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Culture this summer: What to read, watch and listen to

General news / MESSAGE
European Policy Centre

Date: 23/08/2023
"I think books are like people, in the sense that they’ll turn up in your life when you most need them." – Emma Thompson, Actress. 

Unless you are Bill Gates, who reads 50 novels a year, summer is when we usually make time to read the books on our ever-growing 'to-do' list. At the European Policy Centre, we discussed which books should be classified as 'essential' to pack for the holidays. Hence, here are our recommendations of books, alongside podcasts and TV series, to accompany those downtime moments in the sun or - for some - the rain!

Fabian Zuleeg, Chief Executive and Chief Economist (@FabianZuleeg)

  • The World by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Unlike any previous world history, this book is a fresh and original history of humanity. It uses family - the one thing all humans have in common - to tell a story. It is genuinely global, spanning all eras and continents, from the perspective of places as diverse as Haiti, Congo, Cambodia, Europe, China, and America.

  • Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor
The forging of the Soviet Union is recounted in detail by the celebrated historian and author of Stalingrad as the Russian Revolution segues into the bloody Civil War, shaping the tumultuous story of the twentieth century.

Elizabeth Kuiper
, Associate Director and Head of the Social Europe and Well-Being programme (@kuiper_em)

  • The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939 by Antony Beevor
As far as I'm concerned, Anthony Beevor has written one of the best books on the Spanish Civil War. The book's first edition was published in 1982, soon after the death of General Franco, and was updated with new sources on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. Not only does the book provide a detailed overview of the infighting in the two main camps, but it is also highly relevant to Spain's current political context and the question of what it means for a country to confront and reconcile itself with a troubled past.

  •  The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili
This is a captivating novel about six generations of a Georgian family, spanning the time from the rise and fall of the Soviet empire to the siege of Leningrad and the Prague Spring. The book focuses on the (feisty) women in the family, offering their own perspectives on how to be free in a repressed political context. Although the book is quite monumental (over a thousand pages), it was one of the books I couldn’t put down this year.

  • The Ezra Klein Show
I love this podcast about politics, history, philosophy, and technology (AI), to name a few. Ezra always manages to have interesting guests, but what I like most about it is that every episode ends with him asking his guests for recommendations of books that have shaped their thinking (so I always end up having more food for thought!).

Ricardo Borges de Castro, Associate Director and Head of the Europe in the World programme (@ricbdc)

  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel
This book details Murakami’s athletic obsession and how it informs his art. Philosophical and reflective, this is a joyous celebration of physical activity and its mental results.

  • Turn of the Tide
This Portuguese series available on Netflix tells the story of four friends, whose lives are suddenly turned upside down when narcotics suddenly wash up on shore in the Azorean village of Rabo de Peixe in São Miguel Island.

  • Eldorado: Everything the Nazis Hate
A nightclub in 1920s Berlin becomes a haven for the queer community in this documentary exploring the freedoms lost amid Hitler’s rise to power.

  • Mind/Work with Jasmine El-Gamal
A podcast which explores mental health in the workplace, one story at a time.

Georg E. Riekeles, Associate Director and Head of the Europe’s Political Economy programme (@GRiekeles)

  • The Battle for Your Brain by Nita Farahany
It has already been a hot year for debates on emerging tech. Advances in AI have been cast as a long-sought productivity boost, a formidable jobs displacer or a new battleground for ethics and humanity. It is not the only tech frontier we should be concerned with; here is another one: brain tracking and hacking. Law and Philosophy Professor Nita Farahany brilliantly discusses the ethical and social implications of emerging bioengineering and neurotech.

Garvan Walshe, Head of Communications (@garvanwalshe)

  • Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov
Winner of the International Booker Prize 2023, it tells the story of an enigmatic flaneur named Gaustine who opened a 'clinic for the past' that offers a promising treatment for people with Alzheimer's. Each floor reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time.

  •  Alpha Males (Machos Alfa)
This Spanish series available on Netflix tells the story of four Spanish men, friends since childhood, who struggle to come to terms with feminism. This is riotously funny!

Kym Nelson, Editor-in-Chief

  • Frontlines of Journalism hosted by Jeremy Bowen
I find this podcast fascinating, and it has me riveted throughout. It is presented by BBC International Editor Jeremy Bowen and his fellow journalists as they interrogate the role of journalism today. They reflect on the obstacles between journalists and the truth and the conspiracy theory movement that seems to have boomed in the UK after COVID. They not only explore the similarities and differences of their journalistic specialisms but also use techniques to hold interviewees to account – especially when their position is based on disinformation and the significance of social media in modern journalism. It really is action-packed!

  •  The Comedian's Comedian hosted by Stuart Goldsmith
After listening to the Frontlines of Journalism, I like to listen to something more easy-going, hence this podcast. The presenter is a comedian who interviews other comedians about their writing process and how they cope with challenges like hecklers and when their jokes don’t work. It’s funny, thought-provoking and provides a fascinating look at what it takes to become a comedian as they talk candidly about what drives them.

  • On Purpose hosted by Jay Shetty
After reading Jay Shetty's book, Think Like a Monk, which draws on his experiences living in an ashram, I started listening to the author's podcast, where he goes deep into conversation with well-known personalities. He recently interviewed US President Joe Biden – an interesting episode to get an insight into his character.

  • Atomic Habits by James Clear
I’m currently reading this book full of practicable advice and inspirational success stories from leading CEOs, distinguished scientists, and top athletes, which shows how small persistent habits can affect your career, relationships, and life. I particularly like the inspiring real-life stories and simple life hacks.

Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World programme (@amandajanepaul)

  • The Future of Geography: How Power and Politics in Space Will Change Our World by Tim Marshall
The bestselling author of Prisoners of Geography and The Power of Geography turns his attention to the geopolitical space race, analysing the cosmic strides Russia, China and the United States have made and what it means for the rest of us on Earth.

Emma Woodford, Chief Operating Officer (@EmmaInEUrope)

  • Homelands by Timothy Garton Ash
The author and journalist charts some of the lessons learned from the Hungarian revolution to the invasion of Ukraine.

  • The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre
A thrilling Cold War story about a KGB double agent, by one of Britain's greatest historians.

  • Cafe Europa Revisited by Slavenka Drakulic
An evocative and timely collection of essays that paints a portrait of Eastern Europe’s thirty years after the end of communism. 

Two of my favourite podcasts are:
  • The Radio Hour
  • The Political Scene by the New Yorker

Laura Rayner, Senior Policy Analyst in the Social Europe and Well-Being programme (@lerayner)

  • The Amur River: Between Russia and China by Colin Thubron
Colin Thubron is a magnificent travel writer whose work on Russia encouraged me to travel there twenty years ago. His most recent work recounts his two years of travel along the Amur River, from its source in the Mongolian mountains to the Pacific at the Sea of Okhotsk. The beautiful account of his journey along the 2800-mile river provides the basis for a fascinating insight into the history of the region (land grabs, unequal treaties, and ruthless bloodshed) and current Russia – China relations which, in the context of the invasion of Ukraine, make it all the more interesting.

  • How to Fail with Elizabeth Day
Elizabeth Day is a brilliant interviewer who guides her guests through their three most noteworthy failures. Her skill, warmth and openness make the podcast feel like listening to a conversation between friends and encourage reflection on how our failures have taught and shaped us and how much more we learn from our failures than our successes.

  • The Rest is Politics
This podcast is regular listening for me on the train. It lifts the lid on the secrets of Westminster, offering an insider’s view on politics at home and abroad, while bringing back the lost art of disagreeing agreeably.

Philipp Lausberg, Policy Analyst in the Europe’s Political Economy programme (@philippemlau)

  • This is Europe by Ben Judah
It contains personal stories from every European country, which provide a human face to our continent's past, present and future. It's the humans behind many of the phenomena that we study as a think tank.

