Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Ultimate 2021 Book Gift Guide

The Jezebel staff recommends Elvira's memoir, The Diana Chronicles, and the works of Lauren Groff for your holiday book shopping needs.
Image: Tolga AKMEN / AFP (Getty Images)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

An absolutely top-tier holiday experience is settling into the couch, brushing aside some stray scraps of wrapping paper, and digging into a big pile of books somebody got you. As a gift, books are perfect: They’re portable and fairly affordable, generally appreciated, and they say, “Hey, I know you and I see you,” without requiring knowledge of somebody’s clothing size, schedule for the next six months, or dietary restrictions. To help you along, here at Jezebel we have put our heads together and created a list of recommendations for a few specific gifting situations.

For the Celebrity Memoir Lover

This year’s celebrity memoirs ran the gamut from approaching art to unabashedly trashy, which means there’s probably one for whomever you’re buying, regardless of where they fall on the snob-to-pleb scale. Sinead O’Connor’s Rememberings is as lyrical, ferocious, and sensitive as the singer-songwriter’s music; watching O’Connor’s contradictions play out in the press can be frustrating, but in literature, she makes them make sense. Cassandra Peterson’s Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark has practically everything anyone could want in a memoir: sex (with fellow celebs whose names she names), a pulling back of the curtain on her Elvira persona, and a mic drop in the form of coming out as having been in a relationship with a woman that she managed to keep secret for 19 years. Cicely Tyson’s Just as I Am was released just two days before her death in January, and it’s a wonderful look back on a revolutionary life and career. Her frankness regarding all of the things she doesn’t remember is hilarious and her willingness to speculate about her ex Miles Davis’s death (she doesn’t confirm or deny rumors of AIDS but she certainly considers them) is genuinely shocking. Mena Suvari’s The Great Peace goes there and keeps going and going—without any seeming self-consciousness. This is a classic ‘80s style beach read tell-all. And regarding Matthew McConaughey’s smash Greenlights, come for the McConaugheyisms, stay for the wet dreams. —Rich Juzwiak

For The Crown Obsessives

Do you have a friend or loved one who has come enthusiastically but rather late to the topic of the Windsors and their decades of domestic travails? You can tell because they’re constantly hitting you with “Hey, did you know?” followed by some obscure fact about Prince Philip’s extended family. That person needs the holy text of royal dirt: Tina Brown’s 2007 masterpiece The Diana Chronicles. It is the definitive work of nonfiction on Princess Di, and it’s written in a style that will make you feel as though you’re sinking into a poolside lounge chair even if you’re sitting in a dentist’s frigid waiting room. (A random sampling, selected after 65 seconds of browsing: “British upper-class women of the prewar generation were tough as old boots”; “Charles was always big on thoughtful presents, as long as they didn’t cost much.”) You’re letting yourself in for even more “Hey, did you know” moments, but honestly, almost every factoid in this one is solid gold. The Palace Papers cannot drop soon enough. —Kelly Faircloth

For Those Cheering On the “Great Resignation”

The “Great Resignation”—the trend of workers quitting low-paying jobs in droves, particularly in the service and retail industries—has been the biggest economic story of the year. Despite much hand-wringing from politicians, many see the “Big Quit” as an empowering moment for the labor movement, as workers across the country reclaim their power. For those in your life who are either watching and cheering on the Great Resignation, or have quit their jobs too, Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone is a must-read. Jaffe’s book is an exhaustively reported exploration of how, across nearly all industries, “doing what you love” has become a recipe for exploitation. Work Won’t Love You Back is honest and clear-eyed about the extensive challenges labor faces today—but it’s also an inspiring reminder to all of us that we’re infinitely more than our jobs, as well as the power of solidarity. —Kylie Cheung

For Shakespeare Apologists

I cannot recommend These Violent Delights and its sequel Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong enough in my lifetime!! These two books reimagine Romeo and Juliet as star-crossed lovers in 1920s Shanghai from warring street gangs—one Russian Romeo and one Chinese Juliet—trying to figure out if they can end a blood feud. Or if they’ll just keep hurting each other and their families in the process. Not only does Gong make the romance of this Romeo and Juliet story feel fresh, but she also adds a fantasy element to the books in the form of a monster taking over Shanghai. So really, it’s an adventure story when you think about it. —Caitlin Cruz

