Essence Magazine’s Book Choices for December 2013

Essence Magazine’s book selections for December 2013, including “Patrik’s Picks” and “Raising Smart Girls”:


Viking Adult, 9/17/2013, Kindle Edition

Who Asked You? by Terry McMillan

With her wise, wry, and poignant novels of families and friendships, Terry McMillan has touched millions of readers. Now, in her eighth novel, McMillan gives exuberant voice to characters who reveal how we live now—at least as lived in a racially diverse Los Angeles neighborhood.

Kaleidoscopic, fast-paced, and filled with McMillan’s inimitable humor, Who Asked You? opens as Trinetta leaves her two young sons with her mother, Betty Jean, and promptly disappears. BJ, a trademark McMillan heroine, already has her hands full dealing with her other adult children, two opinionated sisters, an ill husband, and her own postponed dreams—all while holding down a job delivering room service at a hotel. Her son Dexter is about to be paroled from prison; Quentin, the family success, can’t be bothered to lend a hand; and taking care of two lively grandsons is the last thing BJ thinks she needs.

The drama unfolds through the perspectives of a rotating cast of characters, pitch-perfect, each playing a part, and full of surprises. Who Asked You? casts an intimate look at the burdens and blessings of family and speaks to trusting your own judgment even when others don’t agree. McMillan’s signature voice and unforgettable characters bring universal issues to brilliant, vivid life.


Knopf, 8/27/2013, Kindle Edition

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

From the best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying and The Dew Breaker: a stunning new work of fiction that brings us deep into the intertwined lives of a small seaside town where a little girl, the daughter of a fisherman, has gone missing. Claire Limyè Lanmè — Claire of the Sea Light — is an enchanting child born into love and tragedy in Ville Rose, Haiti. Claire’s mother died in childbirth, and on each of her birthdays Claire is taken by her father, Nozias, to visit her mother’s grave. Nozias wonders if he should give away his young daughter to a local shopkeeper, who lost a child of her own, so that Claire can have a better life. But on the night of Claire’s seventh birthday, when at last he makes the wrenching decision to do so, she disappears.

As Nozias and others look for her, painful secrets, haunting memories, and startling truths are unearthed among the community of men and women whose individual stories connect to Claire, to her parents, and to the town itself. Told with piercing lyricism and the economy of a fable, Claire of the Sea Light is a tightly woven, breathtaking tapestry that explores what it means to be a parent, child, neighbor, lover, and friend, while revealing the mysterious bonds we share with the natural world and with one another. Embracing the magic and heartbreak of ordinary life, it is Edwidge Danticat’s most spellbinding, astonishing book yet. This edition includes a reading group guide. 


Chicago Review Press, 8/1/2013, Hardcover

First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School by Alison Stewart

Dunbar High School in Washington, DC, defied the odds and, in the process, changed America. In the first half of the twentieth century, Dunbar was an academically elite public school, despite being racially segregated by law and existing at the mercy of racist congressmen who held the school’s purse strings. These enormous challenges did not stop the local community from rallying for the cause of educating its children.

Dunbar attracted an extraordinary faculty: one early principal was the first black graduate of Harvard, almost all the teachers had graduate degrees, and several earned PhDs—all extraordinary achievements given the Jim Crow laws of the times. Over the school’s first eighty years, these teachers developed generations of highly educated, high-achieving African Americans, ground-breakers that included the first black member of a presidential cabinet, the first black graduate of the US Naval Academy, the first black army general, the creator of the modern blood bank, the first black state attorney general, the legal mastermind behind school desegregation, and hundreds of educators.

By the 1950s, Dunbar High School was sending 80 percent of its students to college. Today, as with too many troubled urban public schools, the majority of Dunbar students struggle with reading and math. Journalist and author Alison Stewart, whose parents were both Dunbar graduates, tells the story of the school’s rise, fall, and path toward resurgence as it looks to reopen its new, state-of-the-art campus in the fall of 2013.


Basic Civitas Books, 9/10/2013, Hardcover

Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II by Farah Jasmine Griffin

As World War II raged overseas, Harlem witnessed a battle of its own. Brimming with creative and political energy, the neighborhood’s diverse array of artists and activists took advantage of a brief period of progressivism during the war years to launch a bold cultural offensive aimed at winning democracy for all Americans, regardless of race or gender. Ardent believers in America’s promise, these men and women helped to lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement before Cold War politics and anti-Communist fervor temporarily froze their dreams at the dawn of the postwar era.

