MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe author turns her withering attention more acutely upon her nation’s politics via forthright — and sometimes overly broad — polemic. In essays that range from an account of her writing life to an examination of the reasons feminism has failed to win victories for Zimbabwean women, Dangarembga weaves personal and material histories to explain how race and gender are lived in her country. The result is a compelling collection that sometimes stumbles, leaving this reader pining for her trademark exactitude ... At its best, Black and Female accumulates and intertwines such details, yoking the personal and political to demonstrate how the experience of race and gender depends not on overarching essentialism but on local histories that are written on the body ... Moments constitute the sort of searing work we’ve come to expect from Dangarembga, and are far more effective than the broad, often vague claims she tries to make regarding the failure of Zimbabwean feminism ... The book too often left me longing for the author to return to the personal, where her most convincing political arguments get made.
John Edgar Wideman
RaveThe New York Time Book ReviewThose who have read the Homewood trilogy, Philadelphia Fire or Brothers and Keepers will find that those books’ ideas continue to haunt Wideman’s work, though he approaches them with a verve only a master of language can command ... Wideman turns forgotten historical figures into memorable characters, reanimating and giving voice to the past to make sense of the present.
PanThe New York Times Book Review... Rushdie serves up a confused vision of this century, presenting a self-absorbed and exhausted thinker whose eye has been tracking yesterday’s concerns ... The volume arrives without a preface that might lay out a rationale for its necessity ... readers will be hard-pressed to perceive any historical or political arc at play. The tome is divided into four parts, but because these parts do not have titles, the logic of their organization is a mere intimation. Readers are left without a roadmap through the collection, or any way of understanding Rushdie’s intentions, turning the book’s eclecticism into a liability. Things do become clear once we settle into Rushdie’s criticism, which evinces a catholic cultural appetite ... commitment to a global literature avant la lettre comes to the fore in the collection’s most coherent moments, showcasing Rushdie’s belief that literature is naturally rooted in multiplicity, migration and exchange. Rushdie’s belief feels almost quaint in a moment when people are content to tie themselves up in the straitjacket of cultural ownership. Unfortunately, it’s the most vital observation on cultural politics this volume has to offer. Elsewhere, Rushdie is prone to bromides that feel determinedly bland, always skirting the edge of interesting ... Elsewhere, he repeats his well-worn attacks on religious faith, objectionable not because they are offensive but because they are as blinkered and dogmatic as the theisms he wants to leave behind ... an agonizing lack of self-awareness ... These essays are at their best when Rushdie trains his attention on literature ... It’s too bad, then, that the actual criticism of literature in these writings leaves so much to be desired. Rushdie is given to easy observations that don’t require keenness of thought on his part ... a book that feels limited in its political concerns, and out of touch with the most pressing questions facing contemporary literary culture in this century.
PositiveThe AtlanticEmploying her signature collagelike approach, she avoids polemics, instead earnestly speculating about the possibility of interracial understanding ... In Just Us, Rankine the poet becomes an anthropologist. If her mode of discomfiting those whom she encounters strikes readers as unexpectedly mild, it might be because the strident urgency of racial politics in the U.S. escalated while her book was on its way toward publication. She chooses her words carefully as she engages, positioning herself in the minefield of her interlocutors’ emotions so that dialogue can happen ... the notion that racial inequality can be challenged by fostering social intimacy and uncovering the reality of white privilege—risks seeming somewhat regressive ... this Rankine can often sound—at least to someone who’s followed, and felt, the anger of the spring and summer—as though she’s arriving on the scene of a radical uprising in order to translate it into language white readers will find palatable ... But Rankine’s probing, persistent desire for intimacy is also daring at a time when anti-racist discourse has hardened into an ideological surety, and when plenty of us chafe at the work of \'explaining\' race to white people ... Just Us is most interesting when Rankine leans into this self-examination. In these moments, she suggests that the myopia of \'whiteness\' is not necessarily an attribute limited to white people. It becomes a circulating ethos of willful ignorance, the right to live a life whose fundamental assumptions go unobserved ... But tireless questioning is never out of date, and she freely faces up to the limits of her own enterprise, embracing a spirit of doubt, mingled with hope, that we would all do well to emulate.
