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Christmas Book List

I think we could all stand a fun post, couldn’t we?

A reader asked for my thoughts about which Dante books would be good to receive (or give?) for Christmas. An excellent thought!

Let’s start with translations. My favorite translation is the Robert & Jean Hollander, available in three separate volumes (here’s a link to Inferno [1]). The thing about the Hollanders’ translation is that the notes are exhaustive, almost overwhelming. For newbies, a better choice might be the Mark Musa translation (Inferno [2] here), given that his notes are far more accessible to the layman. If you go with Musa, be careful not to buy The Portable Dante. It has his complete translation, but with almost all the notes taken out. You really need the notes. Anthony Esolen’s translation is also good (Inferno here [3]), and his notes are exceptional. I’ve seen the Durling/Martinez translation [4], and it’s fantastic. I don’t own it, but it is the next translation I want to acquire.

I would not recommend the John Ciardi or Dorothy Sayers translations.

I’ve linked in all the cases above to the Inferno, which is of course the first of the trilogy. I strongly urge you not to buy only the Inferno. You can’t really understand Dante’s message at all if you stop there.

What about books about Dante? Let me suggest that you start not with a book, but with an audio course: Bill Cook and Ron Herzman’s Great Courses lectures on the Commedia. [5] They aren’t cheap, but they are a fantastic investment. Nothing I read or listened to during my Dante studies better helped me understand the material as a newcomer. I have them all on my iPhone, and listen to them over and over, even still.

In print, you can hardly do better than Prue Shaw’s Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. [6] It’s a marvelous general introduction to Dante’s life and thought. I wish it had had more about religious faith, but this book is so rich I recommend it without hesitation. A friend gave me a copy of A.N. Wilson’s biography, Dante In Love [7], which I also recommend, though it’s not easy to find. I could make a whole list of Dante-related books, but I’ll stop there for now. These are the ones I suggest to newcomers.

What other books? Well, let me remind you that The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is available in paperback, and back on Amazon.com [8], though as ever, I prefer that you buy it through your local bookstore. Don’t forget Barnes & Noble’s website [9], which carried it when Amazon would not. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know the story of Little Way. I recommend it as a gift for a special teacher, given that much of it concerns the impact Ruthie had on her students. It is also a memoir with special relevance to people who like to think about small towns and community, as well as those struggling with cancer, either themselves or in their families. And of course if your intended gift-receiver likes the South, this is a good book for them. Also, though this is not a “Christian” book per se, the theme of faith as a source of strength through dark times runs strong in the book.

Finally, and maybe perversely, this is a book to give to your son or daughter who lives far away, and whom you would like to move closer. I’ve had more than a few readers tell me that they chose to move to their hometowns after reading it, to raise their kids around their grandparents and extended families. Julie and I hosted a new friend on her way back to the East Coast from California; she moved in part because Little Way helped her see the value of the family she left behind, and the life they could offer her. I love stories like that, and love that my book played a role in family reconciliation.

Oh, one more: I am giving this year a book I discovered this summer, and absolutely loved: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his 1934 walk across Europe,  A Time of Gifts.  [10] It is the best travel book I have ever read, hands down. The writing is so gorgeous that you can’t read it in one sitting, though you’re tempted to. It’s best savored one small bit at a time. There’s a part two and three as well.

Dang it, I can’t stop without mentioning this book for the foodie and/or Francophile on your list: A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. [11] It’s a collection of Liebling’s journalism, recollecting good eats in the best food city in the world. Many people don’t know this book, so there’s a good chance your foodie/Francophile does not have it. It’s unforgettable, and an absolute delight. Warning: it will make you want to catch the next flight to Charles de Gaulle.

OK, that’s my list. Yours?

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47 Comments To "Christmas Book List"

#1 Comment By evw On December 10, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

It’s not a book but the design is made entirely of text from a classic. This way you can literally wear your love (for Dante) on your sleeve: [12]

#2 Comment By adh-dhariyat On December 10, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

Shortly after it came out, I gave Little Way as a gift to my mother and to a friend who’d just graduated from college. Both loved it, for different reasons. My mom for the Ruthie’s battle vs cancer (my grandfather, God rest his soul, died of cancer). And my friend for its story about how it was okay that you left but didn’t forgot where you came from.

Books are (almost) always the best gift. Two of my favorites to give would be [13] by Alain de Botton and [14] by Alan Lightman.

#3 Comment By JonF On December 10, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

With the exception of my cats, who get catnip, and my preferred charities, who get a check, no one gets a gift from me at Christmas that is not some manner of gift card. Yes, there’s an avid reader on my list who will be getting an Amazon card.

