I just got back from Bookstop in the Yaya Centre shopping mall in Nairobi, one of my favorite bookstores in the world. It’s an Africanist’s paradise. My bank account is always a bit lighter and my suitcase a bit heavier after I visit.
Today, a customer was coming in to pick up Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a 700 page economics tome which has been topping the best seller lists everywhere and probably one the best economics books to appear in the past 50 years. The gentleman looked a bit intimidated by its size.
A bit later, a younger Kenyan woman came in with a bag full of books that she was hoping to trade for her copy. The book costs the equivalent of about $70 in Kenya.
The owner apparently ordered 100 copies, but was only able to get 25. He says he has orders for all 100 copies, many from Kenyan college students which he sees as an encouraging sign. I have to agree.
Actually, I was an infant, but as an adult, I wrote a blog post and made a cool video of the locations and magnitude of bomb drops in Laos from 1965-1973.
Now, Jerry Redfern & Karen Coates have written a great (I assume) book “Eternal Harvest”on the United States’ unbelievably devastating bombing campaign of neighboring Laos during the Vietnam War. I suggest that everyone go out and read this book immediately.
However, they created an accompanying video, which is eerily similar to a video I created, though theirs is embellished with narration and bookend explanations. I want to think that I helped inspire such a cool video. Or maybe this is wishful thinking. I don’t know. But it’s reassuring to know that this blog might have contributing something to the world.
And here’s mine:
While I was in Kenya, I picked up a number of books from Kwani?, a Nairobi based publisher which (mostly) specializes in Kenyan writers.
Established in 2003, Kwani Trust is a Kenyan based literary network dedicated to developing quality creative writing and committed to the growth of the creative industry through the publishing and distribution of contemporary African writing, offering training opportunities, producing literary events and establishing and maintaining global literary networks. Our vision is to create a society that uses its stories to see itself more coherently.
At the very least, reading these books allows one to see Kenya somewhat more coherently.
One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir Binyavanga Wanaina is now famous for bravely having come out as gay in an area famous for conservative and often violent attitudes toward homosexuality. He should be more famous for his books or at least for taking the prize money from one of his literary accolades and starting Kwani Press.
“One Day I Will Write About This Place” is a memoir of growing up in a middle class household in central Kenya, following some of the country’s most tumultuous social and political upheavals. Wanaina experiences Kenya on the periphery, looking in at Kenya through the lens of reruns of the Six Million Dollar Man, formerly colonial schools, local libraries and the staggering complexity of Kenya itself. Wanaina even makes several attempts to leave Kenya for good, jetting off to South Africa for law school during apartheid and after, even coming back to Kenya for the disastrous and bloody 2007 elections. His descriptions of the latter and of supermarkets sold out of pangas are no less than chilling.
Kenya has long been a mystery to me. While the country was set to become on of the world’s economic success stories, it’s progress was rapidly squandered due to a combination of demographics and bad politics. Wanaina might be even more perplexed.
If anything, the book needs to be read for Wanaina’s excellent prose. It doesn’t matter whether one understands or knows anything about Kenya (though it helps). His writing is engaging enough to keep ones attention even without understanding the details. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years.
Kwani? 4 Kwani? is a series of collections of Kenyan writing from both writers within and without Kenya. This volume focuses on subjects of travel, emigration, immigration and the lives of the Kenyan diaspora. Discussions of Africa must recognize that Africans are some of the most mobile people on the planet.
The experience of the diaspora is essential to understanding the state of present day African people, who often lay on the front lines fighting for survival in a world which mostly doesn’t want them, while providing support for all the people who depend on them back home. Immigration nightmares, the loss of connection with home, and the shaping of new identities make up this great collection of stories, poems and artwork.
(Note that the link is for Kwani 4.)
The Stone Hills of Maragoli – Stanley Gazemba I have not finished this one yet (“reading now”), but I was excited to pick up something from Gazemba, who bills himself as a humble gardener living in a slum outside of Nairobi. He is clearly much more than that. He is a prolific writer and journalist, whose works have appeared in many of the major Kenyan newspapers, New African and the New York Times (where I first became aware of him).
“The Stone Hills of Maragoli” follows Ombima as he overcomes his morals to find that stealing food from a garden is delightfully empowering. Mostly, the book is about life in a rural area of Western Kenya, filled with the complexities of daily life and a tightly knit, though deeply divided society.
