Ah! I always love me an Amy Harmon book. And her latest, The Songbook of Benny Lament, touched and changed my heart in all the best ways. If you’ve never read one of her books before, you should. They are ridiculously amazing!
This book transported me into a different place and time. It’s set in the early 60s in a New York neighborhood run by the mob. Benny Lament (Benito Lomento) wants nothing to do with his family. Family means secrets. Family means being owned. Family means murder, corruption, and nothing good in his mind.
His life revolves around his music since he’s made a name for himself writing songs for big name artists. But when his father makes him come listen to a black girl named Esther Mine sing in a ghetto bar in another neighborhood, he is captivated against his will. But what he learns from his dad about Esther Mine’s birth parents makes him want to leave her alone. The woman can only bring trouble into his life. But Benny can’t get her voice out of his head, and though he runs from fate, it’s going to catch up to him.
What I loved about this book were the themes: racial prejudice, family ties and duties, and change. This story had heart, like all of Harmon’s books do. I came to love characters so different from me—mobsters, sassy black women, angry black men, conflicted Italians. I loved the sixties setting and all the history interwoven through the radio show. I love the self-reflection her stories inspire if you let them. Harmon’s stories are in no way preachy (I hate those kind of stories), but as you get inside the characters’ heads and experience life vicariously with them, I can’t help but stop and wonder, “Am I resisting change? Am I standing up for change? How could I do better?”
The plot showed racial prejudice from several different sides and lights. The author wrote about this touchy, sensitive subject masterfully. She didn’t try to tell me how I should be. She just told a story about how the world was, and how a few strong individuals stood up against the status quo to bring about change (a very slow change). I saw how easy it is to believe there is no racism (or more personally, to think I’m not racist), when really there’s a good chance there is and I am just unaware or ignorant of it because it’s not touching us/me right then.
Amy Harmon’s stories always plant a seed of change in my heart. That’s why I love them. She started writing this back in 2019 before all the civil unrest exploded here in the US. After reading this, I want to do better at challenging my cultural and societal beliefs, to make sure I never get cozy in a world where I’m only looking out for myself. I want to do better at making sure I’m always changing in a way that is including others, not excluding them. I want to be changing in ways that unite others in diversity, instead of clinging to my comfortable cliques or tribes. Anyway, I have nothing but praise for this book. The author tackled a hard subject with difficult characters, and did it with honesty and grace.
Sometimes the best way to hide is in the spotlight. If the whole world knows who you are, it’s harder to snuff you out.”
Prejudice is human nature, and it isn’t always ugly or violent or even obvious. We all make judgments, some of them justified, some of them not. We’re taught a certain way of thinking and doing, we’re taught to blame or justify, and a lot of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it. And that’s true of everybody. Not just white people. I told Esther she had a chip on her shoulder, and she told me I had a blind spot.”
If you’re tired of subpar books, look no farther than Amy Harmon. Her storytelling won’t disappoint you. Happy reading.