Pirates in Paradise: Reviews of Seven Books for Summer Reading

Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile, by Ramor Ryan, AK Press, 279 pages

ImageIn the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson and Eduardo Galeano, master Irish story teller Ramor Ryan brings us this adventurous commentary on the revolutionary life. With biting wit and refreshing analysis, Ryan tells of his failed attempts at creating a pirate insurrection on a ship in the Caribbean, his life in squats in East Berlin in the 1980s, and offers his critique of a rainbow gathering in Croatia in the midst of war. His prose style puts the reader in his shoes with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, anarchists in Venezuela (before Chavez), and during a massacre in Belfast. Clandestines is a people’s history of the major struggles for social change from the 1980s to today. From the bars of socialist Cuba and the fall of the Sandinista revolution to villages in war torn Kurdistan, this book is packed with insightful tales of a life on the road in a clandestine world.

Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, South End Press, 304 pages

ImageThis book is a gripping account of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s experiences as an activist in the 1970s and 1980s. She discusses the roots of what led to her indigenous self-determination work, and brings the reader through the labyrinth of the US left and beyond. She talks about the Sandinistas with an informed critique, seeing them as a possibility for positive change in face of Washington’s empire. In spite of constant onslaughts from indigenistas claiming the Sandinistas are repressing the indigenous groups in the eastern part of Nicaragua, she continues to struggle on behalf of the indigenous, battling alcoholism, the CIA and a broken windshield wiper while driving along mountain passes in Chiapas. For those who are looking for inspiration and a sobering look at the US left in the Cold War era, read this book. If you think you knew everything about the Contra War in Nicaragua, think again, and read this book. Dunbar-Ortiz goes beyond the front lines into the jungle to see a side of a nasty war that few in the US saw, or had the courage to report on.

Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent, by John F. Burnett, Rodale Books, 312 pages

ImageIn Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions, we follow National Public Radio reporter John F. Burnett to Guatemala, where as a young journalist he covered a military coup and its aftermath, to Waco, Texas where he reports on the media’s complicity in the bloody end to a standoff with David Koresh’s religious cult. He describes a surreal, bombed out hotel in Kosovo and travels to Iraq, where he heartily critiques being an embedded journalist, then goes outside the US military ranks to find out what’s really going on. Burnett makes plenty of mistakes along the way, and this book seems like his way of setting the record straight, of including all the reports, ideas and criticisms he couldn’t fit into his NPR time slots. It is easy to find problems with his writing and perceptions of his experiences with NPR – but so does he. Burnett admits his fault in not physically helping more people when he was covering the Katrina aftermath in New Orleans but then goes on to describe how one of his radio reports possibly saved thousands of lives by reaching the ears of FEMA directors.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins, Plume, 320 pages

ImageThis book charts the rise and fall of an economic hit man who works with banks, corporations and governments to cripple countries with debt then move in for the kill with construction, phone and electricity contracts. It’s a powerful primer on empire. Its strong points are the author’s interactions with locals outside of fancy hotels in Iran and Jakarta. His meetings with presidents, economists and one random encounter with Graham Greene in Panama are illuminating. Though the material in this book on the World Bank, corporate exploitation and debt might be nothing new to many activists, it’s a good book to pass on to a right wing uncle or reformist friend for their birthday. Shortcomings include the author’s belief that the United States can and should help the rest of the world. I wanted him to go beyond that, and think more about self-determination among other countries without paternalistic intervention from the US government or foreign companies. In this book, he wants to reform McDonald’s, not get rid of it entirely. Perkins believes in the unwavering goodness of the US and the moral high ground of the "founding fathers." He should read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and see that it was blood and greed that formed this country, not lofty ideals.

Memoir From Antproof Case, by Mark Helprin, Harper Paperbacks, 528 pages

ImageThis book reminded me a lot of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, but was more like Gabriel Garcia Marquez meeting Thomas Pynchon on the beach. It is the story of one man’s tragic crusade to rid the world of coffee drinkers. We chart his struggle through his own memoir that spans most of the 20th century and its major events. Our narrator is a bitter old man with a young Brazilian wife, hiding from the authorities and pining for the innocent days of his childhood on the Hudson River. We follow him through his many exploits as a banker and old school "economic hit man." It’s a story of revenge, nostalgia and dark humor, with plenty of true-enough history lessons about old New York City, the free market and World War II. Read this book, and Helprin’s other hit, A Winter’s Tale, and you won’t regret it.

The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, Beacon Press, 352 pages

ImageIn this book, the authors discuss (among other topics) the governance and reality of pirates of 1600s-1700s. In many cases, the pirates lived better than they did as servants on standard merchant ships where the pay was low, the food was scarce, the captain was repressive and the work was dangerous. Many of those same elements remained on pirate ships. However, pirates often had better food, worked less and operated in a more democratic work situation than other merchant ships. Usually, leaders of pirate ships were voted into power, and if that leader failed, he was kicked out of his post. The loot was shared, and some was stored to help the many injured people in this dangerous profession.

On these ships a new kind of globalization reigned. Workers from around the world who ended up on the seas came together on pirate ships (the same was true on other regular ships, but with less liberty). Their languages, customs, religions and work habits were shared in this international environment. Often, the mixture of nationalities forced people to develop an entire language for working on a ship, so that workers from diverse countries could communicate. Sometimes there were no captains at all on pirate ships: they were all captains. Why shouldn’t they be the owners if they did all the work? Read this book to learn more lessons about pirate governance and the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic.

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, by Barbarah Ehrenreich, Metropolitan Books, 336 pages

ImageThis book looks at the history of how and why people are happy together, and how churches and governments over the course of history tried to divide and conquer the power of collective joy. It’s likely to back up your own suspicions of religion and government. According to this book, one of the oldest reasons people feel happy in groups is the following: when cave men and women tried to kill a mammoth or other large creatures for food, they had to do it in groups to scare the beast and physically overtake it. To do this, all of the members of the group had to be in good shape and operate as a team. Though bits of insight like this kept me reading, I wanted to hear more about how music and wine played into this collective happiness over the years. Dancing in the Streets is powerful proof that people have been fighting for their right to party from the earliest moments of human history to the Beastie Boys and beyond.


Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, (AK Press, March 2007).