My name is Renee and I don’t belong to a book club.
There: the truth is out. There are many ways to fail at being a middle-class woman and not belonging to a book club is one of them.
Somehow, when book clubs became a thing, I wasn’t paying attention. It’s probable that I was hanging about in pubs at the time, with various other reprobates. Or perhaps I was too busy reading.
The thing is, left to myself, I can read more books in any given week than I have hot meals. I mean this – I could comfortably get through two books a day if people would leave me in peace.
I’ve been getting carried away by books since early childhood. I used to bring a “Janet and John” reader home and read the whole thing in one afternoon. The next several weeks meant sitting around waiting for everyone else to make their way through the text, but I couldn’t stop myself: if there is a book, I must read it.
Mostly, I read fiction, and there’s a heavy emphasis on fantasy and science fiction. Historical fiction also, with the odd detective novel for good measure. But actually, I will read anything if you put it in front of me.
There are two gifts that reading has brought me: the first is the pleasure of sailing away to somewhere else, expressed so beautifully by Emily Dickinson:
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
The other gift is a deep grasp of my mother tongue, which has been the golden thread going thought my working life. Put simply, I if was not a reader I would probably never have become a journalist. It’s my belief that the practice of reading is the single most important thing a journalist (or any writer) can do. Because of that belief, I try to persuade people to read.
In that spirit, I’m starting a monthly reader’s corner series, listing the books and articles I’d recommend from the material I’ve been reading myself. (The eagle-eyed reader will note that I have definitely not managed to read two books a day in the last month. Sadly, the demands of everyday working and family life whittle down my reading hours.)
Here’s what’s been keeping me busy:
And So It Begins – Rachel Abbott (Wildfire)
A really gripping mystery with courtroom drama thrown in. A famous photographer is murdered, and we’re taken through multiple perspectives on what happened and on the events that unfold after his death. A truly satisfying twist at the end too.
Where did I lay my hands on it? My mother bought it at a book sale, and gave it to me after reading it herself.
House of Correction – Nicci French (Simon & Schuster)
There’s a woman in jail for a murder she says she didn’t commit. The novel takes us through her attempts to establish the truth and that’s a reason to turn pages. But the really interesting thing about this novel is the fact that the heroine is hapless and often unlikeable. And yet by the third page you care about her, and really want to know what happened.
Where did I lay my hands on it? My mother bought it with a book voucher, and gave it to me after reading it herself.
Relics of The Dead – Ariana Franklin (Bantam Press)
This is the third in a series of historical novels that are also crime novels. The heroine is a very rare thing: a woman who is a trained doctor but lives in the twelfth century. These books are so good – the history is fascinating, the characters are vivid, the writing is sharp and funny. (Start with the first one: Mistress of the Art of Death, and follow up with The Death Maze).
Where did I lay my hands on it? My local library
Midnight at Malabar House – Vaseem Khan (Hodder & Stoughton)
Again, a detective novel. It’s set in India in 1949 and features Inspector Persis Wadia, India’s first woman police officer. She doggedly solves a murder case, in spite of prejudice and (it must be said) her own bull-in-a-china shop methods. The ending drags on a bit, but the book is worth it just to meet the indomitable Persis.
Where did I lay my hands on it? My local library
Recommended online reading
An article on the University College London website by Brian Klaas, an American political scientist, Washington Post columnist and associate professor in global politics at University College London, about power and the people who wield it had me reading until the very end.
In short, this is the thesis of the article: “we must find the answer to the question: why do we end up with so many people in power who aren’t fit to manage a tea van?”
He examines the question through the lens of UK politics, but of course it resonates deeply in South Africa, where we are rich in politicians who “deserve our loathing”.
I was drawn to the article because it digs deeper into one of my own theories – that we get the leaders we do because we are generally poor at taking responsibility for the choices we make. As Klaas writes:
There are complicated reasons why we’re seduced by charlatans and strongmen, with roots in the ancient past of our species. Evolutionary psychologists argue that our brains haven’t evolved much since the Stone Age, when following an overconfident strongman hunter might have been a good idea. Our societies have changed radically, and it’s no longer a smart strategy; our brains haven’t caught up.
But I kept reading to the end because Klaas goes further than most articles of this type: he has some suggestions as to how we might change the way we choose our leaders. An example:
Political parties shouldn’t wait for corruptible people to put themselves forward. They should seek community leaders who have proven ability to behave with integrity. Better yet, recruit those who would see power as a burden rather than a calling. If we wait to see who steps forward, as we often do in modern society, we have only ourselves to blame when we end up with a power-hungry narcissist in charge.
That phrase “those who would see power as a burden” is nowhere more powerfully illustated than the moment in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, when Aragorn is crowned. Watch the video, and see what he does, about a minute in. Before he turns to face the crowd, he sighs.
Let’s start looking for the Aragorns among us.
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Main picture: Eugenio Mazzone, Unsplash