Holiday Roundups

Books for writers, humor, and lit sluts, among others.

… for fear (or call it perspective)

Cure the Christmas cheer with books to make your loved ones fear for their safety, their health, and the future of society. Diet for a Dead Planet(The New Press, $24.95) is a chilling exposé of American farming and supermarket practices. Between pesticide spraying, mad cow disease, and anticompetitive price supports, everything on that Yuletide buffet is contaminated with something. Fortunately, aptly named author Christopher D. Cook has some useful suggestions for improving our planet’s diet, making this more than just an alarmist screed. If poisoned food doesn’t make that skin crawl, try The Little School (Cleis, $14.95). In this cheery number, Alicia Partnoy recounts her incarceration at an Argentine detention camp for political prisoners. Constantly blindfolded and starving, she amused herself by playing with tiny balls of bread. Her story is as heartfelt as it is gut-wrenching — just the thing to put holiday blues in perspective. Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival (Norton, $14.95) offers more scary stories, this time about climbers caught in avalanches and crash victims staggering through jungles. Gonzales’ aim is to explore why some survive such catastrophes and others don’t, but the anecdotes will excite any armchair panicker. Weary shoppers would do well to browse Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart (Basic Books, $25). A stirring indictment of our country’s cheapest purveyor of Yuletide cheer, it describes the sex discrimination experienced by Wal-Mart employees — and the East Bay women who decided to fight back. Author Liza Featherstone has a flair for research and a way with words; this work may well scare you off big-box stores for good. So if tape-recorded sleighbells and blinking lights aren’t having their desired effect, make this season a little different. Wrap up these books and spread some holiday fear. — Anna North

… for lit sluts

For the coolwatcher, relentless youth, or Europhile on your list, there’s nothing like a novel billed as adventurous, daring, and cutting-edge. From Italy comes 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed (Grove, $22), authored by the underage Melissa P. In a graphic diary format, 100 Strokes chronicles the sexual awakening and disillusionment of a self-absorbed teenager who goes from being an idealistic virgin to a potent yet not entirely satisfied siren. Brass (Canongate, $14), the debut novel of 27-year-old Brit Helen Walsh, enters the world of bisexual college student Millie. This array of dizzyingly intense sexual and drug-addled escapades is told from two perspectives — those of Millie and her male best friend Jamie, who, to the eventual consternation of both, becomes engaged to a woman who isn’t Millie. If you’re thinking, “This is all fine and good, but what about a novel that isn’t about sexual awakenings?,” then consider the slightly more mature Nowhere Man (Vintage International, $13) by Bosnia’s Aleksandar Hemon. It too is told from multiple perspectives, with every narrator looking in on the life of Josef Pronek, a Bosnian in his thirties who immigrates to the United States shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though it’s technically just a story about the not-especially-remarkable Josef, Hemon’s language is singularly intricate, making even the seemingly ordinary appear beautiful. Lighter and even less sexual than any of the above is Gideon Defoe’s slim, wacky, tongue-in-cheek The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (Pantheon, $15.95), in which a ragtag pirate crew encounters grisly murder, an evil bishop, and the Elephant Man. Set in a rather indeterminate year, The Pirates! includes both Charles Darwin as a character and references to things like Post-It Notes and Starburst candy. Pop culture: Never leave home without it. — Kim Hedges

… for tiny eyes

It should go without saying that there is no worse judge of children’s books than a child. Kids can read the same Dick and Jane book ten times over and no, they’re not doing it for kitsch value. This being the case, parents should ignore their kids and pick only the titles that appeal to their own whims. Since picture books veer punishingly toward the moralistic these days, choosing one can be as easy as deciding which of society’s ills you find most important. If homelessness gets you down, pick Monica Gunning’s A Shelter in Our Car (Children’s Books, $16.95), the sad story of an immigrant girl who lives in a rattletrap sedan. For you multiculturalists, The Milestones Project (Tricycle, $17.95) features kids from everywhere, plus text that proves we’re really all the same. Now that families come in all sorts of modern configurations, Lesléa Newman’s The Boy Who Cried Fabulous (Tricycle, $15.95) is a smart choice. Newman need not mention the G-word, but when little Roger stops a woman on the street to say, “What a fabulous purse, it’s simply divine!” we all know exactly where he’s coming from. (That’s right, kid: When Mom shouts, “Go straight — straight to class,” just stick to being fabulous instead, and everything will be just fine.) Sometimes parents can use books to broach difficult topics. In Little Lord Farting Boy(North Atlantic, $15.95), author Scootchie Turdlow — we can only hope that’s a pseudonym — introduces poor Arty, a flatulent bear cub who is ridiculed until he conquers his affliction with tai chi and seaweed cooked in rice vinegar. If this well-intentioned didacticism is overwhelming, there’s no harm in resorting to pure, meaningless entertainment. In Laura Henson’s Ten Little Elvi (Tricycle, $12.95), baby Elvis impersonators dance around for no reason other than that it’s damn funny to watch them. There’s always time to make your kid a good citizen; why not just read something that makes you laugh? — Zac Unger