#4 Comment By Blairburton On December 10, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

I thought of you yesterday, when I came across an interview the Telegraph did with J.R.R. Tolkien in 1968, reprinted I suppose because of the imminent release of the 3rd Hobbit film. Tolkien was apparently not a Dante admirer, as he is quoted as saying “[Dante] doesn’t attract me. He’s full of spite and malice. I don’t care for his petty relations with petty people in petty cities.”

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Anyhow, it is an interesting interview which I recommend to all Tolkien fans.

#5 Comment By charles cosimano On December 10, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

Well, of course Machiavelli tops my list. But following that, Stephen Potter’s “Lifemanship,” “Gamesmanship,” and “Oneupmanship.”

#6 Comment By Spike On December 10, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

Rod, what do you think about Charles Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice?

[NFR: An amazing book, but about 40 percent of it was over my head. It’s one that I’m going to be returning to again and again over the years. — RD]

#7 Comment By nillionaire On December 10, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

Oh boy, I’ve really been waiting for an opportunity to make this recommendation to you: Gene Wolfe is one of the most important Catholic writers (and writers, full stop) of the modern era, and definitely one of the most overlooked. His work is dense and thoughtful with a deep appreciation of the mythic and the spiritual. The first reading is a blast, but second and third readings invariably reveal subtle and brilliantly implemented secrets and details as you read between the lines of his narrators’ viewpoint biases. If he hadn’t done most of his work during a time when genre fiction lived in a ghetto, he’d hold his rightful place as one of the all-time masters of American fiction (and even so is widely lauded by his peers as the best of the best).

His most famous work is the four-part “Book of the New Sun,” but my recommendation for you would be to start with the “Book of the Long Sun.” Its protagonist is a young priest of an artificial religion that has a brief, authentic, and basically Christian religious experience that sets the plot in motion. With few exceptions, he achieves his goals not through violence, but through a deep-seated decency and the charisma it generates. I really can’t speak highly enough of this guy, and my own tastes run more towards the secular and setting-oriented rather than the mythic and character driven… someone like you would appreciate him even more than I, and that’s saying a lot.

#8 Comment By Frank On December 10, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

I have been meaning to ask this, but which is better, Inferno, Purgatorio, or Pardisio? Or are they all distinct, hard to compare?

Inferno seems more popular or read than the other two…

Thanks for the guidance if I ever decide to dive into the above books!

[NFR: You really can’t evaluate them apart from each other, but yes, Inferno is the one most people read, because it’s the first. You can’t make sense of Purgatorio without having read Inferno, or make sense of Paradiso without the other two under your belt. My favorite is Purgatorio. — RD]

#9 Comment By Bill H On December 10, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

I’ll second the recommendation on the Great Courses’ lectures on Dante. I went through them about 6 months ago (shortly after you first mentioned them, I believe).

They are a little pricey now, but I’ve bought several things from The Great Courses over the years, and they have very frequent sales. So if you think that it’s expensive now, just wait a month or so, and it will be at about half price or less.

#10 Comment By Gromaticus On December 10, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

Three books I never tire of recommending (or re-reading): Time and the Art of Living, Grace of Great Things: On the Nature of Creativity, and On Dialogue: An Essay in Free Thought. All by Robert Grudin, whose Shakespeare classes at the University of Oregon in the 1980’s were the stuff of undergraduate legend.

My Christmas reading gifts to myself are in transit for delivery next week: both the collect poems and the collected critical writings of Geoffrey Hill

#11 Comment By Astra On December 10, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

Rod, do you have an opinion on the Pinsky Inferno translation? I read it and liked it but haven’t exactly done a comparative analysis (I have only read the Ciardi otherwise).

[NFR: I’ve not read it. — RD]

#12 Comment By ak On December 10, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

If you’re thinking of buying from the Teaching Company you should know that every one of their courses goes on sale at least once a year at a considerable discount, usually over half off. So you can probably get the Dante course for much less if you’re willing to wait a bit.

#13 Comment By Gracy Olmstead On December 10, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

Just wrote my own booklist for the year, and scheduled it for tomorrow. Stay tuned. 🙂

#14 Comment By thomas tucker On December 10, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

Why not Ciardi’s?

[NFR: Too sing-songy for me. It’s a matter of personal taste, at least at my level. — RD]

#15 Comment By Colonel Bogey On December 10, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

Last year I had dinner with Anthony Esolen, and he is a fascinating conversationalist. He admits that his translation of Lucretius was done for ready cash. He is a great admirer of President Grover Cleveland. He seems to prefer hearing Latin pronounced in the Italianate fashion, instead of the classical. This year I’m going to frame and hang Rossetti’s portrait of his dead wife as ‘Beata Beatrix’. Rossetti translated a lot of Dante, but not, I believe, the ‘Divine Comedy’.

As far as recent books, I’ve really enjoyed A. N. Wilson’s new life of Queen Victoria. She is endlessly fascinating, and Wilson admits that he loves her too.

#16 Comment By arrScott On December 10, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

A couple of books are often my first Christmas gifts to people who enter my gift-giving orbit. Driftless by David Rhodes and The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury. Between the two novels, there’s everything a person needs to know to understand the Upper Midwest of my youth. Immensely perceptive and humane stories of life in Midwestern communities beyond the big cities.

#17 Comment By Sam M On December 10, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

This might seem petty, but I strongly prefer the Esolen translation because it offers footnotes on the page rather than notes at the end of the chapter or the entire text. I find all that flipping around to be a huge distraction. It might be different if you are “studying” the work, but to “read” it I like footnotes.

I gave Little Way last year and it was one of the most appreciated gifts. By both a 75-year-old lady and an 18-year-old girl.

If I had to give a book now as a gift, it’d be the Moviegoer and/or Canticle for Leibowitz.

I did give a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook last year, too.

[NFR: Hmm. I agree with you, though my edition of Esolen’s Inferno (there have been more than one) has the notes at the back of the entire book. — RD]

#18 Comment By Dennis On December 10, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

Marian Schwartz’s new translation of “Anna Karenina” (Yale/Margellos)

Julius Evola’s “Revolt Against the Modern World” (Inner Traditions)

Valentin Tomberg’s “Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism”

Stefan Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday”

#19 Comment By KateLE On December 10, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

Just bought: George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, and Patrick Neate’s “City of Tiny Lights” (read that one all the way to the end, then look at the date it was published compared to recent news events. Chills.) for a couple of friends.

#20 Comment By Rjak On December 10, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

Going off your recommendation of Fermor, I’d make a secondary recommendation for his delightful “A Time to Keep Silence”. I picked it up because I wanted to try him out with a shorter book before committing to a longer one (as a grad student, so much of my life is reading that I have only limited leisure reading time). It covers a number of experiences Fermor had with monasticism, and is truly brilliant. The first chapter especially, which deals with his first stay in a Benedictine monastery, is fascinating, as he moves from shock and horror and their entombed lifestyle to a profound appreciation of Benedictine life, and appreciation that would remain with him for decades afterwards.

Beyond that, I’d best not start recommending books, for fear that I’d never stop. But I must mention my personal favorite book, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Benedicta Ward’s translations are the best). One can never re-read it too often.

#21 Comment By Thomas Wiley On December 10, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

Out of curiosity – why wouldn’t you recommend Ciardi and Sayers? I read Ciardi in college; I honestly don’t remember much, and my professor and class discussion wasn’t particularly helpful in understanding the Divine Comedy, so I’m hoping to revisit it soon.

I have far too many books in my wishlist, actually, and far too many on my bookshelf, and I don’t spend nearly enough time reading. But that doesn’t stop me from asking for and acquiring more! For the sake of brevity, I’ve limited my list to just three entries for now.

“A Time of Gifts” is also on my wishlist after it was recommended to me earlier in the year.

I’d really like to read the Apostolic Fathers, preferably with some assistance, so “The Apostolic Fathers in English” by Michael W. Holmes, and “The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers” by Paul Foster are on my list – I’ve heard both are good and helpful.

“The Three Kingdoms” by Luo Guanzhong, in the new translation by Ronald C. Iverson. I read the Moss Roberts translation a couple of years ago and found it to be an engaging story. At the same time it’s a challenging read because centuries-old Chinese ways of thinking are so far removed from Western thought.

[NFR: Both Ciardi and Sayers tried to reproduce Dante’s terza rima structure. It doesn’t work in English. At all. Ciardi’s translation is not bad, but it’s too sing-songy, and you would do much better with a more literal one. Sayers’s translation is like wearing an ill-fitting costume. It would put me off Dante forever. — RD]

#22 Comment By Scott Nunn On December 10, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

Let me promote an author who lives in my city. Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee. If you love short stories and love beautiful writing, this is for you. My favorite book of the year.
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#23 Comment By Frank On December 10, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

Thanks for answering the remedial question regarding Dante Rod!

#24 Comment By Bart W. On December 10, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

My goodness create a book list of what I would recommend or want for Christmas. Currently my wish list is about 53 books long. But for Christmas I am hoping to receive Pensee by Blaise Pascal, Confessions by St. Augustine, and the Fall by Camus.

