It’s been an eventful, chaotic few weeks in politics.
How best to understand all the changes going on? At the arts desk, we often turn to books for insight and reflection. So this week, we went to our local independent bookseller, Politics and Prose, for their thoughts on what to read right now. Here are eight books — both old and new — recommended by the P&P staff, who chose to focus on the themes of democracy and the power of the presidency, and on the genres of dystopian and satirical fiction. In their words:
1. “The Plot Against America” – Philip Roth
In this seminal novel, Philip Roth plausibly dismantles the assumption that American democracy is too powerful to be undermined by any one individual. It’s a disturbing alternative history that begins with Franklin Roosevelt losing the 1940 election to the more authoritarian Charles Lindbergh. The narrative follows a Jewish family in Newark, warily observing that their president is more willing to cooperate with Hitler than condemn him, while anti-Semitism underlies a new brand of folksy patriotism. In a chilling demonstration of what the “tyranny of the majority” could entail, it becomes increasingly clear that “America First” (the name of Lindbergh’s party) doesn’t mean that all Americans come first.
2. “What We Do Now” – Edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians
Released in early 2017, publisher Melville House has assembled an array of contributors for this guide to “Standing up for your Values in Trump’s America,” as the subtitle puts it. Featuring practical and heartfelt guidance from ACLU head David Cole, NAACP president Cornell William Brooks, Gloria Steinem and Elizabeth Warren, to name just a few, these brief essays collectively chart a way ahead for progressives on issues ranging from climate change to LGBTQ rights.
3. “The Presidency in Black and White – April Ryan
Author April Ryan has been diligently reporting from the White House on behalf of Urban American Radio Networks for two decades, ensuring that issues of race and racism in the U.S. could not be sidelined. Bringing a rare minority perspective to the White House Press Corps, “The Presidency in Black and White” is a candid, personal reflection on her lived experience of the Clinton years to Obama’s second term, by way of the Bush administration.
4. “The Populist Explosion” – John Judis
If there’s a single message to take from Judis’ straightforward, insightful guide to our current reality, it’s that populism as a political force is here to stay, on the left as well as on the right. Written in a dispassionate tone and sticking with plain facts throughout, the former New Republic editor depicts a mood of widespread public anger and resentment toward the “establishment” in the U.S and across Europe.
5. “The Handmaid’s Tale” – Margaret Atwood
Currently enjoying a resurgence ahead of an upcoming movie adaptation from Hulu, Margaret Atwood’s dystopic sci-fi classic was also a popular reference point on protesters’ handmade signs at the Women’s March. Some see parallels to today: a society traumatized by terror falls under the sway of a brutal regime that holds to allegedly Old-Testament Christian values. In Handmaid Offred’s world, women’s rights have been relinquished for the promise of law and order, and her role is simply asa vessel to produce a baby for a powerful husband and wife. Yet even within her bleak reality, acts of resistance bring a spark of hope to those trapped in a desperate situation.
6. “All the President’s Men” – Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward
This is the book that brought down a president and defined its era. An extraordinary work of investigative journalism from two Washington Post reporters, “All the President’s Men” laid bare the Watergate scandal in unprecedented detail more than 40 years ago, and described the journalistic process behind headlines that, at the time, were still causing shockwaves around the world. The role played by the whistleblower known as “Deep Throat” was revealed for the first time, giving this book all the urgency of a detective thriller. President Nixon resigned shortly after its publication, and “All the President’s Men” remains the definitive example of how a determined journalist can expose the secrets of even the most powerful.
7. “The Free-Lance Pallbearers” – Ishmael Reed
Famed satirist Ishmael Reed doesn’t pull any punches in his first novel. The eponymous kingdom of HARRY SAM is made up of a wild and contradictory jumble of black nationalists, white liberals, cops, beatniks, hippies… perhaps Reed’s trick is making a quasi-realistic depiction of mid-’60s America seem like such an outlandish proposal. The young African-American hero of the piece, Bukka Doopeyduk, must confront a chaotic society that simply doesn’t make sense. Meanwhile, for reasons never explained to the reader, HARRY SAM is both a tyrant and a grotesque used-car salesman who has been ruling his kingdom from the toilet for the past 30 years.
8. “Primary Colors” – Anonymous (later revealed as Joe Klein)
“Primary Colors” is ostensibly a work of fiction, but nobody was fooled when this barely disguised account of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign — told from the perspective of an idealistic congressional aide — was published in 1996. Jack Stanton, a Southern governor, is charismatic and calculating and an outrageous flirt who’s willing to put aside personal values to take whatever stance necessary to win. This book caused quite a stir, and the identity of the author was the subject of frenzied speculation. After repeated denials, political columnist Joe Klein eventually owned up to writing a “novel” that wound up successfully (and hilariously) capturing the tone of the Clinton era.