Exuberant and inspiring clarion calls for activism.

DICTIONARY OF THE UNDOING

A dictionary of political activism.

Freeman (Writer-in-Residence/New York Univ.; Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, 2017, etc.), editor of Freeman’s literary journal and executive editor of the Literary Hub, is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore. As he writes, our government is like a house on fire, with a “willfully ignorant and gloatingly cruel president.” Freeman argues that “we need to take the one tool being vandalized before our very eyes—language—and reclaim it, and redefine what it means to be an ethical citizen in the present moment.” He organizes his appeal for action around 26 words, creating a “lexicon of engagement and meaning,” and he uses each word as a starting point for his arguments, opinions, and critiques. “We need to grab the words that have possibility in them,” he writes, “and begin using them anew.” “Agitate” is a key word used throughout the book. Freeman writes that we are being manipulated and fooled and “need to agitate against apathy.” He discusses a litany of abuses: corruption; profiteering and power grabbing; attacks on voting rights and the environment; an information war; abusive racism; the hollowing out of our justice departments or erosion via a “corrosive acid wash of money.” Freeman bemoans “our lack of support of public education and our dereliction of teachers.” He balances what’s wrong with what’s right, like the rage of women’s rights and the altruism of giving. Like a ship sinking in dark waters, the author “wants to navigate around the rhetorical acts of sabotage, to grab the pump levers of language and turn the lights back on.” Though sometimes repetitious, Freeman encourages and uplifts. “We are going to change this,” he writes, “one day and moment at a time, on our own and with each other.”

Exuberant and inspiring clarion calls for activism.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-53885-9

Page Count: 192

Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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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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