Wednesday, September 16, 2009

James Hider

James Hider was born in London in 1968, and studied at Bristol University and the London School of Economics. He first visited the Middle East as a kibbutz volunteer while still a teenager. He started working as a journalist in Prague in 1991, has since worked as a journalist in the Balkans, the Middle East, Latin America and the United States. He is currently The Times Middle East correspondent and lives in Jerusalem.

His new book is The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War.

A few days ago my query about what he was reading caught up with him in Kabul. Here's his reply:
World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler

I was recently traveling in the Peruvian Amazon and picked up a book at a scientific research station called World Made By Hand, by James Howard Kunstler, a writer I’d never heard of. It was one of those totally unexpected surprises that turned out to be the best book I’ve read all year. It is a beautifully written tale of a small community in New York state after a series of vaguely alluded to disasters, including (rather presciently since it was written a few years ago) a disastrous Mexican flu. Kunstler vividly creates an entire society, bringing to life the ruined and patched-up little town with its characters struggling to cope with the abrupt absence of modernity. The characters are convincingly drawn, little by little, through the daily detail of all the chores they have to accomplish with no electricity, machinery, and with the tension of violence in an unregulated society always lurking not far from sight.

I was fascinated at the way this futuristic parable is more of a sudden return to the past, as experienced by contemporary characters, rather than some post-apocalyptic future. And as a journalist who has covered a number of wars, I was also struck that Kunstler’s story is actually one of the best descriptions of why men fight: wars always look pointless and strange from the outside, but for the people inside them there is always an inevitable logic to them: the violence of others, some perceived past injustice, the need for some kind of tribal identity and the desire to secure whatever scarce resources are there for one’s own group. I loved the fact that the trailer-park bikers had taken over the town landfill and set up a recycling business in a camp run by a violent warlord, while the respectable townspeople had shown no great initiative of their own and had come to be dependent upon their much coarser neighbors. It was also fascinating that rough justice comes in the form a bizarre Christian travelling cult, underscoring the tensions between those who hang on to their individuality, and struggle to get by, and those who form a tribe with a unifying ideology, and derive their power from that.

God’s Favorite by Lawrence Wright

This is an absolute page-turner, the imagined narrative of Panamanian president Manuel Noriega’s last days in power seen through the lens of The Sopranos and I, Claudius, a laugh-out-loud tale of insane statecraft mixed with paranoid witchcraft, with quite a bit of sex thrown in, The blistering finale is the US invasion to finally be rid of a sociopath up to his neck in murder and debauchery. The character of Noriega is so brilliantly written that you can’t help liking him even as he murders and tortures his way through his friends and enemies alike, like some crazed Roman emperor watching his city burn. The story telling is perfectly pitched, and I was surprised that the author is none other than the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Lawrence Wright, who penned The Looming Tower, the definitive history of Al Qaeda and the rise of militant Islam before 9/11. Interesting that the same man can write such an esteemed semi-academic tome as well as a rollicking, sometimes touching, yarn like this.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

I was slightly wary of bringing this book with me to Afghanistan, where I am currently spending a month covering the war, but am glad I did. I knew from his previous books that McCarthy’s pessimism can be a wrist-slittingly relentless, and wasn’t sure I wouldn’t need some light relief while in a country where horrors are being perpetrated every day. But it actually gives you a great perspective on the bloody history that we in the West would rather airbrush out of our memory, but which we are happy to condemn in other parts of the world: the blood-curdling descriptions of casual murder, sadistic massacres and the joyous celebration by the good townspeople of the city of Chihuahua at the return of the Yankie scalp-hunters, covered in gore and festooned with necklaces of human ears. McCarthy explores the boundless capacity of human beings for violence, often without remorse, in a culture where everyone is indulging in unrestricted brutality and justifying in the name of their own civilization, backed up by greed. McCarthy’s Melville-esque writing style demands absolute concentration – this is not an easy read -- but rewards your attention with some hallucinatory, beautiful descriptions of landscape (in fact, most of the book is a poetic description of the US-Mexico borderlands).
Visit James Hider's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue