Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

Books to Bail out Your Gift List

Tyee's holiday guide to pleasing even the toughest booklovers.

By  Tyee Staff and Contributors 18 Dec 2008 |

This list was assembled by Tyee Books editor Michael LaPointe with the festive contributions of Stan Persky, Crawford Kilian, Reanna Alder, Jackie Wong, Andrew MacLeod, J.C. Peters, Colleen Kimmett, Sarah Buchanan, Dana Martin, Shannon Rupp, David Ravensbergen, Tom Sandborn, David Beers, Ben Hart, Tom Barrett, Charles Campbell and Geoff D'Auria.

image atom
They won't melt down.

Gone, suddenly, are the days of gifting diamond-encrusted dog toys and Belgian chocolates stuffed with French caviar. This is the age of sharing food stamps and "Good For One Hug" coupons. Yes, 'tis the season of spendthriftiness, but lucky for us there's still one gift that won't foreclose the house: books. So, in the spirit of giving, and giving cheaply, The Tyee's extended family has banded together to bail out your holiday shopping list. And don't worry, we're not recommending Dickens's Hard Times.

This gives us an opportunity to recommend this year's good titles that fell between the cracks, and also to revisit some of our favourite stories from Tyee Books. Somewhere on this list is the perfect book...

For those who want to know what's really on Iggy's mind:

Isaiah Berlin: a Life by Michael Ignatieff (Metropolitan). Newly-minted Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff is the first prime minister-in-waiting in recent Canadian memory who's able to write a real book. For those who want to know what's on Iggy's capacious mind, skip the speeches, scrums and press conferences and go directly to his 1998 biography of major 20th century British thinker Isaiah Berlin. It's a first-rate intellectual bio, but more than that, it's a portrait of liberalism close to writer-academic-turned-politician Ignatieff's own thinking. For those hungry for the public intellectual's private life, see Ignatieff's 1993 Booker Prize-nominated novel, Scar Tissue (Viking). This is a pol with a pen. (Stan Persky)

For your friend who's still high-fiving over the Obama paradigm shift:

The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience by Louis-Georges Tin, ed. Translated from the French by Marek Redburn. Although this year's presidential election felt like progress, don't forget California's Proposition 8 marked a major step back for gay and lesbian rights. But November 2008 also saw the publication of the first English translation of The Dictionary of Homophobia, compiled by French scholar Louis-Georges Tin. This comprehensive resource illuminates not only gay and lesbian experience, but also the psychology of homophobia as it manifests on individual and societal scales. Required reading across this continent. (Michael LaPointe)

For any guy unlikely to go forth and multiply:

Nobody's Father: Life Without Kids by Lynne Van Luven and Bruce Gillespie, Ed. (TouchWood Editions). This is not a book to give lightly to just any man who hasn't gotten around to breeding, adopting or otherwise finding someone to parent. True, with 23 essayists contributing their tales, most readers will find someone with whom to identify. Explanations range from too busy to too gay to "life didn't really work out that way." Some are happily childless, some sad, some resigned. "I don't see myself as father material," writes Aaron Shepard, simple as that. "I don't feel compelled to be a parent. It's neither my loss nor my gain. It's my identity." (Andrew MacLeod)

For the reluctant new mother in your life:

Mother Superior by Saleema Nawaz (Freehand Books). "Joan won't get an abortion. She says she is a slut but a slut for Jesus." So begins Saleema Nawaz's Mother Superior, a short story collection about young, disenfranchised women getting pregnant and ruining their lives, coming to terms with dead baby siblings, or fending off guilt for a daughter's permanent burn scar. Each tale is fascinating, strange, and page-turningly readable without actually making you want a little bundle of joy all that much. (J.C. Peters)

For your smart and saucy pre-teen niece:

The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Doubleday Canada). Flavia de Luce, the heroine of this murder mystery set in 1950s England, is a precocious 11-year-old girl with a passion for poisons. When a dead man turns up in the cabbage patch and her father is fingered for the crime, she briskly gets down to the business of finding the real killer. Flavia might be described as plucky (it seems many bold young women are) but the term doesn't do justice to a character with her macabre mind and sharp tongue. (Colleen Kimmett)

For the angsty young lady who is sick of reading and would way rather start a band:

