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In their first book on racism, late-night talk show host Amber Ruffin and her sister Lacey Lamar primarily wrote to each other, exchanging stories in a comedy-infused back-and-forth. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey emerged from the phone calls, texts and stories they shared from their respective positions in New York and Nebraska. (Let’s just say that Lamar’s experiences in the predominantly white city of Omaha were quite different from Ruffin’s in New York City.) They weren’t trying to persuade resistant readers about the ills of racism with their first book. They merely offered their own perceptions of people and incidents, whether it was an overzealous security officer from J.C. Penney or a rude doughnut maker—and the book was a huge success.

Now Ruffin and Lamar are back, and they’ve broadened their scope. “People honestly thought we didn’t have more stories,” Ruffin writes in the introduction. “So, it’s kinda like a dare.” In The World Record Book of Racist Stories, the other members of the Ruffin family—mom, dad, brother and two more Ruffin sisters—are brought into the fray. Their stories range from lighthearted misunderstandings with racist undertones to frightening instances of unchecked bias, and everything in between.

What’s super valuable here is reading how Ruffin and Lamar perceive these instances: how they frame them, connect them, share them with each other and, when they’re able, laugh about them. Each of these new stories is “the best” (or worst) of something—”Most Racist Bus Driver,” “Worst Reaction to a Nice Car,” “Worst Celebrity Look-Alike”—and as you’d imagine, it’s not an award you’d want to win. Readers do win something, though: They get unvarnished straight talk about racism from a Black family that has lived in predominantly white communities for decades. To read stories you won’t soon forget, told in a totally memorable way by some very funny and generous writers, check out The World Record Book of Racist Stories.

To read stories you won’t soon forget, told in a totally memorable way by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar, check out the very funny The World Record Book of Racist Stories.

In her debut essay collection, comedian and actor Natasha Leggero muses, often hilariously, about what it’s like to have a baby at 42 and find your way as a mom. “It’s hard raising a child with a man,” she writes in the opening essay of The World Deserves My Children. “One day I asked my husband to give the baby a bath. I came into the kitchen to find my daughter sitting in a sink full of dishes while my husband scrubbed her and a plate at the same time. Don’t use Dawn on her! She’s a baby not a duck after an oil spill. I would have to be very drunk to do any of that.” Leggero’s style is breezy, sometimes over-the-top, with punchline quips punctuating her anecdotes. She’s like the funny friend who’ll say anything after a cocktail or two.

Leggero details her grueling path to pregnancy and her first few years as a parent with humor and insight. She contrasts her own scrappy childhood in Rockford, Illinois, parented by a single mom who struggled to make ends meet, with the minute concerns of the uber-privileged Los Angeles parents she encounters as an adult. As in a stand-up routine, the essays digress, often charmingly, to memories of things like her dad’s family’s Italian Christmases. While some subjects will be familiar to parents—the difficulties of breastfeeding, the search for a preschool—the collection really hits its stride in the essays on discipline and fear. Leggero writes that, as a child, she was “pretty obnoxious and tended to say whatever popped into my head—sort of like a male comedian.” Unlike a male comedian, however, Leggero had to write “I will not disrespect my mother” a thousand times as punishment for “telling it like it is.” Noting the variety of permissive parenting styles she encounters in LA, Leggero says she strives for an approach to discipline that’s somewhere in the middle.

Near the collection’s end, Leggero includes a Q&A with her husband, Moshe Kasher, also a comedian. She asks him how they differ as parents and what he thinks of her as a mother, and his answers are funny and touching. The World Deserves My Children is a book with a lot of heart and even some wisdom, perfect for fans of Jessi Klein’s I’ll Show Myself Out.

In her debut essay collection, comedian and actor Natasha Leggero muses, often hilariously, about what it’s like to have a baby at 42.
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Kliph Nesteroff’s We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy is an intriguing look at how Native Americans have influenced the world of comedy. Starting with the Wild West shows of the 1800s, Nesteroff chronicles the presence and impact of Native comedic performers through the decades. His lively narrative draws on in-depth research and interviews with today’s up-and-coming comedians. Entertainment stereotypes and representation in media are but a few of the book’s rich discussion topics.

Set in Nashville in the 1920s, Margaret Verble’s novel When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky tells the story of a Cherokee woman named Two Feathers who performs as a horse-diver at the Glendale Park Zoo. After an accident occurs while Two is performing, strange events take place at the zoo, including sightings of ghosts. Two finds a friend in Clive the zookeeper, and together they try to make sense of the odd goings-on at Glendale Park. An enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Verble paints an extraordinary portrait of connection in defiance of racism in this moving novel.

In Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, Nicole Eustace builds a fascinating narrative around a historical incident: the killing of a Seneca hunter by white fur traders in 1722 Pennsylvania. The murder occurred right before a summit between the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and the English colonists, and it heightened tensions between the two sides at a fragile moment. Eustace brings the era and its seminal events to vivid life as she examines Native attitudes toward retribution and reparation. 

Cree Canadian author Michelle Good’s novel Five Little Indians follows a group of First Nation youngsters who must find their way in the world after growing up during the 1960s in a Canadian residential school, a boarding school for First Nation children designed to isolate them from their culture. As adults in Vancouver, British Columbia, Lucy, Howie, Clara, Maisie and Kenny struggle to make lives for themselves and escape painful memories of the past. Clara joins the American Indian Movement, while Lucy dreams of building a future with Kenny. Good explores the repercussions of Canada’s horrific residential school system through the divergent yet unified stories of her characters, crafting a multilayered novel filled with yearning and hope.

These Indigenous stories are perfect for your book club, from a history of Native comedians to the true story of a murder in colonial Pennsylvania.

David Sedaris’ latest essay collection, Happy-Go-Lucky, finds the author in late midlife, mining his life, the lives of his family—including his longtime boyfriend, Hugh, his siblings and his 98-year-old dad—and their surroundings for comedic stories. In the book’s opening essay, “Active Shooter,” Sedaris and his sister Lisa visit a firing range in North Carolina, which offers him a chance to plunge into the oddities of gun culture as they learn to shoot pistols. It’s a perfect David Sedaris essay: one that lures you in with funny family anecdotes and self-deprecation, gives a sideways look at some aspect of society, then ends with an unexpected emotional punch. This essay, like several others here, also offers deft, sharp commentary on masculinity. One of the collection’s delights is a commencement address delivered at Oberlin College that skates along on the surface with funny throwaway lines and ridiculousness while offering slyly sensible life advice underneath.

The collection progresses somewhat chronologically, beginning with essays that look back to Sedaris’ childhood and to his young adult years when he was writing plays with his sister Amy in New York City. Later essays recount Sedaris’ experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, walking New York’s empty streets and wondering if his livelihood—reading works-in-progress to audiences all over the country—is gone for good. But in 2021, he returned to the road in a changed America, making pointed observations about different states’ vastly different approaches to the pandemic along the way.

These essays offer plenty of laughs, but the tone is often dark as Sedaris contemplates his dad’s failings, and his own. “I’m the worst son in the world,” Sedaris jokes to a nursing home aide about not visiting his dad more often. At first these confessions feel callous, but as the essays reveal more about his dad’s abusive, competitive behavior, such remarks take on a different feel. In “Unbuttoned,” I teared up at Sedaris’ evocation of both the pain of such abuse and the unexpected moment of connection between the two men at the end of the elder Sedaris’ life.

Happy-Go-Lucky is an entertaining collection, both cringey and poignant as it celebrates love, family and even aging in an inimitably Sedaris way.

Happy-Go-Lucky is both entertaining and poignant as it celebrates love, family and even aging in an inimitably David Sedaris way.
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If you enjoy hiking up and down remote mountains while laden with excessive outdoor gear, then The Hiking Book From Hell is probably not the travelogue you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you enjoy strolling through your city, hanging out in pubs or chatting with strangers, then author Are Kalvø is your man. Kalvø, one of Norway’s most popular satirists, is a cheerful urbanite with little to no interest in nature. In his mid-40s, however, he realized that many of his friends were joining the swelling ranks of people who subject themselves to deprivation and possibly even death in pursuit of an “authentic” experience with nature. This insight brought Kalvø face to face with life’s most profound question: Is it them, or is it me?

Kalvø also had serious questions about Norwegians’ mania for nature. As a committed extrovert, he found their quest for isolation and silence disturbing. Also, nature worship can be exclusionary; the high cost of equipment and clothing ensures that nature is reserved for the well-off, while proposals to make the outdoors more accessible to disabled people are vigorously opposed. And if people went into nature to lose themselves in a transcendent experience, then why were there so many nature selfies on Instagram?

Accompanied by his wife, the “Head of Documentation,” Kalvø went on two nature treks to see what all the fuss was about—but he never really found out. Climbing steep, fog-bound mountains in the rain is as much fun as you would expect. Skiing for miles can be pretty boring. And, as he discovered, there’s something about being one with nature that changes ordinary people into boastful, unbearably smug liars who tell you with a straight face that a hike is “lovely” when they really mean “likely to kill you.”

