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Read locally
Whatís new on the shelves from local independent presses

As IN any industry, be it books or hardware, music or meat, the independently owned and run operations compete against corporate dominators. Mom-and-pop shops with spindly legs and so much heart square up their shoulders and wedge their way on to a starting line in a race against muscle-bound industry behemoths. Right out of the starting gate, the little guys are at a disadvantage: as soon as a leg of the global corporation gets a little rubbery, as soon as one tier starts to lose its breath, it can call in another team. Sales gets tired, bring in marketing. Human resources feeling stiff, call in distribution. The independents have to run every lap themselves, leap every hurtle, and dig deep for every last sprint as they often lack the resources of the bigger names. Itís nearly impossible to keep up.

So the indies narrow their focus. Lacking the all-around athleticism of deep-pocketed big businesses, the smaller operations try to hold their own with a specialty. A local doughnut shop competes with the neighborhood Dunkiní Donuts by selling killer Boston creams and even better coffee. In the music arena, the Greater BostonĖbased Rounder Records, Rykodisc, and Fenway Recordings compete with Capitol and Columbia within their niches, be they clever indie rock, electronica, punk, or hip-hop.

Likewise with publishing houses. Brand-name businesses pump out brand-name products: the U2s of the world, the Madonnas and Coldplays, the Eminems and Britneys. Or the Rowlings, Updikes, and Franzens. Bite into the resulting music and books and they still taste sweet ó quality isnít necessarily sacrificed by a company with global reach. And yet, like eating an apple from an organic farm down the road, biting into a book or band that comes from a local label or publishing house can be so much more satisfying.

Below youíll find a seasonís worth of books from local independent publishers, with more than enough range, scope, selection, and subject matter to give reason to support the little guy.

Da Capo Press, in Cambridge, specializes in books on music with a forte in jazz, and also publishes works on American and world history, film, dance, theater, art, sports, and literature. Michael Flocker dials in to the latest label craze with his The Metrosexual Guide to Style: A Handbook for the Modern Man ($12.95). The metrosexual, according to Flocker, is a trendsetter with a heightened aesthetic sense who spends money on his appearance, goes shopping, and is willing to embrace his feminine side. Real men use moisturizer! The ideal male cares about his socks! Flocker taps into the desire to know what your style choices say about you ó historically the stuff of womenís magazines. A manís choice in cocktails, for example, speaks volumes: daiquiris are for figure skaters and decorators; screwdrivers are an uninspired choice for an uninspired guy; Scotch is " very George Clooney " ; and a gin and tonic is a sensible choice for the educated man. Flocker, whoís got cred in spades, having been on the scene in Berlin, New York, and LA, gives witty, playful tips and advice on fashion, music, and travel. The face of masculinity is changing, and The Metrosexual Guide will help established metrosexuals and Queer Eye candidates alike.

Da Capoís specialty is music, and although Francis Davisís The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People ($18.50) originally came out in 1995, itís worth noting that Da Capo recently released the paperback edition. Davis, the music critic for the Atlantic Monthly, traces the origins of the blues, examines luminaries like Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, rethinks the genre, and explores how perceptions of the music have been altered by race relations.

The blues were a precursor to music as we know it now. But where would music be without the radio? In Signor Marconiís Magic Box ($25), Gavin Weightman tells the story of Guglielmo Marconi, who, at the turn of the 20th century, became the father of radio. Weightman presents a portrait of the man ó certainly more metrosexual than mad scientist, always well-dressed and wooing women ó and the era in which he lived. Marconi strove to be the first among a whole slew of scientists and charlatans seeking to transmit signals through the ether. Weightman writes of patent dealings and business battles, as well as the technical information on how Marconi, starting with two wooden boxes transmitting signals across a crowded lecture hall, became the first man to send radio signals across the Atlantic.

In Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City ($27.95), published by MIT Press, William J. Mitchell picks up where Marconi left off, tracing the transformation of networks and the miniaturization of the means of transmittal. If the people who worked on Marconiís massive radio tower can be seen as human extensions of a machine, then today, Mitchell suggests, our palm-size appliances can be seen as mechanical appendages to our living bodies. The third of Mitchellís trilogy on the everyday effects of information technology, Me++ looks at how wireless linkage, portability, and all-over interconnection are shaping our bodies and cities, our space and time. This new world, Mitchell argues, requires us to reconstruct our surroundings and reimagine our boundaries.

MIT Pressís list focuses on ó surprise, surprise ó science and technology. But thatís not all the house publishes. According to the companyís Web site, it publishes " books that are challenging, creative, attractive, and affordable " on subjects such as architecture, social theory, and cognitive science. The press also publishes more than 40 journals, including the humanities-based Daedalus, with essays, fiction, and poetry, as well as more niche titles like the Journal of Industrial Ecology. " Committed to the edge of new frontiers, " the press recently published Dan Lloydís Radiant Cool: A Novel Theory of Consciousness ($24.95). When Miranda Sharpe finds her professor dead on his keyboard, sheís propelled into solving two mysteries: Professor Grueís death and the mystery of consciousness. A novel of ideas and a metaphysical thriller framed by a hard-edged mystery, Radiant Cool raises and explains a new theory of consciousness based on brain-imaging and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. And a lengthy afterward explains the proposed theory in a scholarly form.

