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review 2015-06-26 00:55
Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink - Juliana Barbassa

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

 

                For me, as for many people in the world, Brazil means football.  Further thought brings to mind Carnival, and then comes the favelas, then drugs, then the beaches, then pollution, and that’s it.  And that’s rather unfair to Brazil in general and Rio de Janeiro in particular.

 

                For most people outside of Brazil, Brazil is either rainforest or Rio.  It’s like the East Coast of the United States being New York or Washington (or the United States being New York or LA).  While Barbassa’s book is about Rio, in particular about a Rio in a state of change as it prepares for the World Cup and Olympics, she does note that Brazil is far more than Rio, that Rio itself if far more than what makes it into the movies or the nightly newscast.

 

                Barbassa starts her book with a newscast, one that shows the naming of Rio for the 2016 Olympics.  This compels her to journey back to her city after years away.  The book chronicles the city as it undergoes changes in getting already for both the World Cup and the Olympics.  It ends with; well I don’t really see how it is a spoiler anymore but anyway, with the World Cup and the Brazilian National Team’s fate in that tournament.

 

                Barbassa paints the city, not just by chronicling the events that made international headlines, such as assault on the favelas or the mudslides that wipes out smaller communities, but also her own struggles in the city – such as her quest to finding living space.  The use of a personal story, but one that most people moving to or living in Rio go through, actually gives more to the book than leaving it out.  It also allows a closer and more intimate look at what living in the city entails, not for someone who is rich or poor, but in the middle.

 

                The most interesting and engrossing sections are not the parts about the war on the drug gangs or the invasion of the favelas; they are the sections about the mudslides and the environment.  In the section about the mudslides, Barbassa captures the feeling of the people, as well as her reaction to the events, but also pulls the reader along with her.  Her descriptive writing is so vivid that sounds and smell are there even if you are reading it a nicely air conditioned room as I was.

 

                The environment appears not only in the chapters about the dumps and sewage, but also about the struggle of living in certain areas of the city as well as the cataloging of animals.  And Barbassa looks are more than the human animal. 

 

                If you are reading this book expecting to see a detailed analysis of Carnival, nope.  While there is one description of one Carnival, Barbassa uses it more as an introduction to changing views on homosexuality and transgender issue.  The device work very well, and it also extends to looking at prostitution in the city – which Barbassa does in some depth, offering some good analysis, while focusing on how even this is changing with the passage of time.

 

                The book is timely not because it comes out a year after the World Cup and a year before the Olympics, but because it gives context to those events.  Too often we only look at the major sporting events though a lens of the event – be it the idea of a success or a failure – Barbassa’s book allows us to see both the human element as a success and as a loss.  The question is, as always, what is the price of success?  Does success come with a brilliant televised event or with the fulfillment of the lives of the people who live in the area?  How does a city keep moving, growing, changing, and fighting when the solutions don’t work or aren’t even considered?  Such struggles are not just central to the fading American city, such as Detroit, but are more global in impact.

 

                I feel I must apologize to the publisher who approved the ARC for a reader who loved the book, but whose area of expertise and study is not the urban city.   I can’t recommend this book highly enough, however.  In many ways, it makes the perfect work to use in a class simply because there is enough coverage of various topics to promote conversation and debate.

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review 2015-04-14 21:38
Art or not
Street Art Santiago - Lord K2

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley.

 

                Part photo-journalism, part interview, this book contains street art (graffiti) from Santiago Chile.  The book’s chapters are different barrios, and each chapter tells you the population, income average, as well as size and graffiti occurrence. 

                The photographs are stunning – there is one with a figure and a bridge that you just wish you could have seen in real life – and the interviews and quotes are interesting, though at times confusing.  One artist admits to doing graffiti because it is against the law, and then says he isn’t breaking the law.

                What is most interesting is the connection between the art and politics, something that is not all present in graffiti that decorates many American cities.  Rather interesting in terms of the biographies and personal stories of the various artists.

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review 2015-04-04 01:22
The World's Greatest Civilizations: The History and Culture of the Maya - Charles River Editors

Basic, but not bad.

