The Great Displacement, by Jake Bittle (Simon & Schuster). Roving across the United States, this survey explores the precarious environments in which many Americans now live, places irreversibly altered by floods, fires, hurricanes, and drought. “Managed retreat” is a popular term in climate discourse, but whole communities, from Arizona ranchers to Indigenous tribes in Louisiana, face disaster without any sort of plan. Victims of megafires in California find themselves at the mercy of the state’s housing crunch. Bittle argues that the approaches of both government and the insurance industry are totally inadequate for today’s dilemmas: Where should we build? What should we protect? And what do we owe those who lose everything?
The Half Known Life, by Pico Iyer (Riverhead). This travelogue examines spiritual customs from around the world, meditating on the idea of paradise. Iyer visits the mosques of Iran, the insular streets of North Korea, the mountains of Japan, Aboriginal Australia, and Belfast (the “spiritual home of civil war”). Many would-be Edens have, variously, been riven by conflict, divided by religion, and wracked by colonization. Grappling with “a world that seems always to simmer in a state of answerlessness,” Iyer gradually reconciles himself to the contradictions of earthly paradise. “The most beautiful of flowers has its roots in what we regard as muck and filth,” he reflects, contemplating Buddhism’s emblematic lotus. “It’s only grit that makes the radiance possible.”
Read our reviews of the year’s notable new fiction and nonfiction.