Sarojini Seupersad

Throughout his broadcasting career, journalist and host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” Ari Shapiro has made connections with people from all walks of life. In his sparkling memoir, The Best Strangers in the World: Stories From a Life Spent Listening, Shapiro intimately invites readers into his childhood and beyond to show them how his youthful curiosity and desire to learn have helped shape him into the person he is today.

Shapiro was born in Fargo, North Dakota, but when he was still a child, his family relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he embraced public speaking. As a teenager in Portland, he came out as gay and joined the city’s queer underground to nurture his sense of identity and community. Throughout the book, Shapiro explores his gay and Jewish identities and the surprising ways they have both affected and not affected his life. 

After recounting the unusual and almost magical story of his path to becoming a host on “All Things Considered,” Shapiro delves into his most fascinating experiences as a reporter, including an international incident in Ireland, a surprise interview with President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One and a chance to report on the war in Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. Along with these stories, he supplies some very entertaining vignettes about his side gig as a singer for the band Pink Martini.

However, Shapiro is at his best when he’s discussing the most poignant and personal moments in his life. “Happy Endings,” which describes his whirlwind 2004 wedding to his husband, Mike, and “The Other Man I Married,” about his best friend and former producer, Rich, are two of the strongest and most moving pieces in the collection. Full of emotion and wit, these essays remind readers how funny and heartbreaking, often in equal measure, life can be. They also emphasize that anyone can have impostor syndrome or feel scared to be authentic, even when they’re someone who has interviewed the president of the United States.

NPR listeners will especially appreciate this book as a trusty companion to “All Things Considered,” but you needn’t be an NPR listener to enjoy these essays. Personal and contemplative, but also funny and at times devastating, The Best Strangers in the World will instill a newfound appreciation for the hard work journalists do and a sense of awe for the scope of history they get to observe up close.

With his sparkling memoir, “All Things Considered” host Ari Shapiro gives readers insight into the hard work journalists do and the incredible scope of history they get to observe up close.

In 1967, the Supreme Court invented a new legal principle called qualified immunity that limited the public’s right to sue certain government employees. Seemingly designed to protect government officials from frivolous lawsuits, in practice, it mostly shields the police from being sued for misconduct, even if they’ve violated someone’s constitutional rights. In effect, it makes it perfectly legal for the police to infringe on citizens’ rights.

How did we get to the point where the people who are sworn to protect the law do not have to follow it? In her book, Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable, UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz deftly explains the complicated web of laws and policies that exist in the United States for the sole purpose of protecting the police. In the process, she shines a light on every aspect of the justice system, from the federal jury system, which is disproportionately white and middle class, to Supreme Court decisions that make little sense in the context of everyday life.

After studying police accountability for decades, Schwartz’s expertise in criminal justice law shines in Shielded. The book is part research and part history, and it’s filled with important case law, most of which the average person won’t have heard of. These important courtroom precedents determine how the police are allowed to engage with the public, such as whether or not police need a warrant to search you when you’re minding your business walking down the street. (They don’t.) But this is no legalese-filled academic treatise. It’s incredibly engaging because Schwartz smoothly weaves the human story into each case she explains. After all, there is a real person behind every story of police misconduct. Someone was brutalized or their rights were ignored, and this book explains exactly how the police were allowed to get away with it.

Although these laws have been in place for decades, Schwartz doesn’t believe that they are unstoppable or that police misconduct will continue to go unpunished indefinitely. In addition to dissecting the problem, she also offers ideas for solutions, such as educating the public on the failures of criminal justice law and requiring the police to pay a portion of civil settlements. Shielded is a meaningful, well-researched and readable work that will open many discussions about this important social issue.

Shielded is a meaningful, well-researched work that will open many discussions about the U.S. laws that exist for the sole purpose of protecting the police.

When was the last time you truly had fun? If you’re like most adults, it’s probably been longer than you care to admit. In the lighthearted and entertaining The Fun Habit: How the Pursuit of Joy and Wonder Can Change Your Life, psychologist Mike Rucker suggests that fun is as important to human welfare as relationships and exercise—and therefore that we should all take fun a little more seriously.

Rucker argues that we are not experiencing nearly enough fun in our lives due to modern hindrances such as social media addiction, overwork and negative societal views about leisure (always be hustling). According to Rucker, the importance of fun cannot be overstated because it is not only good for us but also one of the most fundamental ways we interact with the world. However, as we age, we forget to make time for playtime, and this is having a detrimental effect on our collective well-being, resulting in widespread worker burnout.

