A book that belongs on the shelf alongside The Gulag Archipelago.

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SEARCHING FOR STALIN'S GULAGS IN PUTIN'S RUSSIA

A charged indictment of Soviet terror and historical amnesia alike.

If one were needed, a sure sign of the increasingly totalitarian drift of Putin’s Russia is the steady rehabilitation of Stalin, long hidden away but now safe enough to be commemorated at a Moscow subway stop. Moscow-born journalist Gessen (The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, 2017, etc.), the indefatigable chronicler of the low-grade fever of tyranny, provides a searching text on the prison state that was Stalin’s Russia, accompanied by photographs by Moldovan native Friedman. His work is much reminiscent of Cartier-Bresson’s, though with a darkness and graininess that suggest that a permanent pall lies atop the Siberian landscape, a place of endless uranium mines and cemeteries. The text opens with Gessen’s meditation on what might have happened to the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, spirited into the gulag at the end of World War II and one of its best-known occupants. As the author notes, were he alive, he would be 104, which makes his death “finally, a fact,” if one with “no known circumstance of specific cause.” So it is with the whole gulag enterprise: if it were meant to terrorize the populace on the part of the apparatchiks and secret police, “then shouldn’t they want to carry out the executions in the public square?” No, and for some reason, most of the extrajudicial activity of the Soviet state took place in darkness. As they travel the land, Gessen and Friedman document some of the efforts of Russians to commemorate the fallen, such as a reconstructed labor camp so chillingly accurate in its detail that, a former political prisoner averred, it “felt exactly like a real Soviet-era prison camp,” a comment its restorer and curator accepted as a compliment. But those efforts may be vain, Gessen suggests, in the face of widespread public indifference in the Putin era, as if to say that the Soviet terror “just happened, whatever.”

A book that belongs on the shelf alongside The Gulag Archipelago.

Pub Date: Feb. 27, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9977229-6-3

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Columbia Global Reports

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

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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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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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