Archive for the Books Category

Best novel

I couldn’t decide between Shadow Country & The Tutor of History. They’re both chunky, beautifully written door-stops of novels that tell compelling stories through the eyes of multiple characters and bring complex geographies and social realities to life.

Shadow Country, by Peter Matthieson, is a brutal, intricately characterised and stunningly rendered account of turn-of-the-20th-century frontier life, violence, and exploitation of place and people in Florida’s Everglades. It’s a reworking of Matthieson’s Mister Watson trilogy, and – for a novel that starts with its ending (almost) fully revealed – a gripping and suspenseful story.

The Tutor of History, by Manjushree Thapa, is equally beautifully written. It is a quite wonderful account of family and personal struggle set during a fictitious election campaign in Nepal. Her characters are flawed, failing, trapped and yet full of desire and struggling to work out the possibilities for their own personal liberation within a social and political context that is both deeply conservative and also changing beyond recognition. Marvellous.

Best Science Fiction

River of Gods and Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald. Both to reflect my own reading habits, and the strength of this novel and collection of stories, I needed a separate sci-fi  category. River of Gods couldn’t quite have won in the best novel category, but it would have gone close. Well written (though occasionally just a shade over-written) story of personal, political and environmental intrigue and conflict set in a fractured India in 2047. The big-picture stuff is, indeed, big-picture – India has fractured into multiple smaller and competing states, climate change has weakened the South Asian monsoon, leading to water conflict, various Artificial Intelligences approach break out point only to be put down like rabid dogs – but they never overwhelm McDonald’s gritty depiction of street-level reality, engaging characters and cracker of a story. Cyberabad Days, a collection of short stories, is an edgy, pacy set of snapshots of life in this same setting.

Best Album

Tchamantche. Without a doubt. Rokia Traore is one of two women I have fallen in love with on the basis of their singing voices. The other is Harriet Wheeler of The Sundays. And I can’t understand a word either of them sing.

Best Theology

But possibly worst title: Inhabiting the Cruciform God, by Michael Gorman. And definitely worst subtitle: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. Building on an exposition of Philippians 2:6–11 as Paul’s “master story”, Gorman elegantly argues that God’s nature is cruciform – fully revealed in the paradoxically emptying, abasing and negating movement of Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion. And, following this, that to be truly human is to participate in and be conformed to this divine nature in holy communities of self-giving love.

There are lots of insights into Pauline texts – I often found myself seeing familiar passages in new ways – and Gorman’s weaving together of justification and holiness, the crucifixion and resurrection is compelling. His arguments in support of a theologically informed non-violence are  clear and cogent. Though I found his way of preserving the possibility/reality of a future judgement (by arguing that the narrative structure he identifies in Philippians 2 may express the nature of God but does not exhaust it) troubling. Taking this route seems to me to have the potential to undermine much of what Gorman had argued to this point.

Best Day

Sunday 19 July.

Best Taste

Samosa chat from a street vendor in Surkhet. It’s spicy, creamy, potatoey goop over samosa fragments, served on a banana leaf plate. Delicious. But Urmila’s tomato and coriander achar runs a very close second.

Best Movie

Up (Disney/Pixar).  Gorgeous. Heart-breaking and hilarious animated family feature.

The end of the year (and decade) abounds in lists. My list of lists includes:

59 alternative ways to celebrate a buy-nothing-Christmas.

Best hundred books of the decade.

Worst List Ever.

I’ll be writing my own soon for sure.

And if you’re after inspiration and challenge this list of top 10 individual protests is a must-read. Some, like Gandhi and Rosa Parks, you’ll know of and some – like Zackie Achmat and Vedran Smailovic – you may not know of. I hadn’t heard of every protest on the list, and was glad to be enlightened.

I’ve just finished reading From Poverty to Power*, Duncan Green’s recent book, whose tagline gives you the book’s big idea:

How active citizens and effective states can change the world

Expounding the theme he regularly returns to, he says, “states that can guarantee security and the rule of law, and can design and implement an effective strategy to ensure inclusive economic growth” are essential for driving and managing the development process and “people working together to determine the course of their own lives, fighting for rights and justice in their own societies, are critical in holding states, private companies and others to account.”

