Home for the holidays is taking on a new meaning this year. Hunkering down in your most comfortable chair or curling up in front of a crackling fireplace seems more like a necessity than a luxury as we count down the final days of a year that has taken its toll on everyone.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. There has never been a better time to fill a glass and catch up on your reading or listen to music that soothes the soul. Here are some of the best books and music of what will forever be remembered as our Pandemic Year.
My favorite book of the year is Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain” (Grove Press), and the critics agree with me as it recently won the prestigious Booker Prize. Stuart’s dark tale of growing up in the public housing of Glasgow, Scotland during the 1980s is the story of a lonely young boy and his alcoholic mother Agnes, who does the best she can to hold her life together even as it unravels. An incredible mix of the horrifying and hopeful, Stuart joins the ranks of Frank McCourt and James Joyce as writers who cut to the core of humanity.
Any Jeopardy fan will thoroughly enjoy Claire McNear’s “Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy” (Twelve Books). The book is a deep dive into what makes Jeopardy tick, including behind-the-scenes interviews. It is only fitting that the book is highlighted by an interview with the show’s late, great host Alex Trebek.
David Sedaris has become one of America’s most beloved humorists and his new book “The Best of Me” (Little, Brown) is at its best when Sedaris examines himself and his family members. The career-spanning collection of his hilarious, humane pieces includes an introduction where Sedaris writes “I’m not the sort of person who goes around feeling good about himself.”
Among other unfortunate events, 2020 marks the final season for the beloved series “The Best American Sportswriting” (Houghton Mifflin). The 30th and final edition of series editor Glenn Stout’s collection of top sports stories gets a fond bon voyage from this year’s guest editor Jackie MacMullan, who follows in the footsteps of such luminaries as George Plimpton, Dan Jenkins and Frank Deford.
I will devour anything Wright Thompson writes and that certainly applies to his new work “Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon and the Things That Last” (Penguin Press). Thompson relates the story of how “Booze Yoda” Julian Van Winkle III fought to protect his family’s heritage by honoring the past, adapting to the future and holding family close to his heart. Thompson adds to the narrative by interweaving the story of his own classic southern family.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the iconic film Goodfellas, Glen Kenney’s “Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas” (Hanover Square Press) is a delightful inside look at the mystique and legacy of Martin Scorcese’s film with a fascinating eye for detail.
Who better than P.J. O’Rourke to provide perspective on the country’s most bizarre political year ever with “A Cry From the Far Middle: Dispatches From a Divided Land” (Atlantic Monthly Press). My favorite chapter in the book is O’Rourke’s incisive and hilarious “Whose Bright Idea Was It To Make Sure That Every Idiot in the World Was in Touch With Every Other Idiot?”
If you watched Netflix’s wonderful smash hit “The Queen’s Gambit” you’ll want to read the fascinating book it was based on, “The Queen’s Gambit” (Vintage Books). Walter Tevis, the former Ohio University English professor who wrote “The Hustler,” tells the story of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, an orphan with addictive tendencies whose journey of self-discovery makes for a great read.
There wasn’t a lot of great music put out this year as the industry suffered from the effects of COVID-19 so I’ll stick with a few of my favorites. Akron’s Chrissie Hynde has never sounded better than she does on The Pretenders’ “Hate for Sale” (BMG). Over 40 years since the group’s acclaimed debut album, Hynde returns to the group’s roots with this hard-rocking album.
Speaking of local legends, “The Choir Last Call: Live at The Music Box” (Omnivore) is a dynamic celebration of the group’s 50th anniversary. The group covers everyone from Procul Harem to the Kinks to Bob Seger in addition to performing its own classic material (“It’s Cold Outside”) on this two-disc set.
I was pleasantly surprised at how great “Dion: Blues With Friends” (KTBA Records) was but I shouldn’t have been. After all, when your friends include Jeff Beck, Brian Setzer, Billy Gibbons, Bruce Sprinsgteen and Paul Simon, what’s not to like? Even more impressively, the 80-year-old Dion’s vocals don’t disappoint.
If there was ever a year for some classic American songs, it’s 2020 and the perfect guy to soothe a nation’s psyche is James Taylor. JT’s “American Standard” (Fantasy) features the songs he grew up reimagined in Taylor’s signature acoustic guitar arrangements on such standouts as “Moon River” and “Teach Me Tonight.”