I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris
Are you fed up with all those entertaining guides showcasing centerpieces that you will never assemble and foodstuffs that you wouldn't dare attempt? Try the new hospitality handbook from Renaissance woman Amy Sedaris. It's got recipes for her famous cupcakes (she's been known to drop off a batch at her local café) as well as her equally renowned "Li'l Smokey Cheeseball." There are also helpful dos ("A good trick is to fill your medicine cabinet with marbles. Nothing announces a nosy guest better than an avalanche of marbles hitting a porcelain sink") and don'ts ("Never put bumpy and lumpy on the same plate"), and even ways to occupy the tykes (Junior Cat Burglar: "Lock the kids out of the house and see if they can break in"). Photographs and layout from the reliably kitschy Sedaris hearken back to the time of Jell-O molds and gingham tablecloths. Better watch your back, Martha. (DaynaPapaleo)
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
Erik Larson's absorbing previous work, 2003's The Devil in the White City, juxtaposed the activities and proclivities of Henry H. Holmes, America's very first serial killer, against the career of architect Daniel Burnham and preparations for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His new novel takes the same tack, interweaving the gruesome murder of a North London woman in 1910 with the story of inventor Guglielmo Marconi and the wireless telegraph. As a doctor named Harvey Crippen fled on an ocean liner with his mistress following the gutting of his wife, Scotland Yard was in hot pursuit, Crippen's every move being relayed via telegraph. Larson has said he accidentally stumbled across Crippen's crime (reportedly an inspiration for Hitchcock's Rear Window, by the way) while researching the evolution of wireless communication, but unless another vivid premise falls into his lap, one more similarly structured book might be pushing it. Or maybe not: the prospect of juicy sin is always alluring, even if there's an outside chance you might actually learn something. (DaynaPapaleo)
Television Without Pity: 752 Things We Love to Hate (and Hate to Love) About TV, by Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting
Nobody does snarky TV commentary better than www.televisionwithoutpity.com. And now the smart, prickly writers who brighten your workday with their exacting, bitter recaps of shows like House and America's Next Top Model are spreading their bile in print form. The tome is set up in encyclopedia format, featuring entries like "Fashion, Hilarious Attempts of TV Guys in the '90s At," "Universally Reviled Characters" and "Teenagers, Bratty" (all of which are cross-referenced for the listing for "Dawson Leery" of Dawson's Creek, naturally). While the encyclopedia gag doesn't quite work --- some of the entries are beyond random --- there's plenty of cackle-worthy quotes to be mined. The authors snicker at the early softcore work of Wings' Crystal Bernard; ponder the actual jurisdiction of World's Wildest Police Videos' Sherriff John Bunnell; and revel in the sacrilegious truth about classic TV sitcoms and actors (of Lucille Ball: "She. Was not.FUNNY. May she rest in peace."). (Eric Rezsnyak)
Stuff on My Cat: The Book by Mario Sarza
Either incredibly stupid, incredibly brilliant, or possibly both, Stuff on My Cat: The Book features photos from the website www.stuffonmycat.com. The tagline "stuff + cats = awesome" pretty much sums it up. Among the stuff on the cats represented here: hamburgers, an elaborate K'Nex Ferris wheel, chinchillas, laundry, Haribo gummy bears, and, more than once, other cats (but not in a sexual way). There's no narration, order, or embellishment to the photos, save for occasional Napoleon Dynamite-style logos for a few of the cats like Amanda (bedecked in beads and bracelets), Jesper (reclining while wearing a sultry blonde wig and cowboy hat), and tiny Nikki (in her ballerina costume). It's possibly the most pointless gift ever, which is what makes it so...awesome. (Eric Rezsnyak)
MXC: Most Extreme Elimination Challenge: Season 1
Whoever came up with the idea of taking filmmaker Takeshi Kitano's late '80s Japanese game show and remixing it for American TV should be either hailed or avoided. It almost defies explanation, so here goes nothing: hosts Vic Romano and Kenny Blankenship provide color commentary for a series of contests that pits opposing factions (i.e., cops vs. cons, or donors vs. addicts) against each other in a series of increasingly bizarre obstacle courses, like the Rotating Surfboard of Death, Boulder Dash, and the Teetering Temple of Crippling Doom, just to name a few. MXC --- possibly the only raison d'être for the Spike TV network --- fuses dubbed humor that veers wildly between the sublime and the juvenile with bodily harm and crackerjack editing into one of the funniest things you may ever see. Also included on the DVD is an original episode of Takeshi's Castle so you can get a firsthand look at what's being hilariously bastardized. Don't get eliminated! (DaynaPapaleo)
Reds 25th Anniversary Edition
Warren Beatty won a Best Director Oscar (one of the film's 12 nominations) for this controversial epic --- never before available on DVD --- which clocks in at over three hours and chronicles the blooming of the American Left during the first World War. Beatty portrays John Reed, activist and author of the Russian Revolution account Ten Days That Shook the World; Jack Nicholson channels alcoholic playwright Eugene O'Neill; and Diane Keaton plays the woman that they both love. Extras include a reunion of the cast and crew on the documentary Witness to Reds, featuring musings from Beatty and Nicholson, two men with a decided knack for the sound bite. Maureen Stapleton also took home an Oscar for her performance as iconic "Red" Emma Goldman, the Lithuanian-born anarchist who settled in Rochester upon arriving in America but lit out to become a revolutionary following the hangings in the aftermath of the Haymarket Square Riot. (DaynaPapaleo)
Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place season 1 sets
