Several books on hunting, fishing and wildlife topics are recommended, not all of which were published in 1996. An unusual selection is Willy Poole’s ‘The Hounds of Heaven,’ an English satire on hunters and their antagonists.
I write my favorite review of the year, I’m reminded of a question Dave Hughes poses in his fine Indian Creek: “What can you say about fishing.?” How much harder it is to say anything about fishing books! While picking the best sporting books of the year from the hundreds I review, I realize once again that it’s impossible to pick exactly 10, or to confine myself to books with a copyright of 1996. The resulting list ranges from conventional fishing memoirs to rowdy English satire. There are some odd omissions: no big-game books and no dog books. Still, the diversity of “species” reflects the health of the sporting field, whatever our critics say.
Fishing From All Angles: Meanderings of a Fly Fisherman is the first book from author Seth Norman. My one criticism is that the title gives little insight into the treasures inside. Meanderings isn’t just a flyfisher’s life (there are many fish caught by spoon and bait in it; Norman came late to “purist” fishing), but a book of glimpses into the deeply lived life of a thoughtful man with a passion for fish and flowing water. There are short stories and essays in the collection, but the line between fiction and reality is blurred. A former investigative reporter and psychiatric worker, Norman’s also been kicked out of Malaysia for sedition and has taught “flying fishing” to a crazed bunch of Polynesian anglers in Bora Bora. These experiences translate into writing that’s tough-minded, funny and insightful. Wilderness Adventures Press; 1-800/925-3339. $29.95.
Live Water, a new collection of fishing essays, features the musings of Tom McGuane – one of my generation’s finest novelists. The great charm of McGuane’s writing is the pure Irish melody of his prose his unique combination of cool, precise observation and the occasional leap into whimsy, though I also love his digressions. Here’s an example, taken at not-quite-random: “Then the trout stopped. There was one single turf of backing wound around the spindle at the center of my empty reel. The fish stopped right then and there! It was like Literature! He stopped long enough to let me think about how wonderful life could be when it had great Literature-style items in it, like coincidence and fate and elegant ironies. Then in that moment of anti-magic when Literature is converted to the far more familiar land where we actually live and breathe and spend our days, the great trout turned and straightened my hook.” Meadow Run Press; 908/719-8858. $50.
A Flyfisher’s World has to be some kind of milestone for Nick Lyons. He’s often worked as a writer and as editor and mentor to more writers than he can probably remember. But this fat collection of essays and recollections, which range from 1940s Brooklyn to private ponds in France, is the first of his many books to survey the roots of his passion for water and to explore its consequences, both good and slightly dubious. Lyons portrays himself as a flyfishing Everyman, prone to all our mistakes and frailties, bungling casts, buying things he can’t afford, sacrificing himself to the Fishgod for one more cast. When you read this one you realize, though it’s all true, he’s better than that…gentler, more thoughtful, wiser. If we read him carefully, a little of his attitude and grace just might rub off on us. Atlantic Monthly Press; 1-800/788-3123. $23.
Dream Fish and Road Trips is one of two books on my list by E. Donnall Thomas Jr., M.D.; I can’t even imagine living his life. He’s an internist, a hunter of big game with a longbow, flyfisher, bird shooter, pilot, world traveler, and a trainer of lion hounds; with all this, it’s almost unfair that he’s not only a prolific writer but also a good one. Dream Fish extends Thomas’s fierce joy in wild fish (of all species) into a wider world. Lyons & Burford; 1-800/836-0510, ext. 21. $22.95.
Hunting, Literally and Figuratively: A Hunter’s Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport is a collection edited by writer and conservationist David Peterson. The list of contributors is nothing short of amazing: the late Edward Abbey, ace birder Pete Dunne, Jimmy Carter, Terry Tempest Williams and Sports Afield’s Robert F. Jones, Thomas McGuane, Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, Barry Lopez and Peter Mathiessen. It’s another example of a book that should – though probably won’t – be read by all self-defined conservationists. As Abbey writes in “Blood Sport,” “Hunting is one of the hardest things even to think about.” Because it is hard, most humans don’t think at all; they react. in this volume, 42 good and intelligent writers reflect on their passion and sometimes fierce ambivalence for this most controversial of pursuits, baring their souls about the essential question: How can someone who professes reverence for life take it? That we all take life anyway, but that some do so consciously and reverently, may be a start at an answer. Henry Holt; 1-800/288-2131. $25.
Meditations on Hunting, a legendary classic by Jose Ortega y Gasset, is perhaps the first serious effort by a philosopher to examine the ethics of hunting and most certainly one of the year’s best reprints. Ortega wrote the essay in Spanish in 1942 as a preface to a friend’s book on big-game hunting; the essay received its first American translation in 1972. That book has become rare and expensive, but its poor illustrations detract from the wise and elegant text. Wilderness Adventure’s edition, boxed and beautifully bound in cloth, is a suitably dignified setting for the essential words, and Eldridge Hardie’s quiet pencil sketches enhance them. Wilderness Adventures Press; 1-800/925-3339. $60.
