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BOOKING AGENT 

Your guide to the latest in winter reading

Books can get you through the winter like nothing else. They can take you places. They can show you things. They can meet your gift-giving needs.

These days, when computers and cost-cutting have newspapers running with smaller staffs, it's difficult to imagine an era in which a reporter could pick up a phone, dial the newsroom and blurt out the title of John H. Tidyman's Gimme Rewrite, Sweetheart ... (Gray and Co.). It's a collection of accounts from reporters that portrays an era of wild public discussion, when Cleveland had three daily papers competing for news. Some of the names are still working writers (like former PD reporter and editor, and current Scene contributor, Mike Roberts), while others have been out of the business for years. In conversational style, and with the storytelling sensibility you'd expect from reporters, the likes of Fred McGunagle, Jim Strang, Bob Dolgan, Brent Larkin and many others tell what it was like: the breaking stories, the deadlines, the dead bodies, the martinis. It's a great portrait that, even if you didn't live through that age, will make you miss it.

"As a young child, I had Santa and Jesus all mixed up. I could identify Coke or Pepsi with just one sip, but I could not tell you for sure why they strapped Santa to a cross. Had he missed a house? Had a good little girl somewhere in the world not received the doll he'd promised her, making the father angry?" That's Augusten Burroughs (author of Running with Scissors and more recently A Wolf at the Table) in his most recent memoir You Better Not Cry (St. Martin's Press). Here he tells his own holiday stories, from gingerbread construction projects to waking up next to a horny old Santa. Burroughs is a storyteller who seems to love the holidays too much to ignore the jumble of mixed messages that conspire to create the true meaning of Christmas, whatever that may be.

Cleveland's most horrifying disasters aren't related football or politics. Cleveland's Greatest Disasters (Gray and Co.) compiles the best of John Stark Bellamy's several books on the North Coast's historic disasters. Typically they have to do with major construction projects like when Patrick Toolis, age 29, and Patrick Cleary, age 27, were digging 103 feet beneath downtown, where the concrete pilings to support Terminal Tower would be poured. As they dug, cement was poured into an adjacent column. But the walls caved in and buried the two men alive. Bellamy sets the disasters in context and doesn't skimp on details as he tells of this and 15 other catastrophes — from natural-gas explosions, collapsing tunnels under Lake Erie, school fires, bridge collapses and even an explosion in a fireworks factory.

Todd Gray's Michael Jackson Before he Was King (Chronicle Books) offers what most people said they were looking for after the King of Pop died: memories of the performer, before everything he did was steeped in controversy and weirdness. The emphasis here is after his childhood stardom, the years when he was defining himself as a solo artist and, with the release of Off the Wall, reaching the peak of his creative powers. Gray documents the performer as a young man who still had his own nose, his natural skin color, and wore jeans and a T-shirt now and then — when it was still possible to catch him in casual moments.

We know pop stars lives' are often steeped in sex, drugs and all manner of debauchery. The same goes in spades for great composers. In Secret Lives of Great Composers (Quirk), Elizabeth Lunday has put together a readable compendium of the juicy bits, from the red-haired priest Antonio Vivaldi, who was choir master at an orphanage for the daughters of the Venetian aristocracy and scandalously took up with at least one, to Giacomo Puccini, a man who stole pipes from his church organ and sold them for scrap to buy cigarettes. If you love classical music but you've had it with the lofty tone, this is the book for you.

Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon's Che: A Graphic Biography (Hill and Wang) is not just a biography of a controversial, charismatic figure whose determined gaze has been immortalized on T-shirts, but a history of the tensions between communism and capitalism through the mid-20th century. Jacobson and Colon begin with the handsome young doctor touring South America on a motorcycle and follow him to the Cuban revolution and beyond. As large as Ernesto "Che" Guevara looms in popular culture, it is remarkable to learn how few people were following him as he pursued his dream of a South America united against capitalist oppression.

You could give your friends any old 2010 calendar or diary, or you could show your cultural savvy and honor the giftee's by giving 2010 Granta Writers' Diary (Grove). Tastefully hardbound in dusty grey cloth, with a binding made to lie flat, it marks each week with excerpts and information from writers who have graced the pages of the great literary and cultural magazine — like Raymond Carver, who appears in the first week of June, the week in 1977 he gave up drinking. There are also monthly color postcards featuring art that appeared in the magazine.

Anyone who has experimented with mind-altering substances has probably learned that mind alteration is not dependent on snorting, smoking, drinking or injecting something illegal. There are plenty of ways to make your body get weird without ingesting anything illegal, and in some cases, anything at all. Author James Nestor has cataloged "more than 175" of these in Get High Now (Chronicle), which is subtitled in fine print "without drugs." You'll learn about hypnagogic induction, kundalini transcendent chanting, nutmeg (which the book warns against) and eating live ants (which the book does not warn against).

With help from Katherine Ketcham, Chris O'Dell has penned a behind-the-scenes memoir for the rock and pop age. Miss O'Dell (Touchstone) begins in 1968, when the author — a girl from Arizona who had come to Hollywood to find herself — takes a phone call from a friend and reluctantly pulls herself away from her sofa to meet him and Beatles publicist Derek Taylor. Then, stepping through doors as they opened for her, she becomes close with the Beatles, the Stones and a bunch of other stars. She uses first names and a diarist's style to narrate touring debauchery in that age of excess. Nearly 400 pages of star-studded truth-telling and name-dropping are rife with orgies on airplanes, destruction of hotel rooms, egos, tempers, fights and every kind of drug use. There's a great payoff in the afterword, a listing of people in the story who have since died and a more extensive listing of where the others are now.

mgill@clevescene.com

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