A vibrant separation of an African-American vernacular tradition from the thickets of contemporary racial debate.



A compact, lively defense of the grammatical legitimacy of “Black English.”

McWhorter (Linguistics, Music History, American Studies/Columbia Univ.; Words on the Move: Why English Won't—and Can't—Sit Still, 2016, etc.) has been involved in the controversies surrounding African-American Vernacular English for 20 years, when the news of Oakland, California’s schools' consideration of an Ebonics curriculum provided him “fifteen minutes of modest media notoriety [as a] black linguist.” Although the debate on Ebonics faded, McWhorter concluded, “racism is hardly the only thing standing between how linguists see Black English and how the public sees it.” Thus, his approach focuses equally on discerning intricate grammatical principles within AAVE and on the larger mysteries of how shared culture affects seemingly individualized traits like speech patterns. He gradually expands his perspective over the book’s five essays, first defusing the question of whether African-Americans can be said to “sound black.” He notes that the issue’s sensitivity may be “because Black English is so often associated with stupidity that one can’t help wanting to disidentify from it.” Meanwhile, even well-meaning white people are reluctant to explore their own assumptions for fear of appearing racist. Similarly, many black and white Americans cannot accept the legitimacy of Black English due to its apparent inappropriateness for certain social or professional situations, despite the fact that “no Black English advocate is calling for Black English to be allowed in [job] interviews.” McWhorter notes that black Americans today are necessarily experts in code-switching, or utilizing both Standard and Black English in different contexts. “The two things do not cancel each other out: They coexist,” he argues. Still, the enduring taint of minstrel culture continues to quash intellectual inquiry into black linguistics, as many are convinced “that a black way to talk has something to do with white racist caricature.” The author confidently untangles these issues, writing in an accessible and wry yet precise style.

A vibrant separation of an African-American vernacular tradition from the thickets of contemporary racial debate.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-942658-20-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 11, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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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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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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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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