RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe book might be called \'Colson Comes to Harlem,\' because in bringing his singular gifts to this storied place, the novelist turns to the crime genre ... In his eminently enjoyable new novel, Mr. Whitehead’s various powers have attained something like equilibrium. The humor and flashes of the old word-wizardry are there, as is the philosophical subtext; race, while not foregrounded the way it is in The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, is woven inextricably into the background, like subtle but effective film music; and we are made to care about, and root for, the main character ... In telling Carney’s story, Mr. Whitehead comes off a bit like the onetime class clown who has matured enough to realize that jokes will not carry him through every situation, even as he is sometimes unable to resist making them.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalA...logical comparison may be with Native Son. Weighing in at under 160 pages, Underground is perhaps less ambitious than Wright’s most famous novel, but it matches that work for sheer tension, and while the narrative propulsion of Native Son comes to a halt near the end, as Bigger’s lawyer mounts his defense, Underground moves continuously forward with its masterful blend of action and reflection, a kind of philosophy on the run. The work is rich with literary echoes ... Whether or not The Man Who Lived Underground is Wright’s single finest work, it must be counted among his most significant.
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of Books... McBride’s books do not do away with seriousness so much as isolate it: by showing what can be made funny, which turns out to be most things, McBride’s work also reveals what cannot — war, loss, hopelessness, the waste of human potential that is racism — and makes us feel such tragedy that much more sharply. As caustic as McBride’s humor can be, there is beneath it the feeling of human warmth ... All of that is present in McBride’s most recent work, the irresistible novel Deacon King Kong. In the hands of another writer, the book’s setting and plot might well be an occasion for unrelieved grimness ... The uneasy flirtation between [a] white man and black woman, which makes for some of the most wonderful scenes in the novel, is emblematic of still another characteristic of McBride’s work as a whole: his unsentimental yet tender portrayals of relationships between people of different backgrounds and skin colors ... In some ways, Deacon King Kong brings to mind the crime novels of Chester Himes, the slim, Harlem-based works featuring the detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, with their absurd, biting humor and their sympathetic portraits of ordinary folks on both sides of the law. But McBride brings his own voice to the proceedings, one of the most distinctive and welcome in contemporary literature.
Ed. by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThis book is a treasure. It serves in part as an alternative to the view of Ellison provided by Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography, a highly informative, eminently readable work that nonetheless portrayed its subject as something of a cold fish. The man who emerges from Selected Letters is complex and has his prickly moments but comes across, in the main, as a warm human being who valued artistic achievement, meaningful intellectual exchanges, good music, Southern cooking, a sip of whiskey and good times with old friends. And in an age when people text because they can’t be bothered with email, it is a pleasure to read the letters of one who wrote at length, thoughtfully, and with wonderful humor about everything from family stories to literature to the state of his nation to—inevitably—race ... Mr. Callahan provides a general introduction to the book as well as a warm, perceptive introduction to each decade of letters.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... slavery, forgetting and memory are at the heart of Coates’s ambitious, compelling first novel ... the novel’s biggest risk...[is] magic realism. In Coates’s hands the risk pays off ... Perhaps the most profound message in The Water Dancer—and the most craftily delivered—has to do with the characters’ dialogue. Hiram learns to read and write, and he is well-spoken. So too are the unlettered enslaved characters: they know and feel what is being done to them, and they express that knowledge and feeling with an eloquence that dares the reader to find fault with it. Yes: the enslaved, many generations of them, were fully human. And what, the novel seems to ask, had you been thinking?
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement... supersedes The Underground Railroad as Whitehead’s most emotionally resonant novel to date ... a third-person narration that, while it dispenses with jokes, does not put explicit feeling in their place. And this restraint makes the novel all the more moving, encouraging the reader to bring emotion to the proceedings ... And so, two decades after his debut, Whitehead himself emerges as a kind of Intuitionist, proceeding as much by feeling as by intellect. In so doing, he allows us to feel, and to ache, too.
PositiveThe Washington PostSome of Kotlowitz’s incidental observations, about realities so extreme they border on the absurd, are the most telling of all ... Even amid the grimness, there are sweet moments ... Still, the book’s dominant mood is bleakness. Kotlowitz wisely does not propose solutions to Chicago’s ills ... One thing he does achieve is to make clear that these horrors are not happening on TV or to creatures who somehow don’t feel pain. They are happening here, in the most prosperous nation in the world, to people like me and you.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... compelling, concise and scrupulously researched ... In this wonderful book, Mr. Taylor is conscientious occasionally to the point of distraction. So careful is he about things he doesn’t know for sure that one page talks about what Hughes and Hurston \'probably,\' \'probably,\' \'perhaps,\' \'perhaps,\' and \'possibl[y]\' did together in the South. One wishes the author had applied a bit more of that speculation to the heart of his subjects’ friendship—to a theory of why these two people, so different in some ways, were so drawn to each other. Still, he provides ample evidence that they were.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...Lauterbach...do[es] a good job of establishing the mood of the times and the context in which...principal characters operated, shedding light—the little there is to shed—on Withers’s possible motivation for cooperating with the FBI ... Mr. [Marc] Perrusquia’s dogged work [in A Spy in Canaan] made Mr. Lauterbach’s book possible. Mr. Lauterbach, though, provides a better feel for life in Memphis, where the crime and corruption were as pervasive as the hospitality. He also gives a more thoughtful analysis of Withers’s talent as a photographer ... Mr. Lauterbach’s recounting of the 1968 \'I Am a Man\' garbage strike in Memphis—where Martin Luther King was present—is riveting, capturing the mounting tensions that finally resulted in violence ... Mr. Lauterbach...asks perhaps the most pertinent question of all: \'Is it our task now to decide how a black person should have navigated a racist world?\'
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMaxine Gordon...has produced a story of Dexter’s life that is also about the challenge of portraying a reluctant subject ... Sophisticated Giant (which shares its title with a Gordon album) is affectionate, enjoyable and informative, painting a portrait of a handsome, elegant, easygoing person and artist who refused to agonize about his past. Like the man himself, however, the book fails to discuss some things the reader may wonder about ... Perhaps more important, the word \'legacy\' in the subtitle is misleading. Maxine Gordon clearly regards as her husband’s crowning achievement his lead performance as the fictional musician Dale Turner, based on the pianist Bud Powell, in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film Round Midnight, for which Gordon was nominated for an Oscar. Jazz fans, though, might be more interested in Gordon’s stylistic influence on other musicians, one obvious example being Sonny Rollins. Maxine Gordon relies on quotes from others for that, and even those are sparse.
