The “Best of” season is upon us. This year, like last year, we’re offering up the political books we loved the most in 2013.
Here they are, in no particular order.
Ben: It’s not very creative to pick the National Book Award winner as your favorite read of the year, but whatever, it’s that good. In his book, Packer manages to tell countless stories about the country’s economic transformations from characters actually living through them. I was an American Studies major in college, and I feel like I learned as much from this book as any class I took about the shaping of the country.
Adam: One of the most surprising things about Adelle Waldman’s first novel is that it works even as it advances the second-wave feminist notion that the personal is political. In a lesser writer’s hands, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. would be didactic and moralizing, but Waldman is broadly sympathetic to her louche hero, and she does not use him to score points; she doesn’t need to.
Nate, a 30-year-old Brooklyn writer, reluctantly leaves a pretty but unchallenging girlfriend and eventually gets together with Hannah, a sensitive, intelligent, beautiful foil — exactly the kind of girlfriend an enlightened boy like him is supposed to want. (For the record, he thinks he wants this, too.) Then the fault-finding begins: Suddenly he is annoyed by Hannah’s overstuffed closet and other mundane details that make her human. She detects his annoyance but, increasingly taciturn, he insists nothing is wrong, deepening her insecurity by making her feel crazy and pushing him away further. He has induced a self-amplifying problem. In this, he is an outrageously well-observed stand-in for a generation of indecisive and conceited millennial man-children. But Waldman keeps him from becoming a straw man by giving him real emotional depth: He is self-aware, rueful, and still somehow unable to change. Love Affairs is the comedy of manners we need to understand what ails modern romance.
Emma: Because, obviously.
Matt: There’s a wannabe terrorist speeding to New York and the NYPD has been too overzealous to know what’s coming. That’s the basic ticking time bomb scenario presented by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman’s Enemies Within, a deep, jaw-dropping dive into the post-9/11 NYPD. Did you know that the NYPD has a Demographics Unit, whose responsibility is, in part, to track the city’s Muslims? Or that the department keeps troves of data on ethnic groups, just in case a homegrown terrorist shows up? Or that these invasive, ethically hazy measures have not been proven to disrupt a single terrorist plot?
Government security overreach is about more than the NSA. It’s also about police outside the federal government who will do anything to prevent a terrorist attack, even if what they’re doing breaks basic standards of privacy and has no record of success. No book better sums up the state of post-9/11 fear.
“There were other papers, but they didn’t seem to be having as much fun,” writes Peter Kaplan in the introduction to The Kingdom of New York, a collection of the best pieces from The New York Observer. After Kaplan’s death in November, at the age of 59, I got to thinking that if there was one book I would recommend to the writers and readers of Washington news, it’d be this one. Kaplan was not interested in merely relaying te facts, but covering his city as “a topography of power, with its Manhattan moats and turrets, its courts in media, politics, society, its residues of Edith Wharton, Walter Winchell, and Weegee.” To this day, other papers still aren’t having as much fun.
Steven: What really mattered in last year’s elections? George Washington University professor John Sides and UCLA professor Lynn Vavreck, in a remarkably fast turnaround for an academic work, applied social science to the developments of last year’s presidential election in The Gamble. It turns out that the events journalists described in real time (including this one) weren’t as important as they were made out to be. And Sides and Vavreck provide an important reality check that observers should heed before the daily doings of 2016 consume us all.
Mike: For anyone interested in the politics of energy, specifically big oil, I would recommend Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. It is an incredibly well-researched exposition of one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations and provides tremendous insight into how big oil gets its way in Washington, Moscow, Riyadh, and just about every other world capital. It’s a great read.
Jody: This is an insightful novel about an immigrant — and her acculturation as a Nigerian black to the U.S. and her return home as an Americanized member of the bourgeoisie. The author’s life somewhat mirrors her protagonist, who was inspired by Obama’s 2008 election. Oh, and it’s a love story too.
