Annie Harvieux

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In Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York author Ross Perlin examines a duality of the world’s most linguistically diverse city. Home to over 700 languages, 21st-century New York City is a vital nexus where people from all over the world can find others speaking their mother tongue; but the ever-increasing imperative to speak a dominant language like English or Spanish makes this also the place where these languages go extinct. 

Perlin, who is both a linguist at Columbia University and a co-director and researcher at the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), is committed to researching and preserving the linguistic diversity of the city. “At the heart of linguistics itself,” he writes, “is a radical premise: all languages are cognitively and communicatively equal.” This ethos is evident in his writing and reporting as he first unpacks the history of Indigenous and migrant peoples’ arrivals in (and departures from) what is now known as New York, and then as he collaborates with six contemporary New Yorkers of radically different backgrounds who are completing meaningful projects to share and preserve their endangered languages. Perlin spent years (sometimes over a decade) with each of his collaborators on these ELA projects, and his narrative balances biography and linguistic analysis, letting their lives act as windows into the communities making up the multilingual microcosms of other continents tucked unassumingly into New York. 

Perlin brings the subject of linguistics down from the ivory tower and into the subway car or the corner bodega. He opens up the world of endangered languages to monolingual mainstream Americans by bringing compelling and driven native speakers of those languages to the table, as well as taking care to provide historical and cultural detail. However, the volume of information in the book, including geographic specifics of both New York and the world, can occasionally feel dense despite an approachable tone and clear explanations of concepts.

Language City reinforces the value of endangered language preservation and asks salient questions: What do we lose when we facilitate a monolingual society in both practice and policy? And how can we instead allow diverse languages to create a society that is more equitable, livable and inclusive? 

Language City reveals the New Yorkers working to save their endangered mother tongues, and offers a new way of viewing language.
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The popular conception of America’s origins as a nation forged by hardworking immigrants contrasts sharply with the indifferent and sometimes cruel policies that hinder many migrants and refugees today. In A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging, author and journalist Lauren Markham explores this chasm in the American consciousness, asking why some migrants are heroized and others demonized.

Markham made several trips to Greece during the “still-roiling wake of the debt crisis” with two purposes: reflecting on her Greek heritage and reporting on the population of undocumented migrants at refugee camps. She intertwines these two threads with the specificity of a journalist and the fluidity of a storyteller. In 2015, she writes, “hundreds of thousands and then millions of people from Africa and Asia and the Middle East fled their own homes in search of safety in Europe, washing up waterlogged and desperate and sometimes dead on Greece’s shores.” At Moria, a camp on the island of Lesbos, she meets Ali, an Afghan teenager who left his country to earn more money for his impoverished family. She follows his experience as he is wrongfully accused of setting fire to Moria and thrust into a cruel legal system.

At the same time, Markham investigates what visiting her ancestral homeland can (and can never) reveal about her family, herself and the very nature of how white Americans conceive of ethnicity. Markham argues that what we consider “the West” is more of a recently constructed, apocryphal origin story for white identity—a myth that stokes nationalism and xenophobia—than it is a historically cohesive set of peoples and places.

Markham’s unfussy yet detailed style provides an engaging read as she moves from research to reporting to memoir. A Map of Future Ruins is more of a meditation on a theme than an exhaustive dive into a topic. While it may not be the best fit for someone seeking a deep investigation into immigration, the book is uniquely suited to nudge readers into considering where their ideas of national identity originated, and whom these ideas disenfranchise today.

Lauren Markham deftly braids reporting on the refugee crisis in Greece with historical research and memoir in A Map of Future Ruins.
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Poverty, by America, the new book from Pulitzer Prize-winning Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond (Evicted), focuses on the root causes of Americans’ economic suffering. Mixing statistics and tales from real people’s lives, Desmond makes a convincing argument that poverty is a sinkhole too powerful for anyone to pull themselves out by their bootstraps alone. 

Early in the book, Desmond establishes that poverty is about not just money but “a relentless piling on of problems,” with housing insecurity, eviction and the instability of low-wage gig and temp work at its core. The rising cost of living in American cities and the decline of career work with benefits are also contributing factors, as are our country’s aggressive carceral and criminal justice systems. In a chapter on welfare, Desmond points out that while the amount of aid available to poor people has increased since the 1980s, many of the people who qualify never take advantage of it. This, coupled with the astronomical costs of healthcare, wreaks havoc on every demographic, but immigrants and single or unmarried parents are often hit the hardest. Desmond debunks the logic used to blame these groups for relying on public assistance. 

One of Desmond’s fundamental assertions is that America has little incentive to reduce its level of poverty because those in power profit from the labor and rent money of those living more precariously. For example, employers’ gradual victory over unions is a major reason employees are now unable to escape workplace exploitation, from low wages and no benefits to noncompete clauses and workplace surveillance. Payday loans, overdraft fees and racially discriminatory interest rates are other ways American institutions financially benefit from civilians’ poverty. This all combines with the costly privatization of more and more public goods and services, like when California’s Proposition 13 capped property taxes for homeowners and consequently gutted funding for public education in the state.

Desmond devotes a fair section of this slim volume to proposed solutions, repeatedly stating that those living well will need to sacrifice some affluence to alleviate others’ suffering. However, he balks at the phrase “redistribution of wealth,” saying it “distracts and triggers.” Instead, his practical solutions seem tailored to those who are willing to sacrifice in moderation—for example, by supporting businesses with unions, paying their full taxes and pressuring upper classes to do the same. Few of his solutions seem likely to form the political pressure cooker needed to regulate predatory banking, end exclusionary zoning and pry tax dollars from executives’ claws.

