All volumes great and small
Yes, Virginia, there are books petite enough to be stuffed into stockings
By Miriam Wolf
JUST AS SURELY as the average person will end up with an unwanted seven pounds come Jan. 2, the bookstore shelves will also soon be bulking up as the book industry releases its weightiest tomes for the holiday season. Huge-ass $100 art books with gorgeous reproductions and leaden text, giant photo books entirely devoted to pictures of cute, fluffy kittens, heavily promoted novels that are as weighty as the advances paid to their superstar authors.
But when it comes to holiday presents, elephantine isn't always the ideal. Small is beautiful, after all. It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is to fit a hardcover Tom Wolfe novel into the stocking of your loved one.
Little books provide a more intimate reading experience than their coffee table-size siblings. They can be tucked in a pocket and read on the sly. They're a breeze to mail. They're a heck of a lot cheaper than oversize art books. And they fit nicely in a small display rack next to the cash register (which is one of the reasons they're so popular).
So here's a list of this year's best literary stocking stuffers. I promise none of the books could possibly be described with the words "chic and sassy," and none will revolve around the travails of single women who live in large urban centers and are looking obsessively for a mate and the perfect pair of shoes.
Travelers actual and armchair will love a trio of little books that came out this year (two by local authors). Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel (Riverhead Books, 269 pages, $14, paper) can answer all those niggling little questions you've always had about getting around on airplanes, from wind shear to how much money a pilot makes. It's by an actual pilot who moonlights as Salon.com's air-travel columnist Patrick Smith so you know this is no tome as dry as the pretzels served in coach. Instead it's a funny, inside look at the industry, the experience, the jargon, and the history of air travel.
While you're up in the air, don't get so caught up in the mechanics of flying that you forget to look at the ground. Gregory Dicum's Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air (Chronicle Books, 175 pages, $14.95, paper) functions as a Rosetta stone to decode what you see from your airplane window. Broken up into sections about regions of the United States and Canada, Window Seat is profusely illustrated with crisp, intense, and sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful photographs. Dicum uses a multidisciplinary approach to explain the photos, incorporating science, environmentalism, history, city planning, and economics. This book is the perfect tome to coax reluctant fliers into the air.
If your gift recipient is fatigued by the very concept of words, Troy Litten's awesome Wanderlust (Chronicle Books, 208 pages, $14.95, paper) is just the ticket. Litten has wandered the world, taking pictures not of the Taj Mahal and Buckingham Palace but of breakfasts, hotel bathrooms, public transportation, men peeing against a wall, and even his own tickets. Singly, the photos might not mean much, but witty juxtapositions and the sheer number of photos (more than 400) elevate this collection to the sublime.
Maybe you need something a bit more, shall we say ... seasonal for giving. You can't get more seasonal than Brendan Powell Smith's Brick Testament, a retelling of the Bible entirely with Lego blocks (www.bricktestament.com). And just in time for the holiday season, here comes The Brick Testament: The Story of Christmas (Quirk Books, 94 pages, $12.95). Smith's incredibly detailed Bible scenes, accompanied by the relevant biblical quotes, are a form of obsessive brilliance. They'll make you laugh and lust for new Lego sets, and send a shiver down your spine. The Brick Testament: The Story of Christmas is disturbing on so many levels, not the least of which is that the baby Jesus has no arms or legs. He's made of just two pieces of Lego: a smiling head and a white cylindrical head-shaped piece meant to be his body.
Too ironic for you? Maybe you need something a bit more sincere. The Book for People Who Do Too Much, by Bradley Trevor Greive (Andrews McMeel, 116 pages, $9.95), is the ultimate gift for those whose favorite decoration is that "Hang in There, Baby" poster of the kitty dangling from a tree branch. This little essay on the need for and pleasures of doing less is accompanied by photos of animals doing their thing: ducklings cavorting with puppies, serious-looking owls, squirrels drinking from faucets, human-seeming chimps, and cute lambs. I can't tell if I think it's adorable or repellent. But whether it's a Midwestern mom or an office-worker aunt, there's probably someone on your gift list who will oooh and aww in all the right places.
