MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksThe Yale professor, MacArthur fellow, and celebrated artist lays out exactly what it is like to be Black/female/famous/acclaimed/othered in elite white spaces. She is precise in her naming of the things that go on there...Her insights are many ... the book is fun in that way; she will make people squirm. But it reads as a compendium of complaints. What’s the calamity, in Césaire’s terms? For whom or to whom is Rankine speaking? One chapter suggests an answer ... Rankine’s book feels far removed from survival-level struggle and grotesque Americanisms like mass incarceration ... not a book about Black women shot down by the police in their homes or incarcerated for minor crimes. It’s about Black women who enter the country club through the front door. Rankine’s 360-page exposé of microaggression feels far from whatever strengthens its author. But it may be purposefully so ... Despite the irritating redundancy, Rankine is in full control. Repetition is the literary device, and the form of the poem follows its function. It frustrates. It even depresses. But that is because that place in society — You Are Not Quite One of Us! — is a dysthymic existence. It’s subtly unfree and, as Rankine reminds readers, always just one step from \'a cross burning on the lawn,\' anyway. In this way, Just Us soars ... also lyrically exquisite in places, and it will be a satisfying read for people interested in one woman’s inner struggle with empowered speech. For, throughout the book, Rankine reveals how difficult it is to say what one means on the spot where one is a minority. This metacommentary makes Just Us a book on vocal agency ... However, as a book on race — as it will be hailed — it does fall short. Just Us doesn’t need to be about the struggle of super-oppressed people. But even as an exploration of the special type of discrimination faced in high places, it could be far more impactful. It cries out for the strengths of Rankine’s root tradition ... engages something — payback? — that seems beneath the author’s calling and the strength of her previous work. As such, Just Us feels detached both from this important moment in history and from the traditions of strength and creativity that will move \'us\' through it intact.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of Books... a fascinating look at what it means to have some power in the most disempowering circumstances imaginable ... Though the human foils in the story are sometimes complex and, at other times, resemble stock villains and sidekicks, the book is compelling. Woods demystifies the supernatural, explicates little-known aspects of history, explores well-known histories afresh, and declares dignity as characteristic of what could be considered American history’s most abused women. And — with the exception of a slow start — she tells a story that will make you keep reading about the people and places she creates ... throughout, mental anguish is omnipresent, rendered in a manner that is weighty but never engenders pity ... What makes this book unique and worthy of readers’ time is this dual exploration into trauma and resilience ... There are many tensions like this, and Woods’ navigation of them is masterful. She is especially comfortable in the realm of things that are usually part of mystical traditions ... Readers might find themselves thrown off by coincidences that seem a bit too easy. They might wince at dialogue that sounds inconsistent or, sometimes, too modern. They might feel that the narrative occasionally invokes sentimentality for effect ... Woods has created characters for the ages and a glimpse at a seemingly impossible world made very real.
PositiveWashington Independent Review of BooksJaclyn Moriarty’s title, Gravity Is the Thing, is a play on words signifying each level of her multifaceted, masterful new work. On one plane (the obvious, plot-driven one), Gravity Is the Thing is about the possibility of human flight. It asks readers to consider: Can humans fly if they believe they can? ... In many ways, Gravity Is the Thing is straightforward existentialist literature. (Or is it magical realism?) In nonlinear and sometimes episodic fashion, the book tells the story of Abi and Robert’s close relationship, his disappearance, their family’s attempts to find him, and their various ways of coping. This storyline arises out of life’s uncertainties, fully illustrates despair, depicts Abi’s frantic attempts at finding meaning in life, and posits being and becoming as self-creating roads to authenticity ... Those who need to connect to characters could quickly lose patience, but Moriarty is always taking us somewhere. Stick with Abi and you’ll be fully absorbed in her family’s story, hopeful for resolution about Robert, and curious about whether these oddballs are really going to fly.