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Helpful and Not-So-Helpful Book Ideas

By Margaret Moser, December 12, 1997, Books

To hell with checking lists twice -- isn't making them once enough? I know, I know... it is for the majority of the names on your gift-giving list, but one or two of those names always seem to elude just the right gift. My philosophy is: A book for everyone and everyone with a book. Here are a few suggestions of titles -- some traditional, some offbeat -- for such names on your list.

Up Shit Creek: a Collection of Horrifyingly True Wilderness Toilet Misadventures by Joe Lindsey (Ten Speed Press, $5.95 paper). There, would I lie to you about a title like that? And the subtitle says it all. When this book talks about a "groover's" paradise, it is not referring to our fair town, "groover" being the toilet used on river--rafting trips. Think about this for a minute (hold your nose if necessary): People who embark on those trips have to dooky in front of strangers while hurtling over water meant to be lethal. Up Shit Creek is is a hysterically funny if somewhat gamey collection of stories about this procedure and its end results. The slim (81 pages) volume helpfully includes not only a glossary of terms (feces is also called "goodness") but a list of words and phrases that will bring back memories of schoolyard taunts. If you've even paused over this title and had a friend or loved one in mind for it, consider also Chunks: A Barfology by Elissa Stein and Kevin Leslie (St. Martin's Griffin, $6.95 paper) -- it's eightysomething pages of often-humorous, usually gross vomit stories.

It's not hard to move on to more pleasant subjects. In fact, downright funny might be a better way to describe The Huge Book of Hell by Matt Groening (Penguin, $17.95 paper). It's more Binky, of course, along with Akbar and Jeff and Life in Hell. And having the comics reproduced in a larger format is so much nicer than the tattered copies clipped from newspapers and tacked to office bulletin boards. Creating Babylon5 by David Bassom (Del Rey, $18 paper) is a heavy-stock, full-color ticket to paradise for B5 fans. It's a glossy, authorized, inside-out look at the making of the popular cult drama (which begins airing on TNT in January), delving into its special effects, character and actor profiles, behind-the-scenes looks at its creation, and plot guide. (Ditto for The Making of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, by Jody Duncan (Ballantine $18 paper) but it includes storyboards and many pictures of director Steven Spielberg.) Except for gorgeously reproduced photos, most of this stuff is better covered on the Net, but any B5 fan can tell you that. X-Files Confidential: The Unauthorized X-Files Compendium by Ted Edwards (Little Brown, $15.95 paper) is notable for containing one of the most up-to-date episode guides, even if it's not sanctioned. Edwards did get to talk with cast and writers, and imparts a good deal of inside knowledge within. My two favorite episodes are "D.P.O." (also called "Lightning Boy") and the awesomely brilliant "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," which might be a Top Ten Desert Island TV pick for me. Another guide just published is The Manly Movie Guide: Virile Video & Two-Fisted Cinema by David Everitt and Harold Schecter (Boulevard Books, $11 paper), a tongue-in-cheek celebration of macho movies and the men who make them. It's very funny in that National Lampoon sort of way, but I can't help but wish that Jason Cohen and Michael Krugman, the authors of Rolling Stone Online's "Well Hung at Dawn" column, had written this first -- they really have the lovable alpha male routine down. Nonetheless, Messrs. Everitt and Schecter love all things John Wayne and everything after, and gleefully revise Hollywood history with a testosterone touch, offering such goodies as the Manly Movie Hall of Fame chart with a big thumbs-up to Billy Jack. Buy these boys a round, bartender.

More genteel subjects await. Gentility, faux or not, is the pre-eminent characteristic of romance novels. I take that back -- bodice-ripping is the pre-eminent characteristic, but it's usually in a genteel manner. I won't recommend any bodice-rippers to you even though I secretly like the historically based ones. But I will say that a book like Upon a Midnight Clear (Pocket Books, $16 hard) features authors Jude Deveraux, Linda Howard, Margaret Allison, Stef Ann Holm, and Mariah Stewart, and the collection of stories by these noted romance writers might be just the perfect gift for someone on that blasted list. Someone, for example, who might be offended or shocked at The Best American Erotica 1997 edited by Susie Bright (Touchstone, $12 paper). Bright edited last year's edition and brings her witty touch to the anthology, which includes stories by Bob Vickery, Isobel Bird, Lauren P. Burka, and others. But if that name on the list isn't as open-minded as all that, return to gentility and a touch of spirituality with Angels We Have Heard on High: A Book of Seasonal Blessings by Joan Wester Anderson (Ballantine, $12.95 hard), Illuminated Prayers by Marianne Williamson (Simon & Schuster, $20 hard), or Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited edited by Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke (Little Brown, $23.95 hard). Sometimes it's a blessing to judge a book by its cover. Angels We Have Heard On High is an inspirational collection of stories with a holiday theme. Illuminated Prayers is richly illustrated in the medieval tradition of manuscripts, and offers gentle prayers for everyday life in an aesthetically pleasing volume. Joyful Noise lets 23 writers explore the meaning of the New Testament, sometimes in surprisingly frank ways. The thing that struck me about these particular books is that while I find my spiritual sensibility elsewhere, it is important to recognize that others find it on more common ground. The beauty of this holiday season lies not in its trappings but in its heart; and these books have a lot of heart.

