Written by Victoria
In the aftermath of the historic referendum vote on 23rd June, and before we really learn what it means for all of us, what can we read for enlightenment? Well, we’ve put together a list of non-fiction and some fiction with the contemporary situation in the UK and Europe in mind. Whether you want to understand the reasons we got here, or the ways we might move forward, or get a different perspective on the major issues of the debate, we’ve got something for you here.
Owen Jones – The Establishment/Chavs
Owen Jones has long been carving a name for himself as a perceptive commentator of the flaws in UK society. Chavs was a ground-breaking book in 2011, showing how the working class was being consistently ridiculed and demonized, made to shoulder the blame for everything wrong in the country; an argument that gathered weight in the riots of that summer. He followed up with his exposé of the Establishment, the small percentage of the population with power and wealth in their hands, notably linking Westminster, the media and the City. If his first book was about the moral corruption of a stereotype, the second was about good-old straightforward corruption. He’s been termed ‘a phenomenon of our times’ and Phillip Pullman is a big fan. Certainly worth reading to see where the groundswell of discontent comes from, and why it has some justification.
Roberto Saviano – Gomorroh: Italy’s Other Mafia
But if you think our country is bad… try taking a look at Italy. Saviano’s huge bestseller (it’s sold 750,000 copies in Italy alone) exposes the ‘System’ as it is colloquially known, the organised crime network properly called the Camorra that operates down the Neapolitan coast with fingers in such pies as high fashion, construction, drugs and toxic waste. Since writing the book, Saviano has received so many death threats that he’s now living in hiding. But it was something of a personal mission for the author, who witnessed his doctor father take a brutal beating when he attempted to help a victim of the gang. They don’t make investigative journalism more dangerous and fascinating than this.
Anthony Selden and Peter Snowdon – Cameron at 10: The Verdict
The first of undoubtedly many books to be published in the wake of Cameron’s exit from 10 Downing Street, the text is based on hundreds of interviews with senior politicians and political commentators. First reviews seem to suggest that this is an accurate book, but not an especially scandalous one. Instead it’s more of a piece of social history, charting the five years that took us through an uneasy coalition government, through riots, recession and a Scottish referendum that could have been as disasatrous as the EU one was. The book also considers his relationships with Angela Merkel and Barack Obama. Lots of information, should you care to have it.
Sarah Bakewell – At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails
Charting the biggest philosophical upheaval we’ve seen in the past century, Bakewell follows the story of the French Existentialists from their early meetings at the Bec-de-gaz bar in the rue Montparnasse to the movement’s furthest reaches in politically-charged situations like the May ’68 riots and the struggle for civil rights. Bakewell is wonderfully adept at combining biography, history and philosophy in remarkably clear and readable ways. Existentialism stormed the world in the wake of the Second World War, uniting disparate people and influencing every part of culture. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see another era when intellectual thought becomes so important to everyday matters. Bakewell’s is an excellent guide to this vast and significant part of history.
Rutger Bregman – Utopia for Realists; The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders and a 15-Hour Week
Building on one of those incredibly popular TED talks, Bregman turned his political vision into a Dutch bestseller and actually provoked a national movement for basic income experiments. This has had terrific endorsements from social theorists, like Zygmunt Bauman, who called it: ‘Brilliant, comprehensive, truly enlightening, and eminently readable. Obligatory reading for everyone worried about the wrongs of present-day society and wishing to contribute to their cure.’ Based on the author’s readings of history and notable scientific studies, this book seems to be offering us properly positive ways of moving forward. Do we have the courage to reorganise society from its foundations? Well, that’s another question.
Hugh Pym – Inside the Banking Crisis: The Untold Story
Whilst this is actually a story that’s been told quite a few times now, Pym has the advantage of writing the most recent guide to the banking disaster of 2008 with the latest interviews and most considered hindsight. The book focuses on the crisis years 2008-2010 during which the Treasury did everything it could to stave off bankruptcy across major parts of the industry that could have caused untold misery and hardship to the UK and beyond. It will probably make you very angry, but by all accounts, this is a very gripping and enlightening account of a very big bullet, very closely dodged.