Svitlana Taran, Ukrainian Research Fellow in the Europe in the World programme (@svt_tar)

  • The Making of Modern Ukraine: A Free Online Course from Yale University by Timothy Snyder
This online course features 23 lectures and explores questions such as: What factors shaped the Ukrainian nation? How and when did a modern Ukrainian nation emerge?  

Victoria Pedjasaar, Programme Assistant in the Social Europe and Well-Being programme

  • Severance
This is a bit like the series Black Mirror but better! It explores a dystopian world in which separating memories from work and personal life is surgically possible. It is difficult to say much without spoilers, but it is my favourite show this year.

  • Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
The author provides a fascinating overview of sleep, relating it to every aspect of our physical and mental well-being. It is scientific yet easy to read and comes with tips on how to sleep better.

Katharina Michalsky, Research Assistant in the European Politics and Institution programme

  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This is a book about resilience, survival, hope, love, loss, despair, prejudice, and strength. It tells the story of Kya Clark, a reclusive young girl abandoned by her parents, her siblings, the school system, the entire town surrounding her, and what ultimately feels like life. Mother Nature has become Kya’s caretaker, and deep in a lonely marsh along the North Carolina coast, Kya will not only hide but blossom into an independent being.

  • Borgen: Power & Glory
This Danish political drama may be the best political show I have ever seen! The story gives an in-depth and honest view of politics, morals, and ethics in power. The show focuses on the human side of politics and how the demands of politics affect the personal life of the first female prime minister. The character's development in this show is truly impressive. I could not stop watching it.

Sabina Ahmeti, Project Assistant in the Transnationalisation programme

  • Fresh Banana Leaves by Jessica Hernandez
An Indigenous environmental scientist breaks down why Western conservationism isn't working and offers Indigenous models informed by case studies, personal stories, and family histories that centre the voices of Latin American women and land protectors.

Berta López Domènech, Junior Policy Analyst in the European Politics and Institutions programme (@bb_erts)

  • Sovietistan by Erica Fatland
The author takes the reader on a journey unknown to even the most seasoned globetrotter. The five former Soviet Republics - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - became independent when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. How have these countries developed since then?

  • The Looming Tower by Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney, and Lawrence Wright
Would it have been possible to prevent the 9/11 attack if the CIA and the FBI had been better coordinated? This TV series traces the events before the fall of the Twin Towers since the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, mainly through the characters of the anti-terrorist FBI agents John O’Neill and Ali Soufan.

  • Sarajevo mon Amour by Jovan Divjak and Florence La Bruyère
Interviewed by journalist Florence La Bruyère, soldier and activist Jovan Divjak reflects upon his childhood in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Stefan Sipka, Senior Policy Analyst and Acting Head of the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme (@sipka_stefan)

  • The Diplomat
This acclaimed Netflix series follows a new US Ambassador to the United Kingdom in a high-stakes, contemporary political drama about the transcendence and torture of long-term relationships between countries and people.

Andrea G. Rodríguez, Lead Digital Policy Analyst, Europe’s Political Economy programme (@agarcod)

  • The Everything Blueprint by James Ashton
A gripping look at the rise of the microchip and the British tech company behind its blueprint. 

  • Lost Future: And How to Reclaim it by Jan Zielonka
A timely and compelling argument for a revitalised and restructured global politics.

  • Blue Machine: How the Ocean Shapes our World by Helen Czerski
A fascinating exploration of the ocean that encompasses physics and biology as well as history and concerns for the future.

Tatiana Caftea, Events Executive (@TCaftea)

  • Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
This is a funny and smart book about a 1960s-set story of an unconventional female scientist with a quiet game-plan to change the world.

  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
This book explores what it was like to be a woman during World War II when women's stories were often forgotten or overlooked.

I would also recommend the autobiographies of these inspirational people:  

  • Finding Me by Viola Davis
  • In the dream house by Carmen Maria Machado
  • 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  • Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

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