Fun, to be clear, can be anything from dancing to helping others to learning a new language to rock climbing: essentially, any activity that sustains engagement and leaves you feeling like you’ve experienced something positive. But this isn’t a book that promotes “toxic positivity”—the sort of relentless positivity that drives people to ignore the actual problems in their lives. Rucker’s main concern is teaching us to examine how we spend our time so we can be more deliberate in our choices instead of living on autopilot.

Rucker provides a scientific approach to incorporating more fun, satisfaction and spontaneity into daily life, including practical ideas and strategies. For example, he suggests that people schedule fun into their day ahead of time, and that they take photos while they’re having fun so they can be reminded often of a fun moment. Rucker also recommends that, when possible, people prioritize their time over money. After all, time is a resource you can’t get back.

With expertise and a personal, intimate understanding of the subject matter, Rucker backs up his suggestions with scientific research regarding happiness, fun and, most interestingly, how our brains interpret stimuli. This well-researched and impressive guide to finding more meaning in your day-to-day life will offer readers endless rewards.

Psychologist Mike Rucker suggests that fun is as important to human welfare as relationships and exercise—and therefore that we should all take fun more seriously.

In How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future, journalist Maria Ressa, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, gives readers a riveting inside view of what it’s like to be a dissident fighting authoritarianism. This engrossing book is a political history of the Philippines and an intimate memoir, but it’s also a warning to democracies everywhere: Authoritarianism is a threat to us all.

Since the 1980s, Ressa has been a journalist who speaks truth to power, but her path to success unfolded almost by accident. Born in the Philippines, Ressa was brought at age 10 to the United States, where she was raised by her mother and stepfather. When she first arrived, she felt like a confused outsider but quickly realized she felt comfortable at school and could thrive there if she followed these rules for herself: Always choose to learn, embrace your fear, and stand up to bullies. Those courageous lessons would follow her throughout her life as a journalist and a critic of dictators.

Upon returning to the Philippines as an adult, Ressa worked for CNN and then ABS-CBN, where she was head of the news division while the political climate in the Philippines was becoming more and more volatile. She later co-founded her own news service, Rappler, with the intention of integrating social media, citizen journalism and data into old-fashioned journalism. However, she increasingly found that social media, Facebook in particular, and corrupt politicians made for very dangerous bedfellows. Through Rappler’s data-collecting and help from her readers, Ressa discovered that social media was helping to fuel fascism in the Philippines. Disinformation spread quickly and widely because people tended to share information (even lies) when strong emotions were attached to the content. When she brought this to Facebook’s attention, they dismissed her concerns.

With the help of these disinformation campaigns, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines in 2016. He won in a landslide based on false promises of fighting crime and corruption. In reality, he was shutting down press freedoms, ordering gruesome extra-judicial killings and handing out government positions to loyalists and corrupt officials. Ressa’s scrutiny of his administration has led to two arrests for cyber libel; she has been convicted and is currently awaiting her appeal.

The exceptional details in this memoir are both tactile and persistent; you can almost feel and smell the blood as Ressa describes a crime scene. Her ability to recount the finer details of some of the scariest moments of her life (such as witnessing a military coup) is nothing short of breathtaking. Highly researched yet accessible, How to Stand Up to a Dictator is a plea to the world: The best way to maintain a democracy is a strong press, free from corruption and disinformation.

Maria Ressa’s book is a political history of the Philippines and an intimate memoir, but it’s also a warning to democracies everywhere: Authoritarianism is a threat to us all.

The wellness industry offers a seductive promise: If you work hard, are dedicated and buy this shiny new thing, then you, too, can have the healthy, beautiful life you’ve always dreamed of. But for journalist Rina Raphael, that dream sounds too good to be true. In her new book, The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care, Raphael delves into the history of the wellness industry and explores why it’s booming—and what that means for society.

With wit and a keen eye for research, Raphael explains that “the wellness industry isn’t well.” An industry that began with fad diets and exercise has morphed into a trillion-dollar behemoth that’s trying to sell health with a side of spirituality. In a world that feels totally off its axis, the wellness industry offers women (it’s almost always women) a feeling of meaning and control over their lives. Its products fill the vacuum left by a sexist medical industry that discounts and misdiagnoses women, forcing them to look elsewhere for answers. Stressed and overworked, women can’t individually fight the systemic issues facing them, but they can perhaps buy a Peloton or a jade roller. In doing so, as Raphael explains, the wellness industry convinces women that it’s possible to buy their way to a happy, stress-free life while allowing them to ignore the systemic issues that make them stressed to begin with.

