By Kate Clinton
For the last twelve years, my holiday book shout-outs have been culled from a list my beloved book group had discussed. Although we’ve all grown close over the years, I admit I was a bit book-shy after the reaction to one recommendation of mine. Who knew that a book about poetry would make the sociologist in the group get cranky and whine, “But where is the data?” Nonetheless I lobbied my group hard for Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom (Metropolitan Books). I’m confident even our resident data-mad sociologist will like it.
Faludi is an investigative journalist and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. In Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (Crown Publishing, 1991), she warned women not to take the gains of feminism for granted. In Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (William Morrow, 1999) she acknowledges that a few men are in most positions of power, but that many are underpaid, unemployed, disillusioned, and blame it on women. In The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America (Picador, 2008), she argues that the 9/11 terror attacks reinvigorated a climate of hostility to women. All three strands inform not only our current politics but also her fourth book.
In the Darkroom is a memoir about her estranged father, who now lives in Hungary and has transitioned from man to woman. Faludi returns to Hungary to tell the story. It is a complex examination of gender, nationalism, anti-Semitism, sexual identity, and reconciliation.
As Steven, her father had been a despot, a monster of rabid masculinity. As Stefànie, her father is a coquette, a model of florid femininity. Stefànie bullies her daughter to dress more like a woman and to get an ovulation monitor.
Faludi gives a stunning synopsis of the nation and personality of Hungary, from the Magyars, through the Ottoman Empire, the Holocaust, and the current return of rightwing anti-Semitism. It is her father’s personality.
As Steven, her father was a prominent fashion photo retoucher. As Stefànie, she is obsessed with photoshopping her own new image. Faludi researches and presents a helpful, basic overview of transgender theory, history, and practice. Through her research, she comes to understand her father better. In the Darkroom is an amazing, rich, unsentimental piece of deep explaining. I don’t even care if the sociologist likes the book.
Kate Clinton is a humorist who writes every other month for The Progressive.
By Ruth Conniff
The most powerful book I read this year was Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (Crown Publishing). Desmond, now a Harvard professor and recipient of a 2015 MacArthur “genius” grant, grew up in a family with little money. His parents couldn’t always manage to pay the utility bills, but they were determined that their son make a better life by going to college. Shortly after he arrived at Arizona State University, Desmond had to return to help his parents move. They had lost the family home. That bewildering, upsetting experience helped inform Desmond’s deep and brilliant research about the nature of poverty and eviction in America.
“I wanted to try to write a book about poverty that didn’t focus exclusively on poor people or poor places,” Desmond explains. “Poverty was a relationship, I thought, involving poor and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.”
Unlike other academics, including the notorious Charles Murray, who inspired a generation of welfare reformers with thought experiments about the motivations and pathologies of the poor—people he does not know, and whose lives he imagines with clinical detachment and an offhand contempt—Desmond knows his subject intimately. He moved into a trailer park in Milwaukee in May 2008. From that moment until December 2009, he immersed himself in the lives of the people whose stories he tells. The result is this epic, tragic, page-turning tale that reads like a novel.
Evicted takes the reader on a white-knuckle ride with the families who reside in the trailer park and in the rundown apartments of the inner city of Milwaukee where Desmond moved next. He also paints an impressively empathetic portrait of the landlords who make a handsome living flipping the appalling dwellings where rent is high, the plumbing is broken, and getting tossed on the street is always a threat.
Among Milwaukee renters, one in five black women report having been evicted at some point. Most evicted households in Milwaukee have children, and the same statistical picture holds true in urban areas throughout the United States. The human cost of widespread housing instability for the poor families in America is staggering and unacceptable.
“The home is the center of life,” writes Desmond. “It is a refuge from the grind of school, the pressure of work, and the menace of the streets.” Home makes us who we are. “Civic life too begins at home,” Desmond adds. “It is only after we begin to see a street as our street, a public park as our park, a school as our school, that we can become engaged citizens.” Without stable homes, we can’t function properly as human beings, nor as a society.
Like Katherine Boo, whose brilliant and moving 2014 book about the lives of slum-dwellers in India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House), raised up the stories of people who are treated as little more than human trash, Desmond makes us care. We feel the struggles, joys, and pain of the people in his book. By witnessing their lives, and telling their stories so compellingly, Desmond forces us to see that we are all the same, and as human beings, we simply cannot go on living with the injustice that he describes.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.
