Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

Novelist, journalist, editor and television producer Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop radiates brilliance. In dazzling prose, she casts a spotlight on the creative genius of Black women musicians including Mahalia Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Mariah Carey, Marilyn McCoo and many more.

Weaving together the threads of memoir, biography and criticism, Smith illustrates how her intense love of music has been shaped by Black women’s art. These women helped her find her way as a Black girl in 1970s Oakland, giving her strength and the confidence to write about the music that defined her life. Now, when people ask Smith, “Why does Tina Turner matter? Why is Mary J. Blige important?” her answers, she writes, “are passionate and learned because I want credit to be given where credit is due.” For Smith, this especially includes giving Black women credit for being the progenitors of American soul, R&B, rock ’n’ roll and pop.

For example, Smith traces the career of Cissy Houston who, as part of the singing group the Sweet Inspirations, shaped the sound of megahits such as “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Son of a Preacher Man”—works that became foundational to the classic rock format and went on to influence everyone from the Counting Crows to U2. As Smith writes, “The Grammy Awards of the artists they have influenced would fill a hangar,” yet the Sweets are rarely mentioned in connection to these and other iconic songs.

As Smith teases out the immeasurable influence of both underappreciated background singers and idols who are household names, she illuminates the qualities these artists have in common, “most of which revolve around the transmogrification of Black oppression to fleeting and inclusive Black joy.” Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Danyel Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

In her brilliant study of the relatively little-known lives of jellyfish, Spineless, science writer Juli Berwald traveled the world to explore the intimate connections between the health of our oceans and the ways that these luminescent creatures adapt to rapidly changing marine conditions. Berwald’s dazzling Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs now does for coral reefs what Spineless did for jellyfish: offers a love letter to their resplendent beauty, issues a warning about their dire future and holds out cautious hope that they can flourish once again.

Berwald first entered the fairyland of the coral reef when she was contemplating a career in marine biology and snorkeling in the Red Sea. “It was love at first sight,” she writes, “for my part anyway. I’m pretty confident the corals felt nothing more than the waft of a current rolling off my flapping fins as I struggled to control my movements.” The beauty and intricate ecology of that reef stayed with her, and a decade later—as a science writer rather than a marine biologist—Berwald took a cruise to the Bahamas in hopes of seeing the splendor of a coral reef again. To her chagrin, she only found “broken and displaced piles of rubble.”

In her quest to find out what is killing the world’s coral reefs and what, if anything, can be done to mitigate the damage, Berwald met with scientists in Florida, California and Bali, among other destinations. In Florida, for example, she learned that stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) is eating up to 2 inches of coral tissue per day. Other factors contributing to the loss of coral reefs include “overfishing, sedimentation from coastal erosion, ship anchors leaving scars, pollution from pesticide runoff and untreated sewage, unrelenting oil spills, and ever larger hurricanes.” The world’s great coral reefs, she learned, may cease to exist by 2050.

Despite such a dire prognosis, Berwald also learned that the public and private sectors are developing strategies—such as growing coral in nurseries and placing coral larvae on substrates designed to give them a head start—for restoring coral reefs. Along the way, she intersperses fiercely tender stories of her daughter’s struggle to receive treatment for her mental illness with these discoveries about coral reefs, offering thoughtful reflections about what can and can’t be known about the problems we face.

Life on the Rocks shimmers with radiant prose, sending out rays of hope for the future of coral reefs. As Berwald immerses readers in a glimmering undersea world, she also encourages them to discover ways they can support efforts to preserve the reefs, which play a key role in maintaining the fragile ecological balance of our oceans.

Juli Berwald’s dazzling Life on the Rocks does for coral reefs what her first book, Spineless, did for jellyfish.

Historian Imani Perry (Looking for Lorraine) reaches new storytelling heights in the vibrant and compelling South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. In this unique blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, the Birmingham, Alabama, native traverses the wilderness of Appalachia, the rolling hills of Virginia, the urban corridors of Atlanta and the swampy vistas of Louisiana to explore the idiosyncrasies of the South. The book’s three sections are organized geographically, beginning with “Origin Stories” about where the South and America began and then moving deeper into the country, from “The Solidified South” in the heart of the Southeast to the “Water People” of Florida, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

In striking prose, Perry testifies to the insidiousness of racism throughout the South and throughout history. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, she revisits the Wilmington race riot of 1898, in which an all-white group of Democrats overturned the town’s multiracial Republican government in a violent coup. Before the riot, “Wilmington was an integrated city in which Black people thrived,” Perry writes. “The deeds of the rioters in Wilmington were illegal. But they went unpunished because the de-facto law of the land had always been the respect of White grievance and the destruction of Black flourishing.” 

As she zooms in on the South to show its complexities in more vivid detail, Perry takes time to observe the South’s continued enactment of political and business policies that fortify segregation, poverty and racism. For example, Atlanta is often presented to the world as a shining example of racial equality and justice. It’s a city that is over 50% Black, “but the unbearable Whiteness of its being—by that I mean a very old social order grown up from plantation economies into global corporations—leaves most Black Americans vulnerable,” Perry writes.

Given that the South is still the region where the majority of Black Americans live, the question Perry asks herself is “not why did Black folks leave, but why did they stay?” The answer, she says, is that it’s home. “If everyone had departed, no one would have been left to tend the ancestors’ graves,” she writes. “Had these graves not been seen, daily, over generations, had we not been witnesses to them, I do not know how it would have been possible to sustain hope, or at least pretend to.”

