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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 13:39 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 13:39 | SYDNEY

My books of 2010

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5 January 2011 10:41

I found 2010 was a mixed year for reading about the history and politics of those parts of the world that most interest me, Southeast Asia and Europe, particularly France.

Sixty-five years after the end of the Second World War, the publication of substantial reappraisals of familiar subjects and issues, and by familiar authors, continues unabated. One of the more admirable is Max Hastings' Winston's War: Churchill 1940-1945. That Churchill was a man of deep flaws as well as remarkable gifts is not a new assessment of Britain's wartime leader, but it is hard to think of any writer who has so successfully interpreted his character and achievements, good and bad, with so much skill.

It was with this book behind me that I turned eagerly to Antony Beevor's D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, and was, surprisingly, disappointed. The author of Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall, and the much less well-known but excellent Paris after the Liberation: 1944-1949, written with his wife Artermis Cooper, could not write a bad book. But as D-Day shows, he can write an account of the Normandy campaign in which detail overwhelms a sense of the big picture. Olivier Wieviorka's Normandy: The Landings to the Liberation of Paris, published two years earlier, is more satisfying.

Churchill's contemporary, ally and opponent, Charles de Gaulle, is the subject of a new biography, The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France he Saved, by Jonathan Fenby. This book was a real disappointment, particularly given the achievement Fenby has displayed in his other books, most particularly his outstanding On the Brink: The Trouble with France, published over a decade ago and curiously never reprinted. Always readable, and full of anecdotes both amusing and scabrous, the de Gaulle biography is ultimately unsatisfying for anyone who has taken a long-term interest in the French leader and who will find little that is new here. Jean Lacouture's multi-volume biography, three volumes in French and two in its English translation, has not been transcended by Fenby's work. 

To remain with the theme of France, and having admired and enjoyed his The Discovery of France, I eagerly bought a copy of Graham Robb's Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris. Not even the warm memories of living in Paris as a graduate student could redeem much of this book for me. Yes, there are gripping sections, none more so than the account of de Gaulle's walk from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame following the liberation of Paris. And the retelling of Francois Mitterand's faked assassination attempt in the 'Affaire de l'Observatoire' deserves the detail Robb provides. But the mocked-up screenplay set in Saint-Germain just after the war, and featuring, among others, Jean-Paul Sartre, Juliette Greco and Miles Davis, is so cringingly awful that for me it infected the whole of the book.

Before I found myself in Bangkok last April while whole sections of the city were under the control of the Red Shirt movement, I had started reading The Jungle Book: Thailand's Politics, Moral Panic, and Plunder, 1996-2008, a collection of newspaper columns by the pseudonymous author(s') who write(s) under the name of Chang Noi (Little Elephant).

These essays have been a regular feature of the opinion pages of Bangkok's Nation newspaper for many years. Witty, daring and remarkably well informed, these pieces tell an outside observer more about Thailand's political divisions than a dozen so-called scholarly analyses. Full marks to the courageous publisher, Trasvin Jittidecharak, owner and publisher of Chiang Mai's Silkworm Books, for bringing out this book. (A declaration of interest: Khun Trasvin is a friend and has published some of my books.) 

Another 'must read' book from the Silkworm stable is the updated edition of Thaksin by the husband and wife team, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. It is essential reading for an understanding of one of the most important decades in Thai political history, which saw the emergence, short-term triumph, and ultimate fall of Thaksin Shinawatra.

For those with an interest in Burma that goes beyond comfortable condemnation of that country's truly awful leadership, my good friend and fellow Cornellian Robert Taylor's The State in Myanmar should immediately go on their 'things to read' list. Taylor explains rather than judges, a fact that has led to his being demonised by many critics of the regime. Yet the importance of this book, a much revised and updated version of his earlier The State in Burma (1987), is made apparent by back cover endorsements from two of the most respected historians of Burma, Michael Aung-Thwin at the University of Hawaii and Victor Liberman at the University of Michigan.

My research interest in the Mekong led me to purchase and read Contested Waterscapes in the Mekong Region, edited by Francois Molle, Tira Foran and Mira Kakonen. It is a book for specialists and as such provides detailed information and analysis not easily found elsewhere. The book makes very clear the vital importance of the river to the countries through which it flows and the serious dangers likely to follow from attempts to build dams on the river's mainstream below China.

After many years since the fourth edition of DGE Hall's magisterial study, A History of South-East Asia was published in 1981, a new multi-authored update has been released under the editorship of Merle Ricklefs, again a friend and Cornell contemporary, which aims to provide a definitive history of the region from the earliest times. With the title A New History of Southeast Asia, it is a more accessible book than Hall's original, though it reflects his attention to detail. While it is bound to appear on undergraduate reading lists, its real value will lie in its reliability as an authoritative reference work available for consultation by all who have a deep interest in the region.

Finally, and confirming my long-held view that fiction can sometimes tell as as much, and more, about a country than 'scholarly' books, is Miguel Syjuco's Illustrado, which two years ago won the Man Asia Literary Prize. Not since I read Frankie Jose's Mass, first published in 1979, have I encountered such a penetrating fictional vision of wealthy Philippines society, in particular its gilded youth. If Jose wrote as a disillusioned realist, Sujeco is a bitter satirist, fading towards the end of the novel into fantasy.

Reading the book I was reminded of a conversation I had in Manila four years ago. The subject of medical services came up in conversation — at the time, local newspapers were full of stories about Filipino doctors retraining as nurses to find employment overseas. My interlocutor remarked that her family did not have a problem with obtaining good medical attention, since 'we have our own doctor.' It took me a little time to realise that she meant just that. Her extended family had the full-time attention of a doctor who worked for them and no one else.

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