For the Costume Drama Lover

Seemingly half of America got into costume drama last Christmas when Netflix dropped Bridgerton, a somewhat dizzying experience for those of us who’ve known what a rake is for quite some time. Whether the gift recipient you’ve got in mind is a new convert to costume dramas or a longtime enthusiast, they’ll enjoy Lydia Edwards’ How to Read a Dress. In November, as a matter of fact, Bloomsbury released an updated version of this gorgeous and informative guide to fashion through the ages—just in time! —Kelly Faircloth

For the Romance Curious

Speaking of Bridgerton! Perhaps you have a friend or loved one who is making some noises about getting into romance novels. Or maybe you know somebody whose media habits lead you to suspect they’re ready for a well-placed suggestion. You know, they read a lot of Sally Rooney but also love Hallmark movies, or they read a lot of epic fantasy featuring people who absolutely loathe each other until they very much do not. I recommend either Talia Hibbert’s charming contemporary-set rom-com trilogy about the Brown sisters or Freya Marske’s absolutely delightful A Marvelous Light, either of which would be a good first step into the genre. Now, if you’re shopping for a superfan, the only move is to go on Ebay and buy vintage, either books or advertising posters. You’ll have to fight me for them, though. —Kelly Faircloth

For True Crime Lovers

I think now is the perfect time to interrogate our relationship to true crime stories. The true crime stories we consume and elevate shouldn’t be tawdry (sorry to my beloved Forensic Files) or cop-aganda (shoutout to Dateline) but should be victim-centered and understand our relationship to crime. So for your friends who take long walks through the neighborhood with Keith Morrison in their ears, I recommend We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper, which is about a murder at Harvard and a writer’s obsession with a crime that no one else is obsessed with. Elon Green’s Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York takes you through a serial killer who targeted gay men and got away with their deaths because of it. And my final rec may seem counterintuitive, but I think Kate Winkler Dawson’s biography of Edward Oscar Heinrich, American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI, is a great pick. Heinrich started developing his scientific approach to crime scenes following the sensationalism of Prohibition’s yellow journalism; maybe there’s something we can learn from it. —Caitlin Cruz

For “The Dad” You Want to Connect With

I hate the cliche that dads only love books about war. I think they just like to learn things from experts. So gift-giving is the best time to introduce them to new historians who can really broaden their horizons. Sarah Schulman’s tome about the AIDS crisis, Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993, might be a bit of a hard sell at first, but it’s worth it. My second history recommendation is You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe. This scratches the war itch because of the chapters on the American Revolution, but also gently asks the reader to consider that George Washington was a coward who owned people. I absolutely loved the ending.

But if your dad is like mine and prefers literally any thriller, J.A. Jance has a new book out every six months or so, depending on what character series the dad in your life prefers, and Iris Johansen’s latest suspense novel High Stakes just came out in September. Sometimes you just gotta give people what they want, not what they need. —Caitlin Cruz

For the Sexual Politics Watcher

The #MeToo era’s spotlight on consent has uncovered countless predators and helped popularize much-needed frameworks surrounding sexual violence and coercion. And yet, feminists and sex writers have long observed that even within the realm of consensual interactions, there’s a whole world of discomfort, displeasure, and unease that can leave participants—particularly women—feeling pretty terrible. Enter British academic Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. In this fascinating little book, Angel argues that “confidence feminism” demands that women enter sexual encounters with a complete understanding of their own desire and the ability to articulate it. This may work for “an idealized, gutsy woman who knows what she wants and can shout it from the rooftops,” Angel argues, but solely understanding sex in terms of black-and-white issues of consent can leave less perfectly self-assured women at sea. In this brief but wide-ranging examination of popular culture, art, and science, Angel prods at what we think we know about the politics of sexual desire. —Gabrielle Bruney

