On every holiday shopping list there's an Uncle Max, curmudgeonly and impossible to please. This year, try expressing your affection for him with THE PESSIMIST'S JOURNAL (Little, Brown: $9.95), a handy daybook with such cheerless entries as: "Oct. 2: Stores are now decorated for The Holidays, and they've turned that music on." The book remembers the passing of eras (when Li'l Abner stopped running) and the beginning of the end (when Ray Kroc began franchising McDonald's) and gives a running account of the progress of the Titanic. A less subtle approach would be THE 1990 DAILY CURMUDGEON CALENDAR (New American Library: $8.95), which will offer Uncle Max new things to mutter under his breath, like "If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion."
If your curmudgeon is a traveler, perhaps The Humorists' Guides would tickle his funny bone. These four books (Catbird Press: $9.95 each) collect writers' complaints about France (SAVOIR RIRE), England (IN A FOG), ocean cruises (ALL IN THE SAME BOAT) and Italy (WHEN IN ROME). The latter contains Mark Twain's laments on the lack of talent in the Great Artists he had been instructed to study abroad. One painting particularly annoyed him, with its portrait of the Pope talking with the Doge--"talking tranquilly, too, although within 12 feet of them a man is beating a drum, and not far from the drummer two persons are blowing horns, and many horsemen are plunging and rioting about--indeed, 22 feet of this great work is all a deep and happy holiday serenity and Sunday School procession, and then we come suddenly upon 11 1/2 feet of turmoil and racket and insubordination."
Another good stocking-stuffer is a little gem called ANGELS (Chronicle Books: $9.95), a collection of postcards depicting the winged messengers in art, from Fra Angelico to Van Gogh. The images from the cards also appear in a booklet with literary selections about angels; the whole kit is packaged in a slip case.
There's a range of gift options for lovers of botanical prints. A portfolio of REDOUTE'S FAIREST FLOWERS (Prentice Hall Press: $35) contains 12 reproductions with an essay on the artist and advice on mounting prints. On the heavier side is THE BESLER FLORILEGIUM (Abrams: $150), a facsimile of the 1613 drawings of a German apothecary. For a charming read, however, the best bet is THE NATURE NOTES OF AN EDWARDIAN LADY (Arcade Publishing: $22.95), a recently discovered companion to Edith Holden's 1905 "The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady." The "Nature Notes" are an earlier, unpublished manuscript (discovered in the 1940s when a family bought an old set of English china) by the same gentle diarist and painter of woodland flora and fauna.
For the culinarily competent on your gift list, remember that French cooking is back in fashion, health food having lost some folderol and French food some cholesterol. Lightening up is the main thrust of Julia Child's new THE WAY TO COOK (Alfred A. Knopf: $50), unless you consider the addition of photographs a big improvement over her classic works. The new-and-improved recipe for vichyssoise, for example, lists the heavy cream as optional. (Don't tell my mother I blabbed, but a real secret weapon in vichyssoise is a tablespoon of 7-Up or champagne stirred in for each serving just before it goes to the table.) SEAFOOD: A Connoisseur's Cookbook (Simon & Schuster: $29.95) similarly invites experimentation with new varieties appearing in our markets. Charlotte Knox's illustrations are as beautiful as they are informative, and Alan Davidson's text helpfully provides the various names each fish is given in countries where it is prepared. For Italianophiles, there is Mary Taylor Simeti's celebration of Sicilian food, POMP AND SUSTENANCE (Alfred A. Knopf: $25). Never fear that this is merely a recycling of notes that didn't make it into her Sicilian journal ("On Persephone's Island"); this lyrical and literate account stays close to the topic of food, and has enough tempting recipes to live in the kitchen and collect grease spots. For your Imelda Marcos-aspirant friends, you might consider one of two (count 'em) books on shoes: HEAVENLY SOLES by Mary Trasko (Abbeville Press: $29.95) and SHOES: Fashion and Fantasy by Colin McDowell (Rizzoli: $50). Both have text, but the real draw in each case is the extremely lively quality of the pictures, from the best advertising photography to the purest design extravaganza.
A picture book that tells good stories as well, THE MEDICI AESOP (Abrams: $45) presents the classic fables with reproductions of the Florentine manuscript (in Greek) and its utterly charming miniature paintings. Read these aloud to your children, and enjoy the pictures yourself.