If you, like me, found yourself feeling like you’d been hit by a bus by the end of this year, maybe it has a little something to do with the current political climate in our fair nation. Maybe we’ve all watched a bit too much news, engaged in a few too many Facebook political debates, attended one political rally too many. Or, maybe that’s just me. But in a year when I allowed my addiction to news programs escalate to a wholly unhealthy level, there were a few books that made it all so much more bearable. Books of hope, books of outrage, and books of humor. These were my favorites, in a year that proved that truth truly is stranger than fiction.
The People Are Going To Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore
A Story of American Rage
By Jared Yates Sexton
The official blurb: When he agreed to cover the 2016 election season, journalist Jared Yates Sexton didn’t know he was stepping into what would become―for both political parties―the most rageful and divisive political circus in U.S. history. His initial dispatches showed Democrats at war with their establishment, coming apart at the seams over the long-gestating ascendancy of Hillary Clinton and the upstart momentum of Bernie Sanders, whose grassroots campaign provoked uprisings of people desperate for change. Then, on June 14, Sexton attended a Donald Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina. One of the first journalists to witness these rallies and give mainstream readers an idea of the raw anger that occurred there, Sexton found himself in the center of a maelstrom. Following a series of tweets that saw his observations viewed well over 1 million times, his reporting was soon featured in The Washington Post, NPR, Bloomberg, and Mother Jones, and he would go on to write two pieces for The New York Times. Sexton gained more than 18,000 followers on Twitter in a matter of days, and received online harassments, campaigns to get him fired from his university professorship, and death threats that changed his life forever. The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore is a firsthand account of the events that shaped the 2016 presidential election and the cultural forces that divided both parties and powered Donald Trump into the White House. Featuring in-the-field reports as well as deep analysis, Sexton’s book is not just the story of the most unexpected and divisive election in modern political history. It is also a sobering chronicle of our democracy’s political polarization―a result of our self-constructed, technologically assisted echo chambers.
How’s that for a title, huh? I mean, doesn’t that title just make you want to grab the nearest piece of poster board, scribble your most pressing grievance on it, and take to the streets? Jared Yates Sexton manages to take the outrage of the moment and funnel it into a concise account of the 2016 election. The prejudices, the echo chamber culture, the incredulity that we all observed and experienced… it’s all here. But the net result of all of those feelings is hardly one of despair. Instead, it is an emotional call to action, created by simply pointing out the most fundamental problems in our current system. Because once the people are made privy to the issues that brought us to this current place of unrest, surely the people will not allow it to continue.
The official blurb: Why is an unarmed young black woman who knocks on a stranger’s front door to ask for help after her car breaks down perceived to be so threatening that he shoots her dead? Why do we fear infrequent acts of terrorism more far more common acts of violence? Why does a disease like Ebola, which killed only a handful of Americans, provoke panic, whereas the flu–which kills tens of thousands each year–is dismissed with a yawn? Jumping at Shadows is Sasha Abramsky’s searing account of America’s most dangerous epidemic: irrational fear. Taking readers on a dramatic journey through a divided nation, where everything from immigration to disease, gun control to health care has become fodder for fearmongers and conspiracists, he delivers an eye-popping analysis of our misconceptions about risk and threats. What emerges is a shocking portrait of a political and cultural landscape that is, increasingly, defined by our worst fears and rampant anxieties. Ultimately, Abramsky shows that how we calculate risk and deal with fear can teach us a great deal about ourselves, exposing deeply ingrained strains of racism, classism, and xenophobia within our culture, as well as our growing susceptibility to the toxic messages of demagogues.
Newsflash: I struggle with anxiety. And while a book about the current state of affairs in a nation wrought with collective anxieties might seem to be a counter-intuitive means of addressing my own tensions, it actually provided me with a lot of insight. However, this was not one of those feel-good books that balances the presentations of problems with practical solutions as to how we can correct those problems moving forward. It is a stark presentation of the real world – one which is difficult to believe is entirely true, and yet all-too familiar to deny.
The official blurb: The United States is obsessed with virginity — from the media to schools to government agencies. In The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti argues that the country’s intense focus on chastity is damaging to young women. Through in-depth cultural and social analysis, Valenti reveals that powerful messaging on both extremes — ranging from abstinence-only curriculum to “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials — place a young woman’s worth entirely on her sexuality. Morals are therefore linked purely to sexual behavior, rather than values like honesty, kindness, and altruism. Valenti sheds light on the value — and hypocrisy — around the notion that girls remain virgins until they’re married by putting into context the historical question of purity, modern abstinence-only education, pornography, and public punishments for those who dare to have sex. The Purity Myth presents a revolutionary argument that girls and women are overly valued for their sexuality, as well as solutions for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity.
