Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Sex, Cult, Nun by Faith Jones, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us by Brian Klaas and In Defence of Witches by Mona Chollet.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
Sex, Cult, Nun by Faith Jones (HarperCollins), £13.29
Faith Jones was born into a cult. Her grandfather was the leader, her parents were loyal shepherds. The cult, a Christian New Religious Movement, known as the Children of God, began in the US in the late 1960s and promoted the belief that everything and everyone in the outside world (referred to as the system and systemites) was sinful and that the Children of God were put on this earth to spread the word of God and deliver themselves from evil.
On the surface, Jones’ childhood was an unconventional adventure; homeschooled, living in the remote region of Macau in China and intermittently travelling around the world. But in reality, her grandfather’s teachings were fixated on sex (including with children) and thinly veiled misogyny meant women and girls of all ages were expected to sleep with both male members of the group and with “systemite” men as part of a conversion technique called “flirty fishing”.
Jones faces years of child sexual abuse, rape and coercive control enabled by bizarre interpretations of the bible from her mysterious grandfather and his wife Maria. It is only years later, once Jones has escaped the cult and gone on to achieve extraordinary further education, that the extent of her abuse sinks in.
From leaving behind the only life she knew to pursue further education to defying the Children of God’s key principle of secrecy in writing this book, Jones’ bravery makes for a staggering read.
Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us by Brian Klass (John Murray Press), (14.49)
“Does power corrupt, or are corrupt people drawn to power?” These are one of several questions Dr Brian Klass, associate professor in politics at University College London (UCL), attempts to answer in Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.
This book could not have been timelier: the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the lack of transparency in many developed economies (Boris Johnson’s administration would be a good start).
This book is not just a polemic on tyrants to “ensure they don’t become our leaders”. Klass interviews over 500 people – including figures like Thailand’s former prime minister who Abhisit Vejjajiva – and draws on a wealth of academic literature to understand how people are dubiously thrusted into power.
For instance, charismatic leaders are overrepresented in high office because psychological studies prove that voters’ instincts rewards overconfidence. What’s more, efforts to combat anti-corruption tend to shine a negative light on sleaze, naively assume voters will choose change. Brazil after the “Operation Car Wash” scandal elected the populist Jair Bolsonaro, who in 2018 promised reform but is now facing a criminal investigation into skimming the salaries of his aides.
However, for all of its insight, Corruptible fails to give any meaningful solutions. His grand scheme to ensure “power purifies”? Rotating leadership posts. Corruption has existed since the Egyptian dynasty and will continue to exist as governments expand. Klass’s contribution is important in mapping where we are heading, but provides little guidance on what direction we should be heading instead.
In Defence of Witches by Mona Challet (Pan Macmillan), (£11.39)
A hasty glance at the name of this book and you may think you are embarking on a journey of black cats, bedknobs and broomsticks. You would be mistaken. Translated from French to English by Sophie R. Lewis, In Defence of Witches, written by Mona Chollet is first-and-foremost, a feminist essay. One that explores the aftermath of the witch-hunts in Europe and the US and how their legacy has insidiously crept into more sinister forms of control and punishment in modern society, from ageism to motherhood and medicine.
After establishing her overarching thesis that centuries later, women are still being put on trial, Chollet uses three archetypes of women accused of witchcraft in the past and why this holds resonance today. From the independent woman (as widows and celibates were often targeted) to the childless woman (being “anti-mother” was cause for suspicion) and lastly, the image of the “old hag” or ageing woman (being old has always been a target of societal rejection). In the curtain call of the book, Chollet argues that by considering the lives of those who dared to live differently, we can be free to exist beyond the narrow limits imposed by a patriarchal society.
Chollet is a reputable feminist and literary figure in France, as seen in her previous books and essays Beauté Fatale and Chez Soi, and so the book predictably strikes an academic tone. But besides being interspersed with critical theory, she too uses an entertaining smattering of second-hand sources, from quotes from philosophers or activists like Gloria Steinem, film anecdotes, to tit-bits from magazines. Her own musings on her choice to be single and childfree is a testament to Chollet’s ease in intricately plaiting together the academic with the personal.
If you’re expecting a dive into the past, present and future of witchcraft, you will find In Defence of Witches a disappointing read. However, if you’re after a spellbinding contribution to feminism that questions notions of independence, motherhood, and ageing through the “original female rebel”, this is the spellbook for you.