If you were clairvoyant, holiday gift-giving wouldn’t be a ludicrous farce anymore. It wouldn’t be a time for cringing, for ribbons untied and the hollow, bellowed, haunted thank-you. Being clairvoyant would mean just thinking Brent or Ashley and, like plugging into a switchboard, you’d be right inside their heads, knowing their desires. No more wasted skis or misdirected, dazzlingly wrapped ant farms. This talent of yours would be a godsend in bookshops because, really: What could be worse than giving Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to someone who wants Cujo?
If you aren’t psychic — although with professional clairvoyant Laura Bushnell’s Life Magic (Hyperion, $22.95), you can learn — then buying the right books for the right recipients means really tuning into the likes and dislikes of everyone on your list, rather than just chucking best-sellers at them while thinking Can five million Mitch Albom fans be wrong?
Because yes. They can.
For those salty, seal-hunting Newfoundlandophiles on your list, John Gimlette’s Theatre of Fish (Vintage, $15) pays historical homage to this land of cod, Vikings, and allegedly violent monks. Set in its capital, Lisa Moore’s award-winning novel Alligator (Black Cat, $13) involves an accident-prone hot-dog vendor striving to protect his stand from a sociopathic Russian sailor.
If sociopathic Russians ring a buy-me bell, you also can catch them in Nikolai Maslov’s autobiographical graphic novel Siberia (Soft Skull, $19.95), which evokes alcohol, angst, and psychosis in luscious gray pencil. Prefer to let pictures tell the story? Then also try Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon’s Pride of Baghdad (Vertigo, $19.99), based on the true saga of starving lions that escaped Baghdad’s zoo amid bombing raids in 2003.
Subways, sewage systems, catacombs: Alex Marshall’s Beneath the Metropolis (Carroll & Graf, $29.95) is a well-researched subterranean history for inquiring urbanites. Ed Viesturs prefers altitude; No Shortcuts to the Top (Broadway, $23.95), coathored with David Roberts, charts a career spent climbing eight-thousand-foot mountains sans bottled oxygen.
Voices sound “like darkened sand” and blindness “is a traveling exhibit” as curated by Stephen Kuusisto in Eavesdropping (Norton, $23.95), a poetic glimpse into his sightless universe. And what better gift for that special someone than the answer to the question of how conjoined twins have sex? It’s in The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton (Ten Speed, $19.95), Dean Jensen’s double-biography of those other Hilton sisters, the differently abled ones. They costarred in Freaks.
Q-tips, an iPod, majestic sunsets, and “self-examinations for incipient boils on my skin” — French sailor Maud Fontenoy recounts rowing solo across a sea in Challenging the Pacific (Arcade, $24). More memoirs? Marissa Walsh muses about myopia in Girl with Glasses (Simon Spotlight, $15.95). Robin McGraw discusses husband Dr. Phil “at his sexiest” and narrates incidents such as the time a maniac on an overpass set her sister afire in Inside My Heart (Nelson, $24.99).
Limes, bloody tongues, and a baby Nostradamus are fractions of a meticulous magical realism in Salvador Plascencia’s lustrous debut novel, The People of Paper (Harvest, $14). He should be famous already, along with his colleague Carl Shuker, whose The Lazy Boys (Shoemaker & Hoard, $15) captures college anomie from the inside out, nailing those moments when you’re hungover and watching folks on TV “doing synchronized dance steps to a cover of ‘Funky Town.'”
Edited by Hossein Amirsadeghi with text by Peter Upton and photographs by Rik Van Lent Sr. and Rik Van Lent Jr., Arabians (Chronicle, $35) has the prettiest pictures of horses: Not to be gender-specific or anything, but a lot of little girls would love this. For those who prefer their creatures computer-programmed, Timothy N. Hornyak’s Loving the Machine (Kodansha, $26.95) details Japanese robots, from android TV announcers to a therapeutic robot sea lion for Alzheimer’s patients.
His TV! His circular bed! His hamburger buns! It’s all 3D in Graceland: An Interactive Pop-Up Tour (Quirk, $40), by Chuck Murphy, with a foreword by the King’s widow, Priscilla Presley. From “Chester A. Arthur Is Totally A. Awesome” to “Idaho? No, Udaho!” to “Guns Don’t Kill People, People with Mustaches Kill People,” Helen Walters’ 300% Cotton (Laurence King, $29.95) is an homage to T-shirt art.
Berkeley poet Floyd Salas eulogizes his pets in Love Bites (Mad Dog, $15). J. Otto Siebold shows how to DIY, posing pinschers in his hilarious, helpful Quincy, the Hobby Photographer: The Complete Guide to Do-It-Yourself Dog Photography (Harcourt, $14.95).
An eel enema, rat-poison cigarettes: The new volume of Wendy Northcutt’s The Darwin Awards (Dutton, $19.95) details dumb ways to die. Its diametric opposite is Kati Marton’s The Great Escape (Simon & Schuster, $27), which profiles nine brilliant Hungarians (including Edward Teller and Robert Capa) who fled Hitler and changed history.
Shopping for someone about whom you know virtually nothing? In such blind-date cases you’re no better off giving books than giving antlers or a syringe, but go for the universal. Everyone breathes, right? Try David Carle’s Introduction to Air in California (University of California, $16.95). Everyone dies, right? Try June Knights Nadle’s Mortician Diaries (Inner Ocean, $13.95).
A mute ten-year-old prophet prophesizes for a king in The Christmas Pig (Simon & Schuster, $15.95), a sweet-strange stocking-stuffer from gubernatorial ex-candidate Kinky Friedman. Still feeling spiritual? Max Lucado’s Facing Your Giants (W, $22.95) adapts the David-vs.-Goliath tiff into a manual for facing debt, disaster, divorce — even dialysis. Jolly polytheist? Divinities ride peacocks, juggle skulls, and swim milk-seas in The Little Book of Hindu Deities (Plume, $14), a charmer by Pixar animator Sanjay Patel.
Bette Midler’s sitcom Bette, Tiger Woods shilling for Buick, the Osmonds’ “horrifically large teeth” — Television Without Pity: 752 Things We Love to Hate (and Hate to Love) About TV (Quirk, $15.95) is Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting’s snark for the sofa-bound. That love-and-hate goes retro in How I Escaped from Gilligan’s Island ($29.95), William Froug’s tell-all about penning scripts for such classics as Bewitched and Charlie’s Angels.
Invoking the mealtime wisdom of Okinawans and lab rats, Stanford-grad food scientist Brian Wansink stands up against pigging out in Mindless Eating (Bantam, $25). Buddhist vegan Carmen Yuen joins that anti-Cheez-Its chorus with The Cosmos in a Carrot (Parallax, $14.95), cheering up the holiday table with such reminders as: “When we eat a drumstick, we eat the pain and anger of the bird, the farmworkers, and the meatpackers.”
Genocide aside, Yoshio Komatsu and Eiko Komatsu insist that we’re all alike inside: Humankind (Gibbs Smith, $39.95) is their astounding omnibus of worldwide people photos, so gorgeous and upbeat as to be visual liturgy. Also like a prayer, but exposing our species’ worst and best, is Joel Meyerowitz’ Ground Zero archive Aftermath (Phaidon, $75). Still seeking a fail-safe? Either of these two would do fine. Then again, so would Abdel Bari Atwan’s The Secret History of al Qaeda (University of California, $24.95), or Rebecca Apsan and Sarah Stark’s The Lingerie Handbook (Workman, $13.95). Because, come 2007, jihad and underwear might be all we need to know about.