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Wrapping Paperbacks

Indie books make perfect last-minute gifts


The holidays are all about friends and family--which means there's very little quiet time. Instead, there's clamor in the kitchen, TV sports blasting in the living room and hopefully a closet crammed with enough so-so gifts to be "re-gifted" by this time next year.

Let's face it, though: What everyone really craves during the holiday is a little bit of (to borrow from '80s metal band Queensryche) silent lucidity. And what better way to enjoy quiet time than with a cool book?

Sure, there are plenty of great new corporate-published novels out there worth buying--from The Godfather's Revenge to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But after a week of eating ham and turkey leftovers, giant hardback books are a real pain to lug from the bathroom to the bedroom and back again.

To help combat holiday hernias, here is a list of small-press publications that will impress just about any kind of reader. Don't bother checking your list twice, though: These books are for naughty folks.

Need a book for a pet lover or mystery fan? Then get your greasy paws on a copy of Pet Noir: An Illustrated Anthology of Strange but True Pet Crime Stories (Manic D Press, $13.95). Shannon O'Leary wrote most of the tales in this collection, with a number of today's finest comic-book artists, including Mary Fleener, providing the pictures. The reader is guaranteed to learn all kinds of unusual things with each and every narrative--like how to bottle-feed a cougar ("Cougar Nursing 101") or how to train gerbils to attack ("Murder, Sorrow, Sex and Revenge") or how to exorcise your possessed kitten ("Satan Is in Your Cat"). However, you may want to attach a warning note with this book. After experiencing "The Christmas Koala Caper," you'll never look at the San Francisco Zoo the same way again. Pet Noir is an eerie yet uplifting celebration of man's love and respect for animals.

Poetry is boring, right? Well, not if you cautiously--and we mean cautiously--approach a book like Stumpfucker Cavalcade (Superstition Street Press, $10). Written by no less than Joe Pachinko, Oakland, Calif.'s most notorious anti-bard, this book on your shelves will certainly raise more hackles than eyebrows. Leave it on your coffee table, and it's guaranteed to be picked up and read. Resistance to titles like "I Hear the Inflatable Baby Bearded Clams Melting Below the Polar Ice Cap" and "Luck Vomit Torpedo" is futile. And the poems themselves? "Last Words" goes like this: "'Well, at least I won't / have to wipe my ass / anymore,' he said. / Then died." Now that's poetry--or something far worse. In any case, you can order this book at lulu.com. Buy two copies, because the first one will be lifted during a party. Seriously!

If pet crime and pernicious poetry aren't right for your list, try the celebrated short fiction of Todd James Pierce. Pierce's collection, Newsworld (University of Pittsburgh Press, $24.95), just won the 2006 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and is garnering much acclaim for its quirky take on our media-saturated era. Stories include "Columbine: The Musical," about a high school that puts on a staged production of the infamous school shooting, and "Wrestling Al Gore," in which the 2000 presidential election is recast as a series of pro-wrestling bouts. The characters are genuine human beings, afraid of death and hungry for love in a world intent on selling us everything under the sun. You won't find a better or more interesting book about today's "hyperreality" than Newsworld. Yeah, this is technically a hardback, but it's a slender little tome that fits comfortably in a lunchbox. The only heavy lifting required may involve your brain.

Got any musicians or music fans on your list? If they happen to be '80s-era metalheads, then unwrapping Steven Blush's American Hair Metal (Feral House, $22.95) will hit them harder than a blast of AquaNet. This book offers 160 color photographs of a pop-music moment when women were groupies and men were ... well, women. A visual feast, American Hair Metal celebrates all the eyeliner, stuffed spandex and scarves that put rock bands like Poison at the top of the charts and in heavy rotation on MTV. The best quote from this book is from the L.A. Guns' Phil Lewis, when he says, "I came here with 200 bucks and a hairdryer." The best photo has to be the backstage snap of Cinderella, with their long manes teased to an incredible degree. Clearly, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain killed off more than '80s glam rock; judging from the pictures in this book, Cobain nearly killed off the entire cosmetics industry.

Speaking of cosmetics, not only do books by Soft Skull Press look great in terms of production; they're also a lot of fun to actually read. Every holiday season, this little Brooklyn, N.Y.-based publisher brings out a number of great books, and this year, it's no different. Straddling the genres of humor, self-help and haiku, Beth Lapides' Did I Wake You? (Soft Skull, $9.95) is drawing much attention for its inspirational power, even if much of her work seems deeply personal. Punk rock yet approachable, Lapides is a commentator for NPR's All Things Considered, and her writing has been called everything from "quick-shit lit" to "haikuzzi." Here's a sample: "Decorate, but don't / spend too much, you'll move again / soon--or you'll die." Or: "Corn or tomatoes? / Can't bear to decide. Nervous / breakdown on aisle nine." Or: "Bad for my skin to / sit in the sun but good to / be kissed by a star." We could keep going, but it's better if you just buy the book yourself.

Finally, a novel! But David Wellington's Monster Nation (Thunder's Mouth Press, $13.95) isn't your average drama; it's a zombie apocalypse yarn and a prequel of sorts to Wellington's debut, Monster Island. This is the same author you may have read about on the Internet who serialized his first novel in blog format. Wellington has since gone on to develop a rather large readership and receive rave reviews, and you can still enjoy his books online. However, for those who prefer to have their entertainment bound and glued, Thunder's Mouth Press has collected the postings into one big book. Monster Nation is a fierce, fast-paced piece of zombie fiction that will leave you looking forward to more--in which case, you can simply pick up Monster Island, followed by Monster Planet! It doesn't get any more indie than this, people. Whatever you do, don't read these books after a meal, or you may lose it, OK?

So there you have it--a literary gift guide to satisfy just about any reader. And if you can help it, hit your local independent store first before surrendering to the chains. Happy reading!


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