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Reading for Real People

Check out these fascinating and diverse small-press gems

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As the unemployment rate rises and your friends find themselves out of work, why not comfort them with some small-press books this holiday season? (If you're already out of work, then, by all means, send this gift guide to someone you know who's still drawing a steady paycheck.)

Nothing provides more entertainment bang for the dwindling American buck than an indie book, which can take many hours to read. (Compare this to a movie, which typically runs less than 120 minutes and consists of gratuitous special effects and loud explosions.)

Here is a range of fascinating titles guaranteed to interest every kind of reader. Stuff one or more of these books into his or her stocking, and you'll give your loved one something to do in between dialing for unemployment benefits.

For your Tuscan-oriented friends, we suggest Avanti Popolo: Italian-American Writers Sail Beyond Columbus (Manic D Press, $14.95). This unique collection of verse, essays and fiction gathers new work by the most celebrated writers of Italian extraction: Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kim Addonizio, to name a few. But it's the young stallions like Bliss Esposito who really make this book sizzle like premium olive oil in a red-hot pan. Esposito's nonfiction piece "Il Rancore" (translation: bad blood) chronicles her family's obsessive grudges and how, despite their stereotypes, her uncles' fierce passion for feuding is admirable, "even though sometimes it erupts in smudges and stains." You'll also want to tear a chunk from Michael Parenti's "Bread Story," about the collapse of a small-business bakery in the face of corporate competition from (yuck!) Wonder.

For the dreamy soul-searcher, we recommend Florida poetess Helen Pruitt Wallace's gorgeous debut, Shimming the Glass House (Ashland Poetry Press, $14.95). Hailed by critics for her "lush language and a formal deftness," Wallace is that rare breed of bard who's infinitely readable yet always inventive. Her subject matter is broad, with the world she constructs so devastatingly fragile--from the cheerleader compromised by the hunky high school jock, to the flower-picking boy attacked by an alligator, to the Goodwill sofa rescued because of its "subtle touch of skin." Like the more famous Billy Collins, Wallace is an artist who writes as if she's talking with you in a quiet room, speaking of powerful things at a time when almost everything else seems weak, unnecessary and crude. This is a book that will convince readers to fall in love with poetry all over again.

For the music enthusiast, we endorse countercultural icon Ken Waldman's highway memoir, Are You Famous? Touring America With Alaska's Fiddling Poet (Catalyst Book Press, $15; $12 at Catalyst's Web site). Since 1995, Waldman has been actively doing what Jack Kerouac only experienced for a few months: living and performing on the road. This bearded giant of a man has delighted audiences young and old, from the glittery gutter of Las Vegas to the kudzu-infested mountains of North Carolina, with his musical and storytelling skills. He jots down his thoughts on eking out a meager existence on the road with such honesty and optimism that you'll want to tag along, too--even if the food stinks, gas is pricey and there isn't another paying gig for a two-week stretch. Not for the faint of spirit or the mild at heart, Are You Famous? is the ultimate DIY guide and inspirational text for fiddle players--no matter what regions they inhabit.

For the unrepentant gay horndog, we condone Backdraft: Fireman Erotica (Cleis Press, $14.95). Edited by Shane Allison, this collection of short fiction sizzles with lustful attentions directed at working-class, hose-wielding studs. Stories like "Smoke and Semen" involve real flesh-and-blood characters navigating a rough yet sensual gauntlet of submission and domination, while other pieces like "Firemen Three" prove just how fast large-helmeted, big-booted firefighters will, er, come when you dial 911. Cleis Press has been producing some of the best themed LGBT erotica anthologies for years, and Backdraft--thanks to Allison's judicious editing--offers more top-quality writing in a down-and-dirty genre. Seriously: This book is so scorching hot that you should box it with a fire extinguisher and ointment. It will burn more than your fingers.

For the children on your holiday shopping list, we propose James Kochalka's Johnny Boo: Twinkle Power (Top Shelf Productions, $9.95). While not as friendly as Casper the Friendly Ghost, this is a cute little specter with "Boo Power," which means that when he goes Boo!, people--especially monsters and other ghosts--stop in their tracks. His friend is a tiny pet ghost named Squiggle who performs stunning loop-the-loops and loves ice cream. In Twinkle Power, Boo and Squiggle seek the secret of the evening stars' light source. Kochalka, best known for his graphic novel Monkey Vs. Robot and his autobiographical sketch diaries (American Elf), tested this comic on his own 3-year-old son. The result is magical and a lot of fun for both parents and kids.

For that person in your life who always judges bad (or at least immoral) books by their awesome covers, why not get her a book of, well, just awesome covers? Dope Menace: The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks, 1900-1975 (Feral House, $24.95) boasts hundreds of full-color images from the wicked subgenre of drug-exploitation narratives--everything from tales of '50s beatnik debauchery, to the '60s-era depravity of William S. Burroughs, to the Vietnam-scarred decadence of Hunter S. Thompson. The covers that made these authors' books so easy to pick up are collected here for the first time, in all their seductive and transgressive glory.

For the manga-lover in your life who just can't get enough Japanese comics, there is Yusaku Hanakuma's Tokyo Zombie (Last Gasp, $9.95), which tells the post-apocalyptic adventure story of, according to the cover synopsis, "two blue-collar factory workers and jiu-jitsu experts who deal with a zombie uprising in Tokyo." Once you read the book, however, you realize that something is a bit off: It's that Hanakuma belongs to the heta-uma style (translation: "so bad it's good") of primitive yet powerful illustration, making Tokyo Zombie an important contribution to manga translations in the United States.

Finally, for the person who hates books yet needs a better and more compelling reason for doing so than sheer contrariness, there is Mikita Brottman's The Solitary Vice: Against Reading (Soft Skull Press, $14.95). Brottman, a British-educated literature professor living in Baltimore, makes the case that the solitary pastime of curling up with a good book is really not so different from indulging in onanism--or masturbation. Countering the oft-cited but never quantifiably proven maxim that reading is like feeding your mind the imaginative equivalent of broccoli, Vice argues for the idea that the act of reading doesn't improve you as a human being, but instead can quite possibly ruin your life "by turning it into a lonely and miserable ordeal."

There you have it: a small-press gift guide to meet the tastes of any out-of-work reader. Unless it has already gone under, remember to try your local independent bookstore first before acquiescing to chains--though they may soon be gone, too. In which case, after posting your updated résumé online, feel free to shop at any indie-book webstore.

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