The Code Switch Holiday Book Guide
We're betting that there are a lot of us out there who remember getting books as presents back in the day. I definitely remember receiving a copy of Little Women for Christmas when I was about 10 and later, copies of Jane Eyre (still one of my faves), Emma and Pride and Prejudice. When I was older, James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni joined them on my bookshelves.
And guess what? A book is still a perfect gift. So, because we're also betting that some people have a little bit of the procrastinator in them (no names shall be named!), here's a Code Switch gift to you: Members of the team are suggesting a book that stuck with us this year. And yes, almost all these books are by or about people of color, 'cause ... Code Switch.
So take a look. To cut down on decision-making stress, we've even included suggestions on who might like these volumes. You're welcome — and Happy Holidays! (And we'll be back in January with a books podcast to help you start the New Year.)
From Jess Kung, who helps produce the podcast each week, a classic:
The Key to Chinese Cooking, by Irene Kuo
"I had a hankering for some cookbooks – I don't like reading off a screen in the kitchen. This cookbook, from 1977, was a major part of introducing Chinese food to North America (mostly fancy banquet stuff) and I think it's in the canon of cookbooks (a lot of people compare it to Marcella Hazan or Julia Child). It's really good at explaining why you do certain things, it has beautiful illustrations, and it is not shrouded in the mysticism of the Orient. It's just a dignified, thoroughly written bible for making Chinese food in the West. I've only made, like, two recipes from it because I don't cook meat — and then I moved across the country without bringing it, but it's lovely to just open up and flip through."
Jess thinks these people might like their book:
"Anyone who likes the concept of a beautiful, out-of-print cookbook from the '70s written by a bougie socialite. People who dream of hosting nice dinner parties, whether they actually happen or not. People who, uh, like Chinese food and want to make it."
Shereen Marisol Meraji co-hosts the podcast. Her choice:
Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide by Cass R. Sunstein
"Like so much of the country, I was ignoring my work duties and obsessively listening to hours upon hours of testimony during the impeachment inquiry. And, I wanted to know more, more, MORE! So, I picked up this book and I'm learning all about the history of the impeachment provision and why the framers were so obsessed with getting it just right. Now I know lots of impeachment-related trivia that I can throw around at holiday parties, like, 'Did you know the first impeachment attempt in the U.S. happened in 1842? Guess which president!' "
And, Shereen says, this book will have wide appeal:
"Who doesn't want to be the smartest person in the room? This book helps you drop so much USEFUL-ASS knowledge about something that is a very big deal and is happening RIGHT NOW."
Gene Demby is Shereen's co-host on the pod. He chose a book that's relevant in this political, divisive year:
The Queen, by Josh Levin
"By now, the invocation of an archetypal American in some politician's speech — like the teacher who spends her own salary on supplies for her students, the resourceful immigrant who starts a business, or the Joe who plumbs — is a de rigueur part of stumping and campaigning. No politician wielded this tactic more effectively than Ronald Reagan, and perhaps none of these types have been more consequential than the conniving "welfare queen." As Josh Levin's book The Queen illustrates, Reagan leaned into (or pumped) up many of the salacious details of an unnamed fraudster in order to dog-whistle to whites about cutting welfare benefits. But the unnamed "welfare queen" he alluded to was a real person named Linda Taylor, and her story was far more bizarre and disturbing than mere fraud. Levin traces Taylor's life and unearths a pattern of serial child kidnapping — and possibly several murders — before she basically disappeared from public life. (As most of her victims were black, none of those crimes ever made much news.) And although Taylor provided the bare bones of an antiblack stereotype, her racial identity was in reality much harder to pin down — she shed races as often as she shed names. The Queen details Taylor's unnerving story and traces how her image — the welfare scammer enjoying expensive wares with public money — helped fuel an assault on services for the poor in the United States that continues to this day."
Who'd like this book?
"People interested in true crime and public policy."
