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You don’t need to know anything about the titular subject of Courtney Maum’s The Year of the Horses to appreciate this candid and engaging memoir of how rediscovering a long-abandoned passion helped lift her out of a crisis.

Four years after the birth of her daughter, Nina, novelist Maum found herself drowning in a whirlpool of insomnia-fueled depression, creative stasis and dissatisfaction in her marriage to Leo, a French filmmaker. “I am a blob,” she writes, “struggling through the hours with eyes that will not close.” In search of the relief that even medication and a wise-beyond-his-young-years therapist couldn’t provide, Maum turned to one of her childhood pursuits: horseback riding.

It had been 29 years since Maum abandoned riding lessons at age 9, but she never lost her love for these majestic creatures. Her first lesson as an adult—when “the heat of that beast underneath me, the breadth of his body and the pump of his great heart, had touched something primitive inside”—instantly rekindled her affection. That encounter eventually led her into the “weird sport” of polo, where she learned that putting aside the futile quest for mastery in favor of simply having fun was the path to finding joy.

Through flashbacks to her privileged childhood in Greenwich, Connecticut, Maum also explores some of the roots of her adult angst. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and her younger brother, Brendan, developed some rare and serious medical problems that added to the family’s stress. She traces how some of her more troublesome personality traits from that period—notably a perfectionism that eventually expressed itself as anorexia—continued to manifest in adulthood.

Maum emerged from finding her footing in the world of horses “clearer and braver regarding what I needed in my marriage,” simultaneously discovering a focus and patience that allowed her “to reconnect with the daughter I’d lost track of.” While Maum’s prescription isn’t for everyone, her story reveals how “what pulls us out of darkness can be surprising.” The Year of the Horses shows how the willingness to put aside fear and take on a new challenge in adulthood can unlock a happier life.

You don’t need to know anything about horses to appreciate Courtney Maum’s engaging memoir of rediscovering this long-abandoned passion at a moment of crisis.

Gliding on prose as majestic as his subject, Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental historian Jack E. Davis conveys the breathtaking splendor of the most famous American bird in The Bald Eagle. This bird’s fierce magnificence elevated it to the status of a national symbol that has dominated American iconography from the founding of the Republic to the present.

As Davis points out in his rich cultural and natural history, no other avian species—indeed, no other animal—has “to the same extreme been the simultaneous object of reverence and recrimination.” Before Europeans colonized North America, somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 bald eagles flew and nested in the wild. In spite of the bald eagle’s appearance on the national seal in 1782, not every national leader embraced the eagle; Benjamin Franklin famously called the eagle “a bird of bad moral character who does not get his living honestly.” The bald eagle’s rapacious ways did not sit well with the ranchers and hunters who decimated the species’ population either. “With ornithologists and popular culture portraying eagles as inveterate kidnappers, the myth became a green light for ranchers and farmers to shoot and poison bald eagles in the name of predator control and economic security,” Davis writes. In the 1960s and 70s, the bald eagle population declined even further because of the widespread use of the chemical pesticide DDT.

However, Davis’ spellbinding story doesn’t end there. In the second half of the book, he points to individuals and organizations that have worked tirelessly to pull the bald eagle back from the brink of extinction and restore its numbers, which are now estimated to be as high as they were before European contact with America. Davis concludes with a stirring paean to the bald eagle’s resilience: “Living for itself rather than for humankind, it pursued the evolutionary will for self-preservation and set an example of what can be.”

The Bald Eagle swoops and soars in a dazzling display of writing, evoking the bald eagle’s majesty as it explores the eagle’s place in American history and legend, as well as its role in cultivating a robust environmental movement.

In this rich cultural and natural history, Jack E. Davis’ dazzling writing evokes the bald eagle’s majesty as he explores its place in American history.

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.

From ants to whales, these inviting nonfiction books offer eye-opening perspectives on animals.


In Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Rebecca Giggs considers the background and mythology of the mighty whale. Tracking the creature across centuries through a spellbinding survey of history, science and art, Giggs evaluates the whale’s enduring importance and shows how its relationship to the environment has altered over time. With stops in Australia and Japan, Giggs’ fluid account will captivate readers, and questions related to species’ extinction and environmental degradation will spark inspired dialogue among book clubbers.

Beloved naturalist Edward O. Wilson became intrigued by ants as a boy in Mobile, Alabama. That interest developed into a lifelong preoccupation, and in Tales From the Ant World, he shares personal anecdotes and scientific insights related to the insect. From the fire ant to the uncommon New Caledonian bull ant, Wilson looks at 25 different species. His book is packed with fascinating ant-inspired trivia and research stories, and Wilson’s always absorbing voice makes potentially dry subjects such as biodiversity, the world’s ecosystems and scientific methodology endlessly fascinating.