By Anne-Marie Cusac
During the election-season drag, I found myself wandering the cookbook aisle. I wasn’t seeking physical nourishment so much as emotional solace—flavors to draw human beings together. Spice and sour notes to remind me of riches in cultural differences. To teach me again that it’s worthwhile to taste and try to understand.
Cookbooks today strive to outdo the internet recipe box. In 2012, the now famous Jerusalem: A Cookbook (Ten Speed Press), by Yotam Ottolenghi offered, in addition to recipes like “Clementine and Almond Syrup Cake” and “Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Pine Nuts,” photographs capturing the cultures of the city of Jerusalem, and commentary on the political energy of food.
In 2016, the same press released Cuba!: Recipes and Stories from the Cuban Kitchen (Ten Speed Press). The authors, Dan Goldberg, Andrea Kuhn, and Jody Eddy, made repeated trips to Cuban organic farms and home kitchens. There are recipes here for standard fried plantains, mojo, and congri (black beans and rice). And there are flavors for the adventurous—squid ink empanadas with charred red pepper sauce, rice pudding with toasted coconut, guava barbecue sauce. The photos of Cuban home life alone are worth the book price.
Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan (Artisan), by Naomi Duguid, offers recipes from across the former Persian Empire. As with Cuba, these countries long seemed out of reach to those of us with memories of the Soviet Bloc and the Iranian Revolution. Duguid, who is also the author of Burma: Rivers of Flavor (Artisan), learns from home cooks, but also functions as a culture reporter, offering insights into the home lives of mountain nomads, explaining why people outside Russia tend not to have tasted the wines of the Caucasus: “Many grape vines were torn up in the 1980s when Gorbachev, then leader of the USSR, declared drunkenness a huge problem and restricted wine production and sales.”
And a word for Anthony Bourdain’s new Appetites: A Cookbook (Ecco). Bourdain is known for celebrating street food. The traveling chef’s book of the recipes he cooks at home is iconoclastic. “Caesar salad is of Mexican origin. You probably didn’t know that, crediting it instead to the Italians. Nope. Another reason to love Mexico—unless you insist on putting sad, overcooked, characterless strips of grilled chicken cutlet on top of it and mashing it down into landfill. God does not want you to put chicken in your Caesar.”
Cookbooks like these foster the belief that it’s worth reaching out and trying to understand ordinary people; food offers such an opportunity.
Finally, people I care about published great books this year. I want to mention two: John S. Watson, Prairie Crossing: Creating an American Conservation Community (University of Illinois), and Suja Thomas, The Missing American Jury: Restoring the Fundamental Constitutional Role of the Criminal, Civil, and Grand Juries (Cambridge University Press). John is my husband, and Suja was my college roommate, so I am aware I have a conflict of interest. Still, go read these books. They matter!
Anne-Marie Cusac is professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and the author of Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America (Yale University Press, 2009). Her current exhibit with Thomas Ferrella,“Not Forgotten: Chicago Street Memorials,” at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery was listed as one of “The 32 U.S. Photo Exhibitions You Can’t Miss” by Time.com Lightbox.
By Jules Gibbs
“I think that without imagination we can go nowhere,” Rita Dove once told an interviewer. Indeed, we often seem stalled in our collective want for imagination—personally, nationally, between what is and what is possible. This deficiency makes poetry more necessary than ever. To that end, let me prescribe a few standout books published in 2016; consider these affordable medicine, salve, and sustenance for our beleaguered imaginations.
This year saw two must-haves for any progressive’s book shelf: the collected works of two major poets—Rita Dove’s Collected Poems: 1974–2004 (W.W. Norton), and Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems: 1950-2012 (W.W. Norton). Rich changed the course of American poetry by training the poetic eye on new feminist subjects. She bridged a traditional poetry of the 1950s with a radical poetry of the sixties, and drove the genre forward. If poets are, as Percy Bysshe Shelley said, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then many laws have been writ from these pages.
We lost Rich in 2012, but we have seven decades of her work to celebrate. Likewise, Dove’s new collection allows us to traverse one of the great imaginative minds of our time; we need Dove as much for her multi-vocal lyricism as for her unflinching look at historical racial injustice, and for what it means to be a woman in this life. Taken together, her oeuvre does what Whitman said all poems should do: they “put a second brain to the brain . . . put second eyes to the eyes and second ears to the ears.”
