Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Madam Atatürk

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th June, 2019

Madam AtaturkAs father of the modern Turkish nation, Mustafa Kemal posthumously continues to enjoy a super-human status, which in fact he had already acquired during his lifetime. He was a brilliant military commander who played a pivotal role in preventing the further dismemberment of the territory by foreign forces following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and almost single-handedly he shaped his country’s destiny, as a largely secular, Westward-looking land that would be dragged through the process of modernisation. Honoured with the surname Atatürk, Father of the Turks, he obliged his countrymen to take on European-style family names and discouraged the use of Oriental dress. On that latter point he was influenced by someone little acknowledged in the outside world for the significant role she played in Turkey’s evolution, his wife Latife. They were only together for two-and-a-half years, before he dismissed her; though she was devoted to him, she both fascinated and exasperated him. She incurred the wrath of both her husband and his cronies when she tried to curb his drinking and to stop him staying up half the night. Damned by some of her contemporaries after the divorce, Latife was an exceptional force of nature at a time when women were supposed to be obedient and quiet. The daughter of a fabulously wealthy businessman from Smyrna (Izmir), she was educated partly in Europe, was fluent in several languages and intellectually robust. Despite intermittently poor health, she outlived Atatürk by nearly four decades and could doubtless have had a brilliant international career as a speaker and writer had she not been effectively silenced and for a long period forbidden to travel. İpek Çalışlar’s biography Madam Atatürk, now available in a new paperback edition from Saqi Books (£12.99), fills an important lacuna in presenting this remarkable woman in a largely favourable light. As the author laments, some valuable source material remains inaccessible because of the family’s wishes, but she drew heavily on the memoirs of people who knew Latife and her husband intimately, as well as on Western journalists’ accounts of the time. Mustafa Kemal was a notorious womaniser (my own Austro-Hungarian honorary grandmother had to flee Turkey to escape his persistent attentions) and while he largely supported female emancipation he clearly found some of Latife’s admonishments irksome. What is really fascinating about this biography, though, (in spite of sometimes veering perilously towards hagiography) is the vivid image it gives of Izmir in the 1920s and of the hick town of Ankara, which Atatürk had chosen as the infant nation’s new capital. There is a cornucopia of telling detail as well as a different perspective on Mustafa Kemal himself, much of it conveyed between the lines.

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How Not to Go to War

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th May, 2019

How Not to Go to WarWith tensions rising in various parts of the world and forceful leaders in power in China, Russia and the US, we are right to be concerned about things boiling over into global conflict (and on more local levels, not least in the Middle East, such conflicts are ongoing). Moreover, with global warming and desertification taking a hold over large areas of our precarious planet, the possibility of water wars and other disputes over resources rises as we head to what otherwise risks becoming auto-destruction. But is war inevitable? Vijay Mehta, veteran peace campaigner and author, argues in his latest book, How Not to Go to War (Catapult, £9.99), that it is not. He makes the valid point — proved by historical evidence — that making war is part of the male psyche (Margaret Thatcher being the exception that proves the rule), so by addressing issues of postmodern masculinity one might be able to challenge conflict as a default option. But new technologies also mean that we really should be terrified at the prospects of any Third World War. The annihilation that would be brought about nuclear weapons in a war has long been known, but nuclear deterrence (MAD — mutually assured destruction) may not necessarily guarantee a no-use situation forever. Safer to get rid of the lot of them, as well as more “moral”. Mehta does of course take moral positions, but the strength of this book is in the practical details, for example how establishing Departments of Peace and Peace Centres worldwide could reduce tensions and pomote understanding. There are extensive appendices describing various countries’ experience in setting these up — they are not theoretical pie in the sky — such as Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Nepal. But the section that struck me most covers the development of miniature drones programmed by AI to target individuals or types of people discriminately. The image of swarms of these insect-like devices coming in through the window is absolutely chilling. No, let’s try and make Peace work instead!

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Iran, Islam and Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd April, 2019

Iran-Islam-and-Democracy--653x1024Contemporary Iran is much maligned and little understood in the West, especially in Washington, where the Trump administration (like several of its predecessors) views Iran as the devil incarnate. Of course, the Islamic Republic returns the compliment by frequently calling the United States the Great Satan. Each country has good reason to object to some aspects of the society and government found in the other. Yet international relations would be much smoother, and the world safer, if both made a greater effort to work out what makes the other tick. Hence the great value of Ali M. Ansari’s monumental Iran, Islam and Democracy (Gingko, £30/$44.95). Through his close examination of the leadership records of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani in particular, the author presents a penetrating view of the complexities and tensions within Iranian politics, far different from the two-dimensional picture proffered by Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu.

