Conjuring Genius: Two 2020 Titles That Do Precisely That


We’re underrepresented, yet overanalyzed. We’re placed on pedestals, yet seldom seen at the top. We’re mamas and witches, good girls and whores. But the power of women – our brilliance and insight, our magic and math? Who’s writing about that? Janice Kaplan and Afia Atakora. That’s who. And the ‘genius’ author and spinner of a curse-conjurer’s tale will introduce you to women – real and imagined – who are no less than extraordinary. Mark your calendar. Because you’ll definitely want to meet them.

CONJURE WOMEN by Afia Atakora (Penguin Random House, March 2020).

I’ve long kept a book about voodoo on hoodoo on my shelves, but that’s not what drew me to Conjure Women. And though my literary leanings bend toward Bookers and Pulitzers, Pushcart nominee Afia Atakora has been on my watchlist not because she’s risen to that level of acclaim… yet.

I’ve been awaiting her debut because Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God). Because Chimanada Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun). Because Donna Tartt (The Secret History). And though some praise Atakora as Colson Whitehead meets Toni Morrison, a worthy compliment indeed, in my book she’s Ovid meets ZNH, Adichie meets Tartt. Because in Conjure Women, where mysticism meets history, the reader meets truth.

Spanning the antebellum era through early reconstruction, Atakora’s tale of folk healer Rue and her mama Miss May Belle is spellbinding and sticky.

Like her mother, Rue has long been eyed with suspicion, but when sickness ravages her village and children begin to die, folks are frightened. When they turn to “finger-pointing for succor,” the taut line between healer and witch is frayed, and what follows is a swirling syncretism of mysticism and Christianity, of ‘slaverytime’ and ‘freedomtime’, where transgressions are boundary-less, inflicted upon mother and daughter, black woman and white.

Atakora’s storytelling hovers masterfully above the disturbing history that heavies the pages. And for her skill, Conjure Women shimmers with language and characters that will haunt you for ages.

This title was high on my wish list. Thanks to the book fairies over at Penguin who waved their magic wands and made it possible for me to read in advance.

THE GENIUS OF WOMEN: From Overlooked to Changing the World by Janice Kaplan (Penguin, February 2020).

You may be thinking The Genius of Women is just another dry biography that happens to feature women. I have two words for you: It’s not. Kaplan’s research into the history of women geniuses is thorough, illuminating, and – dare I say it – pure genius.

Drawing on figures we know and love like RBG and Oprah, and those we should know but don’t such as Fei-Fei Li and Frances Arnold, Kaplan “explores the powerful forces that have rigged the system [against us] —and celebrates the women geniuses past and present who have triumphed anyway.”

Advance copy readers aren’t permitted to share too much about this title until February, but if you’re interested in the why of the ‘confidence gap‘ or wonder why women can’t wear high heels and be smart too (we can, btw), Kaplan has answers. More than that, chapter by chapter, introducing us to one extraordinary woman after another, she outlines the case for rethinking everything.

I’m buying The Genius of Women for every woman I know – from my mom and my sisters, to my besties and nieces. Why? Because The Gratitude Diaries author has done it again. Only this time, this genius is writing for us.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Net Galley and Penguin for providing me with advance review copies of both titles in exchange for fair and honest reviews.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *