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Gift guide: Oregon authors recommend favorite books for holiday giving and reading

Suggestions range from Brian Doyle's "Mink River" and a collection of speeches by former Gov. Barbara Roberts to picture books and poetry.

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The Oregon Historical Society's 54th annual Celebration of Oregon Authors draws a crowd of browsers and buyers earlier this month in Portland. Photo by: Karen Pate
The Oregon Historical Society’s 54th annual Celebration of Oregon Authors drew a crowd of browsers and buyers earlier this month in Portland. Photo by: Karen Pate

If you’re still looking for the perfect holiday gift for the bibliophile in your life, we’re here to help. We asked Oregon authors to pick their current favorites. Whether you’re trying to race the USPS holiday shipping deadlines and send books off to loved ones or want to add something fresh to your personal 2024 reading list, Casey Parks, Gabi Snyder, Willa Schneberg, Carla Perry, and others have exciting suggestions for excellent winter reads. After all, there’s no better time to cuddle up with a book, blanket, and hot cup of tea than during the coldest and shortest days of the year.


Judith Barrington is a Portland poet, memoirist, and writing instructor. Her awards include the Stewart H. Holbrook Award, presented by Literary Arts for outstanding contributions to Oregon’s literary life.

Recommendation: The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, translated by Shaun Whiteside

“This is the best, most thoughtful, and interesting book I’ve read in a long time.”


Irene Cooper is a poet and author living in the Bend area. Her most recent books include her Oregon Book Award-nominated poetry collection spare change and the novel Committal.

Recommendation: Speculative Histories by Brigitte Lewis

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“My pick is still in pre-order — a lovely pick-me-up for post-holiday recovery. Lewis lives and writes in Central Oregon, and hails from the ore-glittered hills of California gold country. Speculative Histories is a lyric excavation of light and absence, in language that takes flight even as it digs deep into the unstable geographies of memory.”

Brian S. Ellis is a poet, storyteller, teacher, and prose writer based in Portland since 2010. He is also a story producer for BACKFENCE PDX, a live storytelling series, and teaches writing at Portland Community College.

Recommendation: Staring Contest: Essays About Eyes by Joshua James Amberson

“It was released this year from Perfect Day Publishing. It is a wonderful and intimate collection of essays about vision, sight, and disability. Joshua writes with such warmth, humor, and vulnerability that it really is like looking into him — that intensity of really meeting someone. Joshua is also a great Portland writing teacher (I’d encourage anyone to take a writing class with him) and Perfect Day Publishing is one of our best local presses.”

Leanne Grabel is a writer, illustrator, performer, and founder of Café Lena, Portland’s legendary poetry café for a decade of the 1990s. She was the 2020 recipient of Soapstone’s Bread and Roses Award, and her most recent works include Brontosaurus (2022), My Husband’s Eyebrows (2022), and Old With Jokes (2023).

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Recommendation: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

“I am suggesting the graphic edition of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, illustrated by the amazing Nora Krug (whose book Belonging: A German Reckons With History & Home amazed me and is also well worth gifting). I am so worried about the rise of authoritarianism in America, fueled by power-hungry, immoral fools, that it is almost all I can think about. I guess my book selection is not very festive, but I am all in for saving democracy in America.”

Jessica Mehta is a multi-disciplinary writer and artist, and small-business owner based in Hillsboro. She is the author of more than 10 books in addition to practicing yoga and being a birth doula and Reiki practitioner. She was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Bengaluru, India, and is the Penington House artist-in-residence.

Recommendation: Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark

“For any Plath or poetry lover, the research is meticulous, providing fresh insight into a poet that is so often considered researched and ‘known’ ad nauseum (as if there is such a thing).”

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Maureen R. Michelson has been operating Tillamook-based NewSage Press since 1985. She previously worked as a journalist, editor, and freelancer for publications including Time Magazine, Fortune, People, Sports Illustrated, and received the Soapstone Bread and Roses Award in 2021.

Recommendation: A Voice for Equity by Barbara Roberts

“Author and former governor Barbara Roberts has written her fourth book — one that will add to her legacy as Oregon’s first woman governor. A Voice for Equity from NewSage Press is a honed collection of some 30 speeches culled from 500 plus speeches that she wrote and delivered during her 30 years of public service. Through her speeches, readers get a strong sense of Roberts’ humble beginnings and how she rose to the highest office in the state, always with a laser focus on equity — for women, for people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ rights, death with dignity, the environment, and more. Roberts’ leadership style has been to encourage others to step up and walk shoulder to shoulder with her. In the foreword of A Voice for Equity, she continues to challenge others to find their voices and speak up for equity. Roberts will soon be 87 years old and to this day, she continues to support state leadership on many levels. Roberts’ words will inspire future generations as well as remind us right now what a formidable force Roberts has always been.” 

Casey Parks is a Portland-based memoirist and reporter, previously with The Oregonian and now with The Washington Post. She is a former Spencer Fellow at Columbia University and her memoir, Diary of a Misfit, won the 2023 Oregon Book Award

Recommendation: Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones

“This is one of the most beautiful memoirs I’ve ever read, and it’s definitely the most exciting. It is difficult to build tension in a memoir — the reader, in some ways, already knows what will happen. The protagonist survives and thrives enough to get a book deal. But Easy Beauty is propulsive and built on the kind of tension that will keep sleepyheads reading way past their bedtime. This memoir is philosophical. It’s funny. It’s inventive with form. She’s just a genius.”

