A Column of Fire by Ken Follet

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Reading A Column of Fire is to swashbuckle your way through the important historical moments of Reformation Europe. We witness the French Wars of Religion, the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, the attack of the Spanish Armada, and even Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Follet squeezes a lot in.

I loved the first two books of the series. The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were original in that they accessibly showed the intersection of religion and everyday life within small Medieval communities. They really demonstrate the power of good historical fiction to both illuminate and entertain.

This riffs off similar themes: Protestant merchant’s son Ned Willard falls in love with Catholic local entry Margery Fitzgerald. Religion and social mores divide them and so we follow the course of their (inevitably exciting) lives, amongst those of a whole cast of other characters.

Fans of the first two books might feel disappointed as this feels quite a different style. Because of the huge scope, some of the narrative suffers as reader attention is spread too thinly and not much action happens in Kingsbridge, diluting the bubbling community feel that made the first two immensely readable.

As a stand-alone, it’s as entertaining as watching pirates plunder a ship with all guns blazing (perhaps because that’s an actual scene for the book). Which is to say, very.

Read: For an armchair Tudor adventure

Stalin, The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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What would a dinner party at Stalin’s house be like? While reading mainstream history, my mind turns to mundane questions: what food would he serve? Should you bring a bottle of wine? The private lives of famous historical figures are always interesting but even more so here because of how ideologically driven and puritanical the Soviets were.

This is the premise of Sebag-Montefiore’s book- the hidden lives of Stalin and his revolutionary elite. It’s a fascinating domestic portrait of men with famous names like Kruschev, Molotov and Beria, and their lovers, families and enemies. They spy on and manipulate one another around their living rooms or on idyllic holidays, with Stalin as the ultimate puppet master. It’s weird reading about men who’ve sent millions to the gulags lovingly playing with their children.

It spans about a century to show the breadth of Stalin’s machinations and the evolution of the inner circle, but the nuance is usually captured in the multiple small details, resulting in some slow chapters around the war. Not one for a USSR newbie but, once you’ve read your school history, this is a rich exploration into the boundary between the state and the self in the Soviet state.

Read: To understand the do’s and don’ts of a Soviet dinner party

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

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‘The course of love never did run smooth’-Alain de Botton’s philosophical treatise on the changing, multi-faceted nature of love confirms Shakespeare was right.

Yuk, I hear you say. But hold on.

This is an unusual book. De Botton uses a fictional couple Rabih and Kirsten to explain. They tentatively meet, fall passionately in love, and mature together in married life. An ordinary modern couple- they are based in Edinburgh, have two kids, are paying off a mortgage, and juggling childcare and work.

Their story is punctured with interludes of philosophical treatise. My biggest problem with reading philosophy is how abstract it often is. So by having a specific set of complex, realistic characters to follow, we can apply the ideas to ‘real life’. Rabih and Kirsten become a parable- their trials and tribulations forming universal lessons we can all learn from or at least relate to.

The hypothesis he poses are deeply insightful- a sulk as a significant sign of closeness because ‘you should really understand why I’m angry without me having to tell you’. The way one punishes a significant other for not meeting incredibly high standards reserved for no one else. The way petty arguments are lightening rods for larger issues and patterns of behaviour.

De Botton (almost incidentally) creates some of the most believable, elegantly written fiction I’ve read this year. This is modern philosophy at its best- when you have been taught a lesson, almost without realising because you’ve enjoyed it so much.

Read: When you’re having a fight with your partner.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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In a time where NFL football players are kneeling to protest the treatment of Black Americans, Angelou’s exploration of oppression and the legacy of slavery is topical. There is a passage in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings where a VIP speaks at the local high school’s graduation; he talks about the young students as the next boxers or football players, earning glory on the field. The predominately poor black Southern community listening deflates, as their academic aspirations and dreams are disregarded.