Rock 'N' Roll Camp For Girls: How to Start a Band, Write Songs, Record an Album and Rock Out edited by Marisa Anderson (Chronicle Books). Do I ever wish someone had given me this book 10 years ago, before I began a lifelong streak of joining crappy Blink-182 cover bands with guys who wanted nothing more than to wank on the guitar. This is an honest, useful how-to for young ladies interested in making innovative rock music in the vein of Sleater-Kinney and old-school Riot Grrl, before it got all Teen Magazine and made everyone want to vomit. The book was sparked by an actual rock 'n' roll camp for girls in Portland, Oregon, and distills a lot of the important knowledge collected by the wise ladies of the underground rock scene. Entries from Mirah, Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney) and Beth Ditto (of The Gossip) expose everything from "how to set up a PA" to "how to sound like a vacuum cleaner." (Sarah Buchanan)

For that teacher in danger of forgetting why children matter:

Hope in Shadows by Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome (Arsenal Pulp Press, Pivot Legal Society). This book is not just about the Downtown Eastside, though its pages are alive with photographs and stories of its residents. More than anything, it's proof of the compassion, resistance and love that make us human. A powerful valentine to a heartbroken city, and the winner of the 2008 City of Vancouver Book Award, too. See our photo essay from Hope in Shadows. (Jackie Wong)

For your daughter thinking about teaching English in China:

Little Emperors by Joanne Dionne (Dundurn Books) offers a lively account of Guangzhou in the 1990s, as affluent, anxious Chinese parents pushed their kids to learn English right from the start of school. Dionne conveys the excitement and culture shock of a B.C. expatriate very well. (Crawford Killian)

For friends with expanding waistlines:

Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health by Gary Taubes (Anchor). What if it's all been a big fat lie? That's the question science journalist Gary Taubes asks about low-fat diets and other orthodoxies of the nutrition industry. Low-fat diets have been prescribed for decades now, but the only result has been an obesity epidemic. Rx: get off highly refined carbohydrates (bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and beer) and all sugars. Not only the best weight-loss strategy, but the most sensible prevention plan for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other diet-related ailments. Good Calories, Bad Calories isn't a diet book, a fad-of-the-month tome, or mystic self-help. It's a science book, perhaps the best book about dietary science yet written. (Stan Persky)

For your clueless collegiate:

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman (Wiley). This a big one. Bittman's style is careful but casual and less aggressively so than Jamie Oliver's. Attention has been paid to the design -- this isn't another ugly cookbook, nor does it distract with flashiness. No, here the drawings are simple and lovely and the reasons behind the method are explained plainly. Comprehensive, contemporary update on Fannie Farmer or The Joy of Cooking. Next time you dine at your nephew's or niece's, you may reap the rewards. (Dana Martin)

For anyone needing inspiration to blow the dust off their great-aunt's antique loom, now a bird's nest in the garage:

Sheila Hicks: Weaving as a Metaphor by Arthur C. Danto, Joan Simon and Nin Striztler-Levine, Ed. (Yale University Press). This book is gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. Feel the ripped edge of the pages, what do they call that? Who cares, it's like handmade -- the perfect pick for the lover of well crafted books and wool work. Weaver Sheila Hicks's small works are showcased in this 400-page testament to the stories textile work can tell. Each page features a close-up of a piece produced on a 13"x13" loom, where she did much of the experimentation that would inform her larger works. (Dana Martin)

For the curmudgeon who thinks Insite ought to be shut down:

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté (Knopf). Maté convincingly argues that addiction is not a problem that can be solved by police. Drawing on his daily medical practice in the DTES, research in hundreds of medical journals and his own musings on spirituality, Maté presents a holistic view of addiction that goes beyond junkies and jail time. Emphasizing compassion over punishment, this is the book Stephen Harper needs to read during his extended vacation. Tyee Books ran this interview with Gabor Maté. (David Ravensbergen)

For your know-it-all cousin with simplistic solutions for AIDS:

The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS by Elizabeth Pisani (W.W. Norton). Pisani is a former journalist who has had a second career as an infectious disease epidemiologist for the World Health Organization, the UN and the governments of China, Indonesia, East Timor and the Philippines. Despite long service in organizations that seem as dedicated to wiping out plain prose as they are to eliminating disease, Pisani delivers a book that is extremely readable, and challenging. No one will put this book down without rethinking some cherished illusions about the AIDS epidemic and international response. Tyee Books ran this interview with Elizabeth Pisani. (Tom Sandborn)