Leah Janine Donnella edits the podcast and the Code Switch newsletter but truthfully, she does everything. It's amazing she has any time to read. Her choice was international:
Adèle, by Leila Slimani:
"So many women in my life are constantly doing the 'right thing' — they're hard workers, they support their friends and families, they're thoughtful and responsible and put-together. Adèle is a book about a woman who is, and does, none of that. She skates by at her job, alienates her friends, and has a series of reckless and self-indulgent affairs. She is both deeply unlikable and perversely relatable ('She's getting restless. She feels beautiful and she hates the idea that her beauty will be wasted, that her good mood will be for nothing.') And while she often thinks about changing, in the end, she never does. In her mind, 'Wanting is the same as giving in. The dam has been breached.' The novel is a delicate mix of escapism and brutal realism. (Turns out, there are consequences to following your every whim.) "
Whoa. Leah says this a great book for these folks: "Anyone who is caught in the endless negotiation between who you are and who you think you should be. Anyone who hates their job. Anyone who wonders what it would feel like to act from a place of pure selfishness. Anyone who plans to make a New Year's resolution."
Adrian Florido reports for Code Switch, sometimes outside the U.S. mainland. He spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico covering events there for more than a year. His choice is a slim book written in Spanish.
El Entierro de Cortijo (Cortijo's Wake)
"Earlier this year, one of Puerto Rico's most respected writers, Luis Negrón, opened a tiny book shop in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan. Its selection is small, personally curated by Negrón, and comprised almost exclusively of Puerto Rican authors. I walked in one day and Negrón and I got to talking about a story I'd recently done about a small-town cemetery in Puerto Rico's mountains that Hurricane Maria had heavily damaged. Its closure had been a source of great trauma for the town's residents. They'd been unable to visit their loved ones' graves for nearly two years.
" 'Reverence for the dead runs very deep here,' " Negrón told me. Then he walked over to a display table in his shop's window and picked up a thin little book, just 96 pages: El Entierro de Cortijo, (Cortijo's Wake) — by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá. Written in 1983, the book is a beautifully composed chronicle of the 1982 funeral of Rafael Cortijo, one of Puerto Rico's most beloved percussionists and orchestra leaders. It was an event that brought Puerto Rico's musical luminaries together in mourning, but more than that, it provided — through its ritual — a window into Puerto Rican society; into its values systems, its contradictions, and its relationship with memory and loss. Into its notions of love and humility and masculinity and respect."
Who else might like this book? "People interested in Puerto Rico, great music, social rituals, and Spanish-language narrative nonfiction. Anyone, really. It's a great book."
Kumari Devarajan produces the Code Switch podcast and helps write the Code Switch newsletter. Her book choice:
Native Country of the Heart, by Cherrie Moraga
"Cherríe Moraga is one of our legendary Xicana feminist lesbian icons who opened up new ways of understanding intersectional identity. This memoir is an homage to her mother. Moraga struggles to fathom the pain and sacrifice of the woman who worked as a cigarette girl in Tijuana at age 14 to support her family and had to fight off sexual advances from older men. Moraga reckons with her mother as the key to understanding her own identity and strength as an independent woman. At the same time, Moraga learned from her mother strict rules enforcing sexism and gender roles. When Moraga came out as a lesbian, it devastated her mother. But eventually, she came through for her daughter. Moraga artfully pays tribute to her mother's arduous, steadfast life, while unravelling the complicated experience of having a mother whose harsh life has led her to be unwaveringly strict. As Moraga cares for her mother while she suffers from Alzheimer's, Moraga asks larger questions about lost collective memory of indigenous women of color in the U.S."
So who should consider this book?
"Anyone with a mother. Anyone whose relationship with their mother is complicated. Anyone who finds it difficult to imagine everything their mother has been through. Anyone who grapples with the fact that their mother is a source of both strength and pain."
Karen Grigsby Bates reports for NPR's news shows, substitute hosts the podcast and writes the newsletter. (Yes, I'm referring to myself in the third person for a moment.) Her choice centers on strong women's lives and how they affect the generations that follow:
In The Country of Women: A Memoir, by Susan Straight
"Although Straight has written several well-received novels, this is her first memoir. She wrote it, she says, for her three daughters so they can understand and appreciate the women who came before them and helped make them who they are. Straight writes about both her Swiss-descended blood family and about the African-descended women who embraced her as family when she married into their clan. 'All of America is in your bones,' she writes to her girls in the book's prologue, "In your skin and hair and brains and in your blood." And now, because of this beautiful memoir, in our brains, too.
Who would like this book?
"People interested in family histories. Book clubs. Lovers of memoir. People who want a view of Southern California that doesn't revolve around surfers and the 90210 lifestyle."