Kwame Anthony Appiah
RaveThe Washington Post\"In his excellent new book Kwame Anthony Appiah takes on an estimable, if—at first glance—naive pursuit. In an era of Brexit, the 2017 Charlottesville incident, and \'I Really Don’t Care, Do U?,\' Appiah hopes to inspire a rethinking of our restrictive and therefore divisive notions of who we are. But if that seems an impossible task, should the massive obstacles stop us from trying? Appiah, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University and the author of eight previous books, brings to the task a number of insights and the mind of a realist ... Having both acknowledged the necessity of identity and demolished some notions of it, The Lies That Bind has little specific to say about how to awaken the world to a more productive understanding of what makes up our identities. But perhaps that will be the subject of Appiah’s next book. In the meantime, if the solution to the fracturing of our world remains elusive, this book at least helps us think clearly about the problem.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...fascinating ... Perrusquia...do[es] a good job of establishing the mood of the times and the context in which...principal characters operated, shedding light—the little there is to shed—on Withers’s possible motivation for cooperating with the FBI ... Mr. Perrusquia’s volume is a bit broader in scope [than Preston Lauterbach’s Bluff City]; he tells part of the story that only he can—the discovery of Withers’s secret and the struggle to bring it to light—and his contact with Lawrence’s surviving family members makes for insights into the FBI agent’s own personality and motivations.
RaveThe Washington PostSome of the magic of Smoketown lies in the way it details how those fields often were connected, sometimes beneath the surface. Mainly, though, these colorful stories of great black accomplishments simply make for fascinating reading ... Whitaker ably demonstrates how the descendants and legacies of those white men directly affected Pittsburgh’s black community, in ways both positive and devastating ... Smoketown will appeal to anybody interested in black history and anybody who loves a good story. In short, anybody.
Jeffrey C. Stewart
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"...a vitally important, astonishingly well researched, exhaustive biography of the brilliant, complex, flawed, utterly fascinating man who, if he did not start the movement, served as its curator, intellectual champion, and guiding spirit ... His account of Locke’s life is detailed, sometimes astoundingly so, but never descends into tedium. More important, he displays a thorough grasp of the intellectual challenges Locke took on ... On his death, in 1954, Locke left behind achievements that deserve to be more widely celebrated, and this biography represents a serious, worthy attempt to get the party started.\
Lawrence P. Jackson
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe latest, by Lawrence P. Jackson, a professor of English and history at Johns Hopkins, may well prove to be the definitive book about Himes. In this exhaustively researched work, Mr. Jackson has provided a sympathetic portrait of the novelist that also captures much of the times in which he lived... Mr. Jackson does a fine job of following that career and Himes’s life, from his struggles to publish novels and even to support himself, to his own doomed first marriage, to his flight from America and permanent residence in Europe... As Himes’s biographer, Mr. Jackson maintains a crucial distance, conveying admiration but not worship, recognizing the importance of his subject’s work while withholding judgment, for the most part, about his life, except to pull back on occasion to make a clear-eyed summation of his general character — less condemnation than observation.
MixedThe Los Angeles Review of BooksThe great strength of Hunger is in Gay’s unflinching look at herself and her life ... The great weakness of Hunger is that what might have made a knockout 40-page essay is instead a 307-page book, one that had me writing in the margins, 'Yes, you told me.' There is a good deal of repetition ... maybe it’s churlish to attack the grammar of a book that seeks to establish a connection with those suffering emotional wounds. One could argue that a writer of Gay’s prominence has a heightened responsibility to her craft; on the other hand, her fan base surely cares more about what she says than the way she says it. And for those who hunger for her message, she probably can’t deliver it often enough.
Mychal Denzel Smith
PositiveThe Village Voice...when Smith takes members of the black community to task for certain prejudices and shortcomings, he begins, honestly and poignantly, with himself ... This engaging, very readable book isn't perfect. At moments Smith's rhetoric soars so high that it loses contact with ground control ... at the sentence level, the book has moments of plain old sloppiness ... Mainly, though, Smith's book inspires admiration.