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A Carnival of Snackery (17 hours) collects highlights from David Sedaris’ diaries from 2003–2020, read by the author and British-born actor Tracey Ullman. Sedaris’ diary entries reflect much of what we love most about his short stories and essays—observations about the unusual people he meets on his travels, anecdotes about awkward situations and tales about his family—all filtered through the lens of the last two decades, with backdrops that range from Brexit to protests against the Iraq War and George Floyd's murder.

In the introduction, Sedaris explains that Ullman will narrate the portions of the audiobook set in England, to capture the local charm in a way he cannot. She does a wonderful job portraying Sedaris and the broad range of accents he encounters while across the pond, from a haughty horseback rider to a teenage troublemaker. Sedaris hardly needs help: He doesn’t perform as many voices in his sections, but his emphasis and timing get right to the humor at the heart of his diaries.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘A Carnival of Snackery.'

David Sedaris and actor Tracey Ullman get right to the humor at the heart of his diaries in the audio edition of A Carnival of Snackery.

Like il timpano, the enormous layered pasta pie that starred in the 1996 movie Big Night alongside Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, the latter’s new memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food, is a gastronome’s delight. It has piquant surprises tucked inside and will leave readers both sated and wanting more.

When it comes to Tucci, fans always want more. The award-winning actor and bestselling cookbook author was considered a standout guy even before his swoony Negroni tutorial video went viral at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. He’s known for scene-stealing roles in movies like Spotlight and The Devil Wears Prada, as well as in foodie films like Big Night and Julie & Julia

And like Julia Child before him, Tucci’s chef skills are as impressive as his boundless passion for eating. Such is the life of a gourmand, which he revels in and reflects on in Taste. The author takes readers on a grand tasting tour, from his childhood in Westchester, New York, to his 1980s New York City acting debut to bigger roles in major movies made around the world, where he always dined with gusto.

Tucci is quite opinionated about food. Well-placed “fuck”s signify outraged incredulity (e.g., an adult “cutting their spaghetti!!!!!!!” or the travesty of turkey in an alfredo) and offer hits of hilarity throughout. There are also dramatic renderings of memorable conversations, like the gasp-inducing time a chef told him, “I make a stock . . . of cheese.” 

He shares serious stories as well, like the pain and grief he and his family felt when his late wife, Kathryn, died in 2009, and their joy and hope when he married Felicity Blunt in 2012. He writes, too, about his recent cancer diagnosis and treatment, a grueling experience during which he had a feeding tube and worried “things would never return to the way they were, when life was edible.”

Thankfully he is now cancer-free, and via the artfully crafted recipes Tucci includes in Taste, readers can join him in celebrating food and drink once again. Under his tutelage, they might even dare to construct and consume their own timpano.

Like the enormous layered pasta pie that starred in the 1996 movie Big Night, Stanley Tucci’s new memoir is a gastronome’s delight.

Sit down, pull up a chair (or pick a spot under your favorite tree) and smile as Rick Bragg spins his mesmerizing tales of life down South with characteristically wry humor and wisdom. A paean to his terrible good dog, Speck, The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People offers a knowing and humane meditation on the devotion of a man to his dog and a dog to his man.

Bragg first found Speck among a pack of strays eating trash in the middle of the road; when he approached the pack, the other dogs scattered, but Speck lingered, and so Bragg took him in. Speck’s mismatched eyes—a light brown left eye and an almost solid blue-black right eye—“did not ruin his face; they just made him look like the pirate he is.” Bragg wasn’t looking for a dog when he found Speck, and even if he had been, this isn’t the one he might have expected. “I had in mind a fat dog,” he writes, “a gentle plodder that only slobbered an acceptable amount and would not chase a car even if the trunk was packed with pork chops.”

Yet, this dog—who chases cars, drinks from the toilet and rounds up jackasses—has a story, and Bragg tells it with all the “exaggeration and adjustment” of a rattling good storyteller. Bragg weaves his own stories of health challenges and his brother’s cancer diagnosis throughout Speck’s journey, as the two take care of each other in the wilds of rural Alabama. Bragg concludes that Speck “just wants some people of his own, and some snacks, because a dog gets used to things like that. . . . And, when the weather turns bad, he wants someone to come let him in, when the thunder shakes the mountain, when the lightning flash reveals that he was just a dog all this time.”

The Speckled Beauty takes its place beside Willie Morris’ My Dog Skip, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ animal narratives and William Faulkner’s dog stories—as well as all those short tales of devoted dogs in Field & Stream—confirming once more Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.

The Speckled Beauty confirms Rick Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.

