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Looking for a book to read during the holiday break? Here's our recommendations

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From music to theater to biographies, three Kansas City readers share what's on their book list this winter.

Winter is the perfect time to get cozy with a good book.

KCUR's Up To Date brought together author Steve Paul, BLK + BRWN bookstore owner Cori Smith and Mark Luce, English Department chair at The Barstow School, to share their old favorites and new must-reads.

Steve Paul's recommendations

"The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams" (Little, Brown) by Stacy Schiff. Biography.

One of our finest biographers takes us to the American Revolution through the complicated life of a Boston rabble-rouser. Political activist, opinion leader, instigator of the colonial Congress, and sly architect of the march toward independence from the British “mother country,” Adams was fearless, driven and controversial. Schiff brings a savvy and scintillating sense of story to the proceedings, making for a crisp read. Her book illustrates how the founding turmoil and lessons of distant American history resonate even today.

"Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe" (Simon & Schuster) by David Maraniss. Biography.

He was the world’s greatest athlete: Football player, track star, Olympic gold medalist (with an asterisk). Even a pro baseball player, though of uneven skills. But all of that was complicated — disturbingly and tragically — by Jim Thorpe’s identity as an “Indian,” a Native American with roots in the Sac and Fox tribe of Oklahoma. The story of Thorpe, as Maraniss’s clear-eyed and supremely detailed biography reveals, is a story of persistence, survival, love, loss, and the juggernaut of sports, but also a story of how myths are made and how white America manipulated people and denied dignity and honor to “first Americans.”

"The Philosophy of Modern Song" (Simon & Schuster) by Bob Dylan. Nonfiction.

Bob Dylan, songwriter and Nobel Prize laureate, is still recording new music and touring in his 80s. Now he has gathered a series of essays on music and culture into an odd yet revealing, occasionally controversial, and ultimately entertaining book. Reflecting the kind of eager and engaging riffing he brought to his “Theme Time Radio Hour” series, Dylan writes about 66 distinct songs representing American pop culture from his youth and middle years — from stars like Little Richard, Ricky Nelson and Frank Sinatra to relative unknowns such as John Trudell, a Native American songwriter and activist. As it becomes clear, these are not necessarily a playlist of his favorite songs, but entry points into the stream of history. Dylan meditates on justice, fame, race, and other topics, and presents the kind of intellectual pinballing we’ve come to expect from this pop-culture survivor wholly deserving of his status as sage, poet, and court jester.

"The Unfolding" (Viking) by A.M. Homes. Fiction.

This serio-comic novel rather sleekly and smartly encapsulates our recent years of political anxiety and divisions. The setting extends from Election Day 2008 to the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama two and a half months later. Its principal characters include 18-year-old Meghan Hitchens, her politically connected and archly conservative father, known as the Big Guy, and her mother Charlotte. Even as the family confronts its own secrets and disintegration, the weight of history and conflicting notions of the “American Dream” propel the reader through a closely observed scenario blending a young woman’s personal awakenings and the makings of political truths and power. A.M. Homes has a sharp eye, a wicked wit, and a highly tuned ear, resulting in a fast-paced novel rich with cultural, emotional, and political insights.

Cori Smith's recommendations

"All About Love" (HarperCollins) by bell hooks. Self-help.

The book that changed my view and continues to impact many readers, new and old, of bell hooks’ work, intersectional feminism, and radical practice of love. This book touches on all of the different domains of what love is, and how it should be present in all of the different lanes for our lives — including spirituality, childhood/parenting, romantic love, self-love, grief, etc.

"The City We Became" (Orbit Books) by N.K. Jemisin. Science fiction.

Based in a modern New York City, this book follows a handful of characters who seem to have a lot more in common than they know when they are forced to band together to protect their city from an attack. 

"Kindred" (Doubleday) by Octavia Butler. Science fiction.

Dana, a 26 year old Black woman living in California, is suddenly snatched from her time (1976) and travels back to the Antebellum South of 1815, where she is tasked with saving the life of Rufus Weylin, the slavemaster’s son. Each time she returns, Dana is there longer, and events begin to unravel significantly. The show recently premiered as a TV adaptation on Hulu.

"The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip-Hop" (Penguin Random House) by Jonathan Abrams. Nonfiction.

The most comprehensive account so far of hip-hop's rise, told in the voices of the people who made it happen. Abrams traces how the genre grew out of the resourcefulness of an overlooked population amid the decay of the South Bronx, and how it overflowed into the other boroughs and across the nation — from parks onto vinyl, below to the Mason-Dixon line, to the West Coast through gangster rap and G-funk, and then across generations.

"Black Power Kitchen" (Workman Publishing) by Ghetto Gastro. Cookbook.

Part cookbook, part manifesto. Created with big Bronx energy, Black Power Kitchen combines 75, mostly plant-based, layered-with-flavor recipes with immersive storytelling, diverse voices, and striking images and photographs. The book celebrates Black food and Black culture, and inspires larger conversations about race, history, food inequality, and how eating well can be a pathway to personal freedom and self-empowerment.

Mark Luce's recommendations

"The Passenger" and "Stella Maris" (Knopf) by Cormac McCarthy. Fiction.

Cormac McCarthy’s first novels since 2006’s "The Road," this pair of works explores the lives, delusions, and undersea adventures of Bobby Western, a salvage diver, and his troubled sister Alicia. McCarthy leaps from the fantastic to the mundane, the thriller to the comic as The Passenger spins around a missing body from a plane crash. The coda to the novel, the short "Stella Maris," explores Alicia’s demons and dreams. It’s not all great, but the 89-year-old McCarthy has delivered a dazzling read.

"Thin Blue Smoke" (Bower House) by Doug Worgul. Fiction.

Former Kansas City Star writer and barbecue guru Doug Worgul wrote this gem of a novel back in 2009. Set in a local barbecue spot named Smoke Meats, the novel follows Laverne Williams, a former baseball player, and Fergusun Glen, an Episcopal priest with heavy spiritual doubts. The novel explores race, religion, baseball, barbecue, loss and love in ways as funny as they are touching. An absolute joy to read.

"Sweat" (Theatre Communications Group) by Lynn Nottage. Play.

Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer-prize winner, writes a sizzling play that highlights blue-collar workers at factory in a decaying Reading, Pennsylvania. The entire plot takes place in a bar, and documents the difficulties of the Great Recession and its effects on the people of the Rust Belt. By turns gripping, hysterical, and often unapologetically raw, "Sweat" showcases Nottage’s characters in all their fractured togetherness.

"Century Cycle" (Theatre Communications Group) by August Wilson. Plays.

In this series of 10 plays set in each decade of the 20th century, primarily in Pittsburgh, August Wilson forged a different kind of history. From Emancipation to gentrification, from hardscrabble lives to joyous blues, the plays trace the arc of Black life in America. Powerful, searing work that will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Stay Connected
When I host Up To Date each morning at 9 a.m., my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. My email is steve@kcur.org.
Elizabeth Ruiz is a producer for KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org or on Twitter at @er_bentley_ruiz.
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