Back to our regularly scheduled irony: Jennifer McKnight-Trontz's Hang in There! Inspirational Art of the 1970s (Chronicle Books, 64 pages, $12.95) features the original "Hang in There, Baby" posters, along with posters espousing such inspiring sentiments as "If You Love Something, Let It Go ..." and "I Love You More Today than Yesterday, But Not as Much as Tomorrow." Fuzzy kittens, "Luv Is ..." statues, soaring seagulls paging through this book, I suddenly realized just why the 1970s gave birth to punk.
Of course, there are truly inspirational stories, like Dave's On Subbing: The First Four Years (Microcosm Publishing, 128 pages, $5, paper, www.microcosmpublishing.com). Portland, Ore., punk Dave was burned out by his dead-end thrift store job and decided to become a teacher. Because he didn't have an Oregon teaching credential, he was assigned to substitute as an education assistant for special education classes. For the past four years, he has been subbing in classes from K through 12, and he has met students whose abilities range from near normal to almost completely nonexistent. Dave tells his story in diary form, and the sheer force of his day-to-day struggles seems overwhelming. "Things started badly. Kids ran into the classroom calling each other names and throwing chocolate chips at each other.... Later a kid threatened to sue me because I picked him up off the floor." Still, there are many days when Dave feels a connection with the kids that makes him believe he's doing a job that means something more than just making money.
While inspiration feeds the soul, knowledge feeds the brain. To thrill the brain and the stomach at the same time, there's Ben Schott's follow-up to his Schott's Original Miscellany, Schott's Food and Drink Miscellany (Bloomsbury USA, 160 pages, $14.95). This little book is packed with tidbits about everyone's favorite subject: food. There are lists of ways to say "check, please" in different languages, dangerous foods, household hints, and Jelly Belly flavors. You'll find recipes, history, weird facts, and serendipitous information. The perfect gift for food-and-drink fanatics as well as trivia heads, Schott's Food and Drink Miscellany will help anyone liven up his or her cocktail party conversation (and learn to make a few new cocktails to boot).
Has your gift recipient ever envied children for their pop-up, pull-tab, or chunky-board books? Miriam Zellnik's Instant Aromatherapy (Quirk Books, 26 pages, $9.95) is a board book for adults. And guess what! It even has five scratch-and-sniff panels. Yes, go ahead, shove this book in your face and inhale the scent of jasmine, pine, and peppermint. Zellnick gives a thumbnail description of the benefits of each scent to accompany the sniffing pleasure.
Recently a friend told me she secretly loved A Prairie Home Companion, and as embarrassing as that is, it's nothing compared to the hideous guilty pleasures described in The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1001 Things You Hate to Love, by Sam Stall, Lou Harry, and Julia Spalding (Quirk Books, 320 pages, $14.95, paper). Oh, how painful it is to flip through this book and realize some of the things you've always thought were just fine to love are being described as guilty pleasures! In 1,001 crisp, funny entries, the authors take down targets from V.C. Andrews to Pia Zadora. Lovely engravings by Kevin Sprouls lend dictionary-like gravitas to things like the Frampton Comes Alive album cover and pudged-out exercise guru Richard Simmons.
This fall music junkies (and especially music-writing junkies) have four new titles from the Continuum International series 331/3 to covet. Each title in the series pairs a passionate writer with one of the seminal albums of the past 40 years. This season Continuum is releasing a slate that will appeal to everyone from pointy-headed college radio fans to Beatles fanatics. Steve Matteo writes on the Beatles' Let It Be (160 pages, $9.95, paper), Allan Moore writes on Jethro Tull's Aqualung (128 pages, $9.95, paper), Dai Griffiths writes on Radiohead's OK Computer (144 pages, $9.95, paper), and Colin Meloy writes on the Replacements' Let It Be (120 pages, $9.95, paper).
Miriam Wolf is a frequent contributor to the Bay Guardian who lives in San Francisco.