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Weekly Alibi Give the Gift of Pulp

Five quick gifts from the used book store.

By Blake de Pastino

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  Forgive me for assuming that you are a lot like me. That you love books indiscreetly. That you are barely on the friendly side of poor. And that you are such a chunky-blooded procrastinator that there are still several names left unstruck on your holiday shopping list. If you are not like me in these ways, then be glad. But if you are, allow me to make a gift-giving suggestion: used books. Though maybe not the best gift--especially for those who try to hang your affection with a price tag--used books are inexpensive, plentiful and way more absorbing than the slapdash best sellers that publishers like to ply us with this time of year. So here's some recommended reading that you're sure to find in any paperback store. Just be sure to actually give the books you buy and not save them for yourself. I do that all the time.

Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria
by Sigmund Freud (Collier, paper, $5.95)

If you have a lot of artist and writer friends like I do, you've probably got tons of reasons to give this book. Aesthetes just love Freud, you see--whether they admit it or not--because he makes for such good material. And there's no better place for Freudian fodder than Dora, the Viennese genius' first case study, about an 18-year-old patient afflicted with "nervous trauma." Even though Freud was not much of a writer, reading this book is a lot like watching an episode of "Columbo"--seeing him dodder through the clues, looking on as he interrogates his subject, meeting the cast of characters. In themselves, the figures in Dora's pyschosexual tableau could make their own prime-time drama: Dora's compulsive mother, her adulterous father, her father's voluptuous mistress and, finally, the mistress's husband, who's after Dora like a fly after shit. It's all very torrid and, actually, rather sad. But Freud supplies plenty of comic relief. He's so clearly excited (in multiple senses of the word) with Dora's "perversions" that his monologue is sure to give any intellectual you know a thoughtful guffaw. It also makes for great cocktail party talk. In case you don't want to bother reading it yourself, I'll tell you now: The answer to the mystery is Dora was bisexual.

by Jay McInerney (Vintage, paper, $5.95)

This is the book that everybody bought and nobody liked, so it's a cinch to find in your local used book store. As the follow-up to McInerney's flamboyant debut Bright Lights, Big City, this novel was a complete let-down, because it actually provoked thought and even went so far as to feature characters who were--get this--self-aware. But alas, it was the '80s, and such a project was doomed to fail. In so many words, it's the story of Christopher Ransom, an American expatriate living in Japan in 1977, spending his days teaching English, his nights skulking the streets of Kyoto and the rest of his time immersed in the rigors of karate, trying to exorcise the memories of his violent past. It's chock full of Japanese sex kittens, sick bastards and Vietnam vets who never found their way home, all of whom are much more lifelike than the mannequins that populated his first book. All things being equal, Ransom is better than Bright Lights, Big City roughly to the extent that Jordan is a better DJ than Putney. People disliked it so much, though, it's no wonder McInerney went back to writing crap.

New Mexico
by Marc Simmons (UNM Press, paper, $10.95)

History is hideous--especially in New Mexico--but that's no reason to let it spoil your holiday. New Mexico by UNM prof Marc Simmons is probably the closest thing we've seen to a best-selling history book around here, and if you read it, you'll understand why. On one hand, Simmons' "interpretive history" offers just about every anecdote and detail from our state's past that you can ask for, from the first colonization to the granting of statehood. But it's also pretty steep on multicultural myth--especially the idea that New Mexico is some heavenly melting pot where Anglos and Mexicans and Indians have all pitched in to create a culture that's just right for jewelry and tourism. Simmons doesn't exactly pull punches when it comes to the conflicts that our region has seen, but he does manage to make them all seem somehow incidental, which gives his narrative a groovy, feel-good vibe. It's the perfect gift for those out-of-town relatives who don't really need to know the truth.

by Michel de Montaigne (Penguin, paper, $4.95)

Here's a stocking-stuffer that's ideal for dads, especially dads who feel they should appear more dad-like. Michel de Montaigne was a 16th century French aristocrat who was a legend in his own mind. He was among the first to ever publish essays--he actually coined the term essai--but today his work is known only among Francophiles and undergrads. The thing about Montaigne, though, is that he's really a 400-year-old hoot. In one essay after another, he tells you about his kidneys, his world-view, his bathroom habits, his thoughts on cannibalism, all in an effort to appear before the reader "in my simple, natural and everyday dress." Because it's so French and sophisticated sounding, it's the perfect thing for dad to read in the TWA Ambassadors lounge; he can look erudite as hell, when really he's laughing his ass off at Michel's droll wit. The essay "On the Affections of Fathers for Their Children" is a particularly appropriate passage. But dad will probably get a bigger kick out of "On Smells."

Mrs. Dalloway
by Virginia Woolf (HBJ, paper, $5.95)

Once again, because this was one of the author's least successful ventures, you should have no trouble finding it in a paperback shop on Christmas Eve. Mrs. Dalloway was Virginia Woolf's response to James Joyce's Ulysses. She was so horrified, it seems, with his outhouse humor and loosey-goosey language that she took it upon herself to write her own mini-epic, the story of one June day in the life of the matronly Clarissa Dalloway. So here we get a 300-page tour of one wealthy housewife's surroundings--all errands and callers and internal monologues--but this upper-class slice of life is certainly not without its own profundity. There's a trenchant sense of drama behind even the most mundane things, and one scene, in which Clarissa and a crowd of on-lookers try to decipher the words of a skywriter, is among the most poignant episodes in modern literature. In case you haven't solved the mystery yet, by the way, I'll tell you now: Virginia was bisexual.

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