ECFR’s summer entertainment list

Whether you’re off on holiday or staying home this summer, our entertainment recommendations will transport you through time and space

Someone reading a book on a carpeted floor with a full bookshelf on the background
©PHOTOPQR/L’ALSACE/Darek SZUSTER ; Mulhouse ; 03/07/2023 ; Une personne lit un livre dans son salon
Image by picture alliance / PHOTOPQR/L’ALSACE/MAXPPP | Darek SZUSTER

Like every summer, our experts and staff have compiled a list of books, podcasts, and television series for the relaxing days ahead. Their book choices will transport you to Edinburgh, Lebanon, the Mediterranean, Afghanistan, and the Austrian Alps – as well as back to the days of the cold war to deepen your understanding of one of the organisations Europeans now trust the most – NATO. If you are more of podcast-listener than a reader, we have two offerings that will take you to the moon on Apollo 13 or back to the Greco-Persian wars. We also have something for the more televisually inclined and even the wine lovers among you.

We wish you a pleasant journey and a restful summer.

📖 “March Violets” by Philip Kerr

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Bernie Gunther is a tough but honorable private detective in the anti-hero tradition of Philip Marlowe or Spenser. The twist is that Gunther needs to do his detecting in 1930s Nazi Germany, navigating not just the seedy underbelly of organised crime but also the gruesome overbelly of state-led political violence. March Violets is the first of 14 books in which Gunther wrestles with the moral dilemmas of collaboration and resistance while also trying to solve a crime or two.

📖 “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

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No book better explains the current situation in Afghanistan. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a true literary masterpiece that tells the story of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, whose lives are continuous races for survival. Hosseini gives a broad overview of the situation in Afghanistan back in the 1990s when the Soviets leave and the Taliban take power, transforming Kabul into a loud and chaotic city haunted by the sound of bombs, shells, and gunfire. Starvation and fear are a daily routine for civilians, and women’s rights start slowly disappearing. Although the book was published in 2007, it is essential reading if you want to understand Afghanistan in 2023.

Recommended by

Programme Coordinator, Africa programme

This technology podcast is about the first moon landing and the run-up to it, but rather than focusing on the astronauts, it puts the flight controllers (the people in mission control) into the spotlight and explores the challenges they faced ahead of the launch and the last 13 minutes of the approach to the lunar surface. The second season covers the Apollo 13 accident and a third season coming soon will focus on the Space Shuttle. It is a great podcast to learn about some of the geopolitical challenges and technical obstacles of the time. It is well produced and easy to listen to, even without any in-depth knowledge about mechanical engineering or computer science. Plus, it was really interesting to learn that the moon landing was basically achieved by a bunch of 26-year-olds in their first jobs after university.

Recommended by

Coordinator for Pan-European Data Projects

NATO, ever oscillating between confidence and doubt. Susan Colbourn provides a compelling and timely history of an alliance facing a new kind of nuclear threat from the Kremlin. She carefully tells the story of how leaders on both sides of the Atlantic wrestled with questions of unity, strategy, and public support for the steps they took to counter the Soviet’s SS-20 missiles from the late 1970s. Colbourn also shows how the fragile consensus underpinning NATO’s dual-track decision could have crumbled if the Soviet Union had taken longer to fall apart. This is a favour Vladimir Putin’s Russia is unlikely to do us. As I wrote elsewhere, Europeans should prepare for an era of intense nuclear competition – Colbourn’s book is an excellent starting point.

📖 “The Orientalist” by Tom Reiss

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Everybody agrees that Ali and Nino is the greatest Azerbaijani novel ever written, but no one seems to know who really wrote it. Tom Reiss tracks down the author and reveals him to be Lev Nussimbaum, an Azeri Jewish exile who pretended to be a Muslim warrior prince and became a bestselling author and biographer of Joseph Stalin in Nazi Germany. He escaped to Italy as the Nazis cracked down, only to die of a rare disease in the resort town of Positano. This is technically not fiction, but it is certainly very difficult to believe.

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Grant Administrator

“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Set against the backdrop of a 1930s Edinburgh school, Muriel Spark’s masterpiece deals with the risks of misguided admiration and misused power. Jean Brodie, a charismatic teacher, inspires her students to lead extraordinary lives and embrace their true selves. She carefully selects the brightest among them, forming the renowned “Brodie set”. However, as her students mature and question the ambiguity of their idol’s morality and her alarming devotion to fascism, Brodie’s noble intentions take a sinister turn. The novel explores the complex dynamics between teacher and student, the dangers of unchecked authority and blind admiration, and the delicate balance between idealism and corruption.

