Our favorite books of 2016.

 
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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 Stefanie, her father is a coquette, a model of florid femininity. Stefanie 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 Stefanie, 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 cant function properly as human beings, nor as a society.

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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...

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