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There’s no denying that Nick Offerman is one of America’s more intriguing celebrities. The man who made Ron Swanson famous in “Parks and Recreation” is also a touring comedian, saxophonist, professional woodworker and author of books like Paddle Your Own Canoe and Good Clean Fun. His latest is Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, which Offerman has subtitled in his frequently reflective, self-deprecating style: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside. And boy does he.

Offerman divides his observations among three very different adventures, all devoted to exploring his relationship with America’s landscapes and past. He’s an entertaining raconteur and prone to digressions (Sirius Radio commercials that annoy him, for example, or his irritation with people who don’t make eye contact as he jogs past). The result is an undeniable immediacy, as though readers are spending the day hiking right beside him.

Offerman’s first quest is a culture lover’s dream: He spent a week in 2019 hiking in Glacier National Park with his “bromance partners,” author George Saunders and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. The pals have great discussions about nature, America’s deplorable treatment of Indigenous and Black people, and the writers Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, two of Offerman’s heroes. There are humorous missteps as well, bringing to mind Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, although Offerman’s descriptions of the glorious trails will leave readers ready to make a beeline to Glacier.

The second section examines farming and land use, framed by repeated visits to Offerman’s friend James Rebanks, an English sheep farmer in Cumbria, England, and author of the ecological books The Shepherd’s Life and Pastoral Song. Rebanks embraces a robust, self-sufficient agrarian lifestyle that Midwestern-born Offerman admires and is thrilled to jump into. As always, his enthusiasm is contagious. 

Finally, Offerman and his wife, actress Megan Mullally (whom he clearly worships), set off in the fall of 2020 in their newly acquired Airstream trailer on a COVID-19 road trip to explore places like Sedona, Arizona, and the banks of the Rio Grande. It’s fun reading about these two actors on the road, facing everyday issues and sometimes-humorous misfortunes. Offerman’s frequent solo hikes during this trip offer him a chance to ramble (and rant) on a variety of subjects, many of them political.

Laced with humor, intellect and fierce passion, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play is an entertaining getaway to a variety of unexpected American vistas.

Readers of Nick Offerman’s latest work of comedic, ecological greatness will feel as though they’re spending the day hiking right beside him.

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.

The range of comic book storytelling is vast, and this selection of 2021’s best graphic novels, memoirs and histories runs the gamut in terms of artistic style and narrative approach, yet all of them have two things in common: a mastery of the form and a unique sense of expression.

Bubble

The stakes of the gig economy have never been higher than in Bubble, a graphic novel by Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan with illustrations from Tony Cliff and colors by Natalie Riess. Adapted from the scripted podcast of the same name, Bubble is set in a world where corporate-funded cities have sprung up as domes of safety, walling off humanity from a monster-ridden wilderness known as the Brush. Morgan was born in the Brush, and though she’s grown accustomed to life in the bubble, she’s retained a few of her more useful Brush skills, including the ability to kill pesky mutated imps. Naturally, her employers have just the thing to help her monetize that ability.

Bubble crackles with wit and biting commentary on piecing together a living one app at a time. Cliff's art enriches the whole wild affair, lending a grounding sense of reality to the reading experience despite the fantastical setting. He’s as adept at depicting action-packed scenes as he is at homing in on a character’s eyes at a key moment of personal discovery. There’s tremendous glee to be found in Bubble, but also tremendous heart.

Ballad for Sophie

A young woman talks her way into the mansion of one of the world’s most reclusive musicians and convinces him to give her an interview. That’s the premise from which Ballad for Sophie springs, and with a sense of adversarial yet whimsical tension, we are propelled into a world of bittersweet wonders, tragedy and music.

Written by jazz composer Filipe Melo, illustrated by Juan Cavia and translated from the original Spanish by Gabriela Soares, Ballad for Sophie unfolds as the aging pianist tells his story. We meet a lifelong rival, a lost love, a tormented mother, a devilish piano teacher and more, their rich narrative tapestry unfolding against backdrops that range from World War II to the luxury of 1960s Paris. 

Through it all, Melo’s characters are either constantly growing or constantly resisting growth, while Cavia’s art sweeps across the page with lithe figures and elegant depictions of bygone eras. When the story dips into the past, his art grows slightly more magical, turning piano teachers into great horned creatures and piano recitals into dramatically lit clashes of titans.

Emotionally dense, texturally rich and humming with humanity, Ballad for Sophie is a moving portrait of the ways in which art can both save and doom us.

Interior image from Ballad for Sophie
From Ballad for Sophie. Used with permission from Top Shelf.

Lore Olympus

Some elements of Greek mythology are simply timeless. In Lore Olympus: Volume One, Rachel Smythe reminds us of this using her acclaimed artistic magic. This is the first volume of her webcomic “Lore Olympus,” and it’s striking to see her work collected in such a lavish tome after its celebrated web release.

