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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

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.

Patented

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.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

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.

Four fresh art and design books inspire, enlighten and cultivate creativity. Perfect for accomplished artists, occasional dabblers or anyone in search of a new hobby, these terrific titles provide instant inspiration.

The 99% Invisible City

Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt are the dynamic duo behind the architecture and design podcast “99% Invisible,” and their intriguing book, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, draws upon the podcast’s concepts by picking out smartly conceived, frequently overlooked components of the urban landscape and explaining how they contribute to a thriving civic environment.

From traffic lights, public signage and historical plaques to manhole covers and city monuments, the book examines design elements big and small, revealing the ways in which they bring clarity to the chaos of modern life. The volume is organized into brief, easy-to-process sections, and it touches down in boroughs around the globe. Filled with nifty line illustrations in bold black and white, this eye-opening book will give readers a fresh appreciation for the beauty and functionality that are inherent—but not immediately apparent—in the urban world.

Open StudioOpen Studio

Open Studio: Do-It-Yourself Art Projects by Contemporary Artists gives readers the chance to craft along with major makers. The authors, curator Sharon Coplan Hurowitz and journalist-filmmaker Amanda Benchley, recruited a group of A-list participants for the volume (Marina Abramovic, William Wegman, Maya Lin—the list goes on), which is packed with brilliant photography, including candid shots of the artists at work.

The book’s 17 wide-ranging projects offer something for everyone. Sculptor Rachel Feinstein’s “Rococo Hut” is a small-scale architectural wonder that you can recreate with cutouts, while multimedia artist Wangechi Mutu’s “Earth Androids,” composed of paper pulp, soil, ink and paint, are simply out of this world. Painter Will Cotton’s foil-paper “The Royal Crown of Candyland” will bring out the kid in any crafter. The step-by-step instructions and how-to photos that accompany each project make staying on track a snap. Open Studio shows that getting creative is easy—especially when you can take cues from world-class artists.

Life in the StudioLife in the Studio

Stimulation, motivation and encouragement—that’s what artistic minds will find in Life in the Studio: Inspiration and Lessons on Creativity, Frances Palmer’s guide to starting—and maintaining—a creative practice. In this beautifully photographed book, Palmer, a celebrated ceramics artist, art historian and successful businesswoman, delivers big-picture advice without neglecting the small details. She shares tips on how to establish a creative routine, identify sources of inspiration and stay engaged. She also provides guidance on hands-on matters such as setting up a studio, with an overview of must-have tools and more.

Throughout the volume, Palmer reflects on how her skills and methods have evolved over her 30-year career. Through pottery projects, flower-arranging tutorials and recipes, she proves that creativity can manifest itself in unexpected ways. Both the seasoned artist and the beginner will be enriched by this stunning guide.

Truth BombTruth Bomb

Abigail Crompton’s Truth Bomb: Inspiration From the Mouths and Minds of Women Artists is as provocative as the title suggests. With a design that combines audacious colors and not-to-be-ignored graphics, the volume spotlights 22 prominent female artists—women from diverse backgrounds working in a wide range of media, including photography, video, painting and performance art.

Crompton, an artist and design-studio entrepreneur, assembled a stellar lineup for the book: Judy Chicago, Mickalene Thomas, Miranda July, Yayoi Kusama and the Guerrilla Girls are among the featured makers. She provides profiles of each, delving into their creative processes and techniques. Along the way, these extraordinary women share bits of hard-won wisdom, words of encouragement and practical advice. The book is also filled with beautifully reproduced examples of their work. Truth Bomb is an invaluable resource for anyone with creative inclinations. From start to finish, it’s a spirited homage to the artistic life.

Four fresh art and design books inspire, enlighten and cultivate creativity.

One in four adults, or 61 million people, are disabled in the United States, yet the myth of the able body persists. The fact is, all bodies have different needs and abilities over their lifetimes. As these books show, creating an imaginative and accessible world helps everyone.

In Sitting Pretty: The View From My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body, Rebekah Taussig shares her experiences of disability in eight provoking and lyrical essays. As a child, Taussig moved her body with joy and confidence. But as she grew older, her environment told her a different story about her body. She noticed how many spaces weren’t made for her needs, saw the pitying looks strangers gave her and heard ableist narratives from the media, in which disabled bodies like hers were either weak or objects for other people’s inspiration. Gradually, she stopped feeling comfortable in her body. In her book, Taussig discusses everything from how the disabled body is left out of feminist conversations, to uncomfortable experiences with kindness, to love, sex and marriage as a disabled person. This collection is essential reading, and its intimate writing style will help readers see disabled folks as the human beings they have always been.

In “More Than a Defect,” Taussig describes teaching her high school students two models of disability: the medical model and the social model. The medical model is the most common way of viewing disability; it views the disabled body as an object to be fixed. In the social model, the environment that surrounds a disabled body is the object that needs to be fixed. When we use the social model, we begin to see how our culture stereotypes disabled bodies and creates inaccessible environments.

