Holiday Guide: Readings to Feed Your Wintertime Fears


“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.” So said America’s first poet, Anne Bradstreet, marking herself as a resident of Massachusetts rather than Miami. But even her relatively hopeful weather forecast implies that winter’s only useful as a reminder that things can really suck. Isn’t the holiday season itself little more than a failed attempt to gorge and drink our way out of seasonal affective disorder?

Fortunately books exist—at least for now—and reading remains a popular indoor activity, as well as one of the top strategies for avoiding family conflict and general Weltschmerz while creating the appearance of productivity. This year, as weather and current events conspire to keep you indoors—unless you go bankrupt and decide to occupy something and/or take to the streets to bring down a corrupt regime—winter is the time to indulge your fears.

Books that will scare you about the present

Dutch refugee and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali became a hero to Westerners by criticizing Islam, while MIT neuroscience grad Aafia Siddiqui’s family ties to Al-Qaeda got her an 86-year jail sentence and the admiration of jihadists. Hopefully Deborah Scroggins’s double-bio Wanted Women: Faith, Lies & the War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali & Aafia Siddiqui can make sense of their stories. But can Scroggins do it without deepening the divide? • Harper, January 17, 2012

Everyone hates PowerPoint; everyone uses PowerPoint. German journalist Franck Frommer describes how the dumbed-down application turns solid arguments into circus antics in How PowerPoint Makes You Stupid: The Faulty Causality, Sloppy Logic, Decontextualized Data, and Seductive Showmanship That Have Taken Over Our Thinking. If you still don’t understand, perhaps therewill be a presentation. • The New Press, February 28, 2012

Outside of the West, the stereotype of Western medicine is that it makes you sick. H. Gilbert Welch, Lisa Schwartz, and Steve Woloshin go one step further in their acclaimed Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health (now in paperback). They say that our unusually broad diagnoses make everyone a patient. Feeling queasy yet? • Beacon Press, January 18, 2011

In our objectivist society, empathy is the new socialism. Pathological Altruism, a collaboration among four scientists, shows us the horrific things that can go wrong when we put the needs of others first. Like suicide bombing. • Oxford University Press, December 9, 2011

Books that will scare you about the past

Himmler ran the Gestapo, and according to Peter Longerich’s detailed biography, Heinrich Himmler: A Life, he knew how to grow a business. The seemingly ordinary son of a schoolteacher became Hitler’s main man and realized Der Führer’s dreams—a/k/a the world’s nightmares. Longerich’s study of Himmler’s banal evil promises to bear the standard, for better or worse. • Oxford University Press, January 1, 2012

In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Italian-born bricklayer Giuseppe Zangara nearly assassinated new president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and did succeed in killing Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago). Roosevelt might also have weathered a reported overthrow plot by fascistic Wall Street businessmen. If you go for Obama-as-FDR conflations, Sally Denton’s The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Rightwill have you shivering. • Bloomsbury Press, January 3, 2012

For Apocalypse on the Set: Nine Disastrous Film Productions, film critic Ben Taylor begins with the story of a Korean actress and her director husband, kidnapped by Kim Jong Il and forced to make Pulgasari, an anticapitalist monster movie about a Godzilla-esque creature that binges on iron. The other eight terrifying shoots Taylor chronicles include more familiar filmmaking catastrophes such as Heaven’s Gate and Apocalypse Now. • Overlook Hardcover, February 2, 2012

Books that will scare you about the future

Of the crazies running for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney seems the least unstable. But these days, the more ridiculously you behave, the more media attention you get. We’ll have to read Boston Globe political reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman’s The Real Romneyto figure out if sanity will make the former Massachusetts governor stand out or fade out. • Harper, January 17, 2012

Cinephilia is dead, argues the Voice‘s J. Hoberman in his treatise Film After Film: (Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?). The world of Cahiers du Cinéma and American intellectuals arguing about Bergman and Tarkovsky has vanished into myth, technology has left celluloid behind, and 9/11 has fucked us up. Make more room for computer animation and torture porn! • Verso, February 1, 2012

In Ben Marcus’s new novel, The Flame Alphabet, Jewish kids from upstate New York start speaking a strange language that kills people. Publishers Weekly calls the scenario a “Kafkaesque nightmare.” They should hear the Italian kids from Jersey Shore. • Knopf, January 17, 2012

Global catastrophe is so next year. Maybe that’s why Ryan Boudinot’s novel Blueprints of the Afterlife one-ups the average doomsayer to ask: What happens after “post-apocalyptic”? Set in a weird far-future following a great war among armies with corporate brand names, this unsettling tale concerns genetic engineering, mind control, reality TV, and a talented dishwasher. • Grove Press, Black Cat, January 3, 2012

Books that will scare you into occupying something

Cambridge University economics scholar Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, now in paperback, organizes his iconoclastic ideas into neat parcels. “Thing 1: There is no such thing as a free market.” “Thing 21: Big government makes people more open to change.” Each is a bitch slap to a different conservative-received idea. • Bloomsbury Press, January 17, 2012

MSNBC politico Dylan Ratigan’s Greedy Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires from Sucking America Dry, with a title that sounds like a Michael Moore project and a cereal-box book jacket to match, actually promises a broad and sober look at failing systems in the U.S.: education, health care, politics—Ratigan’ll leave you wondering if anything isn’t failing. • Simon & Schuster, January 10, 2012

Books that might cheer you up

One seldom-acknowledged yet irritating by-product of the media’s focus on Republican idiocy has been the NEMO crisis—Not Enough Michelle Obama. Her poise, intelligence, class, and modesty have kept her underexposed despite the fact that people love the crap out of her. Still, New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor snagged a ginormous advance for The Obamas, which promises to reveal how the sexiest couple in American politics keeps their marriage together, and most importantly, will fight NEMO with AMMO—A lot More Michelle Obama. • Little, Brown and Company, January 10, 2012

Despite the segment’s occasional mawkishness, it’s hard to suppress a frisson when the guitar arpeggios of NPR’s StoryCorps theme song burgeon up. And because reading StoryCorps creator and oral history MacArthur genius Dave Isay’s All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorpsmight not pack the aural punch of all the weepy grannies of the radio version, the simultaneously released audiobook might prove more popular than the print edition. • Penguin Press HC, February 2, 2012

If Filipino-Americans need a Junot Díaz, they’re not likely to come closer than much-lauded author Lysley Tenorio, whose blackly humorous and exquisitely rendered stories, finally compiled in Monstress, depict transnational misadventures in touchingly absurd tones. In the title story, actress Reva Gogo reminisces about filmmaker Checkers Rosario, director of such films as Squid Children, and their fortune-seeking trip to L.A. • Ecco, January 31, 2012

Say what you will about starchitect Zaha Hadid, but few in her profession have made buildings as fashion-forward, intriguing, and drop-dead gorgeous. Ditto her hyper-futuristic interiors and furniture, the focus of Kathryn B. Hiesinger’s Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion. Will 60 pages be enough? • Yale University Press, December 27, 2011

Although butch and fem queens had served fierce realness since the drag balls of the 1920s, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, some serious glamazons blazed up from the underground to punish the mainstream: Jennie Livingston documented, Madonna co-opted, Willi Ninja profited. Chantal Regnault, legendary snapstress de Paris, captured the whole glittering moment before her flashbulbs to produce Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York, 1989-92. Her yeux photographique will make you bitches gag. • Soul Jazz Books, November 30, 2011