Behind Closed Doors by Polly Curtis (Little, Brown Book Group), £16.99.

Eve Webster

Behind Closed Doors is an unflinching yet compassionate reflection of the UK’s care system and its current bureaucratic failings. By introducing the reader to a cast of sad, inspiring and horrifying case studies, journalist Polly Curtis guides us through the complex and contradictory world of social care and family courts.

One of Curtis’ many strengths in the books is making it clear to her (likely middle-class) reader that whilst the wild swings of the social care system should matter to them indirectly if they are interested in living in a compassionate society, this could easily all matter to them directly too (she outlines her own dealings with social workers with a refreshing self-awareness). The line between what makes a “good parent” and a “bad one” and what is seen as small mistakes for some and clear evidence of their inability to parent in others, is usually thin and often boils down to class and gender.

There are many heroes in the book (Daniel, a single father who rises to the task aged 19, social workers who battle against the relentless tides of incompetence and tragedy) but as with all complicated issues, identifying who the villain might be is, in most cases, impossible. That’s the real tragedy depicted in Behind Closed Doors: it is filled largely with people trying their best with good intentions but under the current system, it’s never enough. The work begins with an epigraph quoting the Joy Division song “Love Will Tear Us Apart”: As you make your way through the book it becomes clear why. Behind Closed Door makes for essential reading on possibly the most important and overlooked responsibility of the state. 

The Urge: Our History of Addiction by Carl Erik Fisher (Scribe Publications), £16.99.

Caitlin Allen

Grasping the fundamental nature of addiction, and the best way to treat it, is one of society’s most intractable challenges. Addiction is an age-old phenomenon yet it remains stigmatised and poorly understood.

In The Urge, Carl Erik Fisher offers us an eye-opening, humane and meticulously researched exploration of addiction across the ages. Fisher approaches the phenomenon from all angles: philosophical, medical, sociological, legal, spiritual and so on. The book is the culmination of ten years of research but it is also deeply personal — and not just because Fisher draws on his own experience working as an addiction physician — this is also a story of his own struggle as an alcoholic in recovery and his family’s struggles with addiction. Fisher skillfully weaves together a historical narrative with memoir. 

He is philosophical about suffering. It has helped him immensely, for instance, to see his parents’ addictions “at least in part as a function of their unprocessed pain.” And he reflects on philosopher Owen Flanagan’s description of alcohol and drugs as medicating, “an existential anxiety involving not feeling safe in my own skin.”

The book tackles the theory of addiction as “brain disease” in a nuanced manner. Biological models of addiction have helped to secure funding and they were originally intended to be compassionate — to counter the notion that addicts are somehow immoral or weak. But this reductionist model can be dangerous. It often leaves addicts feeling irredeemably damaged. And biological explanations detract from the crucial cultural dimensions of addiction: loneliness, trauma, social oppression. “People use drugs to address an alienation from cultural supports,” Fisher argues, whilst physical resources like money and secure housing help to support recovery. 

Ultimately, the book is an urgent call for compassion. Addiction is “just one manifestation of the central human task of working with suffering.” And prohibitionist approaches, that seek to control addiction through punishment, are destined to fail. 

The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Art of Disruption by Sebastian Mallaby (Penguin Books), £25.

William Atkinson

Attempting to rapidly smash existing markets and exhibiting brutal willingness to remove support from failing projects, the innovative and lucrative world of venture capital (VC) is capitalism at its most cut-throat. In The Power Law, Sebastian Mallaby, an award-winning financial historian, explains the intricacies of this complex field, contextualised through a number of successful and unsuccessful case studies.

The book’s title, The Power Law, refers to the fact that a limited number of winning VC firms take home a large share of returns, compared to the smaller but more widely shared returns available to more traditional forms of investing. VC requires rapid scalability and market dominance or the swift withdrawal of funding. The result can not only mean big bucks but staggering upheavals; Google, Facebook and SpaceX are all given examples.

Rather than suggesting VC is all a matter of luck, Mallaby identifies what makes shrewd investors like Peter Thiel and the follies they have to avoid; WeWork and Uber act as cautionary tales. The author also identifies the policy frameworks and human networks needed for successful VC to flourish — essentially, what Israel and Silicon Valley have that Europe sorely lacks. Those interested in fleshing out the levelling-up agenda might be better off reading The Power Law than last week’s White Paper.