The very name “Islamic Republic” illustrates a contradiction at the heart of the system in Iran. Republics — particularly those influenced by French or indeed American revolutionary thought — are inherently bottom-up societies in the sense that ultimate authority derives from the people. But religious societies in contrast are usually top-down. For much of Iran’s history a patrimonial shah or king was in charge, with a firm hand on the driving wheel, and even after the last shah was overthrown in 1979, a new top-down type of authority was imposed, by the Ayatollah Khomeini and since his death, Ayatollah Khamenei. This new authority has the added status of being in principle God-given and it is significant that the spiritual Leader of Iran takes precedence over the elected President, even when the latter has clearly been the Leader’s intellectual superior (not something one could say about Ahmadinejad).

There is an ongoing dialectic between conservatives and reformists within Iranian society and one of the most stimulating parts of this significant book is an extended examination of the record of and expectations regarding the comparatively “liberal” Mohammad Khatami (previously published as a separate volume, now supplemented with additional and more recent texts). Just as conservatives in the country’s religious hierarchy sometimes exaggerate the “threat” of reformist politicians and intellectuals — periodically leading to the closure of allegedly offensive newspapers and magazines — so the West has often put undue faith in the ability of reformists and in particular the Green Movement to affect rapid change. Things move slowly in Iran, where the ousting of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 still rankles. But even revolutions evolve with time. And it seems clear that if the outside world wants Iran to become more “normal” in its internal and external behaviour, then engagement rather than confonrtation is likely to produce better results.

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Serendipity and E M Forster

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th February, 2019

8D7FA5BF-072B-4D30-AF67-E45E0A170EC8Last week, walking home from the tube in London, I saw that a neighbour (unknown) had left out a dozen books or so on a wall for passers-by to pick up and take away. By chance my eyes fell on an old Penguin edition of E M Forster’s Howards End, which I had never read, despite a great affection for the author and his work. I guess this was because as a young man during my intense fiction-reading days I was attracted to the continental and the exotic, whereas Howards End sounded terribly English. As indeed it is, as I have discovered as I savour it in moments of leisure while I am travelling in Oman. But it is deliciously satirical of the English middle class — especially those who did not have to work for a living — and as Christopher Isherwood once memorably put it, Forster “tea-tables” the emotions and the dramas, with a precise and critical eye for detail. I sometimes hear older people say, “Oh, I wish I had known about such-such-a-book years ago!” But I am glad that I have happened upon Howards End in later life. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much half a century ago. Moreover, the serendipity of spotting it on the wall in London, picking it up and bringing it with me to Oman somehow enhances the pleasure in reading it. And, yes, when I finish it, I will leave the 1957 paperback on a wall or the seat in a bus shelter to ensure the book’s next chance encounter.

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Trump’s Christmas Carol ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th December, 2018

2FAD63ED-0E38-47BA-999D-6189F9410C89Donald Trump is such a preposterous individual that he is actually quite hard to satirise. Satire tends to exaggerate characteristics and exaggerating his is quite a challenge without appearing absurd. However, the pseudonymous author Watt T. Dickens found a nice conceit by recrafting Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol with Ebenezer Trump taking the part of Scrooge (Ebury Press, £7.99). He is visited in turn by Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton (the ghost of Christmas past) and Barack Obama (the ghost of Christmas present) before the deathly ghost of Christmas Future shames him into a modicum of compassion. Barely has his last visitor left, however, before Trump reverts to being the greedy, sexist, racist narcissist that he was at the outset. All his loud-mouthed pussy-grabbing faults are laid bare, and whereas some of the earlier passages are indeed quite funny, by the end one really feels quite sick with the ghastliness of it all. However did that tangerine egomaniac with the impossible hair get into the White House? And how is it only too credible that he might get re-elected in 2020?

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Soldiers of a Different God ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th August, 2018

Soldiers of a Different GodWhile considerable attention has been paid by the media to jihadi groups and terrorist attacks of various kinds, the spotlight has not been shone so brightly on the counter-jihad movement. That is the term Brussels-based writer Christopher Othen gives to the motley collection of political activists, commentators and miscellaneous Islamophobes who are the subject of his book, Soldiers of a Different God (Amberley, £18.99). The sub-title on the cover offers the promise that the book will explain how the counter-jihad movement created mayhem, murder and the Trump presidency, but in fact the narrative thread is not as assertive as that. Indeed, at the very end, the author tentatively opines: “Decide whether Islam is an existential threat to Western liberal democracy or a slandered religion of peace that just wants to co-exist. Even Houllebecq the mage on the cover of Charlie Hebdo might find that kind of prediction beyond his powers.”

