In this recession, nobody has any spending money. Some of us are lucky to have jobs. But we all want to ply our loved ones with gifts for Christmas, and everyone knows that books make the best gift of all. In an effort to help you choose gifts for your friends and family, we have compiled a gift guide of cheap books—anywhere from $5 to free—including thrift-store finds and things that have been handed to us on the street. And if things get any worse, almost all of these gifts would make great kindling.

Taste of Home Casseroles

by Anonymous
$4.99 at QFC

You know you're about to enter a temple to culinary greatness when the cover to a cookbook touts such benefits as "PREP IN 20 MIN. OR LESS!" and "PHOTO OF EVERY RECIPE!" The 76 recipes in Casseroles are the very definition of comfort food. They are inexpensive (many casseroles are topped with chicken nuggets or Tater Tots), they are filling (ham is a necessary ingredient in about a quarter of the recipes), and they are quick (many of the entries, like the "Ham 'n' Tater Bake," even omit letters in the title of the recipe itself, to ensure speed of reading for the harried housewife). And the recipes often come with exclusive chef's commentary. Testifies Nita White, from Cedar Springs, Michigan, of her "Reuben Casserole," made by baking corned beef, cheese, Thousand Island dressing, and sauerkraut at 375 degrees for half an hour: "I always get compliments when I take this wonderful casserole to a potluck dinner."

To put this book to the test, I made the "Crab 'n' Penne Casserole," a submission from Princeton, Iowa's Nancy Billups, on page 55. The recipe called for fake crab (frequently referred to as "krab"), Alfredo sauce, zucchini, red-pepper flakes, and a whole lot of cheese. The resulting dish was reminiscent of lutefisk: a cheesy, gooey panful of pasta and fish. The cheese is refreshingly mild, to please even the choosiest of kids. My whole kitchen smelled like a warm beach under a bright, hot sun. And the meal sticks to your ribs in a certain tenacious, indescribable way: I wasn't hungry for nearly a day after putting away a plate of Ms. Billups's specialty.

This is a book for those of us who have to keep our friends and loved ones full for hours at a time on an ever-shrinking budget. Believe you me, if these are your goals for holiday cooking this year, this is the book for you. PAUL CONSTANT


by Jack Chick
15¢ by mail or free on the street

Published in 1991, DOOM TOWN is the Chick tract by which all others should be judged—packed with drama, exploding with intrigue, and loonier than shit.

The story begins at a gay-rights rally, where someone who looks like Martina Navratilova addresses the crowd from a regal-looking stage. While the speaker lays out a plan to infect the nation's blood supply with AIDS, the crowd hoists signs bearing slogans such as "LOOK OUT AMERICA!" and "WE'RE ON THE MOVE!" Soon we zoom in on our protagonist—an evangelical Christian cameraman videotaping the proceedings, who implores God to let him "talk to at least one soul to prove that I love them." Instantly he's presented with Sean, a young man who asks, "Hey, man. What did you think of our rally?"

The cameraman's reply is a story set 4,000 years ago in the land of the Bible, where a man named Lot has chosen to raise his cattle on the verdant plains of Jordan. "This was the worst mistake Lot ever made," says our narrator. "Lot didn't know he had chosen to live in Doom Town"—aka Sodom, where, as Genesis 13:13 proclaims, "the men were wicked and sinned before the Lord exceedingly."

From these 10 words, DOOM TOWN spins a nightmare fantasia of same-sex perversion and widespread God-hating. Sodom is populated almost entirely by burly bearded men who appear to be competing in an Endora-from-Bewitched look-alike contest. Flowing gowns and kicky wigs bedeck the otherwise butch Sodomites, who not only love to vamp but to rape. "Even children were not safe from their gross perversions," warns our narrator over the most powerful image in the book: a doe-eyed toddler cowering before a huge, hairy-backed man who proclaims, "It's that time again!" (Not only did Sodomites love to rape, they apparently had a rape schedule.)

From this pinnacle, DOOM TOWN descends into murky preachiness, with God promising to spare Sodom if the town holds even 10 righteous men, which of course it doesn't, and so two male angels are sent to warn Lot of the coming rain of fire. This deployment brings DOOM TOWN back to dramatic life, as the Sodomites express their fervent desire to rape Lot's angelic houseguests. ("Give us those men! We're gonna rape 'em!") In a shocking twist, Lot offers the rape-hungry mob his virgin daughters. Then, in an entirely predictable denouement, God blinds the lust-filled mob, allowing Lot to escape, and obliterates Sodom with the aforementioned rain of fire.