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review 2011-01-01 00:00
An Environmental History of Latin America (New Approaches to the Americas)
An Environmental History of Latin America (New Approaches to the Americas) - Shawn William Miller One of the things that surprised me about this (but in retrospect maybe doesn’t) is that in the introduction Miller notes that although “Ideas matter,” history shows that “regardless of a culture’s religious or scientific views of nature, we of the human race have joined hands in reshaping and devastating the earth.” (4) I suspect Miller’s intention was to begin combatting the “Pristine Myth,” which he takes on a few pages later. But I think he gives too much of a pass to Europe’s dominant religion and its ideas about nature. Miller also, like Steinberg in Down to Earth, decides to use sustainability as a measure of cultural success, although he is critical of its anthropocentricity. But like Steinberg, Miller does not offer a solid alternative criterion that balances human and non-human values.The Pristine Myth, that “depicts precontact America as an unspoiled, lightly peopled wilderness in environmental harmony and ecological balance, is an image that manages to remain standing,” Miller says, “even though recent scholarship has cut off its legs.” (9) Miller cites recent estimates of American population in 1492 that range from 40 to 70 million, with a high of 115 million. All but 2 to 3 million of these pre-Columbian people lived in Central and South America, though. And even Down to Earth proves Miller’s point that “the story has been too often told from a North American perspective,” although Steinberg tries to adjust the typical “late beginning” with British colonization in 1607 or 1620. (10) Miller also stresses the urbanity of the pre-Columbian natives. The Aztec capitals of “Tenochtitlán and Texcoco, in the Valley of Mexico, each had more than 200,000 inhabitants, larger than contemporary Paris, London, or Lisbon…In 1492, the Valley of Mexico had 1 million inhabitants, to use the more conservative estimate.” Mexico City was America’s largest city in 1600, 1800, and 2000. (10) Jungle people planted trees they valued, and managed the forest. (18) Urban Mexicans used intensive gardening techniques in raised Chinampas to “support 15 people per hectare in the fifteenth century. Chinese agriculture, one of Eurasia’s most successful…supported fewer than three people per hectare in the same century.” (21) And the natives substantially changed the landscape surrounding their cities. “In Peru alone there are some 6,000 square kilometers of terraces, and in the region of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia there are another 5,000…many of the Andes jungled, eastern slopes, such as those of Machu Picchu, were also terraced but have been covered and torn apart by rainforest trees over the last centuries.” (23) The Incas also mined guano off the coast of Peru, and “passed harsh laws to protect it,” suggesting they may have been the first people to adopt soil amendment techniques beyond the use of animal and human manures. (25) Although guano was recognizably manure, which provided a conceptual framework for its use, the techniques of acquiring, distributing, and using is would have been completely different from fresh manure. The organizational skills the Incas used to take advantage of guano also helped them compensate for wide swings in crop yields by “storing large quantities of surplus food, by working collectively in the construction of their fabulous infrastructure and their fields, and by distributing their communities and their kin across an unusually broad range of altitudes and microclimates.” (26) This last element is especially interesting, and has been overlooked, I think, in North American rural history as well as South. Miller argues for a fairly high amount of cannibalism, especially among the Tupi in Brazil and the Aztecs. The Tupi, he says, had abundant sources of protein, and ate their enemies for cultural reasons. The Aztecs ate everything, MIller says, “including snakes, lizards, wasps, flying ants, and insect larvae,” as well as dogs, roasted red worms called ezcahuitli, and tecuitatl, the dried algae spirulina, which “looked like bread and tasted like cheese.” (38) Since they had none of the other European food taboos, and since they probably killed over 20,000 people a year in religious sacrifices (136,000 skulls were counted at Tenochtitlán’s main temple), Miller suggests eating the victims was the most practical way of disposing with the bodies. (39, 40) Native cannibalism continues to be a hotly contested issue, not least because the invading Europeans used it as evidence of the savagery of the inhabitants, who they thought clearly needed to be conquered, Christianized, and put to work.Unfortunately for the conquerors, most of the natives were never available for labor. “In the century after 1492,” Miller says, “some 50 million Indians vanished, more than 90 percent of America’s once vigorous populations…In the Caribbean, a region that held as many as 7 million Indians, mortalities reached 99 percent…fully 100 percent on many smaller islands. On the Mexican mainland, deaths exceeded 99 percent along the main arteries…The city of Zempoala, formerly housing some 100,000 citizens, had only 25 native inhabitants by 1550.” (50) But in spite of the human tragedy, Miller suggests that the introduction of European species and the decreased human load on the environment might be seen as a net gain to the Americas, at least in terms of biodiversity. (although I think others would argue that the new species crowded out many older American plants and animals, 61) Miller tells the stories of colonial sugar and silver, mentioning that Potosí, the “world’s highest city,” had a 1660 population of 160,000, larger than Seville, Madrid, or Rome, nearly all of whose agricultural, timber, and other needs were provided by imports from other colonies like Chile. Miller describes the patio process of refining silver and gold using mercury, and notes that due to mercury’s deadliness, “indigenous mothers were reported to have crippled their