The Washington Post Sunday
The most sycophantic, illuminating and memorable books of 2018.
For me, 2018 was a year of reading lots and lots about politics — campaign politics, tribal politics, identity politics, border politics, as well as plenty of books on the politics of the Trump presidency, by supporters and detractors. Here are the books
The most sensitive book I read in 2018
UNBOUND: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity (Pantheon) by Arlene Stein.
Arlene Stein, a sociologist, immerses herself in the experiences of transgender men in America, focusing on their surgical procedures, family relationships and individual identities — and on the importance and elusiveness of language in shaping and reflecting identities. “Trans man, yes, that’s typically the box I fit into,” Ben, a 29-year-old whom Stein follows through his chest-masculinization surgery, tells her. “But does that really describe who I am? No. I think that it’s more complicated than that. I’m sure more words will come out in time.” This work moves beyond the popular fixation on bathroom politics to explore individual lives.
The best death-of-truth book I read in 2018
GASLIGHTING AMERICA: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us (Broadside) by Amanda Carpenter.
Death-of-truth books were nearly as plentiful as death-of-democracy titles, and Amanda Carpenter’s stands out for her personal insights (she worked for Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign and sparred with Trump supporters on cable TV) and her breakdown of the steps Trump & Co. take to manipulate the truth: Stake a claim on a fringe issue; circulate it without necessarily owning it; create suspense by promising further evidence; discredit opponents by attacking motives or character; then simply declare victory. Carpenter, a CNN commentator, urges readers not to let Trump dominate their lives. “Let go of the outrage already . . . be vigilant but don’t flip out.” GOOD AND MAD: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (Simon & Schuster) by Rebecca Traister and RAGE BECOMES HER: The Power or Women’s Anger (Atria Books) by Soraya Chemaly.
These are two urgent and enlightening books that I hope are read together, and not only by women. They complement each other perfectly: Traister’s is a political history of female anger, while Chemaly examines its psychology and culture. They stress that righteous anger, lionized when emanating from men, is often dismissed and pathologized when coming from women. Yet from suffrage to #MeToo, anger has proved vital and instrumental — in demanding accountability and asserting worth. As Chemaly puts it, “Anger isn’t what gets in our way — it is our way.” (They were also especially timely books, coming out just before the explosive second round of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings.)
The most self-aggrandizing book I read in 2018
A HIGHER LOYALTY: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (Flatiron Books) by James Comey.
Former FBI director James Comey published the Big Washington Book of the Moment in the spring, detailing his personal dealings with President Trump and, of course, his high-profile firing. But he also spends plenty of ink on his principles of “ethical leadership,” offering such choice examples as never cutting in line at the FBI cafeteria and solemnly admitting to a friend that Comey’s gift of a tie was actually a regift. The self-examination diminishes as the stakes rise, however, particularly surrounding Comey’s controversial decisions during the 2016 election. “I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego,” he writes. “I’ve struggled with those my whole life.” The struggles continue in this book.
The angriest book I read in 2018
THE SOULS OF YELLOW FOLK (Norton) by Wesley Yang.
This essay collection tackles identity politics with a fierce and refreshing ambivalence. Wesley Yang describes the “peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility” carried by Asian men in America, and he rejects the stereotypes and internalized conventions of the community. “F--- filial piety. F--- gradegrubbing,” he writes, among many other items he wishes to obliterate. And even as he lashes out at identity politics as a “beguiling compound of insight, partial truths, circular reasoning, and dogmatism,” he recognizes its power in rejecting “life’s quotidian brutalities” — ones to which he had perhaps grown accustomed. These essays, spanning a decade of the author’s work, feel not stale but prescient. IDENTITY CRISIS: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America (Princeton) by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck.
Among the countless books explaining what happened in 2016, this book by three political scientists stands out for its data collection, dispassionate analysis and depressing conclusions. Drawing on voluminous surveys, the authors highlight the “spillover of racialization” evident in 2016, when voters’ concerns about economics and politics all were channeled through the prism of race — a trend the Trump team both encouraged and capitalized on. Rather than a policy debate, the election became a referendum on whether America’s growing diversity was a strength (“Stronger Together”) or a threat (“Make America Great Again”). The authors don’t see that divide going away.
The most helpful book I read in 2018
THE LIST: A WeekbyWeek Reckoning of Trump’s First Year (Bloomsbury Publishing) by Amy Siskind.
The Trump administration’s whiplash of tweets, firings, shake-ups and investigations can be a lot to take. Amy Siskind makes sure you don’t forget any of it, cataloguing every norm-busting, institution-degrading, conflict-of-interestdisregarding moment of Trump’s Year One. This 500-page book of bullet points manages to sustain interest nearly all the way though, save perhaps when the author’s personal politics loom too large. Here’s hoping for Volumes II, III and IV.
The most self-involved book I read in 2018
CHASING HILLARY: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling (Harper) by Amy Chozick.
I get it, memoirs are supposed to be selfinvolved; that’s the point. But Amy Chozick’s “Chasing Hillary” is also about being self-involved. Chozick was the principal New York Times reporter covering Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, but her sharp insights on the candidate, the campaign coverage and sexism on the trail are overshadowed by the author’s constant whining and mind games about bylines, editors and colleagues. And the epic battle between reporter and candidate — “She really, really hates me,” Chozick worries about Clinton — seems overdone.
The best death-of-democracy book I read in 2018
HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE (Crown) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
The death-of-democracy genre was big in 2018, and I consumed several books on the topic. These two political scientists offer the most comprehensive look, warning of strongmen who “maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.” After examining democratic breakdowns from Venezuela to Turkey, they argue that, even if Trump “does not break the hard guardrails of our constitutional democracy, he has increased the likelihood that a future president will.” A disquieting book, though I have one quibble: We already know how democracies die: In darkness. (Duh.)
The most sycophantic pro-Trump book I read in 2018
LIARS, LEAKERS, AND LIBERALS: The Case Against the AntiTrump Conspiracy (Center Street) by Judge Jeanine Pirro.
The competition here was fierce. Books such as Newt Gingrich’s “Trump’s America” and Sean Spicer’s “The Briefing” made strong showings. But Jeanine Pirro’s book wins out because the sycophancy is all there is. Unlike the other volumes, which purportedly double as memoirs or policy books, sucking up to Trump — and his “Kryptonite-proof aura of invincibility” — seems to be the Fox News host’s sole purpose. Her analysis boils down to meaningless one-liners such as “give me a break,” “drives me nuts” and “not on my watch.” THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER: Dispatches From the Border (Riverhead) by Francisco Cantú.
This is the memoir of a young man who studied immigration in college and decided to explore it himself, becoming a Border Patrol agent in the Southwest. “The soul can buckle” in that sort of job, his mother warns him, but he takes it anyway. She was right. Although part of his work involves discouraging border crossers — agents slash water stashes and ransack supplies — Cantú also finds himself trying to help, telling two boys what seasons are better for crossing and offering his own clothes to a migrant who had lost his. Suffering nightmares and misgivings, he leaves the job and later tries to help the family of a deported friend navigate the legal system he knew so well. “If I was seeking redemption,” he wondered, “what would redemption look like?” Cantú’s dilemmas are the dilemmas of our nation, captured in one person and one story.