This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

December 9, 2001 — Perhaps you are one of those people who finds themselves so overcome with the joyous holiday gift–giving spirit that at some point amidst the joyousness of it all you turn to your loved ones and say joyously, "Look, how about if I just give each of you a big wad of cash this year?"

      You sloth. Go to the bookstore. In one stop, you can take care of your entire shopping list. And I guarantee you there's a book to suit your weirdest family member or friend.

      For example, say you've got a friend who's a writing nerd or a literary snob or some other derivative of a geeky English major. I recommend "Insulting English" by Peter Novobatzky and Ammon Shea (St. Martin's, $17.95). It's a dictionary of things you can call people that are really insulting but that make you sound like a person of refined intellect. I used it the other day, for example, to tell my landlord he was looking simply infandous (odious). Unless your friend is rectopathic and you think giving them a book so petulcit would make you look like a snollygoster, this is the one to get.

      Or what about that business wonk in your life? Maybe you were thinking "Jack: From the Gut," the book for which former G.E. head Jack Welch was famously paid a gazillion dollars but which, according to unanimous reports, is a turkey. Try, instead, "Every Mistake in the Book" by F.J. Lennon (HarperCollins, $23), which the publisher calls "A Business How–Not–To" book. It's an often hysterical guide to starting and running a business by a guy who had his ups and downs as an entrepreneur — but kept a journal! If Jack Welch had read this book, he might not have had all those problems toward the end at G.E. . . .

      Got a history lover on your list? "Silent Night" by Stanley Weintraub (Free Press, $25) tells one of history's strangest and most haunting tales: in Flanders on Christmas Eve, 1914, in the midst of the first, incredibly bloody stages of World War I, soldiers on both sides of the line spontaneously defied orders, put down their guns and crawled out of their trenches to drink together, sing carols, put up Christmas trees, share food and play soccer.

      Or maybe you've got an art fiend to take care of. Try "Becoming Mona Lisa" by Donald Sassoon (Harcourt, $30), which traces how Leonardo da Vinci's painting became so famous it's now an icon (remember when Monica Lewinsky appeared as Mona on the cover of The New Yorker?)

      Music nut? Consider "Temperament" by Stuart Isacoff (Knopf, $23). It's about the greatest breakthrough in musical history — when, in the eighteenth century, a musical scale was developed wherein the notes where pitched equidistant from each other. Before that, various instruments played various scales on various days. It was a mess, and this is a fascinating book.

      Movie maniac? How about a book that looks at American films made somewhere other than Los Angeles? Can you do that? Yes, and "Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies" by James Sanders (Knopf, $45) does it well. It's an inventive history that includes some interesting criticism with great photos of everything from "42nd Street" to "Breakfast at Tiffany's" to "Do the Right Thing" and on.

      Got a kid to take care of? You're no doubt thinking Harry Potter, or some merchandising derivative thereof. But why not dare to be different — think classic. One of my favorite books of the year was a reissue of the 1842 "Jack the Giant Killer" by Richard Doyle, from the Everyman's Library Children's Classic series ($14). In Doyle's hands, it's a wonderful adventure tale, lavishly illustrated in full–color.

      Finally, for that ultimate weirdo on your list — the one who just likes to read a good novel — try another Everyman's Library classic, adult version: "Zeno's Conscience" by Italo Svevo ($20). This is the first new translation in 70 years of this little–known novel that was discovered by James Joyce while on a trip to Italy. One of the first novels about psychotherapy, it's a hilarious tale about a man trying to beat his vices, starting with one last cigarette.

      And that's merely the tip of the iceberg. The trick is to skip the big display of books just inside the door of the superstore (i.e., the books the store wants you to buy because they've got another hundred thousand copies in the back). Keep going into the heart of the place, and you'll find a lot of odd and unusual books that will never be in those displays, but that are much more interesting than most of the books that are.

b> Last Week’s Column: THE SHORT FICTION SCENE Faulkner called novels a place where "You can put a lot of trash." But in short stories, he said, "almost every word has got to be exactly right." So what are some good examples from the current crop of story collections?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.