Leave it to the academic presses to publish cerebral stuff, like Harvard University Pressís Early Tamil Epigraphy from the Earliest Times to the 6th Century A.D. ($75). Harvard Common Press, meanwhile, focuses on more domestic concerns, publishing books on the earth, hearth, and home, on gardening, child-bearing and -rearing, and cooking. Take, for example, Bill Hufnagleís Biker Billyís Hog Wild on a Harley Cookbook: 200 Fiercely Flavorful Recipes To Kick-Start Your Home Cooking from Harley Riders Across the USA ($19.95). Harley-Davidson turns 100 this year, and what better way to celebrate a centuryís worth of motorcycles than with a bunch of Hellís Angels in aprons. Hufnagle scoured the country for Harley ownersí favorite recipes, and the cookbook includes stick-to-your-ribs fare like Grandpaís Oil Can Stew, Johnís Prison Break Cake, and Black Leather Tostadas, to name a few.

Does the Harley make the man? Or is it his choice in cocktails? Cynthia Eller asks what makes a woman a woman in her conversational Am I a Woman? A Skepticís Guide to Gender ($24), from Beacon Press. Eller avoids academic feminism in favor of a matter-of-fact approach to masculinity, femininity, sex, and gender identity. Does woman-ness boil down to anatomy or to behavior? Is it socially constructed or biological? At the end of the day, Eller contends, it doesnít matter a whip what the answers are. Regardless of how gender is constructed, what matters is sexual equality and the social change necessary to achieve it. The arguments might not be new, but Ellerís candid approach gives her book a fresh flare. Am I a Woman? reflects Beacon Pressís commitment to books that " promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. " Beacon aims to change the way readers think about issues like freedom of speech, racism, the importance of art, and respect for the environment.

Respect ó nay, reverence ó for the environment is a trademark of Mary Oliverís poetry. And Beacon recently released the Pulitzer Prize winnerís 12th collection, Owls and Other Fantasies ($22), which includes 23 poems about birds, six of which have never before been collected, plus two essays. Hummingbirds are " tiny fireworks, " and of a crow, she writes, " I have never seen anything brighter. " In rendering the kingdom of the birds, Oliver teaches us, as she always does, how to exist in the moment and savor the details. In " The Dipper, " she writes: " the world is full of leaves and feathers,/and comfort, and instruction. I do not even remember/your name, great river,/but since that hour I have lived/simply/in the joy of the body as full and clear/as falling water. "

David R. Godine Publisher has a similar sense of clarity in its selections. Its list is " deliberately eclectic, " according to the companyís Web site, and like the quintessential independent publisher, it selects books that " wonít necessarily become bestsellers but deserve to be published. " Production is paramount at Godine, and thereís an elegance to its books. Walter Tracyís Letters of Credit: A View of Type Design ($19.95) is just the sort of finely realized tome that Godine celebrates. Itís a history of the artistry of letters, and an explanation of what makes type legible or unreadable, complete with extensive illustrations. Tracy, who spent 30 years as the British Linotype Companyís head of type design, surveys the history of typesetting and the revolution in the last 20 years thatís overthrown a 500-year-old system. The computer is changing the way letters look, argues Tracy, and not necessarily for the better. Letterforms, like so much in the computerized information age, come quick and easy. And lack of professional, critical scrutiny of the aesthetics is leading to the decline of distinguished typeface.

Also from Godine comes Jane Rawlingsís The Penelopeia ($30), in which Rawlings retells Homerís Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseusí dutiful wife, Penelope. Instead of the wily Odysseusí adventures, Rawlings imagines what Homer left out; her Penelope lives up to what Homer set up ó a resolute, devoted, and crafty woman who outsmarts countless suitors and raises a son on her own ó and then surpasses that. Unbeknownst to Odysseus (and all of Western civilization until now), Penelope gave birth to twin girls not long after Odysseus sailed off on the wine-dark sea to fight the Trojan War. The Penelopeia presents the next episodes of The Odyssey, with the adventures of two prodigiously gifted girls and one heroic woman. Told in unrhyming verse, Rawlingsís story achieves a difficult balance. The Penelopeia brings a modern voice to The Odyssey while remaining faithful to Homerís rhythms and themes, and resists being an arch-feminist retelling while capturing the strength and tenacity of a potent female force.

How To Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man ($17.95), by L. Rust Hills, long-time fiction editor at Esquire, is Godineís answer to Da Capoís metrosexual. Godine has compiled what was formerly three books, How To Do Things Right, How To Be Good, and How To Retire at 41, into one volume of witty, self-effacing hilarity. Hills aims to help us create order from chaos, to hone an identity thatís organized and upright. From lofty goals like how to develop principles when you have none, to more simple tasks like how to eat an ice cream, Hills justifies fussiness in all its forms. Take, for example, his explanation of how to refold a map: " This is quintessentially something that must be done right, " he writes, " or ítis better never to have done it at all.... When the right time comes ó usually when the journeyís almost over, when youíre all nearly there ó then pull over into a roadside rest area, one that has picnic tables. Take the accumulated unrefolded road maps from the car and spread them carefully on the picnic table. Study each map carefully to determine the folding intentions of the original manufacturer, " and so on.

While Hills preaches the gospel of doing things right, poets Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer deliver Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty ($10), a CD of their collaborative poetry released by Verse Press. Rohrer and Beckman, both award-winning poets, build poems together, one word at a time, tossing words back and forth. In 2002, Verse published Nice Hat, Thanks ($10), a compilation of some of the highlights of their collaborations. On tour to promote Nice Hat, Beckman and Rohrer asked audiences around the country to suggest topics, which the duo used to improvise poems on the spot. They recorded the tour, and then compressed 40 hours of material into a 55-minute CD of the best work. The result is humorous, playful, and lyrical. They toy with words and the nature of poetry itself in the finest, most exciting way possible. A bestseller? No. Will you see the CD on any sort of top-40 list? Doubtful. But itís testament to the risk-taking, on-the-verge publishing that only the indies can pull off.

Nina MacLaughlin can be reached at nmaclaughlin[a]

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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