Category Archives: review

Post-humanism, the Nisi Shawl edition

My latest, new (50+-year-old, so renewed) obsession is looking for writing from non-human perspectives. In non-human voices.

Because, humans. Very tired indeed of them right now. Nothing personal. This guy, this dog you see, is attached to me by this piece of thread. He is wild, strong, I go where he wants. Mostly. We work on it together, for I am fairly massive as well, so can actually get my way pretty easily. Still, where once a five-year-old was the captain of my ship, I now give the helm as often as possible to a middle-aged Mixit Hound.

But, I digress, because: Nisi Shawl! A human one does not grow tired of, her imagination ranging out beyond us normies squirming on the griddle of quotidia. She is way finding, probing the differences and nurturing them with languages of justice: she and her fictionable voices are charming, funny, alarming, actionable…. I’m still trying to figure out my own post-humanist words, so this is hard, but it’s also the reason I read. And was so happy, in a some-how search, to stumble here:

Black Betty” is a Nisi Shawl short story told from Betty the Dog’s point of view. Betty already knows what we’re saying; like a reader, or a child, Betty understands so much more than she can say or pronounce. (“I don’t have your tongue,” snips the cat.) Which is precisely nothing, until Betty the dog is modded through a diet addition that gives her the power to articulate human speech.

A twist on dog food leads to a talking dog and a linguist’s delight: is dialect a sign of–anything? Because… Betty is different. She talk funny, Betty do. Shawl does a fine and interesting and genuine job of adopting something very much like what I suspect a dog’s mind might articulate, if a dog chose to articulate like a human and realized that, hey, this whole pack thing is super complicated. And fucked up and weird. So while there’s still that adherence to a normative (human) core of cognition–as with Spencer Quinn (though in a totally different way)–Shawl is, after all, telling us a story, not her dog. Humans need to mind other-critters as well as dogs do. We are probably much poorer at it than we think, but respect to all who try.

Shawl cuts to the chase (no pun, it’s not really Betty’s thing, though her first whiff from a car window of possible-rabbit gets an exclamation), and covers a lot of ground, some thoughtful, deep, touching, some funny and touching (but: sucker for dogs here; and Shawl’s writing is, often, like an atomic force microscope, brushing the surfaces and depths with the lightest but most discriminate of touches), and all of it curving on a lovely narrative arc that has, I can’t believe I’m saying this, a cat teaching a lesson. That’s not a spoiler dammit! But those killers, those house cats let out, that one could be right and inspire such an act of insurrection!

Go Baby Boo, go Black Betty.

And then, when it’s done and I’m chewing on my thoughts, I am left with these questions:

If you spun a dog a story, what would that sound like? Would a dog tell this story differently? Is there a difference in degree or quality between the socialities, the cultural mores and forays, of dogs and humans? (Well, of course there is, stupid: but has that ever been described in any useful sort of way? Perhaps by Elizabeth Thomas? [review by me]) Maybe it’s humans what needs the mods?

I know I sure do.

The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

The Hidden Life of DogsThe Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful book. Thomas writes gracefully and forthrightly and, clearly, judging by the many negative reviews of this book, her writing is not for the faint of heart. This is what I’d call “thick” ethnography; thick in the sense that she writes from a place that is in the thick of things.

Thomas has wonderful empathy and insight into dogs’ minds. She rightly challenges the all-too-human ban on “anthropomorphism.” She’s way nicer about about challenging that ban that I am. Thomas points out that humans are animals and, like all animals, we share common ancestors, have long sequences of genetic material in common, and have similar brain structures. So why wouldn’t we have similar emotions and cognitive abilities? To assume that humans are somehow unique is, in my view, precisely the hubris that has allowed us to dominate the planet–and to destroy it. While I wouldn’t care that we are destroying the planet if it were only a matter of humans dying out, the fact of the matter is we are taking all life forms down with us.

