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  • Writer's pictureAllen Crater

Holiday Gift Guide – Books

Updated: Mar 7

books in a pile next to leather chair and fireplace

If you are anything like me, your holiday list probably includes a few books. I scoured my library for a few that have really stood out over the past year or two, and even included one that I penned myself for good measure.

From tantalizing real-life accounts of exploration and adventure to philosophical ponderings about wild places, incredible prose about life, love, food and dogs and lighthearted accounts of the torments of chasing trout, this list of 20 promises a little something for everyone.

You'll find a number of new titles (including one that isn't even released yet), and few staples from previous lists that I consider "must-read" material. As usual, I had a really hard time whittling down the selections, so if you are looking for additional ideas, drop me a note, I have plenty.

1. The River You Touch by Chris Dombrowski “We are matter and long to be received by an Earth that conceived us, which accepts and reconstitutes us, its children, each of us, without exception, every one. The journey is long, and then we start homeward, fathomless as to what home might make of us.”

Author, teacher, philosopher, guide, husband, father. Chris is all of these things. The River You Touch is profoundly personal, hits deep with insights that only come from being truly present in a place, and is delivered with the lyrical prose of a practiced poet.

He begins the book with a question as timely as it is poignant: “What does a meaningful, mindful, sustainable inhabitance on this small planet look like in the anthropocene?” He answers this fundamental question of our time initially by listening lovingly to rivers and the land they pulse through in his adopted home of Montana.

By, together with his wife, spending time in wild places with their children, he learns that their youthful sense of wonder at the beauty and connectivity of the more-than-human world is not naivete to be shed, but rather wisdom most of us lose along the way—wisdom that is essential for the possibility of transformation.

2. The Comfort Crisis, By MIchael Easter In many ways, we’re more comfortable than ever before. But could our sheltered, temperature-controlled, overfed, underchallenged lives actually be the leading cause of many our most urgent physical and mental health issues? In this gripping investigation, award-winning journalist Michael Easter seeks out off-the-grid visionaries, disruptive genius researchers, and mind-body conditioning trailblazers who are unlocking the life-enhancing secrets of a counterintuitive solution: discomfort.

Easter’s journey to understand our evolutionary need to be challenged takes him to meet the NBA’s top exercise scientist, who uses an ancient Japanese practice to build championship athletes; to the mystical country of Bhutan, where an Oxford economist and Buddhist leader are showing the world what death can teach us about happiness; to the outdoor lab of a young neuroscientist who’s found that nature tests our physical and mental endurance in ways that expand creativity while taming burnout and anxiety; to the remote Alaskan backcountry on a demanding thirty-three-day hunting expedition to experience the rewilding secrets of one of the last rugged places on Earth; and more.

Along the way, Easter uncovers a blueprint for leveraging the power of discomfort that will dramatically improve our health and happiness, and perhaps even help us understand what it means to be human. The Comfort Crisis is hands down the most life-changing (and frequently referenced) work I read in 2021.

3. All the Time in the World, by John Gierach Once again, John Gierach tells the world why the pastime of fly-fishing makes so much sense—except when it doesn’t. In sparkling prose, with more than a touch of humor, he recalls the joys of landing that trout he’s been watching for the last hour—and then losing an even fatter one a little later. Joy and frustration mix in Gierach’s latest appreciation of the fly-fishing life as he takes us from his home waters on the Front Range of the Rockies in Colorado to fishing meccas all over North America. From fishing lodges in Alaska to memories of the local creek in the Midwest where he grew up, Gierach reminds us about the indispensability of the natural world around us. Available March 21, 2023.

Beautifully illustrated by Bob White, (read my interview with Bob here).

You can pre-order here the signed book here or for a small additional up-charge get a signed copy with a signed original pencil drawing of your choice of fly on the title page from Bob White. Or, buy a print from Bob and get the signed edition included FREE or purchase a Master Edition print from Bob and get the signed copy with the hand drawn fly FREE. Details here.

