Books to Give, Books to Get

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What Happens in the East Bay Stays in the East Bay

Why spread it around when you can keep it local? This year, support East Bay authors — such as CoCo County’s Jonnie Jacobs, whose new thriller The Only Suspect (Kensington, $23) is about a doctor who claims to have regained consciousness one morning in his car, in a ditch, with blood under his nails, unable to remember his actions over the past twelve hours. Then oops — his wife turns up dead. … Hey, even a killer’s stony heart would melt into a puddle of sweet quivering goo after reading Hitched! (Thunder’s Mouth, $14.95), a collection of thirty personal essays by men and women who took part in last year’s gay marriages at San Francisco City Hall. Edited by Walnut Creek’s Cheryl Dumesnil, Hitched! not only captures a historic moment, but brings together beautiful, sincere love stories. … In a lit-fic vein, The Pagoda in the Garden: A Novel in Three Parts (Other, $23.95) by Berkeley’s Wendy Lesser, is set in 1901/1926, 1956, and 1973-75, and thoughtfully and humorously describes the romantic experiences of three youngish Americans in England. … Those who dread holiday high-jinks altogether would welcome Strength in the Storm: Creating Calm in Difficult Times (Nilgiri, $14) by the late spiritual icon Easwaran, who in 1967 launched a for-credit meditation course at UC Berkeley. Using bullet-point summaries and personal anecdotes, his newly rereleased book shows how to establish mental focus and inner peace for the betterment of the self and the world. … Give a lasting and lyrical bit of Berkeley with The Addison Street Anthology: Berkeley’s Poetry Walk (Heyday, $14.95), edited by Robert Hass and Jessica Fisher. The verses implanted on each of the downtown street’s 126 panels are reproduced here accompanied by interesting tidbits about their writers’ lives. — Kim Hedges

Geekster’s Paradise

Whether they’re geeky or cool — or cool in a geeky sort of way — some of your loved ones would just rather read about numerals and nematodes than about, say, Lolita in Tehran. They can chew on the barely graspable concept of infinity — not as a vague linguistic or literary term but as a strict mathematical concept — with John D. Barrow’s The Infinite Book (Pantheon, $26). … Lofty doesn’t begin to describe the stratospheric workings of Stephen Hawking’s mind; in God Created the Integers (Running, $29.95), he introduces mathematical breakthroughs that have changed history, from Euclid and Archimedes to Alan Turing, explaining with terrifying precision how geniuses such as these deciphered nature’s formulae. … Gambling isn’t a game when it’s a sure thing: In Fortune’s Formula (Hill & Wang, $27), William Poundstone recounts the saga of three math whizzes who accidentally discovered how to beat Las Vegas at its own game and also to make money in the stock market, risk-free, by manipulating the rules to their own advantage. … We take for granted certain “constants” that define how our universe is structured: things such as pi, and the speed of light. But in The Constants of Nature (Vintage, $15), the prolific John D. Barrow investigates these, asking whether our so-called constants actually need to be the way they are — or is it all a cosmic accident? … Our evolutionary ancestors look a lot like us in World Atlas of Great Apes and Their Conservation (UC Press, $45). Edited by Julian Caldecott and Lera Miles, it’s a haunting and incredibly beautiful overview of gorillas, chimps, and orangutans, with detailed reportage on biology and conservation efforts. … From auks to yellow-chevroned parakeets and beyond, Jonathan Alderfer’s Complete Birds of North America (National Geographic, $35) is the ultimate field guide, packed with sketches and range maps for each species, plus much more, including phonetic renderings of birdcalls. — Anneli Rufus

Books for Boxed Sets

Planning on getting a book to go along with that boxed-set edition for the music/film lover in your life? If not, maybe you should. It’s a good idea. The Lord of the Rings trilogy goes nicely with the Sean Astin and Jay Layden New York Times best-seller, There and Back Again: An Actor’s Tale (St. Martin’s, $14.95). Astin, who played the Hobbit Sam Gamgee (and Mikey in The Goonies), creates a compelling account of the making of the epics while giving insight into a deep, underestimated actor, as it turns out. … But why leave boxed-set gifts up to the Man to compile for you? The Best Music Writing 2005 (Da Capo Press, $15.95) invites you to create a personalized set of CDs for any and every audiophile on your list. Guest-edited by Bay Area darling JT Leroy, this year’s collection covers topics ranging from Robert Christgau on postmodern minstrelsy to Dave Eggers on Big Country. … Spike Lee’s That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It (Norton, $25.95) begs to accompany a DVD catalogue of controversy wrapped in big red, black, and green bows. As told to film critic and producer Kaleem Aftab, Lee’s story of his rise from She’s Gotta Have It through his development as a filmmaker tackling some of America’s toughest issues in Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, onto becoming a part of the American cinematic tradition with Bamboozled and The 25th Hour is strengthened by interviews with noteworthy African-American artists and public figures including Halle Berry and the late Ossie Davis. … The nighttime is the right time for so many aesthetes, and a sensual starter kit of Jami Bernard’s The X List: The National Society of Film Critics’ Guide to the Movies That Turn Us On (Da Capo, $17.50) wedged between a copy of Talk Dirty to Me and The Opening of Misty Beethoven would make a very merry Christmas indeed. — D. Scot Miller