What I would recommend to people would be The Great Theologians. Great intro to some influential theologians. [17]
I would also recommend From Dawn to Decadence and Infidels a Summary of conflict between Christendom and Islam.

#25 Comment By RB On December 10, 2014 @ 3:30 pm

i’m a very busy Martha this time of year and find I need a bit of fun to help me transition into being a more contemplative Mary.

My spot of fun: Raphael and the Noble Task. A charming little read about a cathedral chimére searching for meaning. The Kindle version is just $0.99.

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#26 Comment By Ted On December 10, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

Laurence Binyon’s translation, Ezra Pound’s review of the “Hell” (found in Ezra’s Collected Literary Essays) and T.S. Eliot’s big Dante essays (and the short one in “Sacred Wood”). Modernism happened. Deal with it.

#27 Comment By Carl Eric Scott On December 10, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

Great and helpful post. Agree about the Hollanders’ translation. Their notes are amazing, but at times they get in the way of interacting more directly with the text. Normally with Great Books I take the “read-it-three-times in a more literal translation before dipping into any commentary” position, but with Dante, I don’t think that works. There is TONS of key background stuff that if you aren’t a medieval Italian, and one well-schooled in these-days-neglected Latin poetry like Statius, Lucan, and Ovid, you just are not going to be able to get it. So you have to balance going at it direct, and going at it with the notes. And the balance of the proper approach differs from Canto to Canto.

Another useful task for a rainy day, then, would be to go through the Hollander notes, and highlight which ones for each Canto are the really essential ones. And to single out which Cantos are most amenable for unmediated study, and which are most likely to be radically misunderstood without notes-consultation.

#28 Comment By Kirk On December 10, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

I gave “A Nation in Pain” by Judy Foreman to somebody who suffers from constant pain. The book provides a detailed overview of the latest research on pain and pain relief.

I almost gave as a present “What I’d Say to the Martians” by Jack Handey, but several of the stories would have made the recepient uncomfortable. The vast majority of the stories are a hoot.

I asked for books of poetry by Aaron Belz. Witty stuff.

#29 Comment By Lord Karth On December 10, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

Mr. Dreher, have you considered Niven & Pournelle’s modern takes on Dante, Inferno and Escape From Hell ? You might find Allen Carpentier very interesting.

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#30 Comment By Bo On December 10, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

“Mount St. Michel and Chartres” by Henry Adams.

I wish I had discovered this classic book on the pilgrimage before my pilgrimage to Normandy this past summer. Oh well, better late than never.

#31 Comment By Jeremy Weiland On December 10, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

The Democracy Project by David Graeber

#32 Comment By Carltuesday On December 10, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

How Adam Smith can change your life, by Russ Roberts.

Strangely this is not so much a book about economics but about “living the good life”. Presents many insights that seem obvious, mostly from Smith’s “the theory of moral ssentiments”.

It’s also a fine inoculation against the utilitarian/materialistic worldview many associate (unfairly) with Smith…

#33 Comment By CaliDali On December 10, 2014 @ 6:46 pm

I read two books over the past year that really influenced me …

“Bonhoeffer” by Eric Metaxas (Rod, I know you know Metaxas well) is a fantastic biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the influential German theologian who sacrificed his own safety in America to return to Germany and resist the Nazis ( [19]). My favorite quote: “If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands. This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only in the New Testament but also in the Old Testament.”

… and …

“The Practice of the Presence of God” is a collection of writings by Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century French monk who became known for his joyful desire and willingness to do all things, even the most mundane things, for the glory of God ( [20]). I lifted this quote from Wikipedia, but it summarizes Brother Lawrence well: “That he had always been governed by love, without selfish views; and that having resolved to make the love of GOD the end of all his actions, he had found reasons to be well satisfied with his method. That he was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of GOD, seeking Him only, and nothing else, not even His gifts. … That in order to form a habit of conversing with GOD continually, and referring all we do to Him; we must at first apply to Him with some diligence: but that after a little care we should find His love inwardly excite us to it without any difficulty.”

#34 Comment By Jeff R. On December 10, 2014 @ 7:39 pm

I got on a bit of a Philip K Dick trip the last couple months so I asked for VALIS and A Scanner Darkly for Christmas. Not sure what I plan to give anyone. My grandmother was an English teacher, so maybe she’d enjoy Little Way.

#35 Comment By Heidi On December 10, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

I’m giving Gilead by Marilynne Robinson to a couple of people.

#36 Comment By John G. On December 10, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

I have the Clive James translation of The Divine Comedy. Any insights about this translation?

