Here are some good books to read by the fire during the holidays.
Poet. Trapper. It's hard to imagine two less lucrative careers. But John Haines was a poet and a trapper for 25 years in the Alaskan outback, in the wild country east of Fairbanks, Alaska. He struggled to survive. At times, he froze his kishkas off, but he lived to tell a beautifully crafted story called The Stars, The Snow, The Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaskan Wilderness. This book is told from the perspective of an outdoorsman who actually knows what he's doing out there. (cough, cough..) Here's a man who can skin a carcass, build a proper fire and make out the tracks of moose, wolf and marten in the snow. Better yet, he can describe all these things with sensory description that makes you feel like you're out there with him in the backcountry. Warning: some of the bone-crunching passages might make you squeamish. When you read about the trapping methods, you might find yourself eating wheat gluten and soy burgers for a couple of weeks.
I also enjoyed Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane. That touchy-feely sounding title threw me off, but the book is as far from New Age as you can get. Mountains of the Mind is all about the allure of high peaks and "the pursuit of fear.''
Robyn Davidson's Tracks is one of my favorite long-distance hiking narratives. Instead of just shlepping out across the Australian Outback, she ups the ante by dragging four recalcitrant camels with her. The descriptions of searing Outback heat will make you forget about this latest spell of freezing-cold weather.
Also, this year's Best American Essays is terrific. Vulture enthusiasts (I'm one of them) will connect with Lee Zacharias's "Buzzards'' (page 260.) If you have even a passing interest in long-distance running, you will be fascinated and thoroughly freaked out by Sam Shaw's "Run Like Fire Once More.'' (page 204.)