2020 Best Books: Nonfiction Recommendations : Pop Culture Happy Hour Every year, NPR brings together some of the best books of the year in a searchable, explorable guide called the Book Concierge. Today, we're talking about some of the best nonfiction picks that show up in this year's guide.
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Book Concierge: Nonfiction Recommendations

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Book Concierge: Nonfiction Recommendations

Book Concierge: Nonfiction Recommendations

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Whatever 2021 has been like for you so far, it can probably be improved with a good book. And as much as we love a novel, sometimes it's books about our real world that hit the spot. I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're recommending three great nonfiction books on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.


HOLMES: Welcome back. Joining us today from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., is NPR's TV critic, Eric Deggans. Hi, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey. How's it going?

HOLMES: It's going well. I'm always delighted to have you here. We at POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR have been bringing some book suggestions from NPR's Book Concierge, which, as always, you can find at npr.org/bestbooks. We've talked to some of the great contributors to that project. And we're delighted to have another contributor to the Book Concierge, Eric, with us today. Eric, we're talking about nonfiction books today. Kick us off with your first pick.

DEGGANS: So my first pick is "Hoax," the book from Brian Stelter, who hosts "Reliable Sources," the media analysis show on CNN. The full title is "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortion Of Truth." And I like this book because he goes into detail and reports out a lot of things that we've always kind of suspected about Donald Trump's relationship to Fox News.

But he actually interviewed about 140 people who worked there, about 180 people who used to work there or somehow are substantially connected to the network. And he goes into detail about the symbiosis between Donald Trump and Fox News, noting how Donald Trump would have these calls with Sean Hannity after Sean Hannity's show on Fox News at about 10:00 every night and talk over government policy and who he was going to hire and what kind of moves he was going to make in terms of what he might do about the border wall or what he might do about getting out of the Paris climate accords.

And he also documented this tremendous financial engine that powers Fox. You know, Sean Hannity, their biggest star, earns, according to this book, $43 million a year, claims to be sort of the champion of the working class. But really what he's doing is perpetuating this mountain of misinformation that generates billions of dollars in advertising revenue.

And all of the Fox hosts, to some degree or another, are compromised by this. They realize they're overpaid for the TV industry, but they're overpaid because their real job is sort of furthering the political goals of Fox News. And under the Trump administration, it became an analogous - you know, it merged these two concerns. The GOP, Trump and Fox kind of merged in a way that they never really had before, particularly when the founder, Roger Ailes, was alive.

So this book just really documents all of that in a vivid way and proves the point. And, you know, even though we're past, of course, the administration of Donald Trump now, it's still insightful to understand how this happened and how it affected our government.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I feel like this book is going to need a follow-up, you know, in a year or two...

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Because of the way that the relationship between Donald Trump and Fox News changed toward the very end of his presidency, particularly after the 2020 election, when he began to turn his attention more to places like Newsmax and OANN after some parts of Fox began to push some of the - back against some of the misinformation about the election. Does that make sense to you?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, Fox has always been the center arbiter, the main arbiter of, you know, what is valid in the conservative media space. There's this whole sort of alternative structure...

HOLMES: Right.

DEGGANS: ...Of conservative-oriented media platforms, and Fox is the center spoke in that wheel.

HOLMES: Right.

DEGGANS: And what happened towards the end of Trump's tenure is that that began to splinter. And Newsmax and One America News Network began to siphon off enough of the really extreme, you know, right-wing Trump supporters that Fox's dominance over the media structure has been questioned. And that's the open question right now.


DEGGANS: How - can Fox maintain its dominance? And if it doesn't, what is the media - the conservative media structure look like when there may be two or three or four centers of power inside, you know, that wheel. And, you know, that's happening now. And whoever's documenting that now - probably Brian, amongst many others...


DEGGANS: ...Will have an amazing book on their hands.

HOLMES: Yeah. And again, that's called "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, And The Dangerous Distortion Of Truth" by Brian Stelter.

The pick that I brought today feels in some ways less immediately current, but to me is still very current. It's called "Hidden Valley Road: Inside The Mind Of An American Family." It's by the journalist Robert Kolker. And he wrote this book about a family called the Galvins, who in the '60s and '70s - so they had 12 kids in this family.

DEGGANS: Wow. Let me just say, as a parent of four...


DEGGANS: ...That is incredible (laughter).

