Notes from the underground

Madonna of the Toast and poems from Guantanamo

Many of the most intriguing books this year have been concerned with unusual or elusive texts. In Notes From Russia (Fuel), Alexei Plutser-Sarno brings together a small fraction of the handwritten advertisements, graffiti, public notices and beggars' scribblings that he has collected over the past 20 years. Offering a shadow history of a nation in the grip of social and economic turbulence, they are by turns funny, sad and revelatory: "Tough work, minimum wages, but boy is it fun!" reads one. Another suggests "Rules of the Disco": "Boys: when asking a girl to dance, don't grab her by her hand and shout, 'Hey you! Let's dance!'"

In Madonna of the Toast (Mark Batty Publishers), Buzz Poole reproduces images of food that contain unlikely and sometimes divine imagery: Rasputin on the inside of a cat's ear; Jesus on pan-fried pierogi, the word "Allah" on a guppy. The lengths to which people go to decode and interpret these confluent visuals are extraordinary. Potentially a danger to their well-being, too; a man who told the press he had discovered Mother Teresa in a cinnamon roll complains, "One website called me a heathen. I was just trying to have breakfast."

The Dulwich Horror: H P Lovecraft and the Crisis in British Housing (Space Station Sixty-Five) is the catalogue of a show by Dean Kenning in which the artist repurposed those "To Let" signs that litter British streets and produce feelings of social precarity. He uses them as canvases on to which he paints ghastly, squiddish monsters inspired by the creatures in Lovecraft's supernatural tales. Also of note was the self-explanatory (and slightly self-congratulatory) Street Art and the War on Terror: How the World's Best Graffiti Artists Said No to the Iraq War (Rebellion).

For over 30 years, the investigative sociologists at Sonoma State University in California have been issuing current-affairs annuals in which they highlight news stories passed over by the mainstream media. The latest volume, Censored 2008 (Seven Stories Press), brings together 25 startling narratives: an Act of Congress that in effect allows George Bush the power to initiate martial law anywhere in the US; the formation of a unified Pentagon command centre in Africa; the use of illegal switch-and-bait tactics to smuggle south Asian workers into Iraq to construct the American embassy there.

Censorship by the US department of defence meant that for a long time the very idea of Poems from Guantanamo: the Detainees Speak (University of Iowa Press) being published seemed a remote possibility. Marc Falkoff has gathered 22 works of longing and lyricism, some of them originally traced on to paper cups with toothpaste, others memorised, that function as personal therapy and fierce protest.

Finally, in a year when media leviathans tried to buy up and privatise the internet's public- access archives such as YouTube, many people will be drawn to Bound By Law? (Duke Law School), a graphic-novel-format introduction to some of the most important tenets of "free culture" and "public domain" theory.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007