Your mileage, as they say, may vary where this shrewd cultural historian—and shallow contemporary observer—is concerned....

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The scholar and culture warrior comes out swinging with an overstuffed omnibus that hits and misses in equal measure.

Ever since the publication of her extraordinary 1990 critical study Sexual Personae, Paglia (Humanities and Media Studies/Univ. of the Arts, Philadelphia; Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, 2017, etc.) has been somewhat of a split personality, and some readers may wish her two sides could be separated. Keep the artist/critic, the excavator of cultural mysteries, the scold of higher education, and the daunting interpreter of art and poetry whose book Break, Blow, Burn (2005) is a masterpiece; banish the self-promoter who often gets triggered by liberalism and feminism. The present volume, which collects the author’s work from Washington Post Book World, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, ARTnews, the Hollywood Reporter, and many other diverse publications, is both brilliant and occasionally obnoxious. Paglia covers a vast swath of society and culture at large, including sections on popular culture, literature, education, art, politics, and more. She is still at her fiery intellectual best as a teacher, whether she’s throwing out odd but intriguing comparisons—Captain Ahab and Ziggy Stardust are both “scarred by lightning,” each “a voyager who has defied ordinary human limits and paid the price”—or deciphering poetry, happily butchering sacred cows along the way. (Wallace Stevens “ended his career with a laborious, plodding, skeletal style, employed in self-questioning poems of numbing length.”) Paglia loves classic rebels, including Dylan, Dalí, Picasso, Warhol, and the gay artist Tom of Finland, but she’s equally inclined to power. She writes fondly of Ayn Rand, a “bold female thinker who should immediately have been a centerpiece of women’s studies programs”; New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (“I am frankly enjoying his assault on the arts establishment”); and Sarah Palin (“like Annie Oakley, a brash ambassador from America’s pioneer past”).

Your mileage, as they say, may vary where this shrewd cultural historian—and shallow contemporary observer—is concerned. Take it or leave it: This career retrospective is both maddening and essential.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4689-6

Page Count: 752

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2018

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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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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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