Sacramento authors on the gift of (written) gab

Local writers share the books they'll give this holiday season

Forget the usual critic recommendations. We decided to ask the real experts instead: Sacramento-area authors who know a thing or two about what’s worth reading, having done some heavy lifting in the literary field themselves. Whether it’s history or topical nonfiction, literary grit or just plain fun, there’s something for everyone.

Edgy, possibly inappropriate (but still totally OK) gifts

Allison Brennan, a Sacramento writer of romantic thrillers (Cold Snap, Stolen, et al.), says she’s giving Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened (Touchstone, $28).

Brennan and her kids have been fans of Brosh’s blog of the same name for years, so this book was an easy choice, she says.

“[It’s] laugh-out-loud funny, both cute and highly inappropriate at times. It’s the perfect present for a friend or family member with a quirky sense of humor,” Brennan says.

Similarly, Sacramento horror maven and editor of The Horror Zine ( Jeani Rector recommends The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland Books, $26). It’s “a darker, yet humorous” novel about a 16-year-old orphaned by smallpox in search of his kidnapped sister, which Rector says has an Adventures of Huckleberry Finn feel.

On history, classics and human aspirations

Horror’s not your thing (or your giftee’s)? UC Davis history professor—and Pulitzer Prize-winning author—Alan Taylor recommends a book by his colleague Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Harvard University Press, $35). He calls it “beautifully written and very accessible.”

“It’s about the intersection of history with public memory around a painful event—a massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples on November 29, 1864, by Colorado volunteers—and of the efforts to create a National Historical Monument on the site,” Taylor says.

Or, if you’re looking for something more topical, Sasha Abramsky, an SN&R contributor and author of The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (Nation Books, $26.99), says he’s putting nonfiction on the holiday list. Specifically, David Laskin’s The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century (Viking Adult, $32), which he calls “moving and thought-provoking.”

He’s also looking forward to reading—and so recommends—Richard Holmes’ Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (Pantheon, $35).

UC Davis history professor Alan Taylor recommends the “beautifully written” book by his colleague Ari Kelman, <i>A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek</i>.

Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor

“It fascinates me, as a portrayal of some of the loftiest, and ostensibly implausible, of human aspirations,” says Abramsky.

Not sure about new titles? Classics can make for a, well, classy choice.

Fiction writer Lucy Corin, author of One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (McSweeney’s, $22) is giving Matt Kish’s illustrated rendition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Tin House Books, $24.95).

“Holidays are all about packages,” Corin says. “When you are buying something as personal as a book for someone, it should at least look stunning in the home, and a person should not have to read it to get pleasure from it.”

Kish’s take on Conrad’s 1899 book is gorgeous with detailed and colorful illustrations that don’t, according to Corin, “distract from the darkness.”

Of course, a good reason to give Heart of Darkness is “[t]he horror.”

“For many people, holidays are really hard,” Corin says. “This is what books are for. They are a place to go with the complexities of being alive.”

Also on the topic of classics, Sacramento poet Indigo Moor (Through the Stonecutter’s Window, Northwestern University Press, $16.95), has a few choices: Jean Toomer’s Cane (Liveright, $13.95) and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $14).

Moor praises Toomer’s 1923 novel, “structured as a series of vignettes of narrative prose, poetry and playlike passages of dialogue,” for its sweeping themes, while Calvino’s portrayal of Kublai Khan entranced by the stories of distant cities spun by Marco Polo makes it “impossible to tell if the cities actually exist or if they were created from Polo’s imagination.”

Just some damn good books

Christian Kiefer, a musician, novelist and professor of English at American River College, suggests fiction by two Sacramento writers: Jodi Angel’s collection of short stories, You Only Get Letters From Jail (Tin House Books, $14.95) and Michael Spurgeon’s novel, Let the Water Hold Me Down (Ad Lumen Press, $17).

Author Jodi Angel, whose short-story collection <i>You Only Get Letters From Jail </i>is sure to make it under a few holiday trees this year, suggests Rachel Kushner’s “gritty” novel <i>The Flamethrowers</i>.

Photo by Kevin F. McKenna

But, he adds, his top pick for gift-giving is anything by 916 Ink, a Sacramento nonprofit dedicated to using creative writing to promote literacy among young people in the region.

Kiefer, the author of the acclaimed novel The Infinite Tides (Bloomsbury USA, $26), specifically recommends two 916 Ink publications: Paper Wings ($15) written by high-school age students at Visions in Education, and Bibble! Bombastic! Dirge! ($7), by South Sacramento teens who write through the Valley Hi-North Laguna branch of the Sacramento Public Library (

Paper Wings “starts with a brilliant ’advice for writers’ section penned by ninth through 11th graders which is better than any advice I could ever think of,” Kiefer explains, while Bibble! Bombastic! Dirge! features “unpretentious and amazing writing, some of which verges on the surreal.”

Meanwhile, Kiefer’s friend Angel says her recommendations tend to fall into three categories: indie press, hometown and “just a damn good book.”

The indie list this year includes two Tin House Books novels, Cari Luna’s The Revolution of Every Day and Pamela Erens’ The Virgins (both $15.95).

“Because Tin House is such a small press and publish so few books a year, they pick the best of the best,” says Angel.

Her local suggestions include both Kiefer’s and Spurgeon’s novels, as well as Sacramento writer and teacher Valerie Fioravanti’s Garbage Night at the Opera (BkMk Press, $15.95).

And on the “just a damn good book” list? Angel suggests Rachel Kushner’s novel, The Flamethrowers (Scribner, $26.99), a finalist for the National Book Award.

“It’s gritty and rock ’n’ roll, features a strong female protagonist, and is set in the 1970s,” says Angel. “Don’t make the mistake of picking it up while you’re wrapping it and carefully reading the first few pages without cracking the spine—you’ll end up keeping the book for yourself.”

Finally, Pam Houston, the author of Contents May Have Shifted: A Novel (W. W. Norton & Company, $25.95) and the director of the creative-writing program at UC Davis, includes Angel’s book on her list. She also recommends Stay Up With Me (Ecco, $22.99) by Tom Barbash, a Bay Area writer. Houston describes Barbash’s book as “brilliant stories [that] will make you laugh and cringe and vow to hold those you love a little closer.”

That’s a very good thing to do this time of year—and any time.