Jessica Wakeman

One of the many important decisions we had to make in 2020 was who we would allow into our COVID-19 quarantine bubbles. As the first months of the pandemic rip the world apart in Gary Shteyngart's Our Country Friends, eight friends, strangers and rivals are thrown together in a house in rural New York. The falling-down second home, owned by novelist Sasha Senderovsky, becomes a site of bottomless drama as the crew shelters in place.

Shteyngart is terrific at building characters who feel fully fleshed out, and it's a real feat to do so with eight primary players. Some of the characters face truly difficult pandemic-related problems: Sasha's wife, Masha, is terrified of the virus infecting their bubble, and their daughter, Nat, struggles with home-schooling. Others have dragged personal problems to the country refuge: career upswings and downswings, unrequited love, unsatiated horniness and internet infamy.

The dark backdrop of the outside world—COVID deaths, job losses, George Floyd's murder—is a distant concern to these self-absorbed characters, but the reality of the times casts a pall over the superfluous country house exploits, from the famous actor's wandering eye to the romantic foibles of a successful app creator.

While most of the plot takes place at the country home, the narrative's tentacles reach far back in history and all around the globe. Several characters are first-generation immigrants, and they illustrate the mix of hardiness and anxiety that comes with uncertainty on a societal level. These are the moments when it feels like Shteyngart has something to say about resilience and strength.

Stalwart fans of Shteyngart's brand of satire won't find these characters' narcissism to be too grating, but given the gravity of the past year and a half, not all readers will have the patience for their flimflammery.

A country home becomes a site of bottomless drama for eight characters during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There's nothing more exciting than standing among a throng of strangers listening to live music or watching the lights go down in a movie theater when the show is about to begin. But these six books certainly come close.

The Art of Bob Mackie

Bob Mackie is a member of a very small club: Hollywood costume designers whom regular folks (meaning, not ex-theater kids) know by name. Throughout his storied career, Mackie has designed gowns for Marilyn Monroe, Carol Burnett, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Madonna and, well, anybody who was anybody on TV, the silver screen or Broadway. The Art of Bob Mackie by Frank Vlastnik and Laura Ross is an authorized trip down memory lane, featuring brightly colored sketches and photos of over-the-top creations from Mackie's 60 years in fashion, from his big break designing for Broadway star Mitzi Gaynor in 1966 to his costumes for The Cher Show, the 2018 jukebox musical based on the actress and singer's career. Fans of "lewks,"divasand Hollywood gossip will have lots to enjoy. 

The Motherlode

Hip-hop has never been a man's game, but male rappers have gotten more attention, money and respect since the beginning. Former Vibe and Jezebel editor Clover Hope sets things straight with The Motherlode, an encyclopedia dedicated to the women of hip-hop. Going all the way back to the 1980s, Hope leaves no woman out, from MC Sha-Rock (hip-hop's first prominent female emcee) to Cardi B. Each rapper is honored with an essay, a minibio and funky artwork by Rachelle Baker, meaning your giftee has no excuse not to kill at a Women in Hip-Hop category on "Jeopardy!" Present this book with your own playlist of hip-hop's fiercest ladies, and it'll be a gift to remember.  

Colorization 

Journalist Wil Haygood's Colorization traces the experience of Black artists on and behind the screen through 100 years of film history, demonstrating that racism hasn't always been this bad in Hollywood. It's actually been a lot worse. This meaty analysis of Black film history spans everything from The Birth of a Nation (1915), which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, to Gone With the Wind (1939) and its infamous whitewashing of slavery, to Get Out (2017) and its memorable portrayal of "post-racial" liberalism. Haygood has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and his research skills are as impeccable as that honor implies. He is also such a descriptive writer that you need not have seen every single movie he writes about in order to understand his analysis. Don't be surprised if Colorization ends up on film studies syllabi for years to come.  