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Recommendation: Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco by K. Iver

“No book of poetry has ever made me cry the way these poems do. It’s a story about queer and trans love in the South, about loving someone who doesn’t love their own body — ‘a blond boy forced to call himself a girl.’ The beloved at the center of this book died in 2007, but I’ve never read a portrait that felt more alive.”

Carla Perry is a Newport writer, poet, and founder of the Nye Beach Writers’ Series and Writers on the Edge. She was the recipient of the 2022 Soapstone Bread and Roses Award, the 2002 Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award, and the 2003 Oregon Governor’s Arts Award. In 1996 she established Dancing Moon Press, from which she later retired.

Recommendation: Mink River by Brian Doyle

“Brian was an amazingly talented Oregon writer who died in 2017. Mink River is my favorite of all his numerous wonderful books of fiction, essay, and memoir. The setting is Neawanaka, a small fictional town on the Oregon Coast. I cried when the book ended, not because the ending was sad, but because the town and characters were fiction and I couldn’t just drive north to visit with my friends whenever I missed them. Brian Doyle needs to be honored in every possible way. Encouraging readers to pick up this book is one way we can honor him.”

Recommendation: This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

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“Krueger’s use of language is delicious. Although there are hardships aplenty, the story is full of hope. I was sorry when the book ended because I wanted to continue the journey with the ‘four vagabonds.’ The story opens at the Lincoln School for Native American children in Minnesota and takes place during the Great Depression during the summer of 1932. ‘Everything that’s been done to us we carry forever. Most of us do our damnedest to hold on to the good and forget the rest. But somewhere in the vault of our hearts, in a place our brains can’t or won’t touch, the worst is stored, and the only sure key to it is in our dreams.’ Krueger was raised in the Oregon Cascades but lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, now.”

Recommendation: Cathedrals & Parking Lots: Collected Poems by Clemens Starck

“Books of poetry don’t get much promotion during the holidays, but Clem’s (a longtime Oregon resident) writing is interesting and deserves more attention. His poetry is blunt — just the facts. But the facts lead the reader to understandings that result in feelings and wisdom, plus they provide an education in the construction and deconstruction trades, about being a cowboy, butchering rabbits, riding the rails, car mechanics and repair, and a method for transporting bombs. I wish I had some of those skills! There are no pastoral descriptions. No moans or complaints. These are totally accessible poems of an adventurous life.”

Recommendation: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“This is a great book; a total surprise. I wanted to start it over as soon as I’d finished. It keeps up the suspense to the very last page. The story begins in Barcelona in 1945. Daniel, the bookseller’s son, is introduced to a labyrinth of corridors in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books and makes his selection of one book that he takes home. As a result, he finds himself involved in a real-life mystery. This novel has it all: twisting plot, richly descriptive language, complex characters, and a setting which I am looking forward to visiting someday.”

Willa Schneberg is a poet, ceramic sculptor, interdisciplinary artist, photographer, and psychotherapist living in Portland. She received the Oregon Book Award for In the Margins of the World and was poet-in-residence in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2018. She is also the founder of the annual Oregon Jewish Voices reading series.

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Recommendation: Waiting to Be Arrested at Night: A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide by Tahir Hamut Izgil, translated by Joshua L. Freeman

“This is the story of the political, social, and cultural destruction of Izgil’s Uyghur homeland. Among Uyghur intellectuals and writers, Izgil is the only one known to have escaped China since the start of the mass internments. He now lives in the U.S.”

Gabi Snyder is an Oregon-based picture-book author. Her first book, Two Dogs on a Trike, was a Kirkus Best Picture Books of 2020 selection. She was also a 2022 Oregon Book Award finalist and winner of the 2022 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award in the children’s category.

Recommendation: Maybe a Whale by Kirsten Pendreigh (words) and Crystal Smith (art)

“Stunningly beautiful and deeply moving, Maybe a Whale follows a girl and her mom as they kayak in the ocean in search of whales —  the whales they’d hoped to see with the girl’s grandpa before he died. Pendreigh’s text is evocative and vivid and perfectly conjures kayaking and camping in the PNW. And Smith’s stunning art conveys both awe-inspiring nature and depths of emotion. I highly recommend this beautiful story of grief, family bonds, and the healing power of nature.”

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Lisa Steinman is a Portland poet, author, and Reed College emirita professor. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation. She has published three books about poetry and several volumes of poems.

Recommendation: Star Lake by Arda Collins

“I found it difficult to choose, as I considered books ranging from Peter Rock’s Passersthrough (with local landscapes, a local author, and beautiful writing) to Bookworm: Conversations With Michael Silverblatt (impressively smart, illuminating interviews with a heterogeneous number of writers from John Ashbery to Toni Morrison to David Foster Wallace, writers who are no longer with us) to C.S. Giscombe’s recent, 2023, Negro Mountain (which is a lyrical, generic hybrid, and reels me in).

In any case, I finally chose an accessible, moving, slender book of poetry by Arda Collins, her second book, published in 2022. Arthur Sze has praised the way the poems in what he calls ‘a book of wonders’ link memory with landscapes and weather (I’d add with personal, political, and historical memory), while Hanif Abdurraqib calls the volume ‘a tactile experience’ — a description I can’t better. Reading it for the third time recently, I was as taken with the poems and the book as a whole. To quote from one of the poems, Late Summer, Late Winter, and Genocide: “Keep your heart light / or keep it full of sorrow; it’s been decades since I started this poem / and now it’s tomorrow.””

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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