Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Code Switch Suggests: Books, Movies, Music For A Midwinter's Night

Let the raspy, gospel-infused vocals of Chance the Rapper warm you this holiday season.
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Let the raspy, gospel-infused vocals of Chance the Rapper warm you this holiday season.

It's the holidays. You maybe have some time off, and you're maybe thinking that, between doing all those end-of-year things you swear you're going to do before you return to work in January, maybe you're going to take a minute for yourself.

Except you're not sure how to spend that time. So here's our holiday gift to you: A roundup of some of the things we liked that we think you might too. So settle into a comfy chair, pull that Slanket around you (don't front; we know you've used one) and enjoy. Wishing you Happy Holidays and a better New Year.

The Code Switch Team

From Kat Chow, our New York–based reporter, here are two books to savor: Behold The Dreamers , by Imbolo Mbue and The Wangs Vs. The World by Jade Chang.

"These are two books that are great and just happen to be stereotype-busting novels about immigrants," Kat says. "Both, interestingly enough, are set during the 2008 U.S. financial crisis, and both books do not glorify the U.S. Plus they're both fun, pleasurable reads. The books tackle meaty, complicated themes of race, inequity, money and the idea of home — without being dull."

You might like them if: You're looking for an escape on long flights or staying with relatives.

From Alison MacAdam, a leader with our Training Team and our play-cousin (Ali did hard podcast duty with us for two months):

Slavery By Another Name, by Douglas Blackmon

"I picked up this Pulitzer Prize-winning book a few years ago and then let it languish on my bookshelf, 'cause – ya know – it was big and intimidating. But after I read Homegoing (my favorite novel of the year), I returned to it. Why? One of Homegoing's sections takes place in a community of miners in Birmingham. A central character has been effectively enslaved, post-slavery, and has survived horrific working/living conditions. Slavery By Another Name is the true version of that fictional tale.

"As Reconstruction unraveled, white people found myriad ways to re-enslave black people – who had just begun to taste freedom – by arresting them on false and absurd charges and then sinking them in irreconcilable debt to their new masters. I am horrified that I did not know this history. I never learned about it in school (Slavery ended in 1865, right?) and my primary image of a chain gang comes from Bugs Bunny. Every chapter was a revelation. This book is essential reading if you want to understand the fundamentals of American history and structural racism."

You might like this if: You are a narrative history dork; you'll read a BIG book from time to time, and you want to learn more and be smarter about the original sin(s) of America.

HBO's Westworld

"It's been a hard few months for me, and as the winter chill set in, I needed something totally immersive. And so, I got lost in Westworld. Sure, the show has its Twitter-literati detractors, but I didn't set such a high bar. Give me a mystery (Who the F is Arnold?), strong performances (Thandie Newton!! Jeffrey Wright!!) and spectacular production design, and I'm in. I'm also intrigued by the casting of Westworld. It seems as though the show tried, at least a bit, to cast actors of color into roles for which their race is irrelevant. And yet, that's juxtaposed against a sci-fi, theme-park world trafficking in American Western myths, where romantic leads are blond and blue-eyed and villains are swarthy, with accents. Like everything about Westworld, it's a puzzle."

You might like this if: You like your entertainment in puzzle form, with sweeping imaginative depth.

From your correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates at NPR West: a book, music about a book and a dark, dark series.

Vintage Black Glamour; Gentlemen's Quarters, by Nichelle Gainer

"Gainer, who ran a rabidly popular tumblr, Vintage Black Glamour, got a lot of attention with her photo-history of black women's style and beauty in 2014 (Vintage Black Glamour). Now she's back with the male counterpart, a compendium of images from the late 1800s through the late 70s. And if the elegant cover isn't enough to pull you in (Sidney Poitier in a tuxedo, staring straight at you, with That Look? Yes, please!), the hundreds of vintage photos of black artists, entertainers, intellectuals, athletes and politicians will keep you oohing and aahing for hours."

You might like this if: You're interested in the sociology of style, or you're a fashionista or history buff.

Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper

"I know. Rap? Me? But indy rapper Chance (birth name: Chancellor Bennett) pulled it all together in this gospel-infused release with a lot of famous musician friends who drop in as guests ("I don't make songs for free, I make 'em for freedom," he says). Whether he's singing about gratitude (Blessings) or the divergence from an old friend (Same Drugs), Coloring Book is a fitting antidote to this ugly, mean-spirited political year. To quote young Mr. Bennett: "When the praises go up, the blessing come down."

You might like it if: You like music that hasn't been Vitamixed into the stuff the record companies are offering right now.

Chance, the series

"This web-based drama stars Hugh Laurie. You might remember him from that hit medical drama House, where he played a cane-using (and wielding) doctor adept at solving life-threatening medical puzzles. In this one, Laurie's a doctor too—Dr. Eldon Chance, a forensic neuropsychiatrist with a complicated past and a dangerously spiky present. Watch it for Laurie and his dark, twisted story line. And keep an eye out for familiar faces among the other characters in this haunting Hulu series."

