I finally broke down and started buying eBooks this year for the Kindle my mom gifted me two Christmases ago. As a result, I've enjoyed great reads I would never have discovered in indie bookshops, much less in the last corporate chain standing (Barnes and Noble).
Still, I catch myself perusing the unvirtual shelves of dead-paper-centered stores, libraries and (gasp!) even my corner Albertsons, where I grabbed, and must heartily recommend, mass-paperback movie-tie-in books Steel and Other Stories (featuring the Richard Matheson story that motivated Reel Steel, plus other tales) and Cowboys and Aliens (penned by sci-fi queen Joan D. Vinge). Better than the films, for sure.
But nothing gets my Christmas stocking moister than a killer (and printed) small-press title. After reading a bunch of these in the last months of 2011, I crafted a list of paperbacks sure to satisfy alt-minded bookworms among your friends and family.
It's been the Year of Chaz Bono. The transgender advocate and Dancing With the Stars competitor is the subject of an acclaimed doc, Becoming Chaz. But your sociology-, psychology- and anthropology-majoring college buds will also cherish filmmaker Morty Diamond's memoir anthology Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love and Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary (Manic D Press, $14.95). Featuring 29 contributions by trans-community writers, this thought-provoking collection offers sensitive insight into the hearts and minds (and even the special parts) of people living outside of the "male or female" dichotomy. If you're a vanilla person like me, make your head spin (in a good way), and shatter all your assumptions about sex and gender, by digging into Ashley Altadonna's "Shifting Sexuality, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Be a Bisexual Tranny Dyke." I'm glad I did.
Need something for your head-banging yet literate cousin? Pick Jeremy Wagner's The Armageddon Chord (kNight Romance Publishing, $17.99), a rock 'n' roll horror-thriller that stacks the fret board-incinerating talent of adored guitar god Kirk Vaisto against a corrupt Egyptologist and a psycho billionaire intent on bringing about the apocalypse. An ancient, hieroglyphics-transcribed song deep within a pharaoh's pyramid-tomb has been uncovered, and only one musician on Earth—that's right, Vaisto—is technically gifted enough to perform it live onstage in the middle of the African desert. This book has been blurbed as "The Da Vinci Code with a heavy-metal soundtrack," but I believe my description's better: Dante's Jesus Christ Rock Star.
And for the horny homo (I say it with affection) in your life? Try on Shane Allison's Brief Encounters: 69 Hot Gay Shorts (Cleis Press, $15.95). Allison, America's most-wanted editor and anthologist of erotic fiction, returns with his, um, shortest package to date. Well, the book's actually 300 pages or so, but each story rarely swells past a few pages. There are intense pieces here, like pervy Zeke Mangold's "The Wave Pool," which will have you longing for summer again with its story of a lifeguard who, er, comes to the rescue of a well-dressed corporate executive who gets a little too close to a Las Vegas hotel's artificial surf. All of Allison's Cleis collections are killer, but this one has quickies that ride readers hard and put 'em up wet.
Young-adult novels are getting edgier. For evidence, look no further than Ryan G. Van Cleave's Unlocked (Walker Children's, $15.99), a story-in-verse aimed at teen readers that addresses the issues of bullying and gun violence in our schools. The main characters are two loner friends—Andy, son of a janitor, and Blake, who knows how to handle a pistol and isn't afraid to teach his pal. I won't give away the plot except to say that one kid makes a disastrously wrong choice, and the other does the right thing. Because this is "poetic fiction," it reads much faster than your average YA, but there's serious weight to and emotion in the positive message communicated here. I'm surprised Oprah and Dr. Phil didn't instantly embrace this book, yet Unlocked has already succeeded in securing a sizable cult audience. For mature adolescents who don't settle for watered-down pap about vampires.
Everyone has a Trekker/Trekkie in the family, so set your gift-giving phaser to its "stun" setting by blasting Bryan Dietrich's Prime Directive (Needfire, $10.99) under the tree. OK, you're thinking: "A book of Klingon verse penned by a nerd in his mom's basement?" Actually, Dietrich is an English professor at Newman University in Kansas who publishes poems in The New Yorker. He's also a family man who introduced his 10-year-old son to the magic of Star Trek, and on one level, this book concerns a father-son bond growing stronger while discussing warp drives. But Directive's poignancy also derives from the James Doohan (R.I.P. Scotty from the original TV series) tribute "The Engineer": "Between the dust clouds calving sun to night, / behind the blazing battlements of old / auroral habiliments, dead supernova's light, / surrounded by these gases growing gold, / we wander."
For the naughty oddballs on Santa's list, crank up the holidays with William Pauley III's The Brothers Crunk (Grindhouse Press, $9.95). This is "bizarro" (surreal underground) fiction at its finest and most fucked-up. Crunk tells the tale of two breakfast burrito-vending brothers—one of whom may be dead, or possessed by an alien-demon, or worse—wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape with a pile of human meat that they plan on using for their tasty, cannibal burritos. Reportedly inspired by 8-bit home systems (Atari, Intellivision) of yesteryear, this brisk and super-fun novel reads a lot like those old, crude, fractured-narrative video games, only with better graphics—by which I mean graphic violence galore. By no means a literary effort, Crunk is instead a cool dip into crazy-ass imagery and storytelling.
For the Latina feminist punker in your antisocial sphere: Alice Bag's Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story (Feral House, $17.95). If you recall landmark '80s music doc The Decline of Western Civilization, then the band The Bags will sound familiar. They were fronted by Mexican-American singer Alice Bag, who looked tough and wore stilettos onstage while belting out three-chord songs with lyrics like: "She's taken too much of the domesticated world / She's tearing it to pieces / She's a violence girl." Bag has written a dark, delicious coming-of-age memoir that fans of outsider writing like Junkie won't be able to quit. Violence Girl confirms that Feral House is the king of underground lit.
For the environmentalist or Southwest-history buff, I suggest V.B Price's The Orphaned Land: New Mexico's Environment Since the Manhattan Project (University of New Mexico Press, $29.95). Price is an Albuquerque journalist who's done a remarkable job of compiling and presenting the story of the Land of Enchantment's environmental degradation by those who think land is for exploitation, not protection. Every page is an eye-opener, and here's a nugget gleaned from opening the book to a random page: In Acid Canyon, radioactive waste was routinely dumped after World War II, until the canyon's south fork was made a city wilderness park in the '60s. What city would ever deem such an area safe for kids? Los Alamos and its lab coats, of course. This is a slightly pricey book, but worth it.
As always, try an indie bookstore, mortar or online, before submitting to a (dying) big-box chain. And cherish my motto: "Keep lit weird (even for the holidays)."