Archive for January, 2009

Two books by Paul Theroux

From November 14, 2007:

“I recently finished The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. The main character is nuts but inspiring for his inventiveness. He makes me want to learn about how to use metal, machining/threading parts, welding, etc. Right now I don’t know anything about how to use metal, or rather how to make it do what you want it to do.* And motors and shit!** What’s that about? Basically I was inspired by the knowledge and skills that the father character had which he could use to fuel his inventiveness/problem solving. There’s got to be a mountain of scrap metal out there, if you know how to use it…

From December 13, 2007:

Just finished Dark Star Safari also by Paul Theroux. He has a unique, unapologetic, take it or leave it style/voice. At first I was put off, but then came to trust his opinions, reaspect his observations. And wow, one hell of a trip [from Cairo to Cape Town, mostly by land]. The book is a travel log, and besides being interested in the story/trip itseld, I was interested in the author himself as the main character. His life as an author, travelling. His friendships with people in his youth who now, 40 years later are famous people. I am enamoured with the idea of having life long correspondense with people/intellectuals, like he has with V.S. Naipaul, Naghib Mahfouz, and the South African woman author whose name I forget.  I think that being in touch with people like this throughout your life would make you feel connected to a movement, or at least to a generation, a time period.

Other thoughts based on the book:

The idea of being a teacher with the goal of leaving someone (a student) who would take your place.

Theroux’s criticism of NGOs and the idea that aid/aiders are making things worse in Africa, because people become reliant, not self sufficient, they don’t own their own problem. Some/few Africans will teach or doctor in their own country for a low wage when they know that foreign aid agencies will provide/subsidize foreign teachers and doctors. And that Zimbabwe was the best country he visited as a result of having been shunned by foreign agencies; Zimbabweans have had to do things for themselves…It makes you wonder about all development work, about what we are/should be doing here in Honduras. How to apply what he says about aid in Africa to the context here, which seems very different–less desperate poverty and disease, less population, less AIDS, a different culture, etc.

I am thinking now again that if we in the west truly wanted to do something to act upon our urge to help people in other nations, we should lobby our own governments to have better trade policies, and to force our companies to follow the same ethical conduct that they would here (i.e. mining, fruit companies, etc.). This trade policy shift would probably harm us economically/financially though so it would be hard to rally popular support..In this vein I am tempted to support Capitalism, in so far as we have never seen how unfettered Capitalism would actually work, since so far the “free market” has never been free but rather has been consistently and intentionally tilted in the favour of those who are already wealthy..

*I still don’t…

**I did, however, recently receive two little motors for christmas…

On Malcolm X

From October 29, 2007:

“Am reading Malcolm X Speaks (George Breitman, Ed.) and while I feel awkward reading it and being white, I am captivated by the truth he speaks, which I imagine is why he was silenced. It is reminding me of what I have heard from Ward Churchill, and also of the slogan “speak truth to power”** I just read a good passage by Malcolm X, his analogy of the march on Washington to black coffee:

“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn’t integrate it, they infiltrated it…

**I now think that this slogan is naive, after reading an article by Chris Floyd where he says:

I have always disliked this phrase “speaking truth to power” (although I’m sure I’ve lazily employed it myself on several occasions). No one needs to speak truth to power: power knows the truth well enough, it knows what it is doing, and to whom, and why. What we need, most desperately, are people who will speak truth about power, and speak it to people who might not have heard that truth through the howling cacophony of media diversion, corporate spin and political manipulation.”

On Homage to Catalonia by Orwell

From December 17, 2008:

“Just finished reading Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Though repetitive, confusing, and rambling in style, it is still a very interesting book about fighting for one’s ideals and the realities of war. It is also a window into a time when other political systems were available options in the West, i.e. communism, anarchism, and fascism, which is interesting to me because communism and anarchism now are dismissed as impossible or dead, though I suppose “socialism” is alive and well. [interestingly, in some left-history and writing on that time period, i.e. early to mid 20th century, socialism or social democrats are disparaged as sellouts or collaborator, mostly because they are anti-revolutionary, unlike the anarchists and communists. In this light, it is disappointing that social democracy seems to have emerged from the left as the victor, disappointing in so far as it is the most accepting of capitalism, the least threatening towards it….] The book is also interesting to me because it talks about Spain and Spaniards and makes me think of recent experiences in Tegucigalpa with Spaniards. Orwell’s portrait of them resonates with me: paradoxical, romantic, passionate, giving and friendly, in an unassuming way, almost blind or ignorant in that exuberance, full of a joie de vivre. I feel that I expected to have more thoughts related to the book, and even while reading it I didn’t. It just sits there. It is what it is, an account of a young man going to fight. But the Spanish war experience was different. The war comes across as necessary but disappointing due to the infighting between anarchists and communists, and the general (and later aggressive) anti-revolutionary policy adopted (by the communists) as time went on. Though, Orwell says that the big hope was to stop fascism in Spain, as an example to the rest of the world, and by setting this example perhaps stop the looming WWII.

It is strange to me to read of intra left wing fighting, the 3rd International, the anarchists, the Trotskyists, etc.  It seems so petty and distracting to me having grown ip in a time when destructive capitalism has prevailed, and the right is so powerful. The luxury of having debates and rivalries within the left!”

That being said, I recently read something by Naomi Klein arguing that it is important to have debate within the left, or rather that it is important to voice opinions that are farther to the left in order to try to shift the centre leftwards, rather than to subdue one’s political views with the hope of attracting a wider audience of people closer to the centre….