4. The View From the Middle Seat, by Jac Ford Trophy angling is now tougher, more critical of our skills and thought, than in past eras. Our streams and lakes, even the seas, are more crowded with anglers. To maximize your enjoyment you need to prepare thoughtfully and hone your skills. The View From the Middle Seat is your tool kit.

Jac is a legend and a friend. This smartly written and beautifully illustrated coffee-table style book will help you become a better angler; more successful in locating, attracting, hooking, and touching the elusive trophies we all seek. Importantly, it will guide your development of lifelong tools, processes of inquiry and analysis, that will enhance your appreciation for nature’s splendor and the magic of its wild creatures. Illustrated by David Ruimveld.

5. The Longest Silece, by Thomas McGuane From the highly acclaimed author of Ninety-Two in the Shade and Nothing but Blue Skies comes this collection of breathtakingly exquisite essays borne of a lifetime spent fishing.

The thirty-three essays in The Longest Silence take us from the tarpon of Florida to the salmon of Iceland, from the bonefish of Mexico to the trout of Montana. They bring us characters as varied as a highly literate Canadian frontiersman and a devoutly Mormon river guide and address issues ranging from the esoteric art of tying flies to the enduring philosophy of a seventeenth-century angler. Infused with a deep experience of wildlife and the outdoors, both reverent and hilarious by turns, The Longest Silence sets the heart pounding for a glimpse of moving water and demonstrates what dedication to sport reveals about life.

6. Lords of the Fly, by Monte Burke in Lords of the Fly, Monte Burke, an obsessed tarpon fly angler himself, delves into this seminal moment and the growing popularity of the amazing tarpon, a fifty-million-year-old species that can live to eighty years old and can grow to three hundred pounds. This massive, leaping, bullet train of a fish, when hooked in shallow water, produces "immediate unreality," as the late poet and tarpon obsessive, Richard Brautigan, once described it. Filled with larger-than-life characters and vivid prose, Lords of the Fly is not only a must read for anglers of all stripes, but also for those interested in the desperate yearning of the human condition.

7. The Earth is Enough, by Harry Middleton In this touching memoir of his boyhood on a farm in the Ozark foothills, Harry Middleton joins the front rank of nature writers alongside Edward Hoagland and Annie Dillard.

It is the year 1965, a year rife with change in the world---and in the life of a boy whose tragic loss of innocence leads him to the healing landscape of the Ozarks. Haunted by indescribable longing, twelve-year-old Harry is turned over to two enigmatic guardians, men as old as the hills they farm and as elusive and beautiful as the trout they fish for, with religious devotion. Seeking strength and purpose from life, Harry learns from his uncle, grandfather, and their crazy Sioux neighbor, Elias Wonder, that the pulse of life beats from within the deep constancy of the earth, and from one’s devotion to it. Amidst the rhythm of an ancient cadence, Harry discovers his home: a farm, a mountain stream, and the eye of a trout rising.

8. The Habit of Rivers, by Ted Leeson Originally published in 1994, this book was a fly-fishing phenomenon in the way Howell Raines's Fly Fishing Through the Mid-Life Crisis was. Taking his fishing hobby to near metaphysical levels, Ted Leeson tells about his passions: rivers, trout, and fly fishing. With wry humor and rare insight, he explores questions that engage most fishermen: What is it about rivers that draws us so irresistibly, and why does fly fishing seem such an aptly suited response? Above all, The Habit of Rivers is about ways of seeing the wonderfully textured world that emanates from a river.

9. The Course of Empire, by Bernard Devoto Tracing North American Exploration from Balboa to Lewis and Clark, Devoto tells in a classic fashion how the drama of discovery defined the American nation. The Course of Empire is the third volume in historian Bernard Devoto’s monumental trilogy of the West. Entertaining and incisive, this is the dramatic story of three hundred years of exploration of North America leading up to 1805. This book is a heavy read loaded with history.

10. 1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.

11. Crimes Against Nature, by Karl Jacoby Crimes against Nature reveals the hidden history behind three of the nation's first parklands: the Adirondacks, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. Focusing on conservation's impact on local inhabitants, Karl Jacoby traces the effect of criminalizing such traditional practices as hunting, fishing, foraging, and timber cutting in the newly created parks. Jacoby reassesses the nature of these "crimes" and provides a rich portrait of rural people and their relationship with the natural world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

12. Ridgeline, by Michael Punke In 1866, with the country barely recovered from the Civil War, new war breaks out on the western frontier – a clash of cultures between a young, ambitious nation and the Native tribes who have lived on the land for centuries. Colonel Henry Carrington arrives in Wyoming’s Powder River Valley to lead the US Army in defending the opening of a new road for gold miners and settlers. Carrington intends to build a fort in the middle of critical hunting grounds, the home of the Lakota. Red Cloud, one of the Lakota’s most respected chiefs, and Crazy Horse, a young but visionary warrior, understand full well the implications of this invasion. For the Lakota, the stakes are their home, their culture, their lives.

Throughout this taut saga – based on real people and events – Michael Punke brings the same immersive, vivid storytelling and historical insight that made his breakthrough debut (The Revenant) so memorable. As Ridgeline builds to its epic conclusion, it grapples with essential questions of conquest and justice that still echo today.

13. Undaunted Courage, by Stephen E. Ambrose In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson selected his personal secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead a voyage up the Missouri River to the Rockies, over the mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, and back. Lewis and his partner, Captain William Clark, made the first map of the trans-Mississippi West, provided invaluable scientific data on the flora and fauna of the Louisiana Purchase territory, and established the American claim to Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Ambrose has pieced together previously unknown information about weather, terrain, and medical knowledge at the time to provide a vivid backdrop for the expedition. Lewis is supported by a rich variety of colorful characters, first of all Jefferson himself, whose interest in exploring and acquiring the American West went back thirty years. Next comes Clark, a rugged frontiersman whose love for Lewis matched Jefferson’s. There are numerous Indian chiefs, and Sacagawea, the Indian girl who accompanied the expedition, along with the French-Indian hunter Drouillard, the great naturalists of Philadelphia, the French and Spanish fur traders of St. Louis, John Quincy Adams, and many more leading political, scientific, and military figures of the turn of the century.

High adventure, high politics, suspense, drama, and diplomacy combine with high romance and personal tragedy to make this outstanding work of scholarship as readable as a novel.

14. Boone: A Biography, by Robert Morgan The story of Daniel Boone is the story of America—its ideals, its promise, its romance, and its destiny.

Bestselling, critically acclaimed author Robert Morgan reveals the complex character of a frontiersman whose heroic life was far stranger and more fascinating than the myths that surround him.

This rich, authoritative biography offers a wholly new perspective on a man who has been an American icon for more than two hundred years—a hero as important to American history as his more political contemporaries George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Extensive endnotes, cultural and historical background material, and maps and illustrations underscore the scope of this distinguished and immensely entertaining work.

15. Colter's Run, by Stephen T Gough The legend of John Colter is one of the most fascinating elements of the history of the American West, elevating far beyond the mystery and drama imbedded in the story of his famous "run" - his escape from the Blackfeet Indians in what is known as the fabled Three Forks area of Montana.

Member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, explorer and trapper par excellence, first known white man to "discover" the fantasies now known as Yellowstone National Park - "Colter's Hell" as it came to be called after word of his find reached civilization - lead guide for a number of American fur trapping brigades that invaded the remote wilderness at the headwaters of the Missouri River, survivor of one after another encounters with dreaded Blackfeet warriors, and on and on. John Colter remains the first and most significant of America's folk heroes out of the era of the American West in the years immediately following completion of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

16. The Abstract Wild, by Jack Turner If anything is endangered in America it is our experience of wild nature—gross contact. There is knowledge only the wild can give us, knowledge specific to it, knowledge specific to the experience of it. These are its gifts to us.

How wild is wilderness and how wild are our experiences in it, asks Jack Turner in the pages of The Abstract Wild. His answer: not very wild. National parks and even so-called wilderness areas fall far short of offering the primal, mystic connection possible in wild places. And this is so, Turner avows, because any managed land, never mind what it's called, ceases to be wild. Moreover, what little wildness we have left is fast being destroyed by the very systems designed to preserve it. Readers who take his words to heart will find, if not their selves, their perspectives on the natural world recast in ways that are hard to ignore and harder to forget.

17. The Names of the Stars, by Peter Fromm Twenty-five years after his beloved memoir Indian Creek Chronicles (also highly recommended), Pete Fromm was asked to return to the wilderness to babysit more fish eggs. No longer a footloose twenty-year-old, at forty-five, he was the father of two young sons. He left again, alone, straight into the heart of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, walking a daily ten-mile loop to his fish eggs through deer and elk and the highest density of grizzly bears in the lower forty-eight states.

The Names of the Stars is a trek through a life lived at its edges. From loon calls echoing across Northwood lakes to the grim realities of lifeguarding in the Nevada desert, through the isolation of Indian Creek and years spent running the Snake and Rio Grande as a river ranger, Pete seeks out the source of his passion for wildness, while exploring fatherhood and mortality and all the costs, risks, and rewards of life lived on its own terms.

18. The Emerald Mile, by Kevin Fedarko From one of Outside magazine’s “Literary All-Stars” comes the thrilling true tale of the fastest boat ride ever, down the entire length of the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon, during the legendary flood of 1983.

In the spring of 1983, massive flooding along the length of the Colorado River confronted a team of engineers at the Glen Canyon Dam with an unprecedented emergency that may have resulted in the most catastrophic dam failure in history. In the midst of this crisis, the decision to launch a small wooden dory named “The Emerald Mile” at the head of the Grand Canyon, just fifteen miles downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam, seemed not just odd, but downright suicidal.

The Emerald Mile, at one time slated to be destroyed, was rescued and brought back to life by Kenton Grua, the man at the oars, who intended to use this flood as a kind of hydraulic sling-shot. The goal was to nail the all-time record for the fastest boat ever propelled—by oar, by motor, or by the grace of God himself—down the entire length of the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead. Did he survive? Just barely. Now, this remarkable, epic feat unfolds here, in The Emerald Mile. This books wraps a compelling story with historical insights and ties it together with some of the most vivid prose I have read.

19. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy An epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America's westward expansion, Blood Meridian brilliantly subverts the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the Wild West—from the bestselling, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Road

Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennesseean who stumbles into the nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.

Outside In Shorts Book Cover

20. Outside in Shorts, by Allen Crater As outdoorsmen, it’s natural to measure time in seasons, each made up of immeasurable small moments. A handful of these experiences live on to become the fabric of tradition – mementos of victories and vestiges of failures that pay homage to pleasures and pains, fears and frustrations, trials and triumphs. Common bonds. We taste them in a cup of coffee poured before a winter trek in the big woods, and smell them in those first, fresh days of spring. We hear them in the soft chuckle of a summer river and see them in the silent sip of trout and the staunch point of a seasoned dog. We wear them like a trusty old flannel beside a campfire, where they become tall tales, or even legends, and celebrate our common bond with wild places and with each other.

Outside in Shorts – Seasons of Life, Luck and Loss in the Outdoors is a collection of 29 short stories that explore a catalog of seasons passed among woods and water – four decades of treasured mementos. Memories of people and places, of piscatorial pursuits and perplexing predicaments, of puppies and parenting and pink cake, and the profound pleasure of a life spent outdoors.

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