Random Exorcisms (Louisiana State University Press) is Adrian C. Louis’s latest book of poems, and like much of his work rails against injustices, public and private, in a searing commentary of our utter dailyness. The exorcisms here take on all sorts of demons, from self-delusion to social media delusions to delusions of freedom. It’s a drunken-smart inquisition that might drag you down were it not for Louis’s wry humor and the sheer ignition of his lyrical powers—at turns ceremonial, brooding, radical, a kind of reverent irreverence. The poems are utterly approachable, born out of a common vernacular that sings in his hands, raucous and sometimes raunchy even as they are tender, vulnerable.
The discovery of unpublished writing by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was hailed with much excitement this year. Forrest Gander, who translated the poems for the book Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda (Copper Canyon Press), likened it to discovering a trove of new sketches by Michelangelo. A political activist, diplomat, and elected official who was probably killed in the aftermath of the coup that brought Pinochet to power, Neruda remains one of the most beloved poets of all time. His lost love poems come to us like a letter sent from impossible distances:
That’s why my heart
expands and rises
into bread for your mouth to devour,
and my blood is wine poured for you.
You and I are the land with its fruit.
Bread, fire, blood and wine
make up the earthly love that sears us.
Jules Gibbs, a poet and professor of literature at Syracuse University, is poetry editor for The Progressive.
By Bill Lueders
The best new political book I read in 2016 is Mark Danner’s Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War (Simon & Schuster), which chronicles America’s hapless battle against murderous fanatics, based on faulty premises and unrealistic goals, like President George W. Bush’s promise that “it will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”
Danner, a former New Yorker staff writer, seeks to provide critical perspective—like that lightning kills more Americans than terror attacks, or that the avowed goal of terrorists is to provoke precisely the sort of overwrought response Bush and now Obama have delivered. The book laments the “quiet acceptance” the War on Terror has occasioned among the American public, even as it has “nourished . . . powerful institutions of national security” that will seek their own preservation. He hopes for a reckoning and a reconsideration but, even before Trump’s election, saw few signs of that happening. Buckle up, all, as we spiral on.
Another worthy book that takes a long view of historical events is America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (Random House) by Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired U.S. army colonel and professor of history and international relations at Boston University. It provides a guided tour of the missteps that constitute U.S. policy toward the region, from the Iran hostage crisis to the rise of the Islamic State, concluding that the smartest thing to do now would be to disengage.
Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics (Anchor), by Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters for America, examines how spinners driven by cash or ideology have tainted the debate over issues including tobacco, climate change, immigration, guns, voter ID, abortion, and gay marriage. It calls for weaponizing truth and marginalizing known liars. But when one of the most shameless liars of all time can clinch the presidency, it’s hard to imagine how that will be enough.
When such despairing thoughts intrude, it helps to remember that progress has been made by those who value truth and the freedom to discuss it. Indelible Ink: The Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America’s Free Press (W.W. Norton), by Richard Kluger, brings us back to a time when the publication of commentary critical of government officials was considered a crime, regardless of its veracity.
“It is not the less a libel because it is true,” said the prosecutor at Zenger’s trial in 1735, after the New York printer had already spent nine months in jail for printing mild rebukes of a corrupt politician. Zenger’s ordeal helped pave the way for the First Amendment and, ultimately, America’s tradition of vigorous, skeptical journalism. Kluger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, bookends his tale with a critique of the modern press and an examination of the actions of Edward Snowden.
Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run (Simon & Schuster), is worth it just to read how, after years of playing in bar bands and on the cusp of making it big, the Boss was so down on his luck he found himself auditioning for what turned out to be a group of teenagers in a garage. The more-than-500-page book is a rollicking ride through a rock ’n’ roll life, but some of it feels undistilled. For every heartfelt remembrance, like those about his distant, brooding father and self-sacrificing mom, there are passages filled with cast-off lines brimming with bravado (“I knew I had a hell of a band and if we couldn’t do the job, show me the men who could”). Still, Bruce’s honesty is refreshing, even if it sometimes makes him less likeable.
Guilty pleasure: TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time (Grand Central Publishing). Authors Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz select and discuss the 100 greatest shows on American television. Sure, it sounds trashy, but the authors apply insightful analysis and brim with enthusiasm for what in many cases are legitimately great works of art (All in the Family, The Wire, Mad Men, Louie). It will make you want to get a subscription to Hulu and binge watch.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive.