“In fairy tale logic, you must trade something for something you desire,” writes Sarah Ruhl. “By this logic, I traded my face for my children. And it was a fair trade.” This is just one of the many arresting sentences in Ruhl’s new memoir, Smile: The Story of a Face, which details Ruhl’s pregnancy and subsequent experience of facial paralysis, a condition that set in immediately after delivery. The memoir moves from the intimately personal to the nearly universal: motherhood and medicine, soul and body, and the poetic logic that underlies everyday life. A playwright with an incredible eye for detail and a searing voice, Ruhl excels at putting striking ideas into simple forms that vibrate with power and energy.

Sarah Ruhl recalls passing her time on bed rest by reading the Twilight series. “We can’t predict how our minds will behave in extremis or when we are ill.”

Though Ruhl spent years avoiding her face in daily life, on the page she stares at it without flinching. She recalls refraining from looking at her reflection and how she came to rely on gestures and murmuring to communicate what her mouth and eyes could not—excitement, welcome, affirmation, connection. Behind this performance, or maybe because of it, Ruhl began to disassociate from her face, which no longer expressed her essential self. As a playwright, Ruhl works with actors, whose faces are the tools of their trade and who believe that bodily expression and the inner life are intertwined. Reflecting on these relationships, Ruhl wonders whether appearing more aloof and disengaged has, in fact, made her so. 

Meanwhile, life carried on. Ruhl wrote plays and essays, tried acupuncture and meditation and attempted to raise three children under five while remaining herself. Her memoir is wildly funny about the day-to-day realities of mothering. “My children’s temperaments can be summed up in the way that they vomit,” begins one memorable anecdote. In all, this is a beautiful book that expresses the big feelings of life and the daily practices that allow for incremental progress.

A playwright with a searing voice, Sarah Ruhl excels at putting striking ideas into simple forms that vibrate with power and energy.

“The great work of our lives is [figuring out] how to tell the story of our lives,” says Sarah Ruhl, speaking by phone from Chicago. Ruhl, a MacArthur Fellow and two-time Pulitzer finalist for drama, knows about stories. Her eye for detail is on full display in her memoir, Smile: The Story of a Face, which explores Ruhl’s experience with Bell’s palsy, a rare condition in which a part of the face becomes paralyzed. “The process of writing the book was cathartic,” Ruhl says, because for the first few years of her paralysis, “I wasn’t able to talk about my face. It was shoved deep under. But astonishingly, it was right on the surface.”

Quick, illuminating turns of phrase like that—shoved under but right on the surface—abound in Smile, which examines the paradoxes of illness, especially as experienced by women. The book historicizes the topic, recalling, for instance, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the short story that Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote after enduring bed rest as a medical treatment. The same doctor who prescribed this remedy for Gilman offered a different prescription for men: adventures on the Western frontier. “The 19th-century response is not as far away as we think,” says Ruhl, who was prescribed bed rest herself during her pregnancy, even though the treatment has had mixed results historically.

“I wasn’t able to talk about my face. It was shoved deep under. But astonishingly, it was right on the surface.”

Ruhl spent her time in bed reading the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, thinking idly that they would make a good play (which she later wrote). She also dove unapologetically into the Twilight series. “We can’t predict how our minds will behave in extremis or when we are ill,” Ruhl says, remembering that when her father was sick with cancer, he read books about sea voyages. “Often you need something deeply plot-driven just to get through the stasis. You’re not able to look at the thing directly when you’re really scared about how your body is betraying you.” The epigraph in Smile, taken from Virginia Woolf, reiterates this point: “when the lights of health go down, undiscovered countries are then disclosed.”

Ruhl’s experience with Bell’s palsy began the morning after she gave birth to twins. A nurse entered her room and said, “Your eye looks droopy.” When Ruhl looked in the mirror, she writes, “I tried to move my face. Impossible. Puppet face, strings cut.” Bell’s palsy is typically a temporary facial paralysis that clears up completely in a matter of days or weeks—as opposed to Ruhl’s experience, which has lasted for over a decade, though the paralysis has lessened over time. Initially it impacted everything from chewing food to pronouncing words to conveying emotion. Writing about it required self-examination as she searched for ways to frame her experience. These framing lenses, which she calls “thinking lenses,” helped her “really feel what I was feeling about my face.”

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Smile.

For example, Ruhl drew strength from public figures who’ve had facial paralysis, including the poet Allen Ginsburg. The book features a photograph of Ginsburg staring into the camera, forcing viewers to engage what Ruhl describes as “the disturbance” of his asymmetry. She also turned to art history, looking at Mona Lisa’s famous half-smile, a mismatched expression that captured the world’s interest. And, because of her connection to the theater, she examined theories about the link between facial expressions and emotion. “Thank God I am not an actor,” she says. “To have that instrument taken away as an actor would be so demoralizing.”

