Sarojini Seupersad

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.


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.

To explore the history of Cuba is to explore the history of the United States. In her new epic history, Cuba: An American History, author and historian Ada Ferrer shows the complex ties between these two countries going back centuries.

As the myth goes, Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. But in actuality, he didn’t discover anything in the United States; he landed in Cuba, which was already very much inhabited. Columbus and his men killed most of the Indigenous population and, with Spain’s backing, introduced an economy that used enslaved labor to produce sugar, tobacco and rum. 

With his blunder of mistaking Cuba for India, Columbus initiated Spain’s centurieslong era of colonial dominance—with Havana, Cuba, at the center of it all. By the 18th century, Havana was the third-largest city in the New World. Britain and France, looking to end Spain’s colonial power, sought control of Cuba for its strategic location in the Caribbean, as well as for its military fortifications and natural riches. Meanwhile, as England’s colonies in North America grew, the fledgling United States profited enormously from Cuba’s economy. Eventually, because of their symbiotic relationship, Cuba supported the United States’ fight against Britain.

As time went on, Spain’s control of the Americas eroded, especially after the Seven Years War and the Spanish-American War. Ferrer’s retelling of these wars’ events from an updated, more nuanced perspective will bring a fresh view to history you thought you already knew. The narrative is often simplified as “the United States saved Cuba,” but Ferrer’s look at the Spanish-American War frames it as the point at which relations between the two countries finally began to sour.

Organized into 12 parts and accompanied by stunning historical photographs and illustrations, Cuba covers more than five centuries of complicated and dynamic history. Although much of the book covers the upheaval and chaos of the 20th century, Ferrer is an exceptionally thorough guide of the 15th century onward, careful to keep her readers’ attention with interesting characters, new insights on historical events and dramatic yet accessible writing. This new history of Cuba shows how connected all of our countries’ histories really are.

Ada Ferrer keeps her readers’ attention with interesting characters, new historical insights and dramatic yet accessible writing in her epic history of Cuba.

Acclaimed writer Michael Pollan, author of several notable books including In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and most recently How to Change Your Mind, returns with This Is Your Mind on Plants, which delves into the deep relationships humans have with three mind-altering plants: opium, coffee and mescaline.

Pollan begins this book with an updated version of his Harper’s essay from 1997, in which he writes about attempting to grow poppies to make opium tea for his personal enjoyment—and about the intense anxiety over planting the poppies in his own garden. Confused over whether or not it was legal to grow poppies, Pollan conducted research that led him into a morass of penal contradictions, not to mention the philosophical puzzle of why certain drugs and not others are illegal to begin with.

Next Pollan describes his monthlong detox from caffeine, his preferred drug of choice. During this experiment he experiences mental dullness, lethargy and an intense inability to focus—a writer’s nightmare. Caffeine is a legal drug, of course, but Pollan can’t help but notice how it has a much stronger effect on him than his opium tea did. The relationship between humans and coffee is centuries deep, and Pollan helpfully connects the history of coffee-drinking to our modern-day reliance on caffeine.

The final section is devoted to the study of mescaline: its uses but also who gets to use it. Pollan explores some interesting history involving Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, and after taking mescaline himself during a Native American peyote ceremony, Pollan makes fair observations about the recent cultural appropriation of mescaline.

Readers of How to Change Your Mind will recognize Pollan’s thoughtful and scientific approach to the subject of psychedelic drugs and altered states of consciousness. This Is Your Mind on Plants is an entertaining blend of memoir, history and social commentary that illustrates Pollan’s ability to be both scientific and personal. By relying on contextual history and focusing on three popular, if misunderstood, drugs, Pollan challenges common views on what mind-altering drugs are and what they can accomplish.

Acclaimed writer Michael Pollan delves into our deep relationships with three mind-altering plants: opium, coffee and mescaline.

What is the shape of grief? For writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, grief takes the shape of her father’s absence: the hole he left behind when, in the summer of 2020, he suddenly died of kidney failure. In her slim memoir, Notes on Grief, Adichie pays homage to her father’s remarkable life while observing her own surprising emotions as she moves through the messy process of bereavement, completely unprepared. She writes, “How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?”

