Eye-opening, gut-wrenching journalism.




A journalist recalls his time spent volunteering in a Kenyan shelter for children with HIV and his later struggles with mental illness in this harrowing memoir.

Neill (Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies, 2018, etc.) first began reading about the worldwide HIV crisis while attending Georgetown University as an English major. This led him to volunteer at a local shelter, where he found that “vulnerable, sick, abandoned children quickly became a passion for me.” Neill was an aspiring investigative reporter who had developed a great admiration for the “hero-activist-journalist” Greg Mortenson. However, he struggled to get any of his own work published. He eventually came to the realization that the scope of his stories was too small, so he contacted a Jesuit priest who had set up a hospice for HIV-positive children in Africa and asked to volunteer. In 2002, he traveled to Kenya, eager to “comfort the afflicted” and write what he was sure would be an “eye-opening work of staggering genius.” However, Neill now admits that he wasn’t at all ready for the “horrors of sub-Saharan Africa’s generalized epidemic.” He goes on to recount the suffering and terrible conditions in and around the Rainbow Children’s Home where he worked and lived for two years. In addition, he offers imagined reconstructions of events in the lives of children at the shelter, written from a third-person point of view. The narrative goes on to detail the aftermath of the author’s time abroad, during which he exhibited suicidal tendencies and spent some time in a psychiatric ward. The author shows intense attention to detail in this memoir, and many of his descriptions have a cameralike immediacy. For the most part, this unflinching approach is shockingly visceral, as when he describes a baby boy found alive in a trash pit in the Dagoretti section of Nairobi: “His face had been mauled by dogs, the torn flesh covered in an oozing miasma of maggots.” Throughout, Neill is consistently unafraid to show the dire nature of everyday life in the shelter, but he also captures rare moments of beauty, such as when he heard children gleefully sing a song about bananas, taught to them by a Canadian volunteer, or when he saw a “flowering eucalyptus or flame tree growing up between rusted corrugated tin roofs.” On occasion, though, the book dips too far into the macabre; for example, when Neill buries a deceased fellow volunteer in Kenya, he visualizes the coffin lid slipping off to reveal her “restless, putrefying visage staring out at us.” This imagined detail seems unnecessary and driven by an overzealous desire to provide prose with impact. That said, there’s no delicate way to accurately describe the dreadful reality of Kenya’s street children, who regularly faced the prospect of “kidnap, rape and murder.” Overall, this memoir is a disturbing exposé, and Neill is acutely aware that the narrative could be read as one of “unmitigated tragedy.” But there’s also a sense of hope within these pages that may convince others to volunteer for similar causes.

Eye-opening, gut-wrenching journalism.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2018


Page Count: 271

Publisher: Tenebray Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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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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A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.


Straight talk to blacks and whites about the realities of racism.

In her feisty debut book, Oluo, essayist, blogger, and editor at large at the Establishment magazine, writes from the perspective of a black, queer, middle-class, college-educated woman living in a “white supremacist country.” The daughter of a white single mother, brought up in largely white Seattle, she sees race as “one of the most defining forces” in her life. Throughout the book, Oluo responds to questions that she has often been asked, and others that she wishes were asked, about racism “in our workplace, our government, our homes, and ourselves.” “Is it really about race?” she is asked by whites who insist that class is a greater source of oppression. “Is police brutality really about race?” “What is cultural appropriation?” and “What is the model minority myth?” Her sharp, no-nonsense answers include talking points for both blacks and whites. She explains, for example, “when somebody asks you to ‘check your privilege’ they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing.” She unpacks the complicated term “intersectionality”: the idea that social justice must consider “a myriad of identities—our gender, class, race, sexuality, and so much more—that inform our experiences in life.” She asks whites to realize that when people of color talk about systemic racism, “they are opening up all of that pain and fear and anger to you” and are asking that they be heard. After devoting most of the book to talking, Oluo finishes with a chapter on action and its urgency. Action includes pressing for reform in schools, unions, and local governments; boycotting businesses that exploit people of color; contributing money to social justice organizations; and, most of all, voting for candidates who make “diversity, inclusion and racial justice a priority.”

A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-58005-677-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Seal Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 9, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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