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The most ambitious, irritating, hopeful and overrated books of 2016 — and the best one, too

My 16 most memorable books of 2016, for better or for worse

Trying to figure out what to make of the post election landscape? Here are five notable political books that captured the climate of 2016. (Video: Adriana Usero, Julio Negron/The Washington Post)
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The presidential race dominated my reading this year — like it seemed to dominate everything. So as I sift through my 2016 stacks, I see plenty of works on politics, candidate memoirs and books hitting on hot-button campaign debates.

But fortunately, that was not all. There were also works of history, education, psychology and even comedy that made my reading list. Whether they enlightened or annoyed, impressed or exasperated, these are the books that I suspect I will remember most from the past year:

The most overrated book I read this year: “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” (The New Press) by Arlie Russell Hochschild

A finalist for the 2016 National Book Award, this book was the subject of admiring reviews and interviews — but I couldn’t stand it. The author, a Berkeley sociologist, travels to southwestern Louisiana seeking to understand “how life feels to people on the right,” but she can’t let go of her faculty-lounge preconceptions. Hochschild assumes that rural conservatives all read Ayn Rand, for instance, and is surprised that many of them are “warm, open people.” If you’re interested in exploring class resentments in the Trump era, I’d suggest picking up J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” Nancy Isenberg’s cultural history “White Trash,” or Carol Anderson’s “White Rage” instead. [Read the review]

Most enjoyable: “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything” (Simon & Schuster) by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
I’m a 40-something Gen Xer, so “Seinfeld” will forever be my favorite sitcom — not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s not just nostalgia that makes me enjoy Armstrong’s detailed history of the show and her assessment of its cultural impact. In addition to reliving the biggest laughs along the way, Armstrong shares the experiences of the less-heralded “Seinfeld” writers, who desperately mined their personal lives for man hands, fake holidays or any script ideas that would seem believable to co-creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. An eminently sponge-worthy book. [Read the review]

Most ambitious: “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” (Nation Books) by Ibram X. Kendi
Sure, “ambitious” is usually code for “long,” and at nearly 600 pages, this book qualifies. But it is also an engrossing and relentless study of how even well-meaning individuals can succumb to prejudice and enable racist structures. Spanning the 15th century through today, Kendi shows how racist thinking always crops up after the fact to justify discriminatory actions and how “assimilationists” — those who seek to fight disparities but find blame in both the oppressed and the oppressors — are complicit. From Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama, no one is unscathed in this deserving winner of the 2016 National Book Award. [Read the review]

Most surprising: “Keep the Damned Women Out: The Struggle for Coeducation” (Princeton University Press) by Nancy Weiss Malkiel
There are things you take for granted, until you learn how recently they came about or how tortuous their path. That’s how I felt while reading Malkiel’s history of how several elite U.S. universities — in particular, Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Dartmouth — finally offered full undergraduate education for women starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Still, “coeducation did not mean revolution,” she writes. Women have adapted to these former male bastions more than they have transformed them. [Read the review]

Laziest: “Stronger Together: A Blueprint for America’s Future” (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks) by Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine
The official Clinton-Kaine campaign book, “Stronger Together” is a clip-job of op-eds, speeches and policy statements. The book feels rushed, dutiful and sloppy — chunks of text repeat themselves on several occasions — and its checklist quality makes it read like an endless State of the Union address. Meant to convey Day One readiness, the book instead offers a mix of incompetence and hubris. I’ll never understand why the campaign bothered to put it together. Maybe staffers had nothing better to do two months before Election Day? [Read the review]

The best book by one of our presidential candidates: “It Takes a Village” (Simon & Schuster) by Hillary Clinton
Although it was panned when it came out nearly 21 years ago, “It Takes a Village” has aged well and offers more insight into Clinton than either of her two subsequent memoirs, “Living History” and “Hard Choices.” Written after the defeat of her health-care initiative, “It Takes a Village” lays out Clinton’s political vision — a surprising blend of moderation, social conservatism and activist ambition that foreshadowed her struggles to fend off the Bernie Sanders insurgency on her left in this latest presidential bid. [Read the review]

Most enlightening: “What Is Populism?” (University of Pennsylvania Press) by Jan-Werner Müller
This slim, incisive book helped me grasp the rise of Donald Trump in American politics better than anything else. By building a framework for understanding populist movements — they are not just anti-elitist, but also anti-pluralist and politically exclusionary — Müller elucidates the strategy and appeal of the Trump phenomenon, and the divisions it has revealed and created. The “core claim” of populism, he writes, is that “only some of the people are really the people.” And by outlining the typical governing strategies of populist regimes, it offers a possible preview of a Trump administration in action. [Read the review]

