Walton Muyumba is a writer and critic. His essays and reviews have appeared in Oxford American, The Crisis, NPR Books, The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He’s the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2009). He is an associate professor of American and African Diaspora literature in the English Department at Indiana University-Bloomington. You can find him on Twitter @wmuyumba
PositiveThe Boston GlobeBall cannot know Constant’s mind intimately. However, employing Saidiya Hartman’s technique, \'critical fabulation,\' allows him creative liberties in constructing Constant’s life and his milieu. When gaps emerge in psychology, motive, or context, the author relies on the vast historical, literary, and artistic archives (family papers, public records, periodicals, photographs, and scholarship) about 19th-century white New Orleanian experience to speculate artistically about his ancestors ... Though he claims Life of a Klansman is an investigation of his matrilineal ancestor, Ball has engineered another kind of coup: a public reckoning with white supremacy...Ball’s book is about the postbellum US and the US in 2020; it’s looking both directions at once.
PositiveThe Boston Globe... an argument for active, equal United States citizenship. In order to forward her conception of equality, Lalami must first present its counter construct: conditional membership in the body politic ... Lalami’s interrogation of patriarchy is the most important critique in this very strong book ... For citizens planning to exercise the franchise this fall, Conditional Citizens clarifies the stakes of the most crucial American election season of the 21st century thus far.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewWhitehead fashions Elwood’s burgeoning political sensibility in crisp, simple prose. As the novel’s lean sentences accrue momentum ... Whitehead can pen both the curse-laden signifying speech and the awkward, knowing silences that web boys into community ... Th[e] final section is beautifully and masterfully constructed. Whitehead offers rich studies of Elwood in the mid-1970s, the late 1980s, and the early 2000s ... The Nickel Boys is a kind of folktale about lost, forgotten children. Whitehead’s narrative binding twists the novel’s plot, creating movement and tension ... Though it’s brief—210 pages long—Whitehead has made a conceptually thick, intense, political book ... From its opening lines through the novel’s elegant, heartbreaking closing, Whitehead’s lucid, sparkling, storytelling incites readers to bear witness for these children (real and imagined), teaches us to speak to survivors and for the dead, and implores us to say their names and demand justice.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips
RaveLos Angeles Times\"[Phillips’] sports writing arises from close attention to the layers of nuance involved in the mechanics of play ... Phillips’ lyrical impulses ignite his compressed, efficient, accurate, lively and always liquid prose ... The Circuit does not mix tennis writing with local or international politics, global economic, or ecological matters. Rather, Phillips follows the model of a friend, \'a distinguished historian, who goes out of his way to keep his comments on current events to the bare minimum.\' Avoiding hot takes on the political zeitgeist or the meanings of specific matches, Phillips wields his prose like an elegant, one-handed backhand, fending off florid metaphors and deflecting the canards about sports, to present the tour’s basic process: the sport is a distraction ... Even though Phillips has leaned away from making explicit political commentary, it’s hard not thinking through the book’s external contexts and internal gestures.\
RaveThe Los Angeles Times\"Anderson has a gift for illustrating how specific historical injustices have repercussive, detrimental influence on contemporary American life ... Throughout One Person, Anderson’s tone, at turns urgent and indignant, seems to arise from the ease with which she can document abundantly—via investigative journalism, popular history and historical scholarship—the GOP’s determined efforts \'to purge American citizens and cull and homogenize the electorate.\' The book’s final chapter is called The Resistance and that is likely our only recourse: To sustain American democracy, we must collectively resist state-run purges of legal voters. Anderson knows this, hammering her overarching claim through quotation of Abraham Lincoln: \'I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.\' \
PositiveLos Angeles TimesThroughout Moshfegh’s works, especially her short stories, her humor springs from irony and irreverence ... Among the secondary characters I’ve met in Moshfegh’s fictions, Reva strikes me as a masterful invention ... Some element of the novel’s philosophy arises from its epigram, a lyric from Joni Mitchell’s \'The Wolf That Lives in Lindsay\' ... Mimicking the music, the novel’s first half has a loose, rambling, somnambulant feeling. Simultaneously, Moshfegh’s sentences are sharp and coherent. That combination forces readers to attune themselves to the narrator’s dark, howling somnia ... strange and captivating.
