Books: June 2012

by macksemil

THE OPEN VEINS OF LATIN AMERICA: FIVE CENTURIES OF THE PILLAGE OF A CONTINENT – EDUARDO GALEANO

Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others – the empires and their native overseers. In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison.” – Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent

I picked up Open Veins of Latin America as my second adventure into Galeano’s writing. This book gained a boost of popularity, skyrocketing to #2 on Amazon’s best seller list, after Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez gave the book to Barack Obama during an April, 2009 visit. It was a bit of a departure from Days and Nights of Love and War as it was intended to be more of a historical commentary than the prior. It did hold much of the same passion, however. Open Veins was more difficult read, taking me me nearly two months to finish.

 The historical facts presented in Open Veins are steeped in the unforgiving fury of Galeano’s writing to produce a hard hitting account. Starting with the arrival of the first Spanish explorers, Galeano chronicles the various ways in which foreigners have extracted wealth from Latin America to build their empires, leaving behind a legacy of misery for the inhabitants of the land. From the great gold and silver rushes to the present day International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies, Galeano uses a variety of sources to back his argument that the Latin American people have been subjected to a never ending string of injustices at the hands of foreign enterprise.

While Galeano’s prose ties everything together in its characteristic eloquence, the listing of economic agencies and figures muddles the flow in the later sections of the book. Without a somewhat versed understanding of economic language, the reader can expect to read certain passages multiple times to grasp the figures presented. Even with multiple passes, at times I was at a loss to frame certain measurements of productivity or lack thereof against a larger societal backdrop.

The descriptions of the blossoming and dessication of the cultural centers of Potosi and Ouro Preto were enthralling. Over the course of a few hundred years magnificent cities of incredible wealth materialized and vanished to crumble. The treacheries imposed on the natives is characteristic of European-Native interactions of the era; no punches are pulled as Galeano describes the terrors suffered under the sword of the power hungry Spanish conquistadors.

Galeano goes on to describe the river of foreign capital that flowed into the developing markets in the twentieth century. The suppression of people’s movements and dissent under authoritarian regimes are widespread throughout the region and Galeano connects the dots always back to the United States or European interests. The book was published in 1971 and concludes the last chapter “The Contemporary Structure of Plunder” by describing the net effects of the skewed economics imposed on Latin America by the “developed” world.

Some readers may be turned off by Galeano’s impassioned vocabulary, perhaps feeling that it is weighted. While this can be overdone at times, we have to come to terms with the fact that it is entirely appropriate in this context. Galeano is skilled at bringing the numbers back home – describing the real world consequences of holding profits above all else. For those who want a harrowing tour of the violence inherent in contemporary economic policies and the inhumanities of imperial conquest, Open Veins is second to none.

BOOK-O-METER SCORE: 8/10

CATCH-22 – JOSEPH HELLER

History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war. Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.” – Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Catch-22 was recommended to me by my friend Steve who had his own ridiculous stories about serving in the military. It is his favorite book. In fact, he likes it so much that he picks up copies of Catch-22 when he sees them for a good price so that he can give them to his friends to read. Unfortunately when attempting to read the copy Steve gave me a few years ago I found that the first 22 pages were missing. Due to fate’s cruel humor my reading of the book was delayed a year or two until I picked up my own copy which was examined before purchase to ensure that all of the pages were present.

Starting Catch-22 I was bracing myself for what appeared to be a 460 page M.A.S.H. episode with a splash of dark humor. As the story continued I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case. The characters were ridiculous, sure, but as the plot developed there was a good mix of humor and depth. Yossarian, the protagonist, is a disillusioned combat pilot constantly vexed by the insanities of war and the military. The glory seeking Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the required combat missions of his squadron in an attempt to gain favor with his superior officers. Yossarian’s morale deteriorates as the number climbs from 40, to 45, 50, 55, 60 and upwards. He cares only about saving his own skin, and doesn’t understand why everyone is trying to kill him. Yossarian attempts to get himself grounded from flying more missions on the basis of insanity and is hit with the classic introdution of the catch; catch 22. If you are sane enough to know that flying more missions is crazy, you’re sane enough to fly them. Only if Yossarian is crazy enough to fly more missions does he qualify as insane.

Heller’s characters are the real treat in this book. Milo the entrepreneurial mess officer ends up requisitioning planes from the service in under the table deals in order to run a black market syndicate all over the European theater. Chief White Halefoat is a displaced native who claims he will die of pneumonia, steals whiskey away and threatens to cut people’s throats in their sleep. Hungry Joe is the only one who sleeps well in the squadron, but he keeps all the others up at night with his howling during recurring nightmares. The meek chaplain who means well loses his faith in the military system and tastes the fruits of amorality. Debauchery is a general theme as the enlisted men and officers find any excuse to get drunk and womanize. The scenes in Rome are especially colorful but lend themselves to some distasteful interactions with women.

  The ideological dialogue is delivered in waves upon waves of dark humor. I felt that the book was put on fast forward as it progressed. Yossarian’s friends  succumb to the horrors of war: going missing, getting killed or losing their minds. The commanding officers create more and more enigmatically ludicrous hoops for the soldiers to jump through. I was skeptical at first but by the last third of the book I couldn’t put it down. A milestone of political commentary by means of dark humor, Heller’s Catch-22 is simultaneously one of the funniest and most depressing books I’ve read all year.