Big Woods, William Faulkner’s hunting collection, is the other great reprint of the year. If you are the kind of person who reads reviews like this, I don’t have to tell you of the merits of stories like “The Bear.” What you do need to know is that Brett Smith’s dark, foreboding etchings are the finest illustrations I’ve ever seen in a sporting book. Wilderness Adventures Press; 1-800/925-3339. $60.
Fool Hen Blues, E. Donnall Thomas’s second contribution, is a passionate insider’s look at Western-style bird hunting, with plenty of emphasis on plains birds. I love it even though he makes unkind fun of gun nuts. (“It’s not that I really have anything against them. Several of them are friends, and they even frequent my house….”) Wilderness Adventures Press; 1-800/925-3339. $30.
Guns, Buffalo Camps and the Act of Predation: Lock, Stock, and Barrel by Cyril Adams and Robert Braden should be added to the list if you’re one of those gun nuts. It’s a simple forthrigth and exceptionally well-illustrated little guide to “Best” English guns by two hard-core fanatics who don’t just trade in English guns but shoot them – well. (The second part of the book tells you intelligent things about how to do that, too.) The sharp-edged black-and-white photos will show you subtle differences worth 1000 words. To quote: “Although a prospective buyer may be told that fine Continental shotguns are actually better than English and that some companies have been making great guns since the dawn of wingshooting, one is compelled to ask, `Where are their hundred-year-old veterans?'” One is in my gunrack. But then, I also shoot a 50-year-old American pump. Safari Press; 1-800/451-4788 or 714/894-9080 (in California). $24.95.
Tie My Bones to Her Back (the title is from the old cowboy song “Leaving Cheyenne”) by Robert F. Jones just may be the definitive account of the buffalo skinners and their wars with nature, Indians and one another. The novel’s heroine flees the failure of her family farm in the Midwest and the suicides of her parents to join her brother in the buffalo camps, and ultimately ends up with the Indians. Parts of it are lyrical arts brutal, parts surreal. With scenes reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch or Cormac McCarthy; the book should be filmed by Werner Herzog. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1-800/788- 6262. $23.
Dancers in the Sunset Sky, also by Jones, would be a conventional “sporting” book if anything he writes (and which includes references to Kafka, Waughesque English aristocrats, and a tribute to a Jack Russell terrier who kills her own birds) could ever be called conventional. Jones is unique in his combination of matter-of-fact ferocious joy in the act of predation and his simultaneous realization of the beauty and evanescence of life. I suspect other hunters and writers feel these things, but few write of both. Lyons & Burford; 1-800/836-0510, ext. 21. $22.95.
Satire and Natural History: The Hounds of Heaven is good, is weird, and is the damnedest mixture of satire, adventure novel and a number of other things I have ever read. An English novel by Willy Poole, Hounds is the story of Major Lord Frederick Fitzhugh, who loses first his money and then his livelihood as an anti-hunting government takes over the United Kingdom. He steals his own hound pack (which is going to be executed) and flees to Slovenia, where he signs on to hunt wolves grown bold on the fringes of the Serbo-Croatian war: tragedy, horses, bad jokes, heroism, lurchers and lots of sex. It even has a disclaimer on the dust jacket: “This book is not politically correct and contains scenes of sex, violence, and hunting.” It was reviewed with raves in The Field and will offend many of my friends. I loved it. Michael Joseph Ltd. Contact: Books Britain Inc., 212/749-4713; or fax: 212/749-7509. About $10.
Having gotten this strange, let me end by discussing a few books that are not actually “about” the sports that appear here but should be read by any curious and literate sportsman or -woman. Eyes of Fire, more a handsome booklet than a book, is an account of the first “official” jaguar in the Southwest in 70-odd years. Author Warner Glenn is the conservationist, guide and hunter who brought the jaguar to bay and then let him go. The photos of a jaguar from four feet away will stop your breath. Proceeds from the book will help compensate ranchers for jaguar depredation and protect jaguar habitat. (Printing Corner Press. Write to Warner Glenn, P.O. Drawer 1039, Douglas, AZ 85608. $16.) Understanding the Bird of Prey by Nick Fox is the best manual on training raptors that I have ever seen, by a falconer and scientist who has the backing to support his theories. Most experienced falconers seem to have missed it, perhaps because they assume that they already know it all. I have been flying hawks since the mid-60s, and this book has rearranged my mind. (Hancock House; 1-800/938-1114. $49.95.) Finally – and most important? – read David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, his adventure-travel-history-puzzle book about island biogeography. I know that might sound dull; it’s not. It’s entertaining, urgent, haunting, perhaps heartbreaking, because it shows us where we are all likely to be headed, and why. (Scribner’s; 1-800/223-2348. $32.50.)