The book won the Jomo Kenyatta literary prize in 2003. Gazemba apparently has frou other novels waiting to see the light of day.
Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day People (even experts) commonly accept that the ultra-poverty can be defined as living on “a dollar a day,” but rarely question what that means exactly. This book attempts to expose the financial lives of the world’s poor, which are vastly more complex than one would assume. For one, life on a dollar a day does not imply that households receive a dollar on a daily basis. According to this book, if they did receive regular and reliable payments, their household finances and strategies to preserve them would be vastly different.
Like the poor everywhere, families in the slums of Bangladesh South Africa pull money from a variety of sources which pay irregularly and with varying amounts. Often lacking access to formal banking services, they cleverly participate in strategies to lend money to friends, consider investment in a number of service based businesses and will participate in local finance cooperatives protect their meager earnings. Small finance cooperatives will even act as lenders to extract profit from their savings, acting as small, functioning banks. Poor people will paradoxically borrow rather than save, preferring to pay a premium for access to lump sum payments and prefer being compelled to pay back a loan, rather than risk having to discipline themselves to not spend savings on daily needs. and will even take loans in lieu of saving, paying a premium for lump sum payments which relieve them from having to save.
Local moneylenders charge absurdly high interest rates when calculating them on an annualized basis, but the authors find that people rarely hold the loan more than a month, so that the “interest rate” can actually be viewed more correctly as a fee for service. Micro-lending (which really amounts to unsustainable charity) is seen as less preferable than micro-finance, as poor people need not only access to capital, but also safe places to park their savings and the possibility of earning interest on them. The people in the surveys were often found to have assets which exceeded liabilities and nearly all households were found to be saving and investing wherever possible.
The authors point out three major problems with the finances of the poor the first of which is that incomes and payments are small. Second, they note that it is important to recognize that cash flows are unpredictable and the timing of payments uncertain. If people can’t plan, if they don’t know when the money will come. The most important factor hobbling the finances of the impoverished, is that the financial insturments available to them are insufficient to address either of the first two problems. Better financial tools would go a long way to improving the lives of the poor, who are often proactive with their finances.
In short, the financial lives of the poor are vastly more complex than one would assume, and the savvy and rationale of impoverished households far deeper. A great read if you are interested in issues of poverty or finance. There are, of course, lessons here for how we view poverty domestically. BUY HERE
The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics I like Easterly because he doesn’t coddle developing countries. Though he’s quick to criticize Western aid efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa without recognizing aid’s successes (and deep complexity), he has interesting insights into why developing countries often fail, the reasons for which are sometimes rooted in domestic problems. Too much of the development literature infantilizes developing countries and excuses stupid behavior in favor of blaming the “Evil Empire,” rather than taking a hard look at why some countries continue to fail and why others succeed. The worst disservice we can do to poor countries is to assume they are like the starving, helpless children presented in advertisements to raise money for charitable causes.
I also like Easterly because he recognizes that private sector development is absolutely essential to growth in developing countries and that the current model of development, which often relies on an assumption that the poor are happily poor and should remain as such, spare the occasional handout of antiquated technologies and inefficient top-down ideas. While I like Easterly’s perspective, I can’t say that I agree with much of the anti-aid literature that’s spring up around him, which is often myopic to the other extreme, and follows a typically tired narrative which paradoxically again denies developing countries of their own agency. BUY HERE
Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic I’m digging back into my past. For some odd reason, I have a German Literature degree, which means that I have a stack of famous works from the great Germanic writers and a few books on German theater. Brecht was always a favorite.
His confrontational ideas on the theater as a means for inspiring leftist political change may have gotten him exiled from Germany but they still resonate today. Were he alive, Brecht would have still found Hollywood in 2014 bankrupt and empty for it’s emphasis on the “magical” the presence of “hypnotic tensions.” Brecht sought to alienate his audience rather than involve them. To do this Brecht encouraged cigar smoking in theaters as a means of keeping it real. BUY HERE
The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe It will be a great day for the world when Robert Mugabe dies. His reign over Zimbabwe has been disastrous for the country. Once known as the “breadbasket of Africa,” it is now known as a governmental basket case of seemingly inconceivable proportions.
