10 August 2020
by Deb Olin Unferth
(And Other Stories, ISBN 9781911508885)
Aged 15, Janey Flores discovers that she has a father, and that he lives in Iowa. She leaves New York to visit him and, to spite her mother (who should have told her the truth much earlier) stays with him for two months, even though she can’t stand the man. While she is away, her mother is killed in a car crash, and Janey finds herself destined to remain in ‘big ag’ country with a father she hardly knows. She gets a job as a ‘layer hen consumer auditor’ alongside Cleveland Smith, who used to be babysat by Janey’s mother, and the unlikely duo hatch an even unlikelier plan – to liberate a million chickens from one of the farms they audit.
Thus begins a tragi-comic escapade that exposes the horrors of the US egg industry and humans’ uncanny tendency to mess everything up – from relationships to bird heists to the stewardship of the planet. As one of the hapless animal rights activists observes, the stars are the only objects humans can see and not destroy.
The characters in this utterly absorbing and brilliantly executed novel are flawed and floundering, but so sympathetically portrayed that it is impossible not to warm to them. Each in their own way is simply trying to muddle through life, from small steps to grand gestures, without any certainty that their choices will ultimately make a difference.
Dignified, defiant, and, as time (and the epilogue) will tell, destined to outlive the supposedly superior human species, it is the hens, however, who steal the show. Ingenious – and a contender for book of the year. JL
What your shoes are doing to the world
by Tansy E Hoskins
(Orion Books, ISBN 9781474609852)
Wearing in a new pair of shoes or trainers can be uncomfortable until they soften to the shape of our feet. Then we forget the pain, enjoy our new purchase and, often, discard them within months for a newer, more fashionable design. The true pain, however, is felt not by the consumer but by those working in a supply chain that churns out 24 billion pairs of shoes each year, and by our planet, whose resources are being squandered and polluted by the rapacious shoe industry.
Tansy E Hoskins wants our discomfort to last rather longer than our blisters, and her exposé, which follows on from Stitched Up, in which she tackled fast fashion, makes for uncomfortable reading. The shoe industry is far behind the fashion industry in terms of wages, working conditions and corporate standards (and goodness knows, the latter is hardly a shining light in the world of manufacturing). It is also far more toxic, thanks to the glues and chemicals, and is a major contributor to climate change. Brazilian leather is everywhere in the supply chain and ‘cattle is the main thing replacing the rainforest in Amazonia’.
From the first cottage industries to the use of robots, from sneakerheads to Syrian refugees, and from the abattoir to homeworkers in Asia, Footwork tackles all aspects of the shoe industry. But it does much more, too, by placing footwear manufacture in the wider context of globalization, capitalism and consumerism. A superb primer on everything that is wrong with our world – and how we can start to change it. JL
Sinews of War and Trade
by Laleh Khalili
(Verso, ISBN 9781786634818)
It is well-known but little pondered that almost all of the world’s goods are transported by ship. Now that China is the global manufacturer this means, in essence, that vast amounts of raw materials – iron ore, coal, oil – arrive in its ports and equally vast numbers of container-ships depart, taking manufactured goods to all points of the compass. At the heart of China’s ‘maritime silk road’ lie the ports of the Arabian peninsula and it is on these that Laleh Khalili focuses in her study of shipping and capital.
This is, she says ‘a history tinged by colonial decision-making’. From the rise of coal-powered ships to the construction of the Suez Canal, she contends that the mercantile and military imperatives of the colonial powers were the driving force behind the development of the Arabian peninsula ports. Ships became bigger to meet the burgeoning demand for oil and consumer goods. As a consequence, these ports – Jeddah, Aden, Jabal Ali in Dubai and Salalah in Oman, among many others – have ceased to be harbours in the traditional sense. Instead they have become accelerated turning basins for supertankers and container-ships; heavily securitized and mechanized ‘free trade zones’, hermetically sealed off from the nations they are supposedly serving.
The author is particularly good at delineating the ‘racialized hierarchies of labour’ that are enforced, both aboard the ships and landside, people being just another commodity in the system. In Sinews of War and Trade, Laleh Khalili has expertly woven together the strands of her argument, presenting a compelling overview of the crucial role shipping in the Arabian peninsula plays in global capitalism. PW
Who Owns the Internet, and How It Owns Us
by James Ball
(Bloomsbury, ISBN 978152 6607249)
‘The aim of this,’ writes James Ball, ‘is to be the internet’s unauthorized biography – the real story, unfiltered, without the subject’s approval.’ An investigative journalist, Ball has interviewed key players in the story of the internet – early creators, many now in their seventies, venture capitalists, cable owners, ‘ad men’, trackers, snoopers, would-be regulators, democracy and privacy activists. Most are men, two of the most trenchant are women.
Many myths are demolished along the way: The ‘cloud’ is no such thing, but banks of energy-guzzling computers in data-centres, somewhere else. The internet is not free, but owned and monetized by the oligopolies that dominate the infrastructure, the search engines, the platforms. It may be ‘disruptive’ to ordinary workers and citizens, but has only consolidated the power of those with financial and political clout, likely soon to be boosted by 5G.
At the heart of ‘the system’ is a lucrative advertising-led business model of tracking and data collection. ‘Where once there was a military-industrial complex now there is a military-informational complex, where the needs of advertising… fuels and services the needs of government.’
So, what to do? There is no simple solution, but various measures to tackle the extraordinary power of those who dominate the system so thoroughly. First you need to fully understand the system – which is where this book makes an urgent and lucid contribution. The author also has an eye for memorable detail. Did you know, for example, that GCHQ has a huge data stash of pornographic ‘dick pics’? So, that’s what we’re getting from mass surveillance. VB
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