Imagining Better Worlds

These are two books that I heartily recommend, and both imagine worlds that could improve people’s lives. One is a fictional child’s world, the other is a social economic possibility.

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My grandmother sends her regards and apologises by Fredrik Backman

Elsa is a bright and strong-willed seven-year-old who has an eccentric, devoted, grandmother. After Elsa’s parents divorce and remarry, her Granny becomes her source of safety and strength. However, Granny is far from conventional, and supports Elsa both by understanding her and by giving her an imaginary world to live in.

Elsa visits Granny, who lives in an apartment across the hall, when she can’t sleep and when she is upset. In comforting her, Granny invites Elsa into an fairy tale world with several kingdoms. In each kingdom the people have special skills which they use to fight their enemies and to prosper. They also have magical creatures and sometimes plagiarize from Harry Potter.

I was bewildered by the names of the kingdoms, in part because they all begin with the same letters, until their meanings became clear about halfway through the book. This was a minor distraction, though, from the very engaging narrative around the people who live in Elsa’s apartment building and their relationships with her grandmother. There are some mysteries there, too, and as the book progresses more explanations come to light.

After Granny dies, Elsa is sent on a sort of treasure hunt, delivering messages from her grandmother to various people in the apartment building. This motley collection includes a drunk, a big loud dog, a cranky busybody, a child with an unspecified syndrome and his family, a taxi driver, and a giant with an obsessive-compulsive hand-washing disorder.

They may appear to be awful neighbours, but the building’s occupants become more likable as Elsa gets to know them. She also gradually understands better her mother, her grandmother, and the dog. The interwoven stories of both fairy tales and personal histories creates an entirely believable child’s world.

The author, Frederik Backman, also wrote A Man Called Ove, and this book has similarly endearing qualities, not least of which is a sympathetic understanding of human frailties.

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Utopia For Realists by Rutger Bregman

When I was in my late teens and living in west London, the local council decided to sell off council houses.  Many years earlier, the council had built houses that they rented to the working poor. In my recollection they were all made of red brick and were a good size for growing families. Then they gave the residents the opportunity to buy the houses they had been renting. For the residents, this was a wonderful opportunity.

Sadly, the council did not build any more houses for the working poor. They went with a system of financial subsidies instead. As I look back on this now, I realize what a missed opportunity that was. I don’t know what happened after that, but my guess is that they probably spent more money on social supports thereafter. Those houses are still there and are now worth a small fortune.

I was reminded of this when I read Utopia for Realists. Rutger Bregman imagines what could happen if we gave people what they need; houses for the homeless, cash for the poor, shorter work weeks, a living wage. It goes even further and suggests open borders and universal health care. Whaaat? Is he insane?

Well, no. He makes a lot of sense. He provides a lot of historical context, examples, and data to back up his arguments and I am persuaded. Mind you, I already leaned to the left and enjoyed the benefits of the welfare state in England when I was a child, so this was not a big stretch for me.

He debunks the idea that poverty is an individual, moral problem and places it firmly in a social and economic context. He is also very critical of any social services system that “expects claimants to demonstrate their shortcomings over and over. . . Otherwise [their] benefits are cut.” Wow. That “noxious fog of suspicion” permeates all the bureaucratic systems I have been aware of, and I’m not poor, homeless, or unemployed.

Did you know that a Canadian city once completely eradicated poverty? Do you remember when Richard Nixon came close to implementing a basic income for millions of Americans? Bregman’s examples come from a variety of countries and both sides of the political divide. It is worth reading if only to get that wider perspective.


  1. I have read both of the Backman books, but a while ago so had forgotten the plot line for “My Grandmother….” I love your description of it; I may read it again! I had not heard of the 2nd one, but agree with it’s sentiments. Having been a social worker in the USA, the process of receiving assistance is protracted and unkind. We would save all kinds of money if we stopped making people prove they need help. It’s a ridiculous, demeaning system.

    • “My Grandmother…” got mixed reviews but I really enjoyed it. It has many layers to it and I keep going back in my mind to connect some of the dots.

      The processes for applying for assistance are far too demeaning in every country. It would save money to do away with the bureaucrats.

      • I didn’t realize “My Grandmother….” got mixed reviews! I too enjoyed it. I didn’t realize every country has a demeaning welfare application process. So unnecessary on so many levels. I agree we could save money by doing away with the bureaucracy.

        • I suspect that “My Grandmother…” suffered from being compared to A Man Called Ove which was a brilliant success.

          Every time we put a condition on giving money to the poor, we create a bureaucracy and the need for people to ensure compliance. The idea that the system spends money on itself instead of the needy, makes a lot of sense to me.

          • That’s interesting. I liked both of those Backman books, but not one more than the other. I think they stand alone quite nicely and don’t need to be compared. I heard that Biden’s (unfortunately temporary) initiative to send parents tax credits in 2021 lifted 38 % of American children out of poverty. Diminishing (eradicating, even!) poverty is a worthwhile investment in my mind, and shouldn’t make parents jump through a bunch of hoops to be able to get the assistance.

  2. Frederick Backman is one of my favorite authors. I so enjoy his books which are not the usual stories one may expect!

  3. Hi: “Richard Nixon came close to implementing a basic income for millions of Americans?”

    Project Do Better would love to have this information, please, in a comment, if you have time to pass by the ShirDest blog: I can drop a link here, if you like.

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