In Harlem Nocturne, esteemed scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin tells the stories of three black female artists whose creative and political efforts fueled this historic movement for change: choreographer and dancer Pearl Primus, composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, and novelist Ann Petry. Like many African Americans in the city at the time, these women weren’t native New Yorkers, but the metropolis and its vibrant cultural scene gave them the space to flourish and the freedom to express their political concerns. Pearl Primus performed nightly at the legendary Café Society, the first racially integrated club in New York, where she débuted dances of social protest that drew on long-buried African traditions and the dances of former slaves in the South. Williams, meanwhile, was a major figure in the emergence of bebop, collaborating with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell and premiering her groundbreaking Zodiac Suite at the legendary performance space Town Hall. And Ann Petry conveyed the struggles of working-class black women to a national audience with her acclaimed novel The Street, which sold over a million copies — —a first for a female African American author.

A rich biography of three artists and the city that inspired them, Harlem Nocturne captures a period of unprecedented vitality and progress for African Americans and women, revealing a cultural movement and a historical moment whose influence endures today.


Reagan Arthur Books, 5/21/2013, Kindle Edition

We Need New Names: A Novel by NoViolet Bulawayo

A remarkable literary debut — shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize! The unflinching and powerful story of a young girl’s journey out of Zimbabwe and to America.

Darling is only ten years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.

But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo‘s debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her-from Junot Diaz to Zadie Smith to J.M. Coetzee-while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.


Knopf, 5/14/2013, Kindle Edition

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

From the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a dazzling new novel: a story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home. As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives. Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.


William Morrow, 10/29/2013, Hardcover

Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid by Nikki Giovanni

With Chasing Utopia, Nikki Giovanni, one of America’s most celebrated artists, demands that the prosaic—flowers, birdsong, winter—be seen as poetic.

The poetry of Nikki Giovanni has spurred movements and inspired songs, turned hearts and informed generations. She’s been hailed as a healer and a national treasure. But if her reputation is writ large upon the national stage, her heart resides in the everyday where family and lovers gather, friends commune, and those no longer with us are remembered.

And at every gathering there is food, food as sustenance, food as aphrodisiac, food as memory. A pot of beans are flavored with her mother’s sighs, this sigh part cardamom, that one the essence of clove; a lover requests a banquet as an affirmation of ongoing passion; an homage is paid to the most time-honored appetizer, soup.


W. W. Norton & Company, 2/4/2013, Paperback

Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry by Charles Henry Rowell

More than seventy poets are represented in this innovative new anthology of African American poetry since the 1960s.

This is not just another poetry anthology. It is a gathering of poems that demonstrate what happens when writers in a marginalized community collectively turn from dedicating their writing to political, social, and economic struggles, and instead devote themselves to the art of their poems and to the ideas they embody. These poets bear witness to the interior landscapes of their own individual selves or examine the private or personal worlds of invented personae and, therefore, of human beings living in our modern and postmodern worlds. The anthology focuses on post-1960s poetry and includes such poets as Rita Dove, Ai, Nathaniel Mackey, Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Terrence Hayes, Elizabeth Alexander, Major Jackson, Carl Phillips, Harryette Mullen, and Yusef Komunyakaa—artists who, using a wide range of styles and forms, are cultivating a poetry of personal voice and interiority that speaks against the backdrop of community and anscestry.


Dreamtitle Publishing, 10/7/2013, Hardcover

I’m a Pretty Little Black Girl! by Betty Bynum

I’M A PRETTY LITTLE BLACK GIRL! introduces adorable Mia, who wakes with her hair just-a-going every which-a-ways! With her abundant energy and joy leading the way, readers follow Mia as she plays with her friends who are all shades, shapes and sizes. There’s tall Kia, Keisha the reader, Charlotte her best friend, Dina Rose-Marie the artist, Imani the dancer, Anna who loves sports, Ruby the singer, and honey-haired Tracy. Mia finds that Pretty is within herself and her friends, and being pretty is way beyond what the mirror shows.


Arthur A. Levine Books, 3/1/2013, Hardcover

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

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