RaveLos Angeles TimesHayes innovates new poetic forms and hacks the codes of canonical containers, pimping them up dynamically ... His writing demonstrates a serious commitment to revising, extending and advancing American poetry while recording, celebrating and mourning black American life ... Hayes improvises voices and selves that challenge and attempt escape from virulent, American modes of masculinity.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesUpon opening Feel Free, Zadie Smith\'s new essay collection, you\'ll be surprised to learn that she doubts her literary talent, her critical acumen. I suppose that many literary writers are skeptical or anxious about their chosen profession ... Smith\'s continuous stream of productivity, her topical range, the accolades laureling her books, her prodigious artistic abilities, should be evidence enough to assuage her fears about credibility ... When she writes that each of Dyer\'s essays \'is an attempt to respond in kind, to be equal to the artwork, in some way to meld with it, like a love object,\' Smith could be describing her own approach. Pastiche melds the critic to the love object and creates intimate, meaning-driven analysis ... There\'s so much at play in Feel Free that a reader might feel anxious about how to gain purchase on all of Smith\'s ideas ... My hunch about this book is this: While paying attention to Smith\'s doubts might get you into these essays, getting out may require some improvised dance moves.
RaveThe Chicago Tribune\"Abdurraqib meshes personal writing with critique and punctuates his evaluations with poignant realizations ... This critic earns our attention is through his ability to make his private musical tastes into necessary public interpretations. So, even if you don’t find My Chemical Romance or Carly Rae Jepsen or Fall Out Boy especially significant, Abdurraqib communicates his exuberance as a means to opening his readers’ ears to the joy and emotional truth contained in those songs ... That said, Abdurraqib earns our admiration when his love of black music and concern for black life is central to his writing. His passionate critiques are shot through with his worries about the ease with which black people are killed in America ... They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is like a collection of death-defying protest songs for the Black Lives Matter era. Like Kanye’s ghostly, autotuned chants on the opening track of Chance’s Coloring Book, Abdurraqib’s essays say, just to live, \'music is all we got.\'”
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times\"Pace’s storytelling is more like a three-suit deck of cards shuffled so that a card from each suit appears alternately, each card its own short story ... Writing in straightforward, seemingly effortless prose, Everett puts these secrets in conversation. He creates suspense by subtly withholding information ... So Much Blue presents Everett, one of our culture’s preeminent novelists, a nonpareil ironist-satirist, turning away from the familiar terrain of his recent fictions. On this new turf, however, a problem arises for the author: Though ironic art may not lead the protagonist home, irony is a basic component of the kind of self-critique that will. Yet this crucial element — necessary to the character’s development and his realizations about secrets and art — is lost in the shuffle somewhat. Nonetheless, captivating and pleasurable, especially those pages devoted to El Salvador, So Much Blue is a \'coming of middle-age\' story worth gazing into.\
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksGiven its similarities to Smith’s earlier fictions, especially White Teeth and NW, Swing Time’s ambitions ought not surprise us, and yet, the effort Smith asks her readers to exert in penetrating this gorgeous, unwieldy novel seems new ... The narrative’s swinging movements offer a sense of how memory lies in the mind and how the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences deny or escape ordering ... In this long novel, full of exceptional scenes, sequences, and sections, Smith’s writing in the Gambian chapters is the sharpest.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewStrewn throughout the work are a set of pieces that sit simultaneously within and apart from the rest of the book. Drawn together these essays amount to what Kevin Young calls in The Grey Album, a 'removed shadow book.' It’s through that Known and Strange Things finds focus: written during a political era framed by 'forever wars,' terrorism, our collective traumatization, and now renewed authoritarianism, Cole’s essays offer ways of our through the arts’ beautiful provocations ... Maybe because he’s constantly seeking new narrative spaces, Cole is on the road regularly. Essays like 'Always Returning,' 'Unnamed Lake,' Far Away from Here,' 'Brazilian Earth,' and 'Two Weeks' display his predilection for traveling to places where truths might arise with this sort of involuntary action ... Spread intermittently among the collection’s sections, surrounding pieces slightly obfuscating their subjects, these essays are Cole’s shadow book. This improvised book’s meaning is never fully realized; however, to borrow Kevin Young’s words, it 'represents a willingness to recognize the unfinished, process-based quality of life and art, even taking pleasure in the incompleteness of being.'”
RaveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewThroughout Railroad Whitehead maintains his trademark dexterous, loose prose style while heightening its efficiency. Always adept at drawing fascinating scenes, his set pieces here come off with dazzling precision.
Mychal Denzel Smith
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewBlending memoir and cultural criticism, the book’s form allows Smith to narrate his coming-of-age while interrogating it at the same time. He wants to offer answers 'for the martyrs and tokens, for the Trayvons that could have been and are still waiting' ... he reserves his most acidic critiques for Hampton administrators, Obama and Smith’s own father. All three, Smith argues throughout, attempt 'to muzzle the radical voices of young black people.' They enforce the kind of paternalistic respectability politics that manages to pander to white supremacy while further demoralizing young black men with unattainable and useless standards ... Throughout, Smith attempts to speak through hip-hop’s urgent lyricism, draw analytical force from black satire and comedy, improvise on the black literary canon’s rhetorical practices, and emulate the treatises of black feminism and black power ... Given the pressure he wants us to apply to eliminating these negative systems, readers deserve critical practices for accomplishing this, rather than platitudes. I say this more by way of emphasizing the importance of Smith’s project — which demands to be taken seriously — than to detract from it.
PanThe New RepublicGyasi is not yet a polished prose stylist. One must turn away from Gyasi’s prose as a source of delight, critics suggest, and find pleasure in Homegoing’s collected narratives and in its overall structure. In doing so, one confronts a problem: To read Gyasi’s structure as innovative is to ignore or forget that writers like John Edgar Wideman, Edwidge Danticat, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have imagined Afro-Diasporic experiences via the short story or the novel-in-stories form to much greater effect that Gyasi mounts here ... Gyasi’s work depends on readers not knowing African American literature or recognizing her undigested references ... Though none of Homegoing’s characters are fully realized, characters like Effia, Quey, Abena, and Yaw make it clear that Gyasi is an imaginative and talented artist. So, why would she sabotage her fiction with cliché-riven renditions of African American life?
PositiveThe AtlanticGod Help the Child twins Bride’s devolution with Booker’s life-stunting rage. Booker’s narrative is the novel’s most accomplished section. Few writers, regardless of gender, can address the vagaries of black masculinity as sensitively, insightfully, and elegantly as Morrison ... witnessing the lovers separate, fight, and reconnect lacks danger or dark humor; it seems too easy and unearned. This might explain some of problems coded into Morrison’s late style: With so many speedy narrative turns, the author risks missing some requisite details ... If not at maximum strength, her powers are proudly on display in God Help the Child.
PositiveNewsdayWonderfully imagined, intellectually kinetic, Zero K artfully resists cryo-digital death. It ends, as DeLillo’s works often do, in a beautifully wrought final scene of life-giving natural wonder.
RaveNewsdayRife with love, sadness, anger and struggle, Between the World and Me charts a path through the American gauntlet for both the black child who will inevitably walk the world alone and for the black parent who must let that child walk away.
Annette Gordon Reed and Peter S. Onuf
PositiveThe Chicago TribuneKeeping the tension between the past and the present, foreign and familiar in play, Gordon-Reed and Onuf raise Jefferson in relief, against his times and ours, to examine his attitudes about home, family life, public service, slavery, politics, friendship and education. The Jefferson who emerges in these pages is a dynamic, complex and oftentimes contradictory human being ... Though this sounds like sober historical reading, the writers have smithed an engaging, sterling, prose style, polished to highlight incongruities between Jefferson's philosophy and how he had to live in the world.
MixedThe AtlanticBecause Pinckney doesn’t construct any direct confrontations about history or blackness, or assert any strict definitions of gay life or African American identity, the novel doesn’t feel explicitly or especially political. Hence, Black Deutschland feels more like a melocomic novel of experience ... Pinckney’s diction can occasionally be clunky. But in other sections his writing is acutely sharp and smart.