HOLMES: It is a lot of kids, right? They had 10 boys and two girls. And ultimately, six of their boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia in the '60s and '70s. And so they became a family that scientists obviously were very interested in studying because at that time, much less was known about schizophrenia, about the - about kind of even what it was, how it worked, what the genetic contributions to it were. And this family became an incredibly important part of the research into schizophrenia.

So some of it is about that. And some of the book is really about the family. It's about both how these men lived as people with schizophrenia at that time, but also the rest of the family, how the parents tried to make their decisions about how to handle these, you know, at the - originally younger kids and then, essentially, their adult children - and also about the other kids in the family. There's quite a bit of conversation with the two girls and - now, obviously, the two women - about what it was like to grow up in this family.

What I like about it is that I think he found a really good balance, to my eye, between - he does talk about the effect on the parents and the effect on the other people in the family and about the research, but also keeps a lot of the focus on these men who were the ones who were directly affected. And I think sometimes what happens in stories about families where there is someone who has a mental illness or a disability, you'll get a sort of story of what it was like for everybody else to live with this person.

And I think he does a really good job, Kolker does, of balancing, yes, it's an interesting story - what it was like to be in this family as somebody else - but there's also a lot of, you know, what it was like to be in an institution at that time, how the parents tried to make decisions about, you know, this seemed like a bad option; that also seemed like a bad option. There were huge problems with keeping them at home; there were huge problems with institutions. I think it's compassionate toward everyone, and I think he keeps his eye on kind of everyone involved, but that ultimately the people most directly affected are the people who had the illness. I appreciated that balance a lot, given the way that a lot of books about this kind of thing tend to go.

And as I said, to me it's still very current because it has a lot to do with health care, what our health care looks like right now, how we care for people who are in need, how we care for families, cost of care and cost of residential care if it's needed. There wasn't the support for parents that there probably would be now.


HOLMES: Obviously, the stigma was so great. I mean, there's enough stigma now around mental health. At that time, I think it was probably even much worse. So it's the kind of thing that the experience of trying to parent in that situation and what it was like for the kids who were ill - who, of course - you know, it takes a while to even figure out what they have...


HOLMES: ...You know, when it's 1960-whatever.

DEGGANS: Yeah, exactly.

HOLMES: So again, that book is called "Hidden Valley Road: Inside The Mind Of An American Family." It's by Robert Kolker.

And you have one other one you want to recommend.

DEGGANS: Yeah. So I wanted to talk about this book, "Me And White Supremacy" from Layla F. Saad. Again, the full title is "Me And White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change The World, And Become A Good Ancestor."

So over the past summer 2020, of course, we had this huge civil rights reckoning that was kind of kicked off by the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others. And all these people are running around trying to figure out, how can I get right with combating racism, and how can I learn about this thing called anti-racism?

And so Layla had already created this Instagram challenge that offered a 28-day process where you could answer questions, do journaling, think about concepts and learn how to challenge systemic racism and prejudice in your life by going through this process, learning how to identify it and then learning how to challenge it. And so she turned it into a digital PDF that she was giving away for free. And then she turned it into a workbook, which was available to people over the summer, and it became a New York Times bestseller.

And, you know, so you learn the definitions of some of these terms, like white centering, ally cookies - you know, wanting to get benefits because you're helping out people of color - white exceptionalism - you know, white people who sort of feel like, well, I'm the good white person, and then there's these bad white people who are racists, when, really, we're all struggling with these concepts that we have been sort of indoctrinated to accept since birth that elevate white culture. And it takes a bit of personal work for everyone, for anyone to deconstruct that in themselves. And then they have to deconstruct it out in the world in their environment.

And this book offers a 28-day process where you can do it. She calls it the work, and it's a journey. And it's about challenging things that aren't even necessarily conscious, but just learning how to make different choices every day that help dismantle the systemic racism and prejudice that may surround you in whatever environment you're in. And it's a really revelatory kind of book, and I encourage people to pick it up and take that journey.

HOLMES: Again, that's called "Me And White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change The World, And Become A Good Ancestor" by Layla F. Saad.

If you want more recommendations across a lot of genres, make sure to check out NPR's Book Concierge. Again, it's at npr.org/bestbooks.

Eric, thanks as always for being here.

DEGGANS: Yeah, thanks for having me. This was fun.

HOLMES: Absolutely. It sure was. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow.


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