This is a guest-post by Deedee Derksen, a Dutch journalist just out with a good book on Afghanistan that helps deflate many stereotypes commonly believed. It's only out in Dutch at the moment, but I'll bet an English version will come out before not too long...
I love reading autobiographies and biographies. A few I’ve read this year convey profound belief, be it in:
a. creating the best rock band in the world (Keith Richards) b. establishing the best Islamic Emirate in the world (Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef) c. writing the best books in the world (Somerset Maugham, Patricia Highsmith) d. great reporting (Martha Gellhorn, Hugh Pope) e. himself (Tony Blair)
Keith Richards and Mullah Zaeef share more than their belief. They’re both icons of their time, or at least wingmen to icons. They were both part of a band that made headlines the world over. They both know a thing or two about the dangers of drugs and loose women. And they were both once wanted men – though the hordes of semi-naked girls and English bobbies after Richards probably weren’t quite as menacing as the war on terror justice unleashed on Mullah Zaeef.
Both excellent autobiographies offer rare insights to lives otherwise closed off, and often misrepresented. Anyone doing anything Afghanistan related should read Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef’s memoir (My Life With The Taliban, ed. Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn), which provides a unique insider’s view on the Taliban movement. Keith Richard’s book (Life, co-author: James Fox) may not be as vital to world peace as Mullah Zaeef’s, but it’s nonetheless a lot of fun to read. For all the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll stories (and there are many), what struck me most was that Richards is, above all, an ambitious, hardworking guy.
Two biographies of writers that appeared in 2009, which I read in 2010 and which are unlikely to be bettered, are The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings, and Beautiful Shadow – A life of Patricia Highsmith, by Andrew Wilson. Somerset Maugham’s short stories are among my favourites (as are those of Alice Munro, mentioned elsewhere on this blog), and this biography gives an account of the tortured, and often quite unpleasant, genius behind them. Like Maugham, Patricia Highsmith was a loner, according to the beautiful biography by Andrew Wilson. I read her series of Tom Ripley thrillers again after reading about the author. They’re amoral, and gripping from the first page. Terrific.
Martha Gellhorn’s reporting on the Second World War is some of the most interesting. As a woman, she wasn’t permitted to embed with the American troops. So while reporters like Ernie Pyle and Gellhorn’s husband Ernest Hemingway were embedded, and thus subject to official censorship, Gellhorn wrote freely about the horrors in Europe (Gellhorn: a Twentieth-Century Life by Caroline Moorehead). Now women reporters can go embedded, many consciously choose to work independently, like Minka Nijhuis from the Netherlands in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her beautifully written and very moving book on Burma -- Birma. Land van Geheimen (2009) -- won a well-deserved, and prestigious, Dutch award in 2010.
Many foreign correspondents find it difficult to convey to their editors images or impressions that contradict stereotypes at home. This is especially so in the Muslim world, as Hugh Pope explains in Dining with al-Qaeda. Pope, after thirty (!) years reporting across the Middle East, has some tremendous stories to tell – and he does so with much empathy and wit. A great read. I also liked People Like Us by the Dutch former-correspondent Joris Luyendijk, a Dutch book on Middle East reporting which was published in 2006 but translated into English in 2009. Luyendijk rightly shatters any lingering belief in objective coverage of the Middle East.
I haven’t yet started Tony Blair’s eulogy to himself. Judging from the bits I’ve read here and there, I don’t have high expectations. Not only does it beg for a good edit (I assume he made the fatal mistake of writing it himself as it reads like a column in Good Housekeeping). But Blair’s take on civil liberties would make Dostum blush (read Dave Eggers's wonderful Zeitoun, also out this year, for the sharpest antidote to Blair’s call for the suspension of Habeas Corpus). Perhaps just as offensively, Blair expresses no remorse over Iraq, and lumps all Islamists together, conflating Hamas and Hizbollah with al-Qaeda, and portraying them as an existential threat, the gravest ever faced by mankind, perhaps with the exception of Gordon Brown. And all this from one of most successful politicians of our times and the man currently entrusted to bringing peace to the Middle East. Now that’s a great piece of fiction.