Every fall, my mail bulges with a new crop of holiday gift books. They’re big, they’re glossy, they’re packed with art. And most of the time I wonder who would want them.
I try to picture who rips the wrapping paper off a 10-pound, full-color, $75 copy of Sun King Sparkles: The Minor Lighting Fixtures of the Palace of Versailles and says through tears, “You knew just what I wanted!”
But every year, a few of those books do seem like viable candidates for a place under the tree. Here are some of the 2016 gift books that might strike a chord with someone on your list.
Alexander Hamilton: The Illustrated Biography (Sterling, $35) by Richard Sylla. You’ve read Ron Chernow’s bestselling bio! You’ve seen Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical (or wished you could get tickets)! Feed your Founding Father fever with this engaging biography by an economist and Hamilton scholar. Hamilton’s childhood in the West Indies, his key roles in the Revolution and the founding of a new nation, his early interest in abolition and his strange death are all made vivid with a wealth of portraits, cartoons, documents, maps and other images.
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Bob Dylan: The Lyrics 1961-2012 (Simon & Schuster, $60). Here’s just the source to help settle the question about whether Dylan deserved to win the Nobel Prize for literature this year. It’s a big, beautifully designed book, illustrated with photos and manuscripts of the songs. But it’s otherwise totally stripped down to the lyrics themselves (667 pages worth): no introduction from a ruminating Dylanologist, no clues from His Bobness, a mere 15 words on the jacket flap noting the lyrics are grouped by album in chronological order. As always with Dylan, the work speaks for itself.
Evolution: A Visual Record (Phaidon, $39.95), with photographs by Robert Clark and text by Joseph Wallace. The great science writer David Quammen, in his foreword to this book, notes that much of the evidence for the science of evolution is “inherently visual.” The book’s arresting photos make his point. Clark, whose work has appeared in National Geographic and many other publications, beautifully illustrates the history of evolutionary science as well as the continuing influence of evolution in the present and its potential, through such developments as genome sequencing, on our future.
Girls Can Do Anything: From Sports to Innovation, Art to Politics, Meet Over 200 Women Who Got There First (Firefly, $29.95) by Caitlin Doyle, illustrated by Chuck Gonzales. This small-format book is a lively look at history for kids of all ages. Its text packs lots of facts into brief formats that are short-attention-span-friendly, with plenty of photos and cartoons. The book groups female achievers in various fields – arts and literature, politics and world-building, science and innovation, sports and endurance – and includes not only familiar figures like Amelia Earhart, Billie Holiday and J.K. Rowling but lesser known firsts, like first novelist (Lady Murasaki, in the 11th century), first computer programmer (Ada Lovelace) and Mary Queen of Scots, included not in politics but as “the mother of golf.”
In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper (Pegasus, $25.95), edited by Lawrence Block. What a genius idea: asking writers (most of them crime fiction writers) to base a short story on one of the moody, mysterious works of American painter Hopper. This handsome anthology pairs the stories with color reproductions of the paintings. Michael Connelly’s crisp, moving Harry Bosch story does proud the iconic Nighthawks at the Diner, Megan Abbott tells the satisfyingly twisted tale she finds in Girlie Show, Stephen King slowly builds horror behind a closed door in Room in New York, 1932, and Robert Olen Butler makes a painter the main character in Soir Bleu. Other authors include Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Child, Craig Ferguson and Block himself.
The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (University of Texas Press, $45) by Toni Tipton-Martin. The author, a culinary journalist, turns the “Jemima Code” of her title – the notion that black cooks were no more than workers who made no significant contribution to American foodways – on its head. Through an illustrated survey of historical cookbooks, Tipton-Martin explores the key roles played by African-American professional chefs, cookbook writers and home cooks in the development of much of what we now think of as American cooking. Today, she writes, “The foods that represent modern eating (local, organic, sustainably and ethically produced) are the victuals of yesterday’s poor with a newly hip personality.”