I kind of feel like these two DVD collections are Baby Jesus' Christmas present to us. It's been far too long since we could review Shannen Doherty's prodigious bitchface, or study the properties of Andrew Shue's all-consuming acting black hole. Yeah, the repeats play on SoapNet. But now you can watch the quintessential Pretty White Kids With Problems whenever you want. Granted: the first seasons of Aaron Spelling's 1990s benchmarks aren't the strongest. BevHillsstuck mostly to single-episode arcs with ultra-preachy messages (shut up, Brandon), and Heather Locklear doesn't strut into the Melrose courtyard until almost the end of the season. But approach it like dating: you've got to pay for the lobster dinner now if you want your date to put out later. You want Season 2? Pony up now, and get those blazing guitar riffs ready! (Eric Rezsnyak)
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
As true comic geeks know, the version of Superman II that hit theaters in 1980 was not the film as originally conceived. Richard Donner, who wrote and directed the still awe-inspiring first film, was struggling to shoot his sequel with stars Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman when the studio got cold feet, unceremoniously dumped him, and brought in Richard Lester to finish filming and re-edit the flick. For years people wondered what Donner's version would have looked like. Now you can find out. Donner's original film has been pieced back together through archival footage and following his original script. Among the differences: Marlon Brando returns to guide Kal-El in his Fortress of Solitude instead of his moms. Any way you cut it, it's still glorious to see Reeve --- the definitive screen Supes --- taking to the sky again. (Eric Rezsnyak)
Boys and Girls in Americaby The Hold Steady
Critics are falling all over themselves to praise The Hold Steady, and with good reason: there might not be a better band around. Yeah, I know it's totally subjective, but with Boys and Girls in America --- the band's third album, following Almost Killed Me (one of my desert-island records) and the ambitious Separation Sunday --- The Hold Steady perfect its Springsteen-meets-Thin-Lizzy sound: it's called arena rock, kids, and it ain't made that much anymore. Frontman Craig Finn doesn't so much sing as speak, and he's a consistently extraordinary songwriter (on the acoustic "Citrus" he laments that "I've had kisses that made Judas seem sincere"). The first single, "Chips Ahoy!" is crunchy as hell, while "First Night" catches up with the down-on their-luck characters of Holly and Charlemagne from their previous albums. And the title of the record is nicked from Sal Paradise's correct observation in Jack Kerouac's On the Road: "Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together." (DaynaPapaleo)
Before the end of the 2006 your local record store will be silly with CDs from no less than four contestants from the most recent American Idol. First out of the gate is Kellie Pickler, whoseStraight OuttaDogpatch... I mean Small-Town Girl hit stores this past Halloween. Then there's the self-titled CD due out November 21 from Chris Daughtry, the man most expected to win the coveted title, who turned down a gig fronting the long-forgotten Fuel (tough choice, dude, I'm sure) in order to go it alone. Idol champ and Ford pitchman Taylor Hicks has a CD due out December 5, and if you can't get enough of him, he's written a book... sorry; "inspirational memoir," to be released in April. Last but not least, on December 19 Katharine McPheereleases her CD, probably featuring her insipid version of "Over the Rainbow." Somewhere someone probably still cares about the season that was, but that noise you hear isn't airplay; it's apathy. (DaynaPapaleo)
Ta-Dah! by the Scissor Sisters
What kind of gay man are you shopping for this holiday season? Is he a flitty queen? A big, burly bear?An average Joe who just likes the boys a little too much? Or is he a closet case whose only gay tendency happens to be dancing by himself in front of a mirror to nine-minute long remixes of Madonna's "Just Like a Prayer"?
Well, it doesn't matter; the Scissor Sisters are here to save the day. The band offers a little fantasy for whatever type of gay male you happen to be shopping for. The roster includes a queen of a lead-singer who rivals the B-52s' Fred Schneider for queerest vocalist of all time; a burly bass-playin' daddy type; a preppy, clean-cut good looking younger man; a straight guy (as the forbidden eye-candy); and a fabulous straight chick (gay man's best friend).
And the band's new disc, Ta-Dahis chock full of gay goodness. Giving this may be the best decision you make all season, because instead of pestering you about how all the boys are stuck up and no one wants him, your gay friend can instead spend countless hours in front of his mirror, perfecting his dance moves to "Kiss You Off" so he'll look ultra-fine the next time he drags you out to a club. (Todd Rezsnyak)
Dysfunctional Family Christmas
While this disc is a few years old, it's as necessary an addition to your holiday arsenal as a Marilyn Manson holiday album would be. The producers collected old, depressing classical pieces of music into the ultimate 21st-century holiday soundtrack. (And who needs another Mannheim Steamroller album anyway?) Imagine watching that goddamn burning log on TV to the morbid sounds of "Siegfried's Funeral Music," or cutting into the overcooked Christmas ham while "Mars, the Bringer of War" wafts through the air. Imagine putting up with unbearable extended family members while humming along to "Come, Sweet Death."
Although an especially appropriate gift to sympathetic members of you own family, the disc really works for anyone on your list. The lady who embodies the spirit of the holidays....everyday of her life; the next-door neighbor who always gives a goddamn fruit cake; the withdrawn teenager who hates everyone; the delusional matriarch who thinks all the unhappiness is "normal for the holidays"; or the disconnected father who'd rather sit in the basement listening to a hockey game on the radio.
For whole-family fun I recommend picking up The Dysfunctional Family Christmas Songbook, a companion piece of sorts to the CD. Sing-along to your favorite Christmas songs, just with extremely warped lyrics. Fun for all ages! (Todd Rezsnyak)