Like many other former seven-year-olds, I was once a dinosaur obsessive. With Jurassic Park roosting in the VCR, I would give any grown-up in earshot a rundown of my favorite dinosaurs (this changed daily) and what periods they lived in. If you're anything like me, a page or two into Steve Brusatte's prehistoric masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (William Morrow, $29.99), will be enough to bring back the kid in you. A perfect gift for any dino-lover, Brusatte’s book presents the Mesozoic in vivid detail and with an immediacy not often reserved for a period that ended 65 million years ago. From spindly, cat-sized lizards at the beginning of the Triassic to thundering giants at the end of the Cretaceous, dinosaurs were a highly diverse, sophisticated species whose millions of years of earthly dominance help put our world and lives in far greater perspective.
The phenomenal The Dinosaur Artist (Hachette, $28) is at once natural history and a history of paleontology; it’s a biography of fossil hunters, an overview of women paleontologists and a true crime story about the international smuggling of Mongolian fossils, and, finally, it’s an authoritative presentation of the complex questions of natural history relics and who has the right to them. Paige Williams organizes all this material around Eric Prokopi, a Florida fossil hunter and dealer. Prokopi’s career coincided with discoveries like that of Tyrannosaurus Sue, a South Dakota skeleton that sold for $8.36 million in 1992. As “fossils became money,” scientists grew concerned that specimens crucial to research would disappear into private collections. Though efforts to restrict private ownership of fossils has been slow in the U.S., Mongolia passed strict laws prohibiting export of bones found within its borders. These laws caught up with Prokopi just as he’d prepared a rare Tyrannosaurus bataar—related to the T. rex—for auction in 2012. It would have sold for a million dollars, but because the lot had originated in the Gobi Desert, the sale was cancelled, Prokopi was convicted of smuggling, and the bones went back to their home. Williams presents the competing claims so compellingly that you root for both sides.
Jonathan Franzen opens The End of the End of the Earth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), his urgent collection of nonfiction, by trying to establish the rules of what he’s doing. Is an essay “something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience,” or is it “the formal apparatus of honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas”? Franzen covers friendships and family dramas, but also reports on the state of the environment and relentlessly questions his role as a privileged Westerner in a world of vast inequality. Above all, he puts everything in the context of climate change. “Global warming is the issue of our time, perhaps the biggest issue in all of human history.” Given that the Anthropocene may mean the end of civilization, how do we live in it? How do we think about it? In order to “accept the reality in time to prepare for it humanely,” one rule might be looking squarely at what’s there and how our actions are affecting it. Franzen does this by watching birds. They are for him “a way of experiencing” the place he’s in as well as “the most visible indicator of a healthy ecosystem.”