For the Hip-Hop Lover:
Decoded by Jay- Z (Spiegel & Grau, $35)
“I was on the streets for more than half of my life from the time I was thirteen years old. People sometimes say that now I’m so far away from that life—now that I’ve got business and Grammys and magazine covers—that I have no right to rap about it. But how distant is the story of your own life ever going to be?”
The hip-hop icon’s tome is ripe with candid details from his early days as a kid in the infamous Marcy Houses in Brooklyn, where he started writing rhymes in his spiral notebook—wherever and whenever he could— to his stint as a hustler, and finally, to his meteoric rise to fame. Not your typical autobiography, this is more of a creative hodgepodge of intelligently keen observations from the sharp mind of Mr. Shawn Carter.
Through both his personal stories and Jay-Z’s own history lessons on the evolution of rap and hip hop, he helps us see the social and political foundations of that music and validates the importance and impact of the genres “…I wanted the book to show how hip-hop created a way to take a very specific and powerful experience and turn it into a story that everyone in the world could feel and relate to.” Decoded is an informative and highly engaging read, made visually appealing through Mr. Carter’s art direction. (Yes, he’s good at that too.)
The Anthology of Rap edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois (Yale University Press, $35)
How can you go wrong with a book with a forward by Henry Louis Gates Jr., an “afterwords” by Chuck D and Common and the history and lyrics of some of the most innovative music of all time? “Rap’s tradition is as broad and deep as any other form of poetry, but like any other literary tradition, it contains its shallows, its whirlpools, and its muddy waters. Our task as active, informed readers is to navigate through the tributaries of Rap’s canon, both for the pleasure that come from the journey as readers, but also for the wisdom born of traveling to any uncharted destinations of the mind,” says Gates.
This book helps chart that journey with sections that take us from “old school” (Afrika Bambaata, Kurtis Blow, Sugar Hill Gang) and the “golden age” (De La Soul, Public Enemy, Run DMC), to “mainstream” (DMX, The Fugees, Foxy Brown, The Roots) and “new millennium rap” (Cee-Lo, dead prez, Ludacris, M.I.A.).
The Anthology of Rap is a must have for anyone who can’t imagine life without a little Grand Master Flash, Wu-Tang Clan, or Public Enemy.
For the photography buff
Harlem: A Century in Images, Introduction by Thelma Golden, Essays by Deborah Willis, Cheryl Finley, and Elizabeth Alexander (Skira Rizzoli, $55)
What a stunner of a book. With visions from some eighty photographers such as James Van Der Zee, Carl Van Vechten, Weegee, Eve Arnold, Alice Attie, Roy DeCarava, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Gordon Parks, Harlem is a beautiful, sometimes gritty, panorama of one of the world’s most renowned neighborhoods.
In her thoughtful introduction, Thelma Golden, Studio Museum director and chief curator, states, “I was inspired by my father’s photographs to envision this book as a kind of community album, one featuring numerous moments, glorious and mundane, triumphant and bleak.” And in fact there are shots of both back allies and grand parlors; both hustlers and church ladies, and moments big—Joe Louis surrounded by a loving cheering crowd—and small, a child skating joyfully down a street.
The book, which covers 100 years of history, expressed in essays by Deborah Willis, Cheryl Finley, and Elizabeth Alexander, contains images of the Harlem riots of 1943 and Vietnam War protests of the past, to more contemporary shots of Obama volunteer posters and the solemn goodbye to Michael Jackson on an Apollo Theater marquis. Golden reflects on Harlem’s appeal, “It has been pictured and known by so many individuals, yet remains enigmatic.”
For the Behind-the-Scenes News Hound
The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities by Soledad O’Brien (Penguin, $24.95)
“I find it odd later when some black folks would suggest we weren’t black enough. Black enough for what? We grew up in Smithtown in the 1970s. We were black.” Opines O’Brien of her family’s multi-culti status in the suburbs of Long Island—hardly a melting pot of humanity. She writes about some of the heat she took for being an outsider and how she learned to let it go and never let it alter her sense of pride as she pursued her path to becoming one of our most highly visible television journalists.
O’Brien’s pre-med Harvard future came to a screeching halt when she interned at a local Boston TV station and fell in love with journalism. She writes of her first on-air breaks at NBC, warts and all, and how her diverse background helped remind her that every story deserves compassionate telling. She has brought that special empathy to her coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, Obama’s historic campaign, the earthquake in Haiti and in all of her interviews, big and small. This well written and inspiring memoir is not only about O’Brien’s personal and professional journey, it also offers a reflection of our country and the world around us.
For the Poet
Hard Times Require Furious Dancing by Alice Walker (New World Library, $18)
Not enough people read poetry, and that’s a true shame. A few lines from a good poet can so quickly ground us and fill us with gratitude that someone has captured our emotions and expressed them so eloquently. Alice Walker has always been one of those poets, and this latest collection from the 65 year old writer offers the comfort of listening to an old friend.