Major: It a wondrous political book. It explores the rise of a potentially great American president (the only to this day elected from the House), the tragedy of a presidency cut short and the madness of Garfield’s assassin. If that were all, it would be enough. But wrapped within this saga is a searing account of the era’s backward, near-murderous medical practices and the heroic efforts of Alexander Graham Bell to save a dying president.
Matt: It’s irresistible to compare Wilson, the last and only New Jersey governor elected president, to a certain Republican in Trenton. Like Chris Christie, Wilson was a political newcomer when he was elected governor in 1910 and president just two years later. And while his erudite style and angular features couldn’t be more different than Christie’s spherical bombast, the two each seemed sufficiently different from the pols of their day to have national appeal. As the 100th anniversary of World War I approaches in 2014, Wilson will garner attention for taking America to war. But his domestic record, at once progressive (promoting the federal income tax, appointing the first Jewish Supreme Court justice) and reactionary (imposing segregation in Washington, cracking down on civil liberties in the name of anticommunism), is worthy of equal scrutiny.
Brian: Going Clear is a book about power.
Yes, it is also an expose of a money-flushed, litigal-happy organization as told by the people it has steamrolled. And yes, there are tantalizing details about John Travolta (possibly gay) and Tom Cruise (who may have held auditions for the role of his wife).
But centrally, it’s about how one man turned an idea into a movement, and how that idea — like a new life form — sustained itself, protected itself, and ensured its longevity. Whatever you think about Scientology, Going Clear provokes a powerful question: How easily could these disciples of Hubbard have been me? Because rational thoughts fall aside in the face of self affirmation. And the powerful know this implicitly. Lawrence subtitled the book Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Strike out the first two and fill in your own blanks. Belief isn’t always rational. And therein lies the power.
Chuck: This is a well-researched and highly readable overview of how the haves and have-nots of today’s economy came to be. People of all political persuasions should pick it up; it’s full of fascinating stories and does a terrific job of explaining the intricacies of the tax code as well as other concepts.
Lucia: You might expect a novel about the horrors of working in a Chicago ad agency during the implosion of the dot.com economy to be small-minded and mean-spirited, but Joshua Ferris’s novel is neither. Written in the collective voice, Ferris’s style is expansive and funny. There is no better education in the strange world of office politics, the corporate vacuousness and power grabbing as well as the sometimes surprising meaning and humanity — except maybe experience.
Norm: This is political journalism and history at its best. A deep, credible, and compelling account of the Bush presidency and the relationship between Bush and Cheney.
Norm: An absolutely compelling and thought-provoking blueprint for a 21st-century policy agenda, which, in a better world, both Obama and Republicans could embrace.
Matt: Terry Lenzner’s career has taken him to a remarkable number of inflection points in post-World War II America. A Harvard lawyer, he served in the Justice Department as an investigator in Mississippi in 1965, sleeping on the floor of his motel and putting the mattress up against the window lest he get shot. He was on the staff of the Senate Watergate Committee, helped the Berrigan brothers’ defense during Vietnam, helped Bill Clinton during impeachment, and worked for Brown & Williamson during the Jeffrey Wigand affair. Along the way, he got fired by Donald Rumsfeld during the Nixon years, and investigated Princess Diana’s death at the behest of Dodi Fayed’s father. His lasting genius was creating a new kind of firm — a high-end investigative agency married to the white-collar law. Think of it as K Street meets Humphrey Bogart.
Steven: It might seem like the 2014 elections are 11 months away, but voters will actually begin casting their ballots in primaries in March. A new book from Clark University political science professor Robert Boatright, Getting Primaried: The Changing Politics of Congressional Primary Challenges (The University of Michigan Press), examines the past 40 years of congressional primaries. Those interested in why and how the Ned Lamonts, Bill Halters, and Joe Millers of the world can rise to challenge (and in the case of Lamont and Miller, defeat for nomination) powerful incumbents should read Boatright’s book before this year’s primaries begin in earnest.