Helen Russell – The Year of Living Danishly; Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country
The former editor of Marie Claire moved to Jutland in Denmark, discovering on route that, statistically, it is the happiest country in the world. To find out just how true this statement was for the nation’s inhabitants, and to see how such national contentment might be achieved, Russell started to dig deeper into the history and culture of her new country, exploring the Danish relationship to ‘childcare, education, food and interior design to SAD, taxes, sexism and an unfortunate predilection for burning witches’. Funny, informative and readable, this is an eye-opening guide to a land that we don’t get to hear that much about.
Peter Pomerantsev – Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible; Adventures in Modern Russia
No European country has changed more radically or more swiftly in the 21st century than Russia, the former Soviet Socialist Republic. Exploring Vladimir Putin’s Russia of new money and new forms of power, Pomerantsev, an award-winning TV producer, took a job in the booming TV industry and found himself thrust into an unbelievable world of ‘Hells Angels convinced they are messiahs, professional killers with the souls of artists, bohemian theatre directors turned Kremlin puppet-masters, supermodel sects, post-modern dictators and oligarch revolutionaries.’ Described as entertaining and unsettling, this is an account of a glitteringly surreal and corrupt country.
Eva Dolan – Long Way Home/ Tell No Tales
One of the very best writers about the situation of immigrants in the UK, Dolan bases her crime fiction in Peterborough, an outpost of East Anglia that is a regular way station for those entering the country, and which has now a sizable Polish population. Dolan’s detectives work for the recently established Hate Crimes unit, difficult and often uncomfortable work for DIs Zigic and Ferreira, who both have immigrant credentials themselves. This is a fabulous series of powerful, extremely contemporary novels that do what fiction does best: dramatize a situation that we mostly only understand from very limited perspectives.
Michel Houellebecq – Submission
Houellebecq is the enfant terrible of French literature, but he keeps on writing bestsellers because his imagination is so daring, so cynical, and so worryingly perceptive. His latest novel is set in the near-future in France and focuses on one of his typical protagonists, the burnt-out and left-behind academic Francois. But the 2022 Presidential election is about to change his life, for out of the two candidates who emerge as favourites: Marine Le Pen of the Front National, and Muhammed Ben Abbes of the nascent Muslim Fraternity – it is the Muslim Abbes who wins and who sets about radically changing France to Islamic law, veiling women and encouraging polygamy. Not for the easily offended, Houellebecq is an author who actively enjoys saying the things he really shouldn’t.
Sara Novic – Girl At War
Longlisted for the Bailey’s Fiction Prize this year, Novic’s debut novel is set in Zagreb in 1991. Her protagonist is 10-year-old Ana Juric, a carefree tomboy who idolises her father, cares for her baby sister and loves to play football with her friends. But then civil war breaks out, and the brutal ethnic cleansing that ensues turns her world upside down. Only a risky plan to escape to America might save her. Then, ten years later, she returns to Croatia to confront the past. Described as haunting, memorable and poignant, this novel comes highly recommended.
Gorsky – Vesna Goldworthy
This is a rewriting of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby featuring Russian oligarchs in London. And if that doesn’t appeal, I really don’t know what will. Gorsky is wealthy beyond imagination, but rather than spend his money on buying football clubs and property, he spends it in his obsessive pursuit of the love of his life, Natalia Summerscale. To this end, he recruits Nickola Kimovic to build a grand library in his Thameside mansion to reflect a taste and culture that Natalia values. Whilst the novel describes a conventional love affair, it’s also about the love affair between Gorsky and his foster home, London. Here’s a novel that shows that not all immigrants to the UK are poverty-driven refugees or political asylum seekers!
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
The Shiny Eds also discuss European Culture on the page and screen here.