It was another great year for books, especially small-press and independent titles. Kindle, Nooks and Kobos are cool, sure, but nothing beats the wonderful sensation of solid analog lit being stuffed into your stocking.
Here's a diverse, indie-centric literary gift guide for the entire range of readers among your friends and family.
For the pierced, brooding goth and/or Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) fan in your clan, Andersen Prunty's Morning Is Dead (Grindhouse Press, $12.95) serves up disorienting, "things are not what they seem" plot twists and dark characters with aplomb. This short and very weird horror tale begins in a hospital at night. April sits at the bedside of her husband, Alvin, and, boy, is he messed up—burned, beaten, bandaged and his heartbeat barely registering on the monitor. Gradually, we learn about Alvin's terrible ordeal and how it all came undone, like when he saw that camouflaged archer enter his neighborhood, shoot a rabbit and drink its blood. Yeah, that was probably where it all began to go wrong. Or maybe it was Officer Fuckpants' arrival—seriously, that's the character's name—and the way the intimidating pseudo-cop calmly observes the detonation of Alvin's home. Is it all just a really bad acid trip? Actually, it's something much, much worse. Pick up this book if you enjoy blood-curdling, mind-screwing chills and thrills. Do not read at night.
Economically ravaged Las Vegas continues to earn a black eye in many recent journalistic accounts of the boomtown turned doomtown. Former Tucson Weekly contributing editor Matt O'Brien's My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas (Huntington Press. $14.95) will do little to counter this claim. Only thing is: O'Brien isn't parachuting into Sin City for a hit piece. He's been living and working as a reporter there for 13 years and has stories to tell, including one from the Blue Angel motel in the East Fremont district, where, sure, he meets pimps and drug-pushers, but also plenty of other regular folks struggling to find their way, survive, make a living and stay sober. O'Brien also retraces the Vegas steps of Hunter S. Thompson, re-visits the people inhabiting the city's storm drains (the subject of his previous book, Beneath the Neon), observes sewage-treatment-facility workers striving to clean the water, and tracks the cold trail of a missing woman. No one takes you deeper into Vegas' all-too-human heart than O'Brien.
Has your best gay bud lost his boner thanks to the disappointing Obama position on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? Turn that flaccid member right-side-up with the Shane Allison-edited gay-erotica anthology Hard Working Men (Cleis Press, $14.95). This time around, the theme is sweaty, beefy construction workers, and the story titles say it all: "A Married Construction Worker's Warm Mouth" and "Black Caulk," for instance. The latter, by, er, rising star Zeke Mangold, is a tale of seduction that works in, um, both directions, as a young corporate HR staffer and a hard-hatted hunk find love after hours, despite their wildly different backgrounds and social standings. As Allison notes in the book's introduction, "get ready for some strenuous on-the-job training." You'll never look at a hammer in the same way again. Pure literary Viagra.
The punk-goth-metal-industrial-conceptual-music enthusiast on Santa's nice list will get a kick out (the jams!) of Zora von Burden's Women of the Underground: Music—Cultural Innovators Speak for Themselves (Manic D Press, $15.95), a collection of fascinating interviews with 20 of the coolest, most influential women rock musicians. From the performance-art power of Laurie Anderson and Karen Black to the dirty darkness of Swans' Jarboe and The Gun Club's Patricia Morrison to the country-fried rockabilly of Wanda Jackson and Southern Culture on the Skids' Mary Huff, Women of the Underground is chock-full of tidbits about these musical luminaries. For instance, it was the vocal support of the late Kurt Cobain that led to reprinting experimental folk-punkers The Raincoats' albums in England, and to their reformation and acclaimed 1996 album Looking in the Shadows. And Butthole Surfer Teresa Taylor's stories of life on the road with the intense and outrageous Gibby Haynes, and the oft-hilarious and sometimes tragic tales of the band's fans, are an absolute must-read. This book breaks the polished fingernails of alternative music in the best way.
Sybil Baker's Talismans (C&R Press, $14.95, available Dec. 7) is a haunting literary adventure in the tradition of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The novel follows Elise from the weeks before her graduation to an epic journey through her 20s. Her father, a Vietnam vet, abandoned her when she was a baby; her mother obsessively plays the church organ. Elise hooks up with boys in high school, yet remains emotionally distant. When she leaves, she seeks a connection to her long-dead father, and takes on a series of lovers, but then her mother dies. Alone with no family, Elise treks through Southeast Asia, teaches English in South Korea and visits places that her father would have experienced as a soldier. In one powerful scene, she locates the spot where he likely drowned. Not to give away too much, but the "talisman" is her father's photo, always within reach. Or maybe it's his military pea coat, which she wears. Eventually, she must decide what she can leave behind—and what she can't.
Your academic friends will find much to learn about the eye-opening subject of hardcore racism in Pete Simi and Robert Futrell's harrowing American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement's Hidden Spaces of Hate (Rowman and Littlefield, $19.95). These two young university profs, through first-person accounts and interviews with members of white-supremacy groups, dig deep into the subculture's cracks and crevices, the music and the lifestyle, to tell us what's going on. "Weapons and race war are consistent topics of crashpad conversation," they write, a crashpad being a rundown motel or dilapidated apartment around Los Angeles where skinheads gather for days, sometimes weeks, on end. Simi and Futrell don't flinch at anything—the hate-spewing rock bands, the rituals, the Internet propaganda. Swastika isn't preachy; rather, it's a sociological analysis of what happens in those invisible places where hate festers, even at the moment when—and perhaps due to the fact that—a black man resides in the White House.
Brian Turner's Phantom Noise (Alice James Books, $16.95) is, hands-down, the best book of poetry published this year. Turner is a Bosnia and Iraq vet, having served in the U.S. Army. Before that, he earned an MFA from the University of Oregon, which provided him the skills and technique necessary to write so compellingly, so beautifully, about the horrors, the pure adrenaline rush and the camaraderie of war. "Tomorrow is made of shrapnel / and blood," he writes in one poem. "The hissing / bullets wandering like strays through the old neighborhoods," he records in another. Forget Homer; Phantom Noise is the only verse about armed conflict and its aftereffects that you need to read right now, as growing military quagmires threaten to knock down America from the top of the list of mighty nations.
Got a friend with a bad habit? Not drugs or drink, but something worse—an activity that causes intense isolation and undermines family life and work performance? Then make sure to get him or her Ryan G. Van Cleave's Unplugged: My Journey Into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction (HCI, $14.95). Van Cleave, now a college professor in Florida, nearly threw his life away for some virtual currency to be virtually plundered in the online epic fantasy multiplayer game World of Warcraft. His failed effort to ask the game-maker's billing rep to permanently kill his account is as funny as it is scary. If you want to know how far low can go in terms of game addiction, you definitely should read this.
Remember to shop at your local indie bookstore before succumbing to a chain!