Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Activist 2010 Book Review (part 1)

Out of the books I’ve read this year – a few of them were new for 2010. As it draws to a close I thought I’d give my low-down on them.....

Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland – Ed Moloney

This book caused quite a stir when it was released back in March. It is drawn from lengthy interviews with Brendan Hughes and David Ivrine (respectively key players in the Republican and Loyalist movements during the Troubles) which both men agreed could only be published after their deaths. It looked set to include damning testimonies that would be hugely incriminating for several senior Irish politicians today.

In the event, the expected ‘shock revelations’ were merely reinforcements of already widely accepted theories about some of Northern Ireland’s darkest days; however, this does not detract from the truly fascinating experience of reading Hughes’ and Irvines’ accounts in their own words. Their first-hand tales of street battles, political wrangling and paramilitary activities give a unique level of insight into the Troubles that accounts by historians often struggle to achieve.

If there is a downside, it is that Maloney’s own commentary, whilst often useful for setting the context of the two men's stories, sometimes simply paraphrases what they say- leaving an air of repetition. Attempts to draw parallels and links between Hughes and Irvine are also tenuous at best; the two men fought at different times, in different ways and for different reasons so any portrayal of them as two side of the same coin or reflecting a microcosm of the Troubles, is inevitably flawed.

Still – this an excellent addition to literature on Northern Ireland and I’d highly recommend it. Obviously, being based on first hand accounts, the book is not intended to be balanced nor comprehensive, meaning that it may not be suitable for newcomers to the subject; however, anyone with a background understanding of Northern Irish politics will find this a brilliant compliment to their knowledge.

My Friend the Mercenary - James Barbrazon

my friendSix years after the abortive attempt by a group of mercenaries to depose the dictatorial government of Equatorial Guinea, the Forsyth-style drama still sets imaginations racing. Enter war correspondent James Barbrazon with an exciting and frankly impossible-to-put-down account of his friendship with Nick du Toit (one of the coup’s key plotters who spent the subsequent years facing daily torture in the notorious Black Beach Prison).

However, Brabazon’s book is about far more than the ill-fated adventures of du Toit and co – in fact the entire first part is dedicated to his multiple treks through Liberia with his mercenary chum and a group of LURD rebels as they seek to depose Charles Taylor. This is rich not only in action but also in fascinating discussion about Liberian politics, wartime morality and the role of journalists in conflict zones. In fact, this part of the book is so good that by the time Barbarzon’s focus switches to in-depth analysis of the Equatorial Guinea mission (a venture he was not personally involved in and that has already been covered by numerous books such as the Wonga Coup) it ends up feeling a bit of a let-down.

His decision to include this may have stemmed from a belief that it would ‘hook’ potential readers- or it may come from a genuine desire to tell his friend’s story from his point of view. Whatever the reason, Barbrazon would have been better off dedicating the entire book to a longer account of his time in Liberia and the related issues it threw up. Nevertheless, even if its only for the first part – this is a great read combining an alluring mix of adventure, politics and moral dilemmas.

Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East -David Hirst

bewardHirst’s political history of Lebanon has all the right ingredients for this kind of book: he consummately balances analysis with anecdotes, detail with pace and depth with breadth to create an informative, readable and well-rounded work. Given Lebanon’s vivid, turbulent and complex history, this was a brave venture yet the result is a book that genuinely helps to make sense of the country and indeed the wider Middle East today.

I should stress that prior to reading I was only familiar with the basics of Lebanese politics and it may of course be less valuable to those more versed in the various issues; however I feel the level of research apparent throughout would surely be of at least some benefit to all those interested in Lebanon, whatever their level of expertise.

Perhaps inevitably – given Hirst’s well documented and passionate views concerning Middle Eastern politics, Beware of Small States is clearly written from a particular political perspective – with distinct criticism of Israel’s role in Lebanon’s troubles obvious throughout. However, as he never makes any secret of these views there is no hidden agenda and the academic value of the book stands firm even though the reader may disagree with some of his perspectives. He has also obviously taken great pains to ensure a measure of objectivity (most other players also come in for strong criticism at various points) and to back assertions up with fact.

I am keen to compare this to Barry Rubin’s earlier text, which undoubtedly takes a vastly differing stance; however I am confident in concluding Hirst does an excellent job of providing a strong analysis that clearly stands out as one of the contemporary authoritative works on the topic.


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