Books by Bob Dylan, Michelle Obama and other celebrities make unexpected gifts

New books Paul Newman, Prince Harry and Patti Smith also aren’t the same old, same old.
"The Philosophy of Modern Song" cover
"The Philosophy of Modern Song" cover [ Simon & Schuster ]
Published Dec. 15, 2022|Updated Dec. 15, 2022

Books by celebrities often make their way under the holiday tree. If you’re looking for a gift for someone with particular interests, these celebrity books all take refreshing twists from the usual canned autobiography.

Look for them at your local independent bookstore.

He’s a musical icon, Nobel winner, painter, memoirist, radio host and enduring mystery, and now Bob Dylan adds another line to his resume: music critic.

“The Philosophy of Modern Song” (Simon & Schuster, $45) collects 66 essays about specific songs in a wide range of popular styles, spanning the 20th century. Dylan writes not just about the songs themselves but about the performances that made them hits, in his own very idiosyncratic way.

The book has already been dinged for its publisher’s attempt to sell pricey autographed copies that turned out to be autosigned (Dylan himself apologized for that bobble) and for the fact that out of more than 60 performers he writes about, only four are women.

But as his inveterate fans know, Dylan has made a career of doing the unexpected, and he doesn’t disappoint here. The essays are less about songcraft and more about the emotions songs evoke, although they often veer from intensely personal to more factual or analytical. For example, a somewhat hallucinatory take on Webb Pierce’s country classic “There Stands the Glass” swerves into a mini biography of tailor-to-the-stars Nudie Kotlyarenko that serves as something of a commentary on country music, too.

For the Dylan fanatic on your gift list, this one is a slam dunk.

The Light We Carry cover
The Light We Carry cover [ Crown ]

Former first lady Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir, “Becoming,” was a publishing phenomenon. Her book tour filled sports arenas and theaters all over the U.S. and Europe with tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans, and the book has sold 14 million copies worldwide.

Her new book, “The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times” (Crown, $32.50), presents her as both memoirist and mentor. In it, she recounts more stories from her life, but they’re chosen to illustrate how she has dealt with obstacles, and how the reader can learn to do the same.

Given the disruptions of the years since her husband left office — the pandemic, the responses to the murder of George Floyd, intensely divisive politics, insurrection, economic upheaval and more — Obama focuses on helping her readers help each other as well as themselves, writing about leading with kindness, decoding fear, partnering, parenting and much more with her trademark wit and warmth.

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“My goal was always to do serious work in a joyful way,” she writes, “to show people what’s possible if we keep choosing to go high.”

Extraordinary Life cover
Extraordinary Life cover [ Knopf ]

Countless celebrities have worked with co-writers to create a record of their lives. Paul Newman’s “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A Memoir” (Knopf, $32) took a highly unusual path to publication and, for a book of the celeb bio genre, is remarkably revealing.

In 1986, Newman and his best friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern, began working on what was meant to be a memoir in oral history form. For five years, Stewart recorded hundreds of hours of interviews not only with Newman but with many people who knew him, personally and professionally.

Then, disenchanted with the project, Newman destroyed the tapes. He died in 2008, at age 83. But a few years back, 14,000 pages of transcripts were found in his Connecticut home and a storage locker. Those transcripts became this book, edited by David Rosenthal and overseen by two of Newman’s daughters.

The Paul Newman we know from the screen was irresistibly cool and devastatingly attractive; the man we know from coverage of his life was a generous philanthropist, thrill-seeking race car driver, devoted husband. The Paul Newman revealed in this book survived a troubled childhood, alcoholism and sometimes paralyzing lack of self-confidence in his career, calling himself “that decorative little s--t.”

But those revelations don’t ruin Newman’s image. They show us the sources of the depth and emotion he was capable of as an actor and the empathy that moved him to philanthropy.

Spare cover
Spare cover [ Penguin Random House ]

It won’t be published until Jan. 10, but it’s safe to say that “Spare” (Random House, $36) by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, will break the mold of books about the British royal family.

Ghostwritten by American memoirist J.R. Moehringer (”The Tender Bar”), the book has been closely guarded. Some reports by unnamed sources suggest it will focus on Harry’s childhood and the shocking loss of his mother, Princess Diana, and that it will be less of an attack on the other royals than the Netflix documentary “Harry and Meghan.” Other reports call the book “nuclear” in its tone and revelations; its title nods to Harry’s place in the royal family’s “heir and a spare” hierarchy.

Whatever the book turns out to be, Harry has said he’s donating proceeds to AIDS/HIV and children’s charities.

A Book of Days cover
A Book of Days cover [ Penguin Random House ]

Long a member of the pantheon of punk rock, Patti Smith is also an accomplished author, winning the National Book Award for her memoir “Just Kids.”

Her latest is “A Book of Days” (Random House, $28.99), a lovely, intimate and meditative collection of her photographs, based on her Instagram account, @thisispattismith, which has more than a million followers.

The 366 photos, most of them black and white and taken with a Polaroid Land camera or a cellphone camera, include quotidian images like books Smith is reading or her morning coffee. There are portraits of people she admires on their birthdays as well as images of the grave sites of inspirations like William Blake and Sylvia Plath. Among the most touching photos is one of a pearl necklace, a gift from her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith.

The first photo is an image of Smith’s hand, and the book, she writes in the introduction, is “Three hundred sixty-six ways to say hello.”