Holiday shopping for your favorite bibliophile just got a lot easier. We asked eight Alta contributors and writers to share their favorite books of 2019. These 24 titles made the cut.
This article will appear in the Winter 2020 issue of Alta, on newsstands January 3, 2020.
Author, Deep Creek
Mitchell S. Jackson’s Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family (Scribner) details the experience of being poor and black in Portland, Oregon, one of America’s whitest cities, and how he “composed a father from the men at hand,” absorbing love whenever and wherever it was offered.
Stephanie Land’s Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive (Hachette) is an unapologetic and deeply affecting memoir of a single mother’s fight to feed and house herself and her child—and also a searing critique of how the American economy is stacked against anyone below the poverty line.
Amy Irvine’s Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness (Torrey House Press) offers a talk-back to Edward Abbey, and a prayer that we can come together on behalf of the wilderness, if not to save the planet, then at least to love it on its way out.
Editor, Dear Los Angeles
Palm Springs should host a Postmodernism Week, and Gere Kavanaugh should be its queen. Her Day-Glo designs are a trapdoor into 1960s California. Louise Sandhaus and Kat Catmur’s A Colorful Life: Gere Kavanaugh, Designer (Princeton Architectural Press) is as lovely as fuchsia—and long overdue.
Shawn Levy’s The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont (Doubleday) uses fluent prose, careful observation, and dishy anecdotes to tell the story of Los Angeles’s most decadently homey hotel.
In Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, a Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State (Counterpoint Press), Nick Neely retraces the Portolá expedition through California 250 years ago. Traveling from the Mexican border to Los Angeles and the Bay, Neely reveals the state, then and now.
Author, Damage Control
The cop in Ben H. Winters’s dystopic Golden State (Mulholland Books) pursues liars in a future where, after an apocalypse exacerbated by fake news, falsehoods are illegal. This love child of George Orwell and Jim Thompson explores what’s lost when truth is enshrined at the cost of creative thought.
In Nina Revoyr’s A Student of History (Akashic Books), a grad student takes a job with an enigmatic matriarch in Los Angeles and discovers a long-buried secret. Like all the best mysteries, the novel illuminates society and its dark corners.
Serial killer Israel Keyes grew up in hate-filled doomsday cults. Later he roamed Alaska and the Lower 48, murdering and stashing “kill kits.” Maureen Callahan tells his story in American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century (Viking).
Author, Maggie Brown & Others
The greatest American short story writer you’ve never read is a Californian: Gina Berriault (1926–1999). I reread her often to remember why I try to do what I do. Every time I open Women in Their Beds (Counterpoint Press), I become immersed in the lives of her people, who have become as familiar (and as mysterious) as members of my family. And my God, her sentences: “The immensity of light—the glare from the winter sky and the reflected glare from the ocean—shocked her asleep at noon.”
Nona Caspers’s recent novel The Fifth Woman (Sarabande Books) is outstanding. An intimate and devastating examination of love in all its forms, written as if with a scalpel.
Fat City by Leonard Gardner (New York Review Books). Need I say more? And isn’t it beautiful that the most Californian of classic novels is set in Stockton, among boxers? Denis Johnson thought it was.
Author, The Lightest Object in the Universe
Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom (Grand Central Publishing) is narrated by a crow named S.T., the pet of a sports fan who, with all the other humans, falls into zombie-dom. This postapocalyptic novel offers deep insights about human nature, pop culture, and what it means to cooperate with those who are different.
Americans must tell the truth in Ben H. Winters’s Golden State (Mulholland Books). Speculative Service member Laszlo Ratesic enforces this law by using special powers and surveillance that will make you think twice about Google and Alexa.
While cleaning her grandfather’s house, Casiopea Tun unleashes the Mayan god of death, who needs her help to regain his throne from his twin brother. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow (Del Rey) moves from jungle to city, navigating the landscapes of 1920s Mexico.
Author, Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico
The poems in Adam Soldofsky’s Memory Foam (Disorder Press) take a scalpel to the fat. “For a long time,” he writes, “I wanted to be called a / lawbreaker and a mad dog / that I might be thought wiser, I / became a lonesome celebrant / and you, are you moneyed / and unheard of / are you worn / around the neck like a friend.”
In his first book, Southern Migrant Mixtape (Nomadic Press), Vernon Keeve III writes about being queer and black in a part of the nation that still acts like a separate country with its own flag and heroes. In one poem, an old slave auction block serves as a plaything for white kids.
The highlight of the poetry year is Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman (City Lights Publishers). Though often depicted as a sad and troubled person, the late Kaufman had a great sense of humor and was an enormous influence.
Founder, Photo Ark
In Day to Night (Taschen), Stephen Wilkes captures the passage of time in photographic images that are themselves each composed of some 1,500 smaller images. Wilkes spent nearly 10 years putting this work together and incorporates everything from animals at a water hole in the Serengeti to taxis in Times Square. Along the way, he allows us to see the world anew.
Women: The National Geographic Image Collection (National Geographic) comes just in time for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, and it is gorgeous from front to back. And why not? It is National Geographic, after all.
Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns’s Country Music: An Illustrated History (Knopf)—the companion volume to Burns’s PBS series—is a detailed celebration of a truly American musical form. This is a book I couldn’t put down.
Author, In the Country of Women
Erosion: Essays of Undoing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Terry Tempest Williams brings us to the giant sequoias of Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove. Humans love Yosemite, but Williams reminds us we aren’t more important than the trees, rivers, or other animals.
Outdoor adventure can be hard in a city, but Wild LA: Explore the Amazing Nature in and Around Los Angeles (Timber Press) by Lila Higgins and Gregory B. Pauly, along with Charles Hood and Alta contributor Jason G. Goldman, reveals trails and more than 100 species of plants and animals, including bats, and native trees and flowers.
I loved Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country (W.W. Norton), about a beloved ranch in Colorado, the animals the author raises, wild creatures, the intensity of fire, and the resilience of her land.