Deck the Halls with Also-Rans 

This year, give them books they've never heard of.

Giving best-sellers as gifts is fun, but it's fascist. Sure, it's easy. But so is donning a uniform. And sure, it feels like tapping into a hot trend. But so does cheering a dictator. Sure, since books are cerebral they seem to be deeper, more personalized gifts than mattress pads, say, or trowels. But really, when everyone at the office is talking about Blink, isn't that a bit totalitarian? How is reading the exact same words at the exact same time as all your friends not like marching in lockstep?

Fifty thousand books are published every year in America. That means fifty thousand authors boned up on something or other so that you wouldn't have to, and spent whatever time it took to spin fifty thousand riffs on fifty thousand topics. Yet you only hear of about ten or twenty books a month. As sleighbells jingle this year, break the chains. Give those 49,760 also-rans a chance. Because wouldn't your loved ones really rather read about reincarnation and tequila than about boy wizards and not thinking of an elephant?

For the hypochondriac on your list, Peter Steele's Doctor on Everest (Raincoast, $16.95) and Jonathan Kaplan's Contact Wounds (Grove, $24) make even fistulas seem picayune. As a doctor on an Everest-climbing expedition, Steele treated hemorrhaging retinas, broken bones, and hypothermia. An injection isn't an injection until you've had one on ice -- or at 28,000 feet. South African surgeon Kaplan headed a combat-zone hospital in Angola, land of a hundred thousand land-mine victims. He describes blasted flesh with elegiac precision.

It takes more than just one jarhead to bring a war home. Embedded with US battalions on the blazing frontlines in Fallujah, ex-Marine Bing West leaves no grenade unturned in No True Glory (Bantam, $25). Having served with the Army Waterborne, novelist Christian Bauman plumbed his own past to write Voodoo Lounge (Touchstone, $14), a depth-charge of a love story set during the US invasion of Haiti. And San Francisco poet Alan Kaufman plumbed his years in the Israel Defense Force for his gorgeously gritty novel, Matches (Back Bay, $13.95). "There's no feeling in the world more exciting than making a combat assault on an enemy target by helicopter," muses Sergeant Major Eric Haney in his memoir Inside Delta Force (Bantam, $14), about the elite counterterrorist unit bent on finding out what makes bombers tick.

Nostalgia gets a little less dorky than usual with Melanie Rehak's informative ode to Nancy Drew, Girl Sleuth (Harcourt, $25); TV scriptwriter William Froug's funny-cynical memoir How I Escaped from Gilligan's Island (Popular, $29.95); and France's all-time best-selling children's novel, Nicholas (Phaidon, $19.95), first published in 1959 and now available in English -- in which Asterix creator René Goscinny conjures a school-ditching, soccer-loving, cigar-smoking scamp.

Who in the East Bay doesn't love someone who loves gloating over America's shame? Score big with Slavery in New York (New Press, $25), compiled by that city's historical society, because yes, people were property there for three hundred years. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and Duke University history professor John Hope Franklin started fighting for civil rights in 1934, spurred by a Tennessee lynching; his autobiography Mirror to America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25) shows where we've been.

Science kills, but you can't live without it. Mark Essig's Edison & the Electric Chair (Walker, $15) tracks the nuts and bolts behind the death penalty; Diana Preston's Before the Fallout (Walker, $27) follows radium from Marie Curie to Hiroshima.

Sick of the red, blue, and white? Young historian Diarmaid Ferriter's The Transformation of Ireland (Overlook, $37.50) strides from starvation to U2 in nearly nine hundred pages. Wistful eyes gaze into eternity from the pages of Mei Mei (Chronicle, $35), Berkeley photographer Richard Bowen's masterful assemblage of portraits taken in Chinese orphanages; Amy Tan wrote its introduction. Rifles, an abandoned missile base, ice-fishermen, and babes on snowy streets bring our ex-enemy alive in Andrew Moore's stunning coffee-table volume Russia (Chronicle, $40). Soy-sauce cheesecake, gropers attacking elevator operators, a mom who strangles her seven-year-old because he won't go to school: Compiled from Japanese newspapers by Mark Schreiber, Tabloid Tokyo (Kodansha, $12.95) bares the city's underbelly.

Hook-up hunters home for the holidays? In The Obscene Chronicles (Outstanding!, $24.95), Michael Edwards, Adam Steele, and Roger Cameron are as explicit as only ex-frat guys can be about threesome etiquette, extracting chewing gum from pubes, and ill-timed irritable-bowel-syndrome attacks. For those who prefer pimpin', Tariq "King Flex" Nasheed advises playaz to hit on cosmetic-counter clerks, never spend more than $20 on a first date, and wear mink, not macramé, in The Mack Within (Riverhead, $13).

Hailing humankind's eternal romance with photosynthesis, Tom Turner's Garden History (Spon, $44.95) is fabulously detailed, and Olive Percival's The Children's Garden Book (University of California, $24.95) is a charming array of previously unpublished blueprints for garden design -- and an ascent into an enchanted old flax-and-sundial world; Percival died in 1945.

This world might be in tatters -- but is there another one? Wraiths roam an East Bay high school and shipyard in The Ghost Stories of Alameda (Spellbinding Tales, $9), produced by the Alameda Society for Paranormal Research. Lifelong psychic Terry Iacuzzo can see your future, but remembers her past in Small Mediums at Large (Perigee, $14.95), a wrenching memoir, and kids remember stuff that happened before they were born in Life Before Life (St. Martin's, $23.95), a scientific investigation of reincarnation by University of Virginia child psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker. Chicken-sacrifice, blood-sucking, and lucky mojo make an impression on ungullible religion reporter Christine Wicker, whose Not in Kansas Anymore (Harper San Francisco, $24.95) evinces that magic is alive in America.

At war or in love, Shakespeare's sweet princes and sniveling moneylenders never go out of style. In Shadowplay (Public Affairs, $26.95), Clare Asquith reads between those iambic lines to find secret cries of political protest, written at risk in an age of terror and torture (she starts by recounting a priest's disembowelment) that was a far cry from the Renaissance Faire. Interpretations, synopses, tons of backstory, and reviews of relevant CDs and films make Andrew Dickson's The Rough Guide to Shakespeare (Rough Guides, $23.99) indispensable. Forgeries, etymologies, and other trivia along with a built-in bookmark make David Crystal and Ben Crystal's The Shakespeare Miscellany (Overlook, $14.95) a fun Bardic bathroom companion.

For a very jolly holiday, photographer Douglas Menuez' dreamy Heaven, Earth, Tequila (Waterside, $39.95) is an homage to an elixir and the Jaliscans who make and drink it, while the pictures of pot, smiley-face bongs, and stoner celebs in Tim Pilcher's Spliffs 2 (Quick American, $12.95) are so lush and bright you'll think you inhaled.

All these and so many more await beyond the big tall separation-wall of best-sellerdom. Don't shop as a sheep would if sheep could shop. For every post-holiday tête-à-tête about Freakonomics, another fifty thousand are waiting to happen about hemorrhaging retinas. And rifles. And cosmetic clerks.


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