The Shadow of the Sun

By Ryszard Kapuściński.

This is a collection of essays on Africa – or perhaps essay is the wrong word – these could be seen as disconnected acts in the larger drama of Africa in change. Kapuściński veers between the descriptive narrative and musing – trying to find a meaning in the upheaval he documents. He covers the length and breadth of Africa in these pieces. This is an exceptional read. Here are some extracts:

“I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward.This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else—wider, deeper—may be considerably more interesting and important.”

 

“Our contemporary suspicion of and antipathy for the Other, the Stranger, goes back to the fear our tribal ancestors felt toward the Outsider, seeing him as the carrier of evil, the source of misfortune. Pain, fire, disease, drought, and hunger did not come from nowhere. Someone must have brought them, inflicted them, disseminated them. But who? Not my people, not those closest to me—they are good. Life is possible only among good people, and I am alive, after all. The guilty are therefore the Others, the Strangers.”

 

“History does not exist beyond that which they are able to recount here and now. The kind of history known in Europe as scholarly and objective can never arise here, because the African past has no documents or records, and each generation, listening to the version being transmitted to it, changed it and continues to change it, transforms it, modifies and embellishes it. But as a result, history, free of the weight of archives, of the constraints of dates and data, achieves here its purest, crystalline form—that of myth.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Another Day of Life

By Ryszard Kapuściński.

Quite a brilliant book. Kapuściński writes really well and completely engages you with his narrative. I learn’t a lot reading this. Irrespective of mistakes Kapuściński may have made in his support for the ‘regime’ in Poland, his books are a window into a different world. This is a cohesive snapshot of Angola (and Africa) changing from colonial to self rule. He may play hard and fast with personal facts but this doesn’t detract from the work.

“Confusão is a situation created by people, but in the course of creating it they lose control and direction, becoming victims of confusão themselves.”

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23 Things They Dont Tell You About Capitalism

By Ha-Joon Chang.

This book had its moments and there were a few points that started me thinking; one being that the the unqualified good of low inflation at any cost isn’t necessary for economic growth. This is the dominant view which is espoused everywhere and maybe it isn’t so. The book could be thought of as a primmer for further reading. Some parts are detailed – but mostly it is a summary of dominant free market views with rebuttals. Not all the rebuttals are watertight and more detail could be given, but then the book would be something more than what it is; a work canvassing and changing conceptions that the free market mechanisms are somehow moral and self-regulating.

Here are some good quotes:

So, when free-market economists say that a certain regulation should not be introduced because it would restrict the ‘freedom’ of a certain market, they are merely expressing a political opinion that they reject the rights that are to be defended by the proposed law. Their ideological cloak is to pretend that their politics is not really political, but rather is an objective economic truth, while other people’s politics is political.

 

It helps us break away from the myth that our economy is exclusively populated by rational self-seekers interacting through the market mechanism. When we understand that the modern economy is populated by people with limited rationality and complex motives, who are organized in a complex way, combining markets, (public and private) bureaucracies and networks, we begin to understand that our economy cannot be run according to free-market economics.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

By Owen Jones.

A well-written book which contains many many pertinent ideas regarding ‘chavs, class and how it relates to Britain, and other countries, today. Class is definitely not dead – even if conservatives choose to not define things in this way for their own ends.The occupations that traditionally related to the working class have changed from the like of manufacturing and skilled labour to call-centres and supermarket – but class still exists and the income gap has widened dramatically. We are not ‘all middle class now’.

One (of many) really good points Jones makes is that the narrative we are fed is that British manufacturing in the late 70s was uncompetitive and finished – so that justified the lack of government support and destructive economic policies of the Tories. However, in other parts of Europe industry was supported and while it wasn’t unscathed there are still strong manufacturing sectors and more balanced economies than we have in Britain. The government bailed out the banks in 2008 to help them through a difficult time so they didn’t ‘fail’ – why couldn’t that have been done in the 70s and early 80s with manufacturing? This would mean that the current economic woes partly caused by an over-reliance on the financial sector wouldn’t be as extreme.

There is much food for thought in this book. The discussion relating to the bias of the middle-class media is excellent as is the analysis of aspiration.  It’s easy to read and understand and quite immersive. Following are a couple of good quotes.

This was from a conservative MP off-the-record:

‘What you have to realize about the Conservative Party,’ he said as though it was a trivial, throwaway comment, ‘is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.’

And another good point.

‘Clearly not everyone can become a middle-class professional or a businessperson: the majority of people still have to do the working-class jobs in offices and shops that society needs to keep ticking. By putting the emphasis on escaping these jobs rather than improving their conditions, we end up disqualifying those who remain in them. We frown upon the supermarket checkout staff, the cleaners, the factory workers—slackers who failed to climb the ladder offered by social mobility.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Speak, Memory

By Vladimir Nabokov.

Of course a Nabokov autobiography would have Memory in the title. Nabokov is all about memories and explores the richness of these. You could argue he didn’t need to write this as there is much of his life in his novels. But, this is a different autobiography. This is Nabokov capturing episodes and experiencing pleasure in the process. This book is by Nabokov for Nabokov and we are lucky enough to be invited to participate and listen. The framework is very loose; written over a period of years and some parts were never intended to be in a larger work. The passage when he describes burping his baby son Dmitri is great – it becomes a philosophical experience while amusing at the same time. There’s so much warmth contained within precise fantastic prose.