In “The Hidden Life” Thomas wanted to answer a relatively simple and straightforward question: what do dogs want? Again, humans tend to think they know everything and to know what is best for everyone (though in fact we haven’t a clue). Trained as an anthropologist, Thomas used the participant-observer method to find out what her dogs wanted. This entailed letting them, so to speak, run wild. She tracked the extent of their ranging by the calls she got from the people upon whose doorsteps the dogs ended up. (They’re smart: the travel far, but then let a human call home so they can get a ride.)

A lot of reviewers are really upset about this, stating (as if they know best) that Thomas doesn’t deserve pets. They’re correct: in Thomas’s view, pet “ownership” is a sort of slavery. That’s why it’s called ownership!

But I doubt the people who left angry reviews actually read the whole book. If they had, they’d have been left in a puddle of tears: the last half of this short book is very moving, tender-hearted, and full of insights about dogs’ minds and hearts.

I think if you can read this book understanding that it is nothing to do with being a “pet” “owner” and everything to do with being inquisitive and empathetic, you will, as I did, learn a lot about your best friends.

View all my reviews

Duo Tandem “Watching the World Go By”

Playing classical guitars, Duo Tandem brings the world to their fingertips. The debut album, Watching the World Go By, focuses on American and Turkish Cypriot folk tunes influenced by a wide range of harmonic and melodic ideas from a wide range of sources, including Persian, Turkish, and American blues. Guitarists Nicati Emirzade and Mark Anderson are note bending and playing slide, interesting techniques for nylon-stringed guitars, and which dovetail nicely with Phrygian and other “exotic” modes to produce a wonderful melange of blues and folk styles of many culture. Duo Tandem have a fine, enjoyable album here.

Review of Steve Tibbetts, “Life Of”

The flesh of Steve Tibbetts’ fingers flows across the worn frets of his father’s old Martin 12-string like water over rocks in a stream. Every note is liquid, sensuous with microtonality, appearing as if just thought of in that exact moment of performance. The music here is molten, but Life Of is a slow eruption: this is music for meditation, guitar music that luxuriates in Tibbetts’ long-time collaborator Mark Anderson’s relaxed percussion grooves, the cello drones of new collaborator Michelle Kinney, and Tibbetts’ own reverby piano. The spiritual heir to 1988’s Big Map Idea, Life Of is a sonic practice compressed over many years into a diamond sutra of theory where everything sounds easy, the impossible techniques now all second-nature muscle memory. Tibbetts is an alchemist, the wise guy on top of the mountain who, when you finally gain the summit looking for enlightenment, just grins at you and keeps on playing. The wisdom, you realize, was never going to be in words but rather is in this ancient-sounding music that bathes your brain with distant memories of melancholic bliss. Life Of is photos of family and friends, photographs not so much gazed at fondly as held to the chest to let the heart do the seeing. Hard to explain Tibbetts, in other words, which is why the most common descriptors of his music are “unique” and “one of kind.” He’s been releasing albums since 1977, a lot of them on ECM, and is criminally underknown. His oeuvre spans not just decades but continents: every album he’s done sounds like it’s from elsewhere, some explicitly so, as his collaborations with Tibetan Buddhist nun Chöying Drolma, Chö and Selwa. Others, such as 1994’s The Fall of Us All or 2002’s A Man about a Horse, are transcendental metal music from a galaxy where fuzz pedals and high-gain amps are cures for depression and anxiety. For fans of the ECM label, Bill Frisell, Terje Rypdal, David Torn, or anyone seeking sonic transportation.

This review was first published by Minor 7th.

Retreat from a Rising Sea

Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change
 Orrin H. Pilkey, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, and Keith C. Pilkey
 Columbia University Press

retreat rising sea.jpgWhat’s going with our planet’s climate is going to make the bursting of the real estate bubble look like a picnic on a sunny spring day. Upside-down equity and underwater mortgages don’t begin to describe the scope of what rising sea levels are going to do to us.

The grim picture painted and the solid evidence presented by the Pilkeys in Retreat from a Rising Sea is one of inexorable foolishness and inequity. Through a combination of denial and greed—often interlocked, as with politicians and real-estate developers—we are doing pretty much the opposite of what we should be doing.