While Poverty, by America may not be a how-to for the revolution that many fed-up Americans are calling for, it’s a solid primer for those living in relative comfort about how the suffocating tendrils of poverty work, and who they benefit.

Read our audiobook review of Poverty, by America, narrated by Dion Graham.

Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, by America is a solid primer about how the suffocating tendrils of poverty work, and who they benefit.
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In Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words, Jenni Nuttall draws from decades of knowledge gleaned from studying and teaching medieval literature in order to track the origins and winding evolutions of the language used to discuss the female experience.

Nuttall arranges her history in topical chapters, opening the first chapter about anatomical terms with Chaucer (Who else?) and delving into a discussion about how terms describing genitalia are either euphemistic or coldly clinical. These bleed into the next chapter on menstrual language, a wild journey through a millennium of speculation about period bleeding. This is followed by a chapter on lust and sexuality, which demonstrates the ways that cultural and religious institutions have created a shameful and heteronormative path for women. A chapter covering gendered violence comes with painful but necessary context for our current victim-blaming culture, followed by a final chapter about feminism, misogyny and developing empowering vocabularies around the two.

Each chapter roves through time, picking salient points that result in a narrative, not a glossary. This makes Mother Tongue feel better suited to someone wishing to muse and draw connections than someone concerned with mapping changes over an exact interval. Where the text excels is in providing thought-provoking origins and comparison points for words that English-speaking culture often portrays as immutable. The book also makes the origins of our current cultural norms apparent from the lack of available information around lesbianism in early English and broad definitions and decryings of “sodomy”  to the origin of the word “drudgery” as explicitly meaning women’s work.

The book lauds women who emerge from under the thumb of patriarchy,  but meets the changes of the future (and present) gender revolution with bland neutrality, and sometimes quiet apprehension. Nuttall’s introduction states that many terms in the book apply also to nonbinary and transgender people, but the book is ultimately cisnormative both in its focus and its afterword, which makes sense for a book tracing the Anglo mainstream but can feel a bit out of step with current conversations around gender. Nuttall applies “both sides” reasoning and hand-wrings over what she calls “circumlocutions,” such as “people who menstruate” that describe traits traditionally seen as female without limiting them to a single gender identity.

Despite such reactionary moments, this easily digestible and scenario-rich depiction of the evolution of language we take for granted is still done with care and compelling detail.  Nuttall answers why we have been taught to say what we do, but more importantly, reminds us that the language we are handed is contextual, cultural and ultimately changeable.

This easily digestible and scenario-rich exploration of gendered language shows how our words are contextual, cultural and ultimately changeable.
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In Ronan and the Endless Sea of Stars, author Rick Louis tells the story of losing his baby son to a rare neurological illness in 2013. “This is not a story about grief,” Louis writes. “It is just the story of a little boy who was only here for a short while and what he meant to us.”

It spoils nothing to tell readers that Ronan dies; this is revealed at the book’s beginning by showing present-day Louis next to a baby-size vacant space, populated by twinkling stars. The book then moves backward in time, starting with the day Ronan was born and the joy Louis and his wife, Emily, took in him. (Emily published a bestselling memoir about Ronan in 2013 called The Still Point of the Turning World.) However, Ronan’s parents soon began to notice some health concerns, such as Ronan’s difficulty focusing his eyes, and sought medical attention. An ophthalmologist revealed that Ronan had signs of Tay-Sachs disease, a lethal condition that prevents the breakdown of lipids in the brain and nerves. When the diagnosis was confirmed, Louis and Emily had to confront their child’s mortality as they did everything in their power to enrich his life. As Ronan’s health deteriorated due to seizures and breathing difficulties, the uncertainty and strain also deteriorated his parents’ relationship.

Louis imbues this mostly tragic narrative with earnestness, quirk and even humor, paired neatly with (often silly) illustrations of what’s going on in characters’ minds. All the while, Louis holds true to telling the story of his time with Ronan with profound sincerity, reverence and honesty. Never does Louis speculate about what Ronan may have been thinking or feeling, nor does he graft personalization onto Ronan’s suffering. Instead, Louis simply recounts the horror of watching his child suffer while also expressing the pure joy of being a parent to a beautiful and unique person.

This is the first book for both Louis and illustrator Lara Antal, and they make good use of the graphic memoir form by pairing a cinematic, moving tale of family and loss with expressively drawn faces. Viewing the pain in Louis’ and Emily’s faces as they contemplate their child’s death is almost as haunting as watching the life drain from Ronan’s eyes as his disease progresses. Recurring abstract images, such as gently coiling swirls of black and sheets of ombre static, populate backgrounds, faces and even trees. These convey emotional heft in a way that is more gut-centered than paragraphs of prose about a character’s feeling.

In a culture where grief is treated as something to avoid at all costs and dispose of quickly, this book provides a valuable counterpoint. Carrying an eternal love for someone who has died is, for Louis, as vital as it is excruciating. For those who have known profound grief, or those willing to expand their understanding of its nuances, Ronan and the Endless Sea of Stars will be a valuable read.

In his debut graphic memoir, Rick Louis tells the story of his son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease, with profound sincerity, reverence and honesty.

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