📺 “Butterfly” by Yusra Mardini

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“We are humans. We are not only refugees. We are like everyone in the world.” Butterfly is the story of a young girl who is forced to flee her home and her country to find a place far from the bombs and mortars. It is the real story of Yusra and Sarah Mardini, two Syrian women who fled Damascus, and their journey to reach Europe, first by boat, then by foot. Crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece is one of the most challenging parts of the journey. They are both swimmers and between them they bring the boat to shore. There Yusra begins another inspiring chapter to participate in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. You can now also watch the film adaptation on Netflix.

📖 Severance

Recommended by

Programme Manager, ECFR Rome

If you want to know how to split your professional and private life and achieve the perfect work-life balance, this is not the right television show for you! The dystopic, dramatic, psychological Severance reveals the very personal dimensions of your private life, personal experiences, and consciousness, making you reflect deeply on memories and life. Directed by Ben Stiller (surprisingly!), it stars John Turturro, Christopher Walken, and Patricia Arquette among others. If you like white colour and minimalism, this is definitely for you. 

Recommended by

Programme Assistant, Middle East and North Africa programme

This is a different kind of history book. In her graphic memoir, Lamia Ziade relives the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s from the perspective of her seven-year-old self. With stunning illustrations and sketches alongside texts, she recounts the events and impact of the war that are still visible today, bringing the experience of war shockingly close for the reader. This is definitely worth a read for anyone trying to understand why parts of Beirut look like a post-apocalyptic Paris.

📖 Drops of God

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This television drama is a story about finding family, set in France and Tokyo. The protagonist discovers that she will inherit the world’s greatest wine collection after her father’s death. But before she can have it, she needs to befriend his protégé.

📖 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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Web Designer

As the frigid Siberian dawn crept reluctantly over the gulag, Ivan Denisovich shook off sleep’s meagre comfort.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn escorts the reader through a chilling day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner in a Soviet labour camp in the 1950s. We awaken with Ivan in the pre-dawn frost of the Siberian gulag and witness his brutal struggle for survival: the rush for bread rations, the savage labour, the petty politics amongst prisoners. Solzhenitsyn‘s stark prose, shaped by his own experiences in the gulags, etches a vivid picture of the camp‘s harsh regime. Yet, through the icy landscape of oppression, Ivan‘s spirit of humanity flickers stubbornly, illuminating moments of fleeting joy: a sip of warm soup, a patch of blue sky. Solzhenitsyn masterfully presents not just a damning indictment of the Soviet system, but a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the bleakest of circumstances.

📖 “Pasajes de la historia” by Juan Antonio Cebrián

Recommended by

Karelia Ramentol

This podcast tells the stories of some of history’s most epic events and greatest characters. I can recommend listening to the episode on the medical wars between Ancient Greece and the Empire of Persia – the confrontation between the Persian King Xerxes I who speared the Spartan Leonidas is particularly hair-raising.

📖 “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler

Recommended by

Pia Jakobi

Austrian author Robert Seethaler is probably the only author whose books I buy without reading the blurb first. A Whole Life was the first novel by him that I read and I still return to it. Andreas Egger is a simple man leading a simple life in a remote valley in the Austrian Alps. He doesn’t expect much from his existence but then modernity, the second world war, and Maria – his first and only love – enter his life. In simple words, Seethaler chronicles a seemingly unremarkable life. You will probably read this great novel in one beach day, but it will hopefully stay with you for much longer.

📖 Shrinking

Recommended by

Programme Manager, ECFR Rome

If you loved Indiana Jones, Scrubs, How I Met your Mother, Ted Lasso, and if you have always dreamed about living in Pasadena, you must watch Shrinking. The show deals with personal griefs, the courage required to deal with them, the beauty of therapy, ethical barriers, and life changes. And it does so with a sublime ironic touch which we all badly need.

📰 Alamut” by Vladimir Bartol

Recommended by

Director, Wider Europe programme

Alamut is the name of the fortress created by Ismailian leader Hassan Ibn Sabbah at the end of the 11th century, and the home of the Assassins sect (Hashishin). The novel describes how Ibn Sabbah created a system of unquestioned obedience by fighters ready to die for the sake of faith. Beyond its clear orientalist inspiration, the book questions the relationship between belief, knowledge, and power, and the moral dilemma about acceptable means to resist oppression. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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