As Ruhl wrote about her face, she found she had a surprising amount to say—about women caught in ambiguous medical problems, about the face as the part of the body where the soul resides (or not) and about the difficulties of mothering young children while pursuing passionate, consuming work. Often these stories overlap, as in one memorable instance when she chose to breastfeed her child while on a stage in front of 300 people. Gloria Steinem was speaking when the baby began to fuss. Mary Rodgers, who wrote Freaky Friday, was seated next to Ruhl, and as Ruhl began to nurse her infant, Rodgers patted Ruhl’s leg and said, “That’s right, that’s right.” Ruhl excels at exploring connections like these, both near and distant, that help pull us through trouble.

“Sometimes teaching is no more than saying, ‘You can be a writer. Welcome to this secret society.’”

For Ruhl, this includes her connection with her husband, Tony. “My editor always wanted more scenes with Tony,” she laughs. And, indeed, when I talk about Smile with my friends, it’s a story about Tony that comes to mind: how Ruhl coined the phrase “sexy-cozy” to describe her feeling when he cared for her. “Sexy-cozy,” she writes in the book, “is the opposite of dirty-sexy.” Clearly this is a word that should be in wider circulation, one that would probably resonate with many happily married women, which is how Ruhl gratefully regards herself. “There’s something about the narrative of a happy marriage that we don’t see that much,” she says.

Ruhl also credits her teacher, Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel, for her support. “I wouldn’t be writing plays without Paula,” she says. “I think that Paula tapping me on the head and saying, ‘You can do this,’ was profoundly important. Sometimes teaching is no more than saying, ‘You can be a writer. Welcome to this secret society.’”

Though Ruhl’s journey with Bell’s palsy is not entirely resolved—she says that she is still thinking through how to live in her body, such as deciding whether she is willing to smile at people with her teeth—this warm-hearted, brave and funny memoir is her way of tapping readers on the head, encouraging us. You can keep going. You are part of the club. You are not alone.

Author photo credit: Gregory Costanzo

A playwright with an incredible eye for detail and a searing voice shares her own story of motherhood and facial paralysis.

A diligent reader might begin this absorbing journey into an immigrant family’s fortunes, made and lost, by seeking the meaning of its title, Concepcion. They would discover that, like the generations revealed in Albert Samaha’s probing account, the answer isn’t simple. Concepcion is the surname of Samaha’s ancestors, the name of one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships, a city in the Philippines and a word that aptly suggests a beginning.

Now nearing the same age as his mother, Lucy, when she first arrived in California, Samaha wants to understand what led her there. If Lucy was initially blinded by the promises of a country that held sway over her comfortable middle-class life in the Philippines, he wonders, how does she feel now? How have his other family members fared within the diaspora in the U.S., and how do they regard their ties to their homeland? Their answers are surprising and complex.

Samaha writes from the perspective of a successful, educated and skeptical American adult, declaring, “I found it easier to see what my elders could not: the height of the climb and the length of the fall.” Applying his skills as an investigative journalist to his family’s far-reaching saga, he filters their experiences as immigrants through the Philippines’ tumultuous history and the effects of their acquired American culture. It’s a deftly executed back-and-forth, and he shares his own enlightenments—and criticisms—as he goes. The role of race in the history of the National Football League and the influence of religion on political preferences are among his targets.

Samaha’s deep dive into Philippine history begins with Magellan’s colonization of the Philippines in the 1500s, flows through the centuries to Ferdinand Marcos’ long, controversial reign as the 10th president of the Philippines, and ends with Rodrigo Duterte’s current iron grip. Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II led to a U.S. takeover (the spoils of victory), and America has loomed large as a land of opportunity ever since. When U.S. immigration rules relaxed in 1965, Filipinos knew where to go.

Now, having benefited from his mother’s years of devotion and hard work, his absent father’s money and the support of their larger family in the Bay Area, Samaha is sensitive to their struggles amid what he sees as the failed promises, economic inequities and racial injustices of their adopted country. From the disadvantages of their lower paying jobs—such as his uncle’s work as an airport baggage handler after abandoning his career as a rock star in the Philippines—to their resilient, steadfast beliefs in democracy’s ideals despite its failings, Samaha plants their stories alongside his own and grows a remarkable family tree.

Journalist Albert Samaha's investigation into his family’s decision to emigrate from the Philippines turns up some surprising and complex answers.

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