You might like it if: You like nail-biting psychological thrillers with complicated characters'

From our interim team leader, Keith Woods: "I finally got around to reading the beautiful writing of the late Gabriel Garcia Márquez this year, and I immediately became one of those hard-to-take converts who can't stop talking about their new 'discovery.'

"I dare you to read Love in the Time of Cholera without becoming just as annoyingly enthusiastic as I did. It's a ranging, hilarious epic about obsession, carnal excess, and the kind of love people imagine but never actually experience. The adventures of protagonist Florentino Ariza as he pursues the elusive Fermina Daza through war and pestilence in Columbia will help you forget (or, at least, ignore) all those holiday bills awaiting you.

"On the other end of the emotional spectrum is Moonlight, the gorgeous story of a boy's path to manhood and his dawning, troubled awareness of his sexuality. That sentence doesn't begin to do the movie or the superb acting in it justice. I'd probably best convey the way the beautiful cinematography, spare dialogue, and can't-look-away drama hit me by telling you how long it took my wife and I to get up from our theater seats. Know that feeling? That's Moonlight."

You'll like these if: You're an escapist who's always looking for meaning in art but never quite sure what you mean by that.

From our podcast producer, Walter Ray Watson: a book about a man we only partly know and a television series about a side of Atlanta we may not know at all:

Kill Em and Leave: Searching For James Brown and The American Soul by James McBride

"I've recommended this at NPR's Book Concierge as a 2016 best book. I can't say enough about it as a work of discovery and inquiry into one of this country's most iconic cultural figures and musicians. We hear James Brown's insistently funky grooves and unrepentant directives half-sung, half-shouted, selling you a little bit of everything these days.

"But James Brown is a completely mysterious character beyond the tabloids and real-life pain he caused people backstage and, wait for it, behind the music."

You might like this if: You want an honest look at an American original whose life and relationships are informed by race. And, there's the added pleasure of meeting people whose opinions are often left out or reduced in the big book of American history and biography.


"Comic, actor and hip-hop artist Donald Glover has created and stars in a breakout show that rolled onto the fall schedule and killed everything else claiming to be new or innovative. It's surreal, funny, intense, completely unpredictable and engrossing, all at once.

"Set in contemporary Atlanta, it's a slice of life amongst unforgettable characters in completely unbelievable settings. Glover plays Earn, a baby daddy managing his rapper cousin for little money but a hundred problems. There's a backdrop of dangerous gunplay, bourgie lifestyles, hustlers getting played, drugs and cops and baby mama drama all played for incisive social commentary, but mostly for observation and laughs.

"I know this sounds like Reality TV on full blast and blaze, pathologies and predictable events by the hooptieful, but it never plays that way."

You might like this if: You want to rearrange the way you watch and think about TV, black characters and your life in America.

<em>We Are The Halluci Nation</em> is the third studio album from A Tribe Called Red.
Matt Barnes / A Tribe Called Red
A Tribe Called Red
We Are The Halluci Nation is the third studio album from A Tribe Called Red.

From Leah Donnella, our editorial assistant (and so much more!): Hotel Paranoiaby Jazz Cartier and Halluci Nation by A Tribe Called Red

"At about 3 a.m. one early September morning, my best friend texted me with a Youtube link and the message, 'vibes.' The link was for 'Tell Me,' a song by Jazz Cartier, which doesn't actually have a video, just audio over a grainy photo. I listened to 'Tell Me' about 36 times in a row. That song is still stuck in my head.

"2016 has spent a lot of time trying to make people of color feel unsafe, unworthy, and just generally bad. I take comfort in knowing that in the midst of it all, there are still black and brown kids making cocky, beautiful music in their basements. (Or in fancy studios, I don't know how things are done.) Hotel Paranoia is 23-year-old Jazz Cartier's third mixtape. The whole thing is lush and neurotic and excellent winter-night-joyride-music.

"We Are The Halluci Nation is another favorite album from 2016. Halluci Nation is the third studio album from the indigenous Canadian DJ Collective 'A Tribe Called Red.' It's more explicitly political (and EDM) than Hotel Paranoia, but equally spooky. My favorite track is 'The Virus,' (featuring Saul Williams) which starts with the line, "We are not a conquered people," and then goes nuts on the beat. The music video splices dancing and semi-abstract art with footage from Standing Rock.

"Both of these albums come out of Canada, so if we wind up having to give up on this great experiment in government of the people, by the people, for the people, so be it. America's had a good run."

You might like this if: You're an angsty brown millennial who likes to dance.

From our reporter Adrian Florido: "At the suggestion of a friend, I went to see 'Ixcanul,' the debut feature from Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante. I was mesmerized. It tells the story of a Mayan teenager, Maria, who is caught between the pressure to marry an older man who will elevate her family's social standing and her pining for a young man planning to leave the Guatemalan countryside for the United States. Fundamentally, the movie is about a young woman and her mother who are determined to exert control over their own lives despite being subjected at every turn to the consequences of the destructive whims of the men in their lives." (Available on YouTube and Google Play).

You might like this if: You appreciate a good story about strength in the face of devastation.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.