Hidden depths. Light - and dark - reading

So, what gifts are you planning to lavish on which deserving parties this year? What about a little light reading for our beloved President? Perhaps Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers would be appreciated.

Mind you, El Presidente’s keepers are so anxious to hamper distribution of this wildly popular tome that we may be reduced to paying black market prices for the privilege. Perhaps Decline and Fall would be more appropriate for this recipient.

In any case, holiday reading is generally an escapist activity, so it’s probably wise to focus on entertaining Christmas gifts, rather than realistic Gottedammerung treatises on the agonies of our time.

And what could be more amusing than Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders (Orion Books), a (British) Sunday Times best-seller, awash with praise from thriller fans internationally. It’s constructed like those sets of Russian dolls, plot within plot, and cunningly scattered with scores of clues to tantalise amateur sleuths. Cruciverbalists and other would-be gumshoes will savour the challenges posed to alert readers.

What is it that attracts us to murder mysteries? Is it the crime or the solution? Horowitz shamelessly sends up the Agatha Christie lala land of stock characters (the vicar, the local magnate preening in his stately home, and the Miss Marples of the world), but he does so tenderly. And he teases with shoals of clues. This period stuff is presented within a second, contemporary, murder mystery set in latter-day London, so it’s a case of Pay Attention Children! Otherwise you will have to retrace your steps to sort out the various dark doings. Perhaps the killer actually WAS the butler in the drawing room.

If readers’ lust for mayhem remains unslaked after reading Magpie, try Fever (Hodder and Stoughton), the latest Deon Meyer, who rises and rises in critical esteem with each offering. South Africa’s leading crime writer, he is even admired by creepy Stephen King of horror tales notoriety, who rhapsodises about our very own Meyer.

Fever is a departure for Meyer. His familiar, disillusioned detective character Bennie Griessel does not figure in Fever to beguile the reader with his world-wearily atmospheric tales. This is survival in another dimension entirely –  a hunt for refuge in a blighted world, where survivors of a killer virus fight feral dogs, motorcycle gangs and nuclear contamination. Just like Camps Bay on New Year’s Day.  Faced with such ghastliness, Bennie would probably have glugged a bottle or two and floated into nowheresville. Again.

The cover notes say Fever is “the epic story of a group of people determined to carve a city out of chaos”. Sounds familiar. South African readers will quail at the depiction of familiar landscapes in post-apocalyptic ruination.  

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts were, of course, jointly attempting to salvage humanity on a global scale. Author/historian Richard Steyn has produced a sequel to his lucid Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness. Now Churchill & Smuts – The Friendship (Jonathan Ball Publishers) studies the mutual respect of two vividly contrasted figures.

On Smuts’ death, Churchill’s letter of condolence to Mrs Issie Smuts said: “He was probably more fitted to guide struggling and blundering humanity through its sufferings and perils towards a better day than anyone who lived in any country during his epoch”. Not too many of that ilk around these days. They make contemporary leaders look like vertically challenged persons.

If holiday languor palls, a dose of reality might be forthcoming in Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Scribe) by Graham Allison. He chides the West for lagging dangerously behind China.

Allison says Chinese President Xi is formidable because he has known real suffering, so is very different “from Western leaders obsessed with the frivolous spin-cycles of domestic politics”. He believes Xi sees his responsibility is to ensure that China’s renaissance returns the country to its position as the richest, strongest and most advanced culture on earth.

China has invested in weapons with powerful “asymmetrical’’ advantages: cheap missiles can sink an aircraft carrier costing billions. China is more serious than Europe, because it invests growth gains in education and technology, for example in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

Well, if that lot doesn’t scare you out of your deckchair, nothing will.

Why not, instead, something  soothing? Rapid Fire – Remarkable Miscellany by broadcaster/actor John Maytham (Tafelberg). Rather than fulminating about the desperate state of the world, the author reminds us of its infinite wonders, and answers many questions that puzzle humankind. And some that you might prefer not to know.

Consider, at random, the matter of whether it is better to be a man or a woman, if one is bitten by a Brazilian wandering spider. Who has not tossed and turned in the night, agonising about that? Maytham says many would have answered: a woman. But the bite can cause severe prolonged erection in men, which can lead to impotence. The venom is being studied for possible use in erectile dysfunction treatments.

What common anatomical trait is shared only between humans and elephants? The chin, apparently. But no less an expert than James Pampush of Duke University in North Carolina doesn’t know why humans have one. Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to suffer a blow to that bit of the anatomy could enlighten the learned academic as to the relief arising from the fact that a sturdy jaw provides a shield of some kind against damage to oral structures, dentistry etc.

Readers of modest and retiring nature should not read aloud the definition of a tompion. But it’s perfectly acceptable to give mixed company a reading on the most ticklish part of the human body.  And even to discuss the vital issue of the body part added to Barbie dolls in the momentous year AD 2000.

On a superficial reading (what else?), Rapid Fire does not offer an answer as to the meaning of life.

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