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2020 Gift Guide for Book Lovers

23 novels, cookbooks, biographies and more for everyone on your list

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This year has been packed with wonderful books — so many it may feel overwhelming trying to decide which ones to give friends and family this season. These are some picks from 2020 likely to have broad appeal.

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Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics

Dolly Parton, with Robert K. Oermann

This lovely offering, sure to be treasured by Dolly Parton's biggest fans, is more like a colorful scrapbook than a traditional memoir: It's a mix of dozens of photographs, along with handwritten and printed lyrics to more than 175 of her songs (including her first, “Little Tiny Tasseltop,” composed when she was 6), with the singer's reflections throughout. “Jolene,” she writes, was inspired by a little girl of the same name who asked for an autograph: Parton says she responded, “Well, I love that name, and if you ever hear a song with it, you'll know it's about you.” And note that her first holiday album in 30 years, A Holly Dolly Christmas, is out this season. ($50)


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The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X

Les and Tamara Payne

The new winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, this fascinating biography is the result of more than 30 years of research by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Les Payne, who set out to interview everyone who'd known the former Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights icon. The resulting book (completed by Payne's daughter, Tamara, after the author's 2018 death at age 76) includes new details on Malcolm's youth, when white neighbors set fire to the young family's home in Lansing, Michigan, and his father was run over by a streetcar. “It was as if some curse of Shakespearean proportion had befallen this American family,” the authors note. ($35)

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David Michaelis

This probing, detailed biography dissects the remarkable life of Eleanor Roosevelt, including her difficult childhood with troubled parents that he presents with vivid detail: “One or the other was always pouting in a dark room, injustice hanging its sulky cloud in the hallways, meals on trays creaking with reproachful indignation upstairs.” Her mother was soon lost to diphtheria, her father to alcohol; the family's privilege offered no protection from heartache. Michaelis goes on to explore her groundbreaking roles as first lady and human rights warrior, as well as her complicated romantic relationships with husband Franklin and others. You can read our excerpt here. ($35)

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Cooking for One

America's Test Kitchen

It can be hard to find a cookbook that caters to people who cook and eat alone, but the pros at America's Test Kitchen — known for testing and retesting their recipes to perfection — have come out with an excellent one. It includes lots of easy and easily adaptable small-batch recipes, such as Fastest-Ever Carbonara and Clean Out Your Fridge Soup (there's even a recipe for making just two gooey chocolate chip cookies), and a leftover storage guide to prevent food waste. Some of their super-simple dishes — pan-seared shrimp or cheddar omelets, for instance — can be jazzed up using recipes for sauces and spice mixes, also included in this essential cookbook. ($29.99)


East: 120 Vegan and Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Beijing

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Meera Sodha

Another great pick for the cook in your life, this one by The Guardian's vegan food columnist and the author of cookbooks Fresh India and Made in India. In East, Sodha offers a flavorful celebration of cuisine from India, Southeast Asia, Japan and everywhere in between. She doesn't bill these recipes as “easy,” but many are just that — such as the four-ingredient Overnight Soy Eggs. You'll also find boredom-busting salads, like Charred Romaine Lettuce with mint raita, and extraordinary desserts (Salted Miso Brownies, for one). It's a beautifully presented collection that's full of surprises. ($35)


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What It's Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing — What Birds Are Doing, and Why

David Allen Sibley

Got a nature lover in your life? It's hard to imagine even a casual backyard bird-watcher who wouldn't swoon over this a gorgeous large-format guide authored and illustrated by the world-renowned bird authority David Allen Sibley, famous for The Sibley Guide to Birds (2000). His latest is full of fascinating facts on everything from how birds use their tongues to the number of sounds a northern mockingbird can imitate (more than 150). And eating like a bird? In some cases that would be like eating 25 large pizzas a day, according to Sibley. ($35)

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Refuge: America's Wildest Places

Ian Shive

This stunning coffee-table book by conservation photographer Ian Shive showcases America's preserved natural areas — a total of 150 million acres across the United States. Shive takes us from rugged Kenai, Alaska, home to more than 2,000 different plant and animal species, to an underwater view of the colorful coral reef in the turquoise waters of Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific and a stunning sunset over California's Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge. His photos are so lovely they may inspire your future vacation plans. ($50)


