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These books make great 2023 holiday gifts

Dolly Parton, Jose Andres, Bill Watterson and more have new books. And Michelle Obama reads the audiobook “Where the Wild Things Are.”
 
Behind the Seams cover
Behind the Seams cover [ Ten Speed Press ]
Published Nov. 23, 2023|Updated Nov. 24, 2023

Stumped for a holiday gift? Go to the bookstore.

In this season, publishers print a huge array of books to suit just about any interest. And choosing an actual book conveys a bit more thoughtfulness than clicking “buy” for a gift card.

Whether the people on your gift list love comic artists or Dutch Masters, Florida culture or global cuisine, the Wild Things or Dolly Parton, there’s a book for them.

Here are some of the brightest baubles on this year’s tree of books.

Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones

By Dolly Parton

Ten Speed Press, 327 pages, $50

Who is that glittering, golden, sweet-faced figure who lights up everyone’s holiday? No, it’s not the angel on top of the tree — it’s Dolly Parton!

Just in time for gift-giving, the uniter of our nation has a new book, and it’s delicious. “Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones” is Dolly’s gorgeously photographed, engagingly written answer to the question, “What does it take to make her look like that?”

Decade by decade, the book catalogs her costume archive, with details about when she wore the hundreds of outfits, all decked with enough spangles and flourishes to make Barbie look dowdy.

There are comments from the lead archivist (!) of her wardrobe and from designers, photographers and hairstylists who have worked with her, including Cheryl Riddle, who has styled Dolly’s wigs for 39 years and recalls one wig the singer nicknamed “Cupcake” that took six hours to style.

Dolly has come a long way from a little girl in the holler, putting mercurochrome on her lips because her daddy wouldn’t let them wear lipstick, to an avatar of over-the-top glamor trading stories about wigs with RuPaul.

She takes us along on the process with her winningly self-deprecating humor. Describing the first time she met her husband — in a Nashville laundromat, and she remembers exactly what she was wearing — she writes, “I had that blond hair, and he said I was the girl of his dreams — the kind of girl he had always wanted. He liked the movie stars, and I looked like one of those girls to him. And he still thinks I’m that pretty — but he’s half blind.”

Once Upon a Time in Florida cover
Once Upon a Time in Florida cover [ University Press of Florida ]

Once Upon a Time in Florida: Stories of Life in the Land of Promises

Edited by Jacki Levine

Florida Humanities, 330 pages, $45

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the invaluable Florida Humanities mined the rich archives of its award-winning magazine, Forum, to assemble this beautiful, multifaceted anthology of 50 essays about the Sunshine State.

The collection looks at the state from many perspectives — and looks at the perspectives of outsiders as well. There are pieces by such Florida literary lights as Harry Crews on the Okeefenokee Swamp and Lauren Groff on learning to love the state after she moved here.

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Notable historians and scholars contribute as well: J. Michael Francis on the Fountain of Youth, Michael Gannon on the first Thanksgiving, Casey Blanton on travel writers and Florida, Gary Mormino on the citrus industry, Thomas Hallock on Jack Kerouac, Gary Monroe on the Highwaymen, Bob Kealing and Peter Gallagher on music in Florida and Jack Davis on the Gulf of Mexico and the Everglades.

Longtime readers of the Tampa Bay Times will see many familiar names among the contributors, including Dalia Colón, Eric Deggans, Jeff Klinkenberg, Bill Maxwell, Craig Pittman, Terry Tomalin and Jon Wilson.

Handsomely designed and packed with photographs, this wide-ranging anthology is a fine introduction for newcomers as well as a treasure trove for residents who want to better understand the state they’re in.

The Mysteries cover
The Mysteries cover [ Andrews McMeel ]

The Mysteries

By Bill Watterson and John Kascht

Andrews McMeel, 72 pages, $19.99

From 1985 to 1995, Bill Watterson wrote and drew one of the most beloved and widely syndicated comic strips ever, “”Calvin and Hobbes.” The story of a little boy and his pet tiger was cherished for its artistic quality, its sharp wit and its tender heart.