Patrik Svensson’s The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination With the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World sheds new light on an elusive animal. Although research studies related to the eel are plentiful, scientists still know very little about the fish. For example, eels have never been observed giving birth or mating, and they inexplicably swim back to the ocean near the end of their life, even though they spend the majority of their time in fresh water. Svensson chronicles the eel’s remarkable existence through a synthesis of history, science and memoir. Readers will find plenty to talk about in his compelling narrative, such as evolution and the limits of scientific research.

Jennifer Ackerman investigates avian traits in The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think. Providing a fresh take on our fine-feathered friends, Ackerman analyzes recent scientific research into bird habits related to communication, reproduction and feeding practices. She takes a multifaceted approach to her subject, creating a narrative that will cause many readers to revise their perceptions of birds as simple creatures. Book clubs can dig into rich topics such as animal cognition and species development.

From ants to whales, these inviting nonfiction books offer eye-opening perspectives on animals.

Sit down, pull up a chair (or pick a spot under your favorite tree) and smile as Rick Bragg spins his mesmerizing tales of life down South with characteristically wry humor and wisdom. A paean to his terrible good dog, Speck, The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People offers a knowing and humane meditation on the devotion of a man to his dog and a dog to his man.

Bragg first found Speck among a pack of strays eating trash in the middle of the road; when he approached the pack, the other dogs scattered, but Speck lingered, and so Bragg took him in. Speck’s mismatched eyes—a light brown left eye and an almost solid blue-black right eye—“did not ruin his face; they just made him look like the pirate he is.” Bragg wasn’t looking for a dog when he found Speck, and even if he had been, this isn’t the one he might have expected. “I had in mind a fat dog,” he writes, “a gentle plodder that only slobbered an acceptable amount and would not chase a car even if the trunk was packed with pork chops.”

Yet, this dog—who chases cars, drinks from the toilet and rounds up jackasses—has a story, and Bragg tells it with all the “exaggeration and adjustment” of a rattling good storyteller. Bragg weaves his own stories of health challenges and his brother’s cancer diagnosis throughout Speck’s journey, as the two take care of each other in the wilds of rural Alabama. Bragg concludes that Speck “just wants some people of his own, and some snacks, because a dog gets used to things like that. . . . And, when the weather turns bad, he wants someone to come let him in, when the thunder shakes the mountain, when the lightning flash reveals that he was just a dog all this time.”

The Speckled Beauty takes its place beside Willie Morris’ My Dog Skip, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ animal narratives and William Faulkner’s dog stories—as well as all those short tales of devoted dogs in Field & Stream—confirming once more Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.

The Speckled Beauty confirms Rick Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.

“Well, for heaven’s sake, Susie,” Susan Orlean’s mother once told her. “You and your animals.”

Orlean has garnered well-earned acclaim writing about a slew of unlikely subjects, including orchid lovers, libraries, Saturday nights and more. However, she writes, “somehow or other, in whatever kind of life I happened to be leading, animals have always been my style. They have been a part of my life even when I didn’t have any animals, and when I did have them, they always seemed to elbow their way onto center stage.”

Regardless of whether you’re an animal lover, On Animals is a fabulously fun collection of essays, most of which first appeared in The New Yorker, where Orlean is a staff writer. “Lady and the Tiger,” for instance, tells the story of Joan Byron-Marasek, who collected tigers on her Jackson, New Jersey, property—well before Netflix’s “Tiger King.” Tiger hoarding, it seems, is a thing, and Byron-Marasek had lost track of exactly how many she owned when a Bengal tiger weighing more than 400 pounds was seen walking through the nearby suburbs.

Orlean is such a virtuoso of unexpected joys and delights that she can make even the story of a lost dog read like a thriller, as she does with the unlikely dognapping tale of a border collie in Atlanta. When writing about a champion boxer named Biff in “Show Dog,” her trademark humor shines through right from the start: “If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, good-looking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools.”

In “Lion Whisperer,” Orlean profiles South African Kevin Richardson, who bonds with lions as cubs, cuddling and cultivating relationships through their adulthood, at which point they seem to accept him “on some special terms, as if he were an odd, furless, human-shaped member of their pride.” The essay blossoms into an especially intriguing tale with serious ethical concerns, which seasoned journalist Orlean duly explores. Her style seems meandering at times, but each essay always returns to its glorious point, even when following an aside about, in this case, a man who befriended a housefly named Freddie.

Whether she’s encountering a donkey laden with four televisions in Morocco, or extolling the global appeal of pandas, Orlean’s high-octane enthusiasm never wanes. After all, this is a woman who admits, “One day, I went to CVS to buy shampoo and came home with four guinea fowl thanks to a ‘For Sale’ sign I passed as I was driving home.” Likewise, Orlean’s readers will find themselves completely diverted by On Animals’ irresistible menagerie.

Susan Orlean is such a virtuoso of unexpected joys and delights that she can make even the story of a lost dog read like a thriller.

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