For the woman you need to start a successful business because you just got laid off:

The Boss of You: Everything A Woman Needs to Know to Start, Run and Maintain Her Own Business by Emira Mears and Lauren Bacon (Seal Press). Clear, comprehensive, smart and rooted in reality (the authors run a spiffy web-design firm in Vancouver), this is an essential how-to for female entrepreneurs. They will be the ones to save the economy, given that women start businesses these days at twice the rate men do. (David Beers)

For your uncle in Victoria who still misses Saskatchewan:

Chow, by Vancouver artist Janice Wong (Whitecap Books) is an evocative memoir of Prince Albert and her father's Chinese restaurant, The Lotus. A beautiful book with wonderful recipes. (Crawford Kilian)

For the Canadian history buff who thinks she knows everything:

Baychimo: Arctic Ghost Ship, by Anthony Dalton (Heritage House) tells the story of a Hudson's Bay trading ship that was trapped in the Arctic ice in 1931. The crew abandoned it, but the Baychimo didn't sink -- it drifted off and was spotted several times in the next 40 years. It may still be out there. (Crawford Kilian)

For your cousins in Kelowna who almost lost their home in 2004:

Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada, by Stephen J. Pyne (UBC Press). How fire has shaped Canada (and Canadians) for the last few thousand years. Pyne ranges between epic holocausts like the Miramichi in 1825, and the federal-provincial bureaucrats who fiddled while Canada burned. (Crawford Kilian)

For the military buff who thinks kamikazes were a Second World War idea:

Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada by James P. Delgado (Douglas & McIntyre). In the late 1200s, Khubilai Khan, the Mongol emperor, sent an armada of warships and troops to conquer Japan. The Japanese would have been doomed, but according to legend, a divine wind, or "kamikaze," swept in and devastated Khan's fleet. Delgado, a marine archaeologist, studied sunken ships, ancient scrolls, temple inscriptions and historical records to piece together the story of what really sank the great Mongolian armada -- and how the myths surrounding it affected 20th century warfare. (Colleen Kimmett)

For Martha Stewart-types bent on tabling an authentic 17th century feast:

The Order of Good Cheer by Bill Gaston (Anansi). It turns out Samuel de Champlain liked to throw a party. He believed good food, wine and entertainment could cure the scurvy rampant amongst his men in New France. Andy Winslow plans a party of his own -- a perfect re-creation of a Champlain bash, only four centuries later. There'll be moose nose for an appetizer, live sturgeon for the main course. Like Champlain, Andy believes in a good party. Such a feast might even cure the malaise of winter on the north coast of British Columbia, and the regularity of middle age. Here's an interview with Bill Gaston that ran in Tyee Books. (Ben Hart)

For the melancholy idealist, who refuses to believe that the economy is somehow more real than dreams:

The Teachings of Don B. by Donald Barthelme (Counterpoint Press). This collection of absurd dialogues, dream snippets and fables is the perfect nerve tonic for those sensitive souls who simply can't abide any more talk of recessions and depressions. Barthelme sees the melancholy of everyday life as cause to celebrate, and his lampoons of politics, consumer culture and the tyranny of banality remind us that life is a richer tapestry than the newspapers would have us believe. (David Ravensbergen)

For your activist roommate who already feels bad about where her coffee comes from:

Bitter Chocolate, by Carol Off (Vintage Canada). The host of As It Happens is a superb journalist, and this account of how cacao is grown and turned into money will induce guilt in the most hopeless chocoholic. (Crawford Kilian)

For your brother-in-law the diehard coalition supporter:

Intent for a Nation, by Michael Byers (D&M). The UBC professor and sometime NDP candidate for Parliament writes clearly and understands issues from Arctic sovereignty to our role in Afghanistan. The Tyee excerpted it here. (Crawford Kilian)

For your boyfriend who took you to Slumdog Millionaire, which you both loved:

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta (Vintage Books). A gorgeously written portrait of the author's home town, from the slums to Bollywood. (Freida Pinto not included.) (Crawford Kilian)

For the doomsaying uncle you never believed, but are starting to now:

Strategic Sustainable Planning: A Civil Defense Manual for Cultural Survival by Richard Balfour and Eileen McAdam Keenan (Old City Foundation Press). Taking very, very seriously the projected double whammy of peak oil and global warming, the authors apply their skills in planning and architecture to mapping out a survivable future for Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. That means radical changes to the way we build, grow food and get ourselves around. The book is at once inspiring and morbidly fascinating for its charts and maps and diagrams foretelling cataclysmic change -- and a self-reliant new way of life. Tyee Books ran this interview with author Richard Balfour. (David Beers)