But Kalvø tells his story with such deft humor and affectionate irony, wonderfully conveyed by Lucy Moffatt’s translation, that all you can do is laugh at his misadventures—and be grateful that you’re reading The Hiking Book From Hell in the comfort of your home.

Are Kalvø, an urbanite with no interest in nature, tells of venturing into the outdoors with such deft humor that all you can do is laugh at his misadventures.

Jessi Klein’s second essay collection, I’ll Show Myself Out, finds Klein in her 40s, parenting a toddler and trying to regroup in unfamiliar Los Angeles, a world away from her beloved New York City. “I constantly feel like I’m a leaky raft in open water,” she writes in “Listening to Beyoncé in the Parking Lot of Party City.” It’s a thoughtful essay that laments the changes of midlife and motherhood; it also had me laughing out loud, wishing I could share it with a friend.

Some of Klein’s essays are light—the one about her love for designer Nate Berkus, for instance, or learning to live with her ugly feet—while others dig a little deeper. She builds one essay around the “underwear sandwich,” a contraption postpartum moms wear to cope with bleeding and birth injuries, somehow managing to make fresh, feminist points in the process (and, yes, making me laugh out loud again). These voicey, funny essays give unexpected dimension to familiar topics, such as how widowers remarry faster than widows or that the mommy wine-drinking trend is out of hand.

One of the collection’s themes is anxiety—Klein’s, her partner’s and her child’s—and how it can rear up in the most innocuous-seeming moments. Another is Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey, which Klein muses on to marvelous effect throughout the book. She turns the narrative template on its head, positing that pregnancy, birth and early motherhood are full of rigors and pitfalls, as difficult and life-altering as any masculine adventure. “We just feel the guilt of being terrible monsters, ironically, at the exact moments that we actually, as mothers, become the most heroic,” she writes.

Klein, who has produced and written for TV shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Big Mouth,” fills in the picture of a woman at midlife who’s beginning to make sense of it all. This collection is as entertaining and heartfelt, personal and comic as they come.

Jessi Klein’s second essay collection is full of voicey, funny pieces that give unexpected dimension to the familiar topics of motherhood and midlife.

If Gary Janetti’s keenly observed memoir of his formative years, Start Without Me: (I’ll Be There in a Minute), is any indication, he’s always had a sharp eye and a sharper tongue.

That sarcastic sensibility has earned him fame and acclaim as a writer and producer for “Will & Grace” and “Family Guy,” creator of the British sitcom “Vicious” and star of the HBO Max animated show “The Prince.” Now, in this follow-up to 2019’s Do You Mind If I Cancel?, which focused on his career beginnings, the raconteur extraordinaire journeys back to his precocious childhood in 1970s and ’80s Queens, New York.

Those years had many glorious moments for Janetti, and readers will gleefully snort at his hilariously spot-on recollections. In grammar school, “The Carol Burnett Show” provided life-affirming joy. In freshman gym class, he discovered a prodigious talent for and love of square dancing. During his sophomore year, horrified by the prospect of football, he cleverly manipulated the system by spending gym periods with a guidance counselor (and drawing from soap operas to keep her hooked on his imaginary troubles). Always, movies and TV were a balm for his inability to connect with other kids and his fear of people finding out who he really was. “The things I liked, I liked too much. The things I didn’t, all other boys did,” he writes.

Some essays give insight into how things got better for the grown-up Janetti, providing moments of loveliness among the operatic complaining. For example, after a lengthy critique of destination weddings, Janetti reveals with a wink that he married TV personality Brad Goreski on a Caribbean cruise.

Start Without Me is equal parts acid and heart. It’s a collection of sardonically funny stories about a firecracker of a kid who hadn’t yet found his kindred spirits. It’s a series of entertaining tirades about life’s indignities. And it’s an engaging look at the origin story of a man who, despite years of self-doubt, has finally embraced his particular superpowers.

Gary Janetti’s keenly observed, hilarious memoir of his formative years in 1970s and ’80s Queens is equal parts acid and heart.

Most people couldn’t proclaim that they’ve concocted “nine of the biggest, boldest, and most world-changing supervillainous schemes” that are “both scientifically accurate and achievable” without inspiring great skepticism. But if anyone’s going to be a reliable source for dastardly plots bolstered by plausible project plans, it’s Ryan North, the bestselling author of How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler.