Godwin travelled to his home country of Zimbabwe at great risk during the 2008 Presidential elections. He documents, in a literary style a pattern of voter intimidation and unfathomed violence by Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. The profiles of torture victims, some of whom are Parliament members and high profile party members of the opposition MDC party, are gut wrenching. While it’s hard to doubt the lengths that Mugabe would go to to maintain power, the zeal with which his supporters violate basic standards of morality is mind-boggling.
Most interesting is Roy Bennett, a white Zimbabwean former Parliament member who once justifiably physically assaulted another MP during session. Despite being beaten, tortured, humiliated, having his farm ripped violently from him during Mugabe’s land redistribution scheme and despite even having his wife beaten so badly that she lost the child, Bennett fights on for Zimbabwe’s freedom and maintain an amazingly high level of public support. Bennett eventually becomes pegged to be the Minister of Agriculture under a power sharing scheme, directly undercutting Mugabe’s racist narrative which helps keep him in power.
Godwin pulls no punches in “the Fear,” but at times the violence and inhumanity are so extreme as to be somewhat implausible. I don’t doubt the accounts of torture and targeted beatings he lists here. There are so many episodes and the nature of the violence so extreme, that even if the book were 90% lies, the situation would be one of the worst on the planet.
The book, however, is more saddening than revolting. How an educated and well endowed country like Zimbabwe, which was so full of potential following independence could sink to such low depths is not only perplexing, but thoroughly depressing. An excellent read. (BUY HERE)
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade A son of a junkyard owner grows up and decides to be a journalist, then goes back to the family scrap business, then writes a fantastic book about the history and current state of the worldwide junk trade.
I remember when recycling became a part of American life, but it was sold as a new phenomenon. Americans were portrayed as living a wasteful existence before recycling campaigns, throwing otherwise useful items into landfills to be buried and forgotten. Minter digs deep into the history of scrap in the US, noting that during the Depression, many people made good livings pulling and sorting trash and selling whatever was useful to whoever was willing to buy it.
The problem, apparently, isn’t in recycling or the willingness of business to reuse goods, but the costs of sorting and resorting, a problem which requires innovation. Minter points out that many innovations in recycling come from the bottom. Those willing to brave the junk heap to find gold are the most motivated to find new and efficient methods of extracting it. Even more challenging is the volatility of commoditiy prices and the sudden changes in demand for specific substances or components. The trade requires a speedy willingness to adapt, a quick sense of what buyers want and a collection of connections to link them to supply. It’s a cutthroat, though exciting business.
Though the domestic recycling and scrapping industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Now, the economics of junk span the entire glove. China, with its large supply of cheap and efficient labor has taken on a good portion of the scrap world. Minter addresses the potential hazards of scrap, much of which is sorted by hand under minimal regulation, but notes that the work is consistent and offers a way out for a lot of rural Chinese already living under squalid conditions. His easy to read assessment of the global junk trade is as much a story of the potential hazards of globalization and first world consumption as it is a celebration of the ingenuity of the bottom to offer market based solutions to the problems of potentially increasing scarcity of certain commodities. (BUY HERE).
I’m really not sure what purpose this book serves. While I don’t want to beat up on it too badly, fearing that if I ever get around to writing a book someone will mercilessly eviscerate mine, I can’t say that I really understand what “Stringer” says that the numerous other books on the Congo haven’t.
Anjan Sundaram was a PhD student in math under the great algebraist Serge Lang at Yale. One day, in an inexplicable moment of odd judgement, Sundaram decides to abandon what one would assume it to be a promising academic career to become a journalist. He befriends a lady at the bank who offers to contact her family in the Kinshasa and set him up with a place to stay.
Sundaram doesn’t like the DRC. In fact, it’s hard to tell whether he likes anyone at all. It’s hard to understand why he’s there and his lack of street smarts and simple human compassion quickly grate on the nerves. Half the book are scenes of him getting ripped off, even by his own host family and him not seeming to understand why.
His writing views the Congo through a lens of disdain, fear and condescension, echoing nearly a century of writing on the Congo. This may be by design. It’s hard to divorce oneself from Conrad when writing on the Congo (but not impossible). Regardless, though he claims to make pains to reveal the positive side of being a street kid, a group of whom he seems to form the deepest connections, the scenes are so fleeting as to relegate an otherwise potentially interesting subject to be mere window dressing.