For your pal on Wall Street, who is partly responsible for this mess:

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo (Scribner). It was one of DeLillo's most reviled creations. But looking back on this 2003 novel in the context of today's financial crisis reveals its eerie prescience. Taking place over the course of a single day as a billionaire Wall Street guru travels across New York City to get a haircut, this trim volume is dense with foreboding, and proves its thesis that "the flaw of human rationality" is that "it pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it builds." Both a witty document of turn-of-the-century decadence, and an unheard warning of its inevitable collapse. (Michael LaPointe)

For your girlfriend in real estate who thinks house prices just can't go any lower:

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman (HarperCollins) vividly describes how, if humanity suddenly vanished, our homes and high-rises would disappear under new forests. (Crawford Kilian)

For that insufferable aqua-nationalist:

Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America by Chris Wood (Raincoast). The Americans, argues Vancouver Island writer Chris Wood, aren't out to steal our precious watery fluids. Dry Spring, excerpted in Tyee Books this year, is a provocative and readable take on North America's water worries. (Tom Barrett)

For your geology-geek son planning to work in Jasper next summer:

Canadian Rockies Geology Road Tours, by Ben Gadd (Corax Press). Every road cut exposes some of the Rockies' history, and this guidebook offers 250 stops where the rocks themselves tell that history. (Crawford Kilian)

For your buddy who can never get across the border without a skin search and a five-hour delay:

The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11 by Edward Alden (Harper). Alden, who worked briefly for the Vancouver Sun in years gone by, has since gone on to run the Washington, D.C. bureau for the Financial Times of London and is currently with the Council on Foreign Relations. His deeply researched and elegantly written book presents an important slice of recent history and a compelling argument for an American border policy that is not driven by panic. The lessons for Canada are clear as well. (Tom Sandborn)

For your friend who handles snakes, and your enemy who can't:

Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist by Leslie Anthony (Greystone). Whistler, B.C. author Leslie Anthony recalls Gino the gardener running his lawnmower through a heap of young Anthony's backyard garter snakes: "Suddenly his overalls were splattered with blood and guts. Writhing bodies and tails were everywhere. Severed heads flicked tongues from disembodied mouths." Anthony also describes the anal-gland smell known as "snake pong... a perpetual hazard of the trade that ranges from mildly unpleasant to vomit inducing. Like many herpetologists, I developed a sick fondness for it." A trove of smart, stylish writing about linguistics, biology, geography, humanity and mythology -- as well as snake lovers with missing digits, hysterical gardeners and church ladies. (Charles Campbell)

For the wannabe Latin American in your life:

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (Picador). This novel by the Chilean-born Bolaño, who spent his youth in Mexico City and his latter years in Spain, where he died in 2003, won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, which is only like the biggest literary prize in the Spanish-speaking world. It covers Bolaño's beloved territory -- a car full of poets driving like mad through the Mexican desert on the trail of a mythical literary figure -- in typical Bolaño style: sharp, dry humour, references to both canons (English and Spanish) and a mix of bewilderment, absurdity and exhilaration. Read this guy now so you know what people are talking about when they say, "Next James Joyce, died so young." (Dana Martin)

For your hipster nephew in his Members-Only jacket and your niece with her cover-half-her-face eyeglasses and leg warmers:

The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci (Doubleday Canada). Set in the '80s amidst Chernobyl fallout and acid rain, Nino Ricci's new book, The Origin of Species is the story of a man looking for love. OK, so an original plot it's not. What's original is that to find love, he must first find meaning. Meaning in the post-God 1980s, however, is a little hard to come by, especially in the deconstructionist world of academia where he spends most of his time. While the man soon finds a universal order to life through Darwin's prism, meaning remains elusive. What that means for his love life is a mystery best left for those planning to read the book. A taste: "And yet, and yet. There it was in his breast, he could feel it battering away at his ribcage like a trapped bird, hope." (Geoff D'Auria)

