What It Takes (1992), by Richard Ben Cramer

Is there such a thing as being too definitive?

The late Richard Ben Cramer’s titanic deep dive into the 1987-88 presidential primary season is rightly regarded as the last word on the crazy-making rigors of electoral politics in this country. Hard to argue: books like Game Change, which purport to tell us what the candidates are really thinking, are but superficial imitators to the throne in comparison.

 

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The level of commitment from Cramer here is awe-inspiring, likely rivaled only by Robert A. Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in the category of total immersion. But at least Caro has been writing for nearly 40 years about one man; Cramer somehow managed to follow six different campaigns around in real time over a two-year stretch, apparently leaving no stone unturned and unpacking each candidate’s life story in indelible detail (at great cost to his own health, it turns out).
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The Best Books I Read in 2015

Here’s my annual round-up of the 12 best books I read over the past year, one for every month. They are presented here alphabetically by title, with my favorite of all of them, which I saw on virtually no other list, saved until last. Happy reading!

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After Birth, by Elisa Albert (2015)

 

Ball: Stories, by Tara Ison (2015)

 

 

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                             The Cartel, by Don Winslow (2015)

 

The Cult of the Presidency, by Gene Healy (2008)

 

 

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The First Bad Man, by Miranda July (2015)

 

I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes (2014)

 

 

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               A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

 

                      Mr. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell (1969)

 

 

 

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Purity, by Jonathan Franzen (2015)

 

Strangers Drowning, by Larissa McFarquhar (2015)

 

 

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                                                          Terms of Service, by Jacob Silverman (2015)

 

 

 

 

And my selection for Favorite Book of the Year is…

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Go Set a Watchman (2015), by Harper Lee

This is a review of Harper Lee’s highly-ancticipated second novel/prequel/abandoned debut Go Set a Watchman. For some thoughts on its more famous predecessor, To Kill a Mockingbird, click here.

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Let’s put aside the unsavory circumstances surrounding this book’s publication, which become more contemptible the more you read about them. Let’s also put aside the sturm und drang about this alternate side of Atticus Finch and what it means for us and our collective image of him as a faultless paragon of virtue.

Let’s focus instead on what we have in front of us, which is an artistic tragedy, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

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#20: Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright

Anger quickened in him: an old feeling that Bessie had often described to him when she had come from long hours of hot toil in the white folks’ kitchens, a feeling of being forever commanded by others so much that thinking and feeling for one’s self was impossible. Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done what they told him to do, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying, after killing, they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death.

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I had committed to Richard Wright’s Native Son being the 20th selection from this list more than a year ago, long before the summer of Michael Brown and Eric Garner descended upon us. Had I arrived at this point more expediently, say in April or May as I’d preferred, this entry likely would have followed the m.o. of the first 19: some fairly innocuous observations on the book and a little context for how the author came to write it, with some personal color thrown in.

But Native Son isn’t a book you can read quickly and throw back on the shelf. Specially designed to provoke reaction, it’s a piece of advocacy fiction squarely in that Grapes of Wrath tradition of foregoing subtlety to impart its social message. It opens with one sound effect (a ringing alarm clock), ends with another (the clanging of a jail cell), and in between tells a powerfully brutal story that moves with the propulsiveness of a thriller and the self-righteous fury of a sermon.

As Time list co-creator Richard Lacayo points out, Wright could have written a novel about an unjustly accused black man and rested on the laurels of having brought important issues of racial inequality to mainstream consciousness, but he chose the harder route: a book about a guilty man, thoroughly loathsome and without remorse, who would still command your understanding and, to some extent, your sympathy.

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The Best Books Read in 2014

Another year, another barrage of best-of lists for us all to wade through; here’s one more, just in time for Christmas.

You know, if you pay enough attention to these lists, you can zero in on a handful of titles that have coalesced into establishment favorites. Such titles this year might include Richard Flanagan’s Booker-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I am sure these are all excellent books, and I look forward to getting to each of them in time. (I tend to reflexively hold off on reading books at their hypiest so as to avoid getting drowned by it.)

So you won’t find any of those consensus favorites here. This year I read somewhere around 70 books — not bad considering I lost nearly six full weeks to a move — and this list of the 12 best reflects I think a librarian’s curiosity, zig-zagging from new to old, fiction to non, one genre to another, whatever seems appealing on a given day.

I have chosen the first 11 books in random order, saving my favorite read of the year for last.

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