PositiveAltaAs a novelist, Lalami traffics in the specific textures of individual lives and voices, allowing questions of race, gender, and class to percolate at the edges of her narratives rather than dominate them. A similar instinct infuses Conditional Citizens, which uses the contradictions between American ideals and the author’s experience to excavate histories of exclusion. Tackling questions of national belonging, media representation of Muslims, anti-poor government policy, and structural misogyny, Lalami sets an enormous task for herself: to describe multiple modes of exclusion, each with its own knotty convolutions. But if this collection finds Lalami broadening her scope, its wide lens sometimes vitiates the specificity that is her greatest literary strength ... Conditional Citizens can drag when Lalami sacrifices her own story for broad summaries of everything from the Islamic State to the explosion of funding for the U.S. Border Patrol ... At its best, Conditional Citizens uses memoir and history to resist that narrowing. \'Faith\' is the most impressive of the book’s eight essays for the attentiveness with which it turns its gaze toward not only Lalami’s family but also the African slaves who were among America’s first Muslims ... It is these gray lives, as Lalami calls them, with their confounding heterogeneity, that conditional citizenship seeks to stamp out of being. This collection rescues such lives from oblivion.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review... bounces with disconcerting lightness from his father’s death to a fateful childhood encounter with a mysterious art object to a climactic 2016 visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, all the while quoting sources ranging from Blade Runner 2049 to the French theorist Gilles Deleuze. We see Dodge on hikes with his son, Lenny, meeting with strangers for public sex in his youth and holding forth with fellow artists, all of it chronologically scrambled and refracted through his motormouth prose to demonstrate the uselessness of linear narrative for describing a life ... It’s a shame that the book’s arc doesn’t reflect more of the randomness Dodge reveres. He fits every facet of his life into a larger pattern, each incident becoming an occasion for thinking about interconnectedness. My Meteorite sometimes seems like a catalog of coincidences, none of which are too minor to merit rumination. One evening Dodge and Nelson, on opposite sides of the country, both use the word \'voluble\' in writing for the first time, and the moment takes on the charge of revelation. In passages like this, My Meteorite smothers with overinterpretation the epiphanic randomness that it means to instantiate.
RaveThe Atlantic... a different sort of Silicon Valley narrative, a literary-minded outsider’s insider account of an insulated world that isn’t as insular or distinctive as it and we assume. Wiener is our guide to a realm whose denizens have been as in thrall to a dizzying sense of momentum as consumers have been ... Complicity is Wiener’s theme, and her method: She’s an acute observer of tech’s shortcomings, but she’s especially good at conveying the mind of a subject whose chief desire is to not know too much. Through her story, we begin to perceive how much tech owes its power, and the problems that come with it, to contented ignorance ... For all her caustic insight and droll portraiture, Wiener is on an earnest quest likely to resonate with a public that has been sleepwalking through tech’s gradual reshaping of society ... Wiener is wittily merciless in portraying how susceptible she was to \'the sense of ownership and belonging, the easy identity, the all-consuming feeling of affiliation\' that start-up culture promotes ... Her real feat is exposing her own persistent failure to register the big picture.
Thomas Chatterton Williams
MixedThe NationSelf-Portrait wants to be two things at once: a call to arms against the constricting power of race as an identity, which Williams calls a \'philosophical and imaginative disaster,\' as well as a follow-up to his 2010 memoir, Losing My Cool. As such, the new book discusses his incredibly specific cultural background and intellectual development and attempts to sort through the questions that his biography raises, questions that cannot be easily generalized to fit other people’s experiences ... while Self-Portrait can be deeply felt and full of introspective insight, it is also a myopic self-involved affair that often ignores important past and present discussions around race, including the genre of the passing narrative, which also interrogated the soundness of racial identification but resisted generalizing any conclusions into a politics and a worldview ... the result is a book that engages the question of race head-on but often only in the most superficial fashion, one that confuses personal biography with sociology and history. As a result, it lacks the imaginative capacity to see that no matter how socially constructed racial identities are, our lived experience of those identities...is anything but fictitious and cannot simply be willed out of existence. Perhaps even more important, by examining the experience of race from his vantage point alone, Williams fails to see how racial identification, while often deployed as a mechanism to create stratification, can also be an empowering act. For many, identifying as black is not merely an imposition but also an opportunity to interrogate the underpinnings of race.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewRow...works like a Freudian analyst in these searching, loosely structured essays. Armed with a bevy of sources, from Flannery O’Connor to Eve Sedgwick, he casts his eye upon a diverse swath of American culture in order to suss out what it has to tell us about race—even, or especially, when it doesn’t mean to tell us anything ... Row demonstrates [\'literary white flight\'] through astute close readings in which he analyzes postwar fiction with a loving sternness that avoids didacticism even as he pingpongs among cultural artifacts, decoding everything from Don DeLillo’s Underworld to emo music ... For all of these inventive and insightful readings, however, it’s unfortunate that Row does not suggest concrete strategies for intervening in the stalled conversation he picks apart. When he recommends specific texts...his glosses fail to identify what, on an aesthetic level, makes these titles worthy of admiration ... It doesn’t help that the book includes some fumbling gestures ... Despite, or perhaps because of, these flaws and the discomfort they inspire, we should accompany Row through this important inquiry.