For the aging science-fiction nerd who yearns to travel back in time to someone else's adolescence:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books). From a quick scan of the title, you know it's not going to end well for Oscar. But the sense of impending doom drives the text in a surprisingly hopeful direction, with Diaz's urgent prose leaping out of the page like a restless teenager loosed on the streets of New York. On top of a compelling portrait of American urban life, Diaz manages to capture a thick, meaty slice of the fear and mystery of the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic. The bizarre legends and curses of a Dominican family follow them to America, where they repeat an ancient cycle of love, political violence and generally getting in way over their heads. Oscar, a "sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd," is not the kind of guy you would expect to get tangled up in the family curse. But what kind of a book would it be if he didn't? (Sarah Buchanan)

For the rink rat poet who might rhyme "coincidental minors" with "shut up and play the game, you stupid whiners":

Nightwork: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs (Brick Books). Terry Sawchuk was one tough son of a bitch. The greatest hockey goalie who ever lived regularly dove head first across the crease to stop a puck with his teeth. He wore every one of his saves as a bump, a bruise or a scar on his face. If the game was hard on Terry, the world outside the rink was even harder. Nightwork is a poignant record of these injuries and, ultimately, an elegy for a complex and tragic man. (Ben Hart)

For a poet who is also a painter, or anyone else seeking inspiration:

What if Red Ran Out by Katia Grubisic (Goose Lane Editions). A juicy collection of poetry from the very young Ontario-Montrealer Katia Grubisic, What if Red Ran Out draws up images of home, birds, ships in a bottle and a wall "about to wrap its arms around itself in consolation," which is, of course, "well documented mural behaviour." These are poems of the present, photographic in their immediate, stunning imagery. Grubisic explores her obsession with colour and shape with her words beautifully, without ever edging into pretentiousness. By painting with words, Grubisic might encourage that poet/artist in your life into wording with paints. (J.C. Peters)

For those in your life who've given up on fiction because university and postmodernism sucked the joy out of it:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Vintage House). OK, so we're almost five years late on this one. But Cloud Atlas is stunning. Built like a Russian doll of short stories, it lets the reader assemble the narrative arc. And not in some obtuse academic way. This book is as fun as it is brilliant. Each story takes place at a different point in history. Each uses the storytelling style of that point in history. For example, the story set in the '80s feels like an episode of Miami Vice, while the story in the 1800s is told like an epistolary Victorian novel. Each captures the language of the time -- even the two stories that take place in the future. (Geoff D'Auria)

For the illustration and comics aficionado:

Kramers Ergot 7 edited by Sammy Harkham (Buenaventura Press). At nearly one and a half feet wide and two feet tall, Kramers Ergot 7 is a clear winner on specs alone. With a price to match ($125, or $78 US on Amazon), it's also a splurge. But comics haven't seen this kind of elbow room since Windsor McCay and George Harriman honed their art in the Sunday funny pages, and this anthology, compiled by cartoonist Sammy Harkham, has been defining the frontier of comics for almost a decade. (Reanna Alder)

For kids who want to be journalists:

Never Shoot a Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo by Mark Leiren-Young (Heritage House Publishing). Armchair lessons in real-world reporting tricks that Mark Leiren-Young learned the hard way. Before he was a Tyee columnist, a scriptwriter, a comedian... Leiren-Young was a green reporter at the Williams Lake Tribune, and these short stories recall the year (1986) he spent covering murders, robberies and sexual abuse trials, along with the hidden hazards of beauty pageants, in B.C.'s crime capital. He was a city boy, 22, from tree-hugging Vancouver, with an MFA in creative writing and theatre, working in a cowboy town -- what could possibly go wrong? (Shannon Rupp)

For the Malcolm Gladwell fan (because you know they've already read Outliers) and other idea junkies:

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow (Random House). Unless you've studied probability theory, your intuitive understanding of randomness and chance is wildly inaccurate. Doctors, lawyers, mathematicians and the OJ jurors have all proven they didn't get it. Once you get it, it changes everything. Don't be surprised if your giftee has Pascal's triangle tattooed on their ass the next time you see them. (Reanna Alder)

For your sweetheart to read while you make Christmas breakfast:

The Slow Fix by Ivan E. Coyote (Arsenal Pulp Press). A compelling collection of short stories told with the affectionate frankness of a best friend, The Slow Fix is a wry celebration of family, lovers and identity. Ivan E. Coyote takes readers by the arm to share the romance of girls who dig deep freezes, the joys of drip coffee and, importantly, the task of turning gender on its head. Sharp as ice. (Jackie Wong)  [Tyee]