And some books just look good. That's part of the fun of them, and why the Everyman's Library edition of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Knopf, $20 hard) is a pleasure to look at. It joins the dozens of titles Knopf has re-issued in collectible form, lovingly designed contemporary classics that make for good reading. A more unusual twist on classics comes in the form of The Black Cat by Robert Poe (Forge, $23.95 hard). Described on the book jacket as a "distant relative" of Edgar Allen Poe (it declines to address how distant), Robert Poe also wrote Return to the House of Usher. Both of these are modern gothic takes on his long-dead relative's famous works, and it's to his credit that these are respectable works, crafted with cunning, slyly noveau.

Nobody loves Texas more than Texas writers. Take a subject -- any subject -- and I promise you some writer will find a way to stick "Texas" in it and voila! New book! Don't laugh -- it works. Here's the 1998-1999 Texas Almanac (Dallas Morning News, $12.95 paper), chock-full of the usual stats and demographics and profiles of the Lone Star state's 254 counties, maps, features on Texas politics, business, weather, and much more. Under the Lone Star Flagstick edited by Melanie Hauser (Simon & Schuster, $25 hard) is subtitled A Collection of Writings on Texas Golf and Golfers. Texas golf? What, is this a special sub-genre, like Texas politics? It seems that way, what with essays from Dan Jenkins, Blackie Sherrod, Turk Pipkin, Harvey Penick, and Gary Cartwright. Footnotes by Tommy Tune (Simon & Schuster, $24 hard) tap-dances through the tall Texan's stage career with grace and ease, revealing little but is charming anyway. What Every 18-Year-Old Needs To Know About Texas Law by L. Jean Wallace (UT Press, $11.95 paper) is extremely informative and sometimes eye-opening, with its information about legal rights upon becoming an adult. It's actually quite illuminating and practical for those of us who are considerably older than 18 too, since it applies to anyone over that age.

The Magnetic Poetry Book of Poetry by Dave Kapell and Sally Steenland (Workman, $13.95 hard) might have been one of those bound-to-happen titles like those annoying copycat "Life's Little Instruction" books were it not that co-author Kapell actually invented the insidious little concept of words on magnets for refrigerators. This wire-bound volume has gathered the subsequent poetry of all kinds though composed with the magnetic words, and presents them in a volume along with 150 magnetized supplemental words and letters, sort of like the trading card booster sets. Actually, you can be quite creative with only the 150 words included since the inside of the book is magnetic. I say "insidious" because I sat down with this book and played with it for 45 minutes when I was supposed to be writing this. Here is my poem:

the evening grows wild

I tell its dark secret to the morning

Sometimes it's easy to be flippant having a wealth of books to draw upon. Of all the new books I read, flipped through, or looked at this year, She Loves You: A Curious Tale Concerning a Miraculous Intervention by Elaine Segal, drawings by Lance Richbourg (Simon & Schuster, $16.95 hard) is my favorite. It's not a children's book, though it looks like one -- oversized, with minimal but potent text and pen-and-ink artwork that is at once lush and stark, able to swoop through the imagination with a mere flourish. Neither is this an "adult" book, in the sense that the gentle fairy tale resounds with bittersweet joy. For every one of us growing up, there are defining moments that separate us from childhood. Once they occur, you can never go back, not really.

For a lucky cross-section of people that came of age in the Sixties, the Beatles defined that moment in a way nothing -- not even the Rolling Stones or Nirvana at their most incendiary -- could even come close to. Segal weaves her rite of adolescent passage with child's delight, a fanciful tale about the ongoing struggle with her father and an imaginary visit to her house by the Fab Four when their limousine breaks down in front of her house. The young girl has an epiphany as she hears them singing "I Want To Hold Your Hand" on the car radio while her father dismisses it, oblivious to its effect on his daughter. "...But I did see what the big deal was. I saw it right away. When the Beatles jubilated, I can't hide! I can't hide! what they meant was I won't hide! I won't hide! And what they didn't have to hide from was my father's opinion. The Beatles would understand that, for the moment I had to hide."

When her father is on his deathbed, the Beatles appear at his bedside in one of the most enchanting endings I have ever experienced while reading. She Loves You is a treasure for the ages, a jewel of a book, a sparkling facet of memory both polished and rough but ever rich in depth and value. Long may it shine on this and every other season.

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