If you’re looking for a somewhat off-the-wall gift for that special somewhat off-the-wall person on your holiday list this season, Contemporary Krampus may be exactly what you’re looking for. Curated by Mike Drake, this volume offers a wide range of contemporary depictions of Krampus, the “Christmas Devil.” Along with paintings and drawings that range from charming to creepy, Contemporary Krampus also includes brief bios of the artists who produced the works. While the typesetting is a little odd (with text running almost to the edge of the page) and the bios are somewhat uneven (reading like they’ve been taken directly from the artists’ webpages without any editing), the art is what makes this volume particularly enjoyable. With that in mind, here are a few samples…
In Christmas Before Christianity, Lochlainn Seabrook presents a thoroughly researched examination of the “ingredients” that have, over centuries and millennia, contributed to our contemporary understanding of what many, right or wrong, consider the holiest day of the year. Early on, Seabrook discusses the paucity of historical evidence surrounding the figure of Jesus in order to subsequently demonstrate the ways in which the relative blank slate of his biography allowed early Christians to incorporate a myriad of other belief systems into what eventually came to be accepted as canon. Chief among these other systems, as the book’s subtitle suggests, was a firm belief that the sun was the center of all life. Indeed, the author points out that, in his words, “Jesus’ birth on December 25 specifically was not mentioned by any writer, scholar, or historian” during the time in which Jesus lived; what’s more, the date traditionally associated with the birth of Christ was not established until the year 534, “not because Jesus was born on that date, but rather because the Christian masses overwhelmingly identified Jesus with the Pagan Roman sun-god Mithras, as well as with other pre-Christian solar deities, all whose birthdays fell on December 25.” In addition to investigating the ways in which pre-Christian mythology fed into the story of the birth of Christ, Seabrook also examines the origins of the season’s accoutrements including the Christmas tree (a pagan fertility symbol originating in Egypt), the tale of the three wise men (an allusion to ancient astrology and the three stars that comprise Orion’s belt), and Santa Claus (an amalgam of Odin, Thor, and various maritime deities). Other topics Seabrook explores include the evolution of Christmas cards, plum pudding, Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, holly, and pantomime from their ancient forms to the ways in which we employ and enjoy them today. Altogether, a fascinating and meticulously detailed read for anyone curious about the origins of Christmas — or, for that matter, about the ways in which myths and legends evolve over time.
Once again, the holidays are upon us, and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably faced with the conundrum of knowing loads of avid readers but not knowing what to give them because, to put it bluntly, they’ve already read everything. But fear not! Small and independent presses have plenty of great books to offer, and chances are good that the readers in your life haven’t yet stumbled upon these undiscovered gems. What follows is a list of my favorite small presses, broken down by their specialties and genres. Peruse their catalogs… You’re bound to find something for everyone on your holiday gift list!
Novels: Followers of this blog know that I’ve reviewed and loved many titles from The Permanent Press — and with good reason. From mainstream to mystery, they have it all. Specifically, books like The Chester Chronicles and Elysiana offer compelling and nostalgic takes on the 1960s, and To Account for Murder is a noirish page-turner set in the 1940s. Though not a novel, Doris Buffett’s memoir, Giving it All Away, offers much insight into what drives Warren Buffett’s sister to, as the title suggests, give so much of her fortune away to those in need.
Short Stories: Featherproof Books just showed up on my radar, and I’m blown away by the care they put not only into selecting the titles they publish, but also in designing their books. Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a heck of a mind-bender, and Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature has to be seen to be believed.
Poetry: For the poetry lover on your list, you can’t go wrong with Write Bloody Books. Write Bloody specializes in poetry collections from touring poets — so, to paraphrase the theme from The Monkees, you better get ready (if you turn your friends on to any of WB’s poets), they may be coming to your town! I recommend Jeanann Verlee’s Racing Hummingbirds and Robbie Q. Telfer’s Spiking the Sucker Punch.
Graphic Novels: Another recent discovery of mine, Conundrum Press is nothing short of awesome. Line Gamache’s Poof! offers a madcap rumination on the relationship between the artist and her muse, and fans of CBC Radio’s Wiretap (with Jonathan Goldstein) will revel in Howie Action Comics by souvlaki aficionado and longtime Wiretap regular Howard Chackowicz. Speaking from experience, I can say that there’s nothing cooler to a comic book geek than “discovering” a new artist, so definitely give Conundrum a look if you have representatives from this species on your list.
Of course, this list of presses is far from comprehensive, but who knows? If you give a couple of these independent publishers a chance, you might end up a fan for life — and the readers in your life will marvel at your good taste!