exposition of how money, once it enters into society, gains hegemonic control over society and displaces ways of organizing life that are not built upon money (especially understood through the mechanisms of credit and debt), how other systems of determining value are invalidated, and how this guides life, culture, and subjects into very well established trajectories of organizing and action. Of course, as Goodchild shows, there is much that is troubling about this (not least that it is entirely unsustainable and ultimately destroys the capital upon which it depends in order to produce ever-increasing rates of profit), and so Goodchild tries to explore and look for a way out that would be effective, meaningful, and practicable. He does so by arguing that we need a new system of institutions that are tasked with evaluating the value of certain things or certain courses of action with the ultimate value being the increase in capital (with all the benefits that brings) rather than the increase in profits (with all the costs that brings). His analysis is very, very good. The solution towards which he gestures strikes me as less good. But I have only just finished this book and need to think about it more. Recommended reading.
3. The Body and Consent in Psychology, Psychiatry, and Medicine: A Therapeutic Rape Culture by Jemma Tosh.
I will be doing a more sustained review of this book, along with an author with the author, Jemma Tosh, in January and so for now all I will say is that I believe this is an important book that anyone involved in social work, the psy discipline, or medicine should read. I’m grateful to my friend Diana for bringing it to my attention and for introducing me to Jemma—thanks, Diana!
4. Women in Dark Times by Jacqueline Rose.
I think I’m starting to overdose on psychoanalysts writing cultural commentary, but I’ve been hearing good things about Jacqueline Rose and the feminist political lenses she uses and so I thought I’d give this book—which is her discussion of a half dozen more or less well known cis women who are or were political theorists, artists, and activists (Rosa Luxemburg, Charlotte Salomon, Marilyn Monroe, Shafilea Ahmed, Fadime Sahindal, Heshu Yones, Shalev-Gerz, Yael Bartana, and Thérèse Oulton). I appreciated her efforts to understand and communicate not only the complexities of the contexts in which these women lived, but also the complexities found within the women themselves. In this way, Rose argues, women are particularly well-situated to reveal to us the difficult and messy and hard-to-hear truths about the world in which we live. I enjoyed the book, although I think I need to take a break from this genre for awhile.
5. Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Grounds Collective by scott crow.
As an anarchist, I sometimes feel like I don’t spend enough time reading texts written by or about anarchists and anarchism. Plus, I think, the major ways in which being a single parent in despairing, small town (to which I moved shortly before becoming a single parent and where I swore I would never live again!) challenged my abilities to live out my core values made it somewhat painful for me to read such texts. When it comes to these things, I often have identified with the rich, young ruler who went to Jesus because he was attracted to the Life that was flourishing and rising up against Death-dealing structures at that time, but who went away grieving because he couldn’t take the leap needed to be a part of that. So texts like this can also be painful for me. But, now that I am more secure in who I am, more accepting of my own complicity and compromises and inadequacies, and smallness, the more I feel equipped to return to some of these readings.
Black Flags and Windmills is… okay. It’s a good history of an anarchist collective that was formed by Black residents (with radical organizing histories) in New Orleans lower 9th ward, as well as White anarchist accomplices, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It’s a practical history written by those on the ground and it is both inspiring and useful for those who are looking at organizing elsewhere. However, the quality of writing, um, isn’t the greatest and sometimes it feels a bit self-indulgent. However, it really did make me think I need to also finally read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell.
6. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development by John Bowlby.
John Bowlby is the grand-daddy of attachment theory, the basic premises of which, I have used quite a lot in both my work and personal life as a dad. So, given how much I have relied on it over the years, I thought I would go back and actually do a bit of sustained reading of his stuff (especially since I found going back and actually reading Carl Rogers to be so useful in my work). Most of this text is pretty good (although sometimes it gets distracted by addressing debates that aren’t super relevant to our current context, so some parts are a bit dated), but if you’re already familiar with attachment theory, you probably won’t get much more from this. That said, if you’re not familiar with attachment theory, I strongly recommend you familiarize yourself!