But there’s more. Raphael insightfully argues that wellness and health are industry code words that cloak their real meanings: thin. The purposeful conflation of being thin with being healthy is what drives the obsession with yoga, detox teas, expensive fitness classes, “clean” eating, $135 coffee enemas and vaginal steaming kits. But as Raphael reveals, an obsession with being thin often means ignoring what’s actually healthy.

Throughout the book, Raphael attends many wellness events and speaks to industry leaders. Her descriptions of these interactions are where her writing shines most and comes alive. It’s also where the focus of the book comes into sharp view—where she shows the real human beings perpetuating the hype. All together, The Gospel of Wellness exposes the spectacle, the splendor and the emptiness behind the curtain.

Rina Raphael exposes the emptiness behind the spectacle and splendor of the trillion-dollar wellness industry.

Thirty writers consider the myriad ways a human body can exist in the world in Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves. The thoughtful essays in this anthology, brought together by Catapult editors Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile, touch on everything from death, eating disorders and racism to sex and taking self-portraits while transitioning, but one theme connects them all: how these writers celebrate the existence of their bodies, and what these revelations can tell us about ourselves.

In the opening essay, “The Crematorium,” the late poet Nina Riggs gently folds soft waves of grief and perceptive humor into the details of preparing her mother’s body for cremation. In “Smother Me,” essayist and fiction writer Natalie Lima describes her sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing experiences of dating as a fat woman, including the particular desire her body arouses in men—and the power she has over them. In novelist Bryan Washington’s essay, “View From the Football Field,” readers are rewarded with an intimate look at what it’s like to grow up playing football in Texas as a Black teenager. Poet and novelist Destiny Birdsong serves up a blistering critique of medical racism in “Karen Medicine.” Author Jess Zimmerman begins her essay “It Doesn’t Hurt, It Hurts All the Time” by exploring the sensation of pain before pivoting to a powerful depiction of the ways our society has been traumatized by the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of the essays in this collection are poignant, and readers will find its diverse list of contributors especially refreshing. That, coupled with the sharp quality of the writing, makes Body Language a standout work. Its dedication to showcasing a multitude of voices and perspectives adds excitement to the reading experience; as you turn the pages, you never know what you’ll read or learn about next.

In writer and editor Hannah Walhout’s essay, “Attack of the Six-Foot Woman,” she explains how being a tall woman has defined her life. She writes, “This exhausting state of being perpetually noticed often made me not want to be noticed at all.” This theme—taking up space, perhaps more than society allows—underpins many of the essays throughout Body Language, which work together to present the central contradiction of life in a physical body. As Walhout puts it, “We do not have inherent control over our own bodies. In fact, human bodies are sometimes not what they appear and have endless potential for change.”

One theme connects the 30 sharp essays in Body Language: celebrating the existence and challenges of the human body.

By most measures, Keri Blakinger lived a charmed life. As the daughter of a successful lawyer and a schoolteacher, her upper-middle-class suburban existence seemed, from the outside, perfect. Her childhood was filled with loving parental support, academic success and a fierce pursuit of competitive figure skating that took her all the way to nationals. But when that pursuit ended in disappointment, Blakinger’s life came undone.

In her exceptional debut, Corrections in Ink, investigative journalist Blakinger reflects on an important decade of her life that took her from figure skating to drug addiction, to selling drugs and sex, to an arrest on a drug charge while she was a college student at Cornell University. She got clean during the almost two years she was imprisoned, but afterward she still had to grapple with the inhumanity of being behind bars.

Blakinger details the cruelties, big and small, that she endured while she was incarcerated. She also acknowledges that, as a white woman, she was in a position of privilege and that Black and brown people are treated far worse, get tougher sentences and have worse outcomes than their white counterparts. It is a sad and powerless position for anyone to be in, as the prison system is designed to slowly strip away one’s humanity. To hold on to her humanity, Blakinger had to find joy in unexpected places.

Corrections in Ink is written with deep insight and urgency, and Blakinger’s gripping insider knowledge and experience is supported by research, strong analysis and a blistering indictment of the criminal justice system. It’s this rare combination of personal narrative and reporting that makes Corrections in Ink such a singular reading experience.

Blakinger’s raw and important memoir isn’t only a drug recovery and success story. It’s a searing condemnation of our cruel and unjust project of caging human beings, a firsthand account of what this entails and a challenge not to look away from America’s flawed and punitive carceral system.

Keri Blakinger’s combination of personal narrative and reporting makes her debut memoir about her life in prison an exceptional, singular read.

In his urgent new book, Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, From 1979 to the Present, journalist Eugene Linden gravely explains why the world has failed to stop the ongoing catastrophe of climate change. He begins with the 1980s, when climate change first became widely known as “global warming.” As temperatures began to rise around the world, scientists sounded the alarm and made dire predictions of what was to come, yet the public was largely uninterested. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry maintained its outsize stranglehold on our economic and political systems—all in the name of profit.

