As panoptic and sparkling as the crystals contained in many of the author’s objects of study.

THE BOOK OF UNCONFORMITIES

SPECULATIONS ON LOST TIME

Raffles uses stones as jumping-off points to create poetic portraits of various times and places.

In geology, an unconformity is “a discontinuity in the deposition of sediment.” In his latest book, the author examines rock associated with specific places—e.g., the friable marble at the northern tip of Manhattan or the glittery gneiss of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland—as part of a quest to acknowledge that “even the most solid, ancient, and elemental materials are as lively, capricious, willful, and indifferent as time itself; and that life is filled with uncomformities—revealing holes in time that are also fissures in feeling, knowledge, and understanding.” That marble in New York City changed the lives of the peoples—from Lenape to Manhattanite—who have lived there as well as the topography of the island. Raffles delves into the history of the neighborhood to fashion a multihued story, but he always returns to the rocks. The author also explores the sandstone prevalent in the U.K.; magnetite in Iceland; the iron of a meteorite in Greenland; muscovite from many sources; and, in the Svalbard archipelago, “concreted blubber, a product of human geology, the residue of thousands of whales boiled in three-meter-wide copper cauldrons, the spilled oil congealing with sand, gravel, and coal in a rocky mass.” Each section is packed with vivid, entertaining tales, whether Raffles is discussing the enigmatic objects, obscure rites, the Scandinavian occupation of the Orkney Islands, or the geopoetics of megaliths. Throughout, the author is “alive to the deeply archaic currents moving through and around me.” The text shimmers with rangy curiosity, precise pictorial descriptions, well-narrated history, a sympathetic eye for the natural world, and a deft, light scholarly touch. The mood is as unpredictable as next week’s weather, as Raffles remains keenly attuned to the politics and personalities that move the action along.

As panoptic and sparkling as the crystals contained in many of the author’s objects of study.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8041-9799-1

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

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ON JUNETEENTH

The Harvard historian and Texas native demonstrates what the holiday means to her and to the rest of the nation.

Initially celebrated primarily by Black Texans, Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when a Union general arrived in Galveston to proclaim the end of slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy. If only history were that simple. In her latest, Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and numerous other honors, describes how Whites raged and committed violence against celebratory Blacks as racism in Texas and across the country continued to spread through segregation, Jim Crow laws, and separate-but-equal rationalizations. As Gordon-Reed amply shows in this smooth combination of memoir, essay, and history, such racism is by no means a thing of the past, even as Juneteenth has come to be celebrated by all of Texas and throughout the U.S. The Galveston announcement, notes the author, came well after the Emancipation Proclamation but before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Though Gordon-Reed writes fondly of her native state, especially the strong familial ties and sense of community, she acknowledges her challenges as a woman of color in a state where “the image of Texas has a gender and a race: “Texas is a White man.” The author astutely explores “what that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man.” With all of its diversity and geographic expanse, Texas also has a singular history—as part of Mexico, as its own republic from 1836 to 1846, and as a place that “has connections to people of African descent that go back centuries.” All of this provides context for the uniqueness of this historical moment, which Gordon-Reed explores with her characteristic rigor and insight.

A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-63149-883-1

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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