7. Invitations to Responsibility: The therapeutic engagement of men who are violent and abusive by Alan Jenkins.
I really enjoyed Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That?—a book about men who are abusers and the ways in which they create, maintain, hide, justify, and perpetuate abuse. However, I was struck by Bancroft’s observations about how infrequently abusive men change (it resonates with my own experiences but I wondered how universal this feature actually was). Talking about the book with one of my brothers (who is an expert in Restorative Justice and who has spent many years working with men who have been incarcerated in federal prisons due to violence), he mentioned that Alan Jenkins had developed a model for working with violent men that was more successful than Bancroft’s model. So, of course, I looked up Jenkins’s work and read this book. It’s very good and very practical (for those who work with men who are abusive). Comparing his work to Bancroft’s I would say that Bancroft essentially writes about abusers for those who are or have been abused, and I think he does a lot to help people escape abuse. Jenkins, on the other hand, is focused on abusers in order to try and change them and stop them from abusing. I think both approaches are admirable and have their place. However, what I thought was especially strong about Jenkins’s approach, and this is something I will incorporate into my own lenses and praxis, is the way in which he works to contextualize why abusers abuse, not in order to offer them an excuse (i.e., my mom raped me so that’s why I hate women, so really this is her fault) but in order to explore what it is about their experiences that makes it hard for them to take responsibility for their own actions. This is a brilliant move and Jenkins shows how it avoids the pitfalls that therapists and others often fall into (with the help of the abusers) when they try to work with men who are abusive. So, for those working with abusive men, I strongly suggest taking a look at what Jenkins has to say. I look forward to reading more of his stuff in the future.
8. This is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society by Kathleen McAuliffe.
Kathleen McAuliffe appears to have started with a good idea (notably an article that went viral about the parasites that cats transmit to human and which might actually have very significant and even lethal effects on people) and turned this into a book (exploring other wild and amazing parasites) but then ran out of material halfway through. She then spends the second half of the book reflecting more philosophically and sociologically on the topic of disgust, why we feel it, how it may have evolved, what purposes it serves, and so on. Having spent some time reading affect theory this year, the efforts here seemed a bit … basic. There were “wow!” moments throughout but it appears that I already knew more about parasites than I thought and so, for the most part, this book was a disappointment to me.
9. the heart is deceitful above all things by JT LeRoy.
Last year, I watched Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story and, were it not for that, I doubt I would have picked up a LeRoy book. The writing is painful—both in terms of how it is written and in terms of the ways in which is tries to shock the reader by exploiting stories that the author fabricates (granted, the stories were always published as fiction but all the reviewers believed there was a lot of truth behind them and this was something that LeRoy very much encouraged). Reading LeRoy, other words, is like reading a mash-up of E. L. James fan fiction, Blueboy letters to the editor, and Rachel Dolezal. Jeeeeesus, who wants to spend much time there??
Except, well, maybe there is more truth to this because, I think, JT LeRoy (i.e., Laura Albert) used a fictional male character to help her process the severe sexual abuse she experienced as a young child. She herself later acknowledged that, when she called crisis lines as a kid, she received more sympathy when counselors believed her to be male (a telling further example of how male privilege operates). So, I can’t say I find any fault in her for going the road she did. Of course, she drew out the deception when it opened doors that might have otherwise been closed to her (in my opinion, novelty, along with a willingness to shock that reminds me of various genres of exploitation film that dropped in the ‘70s, explains LeRoy’s success more so than raw talent). Can’t fault her for milking the wannabe go-gooder movie stars and other celebrities who wanted to attach themselves to her brand (although a lot of them felt understandably betrayed when the truth came out). Anyway, all that to say, the heart is deceitful above all things was painful reading on pretty much every front. Don’t think I’ll be reading any more of her work.
10. Veniss Underground by Jeff Vandermeer.
I quite enjoyed Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy and so when I stumbled onto this collection of stories by Vandermeer for a steal of a deal, I figured I’d give em a shot (especially since I’m trying to play more in genres that I usually avoid—notably, sci-fi and fantasy). I think one of Vandermeer’s strengths is the way in which he blurs unusual things together in unusual ways. It’s hard not to think of CRISPR babies, pigs that are used to grow human organs, and spiderwebs in goats milk (all things that are already happening now in our world, not in some sci-fi world of the future), when reading Vandermeer and feel like his is a voice uniquely suited to our time. However, Veniss Underground still feels a bit sophomoric, as though he is still finding his voice and his footing here. Parts were good. Other parts not so much.
11. Return to My Native Land by Aimé Césaire.
More and more, recently, I’ve been realizing that I’ve been missing out by not exploring Carribean novelists and theorists. Other than doing a fair bit of reading about Haiti (given Canada’s ongoing history of imperialist violence there), I know next to nothing about the region and it’s history of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-racism. I’ve slowly started to work to rectify that (although my focus continues to be mostly on Canada, given that I’m Canadian), and reading Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism was a great start. Next up was Return to My Native Land, his surrealist poem about Martinique, which ended up becoming a fundamental text to the African diaspora and the Negritude movement. I can see why it received the praise that is has. It’s an intelligent, impassioned, and very moving poem.
12. Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol.
I find graphic novels to be a lot of fun and really spark imaginative thinking. So, looking over some lists of highly praised graphic novels from the last decade, I thought I would check out Anya’s Ghost—a young woman coming of age story, that’s also a bit of a horror story where things aren’t always what they same (and isn’t that one of the fundamental realizations related to coming of age?). It’s well-drawn and well-told and I enjoyed it. There’s a lot of thought to be found in a few words and a few pictures. That, I think, is part of the genius of this genre.
13. When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carrol.
I have a secret (or not so secret) soft spot for the horror-themed graphic novel art of Emily Carrol. This just scratches the right itch for me and I’ve been waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for her next book ever since Through the Woods dropped in 2014 (I know she has illustrated a couple books written by others, but I’ve been wanting to see more of how she tells her own stories). When I Arrived at the Castle was a very quick read (alas, it was over far too soon!) but I enjoyed every line and every image. Now to wait, again, for more.
1. Force Majeure (2015) directed by Ruben Östlund.
If you want to know why I mostly can’t stand watching comedies, watch Force Majeure—because this movie made me laugh harder than pretty much anything I can remember seeing in the last few years. A brilliant deconstruction of the fragility of the male ego, and the efforts everyone must go to in order to placate that ego once the male is revealed to be something other than what he wants others to believe, it is simply fantastic. I loved this film and you should, too. Watch it.
2. Silent Souls (2010) directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko.
Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls is also a film about men—and also about how men mourn women who they genuinely love—but here the company is that of other men. The scenery is beautiful and, in a remote Russian location, feel otherworldly to a viewer like me and the snippets of insight the film give into the rapidly disappearing Indigenous Meryan culture were also interesting. However, the ending felt both predictable and contrived (although Roger Ebert apparently thought it was none of those things and gives this film a very high rating?) and that, along with an over-reliance and setting with little content left me feeling like this movie was a close-but-not-quite kind of film. It’s basically a mood piece but the mood didn’t quite catch me.
1. Aquarela (2019) directed by Viktor Kossakovsky.
Aquarela, however, is the film by a Russian director that everyone should try to watch. Damn! This is a movie about water. From the frozen lakes of Russia to the glaciers and icebergs of Greenland, to the waves of the Atlantic, down to the waterfalls of Venezuala, Kossakovsky gives us a glimpse of water in all its beauty, powerful, majesty, and force.
2. We Breathe Again (2017) directed by Marsh Chamberlain.
Continuing to watch documentaries related to Indigenous peoples in the Arctic, I decided to watch We Breathe Again, about the high rates of suicide among Indigenous folx in Alaska and how communities are responding, how they are caring for one another, and how they are finding ways to free themselves from the forces of colonization that have produced this suicide epidemic in the first place. Although set in Alaska, it’s a film that’s all-too-relevant for Canadians given that suicide rates in the parts of the Arctic that have been colonized by Canada were (last time I checked) the highest in the world (at least when it comes to youth). This also hits close to home given the Christmas Eve suicide of an up-and-coming Inuit artist, Kelly Amaujaq Fraser (whose third album, Decolonize, was set to be completed in early 2020)—an event that left me heart-broken and sick to my stomach. What a loss—and that is the case for all of these lives lost. What losses. So, We Breathe Again is an important film and Indigenous communities and individuals doing the kind of work shown in this film should receive all the support they need.
3. Hail Satan? (2019) directed by Penny Lane.
Hail Satan? Got a lot of buzz this year but I wasn’t sure how much of this was due to the fact that Satanism is kind of exotic and unknown to the general public and so I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy this film (given that I already had some familiarity with that scene). However, when I saw that Penny Lane was the Director (she is making a name for herself creating well-thought-out but very documentaries about things that make people say WTF), I figured I would give it a shot. I’m glad I did. There are all kinds of ways in which one could approach this film. As pure entertainment, as a deconstruction of the hegemonic power of American Christianity (which, itself, is totally fucking weird—way weirder than most aspects of Satanism—as the film demonstrates), as a history of how radical movements inevitably “sell out” in some ways as they gain adherents and perpetuate over time (hence, the expulsion of the fucking badass, radical Satanic pastor lady from Detroit), and so on. It made me want to visit the Satanic Temple in Detroit (less so, though, once I saw that that Jax was no longer leading ceremonies there… maybe I can invite her to do a thing up here in London). Good, clean fun.