I can no longer deny that the holiday season has pounced down upon us, and we are once again compelled to give gifts to everyone we know. If I have to give presents to all those rascals, then, dadgummit, I’ll make them, or try to make them, read. So, I asked some of my literary friends to offer titles of books that they would recommend as holiday gifts. Most of them protested that my request is unfair, because a book gift is a personal affair: Doesn’t it demand intimate knowledge of the particular gift receiver’s literary taste? Should we mention classics or recent titles? Can I suggest my own books or ones by my associates? Can I really give books to total strangers? “Yes you can!” I insisted, and I threatened them all into coughing up suggestions that would work for any serious reader. So, I’m honored to present contributions from these extraordinarily talented people, among the very best writers in America, in alphabetical order.
Fiction writer Gonzalo Baeza says, “I’ll stick to books that came out in 2018 to narrow it down. Charles Dodd White’s In the House of Wilderness is the best novel I read this year. Gorgeous writing. My favorite short story collection is Michael Henson’s Maggie Boylan, a book of linked stories set in Appalachian Ohio against the backdrop of the opioid epidemic. It complements my favorite nonfiction book this year, Beth Macy’s Dopesick. Books about the opioid epidemic have become a genre now, but this one is particularly well researched and readable. Another good nonfiction book is José Pedro Zúquete’s The Identitarians. It’s more academic, but it’s great for understanding what’s going on in Europe with rising populism, a subject that too many newspapers have covered only superficially.
Novelist and Southern historian William P. Baldwin (Charles Town) writes, “For Christmas I’d recommend the first of the Charles Todd Detective Ian Rutledge novels, A Test of Wills. A shell shocked English Detective working just this side of WWI and his adventurers. Todd is as good as P.D. James, and best of all ‘he’ is an American mother-son writing team. At least 16 books. Good to read them in order but not absolutely necessary.”
Novelist Larry Baker (From a Distance) writes, “One of my all-time favorites, from Keith Donohue, and a gift book I have given many times, is The Stolen Child. One of the best books of the past few years is Becoming Leonardo by Mike Langford. I am still amazed at how Mike recreated a life out of almost no concrete facts.”
Down-and-dirty fiction writer Rusty Barnes (The Last Danger) says, “Laura Lippman’s Sunburn impressed the shit out of me, lending an old noir staple new life with twists I didn’t expect. I also recommend Dead Girls, by Alice Bolin, a collection of essays discussing noir, Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, Veronica Mars and Joan Didion with equal facility and pith. I also recommend the letters of Ross MacDonald and Eudora Welty, just because. I find these letters wonderfully sad as MacDonald’s memory begins slipping and he gamely continues on writing and writing her letters.”
Poet Steve Davenport (Overpass; see my interview with Steve here at LLNB): “I’m going to go with any novel or book that you liked or loved at one point and think it or you might benefit from a reread. Once upon a time I read and loved John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Today I came across a piece by John Irving in Esquire about that novel and his troubled relationship with it, now and back when he wrote it. I suggest everyone read this piece and then, if you have or have had a working relationship with the novel, reread it.”
Editor and publisher Kim Davis (Madville Publishing) suggests Blindsided by Chelsea Catherine. “It was the winner of the Clay Reynolds novella prize at Texas Review Press this year. The thing I loved about it was the atmosphere. Catherine sets the story of a mayoral campaign in Key West, and the heat, salt, and scent of rotting fish thrust the reader into the action. I have to praise Randall Watson’s No Evil is Wide, (Madville 2018). I hesitated mentioning it because I published it, but it is a beautifully dark novella. Watson is a poet, and his literary artistry is clear in every line of this story, redolent with the chaotic imagery of the end times.”
Larry Fondation (Martyrs and Holy Men) recommends the New York Review of Books’s new translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin. William Hastings (see below) adds, “This translation is stellar. Reading it was like finding the book for the first time all over again.”
Joseph D. Haske, novelist (North Dixie Highway) and editor (Goliad Review, Sleipnir Literary Journal): “If we’re talking books that came out this year, Chris Offutt’s Country Dark should be included: great prose, excellent story line, and it’s his first book of fiction in some time. By the way, I’m also looking forward to reading William Hastings’ novel, The Howling Ages, the Dodd White novel that Gonzalo Baeza mentioned above, and many others recommended here and elsewhere. I also highly recommend Ron Cooper’s new novel All My Sins Remembered, and Richard Burgin’s new story collection, A Thousand Natural Shocks (both from Goliad Press) although I’m too closely associated with the latter to make it my official response.”