It’s a kind of willful blindness, as described by Margaret Heffernan in her book about why we ignore the obvious at our peril: “we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.”

Instead of buying people out of their repeatedly flooded coastal homes and businesses, we are, through the National Flood Insurance Program, forking over billions of taxpayers’ dollars to enable people to rebuild in the same spot. And then, after the next storm, we do it again, and again, and again… It’s a grotesque Groundhog Day. Continue reading

Plastic Planet

plasticplanet_flat4 stars
Actors: Werner Boote, John Taylor, Peter Lieberzeit
Director: Werner Boote
Studio: First Run Features
DVD release: 12 April 2011
Runtime: 95 minutes (1 disc)
Format: Color, DVD, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
DVD Features: Outtakes; DVD-ROM press kit

At the rate we’re going, we’re all going to need to isolate ourselves from the toxins we’ve dumped into our environment by diving into HazMat bubble suits. We’ll have to invent filters that keep the nano-sized particles of cancer-dealing crap out but, hey, we’ve got the technology for that… and plastics.

On second thought, no: plastics are one of the biggest sources of toxins. Bisphenol A, for instance, is a plasticizer that makes plastic, well, plasticy, and has been a known estrogenic since the 1930s. Estrogenics are those wonderful chemicals that are the secret culprits behind the bitching and moaning of the Iron John crew. Chief among them, Robert Bly has long complained that men have become too feminized, and clearly plastics are to blame, not doting mothers. I mean, look at the amphibians: scientists have been observing them changing sex, from male to female, mid-stream for years, so why not humans, too? Continue reading

Making Faces: Metal Type in the 21st Century

Featuring: Jim Rimmer
Director: Richard Kegler 
Studio: P22 Type Foundry
DVD release: 15 April 2011 
Runtime: 90 min. (1 disc)
Format: Color, DVD, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC
DVD Features: Audio tracks (English), Subtitles (English), 
bonus features on making metal type and the tools needed to make 
metal type, "The Creation of a Printing Type from the 
Design to the Print" by Frederic W. Goudy (silent film from the 1930s), 
A metal "k" from the Stern typeface, Rimmer Type Foundry 
catalog of digital faces
Reviewed by Brian Charles Clark, and rated 4.5/5 stars


Jim Rimmer was a British Columbian printer and type designer who cast metal type using the now nearly lost pantographic technique. If that’s all Greek to you (or, if you’re a graphic designer, maybe it’s all greeking to you, too), you need to watch this film by book artist and P22 founder Richard Kegler. Continue reading

Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape – book review

Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape
Tom Wessels
Countryman Press; paperback; 160 pages
September 2010
4 stars

book cover - Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested LandscapeWhat snapped that tree? Everybody is asking this and similar questions, obsessed, as we are as a culture, with forensic investigation. What is weevils gnawing from within? Was it wind or snow load that toppled it? Or did it die for some other reason and thus snap due to lack of internal structural integrity?

Read Tom Wessels wonderful little book and learn. Better, pop it in your backpack and learn as you hike. Although written for forests of the northeastern part of the U.S., the principles involved are pretty much the same in all forest. (The particulars surely do vary by bioregion, though.)

With dozens of color photos and clear, concise writing, it’s hard to go wrong with this book if you’re interested in forested landscapes. For instance, Wessels’ chapter on how to tell if a forest has overgrown an agricultural field is full of cool details that are widely applicable. Part of this has to do with the fact that, at least in North America, farmers have cleared and abandoned fields in pretty much the same way for hundreds of years.

Read the signs like a real detective and appreciate your forest walks even more with this handy guide from ecologist and environmental biologist Wessels.

Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection – film review

Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection
4 stars
Actors: Gastone Moschin, Mario Adorf, Henry Silva, Jack Palance, Barbara Bouchet, Gisela Hahn
Director: Fernando Di Leo
Studio: Raro Video
DVD release: 15 March 2011
Runtime: 410 minutes (4 discs)
Format: Box set, Color, DVD, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC
DVD Features: Four films: Caliber 9; The Italian Connection; The Boss; Rulers of the City; in Italian with English subtitles, with an additional version dubbed in English; booklet containing a candid interview with the director; each disc contains additional interviews, documentaries and photo galleries.

