It was one of the most closely fought and bitterly contested US elections in history, one shaped not only by the most significant health crisis for a century but also what could become the nation's biggest economic crisis in living memory. But after attempts by Donald Trump and Republican Party members to overturn the results (and an insurrection at the Capitol Building), Joe Biden is the 46th president of the United States of America.

Biden and Harris face huge issues in office. Police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement has driven the debate over racial discrimination in America over into deep civil unrest, while the climate emergency grows all the time. And he'll be facing an electorate that, while it gave him a mandate, also voted in large numbers for Trump and his politics.

So for those trying to get to grips with all the political, economic and social shifts that are driving this moment, here is a selection of books to help you make sense of it all.

Unpresidented by Jon Sopel (2021)

The 2020 US presidential election was the most contested in history, and to understand what comes after, an understanding of what happened during is essential.

Unpresidented is the election diary of Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor, and what better person to offer a view of the election from start to finish. Sopel takes readers on the campaign trail, behind the scenes of a White House in crisis, and lays bare the story of a presidential election like no other. 

True Crimes and Misdeanors by Jeffrey Toobin (2020)

Such were the scale and frequency of controversies to come out of the Trump White House, it can be easy to forget that in 2019 he was the subject of only the third Presidential impeachment trial in American history over allegations of seeking Russian help in the 2016 election. And yet, somehow, the President was able to brush off the Mueller report and live to fight another day, at least, until he was impeached again in the last fortnight of his term as president.

There have been a staggering number of books about Trump released in the last four years, including more than one 'tell-all memoir', but this entertaining and meticulous account of the twists and turns in arguably the defining moment of his tenure so far offers perhaps the best insight into how Trump managed to navigate American politics in a way never seen before.

The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris (2019)

Kamala Harris is a politician worth listening to – and her position as the first Black woman and the first first person of Indian descent (her father is from Jamaica and her mother is from India) to become vice-president is unprecedented. With Biden's win, she is also one step closer to becoming America's first female president.

In this revealing memoir, she presents her vision for a fairer society, from healthcare to immigration, the economy to the criminal justice system. But more than that, it is also her story – the immigrants' daughter who became a US Senator. Rather than divide, her argument is to unite through the core truths that underpin American culture and society. This book will give not just an insight into the woman behind the vice-presidency, but also hint at the type of politics we're in for in the next four years.

The Purpose of Power by Alicia Garza (22 Oct)

In July 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, Alicia Garza – along with two other California-based equality activists – wrote “a love letter to Black people” in a Facebook post, coining the phrase “Black Lives Matter”.

As more Black people died at the hands of police or white supremacists, it became the seed from which grew one of the most significant political upheavals of the 21st century. The #blacklivesmatter hashtag has become an emblem of our troubled times. And here, in The Purpose of Power, Garza examines the movement from root to branch, while presenting her vision for a fairer world.

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells (2019)

When the coronavirus crisis finally releases us from its anxiety-dungeon, we will get back to worrying about our planet's ailing health. The pandemic and social inequality aside, how we deal with the climate crisis will be one of the hottest topics on the voter's table. And if there's one book you read about it, David Wallace Wells' terrifying analysis of Mother Earth's destruction should be it.

It is an onslaught of facts, figures and anecdotes that reveal – with complacency-melting clarity – the true horror we're hurtling towards. And who's to blame? Climate denialism as a political force, he says. One, he argues, that is a uniquely American phenomenon. Biden has already promised in his first days in power to rejoin the Paris Agreement, a set of goals to help mitigate climate change, which Trump withdrew from. But there is still much more to be done.

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (2020)

Racism, institutionalised inequality and social injustice are, according to the acclaimed journalist Isabel Wilkerson, at the root of all America's problems. Which is to say, cruelty is the foundation on which the nation's hierarchy is built. But it's about more than just skin colour (though racism is the system's most “faithful servant”, she says). It's about a caste system that is so deeply ingrained in US culture, that you can barely see it's there (“Caste is the bones, race the skin”).

Beginning with slavery, and drawing parallels with India and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson – the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer prize in 1993 – seeks to “understand the origins and evolution of classifying and elevating one group of people over another.” The result: a fascinating new way to understand American power and supremacy.

Just Us by Claudia Rankine (2020)

With race the dominant issue in American society leading up to the 2020 election, it is worth trying to understand the issue from all angles. Just Us is not a book that seeks to fight a particuar political corner, so much as an invitation to start a new dialogue in which everyone is involved.

Racism, Claudia Rankine wants you to know, is not black and white. Through an intimate arrangement of essays, images, poems and analysis, the Yale professor and venerated poet walks readers through a series of her own conversations with friends and strangers to explore what, exactly, race and racism mean in America, and why so many white people fail to acknowledge it as an issue.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis (2018)

Michael Lewis is that rare breed of writer with an immutable knack for making things that sound boring nerve-shreddingly exciting. He did it with baseball stats (Moneyball), mortgage bonds (The Big Short) and judgment heuristics (The Undoing Project). And this, The Fifth Risk, is about government infrastructure... and it's a belter. Yes, it's two years old now, but few books give a better insight into how the US government actually functions through the story of three nondescript departments – those of agriculture, energy and commerce.

Through that, he reveals the “vast portfolio” of risks the US government must manage day to day – from war to nuclear disaster, global pandemic to economic collapse – and how an incompetent administration can lead to ruin.

Art: Time Lane/Penguin

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