This year I committed myself to read three books at a time: One comic book collection, one fiction book, and one non-fiction book. As a result, I read some very informative books, filling in my knowledge on subjects I realized I only understood tangentially. Here were my favorites, in no particular order, expect the last book which is my favorite.
The Second Amendment: A Biography – Michael Waldman
After the shooting at Majorie Stoneman Douglas High School in February was moved emotionally in a way that none of America’s previous school shooting tragedies had hit me. I think I’d chosen to be numb to what had gone before, notably Sandy Hook, despite being an elementary school teacher out of pure psychological survival. I knew I had issues with the proliferation of guns in the United States but was unable to articulate my views and wanted to clarify facts so that I could clarify or possibly change my understanding. Author Waldman does an excellent job of giving in-depth explorations of gun ownership from colonial America to the most recent Supreme Court cases surrounding the issue. I walked away having a firmer, never final, viewpoint on an issue and was able to navigate past my emotional response to holding a much more reasoned one, while not eschewing the humanity involved.
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court – Jeffrey Toobin
When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court I knew this branch of our government would be in the media for the next few months. It was also the branch I admit I knew the least about. This book by Jeffrey Toobin focuses itself mostly around the Nixon to Bush Jr. period of the court so a much more contemporary look at the body. Many of the significant justices of these decades get the spotlight from Rehnquist to O’Conner to Scalia to Ginsburg. I gained both a better understanding of the process the court goes through to rule on the cases brought before them as well as the personalities and depths of intellect the members possess. I was surprised that most people probably don’t know how conservative Ginsberg is on some issues, while Scalia’s rulings on some cases surprised me with how they would clash with modern conservative ideology.
Fear: Trump in the White House – Bob Woodward
President Donald Trump has done a hell of a job for the publishing industry. With the avalanche of books coming out almost weekly, I have become much more picky about which ones I choose to pick up and read. This text by acclaimed reporter Bob Woodward was the best because it adopts a very technical, reporterly cadence. There isn’t personal commentary, rather reportage of events and the proper historical and situational context given so we can understand them. It is not a book that seeks to flatter Trump, but Woodward’s history shows he delves deep into the administrations of all president’s regardless of political affiliation.
Hollywood Babylon I & II – Kenneth Anger
I started this classic cult duo of books with low expectations but found myself hooked. Kenneth Anger delivered a highly exploitative and macabre collection of old Hollywood stories that revolve around sex, drugs, and death. There are some well-known stories, the fall of silent film actor Fatty Arbuckle for example. However, the most intriguing tales are the obscure ones. Casting directors are found dead in their apartments with three people rummaging through his home by the LAPD. The rise of sound drives former stars to drink and drugs, sometimes suicide. After all of this was surprised in a very positive way with a final chapter about Ronald Reagan (president between the publishing of the two volumes). Anger is openly gay and has a compelling statement about the havoc AIDs had wreaked on the gay population, as well as the president’s role in neglecting the health crisis at the time.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America – George Packer
Robert Packer gives us this piece of kaleidoscope journalism following a myriad of people in the United States from the post-War to the modern era. There’s a North Carolina entrepreneur seeking to bring biofuels to the mainstream, a mother working the factory line in Youngstown, a member of Joe Biden’s staff turned lobbyist, a family living on the fringes in Tampa, as well as profile spotlights on famous figures (Oprah, Jay-Z, Newt Gingrich, Peter Thiel). Through these people, Packer tells us the story of how the institutions relied upon by the baby boomers are crumbling (The Church, Unions, your employer, the government, etc.) This is a non-fiction epic giving you a sense of the sweeping scope of these problems and how individuals either work to stay above water to succumb to the undertow.
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels – Jon Meacham
I’d seen Jon Meacham, a Vanderbilt University professor of political science, make many appearances on shows like Morning Joe or Velsie & Ruhle. I’d never read any of his books but had heard they were some excellent texts on American presidents and events. The Soul of America seeks to showcase how, despite experiencing terrible and tragic times, America has found the correct path and right its wrongs to the best of its abilities. Meacham never attempts to gloss over the dark truths of this country, spending extensive time detailing the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy and how it always remains out there on the fringe waiting to strike. He posits that it would be hard to label America as perpetually “heroic” that instead we have faced dark and probably worse times than our current situation and have continued and to make things better.
The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russa – Masha Gessen
With the ever-looming specter of Vladimir Putin, I realized I didn’t have a great understanding of how Russia operates internally, both politically and sociologically. Gessen picks four Russians born right before the final moments of the Soviet Union and follows them through tumultuous times as Russia tried to pick up the pieces to its current bleak state with Putin taking seemingly permanent reins. Gessen begins by focusing heavily on the academic studies of psychology and sociology, given us the historical context as to why the former was allowed in the Soviet Union and the latter was banned. The term “the Soviet mind” is defined and used frequently and describes the internal workings of people who have lived across the transition from one form of government to the next. I learned about the life’s work of Boris Nemtsov, one of the significant human rights figures of our time which is tragically obscure to most people. A great book that helps you understand what happened to the hope and promise of a reborn Russia in the 1990s.
Listen Liberal, or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? – Thomas Frank
I loved Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, an examination of how the modern right-wing conservative Christian movement was formed by looking at the power of populism in his native Kansas. With Listen Liberal, Frank turns his attention to his party and ideology after developing serious questions about why he felt so disconnected from the Democratic Party. He, like myself, is a self-described left-wing liberal. What he finds within the Democratic Party goes back to the early 1970s when they shifted their focus off appealing to blue-collar, union workers (whom they believed were a permanent voting block) to the upcoming Yuppie class. Frank doesn’t hold back when talking about the corporately-aligned progressive class who don’t support progressive causes when they contrast with their bottom line. Figures like Gary Hart and the Clintons are analyzed, and he even makes a solid case as to the how the “liberal” and “socialist” labels right-wing media heaps on people like President Obama helps them earn cred with the progressive movement while they push foreign and economic policy that is near identical to conservative and right-wing lawmakers. I found this to be the best non-fiction book I read because I needed something introspective, to reflect upon my personal beliefs and the people who tell me they represent them.