Best of Truthdig’s Book Reviews 2016: Top Reads, From Economics to Politics and Even Genetics
Editor’s note: From Dec. 23 through New Year’s Eve, Truthdig is running a roundup of the top 10 stories of 2016 in the following categories: Live Blog, A/V Booth, Report, Book Review, Ear to the Ground, Cartoon, Film Review, Live at Truthdig and Truthdigger of the Week.
This outgoing calendar year has been compared to everything from a dumpster fire to a Star Wars movie, and may stand out as one of the worst years in the early 21st century, for reasons no regular readers of Truthdig would need spelled out.
Our book reviews picked up on some of the biggest themes and pressing issues of the day, from climate change to income inequality to “dog whistle politics,” and took a couple of trips back in time. The selections on this top 10 list were chosen based on the number of readers they drew. This is intended to serve more as an acknowledgment of good writing and the appreciation of reading itself than as a focus on web traffic for its own sake.
Under the list is a roundup of the book reviews from this section, curated by Eunice Wong, that were nominated for and won awards in 2016. As more old-media sources do away with arts criticism of all kinds, we are dedicated to keeping this tradition going in the digital space.
Now, the top 10 book reviews that resonated with Truthdig readers:
10. “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class” — written by Ian Haney Lopez, reviewed by Louise Rubacky
Most anyone who paid attention to the 2016 American presidential election cycle would be well aware of this subject as it played out in recent events. Unfortunately, reviewer Rubacky laments, this is one book that’s “as difficult to hold up as it is to put down.” Rubacky isn’t suggesting that Lopez’ thesis doesn’t bear up under scrutiny — quite the opposite. It’s also not so much “because of pounds of pages,” she continues in the review taking the final spot on this roundup, “but because it is another important book about race in America whose subject continues to be timely, and whose content is heavy and disheartening.”
9. “The Gene: An Intimate History” — written by Siddhartha Mukherjee, reviewed by Andrew Solomon
Andrew Solomon takes a trip through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s survey of genetics, which both author and reviewer know “has two histories,” as Solomon says. First is “the history of what we have found out,” and then there’s “the history of the uses and abuses of those discoveries.” It takes only a quick reference to Nazi Germany to invoke the specter of abuse and the possibility of great danger that has accompanied the pursuit of genetic knowledge. Solomon hits at the heart of the matter in one sweeping sentence: “What we believe about genes is much of what we believe about ourselves and our fellow men and women, and those beliefs can amplify our humanity or demean it; they can be the basis for liberatory identity politics or for the Holocaust.”
8. “Celebrating the 1 Percent: Is Inequality Really Good for the Economy?” — based on “The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality,” written by Angus Deaton, reviewed by Michael Hudson
Speaking of “American amnesia,” the headline on this entry presents another question that is, bafflingly, still being asked. Fortunately, the very capable Michael Hudson is at the ready to offer some answers in his review of Scottish economist Angus Deaton’s book “The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality.” Hudson approves of Deaton’s choice of analogies — the book’s title refers to the 1963 film “The Great Escape” — as a handy way in to a complex discussion about income disparity half a century after the movie’s release. Here’s how Deaton’s reboot imagines the plot, in Hudson’s words: “The wealthy have escaped. But the real issue concerns what they have escaped from.” That would be “regulation,” along with “taxation.” And above all, “Wall Street banksters have escaped from criminal prosecution.”
7. “Democracy in America” — written by Alexis de Tocqueville, reviewed by Carlos Lozada
Yes, this is the “Democracy in America” that Lozada confronts in his review. “I picked a hell of a year to become an American,” Lozada begins — and he picked quite a book to take on here as well. Lozada draws upon his own path to citizenship, which culminated in a 2014 naturalization ceremony in Baltimore, to frame his exploration of de Tocqueville’s classic study of 19th century American society. Lozada’s essay is written in a lively and accessible tone, drawing links to the current moment in clever ways that make de Tocqueville’s tome part of a vital and ongoing conversation rather than a dusty brow-knitter. “ ‘Democracy in America,’ for example, explains why Americans always want you to join things and sign stuff,” Lozada observes. “As soon as they welcome you to the whole, the parts start claiming you.” Like de Tocqueville’s, Lozada’s readers stand only to gain from the understanding of a writer who can see the country from a broader perspective than just the homegrown.