By any measure, James Nwoye Adichie lived an extraordinary life. The first professor of statistics in Nigeria, he also lived through the Biafran War and had his books burned by soldiers. He was an honorable and principled man who was naturally funny. When he visited Adichie at Yale, she asked him if he would like some pomegranate juice, and his response was, “No thank you, whatever that is.”

Adiche lovingly describes such details about her father, from his ease with humor to his discomfort with injustice. Upon learning of a local billionaire’s desire to take over ancestral land in their Nigerian town, he immediately looked into ways to stop him. But what is most memorable in this tribute is Adichie’s father’s love for his family and their enduring love for him. Adichie simply calls him “the loveliest man.”

Processing grief is difficult enough, but Adiche learned of her father’s death in Nigeria while she was home in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. One day, they were having family Zoom calls; the next, he was gone. Arrangements had to be made through phone calls and Zoom, and the funeral was postponed for months because the Nigerian airports were closed. Honoring Igbo traditions and arranging a funeral with her siblings during a worldwide pandemic was enough to make Adichie come undone. The hole her father left behind began to fill with guilt, denial, loneliness, panic and eventually bottomless rage.

A raw, moving account of mourning and loss, Adichie’s memoir reminds us there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that celebrating life every day is the best way to honor our loved ones.

In her slim memoir, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pays homage to her father’s remarkable life while observing her own surprising grief.

The self-help genre has a long history of providing advice to readers seeking change, guidance and empowerment. These two highly anticipated books, while wildly different, are positive, entertaining additions to the bunch.

In Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual, bestselling author Luvvie Ajayi Jones uses her trademark humor and insight to show readers how to break down—and break through—the fears that hold them back from their professional and personal goals. Her principles are explained in three sections: Be, Say and Do.

In the Be section, Ajayi Jones emphasizes how important it is to first know who you are and what you want. As you determine these things, remember that being audacious and dreaming big aren’t just for other people; they’re for you, too. In this section, readers meet Ajayi Jones’ grandmother, a joyful woman who took time to celebrate her life and always made space for herself in the world. In the Say section, Ajayi Jones explores how speaking up and setting boundaries are steps worth taking toward fighting your fears. Finally, in Do, she explains that there is no progress without action. 

Throughout the book, Ajayi Jones provides helpful examples of fear-fighting from her own life, such as the time she almost turned down the opportunity to give a TED Talk because she was scared of failure. She also provides useful exercises like writing a mission statement and listing your values and goals. Ajayi Jones’ fans will appreciate this bold display of her signature fearlessness, and new readers will connect with her funny personal stories and flair for language, which make reading this book feel like talking to an old friend.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of the Professional Troublemaker audiobook. Luvvie Ajayi Jones’ commanding, cheerful voice will hype up even the most fearful listener.

Nedra Glover Tawwab, a therapist with a hugely popular Instagram account, debuts with Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself. Tawwab, who specializes in relationships, began writing this indispensable guide after her Instagram post “Signs That You Need Boundaries” went viral. Her book aims to address frequently asked questions from people who may not even know they have boundary issues, since they’re often disguised as other problems such as time mismanagement, anxiety and burnout. Once someone understands boundaries better, Tawwab explains, they can begin to improve their relationships through open communication.

Beginning with a description of Tawwab’s own process of setting boundaries with family members, the book establishes six types of boundaries—physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional, material and time—and gives examples of how these issues might play out in real-life scenarios. Tawwab then dispenses advice about how to handle each type of situation through personal anecdotes and examples from anonymized therapy clients.

Although Set Boundaries, Find Peace is written with authority, Tawwab’s voice is friendly and sincere as she presents her ideas in a clear, no-nonsense fashion. For example, when explaining time boundaries, she gives a brief description of the issue; follows it up with examples of time boundary violations, such as overcommitting or accepting favor requests from people who won’t reciprocate; then tells the reader what time boundaries might sounds like (“I won’t be able to make it to your event on Tuesday”) and ends with an exercise to reinforce the information. 

Tawwab excels at presenting complicated ideas and behaviors in an accessible, nonjudgmental manner, helping the reader feel at ease and understood. Anyone looking to regain control over their time, energy and needs will appreciate her book’s wisdom and practical advice.

These two highly anticipated self-help books are positive, entertaining guides for readers seeking change, guidance and empowerment.

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