Need a quick stocking-stuffer? Nothing beats a book

Books recommended by author Claudia Sternbach on a chair
(Via Claudia Sternbach)

Books often make the best gifts. Lookout columnist Claudia Sternbach offers some tips for new and classic reads, including a few that either take place in Santa Cruz or are written by local authors. All would make swell stocking-stuffers, she writes. Maybe even throw in a battery-operated book light for those stormy evenings when the power leaves us reading by candlelight.

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Claudia Sternbach

As they say, so many books, so little time.

However, somehow I seem to find time to escape into all kinds of adventures in publication — from slender novella to almost off-putting megatomes, where I’m almost 200 pages in and still am more than 400 pages from the end. Like author Fredrik Backman’s 684-page “The Winners,” the third book in the Beartown series (now a TV show).

But, unlike Moby Dick, which I never did finish, I am happy to continue on with Backman’s latest novel, which is about community and home and the sacrifice you are willing to make for them. If ever you want to feel as if you are trapped in a horrific windstorm in the middle of a forest and all around are trees crashing and folks attempting to survive the great winds while wondering about the condition of the hockey rink and club that is at the center of the story, this book may be for you. If not, that’s cool, too.

Backman is one of my favorite writers.

He can be outrageously funny (see “Anxious People”) or incredibly deep. Sometimes both in the same piece of fiction. He has written several books and each time I pick one up, I am profoundly grateful I did.

I seldom recommend buying books for others, but I will say that there are two slender little novellas penned by this Swedish writer that might make great stocking-stuffers. First up would be “And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer,” a tale about a grandfather and his young grandson and their struggle to hold on to life as they know it. It is exquisite.

The second tiny treasure is “The Deal of a Lifetime.” What would you do to save the life of a child? What would you give up? This jewel might inspire some fascinating conversation at the dinner table.

“Small Things Like These,” written by Claire Keegan, is another slim volume that packed such a punch it won the Booker Prize for 2022. It is set in a small Irish town in 1985 and takes place in the weeks before Christmas. Written in an Irish dialect, it’s one of those works that transports you to another world. There is a darkness to the story which will disturb some, but really, that is what it is supposed to do.

I find it useful to visit the dark side of human nature in order to release some of my own dark feelings. Call it cathartic, if you will, but I always feel a bit cleansed after being put through the emotional wringer of a sad tale. Sure, stuff it in a loved one’s stocking, but only if you know they also appreciate a good cry and a feeling of redemption.

The cover of Jory Post's "Pious Rebel"

This past year, while still spending more time at home rather than out and about (thank you, COVID-19), I felt a hunger to read stories that take place in Santa Cruz, especially if they were written by Santa Cruz writers. I dove first into the late Jory Post’s (oh how he is missed) 2020 novel “Pious Rebel,” published by Paper Angel Press. Jory passed in 2021 but he cast a long shadow in Santa Cruz, and this gem shows just how much he loved our beachside town.

Jory was able to put on paper a story with a full-throttle Santa Cruz vibe. Filled with references to local hangouts, it was the perfect way to spend time downtown while still staying home.

After finishing his take on Santa Cruz and its colorful characters, I picked up an oldie but goodie (2009) by Santa Cruz writer Karen Joy Fowler called “Wit’s End.” Again, a snap-crackle story set here in our coastal community that transported me to West Cliff Drive and the sounds of the ocean crashing against the rocks.

With lifelike characters, Fowler captures the feel of Santa Cruz on every page. Have friends or family members who have never been to our little slice of heaven and want to get a feel for it? These two works of fiction will give them a taste.

Another local writer who has written about the area is Tina Pershing Baine, wife of Lookout’s very own Wallace Baine, who has just published a book of nonfiction called “Aromastory” about Aromas, the small community to the southeast of us. I have not yet had a chance to read it, but the black-and-white historical photos, plentiful throughout, have piqued my curiosity about this tiny little freckle on our coastal map. I’d like to learn a bit more about our coastal neighbors.

The cover of Jill Bialosky's "The Deceptions"

Speaking of learning something, I got a bit of a lesson in Greek mythology by reading Jill Bialosky’s new novel, “The Deceptions.” Much of it takes place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This clever writer was able to combine poetry, myth and betrayal, and I didn’t want this strange, dark story to end.

And when I made it to the (shocking) ending I wanted to go to the Met and sit in front of works of art I have seen so many times but never understood the significance of. It is a disturbing, but page-turning, tale.

Want to read a crushing story that still has moments of levity? Try Rob Delaney’s “A Heart That Works,” about the death of his child. It was a New York Times bestseller, and made the New Yorker’s list of best books of 2022.

This is not a gifting kind of book unless the recipient has mentioned that they are looking for something that will break their heart. Sometimes that is exactly what I am looking for.

As I said earlier, a deep, cleansing cry is often just the ticket. Watching Delaney interviewed on a late-night talk show, my heart hurt for him. Not just over the death of his son, but because now he was out on the book circuit having to promote it. Trying to make light conversation, banter if you will, about the worst thing that can happen to a parent. The book, though, is beautiful.

The cover of Tina Pershing Baine's "Aromastory"

And then there is one of my go-to writers who never disappoints me, Elizabeth Strout, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for the wonderful “Olive Kitteridge.” Her latest book is “Lucy by the Sea.” Yes, Lucy is back for her fourth book and is as curmudgeonly as ever and I still adore her.

This, Strout’s most recent work of fiction (2022) takes place just as we are going into lockdown for the pandemic. It rings true with every page. It’s the story of how we navigate the future when we have no idea what to expect. Characters rise to the occasion, then falter. It is such a human book. And even Olive makes a cameo.

All in all, it has been a great year for reading.

I haven’t regretted a moment of the time I have spent with these writers and their characters. Maybe you and your loved ones will enjoy time with them, too.

And I expect to discover even more tempting titles come 2023.

Claudia Sternbach is the author of three memoirs. Her most recent is “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen” (Paper Angel Press), which also includes stories about her sisters. Her previous piece for Lookout, “Happy Thanksgiving, Santa Cruz: What are you grateful for?” ran in November.

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