South to America, in the words of the traditional spiritual, troubles the waters, calling readers to understand the complex history of race and racism in the South in order to better comprehend the true character of America.

In a vibrant blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, Imani Perry zooms in on the South to show its iniquity and beauty in vivid detail.

Growing up in Florida, with roots in Puerto Rico and Nicaragua, Edgar Gomez was confronted very early in his life by a culture of machismo—a glorified, aggressive masculine pride. Within such a culture, “men must marry, spawn children, and head their households.” If it weren’t for his queerness, Gomez writes, “which made many of the benefits awarded to men who uphold machismo unappealing, I would have likely accepted them without question.” With alternating notes of gut-wrenching emotion and humor, High-Risk Homosexual chronicles not only Gomez’s coming-of-age and coming out, but also his choppy navigation of a culture and family that refused to accept him.

Much of Gomez’s memoir recounts his struggles to find guides to help him growing up, gay and Latinx in a world that often violently rejected gay men. His mother and stepfather couldn’t live with the thought that Gomez was gay. His uncles tried to “reform” him by setting him up with a woman one night after a cockfight. Along the way, Gomez found solace in conversations with trans women in Nicaragua, with people in the Castro District in San Francisco and with drag queens at gay clubs in Miami and Orlando—including at Pulse, before the shootings that killed 49 people and wounded 53.

It was when he visited his college health clinic that he was dubbed a “high-risk homosexual” for sleeping with more than two sexual partners a week—a label he knew would not be applied to people who had a similar number of opposite-sex partners per week—and given pills to mitigate HIV. When he learned that taking the pills might be more dangerous than the disease, he dumped them down the toilet and vowed to “live a life that acknowledges [AIDS] as a possible outcome.” Gomez concludes that “what you do when you’re not afraid anymore is the same thing you do when you are: keep going.”

In High-Risk Homosexual, Gomez’s incandescent prose flickers with an intensity that illuminates his insecurities, his disappointments and his courage.

Edgar Gomez’s incandescent prose flickers with an intensity that illuminates his insecurities, his disappointments and his courage.

Johnny Cash is remembered for his familiar greeting (“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”), his booming bass-baritone voice and his signature chugging guitar lines. Many of his songs delve into his experiences with addiction, such as “I Walk the Line,” and his tempestuous love affairs, such as “Jackson”—but many of his most famous songs also demonstrate Cash’s close attention to poverty and marginalization, like “Man in Black” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Michael Stewart Foley’s Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash offers a broader glimpse of this aspect of Cash’s music.

Drawing on untapped archives, Foley explores Cash’s life and music, illustrating how Cash’s impoverished childhood in rural Arkansas, where he witnessed brutal acts of racism and injustice, led to what Foley calls a “politics of empathy.” Foley writes that Cash “came to his political positions based on his personal experience, often guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to issues.” Foley traces the development of Cash’s politics over the course of his musical career, from Cash’s Sun Records days to his final recordings with producer Rick Rubin in the early 2000s. Foley also closely focuses on “The Johnny Cash Show,” and especially the closing segment of the show called “Ride This Train,” to illustrate the ways that Cash invited guest musicians such as Odetta and Stevie Wonder onto the show to break down racial barriers and confront American society’s tendency to divide rather than unite. Foley points out that Cash’s “empathy was not so much rooted in solidarity as it was based on witnessing: documenting sorrows and struggles, making it possible for . . . the subjugated, the exploited, the marginalized to be seen.”

Citizen Cash usefully combines biographical detail and cultural analysis with music history to provide an in-depth portrait of the ways Cash acquired his political and social ideas and wove them into the fabric of his music.

With unique depth, Citizen Cash combines biography, cultural analysis and music history to examine Johnny Cash’s political and social ideas.

Sit down, pull up a chair (or pick a spot under your favorite tree) and smile as Rick Bragg spins his mesmerizing tales of life down South with characteristically wry humor and wisdom. A paean to his terrible good dog, Speck, The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People offers a knowing and humane meditation on the devotion of a man to his dog and a dog to his man.

Bragg first found Speck among a pack of strays eating trash in the middle of the road; when he approached the pack, the other dogs scattered, but Speck lingered, and so Bragg took him in. Speck’s mismatched eyes—a light brown left eye and an almost solid blue-black right eye—“did not ruin his face; they just made him look like the pirate he is.” Bragg wasn’t looking for a dog when he found Speck, and even if he had been, this isn’t the one he might have expected. “I had in mind a fat dog,” he writes, “a gentle plodder that only slobbered an acceptable amount and would not chase a car even if the trunk was packed with pork chops.”

Yet, this dog—who chases cars, drinks from the toilet and rounds up jackasses—has a story, and Bragg tells it with all the “exaggeration and adjustment” of a rattling good storyteller. Bragg weaves his own stories of health challenges and his brother’s cancer diagnosis throughout Speck’s journey, as the two take care of each other in the wilds of rural Alabama. Bragg concludes that Speck “just wants some people of his own, and some snacks, because a dog gets used to things like that. . . . And, when the weather turns bad, he wants someone to come let him in, when the thunder shakes the mountain, when the lightning flash reveals that he was just a dog all this time.”

The Speckled Beauty takes its place beside Willie Morris’ My Dog Skip, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ animal narratives and William Faulkner’s dog stories—as well as all those short tales of devoted dogs in Field & Stream—confirming once more Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.

The Speckled Beauty confirms Rick Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.

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