BOOK-O-METER SCORE: 7/10

THE WORLD OF THE KALAPUYA – JUNTUNEN, DASCH & ROGERS

Ethnographers, archaeologists, historians, and, especially, the descendants of the native people themselves have left us a thread we can follow from the twenty-first century back to the days when the Kalapuya lived in the Valley. It is a testament to the strength of their oral tradition that we can learn how they lived their daily lives, how they cared for their natural environment, how they interacted with adjacent peoples, and what they valued and believed.” – Juntunen, Dasch & Rogers, The World of the Kalapuya

I picked this book up at a local bookstore in Eugene, Black Sun Books. Although the price tag was steep at seventeen dollars, I justified it because I wanted to support a small local store. Looking back, it was way too much. I’m glad I got my hands on this one though. Hopefully Black Sun and the Benton County Historical Society, which produced the book, will put the money to good use.

The World of the Kalapuya is an account of the native peoples of the Willamette Valley pieced together from various sources. Covering everything from language, building techniques, plants, medicine, spirituality, stories, foods, tools, trade and agricultural practices this book is tightly packed with information. One of the most interesting parts of the book was the description of human made mounds in the Willamette Valley and the mystery surrounding their origins. The book gave the impression that the natives living in the area at the time of contact with white settlers had no knowledge of who built the mounds and what their purpose might have been. There was also a description of a circle of stones 35 feet in diameter at a site just south of Salem which had been dismantled before it was photographed.

The Kalapuya people had complex interactions with neighboring tribes and utilized a vast trade network that stretched from the great plains to the coastal tribes. They also burned great tracts of the valley to encourage favorable hunting grounds and camas growth. The camas root was an important part of the Kalapuya diet. The descriptions of the quality of baskets, tools, clothing and shelter the Kalapuya were able to construct speaks to their ingenuity. The section containing a handful of Kalapuya stories and myths was particularly entertaining.

The epilogue chronicles the changes faced the Kalapuya as white people migrated into the region. This section could be an entire book on its own and I was disappointed to see it take up a mere 14 pages. The writing is a bit dry mainly owing to the aim of the book; it reads like a textbook. The illustrations are plentiful and helpful. If you’re looking for a description of what life was like for a native people of western Oregon before contact with white settlers, this is a good read.

BOOK-O-METER SCORE: 6/10

KING OF FISH: THE THOUSAND YEAR RUN OF SALMON DAVID MONTGOMERY

We can have a landscape full of both people and salmon. These goals are not mutually exclusive. But we cannot have both if we are unwilling to fundamentally reexamine how we operate on the landscape and adjust our individual and collective actions so as not to radically degrade the places that salmon live and rely on.” – David Montgomery, King of Fish
(artwork by Ray Troll)

I picked up King of Fish a few years ago while I was working with the commercial Salmon trolling fleet in the port of Charleston, Oregon for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. I was fortunate to have some very knowledgeable mentors at the ODFW Charleston office who explained of the issues facing salmon. It was apparent that the salmon in the Pacific Northwest were in trouble as evidenced by the fishermen I talked to on a daily basis who were struggling to break even. Many of them were upset about the condition of the salmon runs. All of them were upset by the way the stocks were managed by state and federal agencies.

David Montgomery is a geologist with the University of Washington that started studying salmon while examining how rivers in Washington State. He describes how salmon are affected by the five H’s: harvest, habitat, hydropower, hatcheries and the often overlooked history.Montgomery then presents the history of salmon chronologically, excepting a brief overview of the history of tribal fishing. Montgomery explains that humans at that time relied heavily on the fish for food, fertilizer and feed for their livestock. The first known set of regulations establishing a seasonal fishing closure was in 1030 by the King of Scotland. In 1318 an act of British Parliament forbade construction of fixtures that would block salmon from being able to migrate through a stream. As we can see, the lessons we are struggling to learn today in the Pacific Northwest are not new. Through the descriptions of the declines of European and North American Atlantic salmon we can see the consequences of failing to provide adequate protection for salmon and the streams they inhabit.

Montgomery then transitions back to the Pacific Northwest where he thoroughly breaks down all of the causes for the declines in Pacific Salmon populations. In a broad historical sweep that covers the 49’ers, canning operations, logging practices, the advent of dams, the westward push of civilization, fisheries and hatchery attempts Montgomery pulls together a complete picture that is often impossible to obtain from any one of these sources alone. The tragedy of the commons plays out as extensive fishing operations decimate populations on the Columbia to pack and send to external markets. The destructive practice of splash-damming for logging operations scours the stream beds to bedrock, stripping them of the gravel bars essential for spawning. Removal of logjams and the construction of dikes eliminate side channels and estuaries that are essential rearing grounds for juveniles.

Once the dust has all settled, we are left with a grim picture. However, Montgomery reminds us that the fact that salmon are still here at all is a testimony to their hardiness. They are more like weeds than fish, he explains. In the last chapter he lines out his recommendations for the restoration of Pacific Salmon. These include returning rivers to a more natural, untamed state, stopping destructive hatchery practices, managing stocks conservatively, rethinking our land use practices and setting aside some rivers as dedicated salmon habitat.

King of Fish is well written and insightful. Thinking of things not in terms of years, or decades but hundreds or thousands of years at a time puts things in a new perspective. If you’re interested in one of the most pressing ecological issues of the Pacific Northwest, this book will give you a succinct account with the added bonus of a worldwide history of salmon fishing. There are other great books on salmon issues, but Montgomery’s King of Fish is the place to start.

BOOK-O-METER SCORE: 9/10

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