She writes about disappointment and loss (it appears that Walker is estranged from her daughter and grandson, and the sadness she feels from this split is palatable), but she sings of human resilience and the power of dancing off the pain. “The marvelous moves African-Americans are famous for on the dance floor came about because the dancers, especially in the old days, were contorting away from various knots of stress,” says Walker, clearly the consummate dancer.
For those in need of a good, thoughtful laugh
Is it Just Me? Or is it Nuts Out There? by Whoopi Goldberg (Hyperion, $22.99)
Of course it not just her. We’ve surely all observed the decline in civility, respect for others, and just old plain common courtesy and common sense, but Whoopi’s rants are great because they are like yours, but probably funnier.
Now, if you watched Goldberg on The View or in interviews, you will know her stance on many of the topics she delves into. This isn’t brand new material, but it has a good home here on these pages. She has a keen eye and her observations are thoughtful and sharp. She gives it to politicians, drunk drivers, parents who bring small children to grown up films in the evening, “If it’s not the best experience for you, for the kid, or for the people in the theater with you, doesn’t it seem like a lot of trouble for a $25 soda?”
She reacts to horrifying moments in public grooming: “Please, do not cut your toenails on the train, or on the bus, or at the table you are hogging at Starbucks.” And, especially appropriate now during the season of giving, the importance of gratitude even for a less than stellar gift—like a hand-knit toilet paper cozy. “I do not want my friends coming over, using my bathroom, and thinking that I am the sort of person who needs, desires, or covets a toilet paper cozy!!…But, she advises…”say, thank you, it’s…swell.” Here’s to better manners in the New Year.
For the Historian
Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by David Eltis and David Richardson (Yale University Press, $50)
189 maps chart the course of 366 years of the transatlantic slave trade that forcibly moved 12.5 million Africans to the New World. The atlas, which is based on information of an online database, records some 35,000 slaving voyages, constituting about 80 percent of all voyages made.
Through this cartographic representation, we are able to see clearly the nations that were most active in the trade, where the captives boarded and where they landed and the bigger geographical picture from the inception of slavery to its eventual demise.
Eltis and Richardson have included letters, diary entries, poems and illustrations from the period to give the reader a more vivid picture of the intricate business of slavery. These authors have crafted a unique re-telling of this familiar subject, one of the most distainful periods in the history of this country.
For the intellectually curious small fry
Of Thee I Sing by Barack Obama (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $17.99)
In this letter to his daughters—but really to daughters and sons everywhere—Barack Obama pays homage to some of the trailblazers who helped shape our nation. Tributes begins with a questions; “Have I told you that you don’t give up?” is exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “unyielding passion” as “He marched and he prayed and, one at a time, opened hearts and saw the birth of his dream in us.”
Cesar Chavez empowered farm workers to stand up for their rights “!Si, se puede!” Cesar said. Yes, you can!” Jackie Robinson’s bravery “Showed us all how to turn fear to respect and respect to love.” And others, such as artist Maya Lin, jazz great Billie Holiday, Sioux leader, Sitting Bull, Albert Einstein and presidents Washington and Lincoln are all highlighted for their inspiring lives.
The text is spare but lovely, offering a palatable point of entry to young readers. An addendum offers a bit more information about each featured person and award winning artist Loren Long’s beautiful illustrations make this book a real treat.
For the Baker
United Cakes of America: Recipes Celebrating Every State by Warren Brown and Joshua Cogan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95)
Let them eat cake—especially if it comes from this cookbook. This delicious cross country tour includes unique local specialties like Tennessee Mountain Stack Cake and Vermont’s Maple Crème Brulee, as well as popular fare such as Florida’s Key Lime pie and Mississippi Mud Cake.
Brown, restaurateur and author of CakeLove, also puts his spin on some regional favorites, like Louisiana’s King Cake, adds several new treats to honor the agricultural riches of specific states (like avocado cupcakes for California…), offers helpful sidebars, and includes a full section on buttercream frostings. Gorgeous eye-popping photos (a dreamy looking stack of pumpkin pancakes, for example) help make this book an extra sweet deal.
For the Oprah-aholic
Love your Life Oprah O’s Handbook for Your Best Today—and Tomorrow, from the editors of O, The Oprah Magazine (Oxmoor House, $29.95)
No, it’s not a make-over, a car, a house, or a trip to…Australia! Never the less, Love Your Life, O’s Handbook for Your Best Today—and Tomorrow, will leave devotees of Ms. Winfrey happy. This compilation of over 100 motivating articles on everything from diet and exercise to balance and spirituality is a reminder of the quality of the magazine and why it is still here, after 10 years on the stands.
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Choices are a good thing: Want a book penned by our president? We’ve got it. Need to know the words to “Fight the Power? Want to wax poetic with Alice Walker and Jay-Z? Laugh with Whoopi or explore current events with Soledad? Feel like charting the transatlantic slave trade? Do you want to have an “a-ha” moment with Oprah Winfrey, or simply learn how to bake a cake? Read on…