As Smythe unveils her retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth, her gorgeous art elevates each scene. She uses precise color and shading to bathe the Greek gods in neon hues of purple and blue, like they're perpetually in some mythic nightclub. Readers will revel in how seamlessly Smythe has adapted this classic story, and in no time at all, they’ll find themselves utterly lost in her beautifully dark, often startlingly timely world of sex, lies and immortality. 

The Middle Ages

You’ve probably heard that the Middle Ages wasn’t really the period of darkness and ignorance that popular culture has made it out to be, but you’ve never seen that truth demonstrated quite like in The Middle Ages: A Graphic History. Medieval historian Eleanor Janega and illustrator Neil Max Emmanuel set out to reveal how this period took shape and why it became so consequential, and they never miss in that mission. 

Rather than attempting a strictly linear dissection of centuries of human history, The Middle Ages unfolds almost as an illustrated textbook, with sections devoted to everything from the fall of Rome to the rise of Charlemagne to the growth of major European cities. Janega’s prose is precise, informative, digestible and witty. Emmanuel’s simple but effective black-and-white art carries that same wit through to the visuals, alternating between modern compositions and homages to medieval aesthetics, with amusing revisions to the Bayeux Tapestry and clever representations of church schisms.

It all adds up to an utterly essential volume for history buffs, whether they’re diving into the medieval period for the first time or just brushing up on a few things. 

★ Run

The follow-up to Congressman John Lewis’ monumental, award-winning March series, Run: Book One kicks off a new graphic trilogy that further establishes Lewis as a fundamental, undeniable force in the mid-1960s American civil rights movement.

Lewis completed work on the script for Run before his death in 2020, and illustrator L. Fury joins writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell (both of whom collaborated on the March trilogy) in carefully layering Lewis’ recollections with vivid depictions of celebrations and violence, hope and heartbreak, despair and determination. The story picks up after the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, as Lewis encountered new roadblocks and hurdles in the wake of that legislative victory. Through dramatic composition and movement, Powell and Fury’s illustrations capture the same energy as the March trilogy, while also conveying Lewis’ maturation as he grows out of his student organizing era and enters the realm of American statesmanship.

Run is another indispensable chronicle of the life and work of one of 20th-century America’s most exceptional figures, but it’s also a mission statement for the work yet to come.

Interior image from Run: Book One
From Run: Book One. Used with permission from Abrams ComicArts.

★ Seek You

It might sound like a cliche to say that a book delving into America’s loneliness epidemic will make you feel more connected to the world around you, but that’s exactly what writer and illustrator Kristen Radtke achieves in this ambitious book. 

Part memoir, part sociological study and part cultural history, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness digs deep into the many ways that loneliness affects our daily lives. Through incisive, often disarmingly confessional writing, Radtke gets to the core of what loneliness is and what it does to our bodies and minds, exploring everything from its neurological roots to the impact of the sitcom studio audience laugh track. 

Throughout Seek You, we are guided by Radtke’s beautifully muted art. Some pages are powerful in their simplicity, such as a wide view of a massive apartment complex with a single lit window, while others are effective in their complexity, such as a spread showing a lone figure amid a fog of words describing their most alienating experiences. 

Seek You is a captivating combination of raw emotional exploration and thoughtful, sophisticated imagination.

The Waiting

A chance encounter with a dog on a city street pulls a character back through decades of memories and serves as the launching point for a stirring graphic novel by author-illustrator Keum Suk Gendry-Kim.

Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong, The Waiting explores a very particular kind of loss on the Korean peninsula. In bold, fluid black-and-white imagery, Gendry-Kim tells a story inspired by her own mother, who lived under Japanese occupation in Korea before World War II, then was forced to migrate during the Korean War and the permanent division of Korea along the 38th parallel. Many Koreans fled their homes amid the fighting, causing a surge of family separations that led to lifetimes of waiting and hoping. 

Though The Waiting is set amid some of the most consequential events of the 20th century, Gendry-Kim never makes the book’s scope wider than it needs to be. The Waiting is better for it, succeeding as a deeply intimate portrayal of one woman’s struggle to not only survive but also keep some measure of hope and determination alive. It’s also about the broader goal of an entire culture to somehow come back together after war, through individual efforts and massive group reunions. 

In depicting a people’s efforts to find each other, The Waiting is one of the most moving graphic novels of the year.

★ Wake

Writer and activist Rebecca Hall and illustrator Hugo Martínez present a powerful meditation on hidden history that transforms into a haunting, necessary statement on exactly why that history has been hidden, and how much of it still lives with us.

In Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, Hall, whose grandparents were enslaved, recounts her process of researching several 18th-century revolts that were led by enslaved women. Though some of the book’s most affecting sequences re-create these revolts, much of Wake is a memoir of Hall’s search for the brave, rebellious women who led them, the punishments they suffered and what, if anything, they managed to leave behind. In the process of constructing their stories, Hall tells much of her own, laying bare how the echoes of enslavement inform our political world as well as her own daily interactions.

Hall’s prose is stunning, and Martínez’s art takes it to another level, delivering expressive representations of the history Hall carries with her and of the reminders of slavery’s cruelty that are etched into the landscapes we walk now. His artwork bleeds past and present together, depicting the city streets around Hall as shadowy memorials of the slave markets that once stood there. When he projects the images of enslaved men and women onto the facades of skyscrapers, he transforms these feats of architecture into monuments to atrocities.

Wake is as poetic as it is powerful. Readers who adored the March trilogy and the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred will find it to be an essential addition to their shelves.

A sampling of the year’s best graphics and comics includes a neon-bright retelling of a Greek myth and the continued memoirs of a civil rights legend.

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.

In The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at All Souls College at the University of Oxford, engages with some of the most complex hot-button cultural issues to emerge around sex and consent in the 21st century. With intelligence and clarity, Srinivasan unpacks the moral and philosophical underpinnings of such topics as false rape accusations, pornography and teacher-student relationships, making her book an invaluable companion for readers interested in nuanced analysis rather than hasty clickbait. 

The book emerged from Srinivasan’s 2018 essay “The Right to Sex,” which considered the case of Elliot Rodger, the killer whose deadly rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014 was supposedly motivated by his status as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate. Rodger’s assumption that he was somehow “owed” sex from women has proven to be a toxic influence on some social media platforms. In considering this case, Srinivasan moves her argument in unexpected directions to ask ever larger and harder philosophical questions: While there is no “right” to demand sex from other people, how should we think about desirability as a concept? Why are some bodies seen as desirable and others aren’t? How is desirability a political concept, shaped by popular culture?

In other essays, Srinivasan provides a helpful survey of the history of feminist responses to pornography, which range widely from the anti-porn feminism of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon in the 1970s and ’80s to the more pro-sex pleasure activists of the 1990s. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Srinivasan opens up these issues beyond their original contexts to engage with them in a contemporary setting. To this end, Srinivasan’s classroom of undergraduates at Oxford becomes a kind of testing ground for how young people think about pornography and the influence it has had on them as the first fully digital generation.

With articulate precision, Srinivasan’s timely book offers readers a lucid and compelling guide to thinking philosophically about sex and power.

Amia Srinivasan’s book about sex and consent is invaluable for readers interested in intelligent, clear and nuanced analysis rather than hasty clickbait.

The structure destined to become the Midnight Sun Mosque in Canada’s Northwest Territories had to be transported 2,800 miles from Winnipeg to Inuvik, much of it by barge. It’s now the worship house for some 100 Muslims, mostly men who were displaced from conflict zones and now drive taxis among the Inuit. They spend their spare time operating a much-needed community food bank.

On the other end of the North American continent is the Ahmadiyya mosque in Chiapas, Mexico. It’s run by a Mayan Indian, a former evangelical Christian and Zapatista leftist who got involved in Islam via a Sufi imam from an offbeat mosque in Spain founded by a Scottish hippie.

Neither fits the stereotype of a mosque that so many non-Muslim North Americans have. That’s exactly the point of Omar Mouallem’s absorbing Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, which explores the Muslim population of the Americas in all its staggering diversity.

Mouallem, a Canadian of Lebanese descent who grew up in a Muslim family but whose personal feelings about Islam became complicated as an adult, examines his own inner turmoil as he visits 13 mosques. They’re incredibly varied but fall roughly into two groups: communities founded by Muslim immigrants, like the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, and more idiosyncratic movements begun by non-Muslims, like the Nation of Islam.

The immigrant experience described by Mouallem will sound familiar to many Americans: the desire by the first generation to assimilate, followed by a rediscovery of roots by their children, then a more eclectic approach by grandchildren. The mosques he visits reflect these different relationships to assimilation. One early Muslim community, founded by Lebanese peddlers in North Dakota, for example, is now nearly indistinguishable from its Christian neighbors. Other, newer mosques have experienced more turbulence as they’ve acclimatized to their communities, such as a Quebec mosque that was the scene of a horrific massacre by a white man in 2017 and still has to employ tight security measures to protect itself.

Mouallem seems most attracted to Unity Mosque, which is open to all traditions and welcomes gay people and female faith leaders. He suspects North America will lead the way as Islam evolves, but regardless of whether that happens, his book has made it impossible not to see this faith tradition’s rich complexity.

Praying to the West explores the Muslim population of the Americas in all its staggering diversity and makes it impossible not to see Islam’s rich complexity.

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