As a longtime writer for Marvel and DC comics, the Eisner Award-winner gets paid to come up with heinous and destructive crimes for fictional heroes to foil. In How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain, North harnesses his expertise as a “trained scientist and professional-villainous-scheme-creator” to craft highly detailed plans for achieving world domination. In “Every Supervillain Needs a Secret Base,” for example, he patiently yet firmly explains why the best place for a base is not inside a volcano. Perhaps the aspiring villain should build a floating lair in the ocean, or venture into the sky? North has analyzed every option, and he’s got recommendations—not to mention budgets, timelines and risk analyses for scenarios ranging from starting your own country to cloning dinosaurs to destroying the internet. The results are archly funny and always thought-provoking.

Clever illustrations by Carly Monardo up the fun factor, and sidebars take deep dives into carbon-capture technology, airspace ownership laws and more. How to Take Over the World is a wild journey that’s sure to leave readers pondering North’s assertion that “once [the world is] understood, it can be directed, it can be controlled, and it can be improved.” Whether they use his advice to achieve supervillainy or to flip the script and save the world is up to them.

If anyone is going to concoct highly detailed, scientifically accurate plans to achieve world domination, it’s Ryan North.
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In How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question (9 hours), Michael Schur, creator of “The Good Place” and co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” explores philosophical questions about how humans define good character and behavior and how to achieve it. The audiobook is read mostly by the author, whose well-paced, attentive narration keeps his humorous, personality-driven (albeit sometimes meandering) content clear and engaging.

Actors from “The Good Place” comprise the audiobook’s remaining cast, with Kristen Bell, D’Arcy Carden, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto, Marc Evan Jackson, Jameela Jamil and even philosophy professor Todd May (who had a cameo on the show) bringing distinctive tones, attitudes and comedic gravitas to their performances.

This is a lively audio production for thoughtful readers interested in questions of goodness (“Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason?”), and it’s perfect for listening in both spurts or over a single long stretch. How to Be Perfect turns serious questions into playful thought exercises to aid in making better decisions with less angst.

With guest appearances from the cast of “The Good Place,” this is a lively audio production for thoughtful readers interested in moral dilemmas.
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Séamas O’Reilly’s debut book, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?, is a tender, comic chronicle of the author’s upbringing as one of 11 children raised by their widower father in Derry, Northern Ireland. O’Reilly, a regular contributor to the Observer who has a knack for crafting uproarious anecdotes, is attuned to the extraordinary—and somewhat absurd—nature of his childhood. He takes a jovial approach in the narrative, and the result is a rousing tale of family fellowship.

The book opens in 1991, right after the death of O’Reilly’s mother, Sheila (Mammy), from breast cancer. O’Reilly, who was 5, struggled to make sense of the loss and the events that followed, including Mammy’s well-attended wake. When a family friend told him that Sheila was a flower picked by God to be in his garden, O’Reilly observes, “It was nice to think that Mammy was so well-liked by God, since she was a massive fan. She went to all his gigs—Mass, prayer groups, marriage guidance meetings . . .”

After Mammy’s death, O’Reilly’s father, Joe, an engineer, was left to care for his 11 children. A devoted dad, Joe possessed seemingly bottomless reserves of patience and good nature, which allowed him to bring up a happy brood against all odds. (O’Reilly points out a particularly challenging juncture when six of his sisters were teenagers at the same time.) The O’Reilly children shared bedrooms and books, divvied up household duties (not always equitably) and traveled with Joe in a minibus dubbed the “O’Reillymobile.”

The author describes his parents as “comically, parodically, Catholic,” and religion is a constant undercurrent in the book. As O’Reilly came of age, the violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles was waning, but he still found himself reckoning with its long-term effects. One lasting repercussion: the sense of gallows humor that’s pervasive among the Northern Irish.

Indeed, finding comedy in tragedy seems to be an operative instinct for the author. Stylistically, O’Reilly is an unabashed maximalist, packing his sentences with adverbs and consistently minting fresh figures of speech. Throughout the book, as he sifts through memories of his boisterous upbringing, he never fails to find cause for joy or a good joke. As a result, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?—title aside—feels bracingly alive.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is a tender, uproarious chronicle of Séamas O’Reilly’s upbringing in Northern Ireland. Despite the title, it feels bracingly alive.
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Greg Brennecka is a cosmochemist with a sense of humor and a flair for making complex topics both understandable and entertaining. We asked him to share a little scientific advice for all those who feel inspired to study the stars after reading Impact.

