Weekly Words about New Books in
Independent Bookstores

August 7, 2022
Now in Paperback - Fast-Paced Crime Novel from Pulitzer Winner and Contemplative Memoir From Former Poet Laureate
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. The two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad - has proved he can write thought-provoking literary historical fiction. Now with Harlem Shuffle, he tackles the crime drama genre, setting his rollicking story of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs in early 1960s Harlem. To my mind, his effort is an unqualified success - this was one my five favorite books of last year.

Whitehead's protagonist, Ray Carney, runs his own furniture store business on 125th Street. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver's Row don't approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it's still home. He's a good salesman and for the most part avoids dealing with "fell off the truck" merchandise. He's managed to rise above his lineage, which includes more than a few hoods and crooks, but his facade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cash is tight, and Ray has never been able to extricate himself from a lifelong relationship with his cousin Freddie, who's always in trouble and in need of bailing out.

When Freddie falls in with a crew that plans to rob the Hotel Theresa - the Waldorf of Harlem - he volunteers a protesting Ray's services as the fence. Naturally, the heist doesn't go as planned, and Ray now has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes. Thus begins a test of character between Ray the striver and Ray the crook - navigating a double life over the course of about five years and trying decide what kind of man he wants to be. His trials and tribulations make for a dandy story, but Whitehead enhances and enriches it with an array of disreputable, highly colorful characters - Freddie being just one example.

Harlem Shuffle was one of last year's most (and best) reviewed books. Here's an excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle: “Fast-paced, keen-eyed and very funny, Harlem Shuffle is a novel about race, power and the history of Harlem all disguised as a thrill-ride crime novel.” 
Poet Warrior: A Memoir by Joy Harjo. The first Native American to serve as U.S. poet laureate (a position she held for three terms) has written a lyrical and compelling second memoir (after Crazy Brave), a contemplation of her trailblazing life. Moving between prose, song, and poetry, Harjo issues a call for love and justice as she looks back on influences of her life. 

There are stories of her Creek Nation ancestors and family, the poetry and music that she first encountered as a child, as well as messengers from nature — owls heralding grief, resilient desert plants, and a smooth green snake curled up in surprise. She writes of those who shaped her poetry, among them Audre Lorde, N. Scott Momaday, and Walt Whitman. Harjo also grieves at the loss of her mother, reckons with the theft of her ancestral homeland, candidly confronts childhood abuse, and sheds light on the rituals that nourish her as an artist, mother, wife, and community member.

In one of several sterling reviews of the book, Publisher's Weekly said, "In a gorgeous and meditative work that blends poetry, philosophy, and nonlinear narrative, U.S. poet laureate Harjo delivers a lyrical homage to her Creek Nation family."