I was biking to work at our 5th and K location one morning when I saw the telltale signs of an eviction right around the corner from the store: the pile of furniture and personal effects disgorged on a sidewalk less than a block away from the store, with armed, flak-jacketed US Marshals standing nearby. That morning, still shaken by the sight, I pulled a copy of Matthew Desmond’s newly arrived book off the shelf. Desmond transforms what could have been a thinly topical current affairs book into a masterwork of reportage with the depth of an anthropological study. As the book shifts between the narratives of the landlords and their tenants, Desmond maintains profound empathy for all the individuals he portrays; yet he also undergirds these narratives with a flinty contempt for the ways in which structural inequality keep so many in precarious housing situations.
A small scene in Birth of a Dream Weaver has the author refusing to drink a beer just because it is a thing to do when setting off to college. The moment passes quickly, but it speaks to the Ngugi’s ability to resist pressures to conform and serves as a precursor to his subsequent ability to resist the dictates of those in power and resist pressure to compromise his writing. This third volume of his memoirs covers his passage from village life to university, from British colonial subject to citizen of independent Kenya. Along the way he tells of the brutality of British rule, of the racism of a settler colony and the cost of that legacy in the corruption and violence of those who subsequently betrayed the promise of independence. Yet this is a writer’s memoir. Ngugi’s first dramatic work provides a key to his later novels as he comes to see literature as a form of social engagement, as a celebration of the lives of those trod underfoot. He pierces through the veil by combining aspects of a European cultural inheritance with elements of traditional West African culture. Ngugi’s trenchant criticism of Isak Dinesen, nuanced reading of Joseph Conrad, meetings with Langston Hughes and Chinua Achebe, appreciation of Whitman, frame his work in a larger literary context. Birth of A Dream Weaver is a celebration of the dreams that produce art that in turn produces dreams for a more just world.
A recent article in the Guardian about the U.K.’s economy, titled “Austerity effect hits women twice as hard as it does men”, explained that austerity measures there have disproportionately affected women. After reading that piece, when I came across Katrine Marcal’s book it presented itself as a required read. Did you know that today almost 60% of American women are in the workforce but they still hold less than 15% of top jobs and 62% of minimum-wage jobs? Marcal introduces these startling statistics in the preface, and immediately in chapter one starts challenging the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, and his “economic man”, the idea that our actions are motivated by self-interest. She criticizes his exclusion of unpaid and caregiving work from economic modeling, an oversight that persists even today. This fast-paced and entertaining book illustrates how economic models work using examples from Russia, China, the U.S., and even Dubai; she even uses comparisons with Robinson Crusoe, Goethe’s Faustus and David Bowie to teach us about economics. Oh, and spoiler alert… it was his mother.