Dec 31, 2023
In which I read Bullshit Jobs: A Theory & Swimming in the Dark & Silence: A Novel & Way Back to God: The Spiritual Theology of St Bonaventure & Doppleganger: A Trip into the Mirror World; & watched The Grapes of Wrath & May December & The Holdovers & The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes & Napoleon & The Muppets Christmas Carol & Home Alone & Poor Things & It’s a Wonderful Life & Saltburn & The Color Purple (2023).
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (David Graeber, 2018). (Technically I finished this on the last day of November, but as I finished it after posting November’s logbook I’m listing it here.) I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. Graeber offers a number of useful insights when it comes to the fact that many people seem to be doing a lot of pointless work; I especially appreciated the way he distinguished productive labor from caring labor. But the theory of bullshit jobs—that almost half the population works jobs that offer no value to society—seems to be based on speculation more than anything else. Part of the issue for me is that a bullshit job is determined by if the person doing the job feels the job is bullshit. Graeber acknowledges & defends the subjective nature of his definition: basically, people know their own work best & so are in the best position to judge whether the job is bullshit or not. & maybe so. But I wonder whether that speculation justifies the kind of work he does in the book. Even if its foundations strike me as a little shaky, I still think the book is worth reading, especially for the later chapters.
Swimming in the Dark (Tomasz Jedrowski, 2020). I didn’t find this as engaging as I’d hoped. Part of the problem, I’m sure, is the fact that I listened to it on audiobook & that I sometimes had to take long breaks from listening, so my encounter with the story was somewhat disjointed. I liked the way Giovanni’s Room cropped up throughout the narrative, & were I to read this again I’d be paying attention to how Giovanni’s Room & Swimming in the Dark rhyme.
Silence: A Novel (Shūsaku Endō, 1966). One of my absolute favorite books, which I’ve read at least three times now. On this read I was especially struck at Rodrigues’s attitude toward the Japanese Christians. He regards them as little more than children, helpless without his priestly paternalism. But Rodrigues is wrong about this—the Japanese Christians show themselves to be devoted Christians with or without priests, organizing their own ecclesial communities & even enduring martyrdom. Much of what Rodrigues must do over the course of the story, then, is relearn what it means to be a priest.
Way Back to God: The Spiritual Theology of St Bonaventure (Douglas Dales, 2019). I’d hoped I could use this as a textbook for my “Bonaventure—Life & Writings” course, but I don’t think it will work. Dales shows deep familiarity with the writings of Bonaventure, but the book assumes a little more theological knowledge of its readers than I think I can expect of my students. Still, Way Back to God offers a helpful orientation to Bonaventure’s writings as a whole.
Doppleganger: A Trip into the Mirror World (Naomi Klein, 2023). I only just finished this yesterday so I’m still sorting through my thoughts. The Doppleganger throughline often opened up fascinating perspectives on modern politics & society, though at times the metaphor felt a little strained. I admire how Klein does not merely dismiss those living in “the mirror world” (anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, QAnon devotees, etc.) out of hand. She acknowledges that they have good reaosn to be frustrated with & suspicious toward governments & elites, but those frustrations & suspicions often get misdirected & coopted by systems of capital. The last part of the book offers very helpful reflections on solidarity & care (dovetailing, to some degree, with Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs).
The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940). Number 23 on the AFI’s list of Top 100 films (which Jacqueline & I are about 75% of the way through!). A moving set of vignettes on how poverty degrades the poor, without being (I thought) too oversensationalized about it. Plus, it’s a rare pro-union film (compare it to films like On the Waterfront or The Godfather). Henry Fonda delivers a very strong performance.
May December (Todd Haynes, 2023). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I enjoyed Natalie Portman’s performance as a frankly bad actress who gets much too involved in the lives of her subject & her subject’s family. Most affecting, though, was Charles Melton’s performance, particularly toward the end of the film. He must be a contender for an Academy Award.
The Holdovers (Alexander Payne, 2023). A heartwarming, if somewhat familiar, film about a group of misfits who are forced to become something of a family together. I thought the film did a good job of showing how pain & tragedy often lie just below the surface of our actions.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (Francis Lawrence, 2023). This was enjoyable enough—I’m a bit of a sucker for this sort of dystopian literature/film—but not particularly good.
Napoleon (Ridley Scott, 2023). I’m not a big Joaquin Phoenix guy, but this was a great performance. He presents Napoleon as an overweening, boasting, but ultimately smaller-than-life bully. (You can draw your own comparisons to contemporary political figures.) The film is less interested in what made Napoleon a charismatic leader or a military genius than in the destruction he wrought in his wake. At first I thought that was a shortcoming of the film, but now I see that that’s the point.
The Muppets Christmas Carol (Brian Henson, 1992). This is, I think, my favorite Christmas movie. A Christmas Carol is an excellent Christmas ghost story, of course, & the juxtaposition between Michael Caine’s totally straight acting against the antics of the Muppets is so funny.
Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990). I really do not care for this movie but it’s a favorite of Jacqueline’s, so we watched it in the days leading up to Christmas. Macaulay Culkin is incredibly charming in the lead.
Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023). This movie was extremely disappointing. The performances all around were strong & the production design was distinct & consistent (if a bit wearying). But this tale, a Frankenstein-inspired Bildungsroman of a young woman named Bella (Emma Stone), is only interested in Bella’s sexual liberation & sexual growth, to the almost complete exclusion of any other liberation or growth. The film is so singularly focused on sex that there’s no room for anything else. A real missed opportunity.
It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this, but what I was most struck by on this viewing is how the film isn’t really about George at all—rather, it’s about his community. George spends the entire film thinking his community is too small for him, & that the greatness he seeks can be found only in what is grand. What saves him in the end is not the singular greatness of a rich man like Henry Potter—who of course, is not great at all—but the more mundane greatness of his community. This is what makes his life wonderful—not his accomplishments or the sights he’s seen or even the people he’s helped, but rather the community that enriches his life with more than just money.
Saltburn (Emerald Fennell, 2023). Like Poor Things, this was very disappointing. I didn’t know what to expect (I knew basically nothing about the film going in) but the film seems much more interested in shocking its audience than in saying anything clear. I suppose Wesley Morris’s pan is the closest you can do to identifying the film’s theme—“toxic elitism”—but even that’s strained at best.
The Color Purple (Blitz Bazawule, 2023). Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, & Danielle Brooks’s performances really shine in The Color Purple. The final act of the movie feels a bit rushed—some character growths don’t feel quite earned—which saps the movie of some of its emotional impact. But on the whole, this film is a moving story about resilience & solidarity in the face of adversity & trauma.