Saddest: “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy” (Crown Publishers) by Sue Klebold
Seventeen years after the massacre at Columbine High School, the mother of one of the killers tells her story, and it makes for brutal, painful and necessary reading. Sue Klebold scours her younger son’s childhood for warning signs, both questions and defends her own parenting, and regrets not listening more closely to what Dylan tried to tell her. “I wish I had acknowledged his feelings instead of trying to talk him out of them,” she writes. Reading this book as a critic is hard; reading it as a parent is devastating. [Read the review]

Most hopeful: “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism” (Basic Books) by Yuval Levin
A leading thinker in the “reform conservative” movement, Levin has authored a new vision for the American right, one less concerned with tearing down Washington or promoting hyper-individualism than with creating space for the “mediating institutions” of family and community to thrive. It is a vision that seems to have little chance in Trump’s GOP, yet it is precisely for this reason that I find it a hopeful work. In an era of painful divisions, Levin wants us to bowl together again. [Read the review]

Most prescient: “Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” (Metropolitan Books) by Thomas Frank
For those still pondering how Hillary Clinton lost, Frank’s book, published eight months before the election, is an excellent start. In recent decades, he argues, the Democratic Party has abandoned the working class and instead embraced the professional class of doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, financiers, artists and other so-called creatives. He blames Bill and Hillary Clinton, who fell in love with Wall Street, and President Obama, who fell in love with Silicon Valley — all at the expense of traditional liberal causes. “They didn’t believe in those things,” Frank writes, a simple and damning assessment. [Read the review]

Most useful: “The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time” (Viking) by Maria Konnikova
A contributing writer for the New Yorker, Konnikova breaks down the psychology of schemes and scams across the centuries in “The Confidence Game,” a disturbing manual on how to avoid getting conned. Each chapter explains one step in the fraud: the put-up, the play, the rope, the tale, the convincer, the breakdown, the touch and, finally, the blow-off. “Despite our deep certainty in our own immunity,” Konnikova writes, “we all fall for it.” Whether you’re dealing with a card cheat, a fake nonprofit or a crooked vendor, it’s the kind of book that makes you wonder about everyone — and trust no one. [Read the review]

Most ominous: “The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction” (New York Review Books) by Mark Lilla
The book is a sequel of sorts to “The Reckless Mind,” Lilla’s 2001 study of leading intellectuals who grew to fetishize authoritarian politics. In this new volume, Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, examines the gathering forces of reaction among the American right, longing for the uniformity of the early postwar years; European nationalists, blaming Enlightenment values for the continent’s ills; and political Islamists, animated by visions of a caliphate restored. Their reactionary nostalgia is more powerful than liberal hope. “Hopes can be disappointed,” Lilla writes. “Nostalgia is irrefutable.” [Read the review]

Most irritating: “Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature” (Plume) by Meredith Maran (editor)
I love memoirs, but after reading this book, I can’t say I’m terribly fond of memoir writers. A collection of reflections from some 20 practitioners of the genre, this book wallows in the trade-offs involved in telling all. Is memoir therapeutic? Should you care about hurting those closest to you? And is it okay to mix in some fictional elements to fill in the holes and enhance the drama? There are helpful insights here for the aspiring oversharer, but for this reader, there is something extra navel-gazing about baring your soul about how good you are at baring your soul. [Read the review]

Smartest: “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation” (Picador) by Jeff Chang
I almost categorized this work as the smartest book I read “on race” this year — but then I realized it was the smartest, period. Stanford University’s Chang skillfully combines reporting, reflection and insight to explain the commercialization of diversity, the contradictions of the Asian American experience and, above all, the reversing of desegregation efforts in education and housing. “From Wallace and Nixon to Palin and Trump,” Chang writes, “the energies of anxious whites have been diverted from class uprising toward racial division.” [Read the review]

The book I’d most want President-elect Trump to read:Why Presidents Fail: And How They Can Succeed Again” (Brookings Institution Press) by Elaine C. Kamarck
Trump is not prone to reading much, but if he has time to pick up a book during this presidential transition, he could do worse than to delve into Kamarck’s warnings of a “crisis of competence” in American government. Modern presidents are obsessed with the communications and theatrical aspects of the job, she writes, and they tend to neglect the crucial task of getting to know the massive federal bureaucracy they command — both its limits and its possibilities. Trump seems especially susceptible to this problem. As a result, presidents’ ability to manage crises and implement policy suffers greatly. [Read the review]

And the best book I read this year: “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” (Crown) by Matthew Desmond
In this astonishing feat of ethnography, Desmond immerses himself in the lives of Milwaukee families caught in the cycle of chronic eviction. In spare and penetrating prose, this Harvard sociologist chronicles the economic and psychological toll of living in substandard housing, and the eviscerating impact of constantly moving between homes and shelters. With “Evicted,” Desmond has made it impossible to consider poverty without grappling with the role of housing. [Read the review]

This pick was not close.

Read more from Book Party, including:

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The Washington Post’s ten best books of 2016

The Washington Post’s ten best books of 2015