Life’s Like That

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote L.P. Hartley. “They do things differently there.” So why should your loved ones travel when they can read biographies? The past makes an eminently convenient destination: It’s cheap to visit; vaccinations aren’t required; and it’s closer than we might think. Just fifty years ago, Americans had never seen the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, let alone Internet porn. Pictures of ladies in lingerie still carried an illicit thrill, and shots of black-banged fetish queen Bettie Page, especially, had the dizzying effect of erotic stun grenades. In The Real Bettie Page (Citadel, $14.95), Richard Foster presents plenty of testimony to Page’s allure. His sources agree: In addition to a leggy, curvaceous bod, she had an irresistible way of making sex look fun, never dirty. Harlan Ellison confesses in the introduction, “I cannot to this day see a photo of Bettie Page without getting an erection.” … Men had more ambivalent feelings about mountain climber Arlene Blum. It wasn’t her fault; she just couldn’t help proving them wrong. First they told her that women couldn’t climb on equal terms with men. She did it anyway. Then they told her that women couldn’t climb Mount McKinley. In 1970, she led the first female expedition to the top. In between, they told her MIT would never grant a woman a Ph.D in physical chemistry. They had her there: She got it from Berkeley instead. Among her other achievements, Blum’s wonderfully unpretentious autobiography, Breaking Trail (Scribner, $27.50), chronicles ascents of Annapurna, Everest, and several previously unclimbed peaks. Not bad, for an impossible career. … If only Medgar Evers’ story had turned out as happily. In some better universe, the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP lived to write his memoirs in peace. In this one, on June 12, 1963, a racist killer put a bullet into him. Editors Manning Marable and Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, have assembled The Autobiography of Medgar Evers (Basic Civitas, $26) from letters, memos, speeches, and articles that bring to life his determined struggle against Jim Crow. Poll taxes, lynchings — did all this happen in America? Yes, it did, not a half-century ago. A foreign country, indeed. — Chris Ulbrich

Don We Now Our Gay Apparel

Pick a sure thing with Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty (Bloomsbury, $14.95) — it won the 2004 Booker Prize and it’s a best-seller — in which class, gender, and cash are the context for explicit scenery, e.g. “his middle finger pushed into the deep divide, as smooth as a boy’s, his fingertip even pressed a little way into the dry pucker so that Leo let out a happy grunt.” … It’s never too early to get the picture, perhaps with a new coloring book created by Jacinta Bunnell and Irit Reinheimer, Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be … (Soft Skull, $9.95), whose captions include “Sometimes the princess is saved by the girl next door” and “Stanley spends Super Bowl Sunday sewing slacks.” … Jenni Olson’s The Queer Movie Poster Book (Chronicle, $19.95) is a lustrous compendium — from Adam & Yves to Chained Girls and beyond. … Daniel Gawthrop is a rice queen, and that doesn’t mean he likes to cook Uncle Ben’s. The Rice Queen Diaries (Arsenal Pulp, $16.95) is his memoir about the politics and pleasures of being a gay man attracted to Asians. Thai ladyboys, snake wine — he goes around the world in more ways than one. — A.R.

Yuk It Up

Those fascist personalities we encounter in the trenches of everyday life are always good for a laugh: that shrill office gadfly, your ungovernable five-year-old niece, the Scientologist who lives upstairs. The likes of these inspired Andr√© de Guillaume’s How to Rule the World: A Handbook for the Aspiring Dictator(Chicago Review, $9.95). In this meticulous manual, Guillaume provides helpful instructions for developing a personality cult, organizing your own coup, and slugging out the competition. … Of course, both fascists and their enemies know that the first step toward attaining world domination is a vast accumulation of knowledge. On that tip, a good place to start is Roger L. Schlaifer’s Odds ‘R: The Odds On Everything Book (Bantam, $12), which calculates the stakes on all things banal and bizarre — from bed-wetting to the likelihood of suffocating yourself with a laundry bag. … For the loved one who is already well versed in random fun facts, but could use some help (and some laughs) with the challenges of quotidian life — rolling a joint, cremating a body, French-inhaling — try Nigel Holmes’ Wordless Diagrams (Bloomsbury, $14.95), a compendium of enlightening step-by-step visuals depicting 146 pedestrian activities. … Granted, not everyone desires a large cache of useless information; the less ambitious but still-funny schmo on your gift list might just want to know how to enter the sordid and unruly business of comic-book writing. According to the Simpsons’ Library of Wisdom’s Comic Book Guy’s Book of Pop Culture (Harper Collins, $9.95), you start off by waking up tomorrow at 10 a.m. and giving yourself a nice French shower. … For those who find the very idea of celebration itself hilarious, Allen Salkin’s Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us (Warner, $14.95) is an instructional guide, complete with special recipes and song lyrics, for observing the generic red-letter day popularized on Seinfeld. — Rachel Swan

