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
Invisible Man Got the Whole World WatchingMychal 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.
The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead
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.
God Help the ChildToni Morrison
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.
Zero KDon DeLillo
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.
Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates
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.
Black DeutschlandDarryl Pinckney
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.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
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.
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?
Most Blessed of the PatriarchsAnnette 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.
Known and Strange ThingsTeju Cole
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.'”
So Much BluePercival Everett
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesPace’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.