Saturday, February 14, 2015

James Hider

James Hider is the South America Correspondent for The Times of London, based in Brazil. He is the former Middle East Bureau Chief for the paper and spent more than a decade reporting from the region on its long and violent conflicts. His first book, The Spiders of Allah was a critically praised memoir of those years. It won a Booklist Editors' Choice Award and was voted one of Mother Jones Top Books of The Year.

Hider's science fiction debut Cronix is the first in a planned trilogy.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Hider's reply:
I just finished reading Jess Walter's novel Beautiful Ruins, which I loved: it has the feel of a summer beach book but is actually a wonderfully written and often wrenching love story, one that spans a youthful, nostalgia-laden moment in 1962 when a tiny Italian fishing port has a brush with Hollywood glamor, part of the fall-out of the making of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton epic Cleopatra in Rome. The consequences of that collision of worlds, driven in large part by the brilliantly evoked seamier side of Hollywood, echo down the decades and the book is divided between the past – with flashbacks even further into World War II – and the present. What I really liked about this was the blend of evocative literary fiction with a highly irreverent sense of humor, so the writing can veer rapidly between the touching tale of war, missed opportunities and love and hilarious descriptions of raw Tinseltown carnality and crassness.

Another recent read that left a big impression on me was S.C Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon, the story of the Comanche nation's brutal war with the relentless western drive of American settlers. Having spent years as a journalist covering Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and now living in Brazil where it still a big issue, any description of such clashes of civilizations fascinates me, and the way the idea of manifest destinies translates into endless, deadly squabbles in places most people either never hear of, quickly forget about or over-romanticize. One remarkable fact I discovered in this book was that the Comanches – who had been relatively late in their rise to regional dominance, based in large part on their incredible horsemanship – had actually briefly reversed the westwards march of American settlers, having previously seen off the Spanish and the Mexicans. The brutality is horrifying, on both sides: no one is spared, although sometimes abducted youths and women are adopted across the front lines. One such fascinating character is Quanah Parker, born to an American woman whose family is butchered by the Comanche and who eventually straddles both the dying warrior culture and the new settled world of the modern west, as one civilization dies out and blends into the newly dominant one in a remarkably short period of time.

I was also very impressed by Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, which very methodically spells out the case for the disastrous impact we as a species are having on the environment, and not all of it through oil, capitalism and greed – our very global mobility is spreading diseases that wipe out entire species of animals we barely even notice, like frogs. It is a sobering read. But the chapter that really struck me was called 'The Insanity Gene,' suggesting that we actually might have been hard-wired to be impetuous, crazy and extremely destructive. After all, other early species of humans didn't do the insane things our ancestors did and which ultimately helped us dominate the planet, at vast cost to ourselves and the environment. You didn't seen Neanderthals, who actually had bigger brains than us, sailing off on rickety little rafts into the Pacific not knowing if there was actually anything out there. Yet we did, and we continue to eulogize harebrained, death-defying adventure across all our cultures. How many died terrible deaths so that we could settle Easter Island or New Zealand? How many people die scaling mountains every year, just because “it's there”? Our intrepidness borders on madness, but the theory suggests that there may be a competitive edge in a madness that sacrifices individuals but spreads the species.

On this issue, I would also strongly recommend Mark Pagel's book Wired for Culture, which looks at the way that memes – cultural ideas – have developed their own lives in the same that genes do, hijacking individuals and societies and shaping the very way we think. Pagel's explanations of religion are very revealing in that light: how the idea of a shared god – a useful father figure – helped small family groups early in human history transcend the strict biological limits of the kinship and built large, powerful trust groups. The book looks at the social uses of psychopaths – very handy for defending a society against it enemies – and even explains that weird urge people get to push strangers under subway trains. It also has cool things like suicide bomber ants, filled with acid, and the self-sacrificing habits of slime molds. The book puts often strange aspects of human society in a whole new light.
Visit James Hider's website and Twitter perch, and the Cronix Facebook page,

--Marshal Zeringue