Unflinching and honest, The Reckonings seamlessly melds the personal and political into a collection that is both timely and timeless, addressing issues ranging from recovering from unimaginable trauma, to nuclear fallout, to white privilege ... You can start to feel, while reading this collection, that life is one big cover-up, from assaults to oil spills to nuclear waste. Johnson does what a great essayist should do: She shakes you up, shakes you down, makes you figure out your level of complicity, even if that complicity is merely personal or collective silence. Like Michel de Montaigne, the French philosopher who was one of the first great personal essayists, Johnson is unafraid to engage in cultural relativism ... Johnson is a gifted writer, lyrically descriptive ... Lucid and compelling, Johnson's essays are not only bold and memorable, but insistent reminders that all good essays are, in fact, reckonings: attempts to work out problems, whether domestic, cosmic or both, on the page.
...constant questioning, rigorous analysis, and lucid exposition—qualities Johnson’s writing displays in spades ... Johnson is helpfully and fluidly expository as she explores the versions of justice many Americans rely on ... Johnson spares no one (not even Obama) in her insistence that we question our thinking then and now about what constitutes justice as a nation ... her book is jam-packed with compassion. She does not appear to have any agenda beyond seeking to understand, to describe, and to grapple with the ways human beings behave—in other words, to empathize. In this moment of brazen racism, nationalism, xenophobia, and sexual violence, her willingness to sit with the nuanced difficulty of so many moral quandaries began to feel, to this reader, like a form of national service.
In the first essay, Johnson describes what she wants ... 'I like the idea that justice is anything that makes way for joy, that makes the condition of joy a possibility again.' This sounds utopian, and it might be, but The Reckonings is not a book about changing the world. It's philosophy in disguise, equal parts memoir, criticism, and ethics. It has bits of Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, and Simone Weil, but its patron saint is Grace Paley, whose essays are much too infrequently read. Like Johnson, Paley was committed to bearing witness and, like Johnson, she believed, stubbornly and eternally, in joy ... The 12 essays in The Reckonings are 12 beginnings. Each one deserves great consideration, while you read it and long after. Each one leaves the work up to you.
The topics she explores are societal and polemic, uncomfortable and difficult. Her high-stakes nonfiction writing thrives with skin in the game. After a complete read, the essays demand greater examination. Johnson’s aim often isn’t to find the answers, but rather to advance the questions closer toward a course of action that might remedy both the personal and collective response to injustice, culpability and the importance of making art in the era of tyrannies ... Every page within The Reckonings beautifully represents the unendurable and its possibilities of strength.
These essays attempt to parcel out several knotted problems and suggest forms of meaningful justice ... She implicates herself, offering her personal life up for examination, modeling what we all must do to achieve anything close to justice. Johnson’s questions and answers are hard but necessary.
Johnson’s heart is in the right place with this wide-ranging collection of essays on suffering and inequality in 21st-century America, but her vision needs more substance ... Johnson veers too often into preachiness ... Commendably, she emphasizes humane ideals—peace, community, grace, joy—as a foundation on which to build a better world. However, by the book’s end, one wonders what she has to say that hasn’t been said before.
While the author’s previous book described her hellish experience as a victim of kidnap and rape, this book of essays takes the recovery process to the next level ... In the face of crimes that affect both the one and the many, she makes a plea for activism, art, and—as she experienced when her Houston home flooded last year—common decency. Johnson negotiates a path between vengeance and hand-wringing despair in this thoughtful and probing collection.