Switek belongs to the science-shouldn’t-be-boring school of writing, but readers who can tolerate his steady stream of...

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SKELETON KEYS

THE SECRET LIFE OF BONE

A cheerful popular-science romp through the matter that makes up our skeleton.

Writers on human body parts usually concentrate on the heart, lungs, brain, and reproductive organs. Science writer Switek (My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, 2013, etc.) leaves the beaten path to deliver a fun explanation of the history, function, and cultural meaning of bone. As the author notes early on, life was squishy for billions of years. Less than 500 million years ago, bone “got its start as rigid plate armor on the outside of a primordial fish, but as the pieces sunk inside they became an interlocking framework that never shifts by itself, yet…allows for the sensational range of motion our species is capable of.” Bone is hard but not too hard. It contains about 30 percent collagen, identical to the connective tissue that makes up our ligaments and tendons. The other 70 percent is a mineral called hydroxyapatite (tooth enamel, much harder, contains more than 90 percent). Switek does his duty by bone science, but his heart is in bone disease and bone culture. The best fossils (human included) contain fractures and cut marks that reveal how the creature lived and perhaps died. Ancient bones regularly turn up as jewelry and building material; converting human skulls to drinking cups and art objects has a long history. The author gives King Richard III’s recently exhumed bones their own chapter. In the 19th century, collectors assembled thousands of skulls and expressed confidence that they revealed the essence of race, character, and intelligence. It’s unlikely that most readers believe they were right, but the author goes to great length to show that they weren’t.

Switek belongs to the science-shouldn’t-be-boring school of writing, but readers who can tolerate his steady stream of whimsy, jokes, and drollery will receive a painless, mostly illuminating education on his subject.

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-18490-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 30, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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