Wildlife: A large beast in the room
“An Elephant’s Life,” Lyons Press

In her coffee table book, elephant expert Caitlin O’Connell uses a career’s worth of photographs to illuminate the everyday activities of elephants. There are a handful of expansive vistas and breathtaking wildlife snaps in “An Elephant’s Life,” but mostly O’Connell gets up close and personal with a single pack of African behemoths, shooting them as they skulk around in a ho-hum-looking watering hole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. That dusty, muddy theater offers plenty of insight into an elephant’s lifestyle – from power struggles to child rearing to their delicate everyday gestures of trust and endearment. O’Connell captures adult females using their trunks to hoist a young bull elephant to safety after he takes a spill in a drinking trough. She also gets a record of elephants defending their rights to the good drinking water and adolescent males bullying the little kids. In these frozen moments, you can look deep into their gray and wrinkled visages and imagine the same issues playing out at your own family’s Thanksgiving dinner.

Space exploration: Going where no robot has gone before
“Space Probes,” Firefly Books

Ever since Sputnik made Earth orbit in 1957, mankind has been flinging tiny flecks of metal — in the cosmic sense — farther and farther from home in an effort to get a grip on our solar system’s secrets. In “Space Probes,” Philippe Seguela compiles them all, cataloging each unmanned mission that one or another earthbound nation has hurled toward a heavenly body. The book starts with Russia’s Luna 1 moon probe, considered the first artificial object to free itself from the planet’s gravitational pull, and continues with probes leveled at Mars, Jupiter and smaller targets, such as the comet 9P/Tempel 1, into which the Deep Impact probe slammed. Seguela also looks at spacecraft still in transit, including the Pluto-bound New Horizons. They may look like sci-fi space junk, but Seguela sees the majesty therein: “Just like the pyramids and great cathedrals, solar-system space probes represent glorious monuments to human ingenuity.”

Aaron Leitko