Books in brief: The School of Life, Jonathan Franzen and Yasushi Inoue

Three new books you might have missed.

Life Lessons
Various authors
Pan Macmillan, 128pp, £6.99 each
 
What can reading Henri Bergson teach us about gruelling departmental meetings? Can Friedrich Nietzsche, attuned to his inconsistencies, enable us to negotiate conflict and see the merits of a change of heart? A new series of books from Alain de Botton’s School of Life does for Hobbes, Freud, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Byron and Bergson what de Botton’s books have done for classical philosophers and Proust. They are short, snappy reads, reminiscent of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog – aphoristic digests from history’s great minds.
 
The Kraus Project
Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 336pp, £18.99
 
Karl Kraus, who died in 1936, was a Viennese satirist and poet who used his self-published newspaper Die Fackel (“the torch”) to rage against the media, capitalism and the stilted patriotism of an empire in decline. A century on, he is an ideal counterpart for Jonathan Franzen, who has translated and annotated Kraus’s essays. In notes along the bottom of each page, Franzen identifies parallels between fin de siècle Vienna and the technology-glutted US, while offering an autobiographical account of his kinship with the writer known by his enemies as “the Great Hater”. Consumer technology, Franzen argues, distracts us with perpetual yakking, making us restless and ill at ease, while companies such as Amazon run roughshod over the verbal culture to which Kraus belonged.
 
Bullfight
Yasushi Inoue
Pushkin Press, 128pp, £12
 
In 1949, at the age of 42, after working for many years as a journalist and literary editor, Yasushi Inoue began to write novels and short stories. Bullfight was his first. This novella has been translated by Michael Emmerich, known for his work with Banana Yoshimoto. It tells the story of Tsugami, a newspaper editor in Osaka, who takes a great risk when he agrees to sponsor a bullfight, only to find that his life increasingly resembles that of the bull.
The fantasy library at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Anthony Horowitz’s New Blood is the most accurate portrayal of London millennial life on TV

 “Do you know how hard we work? How little we earn? This city never gives you any chances.”

The police procedural is hardly the most cutting edge televisual format, burdened as it is by generic clichés and tired characters. But every now and then, one comes along attempting to do something new with an old format – from Life on Mars to Happy Valley. The latest effort is the BBC’s New Blood. Created by Anthony Horowitz, it follows two (extremely handsome) junior investigators, both second-generation immigrants in their early twenties living in London: Arash Sayyad (Ben Tavassoli), working for the Met, and Stefan Kowolski (Mark Strepan), who works for the Serious Fraud Office.

On the surface, there is nothing revolutionary about this programme – it has all the usual hallmarks of its genre. Stefan and Rash dislike each other at first, but find circumstance thrusts them together on numerous unlikely occasions – who woulda thunk these two oddballs would become partners in crime prevention!!! Both have older bosses who raise exasperated eyebrows at their unconventional but often effective methods. Each work on cases at first, seemingly unrelated to one another, but each time slowly are revealed to be intertwined.

But there is something slightly strange about this programme that’s apparent from the very first episode. As Radio Times critic Huw Fullerton wrote in his review of the show’s opening case, New Blood is “obsessed” with the London property market:

“Throughout the first few episodes lead characters Stefan and Rash regularly suspend their investigations into murder and corruption to fret about getting on the housing ladder, the rights they have to fixed rent and the logistics of getting a mortgage on a low salary.  Even one of the series’ villains couldn’t resist getting in on the property action, evilly swilling a glass of wine and threatening his niece with eviction from her rent-free Zone 1 flat if she didn’t keep supplying him with illicit information.”

“I know how hard it is for young professionals in London,” the villain in question purrs. “House prices are ridiculous.” And as further cases have unfolded, including last night’s finale, this streak has only become more extreme. Some of the series most significant events are motivated by people hoping to preserve the value of their luxurious central properties; Rash’s sister gives him the details of a potential room in Wandsworth as a kind of present; Stefan and Rash are thrown together by their shared desperate need to find somewhere affordable to live. One of the highest-octane moments of the series’s final episode involves an action montage of the pair running across London after a traumatic car accident to make their scheduled time for a flat viewing. It’s almost laughable.

But it’s not just property that drives the characters and plots on New Blood. It’s all the concerns of millennial life in London – immigration levels, transport, the environment, isolation and mental health. Stefan and Rash cycle to their insecure jobs (both are constantly being fired) and undercover meetings with big pharma bosses and property developers, trying to right the great wrongs of the city. Stefan uses his Polish language abilities to communicate with the low-paid workers often exploited by the villains of each case – one of whom says to him, “Do you know how hard we work? How little we earn? This city never gives you any chances.”

Debates about high-rise developments and corporate greed nestle in with chatty dialogue about being underpaid, unappreciated and undermined by the city. Even the deaths seem to play on urban anxieties: a man tumbles to his death from an E3 tower block, while a woman suffers a fatal fall from a tall escalator at an underground station, her death calmly declared in an announcement that continues, “There is a good service on all other lines.”

The result is an overly earnest but surprisingly accurate portrait of a certain kind of young professional in London – the only thing that stopped me laughing at the constant overwrought references the housing crisis was thinking of how much of my own brain-space is dedicated to thinking about rent, and how much I talk about it as a result.

It also means the show has a refreshing take on villains – there are no stereotypical lone-wolf terrorists or crazed spurned women here. Instead, Stefan and Rash repeatedly attempt to arrest the uber-rich and powerful: criminals who can hide behind facades of legitimacy and wealth. The show’s very premise – the Serious Fraud Office and the police teaming up to form a heroic young double act – rests on the idea that the city’s greatest injustices are made by corporations and corrupt governments hoping to fleece the ordinary individuals that live there.

Many reviewers have criticised the show for being too on-the-nose in its urban criticisms, but for me that’s where the hilarity and the joy of this show lies. Where else could the line, “You wouldn’t want that, any more than you would want to lose this flat” be delivered with such delicious venom?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.