Art Boozel

We could all stand to freshen up our cocktail repertoire, and that's where Art Boozel comes in. The book pairs dozens of artists with cocktails based on their work and/or personalities. For example, the Keith Haring is made with pear cider, lemon juice and a brandied cherry (among other ingredients), so it's as bright and colorful as Haring's art. Author Jennifer Croll has an endlessly creative mind for unique cocktails (her previous book, Free the Tipple, is also a compendium of cocktail recipes), and each artist and their drink is delightfully illustrated by Kelly Shami. Come for the recipes, stay for the contemporary art history lesson you never got in school. 

Mental Floss: The Curious Viewer

Mental Floss: The Curious Viewer, "a miscellany of bingeable streaming TV shows from the past 20 years," is a reminder of just how many hours of prestige TV there is to watch. (There's a lot.) Jennifer M. Wood, an editor at the pop culture blog Mental Floss, unearths everything you ever wanted to know about beloved shows like "Friends," "Sex and the City," "Downton Abbey," "Friday Night Lights" and other shows worthy of a binge-watch. She shares fun facts and behind-the-scenes gossip from each show but somehow doesn't make you feel like you've read them all in a Buzzfeed article. The Curious Viewer might just be the book that pulls the couch potato in your life away from the TV (and helps them dominate at trivia night). 

Fun City Cinema

At a certain point, everyone who lives in New York City stops seeing movie sets as exciting and instead sees them as a nuisance. That's because the streets of Gotham have graced so many films. In Fun City Cinema, film critic and former film editor of Flavorwire Jason Bailey revisits the films that tell the story of NYC's history and, in some cases, America's history. The city changes so frequently that many films are "fascinating artifacts of cinematic archeology," he writes in his introduction. It may be jarring to see photos of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and controversial ex-mayors such as Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in the same book as, say, The Muppets Take Manhattan. Alas, these are contradictions New Yorkers live with every day. 

Got a film fanatic or art aficionado in your life? Give them one of these books and watch their eyes light up.

Whether you're an Alan Cumming superfan or more like, "Who?" there is something for you to enjoy in the actor's second memoir, Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life. It is indeed fully packed with reflective writing about his extraordinary life, hard-won wisdom and plenty of Hollywood gossip.

Cumming's fans already loved him for his work onstage in Cabaret and on-screen in everything from "The Good Wife" to the Spy Kids trilogy. But he gained the respect of the literary world, too, with his 2014 memoir, Not My Father's Son, about his family ancestry and abusive father. Baggage picks up emotionally where Not My Father's Son left off, as Cumming describes navigating the theater world and Hollywood, both famously brutal industries, while trying to rebuild the self-worth his father destroyed. He writes thoughtfully about the end of his first marriage (to a woman), his hookups, his love affairs, his drug use and his second marriage (to a man).

When Cumming describes his happiness with the person he is today, the reader understands it came from decades of trial and error. Celebrity memoirs can be a literary crapshoot, but Cumming is a truly gifted writer. Very few readers will be able to relate, for example, to confronting the director Bryan Singer about his drug abuse on the set of X2: X-Men United alongside people all costumed as superheroes. But in Cumming's telling, the saga reads like any other anxiety-packed tale of work colleagues banding together to challenge the boss.

Cumming is able to pivot from sassy and self-effacing to sensitive and serious, perhaps because he embodies all those qualities himself, but what radiates the strongest is his confidence. Throughout all the stories in Baggage, he never seems like he's trying to prove anything—but after a 40-year career, what does he really have to prove? Even if the author were not a celeb, Baggage would be a worthy read for anyone who has triumphed over a difficult childhood.

In Cumming’s second memoir, he pivots easily from sassy and self-effacing to sensitive and serious, perhaps because he embodies all those qualities himself.

“Part of our friendship, of any relationship really, is the tacit agreement to allow a generous latitude for flaws and grievances.” These are the words of Riley Wilson, speaking about her lifelong bond with her best friend, Jenny Murphy. But while this agreement has worked for them in the past, it won’t anymore. 

In We Are Not Like Them, written by co-authors Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, we meet Riley and Jenny as their friendship is tested as never before: Riley is a Black journalist covering the recent murder of a Black teenage boy by a white police officer, who turns out to be Jenny’s husband, Kevin. 