… for writers, blocked

Everyone in the East Bay knows someone who wants to write a book. Why not give the gift of encouragement? Late bloomers will find inspiration in Oakland-born Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate (Penguin, $15). In wry, humorous, and often moving essays, the Joy Luck Club author — who started writing in her mid-thirties — reflects on her nomadic childhood, her difficult relationship with her mother, and her transformation from literary nobody to best-selling celebrity. Frustrated wordsmiths, however, might take more comfort from Ruth Prigozy’s galloping 138-page biography F. Scott Fitzgerald (Overlook, $12.95), one in Overlook’s series of engaging author bios. Over his 21-year career, Fitzgerald published roughly 160 short stories and four novels, including his Jazz Age masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. And what did it get him? Brief renown, followed by middling sales, mixed reviews, and the constant threat of insolvency. It’s a saga guaranteed to make anyone feel better about writer’s block. For an even more concentrated dose of schadenfreude, try Mortification (Fourth Estate, $17.95), a collection of gruesomely funny true first-person tales of writers’ public embarrassments. Most involve the indignities of the book tour: unattended readings, miserly per diems, rotting hotel rooms. It’s a wonder anyone wants to write at all! Still, many do, though it’s so hard to turn the urge into action. For those in need of a creative jump-start, consider Oaklander Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! (Chronicle, $14.95). Baty is the founder of National Novel Writing Month. Forget dithering: Each NaNoWriMo participant sets out to write a 50,000-word novel in four weeks. Sound impossible? The secret, Baty explains, is to lower your expectations. Embrace your badness. Then set a deadline and stick to it. It’s not easy, but he provides combat-tested strategies for shoring up your resolve (snacks are important). The result might not be art, but it will be a book. And as any writer will tell you, that’s enough for starters. — Chris Ulbrich

… for laughs

Does the notion of four more years of peace and prosperity have you down? Are you heartbroken in only a way that nationalized healthcare can remedy? Well, before you put a toque on your head, mount a snowmobile, and head north, you might want to flip through Chris Gudgeon’s The Naked Truth: The Untold Story of Sex in Canada (Greystone, $14.95). When you juxtapose the words “sex” and “Canada,” most Americans will rightly think of Pamela Anderson. But Gudgeon’s stat-heavy and fun guide to what Canadians really mean when they say “put the biscuit in the basket” goes much farther. The laughs start before the table of contents, with a map of lascivious Canadian place names such as Nymph Point, Cumsack Mountain, and, of course, Cape Come Again. But given the National Hockey League labor dispute, maybe you just want a good laugh. Enter Mark Twain. There just aren’t too many writers from that long ago whose humor still elicits laugh-out-loud-on-the-bus-and-get-stared-at moments. Mark Twain’s Helpful Hints for Good Living: A Handbook for the Damned Human Race (UC Press, $19.95) offers tips on eating, parenting, etiquette, and emergencies. From funny stuff to funny stuff about funny people, Lawrence J. Epstein’s Mixed Nuts (PublicAffairs, $26) explores American comedy teams from Lucy and Ethel to Pryor and Wilder. The tome traces the primordial development of the comedy team, its golden age, and eventual demise. The best parts, of course, are the excerpts from the teams’ performances. For graphic-novel fans, local guy Andrew Goldfarb’s Ogner Stump’s One Thousand Sorrows (Wonderella, $9) is a genuinely weird venture featuring a protagonist with a head shaped like a derriere who bears more than a passing resemblance to Johnny Depp. Well, whatever gets you through the next four years. — Joe Eskenazi

… for the imagined applause

Ah, the hedonistic life of a rock star: wild parties, fast cash, sex, drugs, booze. Oh, and then there’s the music — and even those who can’t play a note can read about it. The title of The Best Music Writing 2004, edited by Mickey Hart and Paul Bresnick (Da Capo, $15.95), says it all: Dozens of journalists offer everything from Toure speculating on whatever happened to Lauryn Hill to Jessica Hopper lamenting the angsty rebel phenomenon of emo music. As celebrated in Straight Whisky, by Erik Quisling and Austin Williams (Bonus, $22.95), probably no street is as synonymous with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle as LA’s Sunset Strip, home to trendy bars and glitzy clubs such as the Whisky A Go-Go. Bringing together the hottest bands of three decades in one jolting head trip, Quisling and Williams chronicle the street’s musical history from the psychedelic ’60s to the decadent ’80s. (Think Mama Cass and X.) Ever since he was a kid dreaming of becoming a puppet — how else could he appear on children’s TV shows? — Neil McCormick always wanted to be a star. But fortune instead favored his schoolmate, who grew up to be U2’s Bono, while McCormick never exactly hit the big time. In Killing Bono(Pocket Books, $14), he looks back on what it means to be a nobody in the music biz: It’s a weirdly obsessive, strangely funny, and above all painfully real look at the life of the not-so-rich and never-quite-famous. Each One Believing (Chronicle, $35), edited by Caroline Grimshaw, is the ultimate Paul McCartney coffee-table tome, big and glossy and chock-full of backstage banter and Bill Bernstein’s concert photos from the ex-Beatle’s 2002-03 world tour. Diverting too are pictures of McCartney’s pre-show antics: tuning up in a hotel room, holding a staff huddle backstage, donning a series of Nehru jackets. … Air guitar, anyone? — Mike Rosen-Molina

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