Next Linden tackles the 1990s, when India and China became more industrialized, multiplying their greenhouse gas emissions exponentially. Following western nations’ lead, they had invested in mostly coal power, sending climate change into overdrive. This was also the decade when the Kyoto Protocol was enacted to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but in the end it did little to mitigate the effects of climate change, and the nations of the world maintained their collective dependence on fossil fuels.

Linden outlines all the ways the fossil fuel industry and the business community as a whole questioned the existence of climate change in bad faith in the 2000s. Despite evidence and numerous warnings, they actively downplayed the severity of climate change, aided by a decadeslong misinformation campaign. In fact, the first decade of the new millennium was the warmest decade on record, but even then the fossil fuel industry and its monied interests continued to dismiss the gravity of climate change.

By 2010, superstorms and massive wildfires were commonplace occurrences, rather than fluke events that happened once every century. Climate change is here, Linden declares, and we can no longer deny it. 

Although this is a deeply serious subject, there is still much to be hopeful about, and Linden ends Fire and Flood on a positive note. As coal companies go out of business and electric car companies become the norm, a new light may be shining up ahead. Experts anticipate trillions of dollars of investments in renewable energy, new green industries and new jobs over the next 30 years. The public is demanding change, and that, Linden emphasizes, is where our power lies.

If you’ve ever wondered how we got here, this sobering and accessible history deftly outlines government failures, missed opportunities and the steps we can take to turn the tide.

Eugene Linden’s sobering and accessible history of climate change deftly outlines how we got here and what steps we can take to turn the tide.

Dr. Carl Erik Fisher’s impressive debut tackles the cultural history of addiction, offering a nuanced, personal perspective on a health crisis that remains stigmatized and misunderstood. In The Urge, Fisher weaves together history, psychology, neuroscience, sociology, philosophy and medicine to construct a holistic, humane portrait of a condition that has baffled experts for centuries.

Fisher, an addiction specialist and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, begins with his and his family’s history with alcoholism and addiction. As a psychiatry resident at Columbia, he checked himself into treatment after he realized he was addicted to alcohol. During his time in rehab, he asked himself a simple but profound question: Why is this so hard?

Looking to history for answers, Fisher found that the earliest references to the concept of addiction were from great ancient thinkers. Aristotle, Augustine and Teng Cen, the Chinese poet from the Song dynasty, all described a compulsion to do something against one’s will. As an addiction specialist, Fisher sees this same compulsion in his patients: a strong desire to stop harmful behavior and an inability to do so.

There’s a strong American perspective in The Urge, since most of the contemporary world’s ideas of addiction come from work started in the United States—from groups like Alcoholics Anonymous to movements like Prohibition and the war on drugs. Our current view of addiction is as a mental disorder or disease that exists on a spectrum, but as Fisher explains, that wasn’t always the case. Rather than a medical condition, it was considered a crime, and until recently, there was no treatment.

Fisher’s personal experience in rehab informed his view of addiction. He knew that he received excellent, humane care because he was a doctor, and he also knew that most people who seek help for their addictions don’t receive the same quality of care. He examines why effective treatment for addiction is not only hard to come by but also, Fisher argues, unequally and unfairly administered.

The Urge is several excellent books in one: a complete and sweeping history of addiction, a compassionate doctor’s approach to treating people with addictions, and a blistering critique of outdated, draconian government policies around drug use and addiction.

The Urge is several excellent books in one: a sweeping history of addiction, a compassionate look at treatment and a blistering critique of outdated policies.

Thumbing through a beautifully designed coffee-table book is a sure way to provoke a love of photography. Just in time for the holidays, here are three gorgeous photo books that are sure to please the art or nature lover on your list—and perhaps you can keep one for yourself, too.

Shop Cats of China

Cats have charmed and fascinated humans for millennia. From ancient Egypt to modern times, cats have been depicted in art, mummified in tombs and even immortalized by the popular social media account @bodegacatsofinstagram. In Shop Cats of China, Marcel Heijnen takes readers on a photographic tour of China’s many retail shops, the people who run them—and the furry loiterers who clearly know they’re the stars of the show.

Equal parts street photography, cat portraiture and whimsical poetry, Shop Cats of China is much more than cute pictures of cats. The street scenes in this book, sometimes languid and colorful, sometimes kinetic and full of city life, are lovingly punctuated with haiku and cat stories (written by Ian Row) that add a layer of sweetness and humor to each image. A man pours tea into cups while a relaxed white cat looks directly at the camera and wonders if he’s invited. Red seafood bins surround an orange cat who, ironically, doesn’t like seafood. A spotted cat sits atop a bicycle and waits for a friend. These scenes and others will delight and entertain anyone who is fascinated by the relationship between humans and their cats, while the surrounding textures and colors offer a slice of Chinese shop culture and street life.

