Shoppers know it, staff know it: setting foot in a packed bookstore at this time of year demands steady nerves, agility, and endurance, no matter how cozy the Nat "King" Cole soundtrack is. Here's a list of new books that will help you hit the checkout line fast and avoid getting sucked into the human whirlpool that is holiday retail.
For the friend whose grip on reality is too tight
More Information Than You Require
(By John Hodgman. Dutton, $27.50)
"Famous minor television personality" John Hodgman follows up 2005's The Areas of My Expertise with another absurdly funny almanac of lies. Complete with a table telling you, at a glance, which U.S. presidents had a hook for a hand, the book is crammed with such items as advice on how to rid your home of termites (answer: monkeys with long sticks) and how to tell the future using a pig's spleen. It also features a calendar of daily historical facts, all of which were widely unknown until Hodgman made them up. (In 1985, for example, the Holy Grail was moved to Bentonville, Arkansas, and placed in a shrine beneath the Wal-Mart visitors' centre.) Throughout, the author speaks in the uncannily beige tone he uses in his regular appearances on The Daily Show.
Love’s Civil War, centring on novelist Elizabeth Bowen, suggests that frustrated desire is a solid source of literary inspiration.
For the star-crossed
Love's Civil War
(Edited by Victoria Glendinning. McClelland & Stewart, $35)
High-flying Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie and Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen fell in love in 1941, after meeting in war-torn England. Too bad Bowen was married—and even worse luck that, by the time she became a young widow a few years later, Ritchie had gotten married himself. English biographer Victoria Glendinning places Ritchie's stylish diary entries alongside Bowen's eloquent letters, creating a chronicle of two ambitious, fractured people who spent 30 years pining for each other, even as they rubbed shoulders with great literary figures and world leaders. It's hard to imagine e-mail ever living up to this.
For the starstruck
Annie Leibovitz at Work
(By Annie Leibovitz. Random House, $45)
Annie Leibovitz is famous for her arresting images of, well, the famous. Photos like the one she took of Yoko Ono embraced by a naked John Lennon, just hours before his assassination, often drum up the word iconic. This richly designed volume includes that shot and dozens of other colour portraits, along with striking landscapes, nudes, and photojournalism about war. Essays by the photographer herself act as a foil, describing how and why she made the pictures. As a bonus to aficionados, a detailed description of Leibovitz's gear is also included, along with her answers to the 10 questions she's asked most often about her work.
For the book lover who's short on time
(By Rohinton Mistry, with illustrations by Tony Urquhart. McClelland & Stewart, $25)
If the subject of this striking edition hardly chimes with the holidays, the spirit it was published in does. This short story by revered Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry is a 48-page monologue, in which an embittered old man living in a spare Mumbai apartment rails against the abuses life has inflicted on him. Mistry's lean, spellbinding style is balanced by artist Tony Urquhart's glowing colour illustrations, which play off the story's themes like illuminations in a medieval manuscript. Royalties from sales go to World Literacy of Canada, a nonprofit organization promoting literacy across the country and abroad.
Haruki Murakami inspires a mix of dreams and duty.
For the book lover who's never on time
Murakami Diary 2009
For any fan of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (and you probably know an obsessive one, if you think about it), this pocket-sized calendar is a lock. With quotes from his novels and images of clouds, cherry blossoms, and frenetic Tokyo streets, it's a polished little volume that blends the routines of waking life—your grocery lists and appointments—with the logic of dreams, just as Murakami himself does.
For the city-bound homesteader
A Mountain Year
(By Chris Czajkowski. Harbour, $36.95)
The next time an annoying lineup at Starbucks feels like a test of your ability to harmonize with your surroundings, think of Chris Czajkowski. As she has described in a string of previous books, the English-born Czajkowski built her own log cabin in the late '80s, on a mountainside near Bella Coola, a few dozen kilometres from the nearest road. In this latest work, made up of journal entries spanning 2005 as well as bright, lucid drawings of birds and flora, she chronicles the passing seasons in a landscape that seems both fragile and ever-abiding. A year in the life of the anti-Yaletown.
For the literary powerlifter
(By Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $33)
Not every holiday season comes equipped with a new literary landmark, but this one does. 2666, a three-volume tour de force, is the last thing celebrated Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño worked on before his death five years ago, at age 50. Moving from continent to continent, and from the First World War to the late 1990s, this disturbing and hugely inventive epic centres on the murders of young women working in a fictionalized version of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. A cross between Jorge Luis Borges and James Ellroy, 2666 is by turns surreal, smartly funny, and profoundly violent.
For the snake-charmed
Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist
(By Leslie Anthony. Greystone, $29.95)
Whistler-based zoologist Leslie Anthony blends science writing with travelogue and history in this learned but lighthearted memoir of an adventurer obsessed with snakes, salamanders, frogs, and turtles. Anthony crosses the map in search of our cold-blooded, shy, and mostly misunderstood friends, crawling through jungle in Vietnam to find supertoxic kraits, and stumbling across the mysterious Armenian viper on a windswept mountain pass in the Caucasus. He also creates amusing portraits of the eccentric, often hard-drinking fellow "herpers" he meets along the way. For high-stakes fun, it beats bird watching.
For the iPod-armed
The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs From Punk to the Present
(Edited by Scott Plagenhoef and Ryan Schreiber. Fireside, $18.99)
The on-line music know-it-alls boil down the last 30 years of rock, pop, electronica, and hip-hop into a topnotch, deadly earnest list of recommended downloads. The bite-sized reviews of songs by everyone from the Sugarhill Gang and Brian Eno to Napalm Death and Feist are perfect bathroom reading, making you hipper with every trip.
More holiday books
The Clash lavish, detailed, and beautiful
Disquiet, Please! has humour for everyone
Bat-Manga! details Japan’s take on the Caped Crusader
Stefan Kanfer's Somebody a valuable portrait of Marlon Brando
Words for the young reader