It’s a chunky book, aiming at a pretty comprehensive look at different dimensions of power and their interactions at different levels to either advance or inhibit the capacities and opportunities of the poor. It is full of argument and insight (as well as stories of outrage and hope), and is well worth a read.

What’s great about the book is that it takes power (and powerlessness) seriously in all its dimensions (personal, inter-personal, social, political, financial) as it relates to human development and the protection and promotion of human rights. It argues that the redistribution of economic, social and political power, or the creation of new centres and forms of power among the poor, are vital for overcoming inequality, tackling poverty, defending human rights, and calling for –and supporting – responsive, accountable and effective governance.

Looking at national and international policy issues, and following the work of economists like Ha-Joon Chang and Dani Rodrik (and incorporating environmental and gender concerns), the book argues that “economic growth is everything” approaches are not sufficient to tackle poverty and inequality, and that countries (particularly poorer, developing ones) need to retain “policy space” and flexibility when dealing with the trans-national corporations of developed countries, or the architecture of global trade and finance (such as the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and World Bank). The work isn’t geared to bashing these institutions, and it certainly isn’t anti-market or anti-business. On many occasions it acknowledges the vital role that small and medium, and even large, enterprises can play in creating wealth, generating employment and opportunity, contributing to gender empowerment, and driving economic growth and development. But it takes the rights and flourishing of the poorest as the benchmark for assessing policy, or the behaviour of an institution, or set of governance arrangements – a stance that leads to sharp critique of corporations, international financial institutions, and governments at times.

Along the way, there is plenty of material to fuel your ire, or fire some arguments – for example the discussion of the behaviour of pharmaceutical companies in relation to Africa’s AIDS crisis, the slow-burning tragedy of the crippling debt burden still borne by the world’s poorest people, or the “rigged rules and double standards” of WTO agreements. There are plenty of “killer facts” as well sprinkled throughout to bring out the sharp edge of the topic under discussion.

I really only have one complaint , which is that the book’s strength seems also to be its weakness. Examining so many different forms of power and tools of empowerment (education, citizenship, land and property rights, social protection, cash transfers,…), so many forms of risk and vulnerability faced by the poor (finance, health, food security, conflict and violence, climate change…) and examining stories at so many different levels (the personal, local, national and international) means that, inevitably, many of the sections are really only introductions to the topic at hand, with not quite enough detail to do justice to the issue (though the treatment of issues like the international trade and finance systems, or community organising for political change are very good introductions). Nor do they properly back up the few prescriptive passages in the book. For example, it’s not clear to me what would actually be done differently if we heeded Green’s call for a “new economics for the 21st Century”. He’s probably right about the ascendency of a certain, very blunt, form of neo-classical economics in political decision making. But when he says,

Decision-makers will always need to consult, identify trade-offs, and agree priorities: such discussions are the stuff of politics, which in the end should be served, and not ruled, by economics

I really can’t imagine that decision-makers currently do otherwise.

Related to this is that the kaleidoscopic view of power explored here ends up reading, at certain points, like a change of topic every 20 pages or so, which gets a bit tiring when read at one sitting (or, in a 6-hour stretch in an overcrowded minivan winding its way through the hills of Far Western Nepal!). It would probably have been better to dip in and out of several of the sections according to interest and my ability to concentrate.

Oh, and a minor gripe is that Oxfam’s marketing team seem to have been allowed pretty free play in the text. I have no issue at all with sentences like, “Oxfam has learned that…” or “In the experience of Oxfam’s partners…” The book, after all, was written by Oxfam GB’s head of research and these lessons confirmed by personal and organisational experience provide much of the book’s strength and authenticity.

What started to irk me a little though was that whenever the words “International Non-Governmental Organisations…” cropped up, they were almost invariably followed by the words “… like Oxfam.” Now I know Oxfam is an example of one kind of INGO, and it’s probably worth pointing out once or twice on the way through, but surely not every time. First, it gets tedious and, second, you’d have a slightly warped view of INGOs if every time you thought about them you had to think of Oxfam (whose work, and staff, I really do like and admire).

Funnily enough, though, the words “like Oxfam” didn’t make it into the sentence that reads:

While activists from many developing countries appreciate the support that their organisations receive from INGOs, they often complain that INGOs are domineering…

But that’s definitely enough snark. You can see video of Duncan Green discussing the book here.