More books by Farley Mowat….

From November 27, 2008:

“Read The Snow Walker and My Discovery of America by F. Mowat. The former was read while on the shores of Lake Superior in Pukaskwa National Park, with _____. Snow Walker is a compilation of stories by Mowat pulled from events he witnessed while up north, or else (mostly) traditional tales from the north. Besides being an interesting (oral) Canadian history, it featured Mowat’s characteristic witty style and deep characters. My Discovery of America is a rather different book, inspired by Mowat’s failed attempt to cross the American border in the 1980s. This book is to some extent a comment on the stupidity of American immigration and customs policy and is also rather prescient, predating by more than 15 years 9/11 and the Department of Homeland Security. However, the book is mostly enjoyable because of its comedic value and also perhaps its autobiographical value as Mowat scours his past for reasons the Americans would deny him entry. Among the possible incidents that may have caused his denial was shooting at low-flying American military aircraft that were conducting practice runs over Canadian airspace…Besides this, Mowat’s general bull-headedness and refusal to not make a big stink until he got a full apology and removal from the “lookout book” lead to much hilarity. And, the press at the time latched on to Mowat’s nose-thumbing insistance that president Reagan fly to Port Hope to apologize personally, and then fly him in Air Force One to the engagement in California where he was originally heading…The story was widely publicised in the States resulting in a flood of letters of support from American citizans who had heard of his plight at the hands of their own border police, and this actually served to restore or increase Mowat’s faith in the average American…

On Pierre Burton, and he in comparison with Mowat

From August 22, 2008:

“While here I have read a number of stories by Pierre Burton, stories from Canada’s history–some of them interesting (Dr. Grenfell, The Overlanders, etc.) and others inane/irrelevant (ex. The Brother XII). Burton is an excellent storyteller, but perhaps a shallow one. He does not bring out the underlying significance and emotion that a writer does. Burton is a storyteller, not a “writer” perhaps. By contrast, I read another book by Farley Mowat, And No Birds Sang, which is the story of his war years. With Mowat you get drawn into the narrative, its ups and downs. Unlike Burton, Mowat is not just relating a story (though Burton does it very well), he is crafting a tale with great skill.

Some other thoughts on And No Birds Sang: I was surprised that even Farley Mowat, who now seems so opposed to war and destruction, was a youth like other youths, keen to rush off to war and prove himself by defending king and country. I suppose I had similar feelings at that age, of wanting to prove myself, of being desperate for some real hardship so that I might overcome it. Fortunately for me, there was no world war occurring during that time….”

R.U.S.T. ( Radical Urban Sustainability Training)

Was reminded of this when digging through old jottings…

and also: the beehive collective

quoted from the above website:

Beth Ferguson and Juan Martinez have been part of the ecological art movement on many fronts. They started working together by organizing 20 person bicycle circus tours. They co-founded Bikes Across Borders, an Austin-based organization that has sent over 600 bikes to community groups on the US/Mexico border, in Chiapas, Mexico, and Cuba. Juan has produced illustrations for the last six years with the Beehive Collective ( Beth has been working with the Green Map System, which promotes ecological and cultural resources, as a graphic designer and special projects coordinator. She earned a BA in Ecological Design and Community Development from Hampshire College

The work of the beehive collective, which I saw at couple of different demonstrations in Halifax, reminds me of the work of Jose Guadalupe Posada about whom I recently received a book. Posada was a Mexican graphic artist aroudn the turn of the 20th century, and an inspiration for the famous Mexican muralists, including Diego Rivera, who would follow soon after…



Sibir by Farley Mowat

From April 19, 2008:

“Just finished Sibir by Farley Mowat, It is a good book and makes me want to go to Siberia. The book chronicles Mowat’s travels to the area first in 1966 with Claire (his wife) and then again in ’69 with a photographer friend John de Vissiers. *(I wonder if it is possible to find photos from the trip?)

They travel to Lake Baikal, Irkutsk, Yakutsk a place on the arctic ocean called Thersky, etc. The most frustrating to me is that it is potentially (almost certainly) outdated, the story being 40 years old and during the Soviet era. So, on top of the normal extra-cultural and geographic curiosity (what is it like over there?) there is the added the temporal curiosity (what is it like now?/ How has it changed?).

Mowat paints a picture of Siberia that is full of hearty, loving people in touch with the land and their futures(the native peoples or “small peoples” anyways) and of Russians who have wandered Northwards and Eastwards and fallen in love with a challenging and rewarding life. He also paints a positive image of Soviet government types, party members that is. Everyone is working with nature to build sustainable human settlements. This includes conservation related to lake Baikal, fish stocks off the east coast, study and use of permafrost, advanced animal breeding techniques (reindeer), food self-sufficiency to limit transit-intensive imports, encouraging traditional knowledge and ways of life, etc. I am incredibly, curious about what happened in the next 20 years of Soviet era and then the 20 years since. A friend of mine who was in Russia suggested that Siberia may not have been hugely effected by the fall of the Soviets because it is so isolated. But i am skeptical of this hypothesis because the area seemed to receive a lot of support from Moscow in subsidies and in providing a market for goods that were being produced in the north. On the other hand, the people as described by Mowat seemed to have internalized the values of the Soviets, or maybe not, in the sense that the values of Communism perhaps weren’t taught by Soviets but were there all along…

But still the question remains: How did the fall of the Soviet government affect the political consciousness/ideology of the people where Mowat visited? How did it affect their hopes and plans, and their ability to achieve them?