Issue #2: A Blue Haze Descending
Before we begin, I just want to offer my thanks for all of the kind words we received about the first issue. Thanks for reading! One quick note: A few people asked if we could make one single Bookshop.org list for the books we mention in these newsletters so that is what we did. You can find it here.
I Too Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 by Wil Haywood
Early in this rich and beautiful book, Wil Haywood quotes writer Arna Bontemps who described Harlem of the 1920’s as “a foretaste of paradise. A blue haze descended at night and with it strings of fairy lights on the broad avenues.”
Haywood’s book—which features notable contributions from scholars Carole Genshaft, Anastasia Kinigopuolo, Nannette, V. Maciejunes, Drew Sawyer, and David Stark—celebrates both the blue haze descending and the fairy lights that came to characterize the Harlem Renaissance, but it also reveals how it was a movement born out of the turmoil of World War I (during which thousands of Black soldiers proved to be heroic defenders of a country that oppressed them), the momentum of the Great Migration, and the trauma of centuries of enslavement.
This is a beautiful book, an experience book, the kind of book you keep and show visitors and brag about. Printed on thick paper with full-color reproductions of notable illustrations and paintings, it’s a worthy homage to one of the most important cultural movements of the twentieth-century. And although the book suitably honors the most well-known figures of the Harlem Renaissance—the giants like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston—the lion’s share of the book is devoted to artists that the average American probably doesn’t know: photographers like Aaron Siskin and James Van Der Zee, painters like William Henry Johnson, Malvin Gray Johnson, Archibald Motley, and even sculpture Augusta Savage.
In fact, if I Too Sing America were simply a collection of notable paintings, drawings, and photographs it would be worth the cover.
But it’s a brag-book because it reaches higher than that. It’s an ode to Black American culture, a celebration of the women and men who made it, a retelling of the history that led to it. It explores the intersection of African American folklore and contemporary concern. It’s about the place where tragedy and creativity meet, the way great art flows from great pain.
It’s a curation of stories too rarely told and it’s worth our attention.
One Book Thing We Love
You probably know Nick Offerman for his performance as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, or maybe you know him for such books as Good Clean Fun and Paddle Your Own Canoe. But his greatest contribution to American culture might actually be his wonderful performance as the audio book reader of Wendell Berry’s work. Offerman has long been outspoken in his praise of Berry, whose work he describes as, “the kind of treat you want to last a long time, like a good massage or a soaking rain.”
Of particular merit is this, his performance of The World Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, which came out a few years ago.
Offerman’s performance suits Berry’s lilting, rolling prose; it’s clear that he takes pleasure in each line as it rolls from his tongue. Each word means something to him. It’s more than performance. It’s also a great driving audiobook. Highly recommend.
Around the Bookish Web
Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson wrote about Joan Didion, whose new book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, is out now:
Why does Joan Didion matter? Because she has chronicled, for well over half a century, how the powerful use words to obscure meaning. How lies get dressed up as truth. How we all submit to magical thinking when confronted with the inexplicable or the frightening. How we make up stories to convince ourselves that we have everything under control, how we spin webs of meaning from words and sentences and turns of phrase. How we write to find out what we mean. How we need, wisely or not, figures who can make meaning for us out of chaos.
The great Carl Rollyson wrote about H.W. Brand’s new book, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom:
H.W. Brands has written perhaps his most fluent book, a constantly engaging study of history and biography worthy of the model on which it is built: Plutarch’s parallel lives.
And Gary Saul Morson wrote about Dostoevsky for The New Criterion:
Dostoevsky’s characters astonish by their complexity. Their unpredictable but believable behavior reminds us of experiences beyond the reach of “scientific” theories. We appreciate that people, far from maximizing their own advantage, sometimes deliberately make victims of themselves in order, for example, to feel morally superior.
That’s all for this issue. See you next time.
— Your Friends at Goldberry Books