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.
Thumbing through these beautifully designed coffee-table books is a sure way to inspire a love of photography.
For the bibliophile on your shopping list, we've rounded up the year's best books about books.
The Madman's Library
The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities From History by Edward Brooke-Hitching is a must-have for any bibliomaniac. Over the course of this splendidly illustrated volume, Brooke-Hitching reviews the history of the book, investigating a variety of forms and a wide range of media but always emphasizing the extraordinary.
Along with a number of wonderful one-offs (a book composed of Kraft American cheese slices), there are giant books (the 6-foot-tall Klencke Atlas) and tiny books (a biography of Thomas Jefferson that literally fits inside a nutshell), books that are sinister (a volume with a cabinet of poisons concealed inside) and books that are sublime (the medieval Stowe Missal with its ornate reliquary case). Astonishing from start to finish, The Madman's Library stands as a testament to the abiding power and adaptability of the book.
Unearthing the Secret Garden
Marta McDowell looks at the life of a treasured author in Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett. Born in 1849, British novelist Burnett published more than 50 novels, including The Secret Garden. McDowell delivers an intriguing account of Burnett's botanical and literary pursuits and the ways in which they were intertwined. She highlights Burnett's enduring love of plants, tours the gardens the author maintained in Europe and America and even dedicates an entire chapter to the plants that appear in The Secret Garden.
McDowell, who teaches horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, has also written about how plants influenced the work of Emily Dickinson, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beatrix Potter. Filled with marvelous illustrations and historical photographs, her new book is a stirring exploration of the natural world and its impact on a literary favorite.
The Annotated Arabian Nights
The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales From 1001 Nights, edited by scholar and author Paulo Lemos Horta, provides new perspectives on a beloved classic. Rooted in the ancient literary traditions of Persia and India, the collection of folktales known as The Arabian Nights features familiar figures such as Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin and Shahrazad, the female narrator who spins the stories.
This new volume offers a fresh translation of the stories by Yasmine Seale, along with stunning illustrations and informative notes and analysis. The tales, Horta says, deliver "the most pleasurable sensation a reader can encounter—that feeling of being nestled in the lap of a story, fully removed from the surrounding world and concerned only with a need to know what happens next." This lavish edition of an essential title is perfect for devotees of the tales and an ideal introduction for first-time readers.
We Are the Baby-Sitters Club
We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays and Artwork From Grown-Up Readersis a delightful tribute to author Ann M. Martin and the much-loved Baby-Sitters Club series she introduced in 1986. Propelled by memorable characters, primarily tween club members Kristy, Stacey, Claudia and Mary Anne, who run a babysitting service, the series tackles delicate family matters like adoption and divorce, as well as broader topics such as race, class and gender.
In We Are the Baby-Sitters Club, Kelly Blewett, Kristen Arnett, Myriam Gurba and other notable contributors take stock of the popular books and their lasting appeal. With essays focusing on friendship, culture, identity and—yes—the babysitting business, this anthology showcases the multifaceted impact of the series. Nifty illustrations and comic strips lend extra charm to the proceedings. Edited by authors Marisa Crawford and Megan Milks, the volume is a first-rate celebration of the BSC.
It's almost impossible to peruse Jane Mount's colorful sketches of book jackets and book stacks without being possessed by the impulse to dive into a new novel or compile a reading list. For her new book, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines, Mount teamed up with author Jamise Harper to create a thoughtful guide to the work of marginalized writers that can help readers bring diversity to their personal libraries.
With picks for lovers of historical fiction, short stories, poetry, mystery and more, Bibliophile: Diverse Spinesbrims with inspired reading recommendations. The book also spotlights literary icons (Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison) and treasured illustrators (Bryan Collier, Luisa Uribe, Kadir Nelson). Standout bookstores from across the country and people who are making a difference in the publishing industry are also recognized. With Mount's fabulous illustrations adding dazzle to every chapter, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines will gladden the heart of any book lover.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
The universe of words is steadily expanding thanks to author John Koenig. In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Koenig catalogs newly minted terms for hard-to-articulate emotional states: conditions of the heart or mind that seem to defy definition. Ledsome, for instance, is his term for feeling lonely in a crowd, while povism means the frustration of being stuck inside your own head.
Drawing upon verbal scraps from the past and oddments from different languages, Koenig created all of the words in this dictionary. He started this etymological project in 2009 as a website and has since given TED talks and launched a YouTube channel based on his work. "It's a calming thing, to learn there's a word for something you've felt all your life but didn't know was shared by anyone else," he writes in Obscure Sorrows. Koenig's remarkable volume is the perfect purchase for the logophile in your life.
Stumped on what to buy for the reader who’s read everything? We’ve got six picks for the book obsessed.
Nonfiction is the broadest publishing category, with books that delve into the past, present and future of every aspect of our world. There are books that rifle through our innermost emotions and books that search the outer universe. Books that strike while the iron is hot and books that are cool and classic. You'll find a little bit of everything on our list of our most highly recommended nonfiction books of 2021—from timeless instant classics to breathlessly of-the-moment reports.
Jordan Salama, a 2019 Princeton University graduate and journalist, comes by his travel instincts honestly. His great-great-great-grandfather led a thousand camels along the Silk Road to trade goods in Iraq, Syria and Iran; his great-grandfather, a Syrian Jewish immigrant to Argentina, rode on horseback through the Andes as an itinerant salesman; and his father became a physician in Buenos Aires before migrating to New York City. Their stories, passed down through generations of a family that spoke "a spellbinding mix of English, Spanish, and Arabic," have inspired Salama's own explorations, including the one he describes in Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena.
The Magdalena River, which is over 900 miles long and Colombia's principal waterway, links the country's diverse interior to the Caribbean Sea. It has long been a vital transportation mainstay, used and abused by the Colombian government, global industry, paramilitaries, guerillas, migrants, fishers and environmentalists alike. In 2016 the government signed a wobbly peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and other guerilla armies, but the river's future viability remains as unclear as its sediment-stacked waters. Salama is intent on learning everything he can, while he still can, about this endangered, legendary river that threads its way through Colombia's history and people.
The Magdalena is central to many tales, both in fiction, as in the novels of Colombia's revered author Gabriel García Márquez, and in the true stories Salama hears as he follows the river's course from beginning to end. The people he meets and travels with share their experiences—from a jeweler selling silver filigree flowers, to a teacher delivering books to rural children via his two donkeys (Alfa and Beto), to the ill-fated anthropologist and activist Luis Manuel Salamanca, to Alvarito, the village kite master. They are, Salama writes, "ordinary people working tirelessly to preserve the natural/cultural treasures of a country much maligned by war," and their fates are interwoven with the Magdalena.
Then there are the runaway hippopotamuses. Imported from Africa for the private zoo of notorious drug king Pablo Escobar, the hippos fled after Escobar's murder in 1993 and now make the Magdalena and its tributaries their home. They have multiplied and spread over the past three decades, and they will pursue and attack any intruders. As Salama ventures deeper into Colombia, he can't wait to find them.
By the time Salama ends his riveting journey, scrambling across the treacherous rocks where the Magdalena River meets the Caribbean Sea, he has already enticed readers to follow him on his next one.
Jordan Salama is intent on learning everything he can about the legendary Magdalena River, which threads its way through Colombia’s history and people.
As art historian Catherine McCormack points out in Women in the Picture: What Culture Does With Female Bodies, galleries and museums are full of paintings and statues of women in various guises and genres. Indeed, there are so many that we rarely take time to consider the implications of how they are depicted. We see a Madonna, and we think, "That's a Madonna." Few question how the Madonna is depicted, or even why the Madonna is depicted.
McCormack wants us to ask these questions, but she also wants us to consider by whom and for whom an artwork was created. She examines four archetypes of women in Western European art—Venus, the Madonna, the damsel in distress and the monstrous woman—to examine their impact on not only how we look at art but also how we view women in general.
Because so much of this art was created by male artists for male clients, McCormack argues, we have become accustomed to viewing these images through male eyes. As a result, when we see Titian's "Rape of Europa," we see a technically brilliant, erotically charged depiction of a myth, not the terror and brutality of the rape that is about to take place. When we see a Madonna, we see an idealized vision of motherhood, not how that mother is trapped by her hearth and home. Sphinxes, witches and gorgons, McCormack believes, are not existential threats to male heroes but the projection of misogynistic fears of powerful women.
McCormack's purpose is twofold. First, rather than ditching Western European art, she wants us to engage with it critically, deliberately and honestly so that we can begin to recognize the impact of the male artist's perspective and reinterpret his art with fresh eyes. Second, she wants to encourage women artists to take these subjects and represent them in ways that expose their realities to future generations. As a result, Women in the Picture is a thought-provoking call to action for artists and viewers alike.
Catherine McCormack looks closely at four archetypes of women in art to examine not only how we look at art but also how we view women in general.
History fans have big treats in store this year, including groundbreaking books on American history and baseball, plus visual extravaganzas devoted to legendary women and design innovations. There are even lessons in how to survive a sea monster attack—because you just never know.
Relics: A History of the World Told in 133 Objects is my idea of the perfect coffee-table gift book. Billed as "four billion years in the palm of your hand," it's small enough not to be cumbersome, weighty enough to be substantial and full of colorful photos and intriguing text. Open it to any random page and get lost in the images of tiny relics and their histories, ranging from a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid fragment to a tiny piece of Winston Churchill's faux leopard-skin hand muff. (Poor circulation in his later years caused Churchill's hands to get cold.) The book is part of the Mini Museum project, intended to share a collection of hand-held bits of wonders from around the world—a whole exhibition, Polly Pocket-style.
Young and old will be enticed by the variety of natural, historical and cultural tidbits, including a specimen of petrified lightning from the Sahara, a piece of a Martian meteorite, coal from the Titanic and a morsel of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake. Enjoy at your leisure, with no museum crowds invading your space.
★ Original Sisters
Award-winning artist Anita Kunz certainly made the most of her COVID-19 lockdown: She began researching and painting portraits of more than 150 extraordinary women from ancient times to the present, many whose stories have been lost to history or whose glory has been stolen by men. The result, Original Sisters: Portraits of Tenacity and Courage, brings these heroines to life in wonderfully bold portraits, each accompanied by a paragraphsummarizing her notable life. These portraits are so vivid that readers will feel as though they are meeting these women face-to-face—and believe me, you will feel their power.
You'll recognize many women's names, like Temple Grandin, Nina Simone and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but others may be new, such as Amanirenas, the partially blind African warrior queen who defeated Augustus Caesar. Patricia Bath, the first Black female ophthalmologist, invented a medical device to remove cataracts. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was a Chinese American suffragist who led a parade on horseback in New York City to advocate for voting rights. A wonderful gift for friends, family or yourself, Original Sisters is an inspiring springboard for further study of these noteworthy souls.
★ The 1619 Project
For any lover of American history or letters, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is a visionary work that casts a sweeping, introspective gaze over what many have aptly termed the country's original sin: the moment in 1619, one year before the Mayflower arrived, when a ship docked at the colony of Virginia to deliver 20 to 30 enslaved people from Africa. While many books have addressed enslavement and its repercussions, few, if any, have done so in such an imaginative, all-encompassing way, incorporating history, journalism, fiction, poetry and photography to show the cataclysmic repercussions of that pivotal moment.
A superb expansion of the New York Times Magazine's "1619 Project" issue, this book contains 18 essays as well as 36 poems and stories that examine how slavery and its legacy of racial injustice have shaped the U.S. over the last 400 years. Each piece was curated by MacArthur "genius grant" winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, who pitched the original "1619 Project" to the Times and won the Pulitzer Prize for her contribution to it. The book's many talented contributors include Ibram X. Kendi, Terry McMillan, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, ZZ Packer, Darryl Pinckney, Claudia Rankine, Jason Reynolds, Bryan Stevenson and Jesmyn Ward. Seven essays are new, and existing essays have been substantially revised and expanded to include additional details. Black-and-white portraits have also been added—both historical and present-day images—as another way of allowing readers to look history in the eye.
A new concluding essay from Hannah-Jones explores economic justice, and her wonderful preface is a special standout. It's a powerful, personal essay in which she notes that she is "the daughter and granddaughter of people born onto a repurposed slave-labor camp in the deepest South, people who could not have imagined their progeny would one day rise to a position to bring forth such a project."
The sheer breadth of this book is refreshing and illuminating, challenging each and every reader to confront America's past, present and future.
Make Good the Promises
As Hannah-Jones writes in The 1619 Project, "Slavery was mentioned briefly in the chapter on this nation's most deadly war, and then Black people disappeared again for a full century, until magically reappearing as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech about a dream." What happened in between? Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies, edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Paul Gardullo, attempts to fill in those gaps, leading readers through Black history from 1865 to today.
Presented by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, the book has a beautifully rendered and highly accessible narrative that's also methodically organized, with helpful timelines, colorful illustrations and photographs. The book does a particularly good job of laying out the long view of events and their consequences while shining a light on more recent incidents, such as #SayHerName, George Floyd's murder and the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Make Good the Promises is a distressing yet essential, enlightening read.
How to Slay a Dragon
Medieval historian Cait Stevenson admits that she has sometimes "trampled over scholarly conventions in ways that will leave other medievalists curled up in agony." But armed with her passion for the Middle Ages, she has carved out a unique niche for herself, straddling the worlds of scholarly and popular history. Her fervor is contagious in How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero's Guide to the Real Middle Ages.
In a tongue-in-cheek but firmly historical way, Stevenson addresses the stereotypical events that happen in popular media set in and inspired by the Middle Ages, like saving a princess, digging for treasure, slaying a dragon and defeating barbarian hordes. Her writing is informative yet humorous (there's a chapter titled "How to Not Get Eaten"), so even if you're not a gamer or "Game of Thrones" fan, you'll find yourself riveted. In a section on bathing, she notes, "Twelfth-century abbess and prophet Hildegard of Bingen went so far as to suggest that natural hot springs were heated by the underground fires of purgatory, cleansing bathers' souls as well as their bodies." Stevenson may not be able to tell you where to find real dragons, but readers will have a blast getting ready for their quests.
★ The Baseball 100
Major League Baseball fans, you just won the lottery. In The Baseball 100, noted sports writer Joe Posnanski presents 880 pages of sheer baseball bliss, discussing the history of the game by examining the lives, obstacles and achievements of his nominations for the 100 greatest players of all time, including MLB stars and players from the Negro Leagues. It's a true masterwork, and his writing is so good that it's likely to engross even those who know nothing about the sport.
Avid baseball fans will easily become absorbed in these pages, and when they reemerge, they'll be all too ready to debate Posnanski's rankings. He's prepared for this, writing, "I stand firmly behind them, and I expect you to come hard at me with vigorous disagreements. What fun would it be otherwise?" In fact, the author even teases, "I have a list of more than 100 players who could have made this list. I think I'll save them in case the Baseball 100 ever needs a volume 2." Perhaps he'd better start writing now.
At over 1,000 pages, Patented: 1,000 Design Patents is thicker than an old phone book but much more fun to thumb through. Architectural designer Thomas Rinaldi frequently found himself getting lost in "odd internet searches" of design patents, eventually realizing that he was uncovering "a design historian's El Dorado, a proverbial rabbit hole of unfathomable depth." He sifted through more than 750,000 patents issued from 1900 to the present to come up with this collection of visual treats.
The patents are presented chronologically, with line drawings and key information such as the date and designer's name. It's an interesting mix of many universally owned, everyday objects—ranging from teapots to barbecue grills, from salt and pepper shakers to the Fitbit—along with patents for much larger things, such as Pizza Huts and Boeing airplanes, unusual entries like the Mars Rover and famous designs like Eames chairs.
For some, this will become a trusted reference, but Patented will also appeal to historians, engineers and kids interested in how things used to look, plus anyone passionate about design, innovation and technology. One could even turn the pages and play a "name that item" game. Some are a cinch to guess, while others, like a 1930 "ozonizing apparatus," will likely leave you stumped. Once you start browsing, however, you may find yourself hooked.
History fans have big treats in store this year, including groundbreaking gift books on American history and baseball, plus visual extravaganzas devoted to legendary women and design innovations.
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In Rivals, Tommy Greenwald’s second novel set in the fictional town of Walthorne (after 2018’s Game Changer), having fun is immaterial when it comes to a high-pressure middle school basketball season between the Walthorne North Cougars and the Walthorne South Panthers. Everyone wants to win, and they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.