Christmas Books: Is it just me or are these books good?

This year, Britain's publishers have come up with a vintage crop of best-selling stocking-fillers, full of wit, wisdom and whimsy, says Literary Editor Boyd Tonkin. Here are his ten favourites
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When the round-ups of the year's departed greats appear, his passing will hardly compete with those of Ronnie Barker or George Best. Yet for anyone who cares about the health and sanity of British culture, the death in June of the veteran satririst, offbeat scholar and one-man awkward squad William Donaldson left an aching void. After producing Beyond the Fringe, Donaldson became (among his other, dodgier pursuits) the master of the smart and outrageous stocking-filler book. He created the importunate wet-fish merchant Henry Root ("Here's a pound!"), pioneered the Naff Guides and, ultimately, completed his extraordinary magnum opus on British rogues, villains and eccentrics. Craig Brown - no mean virtuoso of the genre himself - called Donaldson "the Shakespeare of the toilet book".

If so, Donaldson's valedictory Tempest takes the form of the gloriously offensive Dictionary of National Celebrity, co-written with Hermione Eyre of the Independent on Sunday and published a few weeks ago. Inevitably, it sets a benchmark of wit, pertinence and sheer savagery that few of this year's stocking-fillers meet. Yet 2005 has seen a reasonably rich harvest of the sort of slim, snippet-filled, browsable hardback that will migrate in due course from the post-Christmas-lunch living-room into the smallest room.

There's an art to the form, which consists in striking the right balance between comedy, pedantry and eccentricity. The best stocking-fillers also have something in common with the medieval Christmas tradition of the Lords of Misrule, that time of topsy-turveydom when pigs might be dressed up as bishops while feudal lords waited on serfs. So minor matters swell to heroic size (as in Lynne Truss's punctuation polemic Eats, Shoots & Leaves) while the powerful are laid low by ribaldry and mockery - both people (as in The Dictionary of National Celebrity) and ideas or things. One title that just missed my selection, but still comes highly recommended, is David Bader's One Hundred Great Books in Haiku (Penguin). His capsule version of Dante's Inferno may remind you of the Christmas TV schedules that drive so many readers to stocking-filler volumes in the first place:

"Abandon all hope!

Looks like everyone's down here.

Omigod - the Pope!"

Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?

Steve Lowe & Alan McArthur


This year's big bad-tempered holiday hit, hailed in the The Independent on 4 November but only discovered by the more sluggish media several weeks later. Essentially a grumpy-old-men's A-Z for the disgruntled ageing rebel, it's mordantly funny but let down by a juvenile taste for expletives. Despite a few smokescreen targets on the left (Benjamin Zephaniah, Bono), this works best as a not-so-little book of crap capitalism, raining down scorn on Ikea, Tesco and the Daily Mail, Philip Green, Donald Rumsfeld and "the Rich". Generally sound, though some gent will have to call out Lowe and McArthur for their insults to the divine Sofia Coppola.

Give it to: Middle-aged ex-punks and anyone who misses John Peel.

The Dictionary of National Celebrity

Hermione Eyre & William Donaldson


A raucous, fearless swansong from the late satirist Willie Donaldson, writing here with the IoS's Hermione Eyre. These fabulously rude and funny thumbnail sketches of the rich and infamous hit their mark nearly every time, from Dido ("name like a Medici contessa, face like a bowl of custard") and Lisa Stansfield ("like being run over by a fudge juggernaut") to Stephen Fry ("the stupid person's idea of a clever person"). Consistently brilliant, despite the delusion that Ben Elton is the son of historian G R Elton. This should really become an updated annual event, like Who's Who but with more laughs - and much more honesty.

Give it to: Refugees from the media tsunami of celebrity trash.

Schott's Almanac 2006

Ben Schott


Follow-up to the million-selling Schott Miscellanies, this funkier new rival to the venerable Whitaker's and Pears aims to mix a serious annual digest of data and events with off-the-wall excursions into trivia and celebrity. So you'll find reality-show winners and Michelin-starred eateries as well as athletics world records and the Beaufort Wind Scale here. Great fun to browse, as the shifts between hard and soft items mean that (for example) details of house prices and interest rates segue straight into the new properties on the Monopoly board (Canary Wharf supplants Park Lane!). But seekers after pure, hard fact may find these variety-show lurches a bit hard to swallow.

