A nuanced, forthright, emotionally compelling take on a painful subject.



How family dynamics can reflect racial prejudices in society as a whole.

“Outside the house, siblings who are light and dark may be treated differently, and of course they bring those lived experiences back into the home,” writes Tharps (Journalism/Temple Univ.; Substitute Me, 2010, etc.). This is particularly true within interracial families. The author has “medium-brown” skin, and her husband is “a Spaniard with a milky-white complexion.” They have three children: one boy is dark-skinned with kinky hair who otherwise resembles his father, and the other resembles the author in everything but his fair complexion. Oddly, her daughter looks Asian at first glance. When Tharps is with her two fair-complexioned children, some people assume that she is their nanny. Conversely, her dark-skinned son has been asked whether he was adopted. It is not merely overt racism that is problematic, she explains, but also the differences in their educational and employment opportunities. More subtly, a light-skinned member of a “black” family who identifies with black culture may not necessarily be accepted by black peers. Throughout, the author augments her personal experience with eye-opening interviews. White-skin preference and the interplay between physical appearance (skin color and hair quality) and culture create stresses and estrangement within the family as well as the broader community. Tharps adopts the term “colorism,” first coined by author and civil rights activist Alice Walker, to illustrate the subtle difference between white-skin privilege and outright racism. She reports instances of colorism from a wide variety of people—not just blacks, but also Latinos and Asians—that show the inherent significance of physical appearance in defining the intimate relationships within a family and society. Interestingly, as the author notes, the caste system in Asia—before European conquest—also exhibited color preference, likely attributable to a prejudice against laborers with sun-darkened complexions.

A nuanced, forthright, emotionally compelling take on a painful subject.

Pub Date: Oct. 4, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8070-7678-1

Page Count: 216

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 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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