He has odd realizations throughout the book, apparently surprised that rural Congolese are capable, hardworking people:
On the periphery of that village area I met a woman with a child on her back. Bending over, she was tilling someone else’s field. She said she worked from 6 :00 a.m . until 8: 00 p.m.— a fourteen-hour workday. But she earned only enough to eat the leaves of beans. Her hut was tiny and dark. A white rabbit cowered in the corner. She squatted inside , waiting for the leaves to boil. This woman struck me as something new in the world. She did not fall into any obvious category of African destitution: she was not a refugee or diseased or the victim of rape or violence. She was willing to work. It seemed to me that by any system of distribution of wealth— communist, socialist , capitalist— she had no reason to be poor.
Good God. I was constantly struck by Sundaram’s ignorance of developing countries, given that he’s from one.
Sundaram, Anjan (2014-01-07). Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo (p. 160). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The press on this book is incredible. I saw Sundaram on the Daily Show the other day and thought that, given the rarity of having such publicity fawned on a book about Africa, it must be distinctly interesting. My assumptions were incorrect. “Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo” while flying up the best seller charts offers nothing new. I get why people want to read books like “Stringer,” as it offers a window into a place that most can never go, written in a language they can understand. But it is troubling is that light fare from slumming academics would receive so much praise, while African literary artists continue to be ignored.
Sundaram’s prose is quite good. I only wish he had taken the time to do something more insightful with the book.
Like anyone at all cares what I’m ever reading, but… here we go:
Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot – Masha Gessen (2013) – For some reason, I was asleep when the Pussy Riot debacle was underway. Perhaps it was a result of my disdain and fatigue for independent music. I’m not sure why, but if this great book is any indication, Pussy Riot could possibly have been the most amazing rock act of the 21st century, despite not even being a real band. A group of women read radical feminist theory and note the paucity of feminist activism in modern day Russia. They then create an elaborate video project to protest Putin’s authoritarian government eventually staging a video shoot in one of Russia’s most sacred Orthodox churches. 40 seconds of screaming and dancing in a church while wearing colorful balaclavas earns them 660 days in prison.
Notwithstanding the intellectual depth of the project, the court cases were a damning indictment of post-Soviet Russia’s faux-democracy. Corrupt lawyers, pro-state judges and willful disregard for the popular outrage toward an entrenched and self-interested government are all at play during the trial and sentencing of the members of Pussy Riot. That supporters and participants in Putin’s heavy handed state participated in the senseless persecution of a group of “intellectual pranksters” is no surprise. Most perplexing were the testimonies of the few people who were in the Cathedral that day. Much of the case depended on the “hurt feelings” of the people who were visiting the church. I am wondering how a group of girls screaming in a corner could lead one to suffer PTSD but apparently it happens. I never knew God was that weak. Great book. BUY HERE
Social Democratic America – Lane Kenworthy (2012) – Could social democratic policies such as those of Sweden be beneficial to the United States? Is it even possible to implement them? I’m happy to see this book, if only that it helps validate some of my positions (one needs those moments). Kenworthy rolls through what social democracy is, how it works in the Scandinavian countries and how it might be applied within the United States. It’s a realistic assessment of where US policy fails and a practical prescription to deal with the future.
Kenworthy advocates for increased spending (as a percent of GDP) on broad social insurance programs (safety nets), an income based taxed credit to bolster the wages of low and middle income workers, a national consumption tax to support them and a resurgence of labor unions and labor protections. He rightly points out that the presence of none of these precludes economic growth or affluence. Sweden is hardly the totalitarian state that American right wingers would suggest. In fact, the economic security afforded by it’s generous welfare state is far more supportive of entrepreneurship and innovation than the American system.
While I certainly like these ideas, I am pessimistic as to whether they could even be applied here. Though we do right by offering the earned income tax credit, I can’t see it’s expansion as politically feasible. The United States (at least on the state level) is far too entrenched in a Tea Party mentality and far too fractured to come to a reasonable consensus. Until the United States citizenry starts thinking big and stops thinking solely of individual self-preservation, we’ll have little to look forward to in terms of the implementation of smart policy.BUY HERE
*Again, please excuse the Amazon links. Though it looks like I’m an Amazon shill, I sincerely want to review these books, particularly books that I like. However, I have to be creative in thinking of ways to support this blog. Please, if your are going to purchase these books, use the links. I get 2% of the amount spent. That money goes to helping pay for the yearly fees associated with keeping this web site up. Thanks.
Note: Any of these books can be bought through Amazon. Just click the links and they will take you there. Help keep this site alive!
Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang (2008) – The title is more incendiary than the book. Rather than some scathing attack on “capitalism” it is a primer on macroeconomic development and the failings of the neo-liberal reforms of the World Band the the IMF during the 80’s and 90’s.
I have no problem with the basic premise of the book. Many of the reforms suggested by the WB/IMF were wholly inappropriate for the level of the development of poor countries at the time. For example, it doesn’t really make much sense to privatize a health system before it has the structural means to support itself but that’s exactly what was recommended to a number of countries during the 1980’s. I do, however, become annoyed at the creation of monolithic enemies (“Bad Samaritans”), though I suspect that Chang’s view is much more nuanced than this popular work would suggest.
Worse yet is Chang’s unwillingness to present information on the situations which predicated some of the reforms, such as Zambia’s failed experiment with the nationalization of private firms and over-reliance on copper revenues. I’m willing to accept that the structural adjustment reforms were ill-conceived (because they were), but would like to see more information on why the reforms were suggested. Chang, Stiglitz and Stein (all heroes of mine, btw) fall too often into the trap of blaming ideology at the expense of history and overestimate the capacity of the WB/IMF, who were often grabbing at straws in the face of massive organizational adversity.
The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperityby Jeffrey D. Sachs (2012)
Jeff Sachs of the Earth Institute at Colombia University in NYC is a macroeconomist. As a macroeconomist, he worries about the big picture. How does the overall economy function and what are the macro level factors which insure or compromise the economic health of a country or region? Here he takes on issues of American politics. He’s worried that American politics has become hijacked by corporate interests for their own short term benefit. We need to worry about growing inequality, environmental destruction, climate change and stop fighting useless wars. In short, Sachs, in a cookie cutter sense, represents the views of liberal America.
Now, I like Sachs. I share his view that the market economy is a good thing and an efficient means of distributing scarce goods, but that government is required to effectively insure fairness in the market, reduce the impact of economic shocks and provide or regulate public goods for which the market is unsuited (health care, education, etc). Government and the private sector should complement one another.
I feel that though sometimes Sachs’ works are so broad as to sound naive, his critics, particularly Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, are unfair, particularly regarding matters of the role of foreign aid in development. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of years back. It was an experience I will never forget.
As before, I have no problem with the premise of the book. The US is facing a set of challenges that will be difficult to overcome. Health care, economic inequality, political impasses, failure to adequately tax its citizens to insure a health set of public services, etc. etc. As the world’s biggest and one of the most vibrant economies, the US has a special responsibility to keep its house in order.
However, Sachs’ book, as a polemic, is often overly broad and somewhat annoying to me. For example, in his attempt to pit politics against the American people, he fails to adequately deal with the problem of the behavior of individual Americans. He views the current set of problems as stemming from some nefarious clique of ambiguous groups which manipulate the world for their own evil ends (like the Koch Brothers), concluding that Americans are hapless in the face of these powerful forces. It’s easy to think that Randian ideas are an abomination, but I think that Sachs needs to get out into the country-side a bit more. Libertarian ideas resonate strong with a lot of voting America. The reason that Tea Party groups are successful is because they speak to the gut of a wide swath of Americans.
In the end, Sachs appeals to the Millenials as the last great hope of America. I think, however, he is assuming that they are far more liberal than they might appear. Though I have no data to back it up, I suspect that the current younger generation is quite conservative in more ways than Sachs cares to recognize.
More annoying are his calls for a wide cultural shift in America. A task easier written about than implemented. In the end, he sounds like a rocking chair curmudgeon bemoaning the state of the world and calling for a return to the more idyllic days of the past. I have little tolerance for this kind of writing, honestly.
There are some small gems, though. Sachs vents his frustration with his own camp. Notably, how even environmentalists have stymied development of renewable energy sources (BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anytime Near Anything) and how well meaning folks calling for a return to pre-industrial styles of agriculture are failing to deal with the reality that such a strategy would be disastrous for humanity and the environment.
An interesting book, though not a rigorous analysis of costs and benefits of potential implementable policies to mitigate the problems he addresses. The book is what it is.
Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes In World War II (Transitions–Asia and Asian America)
by Yuki Tanaka (1998) This is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. Tanaka has written a detailed account of the wide range of atrocities committed by the Japanese military during World War II. Cannibalism, rape, mass killings, prisoner abuse, it’s all here and it’s gut wrenching.