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Culture Notebook

The Best Books of 2017

Our critical picks and staff favorites

(Outside)

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Our critical picks and staff favorites

Every year, we manage to find a trove of great new books about recreation and the natural world, and 2017 was no different. But some of our top picks were different from anything we’ve seen before—like a nonfiction book about wolves that reads as if from a wolf’s perspective, and a novel that shows humanity at its worst and best—with expert knot-tying skills thrown in. And that’s just the start.

Best Adventure Book: ‘American Wolf’ by Nate Blakeslee

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(Courtesy Crown Publishing)

I reviewed this book for the magazine, and probably gushed enough there already. In short, it’s a gripping tale about wolves that reads like a novel and offers the most entertaining and informative prose on the politics of western wildlife that I've ever encountered.

—Chris Keyes, vice president/editor

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Best Novel: ‘My Absolute Darling’ by Gabriel Tallent

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(Courtesy Riverhead Books)

This is an intense book about a deeply abusive father-daughter relationship. It’s also a remarkably caring treatment of its hard-to-forget main character, the tough 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, and of the northern California coast. So many Outside staffers were impressed by author Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel that it made it into our monthly culture picks not once, but twice.

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Best Memoir: (Tie) ‘The Push’ by Tommy Caldwell and ‘A Beautiful Work in Progress’ by Mirna Valerio

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(Courtesy Viking)

Let’s be honest: there are plenty of not-so-great climbing books out there. This is not one of them. The writing is strong, the storytelling even more so, and the book is about much more than climbing: The real focus is on human relationships, motivation, and what drives us to chase the things in life we want and love.

–Abigail Wise, online managing editor

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(Courtesy Grand Harbor Press)

Spanish teacher, ultrarunner, and blogger Mirna Valerio tackles some big themes in her memoir—like grit, identity, and body positivity. What makes the book memorable is Valerio’s knack for catching the little details. You can see it both in her unflinching retellings of low points (chafing, DNFs, rude comments) and her quick-witted, hilarious attitude toward chafing, DNFs, and rude comments. Valerio deftly picks apart what it’s like to defy all the stereotypes of the long-distance runner (thin, white, knows what DNF means), but we couldn’t imagine a better guide through the weirdness that is ultrarunning.

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Best Parenting Book: ‘Braving It: A Father, a Daughter, and an Unforgettable Journey into the Alaskan Wild’ by James Campbell

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(Courtesy Broadway Books)

I’m a sucker for father-daughter adventures, especially ones set in Alaska, where I was born. But that’s not the only reason I loved this book. Campbell takes his 15-year-old daughter, Aidan, deep into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and backpacking over the Brooks Range, where they paddled the Hulahula River to the Arctic Ocean, which culminated in a frightening encounter with a polar bear. It’s a funny and emotional story. But why put your daughter—and yourself—at such risk? Because Campbell, who spent time himself as a teenager in Alaska, knows that nothing teaches you more about life than wilderness can.

—Mary Turner, deputy editor

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Best Fitness Book: ‘Tribe of Mentors’ by Tim Ferriss

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(Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcou)

It’s not quite fair to label Ferriss’s book as simply “fitness.” It’s more a guide to… Wellness? Greatness? Life? Yeah, life. The 624-page book contains advice from 134 successful people, all of whom answered the same 11 questions.  The result: insights into the weird habits, favorite books, and important failures of world-class athletes and professionals.

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Best Survival Book: ‘Ruthless River’ by Holly Fitzgerald

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(Courtesy Vintage)

Fitzgerald’s debut manages to feature the coolest honeymoon concept (a year backpacking around the world) and the worst possible outcome for said honeymoon (stuck on a raft in the middle of the Amazon). It’s a true story, a fast read, and a book that repeatedly made us think, “Thank god that’s not me.” In other words, a very good survival story.  

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Best Photo Book: ‘Smoke Jumpers’ by Cole Barash

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(Courtesy Cole Barash)

A stunning collection of portraits Barash made while following USFS firefighters into remote blazes. Good luck buying it, though: the first print edition ran at only 200 copies.

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Best Natural Disaster Reporting: ‘Quakeland’ by Kathryn Miles

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(Courtesy Dutton)

Miles takes what sounds like a distressing “road trip” to learn more about the seismic future of America—meeting scientists working in deep mines to study fault lines and visiting nuclear power plants located directly on faults, among other stops. The result is hopeful and practical (How worried should we be? Who’s working to keep us safe when the big one strikes?) but with just enough terrifying imagery of potential super-quakes—because we know that’s what you really came for.

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Best True Crime: (Tie) ‘Pure Land’ by Annette McGivney and ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann

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(Courtesy Aux Media; Doubleday)

Both of these books read as taut thrillers that explore horrible murders—the former, of a Japanese tourist in the Grand Canyon, and the latter of wealthy members of the Osage Nation in the 1920s. But both authors transcend the salacious nature of the genre. Instead they treat their subjects with sensitivity and, more than just reporting on the crime, take it upon themselves to find a sense of justice for all involved.

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Best Environmental Reporting: ‘The Song of the Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors’ by David George Haskell

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(Courtesy Viking)

Haskell’s own fascination with trees is fascinating in itself (evidence here). But he makes a great case to share his obsession in his latest book, which focuses on the secret lives of 12 trees that he visited around the world.  

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Best Science Book: ‘Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution’ by Jonathan Losos

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(Courtesy Penguin)

If you’re looking for a fun, interesting science read, look no further than Improbable Destinies. The book essentially asks a single question—is evolution actually predictable?—and attempts to find answers by exploring a number of studies in various wild locations and labs around the world. Hint: If dinosaurs never went extinct, maybe there would have eventually been human-like reptiles.

—Will Ford, editorial fellow

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Filed To: Books / Media / Adventure / Culture