At my house, it’s beginning to look like an Eric Metaxas Christmas. I bought his biography of Bonhoeffer and three copies of Miracles for family members.

A book I recommend is Bad Religion by Ross Douthat. I learned tons about religion in the U.S.A. from that book.

#37 Comment By grumpy realist On December 10, 2014 @ 11:10 pm

The best edition of Dante I ever read was one of those densely footnoted Italian ones, commenting on the original. (One reason why getting an edition in something close enough to the original language has its charm.)

I’m grumpy enough to insist on reading classics in the original. Otherwise I feel you’re always at the mercy of the translator. (Will make an exception for Heian Japanese. That stuff is really unreadable….)

[NFR: If I had the time, I would learn Italian just so I could read Dante in the original. — RD]

#38 Comment By Darrick On December 10, 2014 @ 11:55 pm

A few recommendations:

Rites of Spring, by Modris Eksteins (the best book about WWI I have ever read)

This Republic of Suffering, by Drew Gilpin Faust (about how the mass carnage of the Civil War changed American attitudes toward death. Haven’t read it yet but showed a documentary in my American history survey this fall which was based on it, and it sounds quite good.)

Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, by John Guy (very well written biography of the medieval saint by a Tudor historian, of all things. Much easier read than the standard academic biography by Frank Barlow, but still quality scholarship.)

A Time to Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (I agree with the commenter above. Wonderful little book.)

#39 Comment By Mhornbeam On December 11, 2014 @ 2:31 am

Not near as intellectual as the other books mentioned – but am on pins and needles waiting for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl – Annotated. I loved the books and now to know a lot of the real backstory is thrilling to me.

#40 Comment By M_Young On December 11, 2014 @ 3:07 am

“An Essay on the Principle of Population” by one Rev. Thomas Malthus.

This work is the “missing link” , as it were, to show just where the enlightenment went wrong. It is a work contra those ‘enlightened’ who are so rarified that they forget to apply the tools of reason and empiricism to humans who aren’t.

That, and that Malthus’s doctrine is the lynchpin of Darwin’s theory — more than the lynchpin, the whole organizing framework. The work must be read — however repetitive it can be at times (and the good Reverend beats his intellectual opponents into a figurative bloody pulp).

#41 Comment By Rob G On December 11, 2014 @ 9:45 am

My Christmas list this year is decidedly book-light as compared with Christmases past. The only book I’m buying for someone is Wendell Berry’s illustrated poem collection Terrapin for my 12 y.o. nephew.

I purposely left books off my Christmas wish-list, as I have bought so many recently that I feel like getting something else would be superfluous, unless it was something I planned to read immediately. I’ve limited my list this year to DVD’s and music.

I did, however, pre-order Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity, translated by our own Carlo, but the fact that it comes out next month is coincidental to the holiday.

[NFR: I’m going to order it too. Thanks for the heads-up. — RD]

#42 Comment By Rob G On December 11, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

Oops, I lied. I do have one book on my list, Eric Sloane’s Return to Taos, an Americana/travel book in which Sloane recounts a trip made by he and his wife in 1960, on which they retrace the route he took on a cross-country trip of his own in 1925. I read a library copy back in the summer, but wanted a personal copy — the illustrations are splendid, all line drawings by Sloane himself.

#43 Comment By Mark On December 11, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

My list is pretty simple: Thomas Skeel’s True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of A Complex World.

#44 Comment By economista On December 11, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

Looking forward to reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital.

#45 Comment By Mary Russell On December 11, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

The Sports Gene by David Epstein is a great gift for people on the Christmas list who like sports. Among the topics be discusses: why female softball pitchers can easily strike out major league hitters, what type of body composition yields better results in swimming vs. running, why people of West African descent excel at sprinting and why the East Africans (specifically one or two East African tribes) dominate long distance running. Great read.

#46 Comment By CarlTuesday On December 12, 2014 @ 12:43 am

For the last two comments (on Gene Epstein and Tomas Piketty) – if you like those sorts of topics my Christmas present to you is recommending the “econtalk” podcast, if you don’t already listen to it.

Two episodes interviewed both of these men and the free-ranging conversation is really brilliant (as are many of the other topics):

Epstein -http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2013/09/david_epstein_o.html

Piketty [21]

I can’t help myself – I always plug this blog and the EconTalk podcast… Those two things as probably the two biggest “life improvements” available free on the internets!

#47 Comment By Ellery On December 14, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

Completely NOT up your alley, Rod, but I just loved “The Urban Bestiary” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. A nature book about all the critters that live around us in the city, and ways to spot them and observe them. Now I know what coyote scat looks like!