RaveBookforum\"With a light touch, Washington shows us the struggle of the marginalized to survive in a city ravaged by increasingly devastating hurricanes, spiraling rents, and the threat of economic displacement. Yet he never fails to delight in the moments of unlikely pleasure that outsiders often fail to see ... At its best, [Washington\'s] stark language, often shorn of names and concrete identifiers, achieves a lyricism that enlarges our awareness of the mesh of personal experiences that make up the city’s history. Washington’s queer men are often in the closet or relegated to the margins, and the collection masterfully conveys the atmosphere of mingled dread, exuberance, and defiance that pervades their lives ... Sometimes the collection’s language can be lyrical to a fault, smothering Washington’s meaning in layers of abstraction ... Occasionally, such withholding of detail lends the feeling that we have been participants in one of the narrator’s many casual encounters rather than beneficiaries of his trust. Still, Washington has delivered a radiant picture of a city in flux—and of a community living simultaneously at its center and on its margins. Lot is a debut that announces a writer of uncommon talent and insight.\
PositiveNewsday\"Luiselli’s writing possesses a restless intelligence that weaves disparate lives and cultures into a map of the world ... Lost Children Archive builds into a stunning structure of allusion and metaphor and encourages us to think about how fiction reveals links between people as disparate as New York journalists and Central American refugees. Sometimes, though, Luiselli’s ideas ride a bit too close to the surface ... Still, when this novel allows us to hear its notes ourselves, the music its ensemble of voices creates is beautiful.\
MixedBookforum\"At its best, the book asks readers to consider how and why black people are called on to tell the nation our stories, what kinds of stories we are commanded to tell, and why society is so eager to wrest them from us when we will not tell them to the nation’s liking. No Miracles dramatizes the incessant circulation of black personal narratives, laying bare their integral relationship to America’s self-conception ... Gerald’s efforts to encompass the totality of his experience sometimes come at the expense of depth. No Miracles skitters from episode to episode, granting equal weight to each, with the result that no one story feels particularly consequential. Worse, he can be maddeningly vague at pivotal moments ... despite the book’s shortcomings, Gerald is a vivid and compelling narrator. Like Zora Neale Hurston’s, his prose shines with the verve, intelligence, and inventiveness of the black vernacular, and his memoir is a crucial intervention in a literary landscape where black people are often compelled to recite their stories at their own expense.\
MixedThe Nation\"While we laugh at our protagonist’s search for absolution from her past via drug-induced sleep, we get a prehistory to the overstimulated trance into which the United States is interminably stumbling. But with Moshfegh’s attention trained on history, culture, and gender, her trademarks—a willingness to linger in the minds of misanthropes, her relentlessly black humor, and her preoccupation with the human body’s grossest qualities—start to seem more facile than fierce, modes that are ill suited to tackling such weighty matters ... The success of parody requires that an author maintain a stable ironic distance from her target; however, the space between authorial and narrative voice is so narrow here that Moshfegh’s critique reproduces the protagonist’s egocentrism ... There are glimmers of a more interesting novel in My Year of Rest and Relaxation ... Yet by giving her narrator’s myopic vision pride of place, Moshfegh extends that myopia and deprives readers of an outside vantage point, without which the irony is extinguished. The result is a novel that’s better at emulating, rather than skewering, its target.\
RaveThe NationFor Smith, anything is a potential text that she can subject to her talent for keen observation. She homes in on her subject’s most minute details, unspooling layers of meaning in a way that perhaps only a literary critic can do ... Feel Free’s chief (if unstated) concern is that the kind of intellectual rigidity that lacks interest in aesthetic detail translates easily into intolerance and disregard for human complexity ... Her call to dwell in ambiguity assumes a certain kind of individual: one with the luxury of detaching herself from the world’s flux in order to better observe its dynamics ... These essays occasionally leave one wishing she’d consider these hindrances. How do poverty, racism, misogyny, and homophobia structure our thought? How can we work around them, if at all? The point is that not all of us can, from our current vantage point, feel free. But perhaps our limitations are exactly why Feel Free is an important contribution to contemporary conversations around culture and identity ... That a black woman is insisting on casting her eye upon whatever she wants in itself represents defiance, a reckless eyeballing that was once unavailable to black people. More importantly, though, Feel Free reminds us that freedom isn’t something to be foisted upon or taken away from us by whoever happens to hold the reins of power; it is something that we can and must take on our own.
