Gaitskill has not published a memoir, but this collection makes that prospect tantalizing.




Glimpses of a writer’s life through a miscellany of reviews, anecdotes, and musings.

In the title essay, fiction writer Gaitskill (The Mare, 2016, etc.) recalls teaching Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries” to an English class at Syracuse University. Living in an apartment in a run-down section of the city, struck by the contrast between her poor neighbors and affluent students, she thought about reading a passage from that story, spoken by a character who warns against complacency: “At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist” who deserve attention and care and that the good life may suddenly turn terribly bad. She never read the passage, deciding it was too simplistic, but the sentiment it expresses—a visceral sensitivity to the darkness of the human condition—underlies many of the strongest pieces in an up-and-down (mostly up) collection. In one essay she recalls the “desperate human confusion” that led to her becoming a born-again Christian at the age of 21; in another she struggles to understand what occurred in an experience she has described to herself as date rape. By far, the highlight of the collection is a long, haunting memoir, “Lost Cat,” which weaves together memories of her adopting, and losing, a skittish kitten; her father’s death; two children from a troubled home who visited with her and her husband from the Fresh Air Fund; and her ongoing relationship with one of them and his sister. The children were difficult and yet to Gaitskill seemed superior to her “not because of anything innate, but because of their exposure to brutal, impossibly complex social forces that they were made to negotiate every day of their lives.” Other essays offer details of the author’s own difficult youth: she ran away from home at 16 and spent years on the streets, at one point becoming a stripper. “I was promiscuous, even aggressively so,” she admits.

Gaitskill has not published a memoir, but this collection makes that prospect tantalizing.

Pub Date: April 4, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-307-37822-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

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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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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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