A typically thoughtful set of Biss essays: searching, serious, and determined to go beyond the surface.

HAVING AND BEING HAD

The poet and essayist considers her affluence and what—and who—has been sacrificed for it.

“My adult life, I decide, can be divided into two distinct parts—the time before I owned a washing machine and the time after,” writes Biss. She means it: Acquiring a home and its attendant creature comforts has radically changed her relationships to money, labor, and domesticity. In the same way her previous books explored the hidden social contracts around racism (Notes From No Man’s Land) and vaccination (On Immunity), her latest interrogates capitalism’s relationship to upper-middle-class living, particularly hers. Most of the brief, potent essays consider particular objects and actions and the questions they spark about value: a piano (“Dada da dum—middle class! Let the lessons begin”), redlining, investments, lines at amusement parks, the game of Monopoly, and poetry. Biss marvels at the uncertainty and discomfort people display when assigning costs and value to their work—and the way these discussions are further burdened by problems of race and gender, particularly in terms of how slavery and marriage turned people into property. Calling on her own experience and past writers (Emily Dickinson, Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf) and economists (John Kenneth Galbraith) who have addressed these matters, the author comes to recognize that income inequality runs deeper than matters of dollars and cents. Some are truly members of the precariat, on the edge of poverty, while others merely think they are, but everyone is compelled to scramble for more. Biss prescribes no solutions except perhaps to encourage more candor about the problem. When she told a friend she was unsure how to end this book, the friend responded: “The only way to end it would be to burn your house down.” Spoiler: She doesn’t. But what to do instead?

A typically thoughtful set of Biss essays: searching, serious, and determined to go beyond the surface.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53745-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2020

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A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

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A PROMISED LAND

In the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama recounts the hard path to the White House.

In this long, often surprisingly candid narrative, Obama depicts a callow youth spent playing basketball and “getting loaded,” his early reading of difficult authors serving as a way to impress coed classmates. (“As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless,” he admits.) Yet seriousness did come to him in time and, with it, the conviction that America could live up to its stated aspirations. His early political role as an Illinois state senator, itself an unlikely victory, was not big enough to contain Obama’s early ambition, nor was his term as U.S. Senator. Only the presidency would do, a path he painstakingly carved out, vote by vote and speech by careful speech. As he writes, “By nature I’m a deliberate speaker, which, by the standards of presidential candidates, helped keep my gaffe quotient relatively low.” The author speaks freely about the many obstacles of the race—not just the question of race and racism itself, but also the rise, with “potent disruptor” Sarah Palin, of a know-nothingism that would manifest itself in an obdurate, ideologically driven Republican legislature. Not to mention the meddlings of Donald Trump, who turns up in this volume for his idiotic “birther” campaign while simultaneously fishing for a contract to build “a beautiful ballroom” on the White House lawn. A born moderate, Obama allows that he might not have been ideological enough in the face of Mitch McConnell, whose primary concern was then “clawing [his] way back to power.” Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the book, as smoothly written as his previous books, is Obama’s cleareyed scene-setting for how the political landscape would become so fractured—surely a topic he’ll expand on in the next volume.

A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6316-9

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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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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