Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Practical Approaches

Nonfiction titles from 1997 to soothe, inspire, and invigorate.

By Virginia Heffernan

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Forget religion and gratitude and the meaning of life. The season's real question is: What are you going to get for your freaky friends and family? Ahead, the perfect books for imperfect people.

Problem: With his broad face and passion for happy hour, he's the Faneuil Hall Falstaff, unwinding at comedy clubs while his brain turns to margarita mix. Give him something to think about.

Solution: Show Falstaff that big guys need books too. Try Sebastian Junger's steroidal page-turner The Perfect Storm (W.W. Norton, $23.95). Told in the present tense, the story begins in the hard-drinking port town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and steams out onto the tumultuous high seas of the Atlantic, where an improbably violent storm swallows a swordfishing boat. The details of baiting a longline and running a weather station are Melvillesque: in seafaring, even the minutiae suggest existential struggles.

Problem: Lifelong Grad has found 17 years in graduate school a surprisingly enriching experience. Where else could she experience overdue fines, weird cliques, and warlocky mind game-playing professors? But books now seem like work; she needs something moving and immediate.

Solution: Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (Pantheon, $19.95) might first strike her as fruity, but she'll stash it away and read it in bed. What she'll savor is the academically heretical approach to books: de Botton suggests reading Proust in order to find analogies for your own life. According to de Botton, readers always look for themselves in a novel's characters. His book -- which includes a chapter called "How to Suffer Successfully" -- sets you free to enjoy the process.

Problem: You know O'verly Irish -- he's the guy with the claddagh ring who still rages about the days of "Irish Need Not Apply." Don't tell O' that those days were 100 years ago; let him have his heritage.

Solution: Michael Coffey and Terry Golway's The Irish in America (Hyperion, $40) includes contributions on stateside Irish life by Jason Robards, Frank McCourt, and Peggy Noonan, among many others. Essayists weigh in on the potato famine, early churches, machine politics, and Irish theater. The cumulative effect is to make you crave a more systematic cultural history. Still, the stories -- especially Noonan's, about domestic servants -- are unbeatable.

Problem: Fresh from the closet, Just Out finds drag queens a hoot. He also can't get enough of heavy gender theory, Club Café, and triceps extension units. Time to get Out grounded in his new sexual identity.

Solution: Try a gay biography with both sex and substance: Gary Schmidgall's Whitman: A Gay Life (E. P. Dutton, $32.95). Even self-singer Whitman was uncertain of the consequences of same-sex love, but he risked writing about it anyway (protecting himself with elegantly opaque phrasing). Schmidgall takes on gayness in the poet's life and work, and without stinting on sexy details -- the explicit Calamus poems, Whitman's love letters -- he provides an incisive account of how sexuality informs art.

Problem: She's got her ancient pugs and her strange meats from Savenor's. That's Beacon Hill Bananas. She's been a docent at the Gardner museum since it was built. Is James Michael Curley still the mayor? For Bananas, a gentle wake-up call.

Solution: The artsy octogenarian deserves art history in a new key: Robert Hughes's American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (Alfred A. Knopf, $65). In a supremely ambitious sweep, the maverick Aussie art critic treats three centuries of American art -- from the artifacts of Spanish invaders to the sculptures of Kiki Smith. American art, he argues, is much more than a response to Europe; it is a profound, prolonged, and (surprisingly) unified visual reaction to a new world.

Problem: Harvard Square Dissident's got teenage energy and a protesting spirit, so why is she spending it sitting at a T stop, matting her hair? What she needs: a vision of her future.

Solution: Pagan Kennedy's Living: The Handbook for Maturing Hipsters (St. Martin's Press, $14.95 paper). Local 'zinester Pagan Kennedy's got the goods on slackers, retro types, poets, and temps. This is a close-up and lighthearted look at life, love, and politics among convention-buckers. With her stories, comics, charts, and photo essays -- each one demonstrating the creative possibilities of living in disorder -- Kennedy makes you wonder why anyone would ever go straight.

Problem: Fidelity Fast-tracker is speed-promoted, ab-perfected, and fixated on her investment portfolio and her early-morning workout. She needs some perspective.

Solution: Hilton Als's awesome The Women (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21) contains profiles of complex female figures from gay consort Dorothy Dean to Als's own Bahamanian mother. These are not feel-good parables. In simple, tragicomic vignettes, Als brings out the women's dissatisfactions, mixed motives, and fierce longings. His scrutiny spares no one, not even himself. The result is an intricate and disturbingly honest portrait of femininity and ferocity.

Problem: With sweater sleeves pulled over his fingertips, a thermal overshirt, and a T-shirt over that, the Central Square Wanderer has sticky hair, a Central America fixation, and the night shift at Kinko's. It's been years since he tripped on Burroughs in college; what the Wanderer needs is new inspiration.

Solution: Susannah Clapp's With Chatwin (Alfred A. Knopf, $23) -- no question. One of the world's great nomad-artists, and not so familiar as the beats, Bruce Chatwin was driven by both wanderlust and regular lust. Both got him into trouble, which he wrote about in an evocative, changeable prose style. Clapp, who was Chatwin's first editor, has written a memoir that shows he was as eclectic in his life as he was in his work.

Problem: Sophomore year he sang in The Pajama Game; now he drones on and on about breathing exercises and "craft." When casting calls get discouraging, Junior Thespian needs ways to keep his spirits up.

Solution: David Mamet's True and False: Common Sense and Heresy for Actors (Pantheon, $20) is filled with injunctions both to keep the faith and to cultivate a simple, natural acting style. The book is hortatory and often grandiose, occasionally taking diction from Shakespeare (who says "bootless"?). Still, at a time when acting is too often made to seem mystifying, Mamet's message about not bogging down in psychodrama -- and trusting great plays -- is refreshing.

Problem: A former trust-funder from Milton, Mademoiselle le Monde took her semester in Paris very seriously. Now she's at Mistral, smoking Shermans and talking about sunglasses. What she needs: a way to invigorate the pose.

Solution: For an angle on decadence, try Wild Raspberries (Bulfinch Press, $19.95) -- a curious cookbook by Andy Warhol and Suzie Frankfurt. The manual contains Warhol-illustrated recipes for surreal tastes: Seared Roebuck, A&P Surprise, and Vine Leaf Marinade. For cooler cooks, one recipe advises calling Trader Vic's for a 40-pound suckling pig: "Have Hanley take the Carey Cadillac to the side entrance and receive the pig."

Virginia Heffernan plans to spend her holiday vacation freebasing figgy pudding.

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