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Those fascist personalities we encounter in the trenches of everyday life are always good for a laugh: that shrill office gadfly, your ungovernable five-year-old niece, the Scientologist who lives upstairs. The likes of these inspired André de Guillaume's How to Rule the World: A Handbook for the Aspiring Dictator(Chicago Review, $9.95). In this meticulous manual, Guillaume provides helpful instructions for developing a personality cult, organizing your own coup, and slugging out the competition. ... Of course, both fascists and their enemies know that the first step toward attaining world domination is a vast accumulation of knowledge. On that tip, a good place to start is Roger L. Schlaifer's Odds 'R: The Odds On Everything Book (Bantam, $12), which calculates the stakes on all things banal and bizarre -- from bed-wetting to the likelihood of suffocating yourself with a laundry bag. ... For the loved one who is already well versed in random fun facts, but could use some help (and some laughs) with the challenges of quotidian life -- rolling a joint, cremating a body, French-inhaling -- try Nigel Holmes' Wordless Diagrams (Bloomsbury, $14.95), a compendium of enlightening step-by-step visuals depicting 146 pedestrian activities. ... Granted, not everyone desires a large cache of useless information; the less ambitious but still-funny schmo on your gift list might just want to know how to enter the sordid and unruly business of comic-book writing. According to the Simpsons' Library of Wisdom's Comic Book Guy's Book of Pop Culture (Harper Collins, $9.95), you start off by waking up tomorrow at 10 a.m. and giving yourself a nice French shower. ... For those who find the very idea of celebration itself hilarious, Allen Salkin's Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us (Warner, $14.95) is an instructional guide, complete with special recipes and song lyrics, for observing the generic red-letter day popularized on Seinfeld. -- Rachel Swan

Say When

Taught well (or self-taught), human and natural history can be like a magic carpet ride. Appropriately enough, Brian Murphy's engrossing travelogue The Root of Wild Madder: Chasing the History, Mystery, and Lore of the Persian Carpet (Simon & Schuster, $25) champions the plant responsible for that accessory's lush red hue, which is enjoying a resurgence as carpetmakers increasingly abandon artificial dyes for the real deal. ... On a similar theme, but more earthbound, is Oak: The Frame of Civilization (Norton, $24.95). In this unexpectedly absorbing book, William Bryant Logan eloquently celebrates the ubiquity of the genus Quercus, which has furnished civilization with a quotidian but sturdy building material and provided a staple in the diet of prehistoric humans, whose carnivorosity Logan argues has been overstated. ... An almost contradictory stance drives Paul S. Martin, author of Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America (UC Press, $29.95); he argues that excessive hunting by aboriginal Americans wiped out dozens of genera and species of megafauna (translation: really big animals), including not only mammoths and mastodons and their southern cousins the gomphotheres, but also sloths that rivaled these elephant ancestors in bulk, as well as giant bears, cats, and canids. Charmingly, Martin advocates that we now introduce the elephant and other Old World megafauna to the wilds of the Western Hemisphere to compensate for that loss. ... For more recent history with a seasonal flair, David Bercuson and Holger Herwig's Christmas in Washington: Churchill and Roosevelt Forge the Grand Alliance (Overlook, $29.95) recounts the negotiations of the leaders of the free world concerning America's entry into World War II during the somber holiday season that followed Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. ... Bringing it all back home, Tales of the Fish Patrol (Heyday, $11.95) comprises Jack London's early writings about his days as a teenage agent of the law-enforcement agency charged with preventing overfishing in San Francisco Bay. Ironically, a stint as an oyster poacher preceded London's deputization. -- Mark Nichol

Foolproof Fiction

Do you trust precocious high-school students to pick out reading material for your loved ones? Maybe -- if those youths were tutored by Dave Eggers. A panel of twelve students at 826 Valencia, the Eggers-run San Francisco writing lab, picked out the short stories and essays that fill The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005 (Houghton Mifflin, $14). For readers who have learned to love Eggers' offbeat tastes, this book is an easy sell: The students have either picked up his preferences or come to the writing center because of preexisting affinities. There's some arch, self-deprecating humor, some depressing stories that seem to have been written only to induce thoughts of suicide, a few socially relevant pieces about the war in Iraq, and a few absolute gems. ... If you prefer your Bay Area-based short-story collections to have a more unified feel, San Franciscan Pushcart Prize-winner Eric Puchner delivers with his first book, Music Through the Floor (Scribner, $24). The nine stories' settings and characters range widely, from Mexican immigrants scraping together a living in the Mission District to suburban boys full of mischief and malice on Halloween night, but the stories all share his light touch. Readers will hope that this collection is only Puchner's opening salvo, and that there is much more to come. ... Meanwhile, T.M. McNally has teetered on the edge of acclaim for over a decade, turning out exquisite prose that somehow hasn't managed to seize the public imagination. His third novel, Goat Bridge (University of Michigan, $24), might just continue that trend, but you can do your part to help him out. Here McNally tells the haunting story of a photographer who flees to the war-torn Balkans to escape pain at home, namely, a missing child and a distant wife. The writing is positively lustrous; one gets the feeling that the author spent hours buffing each sentence to a flawless glow. -- Eliza Strickland

Meaty, Pretty, & Aphoristic

In these snide and snarky times it's all too easy for your loved ones to dis the seeking of wisdom, but when it comes in an exquisite package on one of the longest, coldest, wettest nights of the year, they'll sing another tune. A best-seller in his own time but suppressed by the Communists, Leo Tolstoy's Wise Thoughts for Every Day (Arcade, $15.99) is a daybook packed with aphorisms drawn from the great novelist's readings in philosophy, spirituality, and literature. ... Answers offer comfort and inspiration in The 5 W's (Sterling, $9.95), a three-book series by Erin McHugh with one volume detailing where everything that ever mattered happened, another detailing when, and another revealing what it is that matters in the first place, from Sea Monkeys to global warming to Samoan beer. ... In Winners Never Cheat (Pearson, $19.95), Jon M. Huntsman draws on the musings of sages and CEOs to create a tool for tuning up anyone's moral compass. ... Enlightenment might await right behind the nearest moonbeam, plum, or corpse: Get a jump on it with The Poetry of Zen (Shambhala, $16.95), translated and edited by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton. ... Also short on syllables, Homeowner Haiku (Frog, $9.95), by Berkeley realtor and poet Jerry Ratch and artist Sherry Karver, is meant for those highly specialized meditations provoked by escrow and blasted water heaters. -- A.R.


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