The book is not ostensibly about race, but of course it permeates Maya Angelou’s life. It manifests in the subtle, the unwritten- there is a heartbreaking scene where her proud grandmother is forced to beg the white dentist to give Maya treatment. Though we see no lynchings, Angelou’s autobiography thematically explores what it is like to have limitations and segregation.

A young black girl in Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou is looked after by her god-fearing grandmother and shuttled between her hustling parents. She’s downtrodden, sexually abused and left to fend for herself. Depressing and traumatic as it is, it is also incredibly joyful, funny and uplifting.

Aside from being a cultural artefact or the subject of extensive literary criticism around form and genre, it is the specific experience of growing up. Angelou’s pre-pubescent anxiety is universal to teenagers across globes and centuries. Her story is relatable and poignant because of her best friends, her relationship with her brother, her chores, and her love for books. The dignity and humanity of Angelou’s coming-of-age is what makes this so powerful.

Read: To recapture the process of growing up

Crown of Blood by Nicola Tallis

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Crown of Blood is a very sensational, melodramatic title for what is a fairly sensible historical biography.

I knew very little about Lady Jane Grey- put on the throne by unscrupulous relatives as Queen of England for nine days, before being beheaded by her cousin Mary I. Tragic. This book sets out to combat the idea of Jane as a powerless pawn, the classic Victorian heroine.

Tallis does this fairly well. I was surprised at the level of Jane’s academic ability, shown in her epistolary relationships with comtemporary leading thinkers. Her intellect tied to the strength of her convictions in the Protestant faith fuel Tallis’s thesis that Jane would have made a good queen.

It’s a tough sell though because there’s not that much source material available. Jane lives an obscure life until the age of 11 and then is executed at the age of 16ish- we don’t know her age. Much of the writing is conjecture: Jane ‘could have’ met this person or ‘might have’ felt scared. We don’t even have an actual portrait of her- a real shame as they’re effectively the Tudor equivalent of paparazzi shots in OK magazine.

Where we do have more information, interesting characters emerge. Her father Henry Grey is despicable- selfish and easily-swayed, he effectively gambles away his daughter. Her guardian Thomas Seymour is a real wheeler-dealer, always angling for the next improbable jackpot. Tallis also adds colours by talking of context and convention of the time.

It doesn’t totally change my views of Lady Jane Grey (I’m not sure they were that well formed with to begin with), but it does flesh out a girl often consigned to a postscript of history.

Read: If you like Antonia Fraser or Alison Weir

Ripper by Patricia Cornwell

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Jack the Ripper is excellent material for countless writers of both fact and fiction. A serial murderer of five down-and-out women, the Ripper menaced the gloomy streets of London, teasing the Police with hundreds of creepy letters before vanishing. A mix of seedy music hall glamour and gin-soaked slum squalor, all overlaid with a good dose of Victorian morality and ruffles.

This is Crime writer Patricia Cornwell’s thesis on the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Her theory is that acclaimed British artist Walter Sickert. It’s certainly plausible as Cornwell methodically lists up the reasons why; master of disguise, similar writing paper, symbolism in his art, geographical proximity and so on.

It’s really interesting as she recounts each case of murder- from her Kay Scarpetta novels, she certainly has an eye for forensics and crime scenes. The extensive research and contextual exploration of London at the time and Sickert himself are fascinating. It all tallies up rather satisfyingly.

Except for the fact there’s absolutely zero solid proof.

I don’t doubt that Cornwell truly believes the culprit was Sickert. You don’t spend two years and lots of time and money on something clearly unfounded (unless she got a huge book advance!) She’s vehement, branding those in disagreement ‘Sickert apologists’ which is a bit harsh considering there’s no conclusive evidence.

Still, I’m fine with considering the Ripper’s identity a mystery lost to time if only to fuel the imagination of countless more writers.

Read: If you like a good conspiracy theory.

 

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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#menaretrash is currently trending in South Africa so reading this book is a sad, sad reminder that the gender violence it depicts is certainly still present in society. The domestic abuse, attempted murder and institutional indifference are truly horrifying.

