In this graphic history of weather, Thunder & Lightning (Random House, $35) are only the beginning. Weather can raise the dead, as floods following Hurricane Irene did in Vermont. Extreme cold accomplishes the same thing on the Svalbard Archipelago, gradually unearthing caskets. Lauren Redniss gives such phenomena the full attention and respect they deserve, conveying in words and hand-colored copperplate and photopolymer-process prints conditions ranging from chaos to rain to heat. As she did in her unforgettable treatment of Marie Curie, Radioactive, Redniss has carefully considered each detail of her book; she designed a new font, named after the Inuktitut for “falling snow.” She fills every page to the edges with colors and shapes, disregarding perspective as early naturalists did, intent on recording details for the sake of science. Often taking a counter-intuitive approach to her subject, Redniss discusses wind by entering the breathless crush of Mecca and by shadowing Diana Nyad across a turbulent Atlantic. She listens to Eucalyptus trees explode in the intense Australian wildfires and joins black kites diving into the crests of flames for insects. She also looks at what we’ve done with weather, from the cloud-seeding that made rain a weapon of mass destruction in the Vietnam War to the climate changes that are destabilizing permafrost. “For millennia people have found meaning and divinity in weather,”Redniss reminds us, and notes that before Gutenberg printed a bible, he produced an almanac, that “calendar of the heavens” that guides us through the Earthly storms.
To go beyond the call of duty—that depends on how you define “duty.” Consider this thought experiment: you see people drowning and can save either a relative or two strangers. What do you do? For most, the first impulse is to save the relative, but the utilitarian view would dictate helping the strangers; why save only one person when you can do twice as much good by saving two? Most of the issues of Strangers Drowning (Penguin Press, $27.95) spiral out from this scenario. Is altruism a matter of emotion or of logic? Is rescue the same as saving? Are humanitarian NGOs just colonialism in another guise? And when have you done enough, if suffering continues? In detailed and compelling narratives that make the moral questions immediate, Larissa MacFarquhar profiles people variously called saints, heroes, or obsessive-compulsives. A couple feels their calling is to save unwanted children—and end up with a family of twenty-two. Driven to eliminate as much sheer suffering as possible, a man advocates on behalf of the millions of agri-business chickens. Another couple, realizing that a few dollars buys a mosquito net, gradually donates every expendable dime to charities, equating buying a soda for themselves to committing a murder. The size of donations, of course, depends on the donor’s income—a woman deliberates whether it’s moral to stay in a low-paying position she loves, if a more lucrative career allows her to give away more money. And if these “do-gooders” never really change the world, does that negate the improvements they make, or render “selfish” the satisfaction—even the exhilaration—they feel in trying?
Evan Osnos gives his mother credit for raising him to be “at home in the world.” Anyone who’s been a foreign correspondent or lived abroad for a while in some other capacity or has traveled much can relate to that expression. And it’s clear from reading The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) that Osnos, who covered China first for The Chicago Tribune and then for The New Yorker, was quite at home there and came to understand and articulate that complicated and often contradictory country in exceptional ways. This excellent book provides a masterful portrait of China, combining stories of many individual Chinese—the ordinary as well as the prominent—with discussions of broader trends. Only China’s censors seem to have had a few issues with the book. A Shanghai publisher, before agreeing to print a translated version, wanted to cut its mention of a number of politically active people. Other publishers sought other deletions. Osnos refused—and went instead with a Taiwan publisher.