Say When

Taught well (or self-taught), human and natural history can be like a magic carpet ride. Appropriately enough, Brian Murphy’s engrossing travelogue The Root of Wild Madder: Chasing the History, Mystery, and Lore of the Persian Carpet (Simon & Schuster, $25) champions the plant responsible for that accessory’s lush red hue, which is enjoying a resurgence as carpetmakers increasingly abandon artificial dyes for the real deal. … On a similar theme, but more earthbound, is Oak: The Frame of Civilization (Norton, $24.95). In this unexpectedly absorbing book, William Bryant Logan eloquently celebrates the ubiquity of the genus Quercus, which has furnished civilization with a quotidian but sturdy building material and provided a staple in the diet of prehistoric humans, whose carnivorosity Logan argues has been overstated. … An almost contradictory stance drives Paul S. Martin, author of Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America (UC Press, $29.95); he argues that excessive hunting by aboriginal Americans wiped out dozens of genera and species of megafauna (translation: really big animals), including not only mammoths and mastodons and their southern cousins the gomphotheres, but also sloths that rivaled these elephant ancestors in bulk, as well as giant bears, cats, and canids. Charmingly, Martin advocates that we now introduce the elephant and other Old World megafauna to the wilds of the Western Hemisphere to compensate for that loss. … For more recent history with a seasonal flair, David Bercuson and Holger Herwig’s Christmas in Washington: Churchill and Roosevelt Forge the Grand Alliance (Overlook, $29.95) recounts the negotiations of the leaders of the free world concerning America’s entry into World War II during the somber holiday season that followed Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. … Bringing it all back home, Tales of the Fish Patrol (Heyday, $11.95) comprises Jack London’s early writings about his days as a teenage agent of the law-enforcement agency charged with preventing overfishing in San Francisco Bay. Ironically, a stint as an oyster poacher preceded London’s deputization. — Mark Nichol

Foolproof Fiction

Do you trust precocious high-school students to pick out reading material for your loved ones? Maybe — if those youths were tutored by Dave Eggers. A panel of twelve students at 826 Valencia, the Eggers-run San Francisco writing lab, picked out the short stories and essays that fill The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005 (Houghton Mifflin, $14). For readers who have learned to love Eggers’ offbeat tastes, this book is an easy sell: The students have either picked up his preferences or come to the writing center because of preexisting affinities. There’s some arch, self-deprecating humor, some depressing stories that seem to have been written only to induce thoughts of suicide, a few socially relevant pieces about the war in Iraq, and a few absolute gems. … If you prefer your Bay Area-based short-story collections to have a more unified feel, San Franciscan Pushcart Prize-winner Eric Puchner delivers with his first book, Music Through the Floor (Scribner, $24). The nine stories’ settings and characters range widely, from Mexican immigrants scraping together a living in the Mission District to suburban boys full of mischief and malice on Halloween night, but the stories all share his light touch. Readers will hope that this collection is only Puchner’s opening salvo, and that there is much more to come. … Meanwhile, T.M. McNally has teetered on the edge of acclaim for over a decade, turning out exquisite prose that somehow hasn’t managed to seize the public imagination. His third novel, Goat Bridge (University of Michigan, $24), might just continue that trend, but you can do your part to help him out. Here McNally tells the haunting story of a photographer who flees to the war-torn Balkans to escape pain at home, namely, a missing child and a distant wife. The writing is positively lustrous; one gets the feeling that the author spent hours buffing each sentence to a flawless glow. — Eliza Strickland

Meaty, Pretty, & Aphoristic

In these snide and snarky times it’s all too easy for your loved ones to dis the seeking of wisdom, but when it comes in an exquisite package on one of the longest, coldest, wettest nights of the year, they’ll sing another tune. A best-seller in his own time but suppressed by the Communists, Leo Tolstoy’s Wise Thoughts for Every Day (Arcade, $15.99) is a daybook packed with aphorisms drawn from the great novelist’s readings in philosophy, spirituality, and literature. … Answers offer comfort and inspiration in The 5 W’s (Sterling, $9.95), a three-book series by Erin McHugh with one volume detailing where everything that ever mattered happened, another detailing when, and another revealing what it is that matters in the first place, from Sea Monkeys to global warming to Samoan beer. … In Winners Never Cheat (Pearson, $19.95), Jon M. Huntsman draws on the musings of sages and CEOs to create a tool for tuning up anyone’s moral compass. … Enlightenment might await right behind the nearest moonbeam, plum, or corpse: Get a jump on it with The Poetry of Zen (Shambhala, $16.95), translated and edited by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton. … Also short on syllables, Homeowner Haiku (Frog, $9.95), by Berkeley realtor and poet Jerry Ratch and artist Sherry Karver, is meant for those highly specialized meditations provoked by escrow and blasted water heaters. — A.R.

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