Sarojini Seupersad

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.

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.

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