No doubt you get this a lot, but what exactly is a cosmochemist?
Ha, well, most people don’t even ask—probably because they just figure it’s something completely made up. I guess I would properly define cosmochemistry as the study of extraterrestrial materials with the goal of understanding the origin and evolution of our solar system and our cosmic neighborhood. But basically, it’s just looking at stuff not from Earth to learn cool things.

The subtitle of your book is quite memorable: How Rocks From Space Led to Life, Culture, and Donkey Kong. What was your history with Donkey Kong before writing Impact?
To be honest, I am more of a Ms. Pac-Man fan, but I also enjoyed the original Donkey Kong arcade game quite a bit growing up. I also usually choose a Donkey Kong character when racing in Mario Kart because I love throwing bananas all around the course. Please don’t hate me for that.

Your book brims with wit and humor. Have you ever considered stand-up cosmochemist comedy?
If there is a job more made up than “cosmochemist,” it is “stand-up cosmochemist comedian”!

Read our starred review of ‘Impact’ by Greg Brennecka

Many of the concepts in Impact are highly technical and complex, yet you’ve found a way to make them accessible to readers. What’s your secret?
My secret is that I am not that great at discussing things in a technical way! I think it helps that a lot of the questions we ask in geology and meteoritics are straightforward questions, such as “When did this happen?” or “What happened that could make it look like this?” There may be some technical aspects to how we get at the answers, but the questions and goals themselves are usually very relatable to readers of all backgrounds, and I think that makes my job as a writer a lot easier.

Asteroids have been in the news of late, with NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. What excites you most about it?
One thing to keep in mind with DART: It’s conceivable that we will need to adjust the path of an asteroid to keep it from hitting Earth someday, so making sure we know how to do that is a pretty sound preparation. And I know that “sound preparation” isn’t usually associated with excitement, but I am always very excited by humanity striving to do cool and difficult things, advancing our capabilities.

What’s the most common question about asteroids that you get?
For asteroids specifically, probably whether Earth is going to be hit by one—which probably isn’t a surprise given the popular Hollywood movies on the subject. When it comes to meteorites—the small chunks of asteroids that land on Earth—I sometimes get asked about being hit by one, but also often about what they are worth if you find one. I guess that tells us pretty clearly what motivates people: fear and money.

“Basically, it’s just looking at stuff not from Earth to learn cool things.”

If you could be magically transported to another planet so you could get a better look, which would you choose?
Oooh, that is tough. I would probably be most interested in a planet’s potential ability to harbor life, so it would be hard to argue with Mars. Do moons count? Because if so, probably one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, like Europa or Enceladus. There are some potentially habitable exoplanets that are being discovered almost daily now, as well, so some of those would be incredible to check out up close.

If you could go back in time on Earth, what would you want to see most?
Wow. I would probably want to figure out how life got its start on Earth, so I would travel to sometime around 4 billion years ago. If I had a second choice, perhaps Cretaceous age or so when the dinosaurs were cruising around. I wouldn’t last long, but it would be an exciting few minutes!

What has been your most breathtaking experience looking through a telescope?
For me, it probably didn’t even take place while using a telescope. Just lying down and looking at the stars in places without light pollution, I get a real feeling for how vast, diverse and dynamic the cosmos are. It blows me away every time I get the chance.

“I am always very excited by humanity striving to do cool and difficult things.”

Your book combines a love of history with a love of science. Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?
This is an easy one: Bill Bryson. His A Short History of Nearly Everything was an incredibly influential book for me and really got me into learning about the history of science and culture. I reread it in 2017, and the lack of information about meteorites is what inspired me to write Impact. I also really enjoy stuff by Mark Kurlansky (Salt) and Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind).

Your book ends with a discussion of some of the most fascinating unanswered questions in space science. What research are you working on now?
My colleagues and I are working on a few different topics mentioned in the book. One is searching for the source of water on Earth. Currently we are doing this using lunar rocks, of all things, but I think we are onto something, so keep an eye on the scientific literature. Secondly, we are working on what I like to call “cosmolocation,” which is studying meteorites to find out where they originally formed in the solar system. Basically, this involves re-creating the solar system’s structure from when it first started—before all the planets formed and moved everything around to where it is now.

There’s a long tradition of amateur astronomers. What advice do you have for someone who wants to start studying the night sky?
This might be a weird answer, but I would let them know that they don’t need to buy that big backyard telescope as a first step. There is so much open-access data available from NASA and other agencies that people can just poke through and make discoveries on their own using data about the surface of Mars or deep space images from space telescopes like Hubble. There is a lot yet to be discovered in those data troves, should one feel like getting involved.

A bona fide meteor master shares the secret behind his accessible, fascinating and funny debut, Impact.

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