The Novels That Could Probably Work for Whomever With the Right Wrapping

For that cool friend who has disposable income so they’re hard as hell to shop for but they love books? Matrix or Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. The niece you want to still think you’re the cool aunt or uncle? Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. Did you draw a young-ish cousin just trying to make their way into the world for your family white elephant? God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney. For the older sibling who’s into politics? Celia Laskey’s Under The Rainbow or Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible. For the coworker Secret Santa? Zorrie by Laird Hunt. —Caitlin Cruz

For Your Emotional Friend Who Likes to Torture Themselves With Sadness

OK, surprise, I’m the friend. Although I have a squirrel brain and can hardly make it through a reality show without spending ten minutes scrolling Twitter only to realize I’ve missed the climactic drama and need to rewind (repeat x3), for reading purposes, I require books that are all-consuming. I enjoy getting inescapably lost in a narrator’s emotions, their dilemmas, their world views, their anxieties, and the laundry list of things that keep them up at night. But this requires a bit of levity, too—balancing the dark with the light, chasing down a tall glass of whiskey of a book with cotton candy fluff. Is this healthy going into the third year of a pandemic in which real life is certainly sad enough? Unclear.

Start with Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner (which is well-loved by our staff) for a good sob-cry that will make you rethink your entire relationship with your own mother, reliving every detail of how she cared for you and every moment you took that imperfect maternal adoration for granted. Next, wipe your eyes, walk it off, and dive into Cat Marnell’s insufferably entertaining How to Murder Your Life. It’s written in Marnell’s peak kook voice, serves all the media tea I’ve ever wanted, and highlights our industry’s problem with glorifying its “cool girls” like Marnell (who, talent aside, was suffering from severe mental health and substance abuse issues).

Once you’re ready for more rage, pick up Michaela Coel’s Misfitsa personal manifesto that harps upon the whiteness and systemic predation of the television industry (but is applicable to nearly every industry flourishing in America today). Then, balance your novel appetite with Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, which playfully inspects the confines of monogamy, sexuality, motherhood, and what it means to be a woman in 2021. I screeched with laughter, I recommended it to my mom (who is now equally obsessed with Peters’ singular voice), and...oh fuck, jk this one is devastating too!!! Whatever, it was my favorite read of the entire year and is worth the extra tears. Finally, immerse yourself in the incessantly hopeful world of what could’ve been with Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League by Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo. From page one, you’ll find yourself endeared to the NWFL’s main characters, who, at first, wore tearaway jerseys and miniskirts and shatter the grit and machismo of NFL’s men players to dust. Goddamnit, you will also probably cry in this one. So much for levity.Emily Leibert

For Those Who Struggled to Read Because of Uh, You Know, Everything

This year, much like last year, murdered the shreds of my attention span, rendering me frequently incapable of reading for more than fifteen minutes at a time. When I find myself in this particular state of mind, the best book is really any book that I will finish. If there’s somebody in your life who is struck with the same sort of disease, perhaps I can be of assistance.

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart is a beautiful gem of a novel that feels like eating an entire bag of string cheese in one sitting, tackling the early months of the pandemic through the lens of a group of friends gathered in a compound in upstate New York. Anthony Vesena So’s Afterparties is the first short story collection I’ve made it through in a long-ass time, and it is worth the hype. Kelefa Sanneh, a New Yorker writer who recently produced this very good profile of Jake Paul, has also written Major Labels, a book that delves into the history of music genres from pop to country to rap; reading the book felt like listening to a podcast, but in a good way. The Loneliest Americans by my favorite curmudgeon and pop diva connoisseur Jay Capsian Kang made me think about being Asian in America in a way that I haven’t since college, which was both good and bad. Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner is a lovely memoir that is heart-wrenchingly sad, and made me cry so hard that I had to stop reading it in public. And finally, Laurie Colwin’s entire oeuvre has been reissued this year; A Big Storm Knocked It Over feels like an undiscovered Nancy Meyers movie in that it is concerned primarily with the foibles of the white and upwardly mobile, but it’s comforting just the same.

Finally, I tore through Emily Henry’s People We Meet on Vacation sitting in the shallow end of the public pool, next to a woman who was reading the exact same thing. Bliss. —Megan Reynolds