Traveling immerses us in the world, but sometimes in the less eventful moments between destinations, we just need to escape. “The Layover” is a monthly roundup of books, music, podcasts, and other forms of entertainment to turn to during travel’s quieter moments.
As it’s one of the busiest travel weeks of the year, we’re coming to you with a special holiday edition of “The Layover.” While everyone’s making the trek back to the cozy homes and towns they grew up in, to revive old traditions with their families and catch up with friends from high school, we thought it’d be fitting to recommend a few festive ways to pass the time in those busy terminals and on those packed flights. The titles you’ll find here aren’t exactly holiday entertainment, per se. Rather, we’ve rounded up some of the best feel-good stories from the past year — those movies, books, shows, and albums that give you that warm and fuzzy feeling, that make you happy to be alive and help you to understand that, no matter how stressed or bummed you may feel at times, things are going to be okay. Because, after all, isn’t that what the holidays are all about?
What to Watch
In line with other feel-good high school dramedies like “Edge of Seventeen” and “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Love, Simon” comes equipped with a compelling coming-of-age-story, a varied cast of hilarious side characters, a stellar soundtrack, and a protagonist who can’t seem to find a direction. The latter, in this case, is the titular character, a closeted gay teen (played by Nick Robinson, from “Kings of Summer”) who forms a connection online with another anonymous closeted boy from his school. Along with its powerful exploration of identity, “Love, Simon” will remind you of the importance of family and friends — a message that might be needed if going home for the holidays brings you a lot of stress.
Where to watch: HBO, Amazon Prime (purchase only), YouTube (purchase only), Google Play (purchase only)
“Maniac” is one of those shows where, because the ride is so enjoyable, you worry that the destination is going to let you down. But worry not, as the sendoff to director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s (“True Detective”) mind-bending miniseries offers a sentiment so beautiful and thought-provoking you’ll find yourself wanting to neglect the other shows in your queue and watch it all over again. The series follows Annie and Owen (Emma Stone and Jonah Hill), two troubled individuals in an alternate-future New York, who participate in a pharmaceutical trial for a new series of drugs designed to cure all mental disorders. Because the pills have hallucinogenic properties designed to dredge up past traumas and reframe personal anxieties within new realities, the trials see Annie and Owen exploring a variety of worlds as different characters (e.g. a married couple in 1980s Long Island, socialite con artists at a swanky 1940s seance, etc.). This allows for a lot of fun genre-bending from Fukunaga, but he never loses track of the narrative throughline — a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be happy and what we can do to get there. And, at an economical 30 minutes per episode, this 10-episode series makes for an easy binge for a cross-country flight.
Where to watch: Netflix
High school’s tough, but middle school is truly the worst. It’s that awkward period where everybody’s changing and nobody seems to know what they want to do or who they want to be — even though everyone else seems to have it all figured out. This is the particular feeling writer and director Bo Burnham expertly captures in his debut feature, “Eighth Grade.” Starring Elsie Fisher as the introverted Kayla Day, the film has its finger on the pulse of what it means to come of age in today’s digital world. Judging from the self-help videos that she posts online (Burnham himself got his start as a YouTube star), Kayla appears to have a firm grasp on her life, but in reality, she’s falling apart, unsure of how to fit in and unaware of what kind of person she wants to be. Burnham navigates this territory deftly — almost as if he were fresh out of middle school himself — and though the final message about being yourself would otherwise feel well-trod, the path he brings us on to get there reminds us of the truth behind the cliché.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime (rental), YouTube (rental), Google Play (rental)
What to Read
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes David Sedaris’s writing so funny. Maybe it’s the unexpected, often deadpan way in which he slips in his best jokes. Or maybe it’s his particular brand of sarcasm — equal parts arrogant and self-aware. But all analysis aside, one thing is clear: when you read Sedaris, you laugh. His tenth and latest book, “Calypso,” is perhaps his most personal. Sedaris has always had a hand on the dial between humor and emotion, but here, he rotates it further toward the latter. As the first collection of stories he’s written since his sister Tiffany died by suicide, “Calypso” grapples with themes of loss, grief, and the meaning of family. This doesn’t mean it’s not funny — just that the tissues you keep reaching for will be for both kinds of tears. (In need of more Sedaris this holiday season? Check out his seasonal collection “Holidays On Ice,” which contains, among other stories, the delightfully snarky reviews of an uppity theatre critic who turns his judgmental eye toward the Christmas pageants of the local elementary schools.)