“I think bourgeois fathers – wing-collar workers in pencil-striped pants, dignified, office-tied fathers, so different from young American veterans of today or from a happy, jobless Russian-born expatriate of fifteen years ago – will not understand my attitude toward our child. Whenever you held him up, replete with his warm formula and grave as an idol, and waited for the postlactic all-clear signal before making a horizontal baby of the vertical one, I used to take part both in your wait and in the tightness of his surfeit, which I exaggerated, therefore rather resenting your cheerful faith in the speedy dissipation of what I felt to be a painful oppression; and when, at last, the blunt little bubble did rise and burst in his solemn mouth, I used to experience a lovely relief as you, with a congratulatory murmur, bent low to deposit him in the white-rimmed twilight of his crib.”

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The Road to Babadag

By Andrzej Stasiuk.

Again, another breathtaking book from Stasiuk. He has probably written a great amount more in Polish – but we have to wait for it to arrive in translation. The translation is really good – but this could be in part because Stasiuk doesn’t overdo things. He states it all very cleanly. This is the photo which haunted Stasiuk for years and which provided an impetus for travel – though by the sounds of it that was already there long before.

There is an episode where he talks about all the pieces he has collected over the years during his travels and that he takes them out sometimes to remember. This book, and much of his other work, is a remembering that combines with these objects. This is a private remembering and he creates something new out of these tokens. If he was a chancer like Warhol or Hirst he would no doubt have an exhibition of these objects rather than creating something new. It strikes me that much of modern creative endeavour involves collecting things. Curation masquerading as creativity. This is a fine book, which can be reread over and over and dipped into. The chapter about Moldova was excellent.

 

 

 

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Molotov’s Magic Lantern

By Rachel Polonsky.

An intriguing book filled with anecdotes, images and factual detail. The narration hit the perfect balance by providing a framework but not making the work ‘about’ the author. There were many images here that were incredibly rich – particularly the visits to Archangel and Murmansk. This was a really well written and conceived book – one subject leads to a place and another fact then a quick drop into an obscure historical detail. I may have to read this again on kindle – so I can highlight the parts that interested me and which could lead to further reading. I enjoyed this passage:

In ‘The Eye and the Sun’, Sergei Vavilov related a story told by Gorky that illustrates how human beings try to materialise light: ‘I saw Chekhov, sitting in his garden, trying to catch a ray of sunlight and put in on his head.’

What a great anecdote and image. I like the the fact that we may never have heard about this if Gorky or Vavilov had not decided to pass it on.

 

 

 

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Ghost Milk

By Iain Sinclair.

I started reading this on the day the Olympics started in London in order to give a balance to my experience of the event. I like watching all the various sports, but the official narrative that is given to each event or athlete is something that I do not relate to. Let’s just have their actions do the talking. I am also suspicious of the overall story that surrounds the games by the sponsors, officials, community leaders and politicians. This is where reading Sinclair’s book at the same time provides a useful counterpoint. It is an enthralling book – not just because of the subject matter –  but Sinclair writes in a very captivating way, he makes many literary and filmic references which direct further reading or research. This really is a broad canvas with ideas, thoughts, people and places. A very worthwhile read – here is an excellent quote.

In the age of the spinner, content means nothing; the apparatus of explanation, the word-weaving, tells us what we are looking at and how we should react.

 

 

 

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Open Veins of Latin America

By Eduardo Galeano.

I’m not sure I will ever recover from reading this book. I had no idea the extent of pillage exacted against the latin American people for so many centuries.

You can read the PDF here. I think Galeano must have allowed the book to be copied and available at no cost as it can be found a number of places on the web.

There is too much to summarise, but the question I had never really asked myself was how a continent so rich in natural resources could be so poor? The answer is that the wealth of the country has been appropriated by the european powers for the last five centuries. Britain has probably gained the most in reality, though few of the countries were ever officially colonies. It was British business that looked after the  interests of the plutocracy. Initially, indirectly through the Spanish and Portugese but in the 18th and 19th centuries directly.

The issues and politics here are complex but what we are left with is a study of man’s inhumanity to man. A couple of excerpts:

“Latin America continues exporting its unemployment and poverty: the raw materials that the world market needs, and on whose sale the regional economy depends. Unequal exchange functions as before: hunger wages in Latin America help finance high salaries in the United States and Europe.”
 
“The IMF–which not disinterestedly confuses the fever with the disease, inflation with the crisis of existing structures–has imposed on Latin America a policy that accentuates imbalances instead of easing them. It liberalizes trade by banning direct exchanges and barter agreements; it forces the contraction of internal credits to the point of asphyxia, freezes wages, and discourages state activity. To this program it adds sharp monetary devaluations which are theoretically supposed to restore the currency to its real value and stimulate exports. In fact, the devaluations merely stimulate the internal concentration of capital in the ruling classes’ pockets and facilitate absorption of national enterprises by foreigners who turn up with a fistful of dollars.”
 
 

 

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The Shock Doctrine

By Naomi Klein.

This a very detailed alternative history of the last 50 years. It is well referenced and written. Reading this was actually quite a depressing experience – at various times it seemed that there was no hope and those with money and resources seem to keep themselves on top and also win the propaganda war. The way the book ends with some analysis of South America gives some grounds for optimism. I think I want to read about the history of Bolivar, he seems to be behind the desire for self-determination of many South American countries.

 

 

 

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