William Hastings, novelist (The Howling Ages) and editor (Stray Dogs: Writing From the Other America) writes, “Two of my favorites of 2018 are George Pelecanos’ The Man Who Came Uptown a tight-prose story, full of soul, with a great and wonderful ode to the joy of reading as an backdrop to it, and Craeft, by Alexander Langlands, a study and look at the history of craft, its meaning, what handwork means.”
Winner of many, many, distinguished awards for his extraordinary poetry, David Kirby (Get Up, Please) says, “The best book in the world is Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. Macfarlane hikes all over England and talks to crofters and farmers and bent-over crones about the words they use to describe natural phenomena: what a half-melted icicle is called, or the name for the wind on the face of a stream. A close runner-up is The Trauma Cleaner, by Sarah Krasnostein. A trauma cleaner is the person who cleans up after a homicide or, worse, when someone commits suicide and no one discovers the body for two weeks. But there’s a surprise in the middle of this book that has nothing to do with trauma cleaning. I won’t tell you what it is, just that you’ll be stopping strangers on the street and saying, ‘Let me tell you about this book I’m reading.’”
The great master of short fiction Michael Martone (Brooding: Arias, Choruses, Lullabies, Dirges, and a Duet) recommends “The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, about the gift economy the artist lives in as well as the market economy but about everything gift.”
Laura Leigh Morris (Jaws of Life, debut collection of short stories) says, “An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is not ‘Christmas’ material, but it’s very American and a great read. About the prison industrial complex and wrongful imprisonment.”
Jeff Newberry, writer (A Stairway to the Sea) and editor (Florida Review) says, “I’m reading Tara Westover’s Educated, a stunning portrait of a childhood in rural Idaho. Raised by a right wing extremist who saw the Illuminati lurking behind public school and medical science, Westover recounts her hardscrabble upbringing with empathy, lyricism, and empathy for the world she escaped. I’m just in love with this memoir.” David Kirby agrees that “that’s a good-ass book.”
Distinguished journalist and humorist Craig Pittman (Oh, Florida!): “The best novel I read this year was Circe by Madeline Miller. It took a figure from Greek myth and turned her into a living, breathing individual coping with adversity armed only with her wits and her wiles. The best non-fiction book, by far, was The Gulf by Jack E. Davis, which definitely deserved the Pulitzer it won. I have lived on or near the Gulf of Mexico nearly all my life, and I learned things about it I did not know before.”
George Singleton, perhaps the funniest fiction writer in America (Work Shirts for Madmen), recommends Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan. “Deals with race relations in Mississippi, based, to a certain extent, on the murder of Emmett Till. Might be a reminder that, lately, it appears we’ve grown little. But—and I don’t know how Nordan does this, always—it’s funny. Plus, Southernmost, by Silas House, was one of my favorites this year. You can never go wrong with The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.”
Fiction writer Luanne Smith: “I’m giving a bunch of rock and roll bios or autobios to my brother. One good one from the past is Larry Kane’s Ticket to Ride on The Beatles. Kane is a Philly newscaster and journalist who was assigned to check out The Beatles when they first came to America. He toured with them often and got to know them well. I’m giving Lee Zacharias’ newest book Across the Great Lake to several friends.”
Garrison M. Somers, editor (The Blotter) and writer (The Pregnant Mare or The Guys in the Crate at the Joint): “On the one hand, I don’t know if I’m behind the curve or not, but Amor Towless’ A Gentlemen in Moscow is just elegant, engrossing, and complete in an old-school, historical fiction way. And at the other end of the spectrum, our own The Post-Apocalyptic Diner’s Guide (The Blotter Press) is outrageous and funny and wild and thoughtful. And illustrated…. I mean, it’s not for your mom, but your dad will fall out.”
Award-winning poet (Phantom Noise) and memoirist (My Life as a Foreign Country) Brian Turner recommends “Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna. Allende is a storyteller of epic scale, a writer who folds story upon story in layers. This is the first book I read by her, long ago, and it’s a perfect book to sit with by a winter fire. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Every sentence has a jeweler’s precision. I loved this book so much, from the first twenty pages or so, that I simply didn’t want to finish it—and so I forced myself to only read it while flying on planes, simply to delay the inevitable. Ismael Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams. This book uses the thin veil of the past to offer a sharp critique of modern Albania and the construction of totalitarianism. I loved this book so much I traveled to Albania to get a sense of the country that could produce such a writer and such a vision.”
One of America’s most respected novelists Steve Yarbrough (The Unmade World) “loved Angela Ball’s collection of poetry, Talking Pillow, which had some of the most surprising and moving poems I’ve read in ages. I also loved William Trevor’s Last Stories. Three or four of them are among his very best—which is saying plenty.”
I’m fortunate to have such talented friends, and they all believe in the power of literature, which, if you visit this website, you do, too. You have a variety of suggestions here, so get to wrapping!