PositiveSlate...a novel of sweeping ambition in the tradition of Toni Morrison’s landmark neo-slave narrative, Beloved: an ornate ghost story about cultural memory, a parable for how history permeates the life of a community. Sing marks Ward as the sharpest voice in the contemporary conversation around the past’s relationship to the present and asks how black people can even begin to envision a future when the weight of history anchors them in ways they can scarcely begin to perceive ... Richie’s ghostly presence metaphorizes the prison’s centrality in Ward’s vision of black history. Where Morrison presented slavery and the nightmarish Sweet Home plantation as the primal scene of black trauma, Ward gives us the criminal justice system and Parchman Farm; it is the novel’s linchpin, the source from which so many of its characters’ traumas stem ... Sing is an expansive endeavor. Ward uses the novel as a form to weave together initially disparate stories into a tale of how the past can traumatize black people so fully that their lives hardly seem their own. The brilliance of Sing is that, in allowing these stories to cohere, it demonstrates that sorrows are never truly solitary. Rather, they spring from a common pain that we might be able to salve—if not transcend—by telling stories that official histories have long occluded. However, Ward’s attempt to envision the shape of black history in the age of the criminal justice system occasionally comes at the expense of the narrative...The novel’s sprawling plot leaves the reader wishing that Ward had focused her attention more pointedly on one story that could anchor the novel.
RaveSlateReading any one of his books is like stumbling upon the exposed tip of a massive underground landmass, one that he’s spent the better part of a decade mapping but the entirety of which he has yet to image ... This book eschews argument in favor of a tender enfolding. In this sense, it’s a culmination of a style and a set of ideas he’s been honing since his novel Open City ... The effect is like realizing that what you thought were stray notes cohere into song when you listen across a long enough interval. These repetitions teach us how to think along with Cole by calling our attention to details that might seem easy to ignore ... The effect is a delirious sense of second sight. Cole brings the unseen realm of poetry into vision, exposing a reality that’s not beneath the surface so much as caught in its interstices.
PositiveSlateAcross 14 playful and peripatetic essays that touch on everything from the pleasure of watching movies in the summertime to the alienation of being a lone adolescent brown girl in a throng of white girls, Chew-Bose shows us what such ambitious porousness might look like. Her strange, challenging, and sometimes frustrating prose is personal but only in the most attenuated sense ... The book converts miniaturization into an unexpected aesthetic opportunity, a lens that refracts one’s self in the most blissful ways possible. The result is a book that substitutes a giddy openness in place of the stark political polemics that characterize so many contemporary essays on gender and race...It’s not that this collection is apolitical—it’s just interested in the nuance of experience that many essays on race and gender so often forget to account for ... Her writing wants to retrain our attention on the various textures and pleasures that comprise lived experience ... This itinerancy makes Too Much a disorienting and challenging read. That disorientation doesn’t always feel worthwhile. Chew-Bose’s arabesque prose is sometimes lyrical to a fault.
RaveThe MillionsReading through it for the first time, readers are likely to find themselves seduced by its prose. Its surface is serene and appealing, carried forward by a brisk narrative. But like Southern California, this novel’s pleasant surface begins to ripple the more you linger over it, eventually giving way to something far more nuanced and disturbing than its façade let on ... This novel’s narrative is sparse, turning on this secret and not much else. The power and pleasure of Bennett’s writing lies in her prose style’s clarifying precision.