Best Books of 2016 – Nature!

Nature made headlines in 2016 for predictably awful reasons. A gorilla was shot dead because careless human parents let their child wander into his jail cell; the year was once again the hottest on record; an American political administration came to power openly intent on raping the planet; even such tourist-friendly creatures as giraffes were revealed to be on the slide to extinction, etc. But at least one positive note could be found in the world of letters, where plenty of first-rate books were written on science and nature topics. Here are the best of them:

the-book-of-frogs10. The Book of Frogs by Tim Halliday (University of Chicago) – The oversized dimensions of this book are a fitting tribute to the full wonder and glory of its goggle-eyed subjects! All the world’s frogs, from all their various environments, brandishing all the weird adaptations they’ve developed to survive, and each with a glimpse of how big they are in real life … a feast for frog-ophiles! You can read my full review here

9. America’s Snake by Ted Levin (University of americas-snakeChicago) – Of course, not all reptiles are created equal! Ted Levin’s passionate, eloquent book is a prolonged love letter to the American timber rattler, a horn-faced engine of venom that Levin nevertheless finds not only beautiful but inspiring. And regardless of how many times you yourself may have been bitten by this allegedly peaceful creature, you’ll certainly find the book’s prose beautiful and inspiring. You can read my the-wood-for-the-treesfull review here

8. The Wood for the Trees by Richard Fortey (Knopf) – This book too is a love letter, in this case Fortey’s love letter to the four acres of woodland he owns in Oxfordshire, seen and finely examined month-by-month during the course of a year. He studies the plants and animals of his little domain and seamlessly fills his readers in on the history every root and branch and creeping thing, and it’s all so charmingly done that you’ll finish it wanting to go out tracking-gobi-grizzliespoking around in woodland yourself.

7. Tracking Gobi Grizzlies by Douglas Chadwick (Patagonia) – It’s true with many genres, but it seems particularly true with nature books: the oddest, most unlikely subjects can inspire great books. In this beautifully-produced thing full of photos, wildlife biologist Chadwick travels to a remote corner of the Gobi Desert to track, study, and eulogize the isolated species of grizzly bear that lives there – about four dozen individuals on the precipice of extinction, and yet being-a-dogChadwick somehow imbues his book with optimism.

6. Man’s best friend is the subject of dozens of books every year – all kinds of books coming at this most familiar of subjects from all kinds of angles – but it’s pound-for-poundonly infrequently that a year boasts so many first-rate results. In Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz (Scribner), the inner world of the dog’s stunning array of senses is imagined about as well as a human could imagine it; in Shannon Kopp’s dawn-of-the-dogincredibly moving Pound for Pound (William Morrow), the horrifying world of dog shelters forms the backdrop for a gripping story of the bond that develops between one woman and one special dog (you can read my full review here); in Dawn of the Dog by Janice Koller-Matznick, a thought-provoking theory about where the domesticated dog pit-bullultimately comes from is laid out in clear, evocative prose (you can read my full review here); and in Pit Bull by Bronwyn Dickey (Knopf), one of the most unjustly vilified breeds of domestic dogs is given a spirited and thrillingly emotional defense. It’s rare for any year to bring me even one dog book that’s a must-have for my permanent bookshelf on my single favorite subject in the world – so ice-bear-coverI was overjoyed that 2016 brought me four.

5. Ice Bear by Michael Engelhard (University of Washington Press) – It’s something of a pattern on this particular list this year: we swing from adorable, worthy animals to hate-filled engines of death and destruction, all the while somehow praising excellent books. In this case we’re not talking about the murderous timber rattler but rather the murderous polar bear, the one-ton arctic monster with the mind of a chess master and paws that come equipped with flensing knives. And yet Engelhard likewise does a fantastic job of not only fleshing out the history and folklore of the polar bear but also in creating a fairly sympathetic picture of the animal along the way.

4. What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe (FSG), Other Minds by Peter what-a-fish-knowsGodfrey-Smith (FSG) – Thanks to ongoing and groundbreaking research being conducted in many places all over the world, the topic of animal cognition has never been better served by the other-mindspublishing industry, and 2016 saw two excellent examples, Jonathan Balcombe’s high-spirited attempt to understand the strange world of fish, and Peter Godfrey-Smith’s more wide-ranging investigation into the truly alien mental world of the octopus. Both books were full of fascinating science, and both left deep impressions long after I’d finished them.coyote-america

3. Coyote America by Dan Flores (Basic Books) – We return to canines with this lyrical and gripping look into the world of Canis latrans, the coyote. Flores does the same kind of excellent job that Engelhard does, giving his readers not only the natural history and current conservationist issues but also the rich folklore behind these most adaptable of all wild canines. It was yet another dog-related book that made its way to my eruptionpermanent shelves. You can read my full review here

2. Eruption by Steve Olson (WW Norton) – The list swerves from the natural world and its various inhabitants to a natural disaster, one of the greatest and most dramatic in American history: the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Steve Olson writes a fully-detailed account of the whole thing, prelude, cataclysm, and aftermath, and he invests the story not only with a great cast of characters but also with page-turning sense of dramatic tension – not the easiest thing to do when all your readers know how your story turns out. You can read my full review here

1. Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos by Loren loa-eiseleyEiseley (Library of America) – Every so often, the Library of America turns from immortalizing the wan posturings of John Updike or the random brain-dribbles of Kurt Vonnegut and makes an absolutely inspired editorial decision, and this two-volume set collecting the writings of the great naturalist Loren Eiseley, including his masterpiece The Immense Journey, is one of those decisions. Eiseley’s every prose work warrants re-reading and cherishing, and as icing on the cake, the people at Library of America made the boxed set a thing of beauty. The combination guaranteed that this set would never have any real competition as the year’s best nature book.

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