Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features American Kleptocracy by Casey Michel, The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola and My Body by Emily Ratajkowski.

For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.

American Kleptocracy: How The U.S. Created The Greatest Money-Laundering Scheme In History by Casey Michel (Scribe Publications), £18.99.

John Freeman

When most of us think of “offshore finance” images come to mind of palm-fringed beaches on Caribbean islands earning their keep from tax avoidance. We know little about anonymous shell companies, secretive trust funds and the ill-gotten gains of corrupt dictators and oligarchs.

In American Kleptocracy Casey Michel illuminates how “offshore” can be “onshore” and that financial secrecy can facilitate not just personal corruption but rapacious regimes and desperate poverty through kleptocracy or, as the word denotes, rule by theft. 

Michel tells a story of lax governance in the service of profit and greed. It’s a drama that started in the 1980s with international financial deregulation. Repellent individuals in control of oilfields in equatorial Africa, running countries in Latin America or acting corruptly in the wild new world of post-Soviet republics made financial hay at the expense of the citizens they governed or manipulated. And Michel demonstrates all too clearly how the nasties found receptive US bankers and state officials all too ready to make profits themselves by providing discrete ways to hide onshore what the kleptocrats had grabbed for themselves.

American Kleptocracy is an unsettling study of a continuing story. The 9/11 attacks woke US legislators up to the (then) perfectly legal uses being made of American banks and provided a hook for new controls on “dirty” money. Money was held in anonymous accounts, in shell companies or trusts in US states such as Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada. 

Lobbyists pressed Washington for exceptions so that the merry-go-round could continue, and they got them and many continue twenty years or more later. The habits and activities of the Trump administration helped, Michel argues, to make exceptionalism even more prevalent. Read this book and you won’t think of Wyoming or Delaware in quite the same way again or think that financial deregulation is just an efficient way of oiling the wheels of globalisation.

The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola (Little, Brown Book Group), £14.99.

Alice Crossley

A candid and beautiful exploration of masculinity and mental health, poet JJ Bola’s The Selfless Act of Breathing is a quietly devastating novel. Michael, a schoolteacher from London who lives with his mother, has suffered from undiagnosed depression for much of his life. Despite glimmers of hope from his relationships, friendships and work, he is calmly fixed on the decision to end his life and travels to America to do so, embarking on one last adventure before his money runs out. 

The chapters jump between his life in London and the moments that plunge him further into desperation and his carefree travels across the US. Michael is stoic in the face of death; the word “death” or “dying” isn’t specifically written until page 283. Instead, “the end” punctuates the pages as a running tally of his dwindling life savings creates a countdown across the pages. The book is a little sluggish at the start, and the plot and writing are stronger in the book’s second half (the author often falls into over-flowery language), but it is worth sticking out to the end. 

The Selfless Act of Breathing is a touching novel exploring the mental health of a young black man and an exemplary example of how to write depression, in a raw and relatable way.

My Body by Emily Ratajkowski (Quercus Publishing), £16.99.

Alice Crossley

Writing a collection of feminist essays is probably the last thing expected of Emily Ratajkowski, the model and actress who rose to fame off the back of the famed Robin Thicke “Blurred Lines” music video. Still, the model is the first to put her hands up and admit the apparent contradiction. 

She has, she says, matured – through growing up, but also through enduring a barrage of sexual assault within the modelling industry. The result is My Body, a controversial book of non-chronological essays that explore the commodification of the female body through anecdotes from the 30-year-old’s life. The essays vary in nuance and relevance. Some are simply autobiographical reflections on Ratajkowski’s life as a privileged and exceptionally beautiful white woman but others, namely, “Buying Myself Back”, are surprisingly good. 

The essay first appeared on The Cut and describes Emily’s exploitation at the hand of men who decide her body, or images of her body, are theirs for the taking. The essay provokes an interesting debate on image ownership in an age where we constantly post ourselves online; who owns a photo – the subject or the model? (Ratajkowski was sued by a paparazzi for posting a photo they took of her on her Instagram). 

Even worse, one photographer, Jonathan Leder, continues to profit from the sale of her nude photos that were never signed for release and which she claims he sexually assaulted her after taking (Leder denies the allegations). The essays aren’t perfect, but they aren’t pointless either – as Eva Wiseman put it in The Guardian, “Read as memoir, it’s extraordinary; read as activism, it’s unsatisfying.”

Read last week’s Books Digest here.