What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World by Sara Hendren focuses on these created environments through seven essays that look at specific objects of design. In the chapter titled “Chair,” she tells the story of a cardboard chair created by the Adaptive Design Association and how it benefits Niko, a toddler with a rare genetic condition called STXBP1. The chair is sustainable, affordable and adaptable to individual needs.

Through stories like Niko’s, Hendren shows that the purpose of accessible design should not be to fix a body, but rather to meet the body where it is. Reshaping and expanding the built world can accommodate many ways of being human. For example, sidewalk curb cuts were created for wheelchair access, but parents with strollers and travelers with rolling suitcases also benefit from their implementation. By applying “what if” questions to practical design, we can build spaces that accommodate every body. What Can a Body Do? is a fascinating look at the ingenuity behind these accessible designs.

One in four adults, or 61 million people, are disabled in the United States, yet the myth of the able body persists. The fact is, all bodies have different needs and abilities over their lifetimes. As these books show, creating an imaginative and accessible world helps everyone. In Sitting Pretty: The View From My Ordinary […]

Starred review
You know those magazine spreads in which a stylish person of note shares their favorite this-and-thats about where they live, from brunch spots to boutiques? Paris by Design is a bit like those features, with all the class and elegance you expect from denizens of the City of Lights. Designer Eva Jorgensen rounds up a stellar crew of creatives to answer questions about visiting Paris, and each person lists their fave under-the-radar bars, flea markets or shops. There are itineraries for days spent in Parisian neighborhoods, such as Saint-Georges and the Right Bank, Spotify playlists made by French jewelry and home goods designers, and recipes for Parisian dishes like tomato tarts and lemon zest madeleines. I’ll be using one of the book’s cocktail recipes to mix a Suze 75 as I dream of a vacation built around the excellent recommendations that compose this book. 

In 2012, Austin Kleon burst onto the scene with Steal Like an Artist, a book that’s now in the canon of guides to creative thinking and productivity, and Show Your Work! followed in 2014. Now he returns with Keep Going, a book for anyone trying to do creative work in a world that has seemingly gotten “dumber and meaner overnight,” or for anyone who has hit a roadblock and wonders, Will it ever get any easier  ? Kleon has 10 tips for persevering, and while his directives may not all be new, they’re presented here in a most engaging fashion. Bold erasure-poem illustrations, comics and other visuals punctuate a text filled with inspirational quotes. Anyone living any sort of creative life needs this pep talk on their bookshelf.

My husband and I recently put in our modest summer garden. Then we sat down on the porch and paged through Kelly Smith Trimble’s Vegetable Gardening Wisdom, which should help us grow as stewards of the earth. Organized by season, Trimble’s book is filled with tips and interesting facts about specific veggies, along with quotes and recipes (pea-shoot salad sounds divine right now). What makes this guide such a winner is how breathtakingly lovely it is—a true work of bookish art. Each page is a different color, and there are gorgeous illustrations and smart, clean layouts. This book will make a beautiful gift for gardeners of any level of expertise. 

Starred review You know those magazine spreads in which a stylish person of note shares their favorite this-and-thats about where they live, from brunch spots to boutiques? Paris by Design is a bit like those features, with all the class and elegance you expect from denizens of the City of Lights. Designer Eva Jorgensen rounds up […]

As a self-described Japanologist and life coach, author Beth Kempton was surprised when she asked Japanese people to define wabi sabi—the concept of perfect imperfection—and the most common answer was, “It’s difficult to explain.” But Kempton persisted, and in Wabi Sabi, she lays out the characteristics of this concept and explains how they can be applied to our goal-oriented, consumer-driven, productivity-obsessed Western lives. An early section, “How is wabi sabi relevant today?” makes a compelling argument for its usefulness, and in chapters such as “Simplifying + beautifying,” “Acceptance + letting go” and “Reframing failure,” Kempton applies wabi sabi in practical ways, going beyond the common interior-styling or object-related application of the concept. This meaty book in a pretty, petite package is grounded by the author’s passion for and knowledge of Japan.

Beth Kempton lays out the characteristics of this concept and explains how they can be applied to our goal-oriented, consumer-driven, productivity-obsessed Western lives. 

New Age practices have been getting updated lately, and Erica Feldmann’s HausMagick is one of the best examples I’ve seen yet. This “spellbook of interior alchemy” is an offshoot of HausWitch, Feldmann’s Salem, Massachusetts, shop where she sells all of the necessary tools for domestic witchery. Here, she lays out information on essential oils, herbs, energy work, crystals, astrology, tarot, cozy crafts and a few recipes to teach you how to create a happier, more aesthetically grounded home. Your personal space may just be cleaner, tidier and more welcoming with the help of various home-focused spells, which she calls “prayers with props,” but overall, Feldmann shares ways to help you feel empowered, less stressed and more self-aware by paying attention to your domestic surroundings.

This “spellbook of interior alchemy” is an offshoot of HausWitch, Feldmann’s Salem, Massachusetts, shop where she sells all of the necessary tools for domestic witchery.

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