The cover of Jory Post's "Daily Fresh."
City Life

Keeping It Local: Looking for a way to support your community with your gift-giving? Start with books

Wallace Baine launches Lookout’s “Keeping It Local” gift guide with the type he’d most like to receive: books. He runs down his recommendations for the various people in your life, focused on Santa Cruz County writers. Wallace and Lily Belli will be taking turns this week on various guides, from art to food to clothing, so stay tuned!

When it came time for us at Lookout to launch our guide to buying local for the holidays, it just made sense to start with books.

Why? Well, to begin with, the people in your life who like books, they actually love books, maybe even more than they’re letting on. Books have gradually morphed from a mainstream pastime into a niche passion, and those in that niche simply cannot recognize the concept of too many books.

When you give a book to a bibliophile in your life, even if it’s not a title she would ever buy on her own, even if he doesn’t care for the genre or the subject, you still get credit for recognizing your loved one as a reader. And if you can find something that your reader likes, you’re set for life. They’ll never forget it.

Secondly, when it launched its quest to dominate and subjugate the human race, Amazon started with books. It’s worked out OK.

And finally, I love books more than is reasonable or emotionally healthy, and this is my megaphone. If you think we should have started with sandals or power tools, go get your own soapbox.

Santa Cruz County is rich in writers. Nobody knows that, because writers generally don’t do their thing in public, in the ocean, wearing neoprene, in front of adoring crowds. Yep, I said it. I bet there are just as many writers in Santa Cruz County as surfers, though don’t ask me to prove it.

And finally, I love books more than is reasonable or emotionally healthy, and this is my megaphone. If you think we should have started with sandals or power tools, go get your own soapbox.

Our goal in the guide that follows is not to extol Santa Cruz’s literary rock stars, of which we have several. If you’ve a mind this year to give the books of Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Laurie R. King or Karen Joy Fowler, please do so. These are some of the finest writers in the English-speaking world (KJF’s novel “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” remains one of the most haunting experiences I’ve ever had as a reader).

Instead, let’s get a sense of the range and depth of what local writers are offering. Santa Cruz has a particularly rich heritage in the realm of poetry, for instance. But local writers can’t be confined to such rarefied fare. There’s fiction, memoir, history, journalism, field guides, and photography. Many books are specifically about Santa Cruz County in some way, but just as many are much wider in focus.

A great place to start is with oral history — history told primarily through eyewitness or first-hand accounts with little to no narrative voice. These are more accomplishments in research and storytelling than in the art of writing per se. But done right, as history, they couldn’t be more compelling.

The big get for any UC Santa Cruz alum on your list has to be the giant, two-volume “Seeds of Something Different: An Oral History of the University of California, Santa Cruz” by Irene Reti, Cameron Vanderscoff, and Sarah Rabkin, published just last year.

The remarkable story of UCSC’s establishment in the 1960s, its idiosyncratic approach to education, its near-legendary founding figures including Dean McHenry and Page Smith, and essentially everything that’s happened on campus since is presented in absorbing, surprisingly readable style from a team of researchers who specialize in oral history. UCSC, famously characterized as “Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp” when it first opened in 1965, is unlike any university in the UC system, and these nicely illustrated two books really underscore that such a unique educational experiment deserves a unique accounting of its story.

Two of the three authors of “Seeds” have, in fact, recently published a kind of addendum to “Seeds” about the university’s traumatic year of COVID-19 lockdown titled “The Empty Year,” with photos from brilliant Santa Cruz photojournalist Shmuel Thaler.

Proceeds from "2020 Hindsight" go to the victims of the CZU Complex fire.

An even more astounding oral-history approach comes by way of local writer Emerson Murray, whose “Murder Capital of the World” is an absolutely harrowing but humane look back at that dark period in the early 1970s when Santa Cruz County was terrorized by three unrelated mass murderers. Sure, you might balk at putting such a thing under the tree for someone you love, but Murray puts special emphasis on the victims’ lives and the trauma experienced by the community at large, as well as the experience of law enforcement and the legal system, with little sensationalism or exploitation, and some of the voices here are simply unforgettable.

Daily Fresh cover

A broader, and much more up-to-date, profile of the community comes by way of “2020 Hindsight,” a beautiful, photo-centric look back at one of the most eventful and tumultuous years in Santa Cruz County’s history. The book is edited by Thaler and showcases images by him and fellow photographer Kevin Painchaud from throughout the year of pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and catastrophic fires. I also contributed the opening essay of the book, but all proceeds of its sale go to victims of the CZU fires, and that’s certainly in the holiday spirit.

Maybe you want something for that newcomer to Santa Cruz, or relatives who visit enough that they want to know the area better. You can’t be any more direct on the matter than “100 Things to Do in Santa Cruz Before You Die,” by Leslie Chavez, Sara Clevenger, Dede Harrington and Misty Oliver. Or, for a title that doesn’t evoke your eventual demise, there’s “Secret Walks & Staircases in Santa Cruz,” by married pair Debbie Bulger and Richard Stover, which features maps and details of walks for all capabilities from flat one-milers to more hilly and longer hikes.

For books that are more about the voice of the writer — in this case, writers who happen to live locally — there are any number of arenas to explore. In memoir, one near and dear to my heart is “Daily Fresh” by my late friend Jory Post. Jory died of cancer earlier this year, but he devoted the final year of his life to writing a short essay each day on whatever crossed his mind. The end product is honest and life-affirming and affords anyone who did not know this fine man a peek into his insatiably curious mind.

Secret Walks cover

If you’re looking to go directly into a more spiritual direction, check out the intriguing “Reborn Again” by Christopher VanHall, the entrepreneur behind Greater Purpose Brewing Company, who is also a progressive Christian pastor. “Reborn Again” is his effort to put into context his struggles with living a life of faith.

Also, just on the brink of publication comes the new project from celebrated Aptos memoirist Claudia Sternbach titled “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen,” in which she cleverly interprets her struggles through letters, many of which are directed at various celebrities who are meaningful to her in some way. This winsome and touching collection hits bookshelves Friday.

Another fine memoir comes to us via Santa Cruz’s Laura Davis, well known for her writing workshops. It’s called “The Burning Light of Two Stars,” and it’s her reflection on the charged relationship with her mother.

A couple of older titles that could find a sweet spot on your gift list comes from well-known local journalist Christina Waters, whose 2016 collection of essays “Inside the Flame” chronicles her efforts to live a more aware and deliberate life. Also, UCSC grad Anahata Meta goes on an adventure in her efforts to couple in 2017’s “52 Weeks, 52 Dates.” And “Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping,” by Santa Cruz’s Dan White, a history of camping that delightfully mixes in real-life reportage of the writer’s crazy adventures in the wild. Fun stuff.

52 Weeks cover

Someone you love might also love surfing, and for them it’s hard to go wrong with “Surfers’ Blood,” a newly revamped edition of Patrick Trefz’s 2012 photo book. Trefz is an acclaimed photojournalist and filmmaker who takes surfing seriously as a culture, with a sense of respect for its craft and traditions. Another surf title that is red hot right now comes by way of Dave “Nelly” Nelson, another titan in the world of West Coast surf/skate photography. Nelly’s “Dual Perspective” combines stunning photos with his own reflections of the surf life in Santa Cruz.

There’s a cliche about icebergs that applies here, so if these suggestions only whet your appetite to dive further, remember that supporting local authors also means supporting local bookstores, which means in our community Bookshop Santa Cruz and Two Birds Books in Pleasure Point.

Thinking of buying books for others not so much as a gift of a thing, but the gift of a connection between a reader and a writer. And, honestly, who doesn’t love a little matchmaking?