MixedThe Washington PostThe novel is a collection of characters and incidents that only barely relate to one another, much like the two fires reported in its opening pages. No event — past or impending — or person or setting can lay claim to the novel’s center of gravity, a multiplicity with potential that, as executed, resembles inattention ... Ambitious but suffers from disinterest in its own moving parts, including the tides of recent history within which it is conspicuously placed.
RaveThe New YorkerA Life of One’s Own is itself the writerly achievement she had hoped for, which means that the larger story of her absorbing, eccentric book is the story of how she came to write it ... Biggs is an attentive reader ... Biggs’s book is fuelled by faith in the transmission of feeling as knowledge ... Alongside Biggs’s search for a way to be a woman apart from being a wife is her search for a way to be a writer apart from being a critic. On the evidence of A Life of One’s Own, she has found it.
Arline T. Geronimus
MixedThe New YorkerAssembl[es] insights from a nearly forty-year career researching the adverse health effects of racism and poverty. She recruits a range of sources ... There is a missing middle in her book between the structural and the anecdotal that is, at heart, a conceptual problem. The structural forces of oppression exert an intuitive yet ill-defined pressure on a person’s immediate circumstances. They are everywhere, and yet they remain hard to pin down ... The book has another rhetorical problem, one endemic to recent populist explainers of social issues. There is a preponderance of what I think of as trade-book baby talk ... The proposals Geronimus offers are as friendly and unchallenging as her prose ... The power of Geronimus’s project remains the attempt to provide a conceptual framework for patterns that medical institutions, in their convenient recourse to individual failings, have yet to fully recognize.
RaveThe New Yorker... batters against the fixities of language like a moth at a windowpane ... Serpell writes in rhizomes—extended subterranean stems that send up shoots at unpredictable intervals ... The novel’s engine is epistemic as well as emotional, Serpell being one of those novelists who have metabolized the quirks and the canniness of literary theory ... though the novel’s story lines turn and twist, the precision of Serpell’s language remains under exquisite control ... a novel that embraces fretting and fondling alike ... Serpell reminds us on every page that nothing is less reliable than language—that every story is necessarily a betrayal...The result is a novel that reclaims and refashions the genre of the elegy, charging it with as much eros as pathos. Furrows are the tracks we make and the tracks we cover up, and the shifting ground of Serpell’s novel denies every certainty save that the furrows are where we all live.
PositiveThe New Yorker... much fresh detail ... \'This is not a book telling Josephine Baker’s life story,\' Lewis cautions. His saga, though it stretches across five hundred pages, is mainly concerned with Baker’s service as a secret agent, and mainly confined to the years shadowed by the Second World War. There’s another sense, too, in which it isn’t her life story: the account is largely told by an assemblage of third parties. Lewis’s bibliography and notes make clear how deeply he has drawn on interviews with veterans, memoirs by agents, the private family archives of a British spymaster, and the wartime files of intelligence bureaus, some of which were not made available to the public until 2020.
Zora Neale Hurston, Ed. by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West
PositiveThe New YorkerReading these essays requires letting go of the agonizing business of saving Hurston from her politics, as though the writer we credit with knowing so much of her own Negro mind just so happened to forget herself on occasions where the takes haven’t aged as well as we’d prefer ... Hurston’s writing searches for individuals instead of stock types. She offers readings of the judge, of the lawyers, and of the gawkers from the colored parts of their towns who, like Hurston, were restricted to the courtroom’s balcony.
PositiveThe New YorkerBeautiful World, Where Are You could be called Rooney’s version of a novel of ideas, and I confess that my tolerance for the characters’ roving disquisitions turned out to be pretty high. I found myself nodding sagely as the women riffed ... But the novel’s most interesting turns take place outside of the characters’ in-boxes ... All of the characters suffer from feeling ineffectual where they are, and the reader wonders whether this problem constitutes a specific identity, a set of circumstances, or a fixed condition of being ... Occasional phrases in the novel, such as the \'practised ease\' with which fingers navigate a touch screen, venture toward triteness. Yet the accretion of little gestures—hands thrust in and out of pockets, gazes redirected—is one of Rooney’s sharpest distinctions as a stylist ... I find that her precise, spare style can also have the effect of dilating scenes, making the reader pay close attention to every word. The sex in Rooney novels is hot because it is written in a syntax of pronouns, verbs, and body parts which won’t be distracted by adverbial overthinking. However much self-awareness she writes into her characters, Rooney also shows us that there is plenty to glean about how people get on with one another without taking up residence inside their heads. In the best moments of Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney does what I think of as \'meanwhiling,\' letting the routine of one character sidle up next to that of another, placing simultaneous, disparate doings in a kind of ambivalent solidarity ... No longer quite so normal, Rooney reaches for the banal and grasps tiny worlds.
MixedVultureCaste does not abandon racial terms. Wilkerson does not leave us to flounder with the labels she wants incorporated, though at times I wished she would ... as I progressed through this big book, saddled with terms I’m to understand are inadequate, I wondered why, a couple hundred pages in, I still wasn’t trusted with the training wheels off ... Caste proposes a remedy, yet its national articulation of present-day Black people raises more questions than answers ... Caste could benefit from more, or maybe deeper, research on the histories of resistance movements ... it finds comfort in sentimentality, faith that the answer lies in the heart ... I can’t blame Wilkerson, it’s a nice place to be, a place where we can believe people in power are one sincere interaction away from radical empathy ... we’ve been here before, have we not?