Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer

Books to Inspire Hope, Thought, and Action in Troubled Times

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Alex Laffer

Staff Writer

Alex Laffer is a writer, editor and researcher. He’s just finished his PhD, which involved listening to hours and hours of people talking about books; all things considered, not a bad way to pass the time. Born in Britain of Australian and Vietnamese descent, he’s interested in the negotiation of identity and empathy in literature. His reading habits jump from science fiction to natural history and most things in between, but he’s particularly fond of Japanese literature, the work of Salman Rushdie and books that do fun things with form. Alongside the day job, he’s currently trying to organise a poetry night in South London and write fairy tales for his nieces and nephew. He doesn’t like camping. Twitter: @exlaffer

It would seem that the world is on something of a downward spiral. (Thanks to an orange-faced geriatric with the social skills and attention span of a spoiled toddler, and an entitled rubber-faced politician who made a mess and decided not to clean up after himself.)

I can’t help but feel that we are edging ever closer to the dystopic future of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan. In his world, might is right and people are too preoccupied in their own enjoyment to care much about the plight of others. Citizens have access to a constant and vast media stream, but so much of it is lies and perspective that it takes Spider Jerusalem, Ellis’s anti-hero journalist, to speak truth to power, a vitriolic lone voice. Ellis wrote Transmetropolitan partly as a response to the politics of the nineties, of Bush and Clinton, but his political critique remains relevant now. I can imagine Spider apoplectic at the idea of “alternative facts,” smashing up his apartment in a rage before going forth with his trusty bowel-disruptor to ‘extract’ some truth from slippery politicians.

I’m not suggesting we follow Spider’s behaviour, but a little bit of righteous indignation can be useful in helping to cope with these difficult times. It can provide a catalyst to move beyond melancholy acceptance to thinking about what we can do to effect positive change. Being a book lover, for me this starts with reading – finding stories and ideas that resist dominant political narratives, that reflect the beautiful diversity of our societies and cultures, and provide arguments against the tired political rhetoric of the right. Here’s a couple of books to get you started:

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays by BAME writers, such as Salena Godden, Wei Ming Kam, and Riz Ahmed. Insightful, inspiring, and often very funny, it’s great to have these different perspectives on what it’s like to live in a society where you aren’t the dominant majority, and what that means for representation. The essays emerge from and orbit around a central thesis: that society tends to view immigration negatively, labelling immigrants as bad people, but allowing a select few to cross over and become “good” through personal achievement or conforming to positive stereotypes. It’s a damaging binary that reduces complex and complicated people to simple categories. I think it’s an important book, which is made more powerful by the fact that it is so entertaining to read. But, if you don’t believe me, then trust in J.K. Rowling; she’s a fan and described the collection as ‘an important, timely read’.

Mirrors by Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan radical journalist and writer, is perhaps less-known than his celebrated contemporaries, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez. However, he remains an important figure in Latin American literature – you may have heard of him when Hugo Chavez gave Barack Obama a copy of Galeano’s book Open Veins of Latin America. I would recommend his more recent Mirrors, a remarkable piece of storytelling and research. In this book, Galeano retells the history of the world through a series of vignettes and fragments, revealing the hidden stories of those silenced or rendered powerless. The book has the rather ambitious subtitle Stories of Almost Everyone, but it is a sign of the quality of Galeano’s writing and the breadth of his knowledge that he meets this aim. Erudite but extremely engaging, it deftly navigates between recognisable events in global history, to quieter moments of forgotten significance.

I can’t recommend this book enough, with its powerful combination of fact and storytelling that reconfigures our understanding of history and culture. I’ll leave you with a quote, a neat counterpoint to anti-immigration sentiment:

“Now the rainbow of the earth is more colourful than the rainbow of the sky. But we are all emigrants from Africa. Even the whitest of whites comes from Africa. Maybe we refuse to acknowledge our common origins because racism causes amnesia, or because we find it unbelievable that in those days long past the entire world was our kingdom, an immense map without borders, and our legs were the only passport required.”

These are the books that I’m turning to. I’d love to hear more about the books you’ve read that can inspire hope, stimulate thought, and encourage action.