An unconventional but affecting biography.




A recounting of a teacher’s globe-trotting life written by a grateful student.

In 1966, debut author Simmonds was in the 10th grade in St. Kitts and eager to begin the study of the French language. He was immediately taken with his teacher, Zenaida “Zina” Katzen, who impressed him with her self-assured poise and bold teaching strategies. The author was so profoundly influenced by her example that he continued to study French and became a teacher as well, his professional emulation a kind of loving homage to her. Simmonds enjoyed a reunion with her in 1998 but resolved to learn more about her. He returned to St. Kitts in 2010, eight years after her death, to begin researching her life. The author unearthed a remarkably eventful soul—Katzen (originally Katzenellenbogen) was born in Siberia in 1911, the daughter of a respected medical doctor and virtuosic musician. The Russian Revolution forced her family to relocate in 1919, first to Japan and then to China. She spent six years (1926-32) as a student in Paris and graduated from the Sorbonne. After teaching in Shanghai, she moved to Chile—she may have worked for the Allies during World War II—and started her own school. Katzen moved to St. Kitts in 1961, shortly before she turned 50, and spent her last 42 years there. Katzen’s trajectory is cinematically adventurous, and the twine that holds together its diverse parts—tenderly captured by Simmonds—is her calling to be a teacher. The author is infectiously enthusiastic about the subject, and his research is meticulous. Also, he waxes philosophic about the consequences of laying bare the story of his “pedagogic idol,” a moving reflection on the advantage distance from our heroes provides. His methods can be idiosyncratic: He announces in a prefatory comment that he feels free to imaginatively fill in the lacunae of her life, without giving the reader any sense of when that occurs. Also, he allows Katzen’s correspondence to tell the tale of the last 40 years of her life, which can be meanderingly unfocused. Includes photos.

An unconventional but affecting biography.

Pub Date: March 19, 2018


Page Count: 181

Publisher: ISS Publishing

Review Posted Online: July 11, 2018

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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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 clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.


Straight talk to blacks and whites about the realities of racism.

In her feisty debut book, Oluo, essayist, blogger, and editor at large at the Establishment magazine, writes from the perspective of a black, queer, middle-class, college-educated woman living in a “white supremacist country.” The daughter of a white single mother, brought up in largely white Seattle, she sees race as “one of the most defining forces” in her life. Throughout the book, Oluo responds to questions that she has often been asked, and others that she wishes were asked, about racism “in our workplace, our government, our homes, and ourselves.” “Is it really about race?” she is asked by whites who insist that class is a greater source of oppression. “Is police brutality really about race?” “What is cultural appropriation?” and “What is the model minority myth?” Her sharp, no-nonsense answers include talking points for both blacks and whites. She explains, for example, “when somebody asks you to ‘check your privilege’ they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing.” She unpacks the complicated term “intersectionality”: the idea that social justice must consider “a myriad of identities—our gender, class, race, sexuality, and so much more—that inform our experiences in life.” She asks whites to realize that when people of color talk about systemic racism, “they are opening up all of that pain and fear and anger to you” and are asking that they be heard. After devoting most of the book to talking, Oluo finishes with a chapter on action and its urgency. Action includes pressing for reform in schools, unions, and local governments; boycotting businesses that exploit people of color; contributing money to social justice organizations; and, most of all, voting for candidates who make “diversity, inclusion and racial justice a priority.”

A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-58005-677-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Seal Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 9, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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