As a woman who was raised in Southern Religious Circles, I can recall first-hand the obsessive concern that religious folks had for my ladybits. It confused me then, the excessive emphasis on virginity, the many poorly-phrased metaphors for ‘giving in,’ the horrific church skits designed to demonstrate the utter lack of worth in any young woman deemed “impure.” Thankfully, I grew up and got over it. But it’s a subject that haunts me to this day, and I confess to a certain level of outrage when I see the current generation of young women being subjected to the very same confusing and degrading mixed messages. The Purity Myth breaks down the American obsession with female purity. Prepare to be outraged, but also to move forward with a better understanding and appreciation of how religious and moral messaging can effect young women. Be inspired to make a change, if only in the ways that you view and treat female sexuality. Because at least that’s a start.
The official blurb: From the reporter who was there at the very beginning comes the revealing inside story of the partnership between Steve Bannon and Donald Trump—the key to understanding the rise of the alt-right, the fall of Hillary Clinton, and the hidden forces that drove the greatest upset in American political history. Based on dozens of interviews conducted over six years, Green spins the master narrative of the 2016 campaign from its origins in the far fringes of right-wing politics and reality television to its culmination inside Trump’s penthouse on election night. The shocking elevation of Bannon to head Trump’s flagging presidential campaign on August 17, 2016, hit political Washington like a thunderclap and seemed to signal the meltdown of the Republican Party. Bannon was a bomb-throwing pugilist who’d never run a campaign and was despised by Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet Bannon’s hard-edged ethno-nationalism and his elaborate, years-long plot to destroy Hillary Clinton paved the way for Trump’s unlikely victory. Trump became the avatar of a dark but powerful worldview that dominated the airwaves and spoke to voters whom others couldn’t see. Trump’s campaign was the final phase of a populist insurgency that had been building up in America for years, and Bannon, its inscrutable mastermind, believed it was the culmination of a hard-right global uprising that would change the world. Any study of Trump’s rise to the presidency is unavoidably a study of Bannon. Devil’s Bargain is a tour-de-force telling of the remarkable confluence of circumstances that decided the election, many of them orchestrated by Bannon and his allies, who really did plot a vast, right-wing conspiracy to stop Clinton. To understand Trump’s extraordinary rise and Clinton’s fall, you have to weave Trump’s story together with Bannon’s, or else it doesn’t make sense.
If I had done a “Best Of Horror” list, this book would have topped the charts. Because this stuff is utterly terrifying. Read about the origins of a man who saw an opportunity in the malleable and charismatic personality of Donald Trump. Steve Bannon’s agenda finally found a mainstream outlet in the current echo-chamber conditions of America. And we need to feel complacent since Bannon’s ousting from his official White House duties, as he still holds sway over many Trump advisors and policy makers.
The official blurb: Called “disgraceful,” “third-rate,” and “not nice” by Donald Trump, NBC News correspondent Katy Tur reported on—and took flak from—the most captivating and volatile presidential candidate in American history. Katy Tur lived out of a suitcase for a year and a half, following Trump around the country, powered by packets of peanut butter and kept clean with dry shampoo. She visited forty states with the candidate, made more than 3,800 live television reports, and tried to endure a gazillion loops of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”—a Trump rally playlist staple. From day 1 to day 500, Tur documented Trump’s inconsistencies, fact-checked his falsities, and called him out on his lies. In return, Trump repeatedly singled Tur out. He tried to charm her, intimidate her, and shame her. At one point, he got a crowd so riled up against Tur, Secret Service agents had to walk her to her car. None of it worked. Facts are stubborn. So was Tur. She was part of the first women-led politics team in the history of network news. The Boys on the Bus became the Girls on the Plane. But the circus remained. Through all the long nights, wild scoops, naked chauvinism, dodgy staffers, and fevered debates, no one had a better view than Tur. Unbelievable is her darkly comic, fascinatingly bizarre, and often scary story of how America sent a former reality show host to the White House. It’s also the story of what it was like for Tur to be there as it happened, inside a no-rules world where reporters were spat on, demeaned, and discredited. Tur was a foreign correspondent who came home to her most foreign story of all. Unbelievable is a must-read for anyone who still wakes up and wonders, Is this real life?
It’s the latest political dance craze in the U.S. You shrug your shoulders once, shake your head numbly, and mutter ‘unbelievable.’ All the cool kids are doing it. And it has been the only outlet for some of us throughout this year in which we have thought, multiple times, “OK, at least it can’t get any worse.” But then, it does. Unbelievable.