After a decade, at the height of the strip’s success, Watterson walked away, unhappy with the merchandising of comics. When he retired, he really retired — no public projects, no licensing of any “Calvin and Hobbes” merch, a tiny number of interviews, mostly silence.

Now, 28 years later, he is back with a “fable for grown-ups” called “The Mysteries.”

It’s not a comic book, and it involves neither tigers nor rambunctious boys. But it does take the visual beauty of the “Calvin and Hobbes” strips to greater heights, and its streamlined story shares the strip’s sometimes enigmatic humor.

It’s a simple tale, set long ago, about a city of people who fear the Mysteries that live unseen in the forest around them. So fearful are they that it dominates their lives. Their king sends his knights to find the Mysteries so they can understand them, with unexpected results.

Watterson wrote the story and collaborated closely with artist and caricaturist John Kascht on the eerily lovely black-and-white illustrations.

Upside Down World cover
Upside Down World cover [ Liveright ]

The Upside-Down World: Meetings With the Dutch Masters

By Benjamin Moser

Liveright, 379 pages, $39.95

In his introduction to “The Upside-Down World,” Benjamin Moser writes, “When I was twenty-five, I moved to the Netherlands. The reason was a love affair. The place, I thought, was a detail.”

Moser, an accomplished biographer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for “Sontag: Her Life and Work,” ended up falling in love with the Netherlands, too, or, more to the point of this enchanting book, with its painters.

An American living in a culture he knew little about, Moser grounded himself by exploring Dutch museums, which gave him “the thrill of finding oneself in a room packed with old and mysterious things.”

He became enthralled by the works of the Dutch Masters, not just superstars Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer but lesser-known painters as well. He didn’t just look at pictures, though. Over 20 years, he learned about the artists’ lives, their connections and the society they lived in. That research resulted in this book, which combines art criticism, history, brief biographies and a memoir of Moser’s immersion. It’s a perfect vicarious experience for art lovers.

World Central Kitchen cover
World Central Kitchen cover [ Potter ]

The World Central Kitchen Cookbook: Feeding Humanity, Feeding Hope

By José Andrés with Sam Chapple-Sokol

Potter, 303 pages, $35

Eat adventurously and support a great cause — what more could you want from a cookbook?

This is the newest from international hero José Andrés. (Hey, Nobel people, where’s his Peace Prize already?) His story is well known: Not content with being a wildly successful celebrity chef with a fleet of acclaimed restaurants, Andrés in 2010 founded World Central Kitchen, a global nonprofit with a simple mission: feeding people amid disaster.

Since then, the organization has cooked hundreds of millions of fresh meals for victims of hurricanes, floods, wars, pandemics and more. The WCK teams are so well-trained they sometimes arrive on site before first responders, working with local communities to provide familiar, comforting food wherever they go.

This cookbook is a fundraiser, but it’s also a portrait of WCK’s work. Each recipe is accompanied by the stories of chefs and others who have worked with WCK everywhere from Indonesia to Armenia, Puerto Rico to India, Haiti to Washington, D.C.

The recipes hail from all over the world, too, full of intriguing flavors. Don’t worry — Andrés has scaled them down, so you can make enough braised pork al pastor to feed six, not 600.

With lots of photos and contributions from celebrity chefs as well, this cookbook is feel-good in every way.

Where the Wild Things Are cover
Where the Wild Things Are cover [ HarperAudio ]

Where the Wild Things Are

By Maurice Sendak

Read by Michelle Obama

Harper Audio, $5.95

Maurice Sendak’s glorious “Where the Wild Things Are” is a classic, not a new book. Since it was published in 1963, generations of children have followed restless, wolf-suited Max on his visit with the monsters for a wild rumpus.

What is new is this audiobook version, read by former first lady Michelle Obama. She gives it a quintessential mom reading — lively, warm and just scary enough.

For parents who have read the book out loud to their little ones a couple of hundred times, this audiobook is a great way to keep turning the pages and sharing the rascally illustrations, but give another parent a chance to do the reading.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct publisher for “Once Upon a Time in Florida.”