The French novelist Michel Houllebecq is just one phenomenally successful literary figure whose contribution to the counter-jihad movement is considered. Far more significant in many ways is Oriana Fallaci, who raised herself from her sickbed to write La Rabbia e l’Orgoglio, which, Othen writes, “spewed rage and venom like an out-of-control firehose.” Othen’s rhetoric is a fiery as that of many of the characters he introduces into the story, from Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders to Milo Yiannopoulos and Nigel Farage, but that does not mean he shares their views. Steve Bannon, formerly Donald Trump’s right-hand man, and for a while a key figure in alt-right Breitbart News, comes across as a particularly hiss-worthy pantomime villain. Othen was a journalist before turning to writing books, and much of this volume is written in colourful journalese, which suggests the volume is geared towards a younger readership, yet there are pages of copious notes at the end, giving it an apparent badge of academic respectability. I liked the way that he managed to include most of the right-wing nutters on both sides of the Atlantic that one has learned to hate, while not glossing over the terrorism, rape, human rights abuses and other causes of their ire, so the book does serve as a useful source for easy reference. But I do wish he had taken a clearer authorial stance. Serves me right for taking at face-value what was on the cover.

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Cambodia Once Again Will Stun the World ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th August, 2018

COUTEL-Temoigner, entre acte et paroleThe title of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s new book (Cambodia Once Again Will Stun the World, Balland, €15) reflects the boundless optimism that the man himself displays, despite the many hard knocks he has received over the years and his involuntary status of political exile. I guess the allusion in the title is to the golden era of Angkor, where, at the start of the 12th century, an estimated one million people lived around the temple complex, which would make it the largest conurbation of its time. But for most people, of course, Cambodia entered their consciousness when the genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) came to light. Though a sizable majority of the population today are too young to have any direct experience of the horrors of the concentration camps and killing fields, the trauma endures, barely alleviated by the kleptocratic nature of the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The PM, his family and cronies have amassed great fortunes over recent decades while most Cambodians suffer a standard of living that is among the lowest in South East Asia, and much of the country’s environment has been ravaged.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won 90% of the seats in last month’s general election, which was widely denounced by foreign governments as a sham. Sam Rainsy’s National Rescue Party was excluded, having been forcibly “dissolved” by the authorities last year, though he pursues his political agenda in exile through the newly-created Cambodia National Rescue Movement. This book, in a series of sometimes sketchy, very short passages, gives some pointers to the sort of society he would like to see in a putative Cambodian renaissance, based on the rule of law, an end to corruption and full civil rights. As a devout Buddhist, he is forgiving towards his political enemies, even if they do not return the courtesy, and he is prepared to work with any outside country, including China, to build the nation he envisages. This is not entirely pie-in-the-sky, as Sam Rainsy in the 1990s was Minister of Finance in the government of Norodom Ranariddh (which was overthrown in a coup in 1997) and he has excellent international contacts, not least through the Liberal International. But for the time being, he is an outcast, admired (often in secret) by millions of his compatriots, denounced by Hun Sen, and sadly unlikely to be able to flesh out the bones of his vision for a new Cambodia any time soon.

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Five Escape Brexit Island ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th August, 2018

Five Escape Brexit IslandLike most children in the 1950s I was a great fan of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. I had a slight crush on Julian, disliked tomboy George and wished to be the dog Timmy. They got up to all sorts of exciting adventures, though everything always turned out alright in the end. Above all, they represented escape — escape from everything that was unsatisfactory about everyday life at home. Bruno Vincent’s Five Escape from Brexit Island (Quercus, £7.99) is one of a whole series of spoof Enid Blytons published by Hodder & Stoughton (itself a sub-division of Hachette), who these days own all the rights to the Enid Blyton estate. The plot and writing style are fairly loyal to the spirit of the original books, though with added expletives that must have Ms Blyton spinning in her grave. And the illustrations are lifted from genuine predecessors, not all of them as aptly captioned as they could be. The central premise is a good wheeze: that the Famous Five accidentally find themselves incarcerated in a secret detention centre on an island off the coast of Dorset following Brexit, before escaping on a home-made raft. There are a few good jokes, such as a series of increasingly exasperating messages in bottles pulled from the sea, and the hostile reaction of British holidaymakers when the plucky quintet on landfall try to use French and Spanish in the mistaken belief they have drifted abroad. But overall it is pretty tame stuff. A more biting satire of both Brexit and of Blyton’s wholesome tales could have been much funnier, but in that case she would most definitely not have approved.