In chapters that alternate between Riley’s and Jenny’s points of view, we begin to understand each woman’s perspective on events. Through Riley, we see how traumatizing it is for a Black journalist to cover police-involved killings, and we see her unease in broadcasting other people’s trauma in order to further her career. Through Jenny, we understand the private fears of a police officer’s spouse and the relentless pressure on cops and their families to “back the blue,” no matter what. 

While We Are Not Like Them is fundamentally about the loyalties and betrayals among their communities—and each other—Riley and Jenny are not caricatures. Pride, a Black writer, editor and publishing veteran, and Piazza, a white journalist and podcast host, have written these women as complex, layered people who do their best to navigate infertility, shame, absent maternal figures and the generational trauma wrought by racist violence. 

Hopelessness is certainly a theme in the novel, especially in the epilogue that centers on Tamara, the murdered boy’s grieving mother. But We Are Not Like Them is ultimately about the inherently hopeful act of having grace when the people we love make mistakes—even terrible ones. This is an excellent book club selection or a starting point for interracial friend groups or families to talk candidly about race. 

Hopelessness is certainly a theme in We Are Not Like Them, but it’s ultimately about having grace when the people we love make mistakes—even terrible ones.

It’s a curious prospect, reviewing a book composed of journal entries. A journal is typically a writer’s innermost private thoughts, which should be beyond a critic’s purview. Many lives have mundane periods, so it seems unfair to deduct points for lack of action. And when the author of the journal is humor writer David Sedaris, the book critic wonders how many of these tales are actually real. All this is to say that A Carnival of Snackery is a difficult book to review. Sedaris shares nearly 600 pages of his diary entries from 2003 to 2020, and the emotions they provoke run the entire gamut.

Sedaris’ political musings span from post-9/11 to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a globe-trotting author, he brings an outsider’s perspective to many historical moments. But his personal entries are the more touching ones. Sedaris is best known for his humor essays, in which his eccentric Greek American family members often appear. But A Carnival of Snackery invites the reader to share his family’s heartbreak and losses, too. Sedaris’ thoughts about his estrangement from his sister Tiffany, her eventual suicide and his difficult relationship with his conservative and judgmental father (complicated by Donald Trump’s presidency) are woven among his lighter entries.

There are plenty of laughs to be had as well; one of the reasons readers love Sedaris is that he’s the first person to laugh at himself. This remains true in A Carnival of Snackery, especially as the bestselling author comes to grips with his late-in-life wealth. Sedaris tours constantly to promote his books, and several entries recount jokes that audience members have shared at book signings. A few of these jokes may be considered tasteless, but many will have you giggling in spite of yourself.

There is plenty in A Carnival of Snackery that longtime Sedaris fans will love.

David Sedaris shares nearly 600 pages of his diary entries in A Carnival of Snackery, and the emotions they provoke run the entire gamut.

A flailing commune. A lead singer of a touring rock band. Sex, drugs and then even more sex and drugs. Zoe Whittall’s taut novel The Spectacular has all the trappings to become the season’s dishiest read. It’s also a gem of literary fiction. 

Whittall, a poet and novelist who has also been a writer on the sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” introduces three women with very different plans for their lives. Missy is a 20-something rock star with a penchant for drugs and a love’em-and-leave’em attitude toward men. Early in The Spectacular, she is upset to learn that she is pregnant. Carola, Missy’s mother, has provided maternal succor to many, first at a hippie commune and later at a yoga ashram. But she struggles to show up for her own daughter and, in many ways, to show up for herself. Finally there’s Ruth, Carola’s mother-in-law, whose sacrifices as a young immigrant in Canada set the stage for her family’s life. 

The plot of The Spectacular isn’t clearly defined; all three women’s stories connect at certain points, and the narrative jumps forward and backward in time. But this is not a typical sprawling family drama, and in Whittall’s smart and capable hands, these unconventional women are given the space to experience their full, complicated lives. Whittall takes the long view with this multigenerational arc to explore the responsibilities of motherhood, the boundaries of biology and the price for women’s freedom to live fully actualized lives.

The Spectacular has all the trappings to become the season’s dishiest read. It’s also a gem of literary fiction.

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