Novels for Nature Nuggets
June 27, 2011 10:07 AM   Subscribe

BookFilter: Seeking recommendations for book-club-type novels or short story collections about nature and the outdoors.

For a booklist I'm putting together, I'm looking for fiction books with good writing about the environment, wilderness, nature, and the outdoors.

I don't need any nonfiction - we've covered that - and I want to stay away from eco-warrier literature, The Monkey Wrench Gang, et al. The kinds of books I'm looking for would contain lots of evocative writing about nature and landcape, but personal themes that would appeal to fairly conventional book club groups.

Thanks for any help you can offer!
posted by Miko to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Tarka the Otter. Might be a bit obscure/out of touch these days, and for what it's worth, I prefer The Peregrine's Saga, though Tarka is better-known.
posted by Leon at 10:25 AM on June 27, 2011

The Good Rain by Timothy Egan.

It's sort of nonfiction, sort or not. Even if it doesn't work in this context, I really recommend reading this book.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:41 AM on June 27, 2011

Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson
posted by kaudio at 10:51 AM on June 27, 2011

Off the top of my head (apologies in advance for such a "dude" list, but what can I do-- I am one):

Hemingway's Nick Adams stories.
Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion
Norman MacLean's A River Runs Through It
Craig Lesley's Winterkill (or almost anything else by him, really, though I think Winterkill's his best)
Jim Harrison's Wolf
almost anything by Thomas McGuane
most Wallace Stegner, but perhaps especially Angle of Repose
most Steinbeck.
Susanna Kaysen's Far Afield
Peter Mathiessen's Shadow Country

on the more genre-ish side, if that's how you guys roll:
Kem Nunn's Dogs of Winter (surf-noir)
almost anything by Carl Hiaasen, but especially Tourist Season (crime fiction)
Jean Hegland's Into the Forest (Young Adult, but beautifully written and compelling)

FWIW, I'd especially recommend Sometimes a Great Notion. It's one of the best books I've ever read, though I admittedly did have a couple of false starts. The opening passage on the birth of a river is one of the most evocative pieces of writing about nature I've ever read, fiction or non-.
posted by dersins at 11:23 AM on June 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Almost anything by Rick Bass. Love his short stories.
posted by wowbobwow at 11:28 AM on June 27, 2011

Rick Bass has a number of short story collections based in the wilderness.
posted by indognito at 11:29 AM on June 27, 2011

oops, sorry wowbobwow! just saw your message.
posted by indognito at 11:30 AM on June 27, 2011

[google books link for the open of Sometimes A Great Notion]
posted by dersins at 11:30 AM on June 27, 2011

Seth Kantner: Ordinary Wolves
posted by ryanshepard at 11:31 AM on June 27, 2011

If your group is into murder mysteries, check out the Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr. Park Ranger becomes unwitting detective. :)
posted by canine epigram at 11:34 AM on June 27, 2011

You could try some Jean Giono. I would probably go with Harvest, although Song of the World might also be a good choice.
posted by OmieWise at 11:34 AM on June 27, 2011

TC Boyle's Drop City might seem to be about hippies, or the end of the Summer of Love. But it's really about how unforgiving Alaska is.
posted by .kobayashi. at 11:47 AM on June 27, 2011

My favourite book of very long standing in this genre is Gerald Durrell , My Family and Other Animals. It's sort of much-better-written James Herriot but for nature and fauna instead of animals.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:07 PM on June 27, 2011

The River Why by David James Duncan. Perhaps a bit unconventional for your group but a great read. Seconding the Hemingway Nick Adams stories.
posted by Manjusri at 12:35 PM on June 27, 2011

James Herriot is quite a good bet. Short (connected) stories about a vet working in England in the Yorkshire Dales.
posted by Laura_J at 1:07 PM on June 27, 2011

To get more specific (I was typing that first blip on my phone) about Rick Bass:

Short story & essay collections:
The sky, the stars, the wilderness
The lives of rocks
In the Loyal Mountains
Platte River

Where the sea used to be

I also recommend Barbara Kingsolver, who, while not being strictly a "nature writer" per se, uses naturalistic imagery and motifs in her fiction. Prodigal Summer is a fave, as is The Bean Trees.
posted by wowbobwow at 2:12 PM on June 27, 2011

Alistair Macleod's short stories are almost all very outdoorsy, dealing with farming stock and it's fiction, but Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane is not a factsy book, but rather lovely small meditations on small wild places remaining in Britain.
posted by smoke at 4:45 PM on June 27, 2011

Strongly 2nding Steinbeck; there's tons of great nature stuff in Cannery Row (not least because one of the main characters was an homage to Steinbeck pal and marine biologist Ed Ricketts), and the same goes for Grapes of Wrath. There's an early chapter in that one which is nothing but a description of a tortoise crossing a road, as I recall. The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck's account of a collecting expedition with Ricketts, is non-fiction but directly related and worth mentioning.