This seems pretty weighty for a celebrity biography- I didn’t expect a laser sharp commentary on race, class, and sexual politics. But then this celebrity is Trevor Noah so it is actually his day-job. Plus it’s pretty hilarious.

Not all comedians have such a rich seam of life experience either. Born a Crime details Noah’s unique life as a mixed-race child in Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South Africa. Not part of just one race or class, he navigates his way between private schools and Townships, educated multilingualism and a pirate CD business.

He’s outspoken, that’s for sure. I can’t really hold him to account though; as a comedian and provocateur, this is his story, and his mother’s. One of the loveliest things about this book is the deep and abiding love Trevor and his mother have for one another, under the most trying of circumstances.

Read: To find out more about that guy on The Daily Show and South Africa in general.

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

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I’m a classic millennial. I’m constantly on my phone interacting with an online community and my priority is travelling to far-flung destinations. So to me, geopolitics is quaint and outdated. Why do maps, mountains and seas matter nowadays? Time for a Geography lesson.

Tim Marshall shows us that they very much do. These are his ten maps that tell you all you need to know about global politics. Some of his hypotheses: the decline of America is over-stated because of its prime real estate, Russia’s tense relationships stem from its shape, and the arctic is the battleground of the future.

A great premise but the book’s real secret weapon is that it reads wonderfully. It’s clear and compelling, like having something explained to you by a passionate teacher. This is the best type of learning and incidentally great material if, god forbid, someone insists on talking about the EU for too long.

It’s maybe not all you need to know- there are some parts of the world or events crying out for a chapter. I’d love a follow up post-Trump and Brexit. I want to see how these massive world events are rooted in geography. Marshall does state that leaders and history have influence too but that they exist within the land itself.

Ultimately, you can have all the wireless in the world but we are still grounded in the reality of the physical world.

Read: When you wonder what Putin’s up to now

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

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Although incredibly famous, the doorstep size puts some people off. So I must reiterate that Wild Swans is a book we should all read. It documents the turbulence of 19th century China through the story of three generations of women caught on the tide of history.

Jung Chang’s grandmother was a concubine for a Chinese warlord. Her daughter grew up to be a leading light of the Communist party. Then in turn we hear of Chang’s own upbringing in Communist society, her own disillusionment with Mao, and move to the West. The generational gap is vast: in a similar vein, I sometimes think about my Grandad who had to deal with both wartime rationing and iPads in his lifetime.

By focussing on the rich, tightly-told tales of these individual women, Chang makes the macro-scale of historical change comprehensible on a human level. You could listen in class about the vast number of people impacted by the Cultural Revolution but the figure is abstract until you meet Chang’s relatives, friends, and community.

Necessarily sad and tragic at times, Chang’s story is uplifted by the love that keeps their family together, a redeeming hope in the pretty bleak landscape of history.

Read: If you find the scale of China, or indeed history, unfathomable.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

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Shame is one of the most powerful human emotions. When I feel ashamed I get a physiological reaction: my heart revs, a wave of heat envelops my body and I feel a strong pressure on my throat and chest.

So the psychology and sociology of shame in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is fascinating. He frames it within a very modern lens, that of social media shamings. Amongst others, Ronson tells the story of the PR executive tweeting the spectacularly unfunny about AIDS on her way to South Africa. I remember this so clearly and thinking ‘what an idiot’.

Ronson digs deeper into what it means to be digitally shamed on social media; what was previously confined to a friendship circle now goes viral as strangers hurl abusive tweets at you. Yikes. My worst nightmare. He delves into the shamers, shamees (is that a word?), motivations, methods and madness.

I find some of the science and psychology behind this book a little fast or too convenient at times. First and foremost, Ronson is a journalist and writes at a reporter’s pace. To be fair to him though, this is a fascinating feature story.

Read: If you’ve embarrassed yourself at work this week.