Finally, we cut back to 1991, where the fate of Sodom has made a strong impression on young Sean, whose fate is summed up in one line: "Sean prayed, and God saved him for all eternity." It's a nice ending for a shockingly inexpensive book, one that, despite its thin characterizations and over-reliance on rape, will make a perfect gift for anyone who enjoys sodomy. DAVID SCHMADER

Reader's Digest, November 2008

by Various
$3.99 at Safeway

Do you know someone who loves to read? Don't we all! What could be a more thoughtful gift for the literature lover in your family than a whole collection of articles on topics as varied as endangered orangutans, outer space, and health-care reform? Do you doubt the quality of literature on display? Take in the eight-sentence excerpt from Wally Lamb's new novel, The Hour I First Believed. Consider the interview with John Updike, on page 36 (including the fundamental question: "So what keeps you writing?").

Reader's Digest reaffirms the American dream. The latest cover story is a survey of how other nations consider the United States. Did you know that 73 percent of all people from India would move to the United States if they could? And 55 percent of French citizens want to immigrate to America?

And is there any wonder why? Reader's Digest comes with "57 jokes for the whole family," including the ever-popular "Off Base" humor section for our proud men and women in uniform. There's a real knee-slapper involving one of our navy boys, a Norwegian man, two young Frenchwomen, and an unzipped fly. In these tough financial times, consumer affairs are important, too: The magazine is packed with bargains and consumer reports on air travel, portable washing machines, and long-distance phone calls. You and your loved ones should not enter this New Depression without a copy of Reader's Digest in hand: All of American life can be found within two covers, for four paltry dollars. PAUL CONSTANT

Bible Guide to Happiness

by God
$1.99 at Safeway

Just above the pleasant photograph of New England foliage in all its colorful splendor, the cover of this pamphlet promises "Powerful thoughts to lift your spirit." It is a pocket-size selection of Bible quotes (alphabetized handily into 48 separate subjects, from "Alcoholism" to "Jealousy" to "Think" to "Afraid") on rough newsprint. Never again will you have to scour the entire Bible for a quote like "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4 KJV); just check under C for "Comfort"!

This book would make the perfect gift for one of the three and a half thousand people laid off by Washington Mutual last month. From "Money": "When we were born, we brought nothing into this world, and when we die, we can take nothing out of the world" (1 Timothy 6:7 BWE). It's a true blessing on all God's children that the confusing begets and begats and uncleans can be taken out of the Bible, and the remaining bits can be condensed into 64 pages of hugs from angels up in heaven. All the holy will need, in addition to Bible Guide to Happiness, are the "Footprints" poem and Sam Butcher's essential Precious Moments cartoons. PAUL CONSTANT

iPhone E-Books

by Various

So you went and spent all your damn money on an iPhone. Sure, you'll probably have to sell your TV and let your landlord watch you take a shower to pay the rent this month, but your awesome robo-phone ensures that you're cooler than all your friends (unless those assholes all went and got iPhones, too).

While you may be broke and TV-less, you've got your phone to keep you company during those lonely hours in your cold, dark apartment. And what better way to relieve the depression than falling back into America's long-forgotten pastime: reading.

Can't afford to buy books during this whole economic recession, you say? You've got nothing to fear, except maybe fear itself. You can get FREE BOOKS on your iPhone.

Programs like Stanza, eReader, or BookShelfLT (all free) allow you to download the hundreds of classic public-domain books—including the nearly complete works of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs—you avoided reading in high school! Now you can finally replace all those unread copies of the Orwell, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky books that you had to burn to keep warm!

Your eyes may go bad from squinting at the tiny screen, but now you can actually catch up on 20th-century literature and stop snickering every time you hear someone talk about Moby Dick. (Spoiler warning: It's about a whale!) JONAH SPANGENTHAL-LEE

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Working Less, Earning More

by Jeff Cohen
$2.95 at Safeway

Who wouldn't want to work less and earn more? Jeff Cohen is the guru on the subject, and this square-bound pamphlet tells you how to get started. Cohen describes his experience working in an office with vivid freshness: "It was like living in an aquarium with people peering in to see me. I expected fish food to be tossed in my office at lunchtime. Instead, I devoured a steady diet of turkey club sandwiches and the panini of the day." His metaphors are richly complex, so he explains them. "In case you haven't guessed by now, cubicle and office life is not for me."

His advice? Cohen suggests that the reader do what he did: He dropped out of the rat race and employed multiple revenue streams. He did human-resource consulting for large corporations, freelance writing, publishing, and real estate. Freelancing is a safe haven: Recently, a whole mess of freelance news-writing jobs opened up at the Seattle Times. And nothing's a more secure investment than real estate!

Cohen even provides new axioms for American business:

"It's every man for himself" will now be "It's every man for every man."

"It's a dog-eat-dog world out there" will now be "It's a dog-meet-dog world out there."

"You're the only real friend you've got" will now be "You've got more real friends than you can invite to a dinner party."