children to disqualify them from work at Huancavelica.” (90) As we get into the modern era, Miller describes hookworm, vulcanization of rubber, and the Gran Canal of Mexico City (which it’s very hard to find a photo of on the web!). He tells a really interesting story of Mexican children marking their heights on steel well-casings, and returning years later to find “the landscape was sinking faster than Mexico City’s children were growing.” (147) Miller also mentions that of the sixty islands claimed under the US Guano Act, “nine of them remain U.S. attachments.” (149)Miller provides several interesting perspectives on northern hemisphere history, as well. “The intensification of world trade contacts with Peru, the home of the potato and all its endemic pathogens,” Miller suggests, “explains the coincidence of the simultaneous opening of the guano trade and the outbreak of the potato famine in guano’s primary destinations.” (154) He also points out that the Haber-Bosch process was incredibly dependent on fossil fuels (the hydrogen it bonded with atmospheric nitrogen came from coal), and that Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber also invented chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases for Germany’s war effort, causing his wife Clara to kill herself “within days of his return from directing the world’s first gas attack at the battle of Ypres in April 1915.” (155) In the modern era, Miller notes that “Chile relies on falling water for 60 percent of her electricity, Colombia 75 percent, and Brazil 95 percent. By contrast, the United States…gets only 13 percent of its electrical generation from dams.” (160) He says most of the projects were built to create rather than satisfy demand, which I think is a weaker criticism than “the disastrous cultural and environmental consequences” of the 1984 Tucuruí dam on the Tocantins River in Brazil. “The dam’s primary beneficiary is Alcoa…which receives two thirds of the plant’s generating capacity and employs very few people [and spends the profits it makes on the aluminum produced there outside of Brazil]. The dam’s reservoir [1100 square miles, bigger than Rhode Island] displaced 35,000 people in 17 towns and villages…all of whom lived by flood agriculture.” (162-3) Modern Latin America equals the urban density of the US and Europe, with 75% of its people living in cities. (168) But “already in 1600, 48 percent of those in Spain’s American colonies lived in cities,” before there ever were any British colonists. (169) Urban spaces are imagined differently by Latin Americans, and have grown at alarming rates. “In its 50-year growth spurt (1850-1900) London grew from 2.6 to 6.6 million, about 2.5 times. Mexico city, a century later but in the same length of time (1940-1990) grew from 1.5 to 15 million, a factor of ten.” (173) Urbanity, Miller says, leads to lower family sizes and reduced national fertility rates. “Brazil’s total fertility rate is 2.3, slightly above the long-term replacement rate of 2.1…Argentina, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, are essentially [at zero population growth]; and a few, such as Cuba, Barbados, and Chile, are already well below it.” (190)But this does not mean these nations are out of trouble, Miller says, because “while the city inhibits family fertility, it breeds household consumption.” (191) Consumerism and emulation of North American lifestyles threaten Latin American economies and environments. In a very interesting that might make a good short reading assignment in a survey class, Miller describes “Cuba’s Latest Revolution,” the “Special Period” in Cuban history that began in 1989 when Russian subsidy inputs abruptly ceased. With massive Soviet aid in the previous decades, Cuba had “developed one of the most mechanized and chemical-intensive agricultural systems” in Latin America. (230) “Before 1989,” Miller says, “Cuba imported nearly 60 percent of its food, and its citizens consumed an average of 2,800 calories per day. By 1993, average caloric intake had fallen to 1,800.” (231) Cuban agriculture, institutional gardens, and 100,000 family farmers (many of them urban) went organic, and “by the late 1990s, no longer were Cubans no longer going hungry, they were eating better food and a greater variety of it than they had in 30 years.” (233) The big question, Miler suggests, is what will happen when Fidel dies and the blockade comes off? Hopefully, the Cubans will resist the lure of American consumerism and remain a model for the rest of the western hemisphere.
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review 2010-12-08 00:00
The Penguin History of Latin America
The Penguin History of Latin America - Edwin Williamson Williamson's history of Latin America succeeds far more than one has any right to expect. He has struck the perfect balance between breadth and depth -- a daunting task considering the amount of time, geographical area, governments, and personalities he must describe. All of this could be overwhelming when dealing with only one Latin American country, let alone all of them. Certainly the book should be considered an introduction: read it to get a relatively quick and quite substantial grounding, not to learn everything there is to know about Latin America. Especially the closer you get to the present, there's just too damn much going on, and you're just going to have to bite the bullet and read a few more books to get a grasp on it (especially as this history ends at about 1990).

Finally, here are a few of my favorite things about the book:

1. Reading about people like Cortes and Coronado for the first time since about the fifth grade.

2. Realizing how vital an understanding of Latin America is for a true understanding of my own country.

3. Williamson anchors the first and second halves of the book in two fascinating chapters on the arts, especially literature -- an apt technique in attempting to tie together such a diverse history in an area of the world where poets and novelists have played such a vital role in social and political developments (up to and including becoming senators and presidents).
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