Give it to: Pub-quiz fanatics who furtively read Heat

Dead Pets

Sam Leith


A visiting Martian might conclude that the dominant faith of the British is the worship of domestic animals. Every religion needs its burp-in-church heretics, and Sam Leith fulfils this role with mischievous aplomb.He tells you more than you may wish to know about the taxidermist's options for Fido and Tiddles, not to mention delicious recipes for those passed-on furry bundles of love. You may treat it as a scathing critique of sentimental anthropomorphism at the season when we wolf down millions of hapless factory-farmed birdoids. Or simply as the bad-taste triumph of the year.

Give it to: Teenage Goths and would-be members of the Addams Family.

Jane Austen's Guide to Dating

Lauren Henderson


Or, how a sassy British author stranded in the New York dating jungle survived thanks to the nous and wit of a 230-year-old Hampshire spinster. Both a clever critique of The Rules-type lists and formulas and a spirited tribute to the greatness of Miss A, Henderson's brisk and witty companion shows how the post-modern young lady can cultivate both sense and sensibility while shunning pride and prejudice. Whether or not it does the business down in the romantic arena, it's perfectly reliable as Lit Crit and makes you long for new Austen movies starring Sarah Jessica, Kim et al.

Give it to: Smart girls-about-town who make their own Rules

Does Anything Eat Wasps?

Edited by Mick O'Hare

PROFILE, £7.99

An irresistible anthology of scientific "fancy-that" snippets culled from the "Last Word" column in New Scientist magazine. You may never have wanted to ask these 101 questions, but you'll be pleased someone did. Yes, all sorts of creatures eat wasps, but how fat would you need to be to become effectively bulletproof? And if you're a cat who plans to fall out of a window, which storey should you choose to optimise survival chances? (Much higher than you'd think.) Curiously enough, this little treasury works both as a parody of scientific investigation and a vindication of it.

Give it to: Aspirant Nobel laureates and know-alls of any age.

1966 And All That

Craig Brown


Just 75 years after Sellar and Yeatman published 1066 and All That, today's master-parodist takes up the baton with a spoof British history of the past 80 years, from the Bloomsbury Grope to Cruel Britannia, Neville Chambermaid to Sir Geoffrey Who? Brown's well of excruciating gags and puns never runs dry, but fans will relish the odd flick of satire amid the silliness. After the 1966 World Cup Final, "the English were magnanimous in victory, rounding up the West German losers and placing them in detention centres after giving them a fair trial". Pays due attention to cultural highlights, from the scandal of Last Mango in Paris to the contenders for the Turnip Prize.

Give it to: Teachers, students and HIGNFY viewers.

Talk To The Hand

Lynne Truss

PROFILE, £9.99

The long-awaited sequel to Eats, Shoots & Leaves from the princess of punctiliousness. News of this book's gestation triggered an avalanche of rival guides to modern manners. Yet, at heart, Truss isn't so much bothered with (say) details of mobile-phone behaviour as the generalised "sheer bloody rudeness" of life today, and her book succeeds better as a half-humorous rant than a blow-by-blow rule-book. So read it not as an etiquette manual but a darkly comic monologue, part-Dorothy Parker and part-Victor Meldrew, and torn in an energising way between Truss's core belief in "empathy" and her repeated discovery that hell really is other people.

Give it to: Fogeys young and old, either out or still closeted.

The Meaning of Tingo

Adam Jacot de Boinod


A wittily erudite tour of words from 280 languages that have no precise English equivalent. "Tingo" itself, by the way, is a Polynesian term for the taking of items one by one from your house until there's nothing left. We all know about the likes of Schadenfreude, but German also offers the invaluable Torschlusspanik (fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older). After you've escaped for Christmas from the office, with its endless zhengquan-duoili (Chinese; jockeying for power and profit), you may care to graze on this slim vol as an alternative to gazing in a stupor at the old dinnilos-dicking-muktar (Romany; television or "fool's looking box").

Give it to: Globe-trotting pedants and dinner-party conversation-stoppers

'Great Ideas' series

Various authors

PENGUIN, £3.99

The second series of this brilliantly designed spin-off venture from the Penguin Classics list, with covers that neatly match each author's period. Each one consists of a complete short work, or a 100-page slice from a longer volume, taken from premier-league philosophers, historians and essayists. This batch ranges from the Book of Job to some of Marco Polo's travels; from Cicero's speeches denouncing Mark Antony (perfect for Rome fans) to Voltaire on miracles and idolatry. Handy brain-food for student and sceptic - especially, at this bloated time of year, Thorstein Veblen's landmark analysis of Conspicuous Consumption.

Give them to:

All thinking persons with a sense of style