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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.

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.


20. Cultish by Amanda Montell

In her incredibly timely book, Amanda Montell’s expertise as a linguist melds with her research into the psychological underpinnings of cults.

19. Cuba by Ada Ferrer

With interesting characters, new historical insights and dramatic yet accessible writing, Ada Ferrer’s epic history of Cuba will grab and hold your attention.

18. Fuzz by Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s enthusiasm and sense of humor are contagious in her around-the-world survey of human-wildlife relations.

17. Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi generously shares both their wounds and their wisdom, offering aspiring artists fresh inspiration for creating new forms of being.

16. American Republics by Alan Taylor

Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor’s latest American history, covering the United States’ expansion from 1783 to 1850, is sweeping, beautifully written, prodigiously researched and myth-busting.

15. My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: All of these words describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ memoir.

14. Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello

Frangello’s raw, eloquent memoir is singed with rage and tinged with optimism about the power to recover one’s life from the depth of suffering.

13. Unbound by Tarana Burke

Unbound is Tarana Burke’s unflinching, beautifully told account of founding the #MeToo movement and becoming one of the most consequential activists in America.

12. The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

For readers seeking to understand the twists, turns and amazing potential of gene-editing CRISPR technology, there’s no better place to turn than The Code Breaker.

11. 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei

This heart-rending yet exhilarating memoir by a world-famous artist gives a rare look into how war and revolution affect innocent bystanders who are just trying to live.

10. The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s unique combination of personal narrative, a search for higher meaning and comic ingenuity will leave you pumped up and smiling.

9. Four Hundred Souls edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

This epic, transformative book covers 400 years of Black history with the help of a choir of exceptional poets, critics, essayists, novelists and scholars.

8. A Most Remarkable Creature by Jonathan Meiburg

Gorgeously written and sophisticated, Jonathan Meiburg’s book about a wickedly clever falcon will move readers to protect this truly remarkable creature.

7. Chasing Me to My Grave by Winfred Rembert

From surviving a lynching to discovering the transformative power of art while imprisoned in a chain gang, Winfred Rembert recounts his life story in his distinct and unforgettable voice.

6. Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown

Most of the Japanese American patriots who formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment are gone, but their stories live on in this empathetic tribute to their courage.

5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Beloved author George Saunders shares invaluable insights into classic Russian short stories, unlocking their magic for bibliophiles everywhere.

4. How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

Clint Smith’s gifts as both a poet and a scholar make this a richly provocative read about the ways America does (and doesn’t) acknowledge its history of slavery.

3. Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

In jaw-dropping detail, Patrick Radden Keefe recounts the greed and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family’s quest for wealth and social status.

2. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

In her debut memoir, Michelle Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her late mother, wrapping her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother’s presence.

1. A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib’s brilliant commentary shuffles forward, steps sideways, leaps diagonally and waltzes gracefully throughout this survey of Black creative performance in America.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

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.

Smell is such an integral part of being human, yet it’s probably our least thought-about sense. We take it for granted, often focusing instead on what we can see, hear, taste and touch. But what if we had a guidebook on how to approach life through smell and take advantage of the aromas that confront our noses throughout the day?

This is essentially what author Jude Stewart (Patternalia) provides in her new book, Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell, a comprehensive handbook chock-full of guidance, advice and new ways to experience a sense that is barely understood. Stewart writes that smell’s “liveness,” its dynamic and embodied nature, is what drew her to it and led her on a journey to sniff with more intention. Along the way she realized that “smelling is a kind of meditation turned inside out.

Starting with the science of smell, Stewart discusses the nose’s function and purpose, outlining the chemistry required for smell “to reach us,” the anatomical role of the body’s olfactory bulbs and smell’s emotional connection to the brain and memory. She then breaks various smells into categories such as sweet, savory, earthy and funky. The usual suspects are featured, such as rose, vanilla and bacon, as well as some surprising scents many of us will never get a chance to experience, including cannon fire, melting permafrost and extinct flowers.

Stewart effortlessly combines the fascinating science behind smell with historical examples, musical comparisons and cultural differences in how smells are viewed and experienced. Revelations in Air gives a fresh perspective on and appreciation for this often-ignored sense.

Jude Stewart provides a guidebook to smell that’s chock-full of guidance, advice and new ways to experience the aromas around us.

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.

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In the town of Palermo Heights, the cheerleading squad is the high school’s most successful team. Cheer captain Hermione Winters is determined to fill her senior year with more victories. She’s hard at work at preseason training camp when the unthinkable happens: She wakes up in a hospital to learn that she was drugged and raped, and soon finds out she was also impregnated. With her memory blank and the evidence compromised, there is little hope of finding Hermione’s attacker.

Things aren’t at all simple in Wolf Hollow, and that’s the great strength of Lauren Wolk’s first novel for middle school readers. Wolk has created a fascinating world in the mountains of Pennsylvania in 1943, where heroine Annabelle announces in the opening line, “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

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