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Little, Brown and Company

The Law of Innocence

Michael Connelly

You don't need to have read Connelly's previous Lincoln Lawyer novels to enjoy this latest (though it certainly doesn't hurt). Already a best seller, it features a favorite Connelly character, defense attorney Mickey Haller — the Lincoln Lawyer — played by Matthew McConaughey in the 2011 film. The fast-paced plot has Mickey facing a murder charge after the body of a former client is discovered in the trunk of his car. In jail with bond set at $5 million, he sets out to prove his innocence with the help of his half brother, Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch — another Connelly fave with his own TV series. Read our excerpt here. ($29)

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The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett

By the author of the acclaimed 2016 book The MothersThe Vanishing Half is a thought-provoking novel about identical twins Desiree and Stella, and, decades later, their daughters. Light-skinned African Americans, the sisters flee their tiny Southern town as teenagers in the 1950s, and end up taking very different paths. Stella marries a white man and has a daughter, keeping her roots hidden from her new family and leaving Desiree bewildered and heartbroken. Each of the complex characters are affected differently by the long-ago lie that magnifies the folly of fixating on black-and-white labels. You can read our excerpt here. ($27)

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If It Bleeds

Stephen King

King's four novellas in this 2020 collection might be bite-size, but they still shine with his brilliant ability to tingle our spines. In “If It Bleeds,” old favorite Holly Gibney (Mr. Mercedes and The Outsider) explores a shape-shifting evil that feeds on pain and death. But most aren't so much scary as they are creepy, Twilight Zone-style, including “Mr. Harrigan's Phone,” which involves cellphone calls from a young man to his buried older friend, who might just be wreaking vengeance for him. The gentlest story, “The Life of Chuck,” (another character familiar to the author's fans) is about the ghosts we all have inside of us. King's genius is to temper his forays into the dark side of life with a sense of wonder about the world. ($30)

And more ...

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Stuff You Should Know: An Incomplete Compendium of Mostly Interesting Things

Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant

This book is a spin-off from the popular entertaining podcast of the same name, where hosts Clark and Bryant explore super-random but interesting subjects such as “The History of Nursing Homes,” “How Porta-Potties Work” and “Fruit Flies: Why?” The book is similar, a decidedly nonlinear informative guide to everything from “What is the purpose of facial hair?” to “Why do we pay income taxes?” Podcast fans might also enjoy the audiobook version, which includes a bonus conversation where the hosts answer listener questions. Here's an audio excerpt from Chapter 1 of their new book. ($27.99)

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The Best of Me

David Sedaris

The writer who got his start with his famous NPR story describing his stint as a department store Christmas elf in “Santaland Diaries” has become one of the country's most beloved (and best-selling) humorists, always frank about his insecurities and quirks — not to mention the quirkiness of his family. This latest book is a collection of some of his best essays, both fiction and nonfiction (many might prefer he'd focus on the latter, his forte). We could all use a good laugh these days, and Sedaris always provides. ($30)

More favorites from 2020:

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz. A super entertaining and clever whodunit, set at an old English hotel, with clues hidden in a mystery novel whose author has passed away. Great fun.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. A brilliantly conveyed history of how skin color has been used as an arbitrary tool to build an unjust hierarchy in the U.S., comparable to India's. An often-heartwrenching, absolutely essential book for understanding the country today.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. A mesmerizing, wildly imaginative novel set in a mind-bending fantasy world, a vast labyrinth with infinite rooms and seas that sweep into halls and up staircases with the tides.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. An already frightening tale is decidedly nerve-racking when considered while steeped in anxiety about the current state of the world. It features a family vacationing in Long Island when everything starts to fall apart.

Modern Comfort Food by Ina Garten. Out this fall and already a best seller, with cozy-making (though not necessarily healthy) foods like black-and-white cookies and cheesy chicken enchiladas.

The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel. A poignant, romantic historical novel about French resistance during World War II, focused on a young Parisian woman who helps forge papers for Jewish children. Based on a true story.

The Awkward Black Man by Walter Mosley, the Edgar Award winner known for his Easy Rawlins mystery series, offers a tender, sad and gripping collection of 17 insightful short stories.

The Answer Is ...: Reflections on My Life by Alex Trebek. The late host of Jeopardy!, Trebek writes frankly and with humor about his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, thoughts on fame, anecdotes from the show and more.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. By the poet and author of the best seller H is for Hawk, these are beautiful, cerebral essays about wildlife and how observing the natural world can provide insight and comfort.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi. A moving debut novel set in 1950s India focuses on a woman named Lakshmi who flees an abusive husband, earning her living as a henna painter and striving for an independent life. 

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny. The latest Inspector Armand Gamache novel from the beloved writer is set in Paris rather than the usual wintery Quebec.

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