Also 2nding Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. "Big Two-Hearted River" is a classic about the healing power of nature on a damaged WWI vet. Plus, it's one of the great 20th century short stories, period.

Finally, Willa Cather writes about land in utterly gorgeous ways. The first in her "prairie trilogy," My √Āntonia, has some beautiful, beautiful nature writing - a personal fave in the genre.
posted by mediareport at 6:27 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gavin Maxwell. Ring of Bright Water is his best known book (ignore the horrible early 60s Disney movie! Pretend it never existed!) and probably the easiest to actually find nowadays but all his stuff is amazingly evocative nature writing. On rereading properly, oops, he's more or less nonfiction. I'm leaving the recommendation anyway because, well, he's amazing and more people should read him.

In the fiction realm, I agree with wowbobwow, how about Barbara Kingsolver? Prodigal Summer in particular has a lot of wonderful writing about nature and the outdoors, meditations on the nature of predators and prey and their roles in the environment as well as, bonus, a steamy love affair. It's kind of a quintessential book club book, too.

As for others, I'll second the Peter Mathiessen recommendation from above. Paul Theroux's novel Mosquito Coast is kind of depressingly horrific but wonderfully well observed. Mark Helprin waxes poetic - well - about the scenery in both Winter's Tale and A Soldier of the Great War. And, in classics, there's always Seven Years in Tibet, Lost Horizons or one of the tearjerker animal stories like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling (her semi autobiographical book, Cross Creek, is amazing nature writing although a bit, um, dated. As in kinda racist.) And then of course there's Farley Mowat!
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:14 PM on June 27, 2011

Oh, yes, to Cather. And Cather made me think, strangeways, of John Williams' Butcher's Crossing. The nature writing is a small miracle. But it's not quite like Cather -- NPR named it one of the three best books to bring to a fistfight. And if you've always been skeptical of Emerson's claims about nature, this book is as good a rebuttal (link to .pdf of NYRB edition's introduction) as there is.
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:19 PM on June 27, 2011

Seconding Stegner. Seconding McGuane. Seconding Mathiessen.

For newer material, check out Anthony Doerr. I read the Shell Collector. His language is gorgeous, a bit like Maclean.
posted by vecchio at 8:10 PM on June 27, 2011

posted by pracowity at 4:04 AM on June 28, 2011

I know you said novels, but I can't help recommending The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. It's kind of a crazy book that is at least partly about what it means to think about nature. It's extraordinary.
posted by OmieWise at 8:36 AM on June 28, 2011

Oh and let me add Richard Grant. I love his books; they're not well known but great, great stuff for the most part and very much focused on the environment. My daughter says I must also add Charles de Lint to the mix and she's right, particularly his later work that's set in the desert. The other one who occurred to me is Margaret Atwood. Oryx and Crake is of course straightforward environment apocalypse but did you know that her parents were naturalists and she grew up spending months at a time in the Canadian wilderness while they counted caribou shit or some such? She's such an amazing writer anyway and her stories about her childhood, while not fiction, are great, beautiful captures of a life within the wilderness. Where did I read them? I have no idea and a quick googling is getting me nowhere but I know they exist.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:10 PM on June 29, 2011

Response by poster: This is a phenomenal list -I've just been sitting here paging through them, tab after tab. I believe there are some excellent selections for the booklist we're preparing. I really appreciate all of you well-read people generously sharing your suggestions and recommendations and giving me a little context for so many of these books. Much appreciated!
posted by Miko at 8:50 AM on June 30, 2011

I'm just reading The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, and it's really excellent. It's about a girl, and her grandmother, and nature.
posted by OmieWise at 9:31 AM on July 21, 2011

Response by poster: Ah! I LOVED The Summer Book - a friend gave it to me years ago and I was absolutely transported. I should reread.
posted by Miko at 10:24 AM on July 21, 2011

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