Birds

Tim Flach is a world-class nature photographer with the heart of a painter. His new book, Birds, offers a unique and up-close view of his avant-garde wildlife photography. The glossy pages full of shockingly sharp images show many elegant and rare birds, from songbirds and parrots at rest, to raptors and birds of paradise in flight. Feathers look like landscapes, beaks glisten like gold and onyx, and the birds’ elegant postures make them all look like royalty. The bright colors are so beautiful that they seem almost unnatural, while the details look real enough that you could reach out and touch them. Full of personality and exquisite artistry, Birds will mesmerize nature lovers with its compassion and profound beauty.

Night on Earth

Though it’s normally hidden under the cover of darkness, the world can look magical at night, as photographer Art Wolfe reveals in his remarkable new book. One of the first images in Night on Earth is a stunning, almost overwhelming photograph of Mount Etna in Sicily, erupting purple ash. A perfectly round moon peeks out from behind the plumes of dangerous-looking dark smoke as pink, red and blue clouds dance around in the background of the night sky. It’s a compelling shot to start this dazzling collection, which is filled with impressive images.

To capture these cinematic nightscapes, Wolfe traveled to all seven continents and photographed starry skies, animals, humans, natural scenery and cities. The result is an assemblage of unusual sights that occur while most people are asleep—including black rhinoceroses rambling through Etosha National Park in Namibia, fishermen on stilts in Myanmar, late-night commuters in Tokyo, penguins ambling on the shores of an island in the Atlantic Ocean and an offering floating on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. Organized into helpful chapters, such as “Stars and Shadows” and “The Creatures of the Night,” these 250 pages of vibrant color photographs will wow anyone who’s curious about the mysteries that unfold from dusk until dawn.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Thumbing through these beautifully designed coffee-table books is a sure way to inspire a love of photography.

In 2011, the Chinese government imprisoned the prolific artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei for 81 days on charges of “economic crimes”—though the real reason was his outspoken political activism. Though harrowing, the experience spurred Ai Weiwei to see the parallels between his father’s tumultuous life and his own. Now, in his moving and passionate memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, Ai Weiwei looks back on growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution and recounts the extraordinary life of his father, the exiled poet Ai Qing.

The first half of the memoir is dedicated to Ai Qing, who, along with his family, was forced into exile in 1957, the year Ai Weiwei was born. Because of his status as a writer and poet, and his strained relationship with the Communist regime, Ai Qing was viewed as a threat and forced to do back-breaking work in a labor camp, such as cleaning camp latrines and pruning forests, all while facing constant public humiliation and sometimes physical abuse. As conditions became more dangerous for political prisoners under Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule, Ai Qing’s family was relocated several times, with precipitously worsening conditions. At one point, they were sent to “Little Siberia” in northeast China, where they were forced to live in a lice- and rat-infested dugout.

Through it all, Ai Qing remained stoic and never allowed anything to break his spirit. He did his work well, never complained and waited patiently for the punishment to end. Although Ai Weiwei was still a child at the time, he, too, knew better than to complain. He hated the blind obedience to Mao but understood that it was necessary. After Mao’s death in 1976, Ai Weiwei’s family moved to Beijing, and in 1979, Ai Qing was considered fully rehabilitated by the government and no longer a “rightist.” He continued writing and publishing poetry, and one of his poems was read during the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The second half of the memoir turns to Ai Weiwei’s life—his artistic study in the United States, his move back to Beijing, his career as an artist and his many encounters with political censorship. He writes of his arrest and imprisonment with clarity and detail, and readers can feel the anxiety of political turmoil and the power of disobedience as he defies Chinese authorities, over and over again.

Sprinkled throughout the book are lovely black-and-white sketches and drawings by Ai Weiwei, as well as many of his father’s emotive poems. These pieces of art remind readers that, although this memoir is a political and personal history, Ai Weiwei is first and foremost committed to artistic expression.

This heart-rending yet exhilarating book, translated by professor of Chinese Allan H. Barr, gives a rare look into how war and revolution affect innocent bystanders who are just trying to live. It’s simultaneously an informative political history of the last 100 years in China, an intimate portrait of familial bonds through the generations and a testament to the power of art.

Ai Weiwei’s heartrending yet exhilarating memoir gives a rare look into how war and revolution affect innocent bystanders who are just trying to live.

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