DVD cover - Fernando Di Leo Crime CollectionMore whiskey, more scantily clad women, more cars and, definitely, more guns – those are the constantly recurring images in this collection of films by one of Poliziotteschi’s (Italo-crime) greatest directors, Fernando Di Leo. Add to that the incredible locations and Luis Enriquez Bacalov’s cool, noir-funk musical score, and this box set of four mob films is a feast for the eyes and ears.

Di Leo, who died in 2003, was the king of Italian crime films. If the mafia was going to exploit and corrupt the working class by infiltrating and coercing union bosses and shopkeepers for protection money, then Di Leo was going to exploit that trend by splattering it across the big screen. And splatter it does: in these four films, there might be five minutes goes by without a fist fight (including women getting socked in the mug), a shoot out (including kids being gunned down), or a car chase through city and country. And in those five minutes, there will surely be macho posturing as partners in crime double-cross one another.

These films aren’t about the forces of prescriptive law overcoming those of evil. Here, crime most assuredly pays and the winners are the outsiders — prostitutes, freelancers — who confront and defeat the organized mobs.

Di Leo laid down the blueprint for future directors of action and crime flicks. Quentin Tarantino, among many others, cites Di Leo as a key influence and Pulp Fiction bears a striking resemblance to The Italian Connection, included in this collection. He also provided a home for has-been American actors, like Jack Palance, who plays a mob boss in Rulers of the City.

Carefully restored and remastered, and loaded with tons of bonus material, this quartet of pictures is a treasure trove for lovers of action cinema as well as film history buffs.

Alien from the Deep movie review

3 stars

Alien from the Deep
Actors: Daniel Bosch, Marina Giulia Cavalli, Robert Marius, 
Luciano Pigozzi, Charles Napier
Director: Antonio Margheriti AKA Anthony Dawson
Studio: One-7 Movies
DVD release: 8 March 2011
Runtime: 102 minutes (1 disc)
Format: Color, Dolby, Dubbed, DVD, Full Screen, HiFi Sound, NTSC
DVD Features: In Italian and English; image gallery with stills,
lobby cards, box art; opening credits for the Italian version 
of the film

alien deepA hot babe, Jane (Marina Giulia Cavalli), and some guy named Bob (Daniel Bosch) who isn’t nearly as hot, are environmental activists roaming the jungle looking for do-badders. They find the evil ones in the green depths: E-Chem corporation is conspiring to dump toxic waste into an active volcano. Dumping toxic chemicals into a volcano is, in some sense (which one, though, is not at all clear) brilliant. After all, one thing real-world toxics producers want to do to get rid of their vile putrescences is incinerate them. So why not turn to Mother Nature’s Milk of Magma to settle a toxic stomach? But let’s overlook the logistics of building a complex waste-disposal facility in the bowels of a volcano and move right along to the snake milker.

The snake milker is, like all snake milkers, milking snakes for their venom. It’s a profitable business and the milkman maintains a laissez-faire attitude toward the toxics-dumping E-Chem folks who are, apparently, just a few steps away from his hangout in a crashed airplane-cum-bunker. If they’d had a couple tin cans and a piece of string they could have set up a jungle telephone system. But I digress.

After an initial run-in with the baddies under the volcano (it’s all very Malcom Lowery-ish), the luscious Jane bumps into the milkman and, um, his snakes. So there’s your love interest come a-bubbling up like boiling crude. (I’m mixing my hot-liquid metaphors, I know, but this is a low-budget review of a low-budget made-for-Italian-TV movie, so whadya ’spect?). Jane wants the milkman to help her rescue Bob, who is lost under the volcano.

All of this moves along at a fairly leisurely pace until the viewer is left wondering: is this a jungle conspiracy-romance thriller or a sci-fi monster movie? As Jane and the milkman enter the volcano, we move into the creature feature portion of our film. Continue reading