By Ashley Maag
American soccer player Abby Wambach, the all-time leading scorer of goals in international play for both male and female players, wrote a memoir that she stresses “is not, at its core, a book about soccer.” In Forward: A Memoir (Day Street Books), Wambach details her journey of success and failure, culminating in her call to “defy labels . . . whether imposed by others or yourselves.”
Wambach, who played college soccer at the University of Florida and was a star of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, recounts the many labels than have been applied to her, including “tomboy,” “rebel,” “leader,” “G.O.A.T.” (greatest of all time), “advocate,” “control freak,” “addict,” and “human.” Wambach describes this as a process of transcendence, one label at a time. This book is not a highlight reel of an iconic athlete’s career, but a deeper look into the struggles many of our idols face on their way to and through stardom.
C. Richard King’s newest book, Redskins: Insult and Brand (University of Nebraska Press), also takes issue with how people and groups are defined by certain words. It examines how the name of Washington, D.C.,’s football team affects Native American people. A professor of comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University, King decries “R*dskin”—as he renders the team name—as a slur, one that “denigrates and dehumanizes.” Worse, he argues, its use in sport has “kept the word alive.”
After examining the word’s origin and connotations, King makes a case for its removal from everyday vocabulary, along with other words we no longer use because they are offensive. The r-word, in his view, is a “racial slur posing as a sports brand.”
Ashley Maag is editorial intern at The Progressive.
By Ed Rampell
Pulitzer Prize-winner David Cay Johnston has known Donald Trump since 1988 when he began covering Atlantic City casinos for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Harnessing decades of personal interactions and public records, Johnston paints an alarming portrait of Trump’s background and predatory business practices from Manhattan to Waikiki in The Making of Donald Trump (Melville House). Yuuuuuge revelations and allegations include: Trump’s father, Fred, was arrested at a 1927 KKK riot in Queens. Casino-owning Trump didn’t know many gaming rules. When Donald was faced with bankruptcies, Fred saved him from ruin. Throughout his life, Johnston told me in an interview, Trump “has embraced con artists, swindlers, mafia, reputed Russian mobsters, and a major drug trafficker in his business dealings.”
As the Sioux tribe confronts the Dakota Access Pipeline, a leading leftist historian discloses how a Republican icon orchestrated energy-related regime change in Indian Country. Dave Wagner’s The Politics of Murder: Organized Crime in Barry Goldwater’s Arizona (Gracenote Books) chronicles mob hits, gambling, and so on. This longtime Arizona newspaper editor ties 1964’s extremist GOP presidential candidate—five-term U.S. Senator Goldwater—to transgressions making 1881’s shootout at Tombstone’s O.K. Corral pale in comparison.
In June 1976, reporter Don Bolles was killed by a Phoenix car bomb. While Wagner doesn’t directly connect Goldwater to the blast, he notes a connection to Goldwater’s dirty tricks against the Navajo Nation, including the January 1976 planting of a faulty dynamite bomb on the reservation.
In Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (Hot Books), Nicholas Schou explores how the CIA, through manipulative “embedded” programs, “manages” the news. From Homeland to Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA influences and injects films and TV shows with agitprop masquerading as mass entertainment. Writes Schou, “In exchange for special guided tours at Langley and lunches with national security czars, Hollywood filmmakers have eagerly turned themselves into propagandists for perpetual war and apologists for crimes against humanity.”
Greg Palast is the lefty Santa Claus, taking the “lists”—voter rolls—and checking them twice. In The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits (Seven Stories Press), electoral burglars purging, caging, cross-checking, and disenfranchising minority ballot-casters better watch out: Palast’s coming to town. Wearing out the shoe leather, Palast investigates voter suppressors, vulture capitalists, and the state of our disunion with his trademark wit, including a Ted Rall comic book insert.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell writes frequently for The Progressive and is author of Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.
By Norman Stockwell
Justice delayed is democracy denied.
– Robert F. Kennedy
I find myself reading a lot of books lately about “transitional justice”—the measures employed by populations subjected to human rights abuses, usually during wars or dictatorships. A number of recent court cases have made this a very interesting field, with perpetrators from years ago finally facing justice.