Cohen's secrets of financial success are the sort of hard-won, homespun wisdom that will never go out of style. If you know someone who's down in the dumps because his employment opportunities have dried up, this is the book for him. He'll be up and at 'em in the vital publishing and real-estate industries in no time! PAUL CONSTANT

The Second Son

by Charles Sailor
$2 at Twice Sold Tales

Published in 1979, The Second Son is a novel about a New York City construction worker named Joseph Turner who falls 24 stories to his death, is resurrected, and finds reluctant fame as the second Messiah. He confronts many obstacles in his new life as a megacelebrity and religious icon: burning buildings; a mysterious, malevolent secret agent named Nightingale; a nuclear explosion; a pope who wants to shoot Turner for ridiculous popely reasons; an evil president; a one-eared mobster named Gumbali; and a hooker with a heart of gold.

This is very clearly a novel of the '70s. There's social relevance (a young black boy asks Turner, "How you know I gots any dreams, mister? Can you see inside my head?"), weird sexual politics (the hooker coos, "Wouldn't you like to rape me somewhere more comfortable?" and Joseph picks her up and carries her to a bed while complaining, "You soft modern women have no appreciation of passion"), and references to Watergate and The Godfather are on every other page. But it's not just '70s time-capsule goofiness. Sailor can write; his imagery is especially good: "He found himself wandering into the infected porno district of the Bronx. It was like traveling in a neon box. The garishly lit buildings jutted up forming impenetrable walls, their blinking lights reflected off the low gray lid of sky."

They literally don't make them like this anymore. There's real joy to be found in these sprawling novels of the 1970s; other long-out-of-print paperbacks like The Boys from the Mail Room, The Man Who Killed Mick Jagger, and Little America are sitting, battered, on used-bookstore discount shelves for a dollar or two, just waiting to be snapped up and given to an ardent lover of fiction. The boundless ambition in these books—and the sense that a novel is less about action and more about a journey into the self, a journey undertaken by both the main character and the reader—is a pleasure long since forgotten as the mass-market paperback format has lost its populist luster. These are thick books that, though flawed, will remain with a reader for years. PAUL CONSTANT

Archie's Double Digest #193

by Various
$3.69 at Safeway

Archie Andrews is a rat and a girl-watching schlub. He could get laid—obviously his greatest wish—if he could only choose between Betty and Veronica, but he just can't do it; Bartleby-like, he prefers not to decide, and so he has remained in stasis for six decades now. These less-than-10-page stories are timeless in the worst way imaginable. In one story, Archie buys a talking clock. Of course, the gizmo results in him being brutally beaten by Veronica. This is because Archie is always a loser.

Why is Archie always a loser? He certainly doesn't ally himself with the greatest minds at Riverdale High School. Jughead is an apparent eunuch who loves only hamburgers. Reggie is a hypersexualized narcissist who somehow still attends public school. Archie's own father is a weepy-eyed fool. "It's like we've advanced four centuries in just 25 years!" he mawkishly proclaims when presented with his son's talking timepiece.

But there is more, and less, to it than all that. Archie is a loser because he is eternal and unable to change. He lives in a neverwhen place, a mishmash of every decade between the 1950s and today. Like 2008's dated problems, with banks collapsing everywhere (1920s), inflation (1980s), war in Iraq (1990s), long lines for cheap gas (1970s), and fear of the Russian specter looming somewhere in the east (1950s), Archie's problems never end. He just stares at them, helpless, and then ogles the next girl who walks by, confounded by the eternal question of whether to pursue the blonde or the brunette. Archie is doomed to live forever as an object of derision. Archie is us. PAUL CONSTANT


by Dr. Wendy Winsted
$2.99 at Value Village

All I want for Christmas is a ferret. Did you know musician Dick Smothers and actor David Carradine had ferrets? Every single long-haired pot dealer I knew in high school had 'em, too—they were always named either Ricky, Rusty, Misty, or Cheyenne. I've wanted one ever since I saw one run out from under a beat-up La-Z-Boy, bite the ankle of the person who had just sat in the chair, launch itself straight up in the air with a frenzied hiss, then run into the next room. Ferrets are dreamy.

I'll never own one, though. Know why? 'Cause they STINK. Even after you castrate and "de-scent" them (by removing their pesky anal glands), they still smell like a three-month-old rotten egg whisked into a frying pan with a bottle of Jovan Musk, then cooked into an omelet. But they're still so cute! The only way to really satiate my ferret cravings is to collect ferret books from thrift stores. Ferret by Dr. Wendy Winsted is a particularly good one, with 128 pages of advice ("Don't spank him on the head, this will only pound his teeth deeper into your finger...") and over 90 pages of mid-1980s gorgeous color photos of ferrets playing with toddlers, teens, and grandmas; photos of ferrets eating bananas; and even a photo of Dr. Wendy herself kissing one right on the mouth, while four more are wriggling around in her purse.

Despite all the good advice, and the fact that the cover says Ferrets' reinforced binding is "practically indestructible" and "guaranteed for 10 years," the photos are the real reason to buy the book. If you tire of reading about how to care for your potential pet's post-op anal glands, you can cut out the pictures and make greeting cards. KELLY O