New in Books: Emily Bernard, Thomas Perry, Lawrence Block

The late Lorraine Gordon introduced me to the work of Emily Bernard one night at her house table at the Village Vanguard. Lorraine had a copy of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White and was raving about it to anyone willing to listen. Van Vechten may not be a immediately familiar name in 2019, but in his heyday he was everywhere as a novelist, partier, photographer, and critic. Last fall, when Mark Turner told me he was working on material for a suite about James Weldon Johnson, I loaned him Bernard’s book. Mark was just as enthralled as I had been. This might be a new stage of major jazz musicians reckoning directly with that era of the history (at the Vanguard last November, Jason Moran explored James Reece Europe the week before Mark brought in James Weldon Johnson), and someone like Bernard is a perfect guide to seeing the bigger picture of race and culture in America.

I’ve promoted Bernard on DTM; I’ve also met her and her husband, John Gennari (who writes about jazz) in person. Naturally, I feel extra pleased about how Bernard’s new book, Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, has been rapturously received by the world at large. (Full disclosure: I get a lovely namecheck in the acknowledgments.)  The raves are everywhere, including Maureen Corrigan/NPR and Kirkus Review. The book went into a second printing the same week of release.

Bernard’s lessons keep reverberating in fresh ways. Originally when seen online, “Teaching the N-Word” was a searing revelation. Now collected in Black is the Body, “Teaching the N-Word” has attained the status of an honored classic. Of the new material, I was especially bowled over by the frank and occasionally hilarious examination of living in Vermont in “People Like Me.”

Now that she’s becoming a more visible literary presence, it will be interesting to see what Bernard writes about next. The latest essay at LitHub, “But What Will Your Daughters Think?” suggests the meditative and honest way Bernard might respond to being widely read.

Thomas Perry has written 26 thrillers. The latest is The Burglar.

Perry excels at describing people at work. Professionals. Men and women who get the job done through the steady and methodical application of skilled labor. Our current specialist is Elle Stowell, a cat burglar who inadvertently ends up as a kind of avenging angel. The book has an unusually slow build, the threads take some time to gather, I was frankly skeptical of the initial sensational murder and “hip young Los Angeles” characters…but eventually the plot turns out to be one of Perry’s most surprising conceits. Indeed, I believe the central moneymaking scam is unprecedented in the literature.

I liked Perry’s previous half-dozen entries, but had also wondered if the author had hit a kind of plateau. The Burglar gave me the kind of breathless wonder I last experienced after The Informant.

Mr. Lawrence Block can still shock! The Matt Scudder saga has turned into a decades-long examination of societal mores. The new novella A Time to Scatter Stones is the latest chapter in what is almost certainly the greatest detective series extant. Block’s spare sentences remain wonderful, especially when they recount the humorous dialogue between Scudder and his wife Elaine. I could say more about this story but I’d prefer everyone else’s jaw to drop just as much as mine did. Don’t read the reviews first.

(Full disclosure: There’s an amusing mention of Scudder and Elaine buying a Bad Plus shirt at the Vanguard. This is at least the second time TBP has made it into a crime story; the first was in Duane Swierczynski’s Severance Package. At any rate, getting mentioned more or less simultaneously in books by Emily Bernard and Lawrence Block is a wonderful birthday present!)