How a 6-Year-Old Survived Being Lost in the Woods
Outside Magazine’s “Horror Vault” anthology from this past November isn’t exactly the place you’d think to turn to for a feel-good story. A “collection of the scariest, strangest, and most riveting tales” the outdoor adventure publication has ever produced, it contained lost-in-the-wilderness stories that were frightening, goosebump-inducing, and often downright sad. (The first-person chronicle of a family who scrambles while their elderly father is lost at sea was particularly heart-wrenching.) That said, this gem from Emma Marris was one of the few that told the story of someone who made it out — in this case, Cody Sheehy, who escaped the wilds of Northeast Oregon after getting separated from his family at age six. While the tale of Cody’s escape is certainly exciting, what makes this piece so powerful is its portrait of Cody now, 32 years later. While retracing his steps with him, Marris manages not only to tap into the effect that experience had on Cody, but in a broader sense, to explore the importance of getting lost.
The Man Who Turns Back New York City’s Clocks, Hand By Hand
Say what you will about New Yorkers, but it’s hard to deny that they’re punctual. Whether they’re rushing to make a meeting in Midtown or rushing down the subway stairs to catch the next F train to Brooklyn, they have a thing for being on time. Luckily for them, there’s somebody making sure the city stays on schedule. That person is Marvin Schneider, NYC’s official clock repairer. This New York Times profile of the 79-year-old Schneider is utter joy in print. Reporter Corey Kilgannon follows the master around the city as Schneider — with his octagonal spectacles, wispy mustache, and train-conductor cap — climbs into the city’s clocks to set them back an hour at the conclusion of Daylight Savings Time. It’s a wondrous look at both the man and the profession, and a warm reminder that even in the age of smartphones, we still rely on the gears and mechanisms turning behind the scenes, giving life to our greatest cities. Plus, isn’t there just something magical about a story of a clock keeper?
What to Listen to
It’s hard to nail down what genre to classify Superorganism under. The London-based band, whose self-titled debut album came out in March of this year, drifts between indie pop, synth pop, electronic, and psychedelic, though none of those categories quite captures their sound. Filled with delightfully bizarre voice-overs, head-turning syncopations, and acoustic non-sequiturs, “Superorganism” might be one of the strangest albums you listen to this year — but it will also be one of the most enjoyable. It’s a dreamy amalgam of unexpected sound effects and trilling melodies, taking you on an aural journey — the likes of which you’ve never experienced before.
Certainly less upbeat than “Superorganism,” many listeners might find “Lush” a little moody for a trip home for the holidays. But others will find that the muted indie rock album offers that perfect veil of emotional resonance, through which they can look out the airplane window and marvel at their hometown as they descend through the night to greet it. “Lush” is the debut studio album from Snail Mail, whose lead singer and guitar player, Lindsey Jordan, is both reflecting the indie rock of the ’90s and looking toward the future of the genre — despite being only 19 years old. Jordan is joined by bassist Alex Bass and drummer Ray Brown, and together, they combine poetic lyrics, sparkling acoustics, and a voice you won’t forget to create this masterpiece of an album.
One of the biggest entertainment surprises of 2018 was the fact that Dax Shepard carved out a space of regular insight and thought-provoking conversation amid the already cluttered podcast landscape with “Armchair Expert.” It’s not that Dax isn’t a respected actor or writer — his work in titles like “Parenthood” and “Hit and Run” more than made up for his less meaty earlier roles. It was just surprising to tune in and hear how emotionally expressive and mature the bad boy from “Without a Paddle” turned out to be.
The show follows the Marc Maron podcast formula, as Dax sits down with a new guest for an hour or two each week to discuss their career, the problems they’ve faced along the way, and ultimately, what it means to be human. While they’ve focused mainly on those in the entertainment industry (some recent highlights include Mike Schur, Lena Dunham, Mark Duplass, and Amy Schumer), Dax and his co-host Monica Padman have also brought in great thinkers like Brené Brown, David Sedaris, and Yuval Noah Harari for their special “Experts on Experts” episodes. And though Dax is still developing his skills as an interviewer, what makes his conversations so powerful is his vulnerability while tackling difficult topics and challenging his own beliefs. He’s open about his years of addiction and his sobriety, his experience getting molested, his struggles with masculinity, and his obsession with success. In turn, this openness encourages his guests to dive deeper into the stories they’re telling. On top of all that, Dax is well-read and has both a degree in anthropology and four years of improv training under his belt, so he knows how to move beyond the baseline interview questions and enter the realm of true conversation. In short, it seems there’s no better way to keep your mind both active and entertained throughout the holiday break.
Have any other holiday entertainment recommendations? Or just some favorite movies, books, stories, music, or podcasts from 2018? Let us know in the comments below!
Header image by Dennis Petvosek