One new book, scheduled for release in January, is Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice (University of California Press, 2017) by Matt Eisenbrandt, a human rights attorney and former legal director for the Center for Justice and Accountability. It recounts an investigation by the Center and the eventual trial in Fresno, California, of Álvaro Saravia, former security chief for Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson.
Part detective story, part historical reminiscence, it shows the reader how hard it is to prosecute such cases, and why so many human rights violators go unpunished. In an afterword, Benjamín Cuéllar, executive director of the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University in San Salvador, puts the life of Archbishop Romero into context, following his 2015 beatification by Pope Francis.
Transitional Justice in Latin America: The Uneven Road from Impunity towards Accountability (Routledge), edited by Elin Skaar, Jemima Garcia-Godos, and Cath Collins, is a scholarly monograph, looking at cases in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay. Latin America is a diverse region, with a long history of impunity for human rights violators.
“Yet in recent decades, beginning in the 1980s,” the editors write, “Latin America has been a pioneer in transitional justice mechanisms aimed at confronting the legacy of past military rule or internal armed conflict.” The book looks at various attempts to reform judicial systems and build mechanisms for accountability, including the role of international courts and jurisdictions. Since the book came out in May, the lifting of El Salvador’s 1993 Amnesty Law has resulted in new cases moving forward.
Finally, an upcoming book, The Blood of Emmett Till (Simon & Schuster, 2017) by Timothy B. Tyson, senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, gives a fresh look at the decades-old case of the lynching of a fourteen-year-old in Mississippi in 1955. Tyson retells the story in gripping detail, informed by both research and recent interviews with key participants.
The case was a key catalyst for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but also has strong relevance for Black Lives Matter activists today. My father vividly remembers being one of the more than 100,000 people who filed past the open casket of the brutally murdered teen sixty-one years ago in Chicago. Tyson quotes Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. when he refers to Till’s killing as “a lynching of the Statue of Liberty,” a quote that echoes loudly today as the United Nations recently condemned racial disparity and police brutality in this country in the wake of the Michael Brown killing.
“America is still killing Emmett Till,” writes Tyson, “and often for the same reasons that drove the violent segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s.” But Tyson finds reason to hope in contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter. “To see beyond the ghosts,” he tells us, “all of us must develop the moral vision and political will to crush white supremacy—both the political program and the unconscious assumptions.”
Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive.
By Dave Zirin
There are two books at the intersection of sports and politics that have rocked my world in 2016. I wrote the intro to both of them and in both cases, I wasn’t paid a dime. I asked to do so after reading early unpublished drafts and being ineffably moved by what was between the pages. The first book is Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape (Edge of Sports/Akashic Books) by sportswriter and first-time author Jessica Luther. The second is Long Shot: The Struggles and Triumphs of an NBA Freedom Fighter (Haymarket Books, 2017), the memoir of one of my childhood heroes, former NBA player Craig Hodges.
Both books tell stories of people bravely speaking truth to power in an arena where “power” often brooks no dissent. Jessica Luther wades through dozens of cases of sexual assault involving college football players and finds “institutional betrayal” rooted in reasons new and old: there is the new financial need to protect the multibillion-dollar college football cash cow and there is the old misogyny, where women, especially, and those who “cry rape” are ignored, stigmatized, or even persecuted.
But Luther’s book is not merely a razor-sharp analysis of the roots of college football’s rape culture. She also outlines thirteen recommendations at the end of her treatise so college football locker rooms can foster change and football players can help lead the fight against rape culture.
Craig Hodges is from a generation in the 1980s and 1990s when NBA players were expected to be seen and not heard. No player exemplified this mindset more than Hodges’s teammate of the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan. But Hodges was a different kind of human being and found himself blackballed from the league.
From wearing a dashiki to the White House and handing an anti-war protest letter to President George H.W. Bush to trying unsuccessfully to get Jordan and Magic Johnson to boycott the first game of the 1991 NBA Finals between his Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, as a stand for racial justice, Hodges was never content to be as politically compliant as his era. His book, co-written with Rory Fanning, is by turns moving, searing, and above all else, the ultimate insider’s look into how political silence is engineered and the courage it takes to stand up and be heard.
Both books show that we don’t have to consign sports and the locker room to the trash heap of reaction. Sports can speak to the best angels of our nature, but only if we are brave enough to envision a better way to play.
Dave Zirin hosts the Edge of Sports podcast and is the sports editor of The Nation. His latest book is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.