* From Poverty to Power is also the name of his excellent blog

I have been reading two books lately that have had me weeping and given me nightmares. Which doesn’t sound like a high recommendation, I know, but it is.

The first is The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change by Tim Flannery.

One of the main strengths of the book is its presentation of the interconnected physical systems that are affected by, and in turn affect, the climate – the atmosphere, ocean currents and temperature, ice sheets and the earth’s albedo, the El Nino and La Nina cycle. He is appropriately cautious of the future impact of climate change – not in the sense of denying it altogether, which is a particular form of insanity, but in presenting a range of scenarios. The range, unfortunately, runs from bad to worse:

It’s too late to avoid changing our world, but we still have time, if good policy is implemented, to avoid disaster.

It’s an accessible, thorough and deeply disturbing description of climate change science that forms the platform for the book’s argument.

What gave me nightmares was the description of the current impact of climate change on biodiversity. We are already seeing measurable damage done to reefs through coral bleaching, we’ve seen the extinction of the Costa Rican golden toad due to climate change.

If the purpose of creation is to sing the praises of God (Psalm 148) then to contemplate being responsible for silencing so much of the glorious choir is a terrible thing.

Some of his speculation about political and social scenarios in response to climate change was disturbing, but, unlike the impacts on biodiversity, the evidence is too thin to extrapolate well. (“2084: The Carbon Dictatorship?” is a silly title for a chapter, with or without the question mark.)

Back on firmer ground, his account of the hustling of Senator Robert Hill (then minister for the Environment) at Kyoto is deeply saddening. Australia is the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases and yet we managed to negotiate an increase of CO2 emissions on 1990 levels, and even then we will only achieve it (if, indeed, we do) not because of any action to reduce emissions (they are increasing) but because the slow-down in land-clearing can be counted as an emissions ‘saving’.

He provides, briefly, positive proposals, including some exploration of forms of carbon sequestering (basically sticking it back in the ground where it came from and hoping it doesn’t pop up later to bite us in the bum), and rapid decarbonising of the power grid through investment in wind, solar and geothermal energy sources. He nuts through the nuclear option (very briefly and unsatisfyingly, to my mind) and pushes strongly for the Contraction & Convergence approach to international climate change negotiation and response. Full C&C is a policy approach we are unlikely to see any movement on under the current crop of world leaders – or possibly any leaders, as it entails far greater economic adjustment on the part of polluting nations than Kyoto.

He concludes with a small, but empowering, checklist of things you can do to make a difference personally. I was encouraged by the fact that as a family we are already doing 7 of the 11 things he recommends, but have plenty more to do.

The second is The Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog, which is an account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. I picked it up at a second-hand bookshop and I am only able to read small sections at a time, as it is just too confronting and sad.

Her writing is amazing – as a poet as well as a journalist, there is a dark lyricism to her writing that really connects with me and captures the depths of the subject matter.

But it is the raw testimony of those who spoke to the Commission that is so heart-breaking. The denial and incomprehension of devastated parents, of tormented wives, husbands and children:

I asked them, ‘Show me the mark on his chin, then I will know it’s my son.’ They showed me the mark on his chin, and I said: ‘It’s not my son.”

I heard shots… I ran… slipped and fell… I crawled out at the front door… On the steps my son sat… with his father’s face in his hands… He was covered in blood… He cried over and over: ‘Daddy, talk to me…’ Today he is 21 years old. I am still woken at night by his cries: ‘Wipe the blood… wipe the blood from my father’s face.’

As well as this, she reflects with real insight and pain as an Afrikaner on the structural violence of apartheid that underlies these accounts of overt violence and on the sense of betrayal felt by some Afrikaners as the moral ordering of South Africa was completely upturned in the political revolution that brought the ANC to government.

It’s a painful book to read – and I’m sure it must have been to write. While there are no easy parallels, there are many provocative reflections that arise for me as I read it about dominant culture’s treatment of indigenous Australians (or even onshore asylum-seekers), about state power and the citizen, and the way moral crimes can be legitimized, and even made to seem necessary to people who would regard themselves as fundamentally decent.