6. “The Story of Egypt: The Civilization That Shaped the World” — written by Joann Fletcher, reviewed by Michael Dirda
Repeat reviewer Michael Dirda takes readers back several centuries in an engrossing assessment of “world mummification and funerary archeology” — scholar Joann Fletcher’s “passionately revisionist” tour of ancient Egyptian civilization. Through Fletcher’s lens, several preserved aspects of that culture might find traction in a contemporary context, including a certain fluidity in gender roles and identity, as well as innovations in the art of statecraft, architecture and even self-help. Though Dirda finds facts and vignettes worth digging for, he signals a bit of caution to the reader by suggesting that Fletcher’s area of study may affect her storytelling skills by focusing “heavily on ancient monuments and archaeological matters at the expense of anecdotal history and general observations about society and culture.” 5. “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” — written by Robert D. Putnam, reviewed by Patrick Walsh
Next comes Patrick Walsh’s write-up about another book with a title that justifies the meaning and purpose of the work undertaken in its pages. Author Robert D. Putnam’s project, Walsh says in his introduction, “is about many things, all of them connected and all of them ominous.” Among the problems Putnam names are the abject poverty and loss of social mobility with which much of the American population is struggling, as well as social alienation in the face of unprecedented (technological) connectivity, and “the creation of a two-class society” with growing economic and emotional imbalances. Clearly “Our Kids” is not a book solely for — or about — America’s children.
4. “This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century” — written by Mark Engler and Paul Engler, reviewed by Gabriel Thompson
In our fourth-place finisher, Gabriel Thompson reviews a book by brothers Mark and Paul Engler that requires little explanation to justify its subtitle, in light of recent events. Using past examples like Mohandas (also known as Mahatma) Gandhi’s famous 1930 act of nonviolent protest that came to be known as the Salt March, the Englers bring the reader into the tense present and describe what they’ve learned by studying and participating in nonviolent demonstrations. To wit, Thompson teases out the following lesson: “Nonviolent protest, if it is to succeed, is always disruptive and polarizing.” Another is that big gains can be made from acts of protest that may at first seem to register few, if any, positive results. No doubt 2017 will offer a few more object lessons along these lines.
3. “Groucho: The Comedy of Existence” — based on “Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence,” written by Lee Siegel, and “Hail, Hail, Euphoria! Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made,” written by Roy Blount Jr.; reviewed by Allen Barra
And now for a little comedy after all that gravity. Allen Barra’s twofer review on Lee Siegel’s and Roy Blount Jr.’s books about Groucho Marx and the Marx Brothers, respectively, sparked the interest of readers and made Barra a repeat contender, in third place this time. (His treatment of the revered, related comedic troupe also earned Barra a nomination at the Los Angeles Press Club’s SoCal Journalism Awards in June.) After musing that “writing about the Marx Brothers is something akin to singing about herding cats,” Barra hits high notes in his own rendition. He also doesn’t let Siegel off the hook for failing to appreciate the genius of one of Groucho’s most famous zingers: “I do not want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
2. “Where the Jews Aren’t” — based on “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region,” written by Masha Gessen, reviewed by Elaine Margolin
Elaine Margolin’s review of Masha Gessen’s book about the late Yiddish writer David Bergelson may seem like a rather specialized topic to land in second place. But this story about the Russification, and then eradication, of a Jewish community in Birobidzhan, Russia, under Stalin resonates on a global scale. “Jews have often been driven to negotiate for their place in the world,” Margolin notes. “This has often involved living with compromise and self-denial, as well as a double-vision that allows one to see competing realities as somehow complementary.” Though Bergelson was assassinated on the so-called “Night of the Murdered Poets” in 1952, his story resonated with many, including one young Jewish girl growing up in Russia in the 1970s — Masha Gessen.
1. “American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper” — written by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, reviewed by Allen Barra
It’s only fitting that Barra’s take on the work of political science scholars Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson would occupy the top spot on this list. The authors grapple with critical questions about how, for example, the U.S. economy got to the point where it serves so few at the expense of the many, without Americans rising up en masse. But the titular epidemic isn’t limited to matters economic; global warming is another problem the authors take on. “What they’ve done,” Barra writes, “is identify the forms of insanity that have taken root in the wake of our collective amnesia.” Unfortunately, Hacker and Pierson’s analysis is sure to remain relevant in years to come.
While this was not exactly a year for lighthearted literature, it was a year of many accolades for Truthdig’s book review section, and the writers richly deserve mention here. On Dec. 4, Tim Riley won first place at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, sponsored by the Los Angeles Press Club, for his review of author Peter Guralnick’s “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’ Roll.”
And on June 26, Truthdig’s own Assistant Editor Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who also has brought poetry to the site, took top honors at the L.A. Press Club’s Southern California Journalism Awards for her piece on a collection of Afghan poetry titled “I Am the Beggar of the World.” Gabriel Thompson and Allen Barra were also nominated in the same online entertainment review category as Zapata, taking second and third places, respectively, at the LAPC event.
Congratulations, once again, to all.