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What Makes a Terrorist *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th August, 2018

What Makes a TerroristTerrorists, like revolutionaries, tend to come not from the impoverished masses but from the middle class, and usually have an above-average level of education. This was the shock central finding of Alan B. Krueger’s What Makes a Terrorist when it was published a decade ago, thus challenging the widely-held assumption that poverty is the root cause of terrorism. A 10th anniversary edition of the book has now appeared (Princeton University Press. £22), with the addition of a new Prologue, in which Professor Krueger points out that despite the high level of publicity surrounding terrorist attacks, the risk of being a victim of such an outrage is minimal and has not increased since 2008, notwithstanding blanket coverage of incidents in the media, including social media. In the 15 years between 9/11 and 2016, for example, 123 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks, whereas 240,000 were murdered.

9 11The main body of this book comprises three lectures that Dr Krueger (Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton) gave at the London School of Economics, snappily entitled Who Becomes a Terrorist? Where does Terror Emerge? and What Does Terror Accomplish? As a regular commentator in mainstream media in the United States, the author is adept at explaining things in layman’s terms, while sacrificing none of his academic rigour. The unique quality of his work rests on the fact that he approaches the subject from the perspective of an economist (statistics and all, though there is only one mind-boggling equation to daunt the non-specialist). He draws on useful examples, not least from Iraq and the Basque Country, as evidence to support his theories and certain quantifiable patterns do emerge. While most of us may find it impossible to imagine a situation in which we would deliberately kill random people in an act of violence, probably sacrificing our own lives, it is maybe useful to understand why some youths — and they are overwhelmingly young men — do and what they hope to achieve. Anger about a situation of poverty and injustice, such as the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, can be a motive, even if the perpetrators are not poor themselves. But I found particularly intriguing Professor Krueger’s assertion that there is a correlation between the origin of terrorists and the lack of civil liberties in that country. So although there is probably still substance to the argument that reducing poverty and injustice could reduce the incentives for terrorism, improving civil liberties and good governance could be at least as effective. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, please take note.

 

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Two Summers of Billy Morton ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th July, 2018

Two Summers of Billy Morton1968 really was a year to remember, what with the Prague Spring, the Paris May events, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Tet offensive in Vietnam, to mention but a few highlights. Fifty years on there have been many commemorations of individual events, but novelist Barry Stewart Hunter takes the year’s complete timeline as the backdrop to his picaresque tale of young Billy Morton, student photographer and opportunistic rent-boy, coming of age in swinging London at a time when sexuality was fluid and abortion recently legal (Two Summers of Billy Morton, Martin Firrell Company, £11.99). Billy’s “good” summer sees some strong and educative relationships on both sides of the fence, as well as the (not always disinterested) patronage of older people, including a one-armed lady picture editor based in Notting Hill (when the area was shabby, not chic) who suggests he go to Paris to see what the students were up to there. Having experienced the adrenaline rush of police horses charging an anti-War demonstration outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, Billy is up to the challenge, as well as being agile and comely enough to depend on the kindness of strangers when he gets to the French capital.

Barry Stewart Hunter The Paris middle section of this novel in three distinct parts produces some of the most memorable characters, including a transvestite benefactor, Mme Georges, and a handsome young Arab, Lafcadio, with whom ever-so-English and still quite naive Billy becomes involved. But unlike in the 1960s children’s classic by Shel Silverstein, this Lafcadio is not the lion who shoots back but rather the harbinger of Billy’s “bad” summer that sees a chain of mysterious dangers with death in their wake. For a literary novel — and Two Summers of Billy Morton is highly literary — this book is packed with action, though at times it can appear hallucinatory, daring the reader to cease suspending their disbelief. Though the principal narrative voice is Billy’s, other people chip in from time to time, almost as if giving evidence to a police investigation. Some of Barry Stewart Hunter’s characters are more credible than others; I found parts of the Bloomsbury salon chatter and a supposed interview with novelist Graham Greene a little arch. But the central figure of Billy, in all his contradictions, is engagingly real and memorable. Indeed, as I myself ventured alone to London aged 18 in the summer of 1968, Billy could have been me.

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