Bookworm: The call of the great outdoors

For historians and President-watchers, ‘First Friends’ is the book you've been needing for ages

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist
A variety of outdoor books for grown-ups.

Outdoor books for grown-ups

  • c. 2021, various publishers
  • $21.95 - $27.95, various page counts

All last year, your soul heard a call. It was the outdoors, and while you got out as much as you could last year, it was never enough. You have a lot of catching up to do in your quest for outdoor activities, and here are five great new books to get you started ...

First of all, understand what you're up against by reading “The Secret World of Weather” by Tristan Gooley (The Experiment, $21.95). This easy-to-grasp book teaches you what you need to know about clouds, wind, inclement weather, and how the plants and animals in any given area offer hints of the climate to come. For hikers and desk jockeys alike, this is a valuable book to have for your day-to-day, and it might even save your life.

Animal lovers are in for a treat this year. First, “Wild Souls” by Emma Marris (Bloomsbury, $28.00) will help you become more mindful, when it comes to non-domestic animals. Marris asks readers to consider what rights animals have to stay wild, even when their species is threatened, or the herd is too large to sustain healthy existence. This thoughtful, considerate book is perfect for anyone who wants to understand animals' places in the world.

“How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World” by Henry Mance (Viking, $27.00, out July 13) is another makes-you-think book but this one also takes domestic animals into the mix, including the ones we eat. How do we reconcile that? Read this book.

Are you one with nature? In “Four Fifths a Grizzly” (Patagonia, $27.95), author Douglas Chadwick argues that we are, quite literally. In this book of essays and wonderful full-color photographs and peeks through the microscope, he shows how humans are not at the pinnacle of Earth's creatures, but a part of the whole in a larger circle of life. We aren't the Top Dogs we think we are; in fact, in a way, we're equal to dogs and to elephants and to animals with which we share a surprising amount of DNA. This is one of those WOW! books that's a lot of fun to read, and you'll love it.

And finally, ... what if you never went out into the world again? What if none of us did? That's the basic question inside “Islands of Abandonment” by Cal Flyn (Viking, $27.00). Here, Flyn takes a look at places in the world from which humans have disappeared – places as divergent as inner-city Detroit and Chernobyl – and what the landscape looks like when it's not inhabited. Readers may be surprised at what happens and what kinds of creatures reclaim the land; you'll also be surprised at how quickly it started to happen during the pandemic.

If these great new books don't quite fit what you need for your next foray outdoors, or if you're looking for something more specific, your local library and your nearby bookstore are full of books that are just right. Ask your librarian or bookseller for help. They'll know exactly what will satisfy when the outdoors calls.

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“First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents”

  • By Gary Ginsberg
  • c. 2021, Twelve
  • $30, $38 Canada; 416 pages

You've been best friends for ages. Forever, long enough to know your buddy like you know yourself, long enough to trust and be trusted. Loyalty, honesty, laughter, compassion, wisdom, kindness, these things make a good friend – and as in the new book, “First Friends” by Gary Ginsberg, good friends make the man.

“First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents” by Gary Ginsberg.

Say you've got a sticky problem. You don't know what to do, so who do you ask? If you're like a lot of people, you'd seek a friend and you'd listen. For better or for worse, it's no different when you sit in a swivel chair in the Oval Office, says Gary Ginsberg.

It's been like that for centuries ...

It's no surprise, really, that Thomas Jefferson was pals with James Madison: they had similar outlooks on politics, and both were gentleman farmers and “proud sons of Virginia.” Theirs was a deep relationship, sometimes contentious, kept alive mostly through letters.

Growing up with a father who owned a tavern, Franklin Pierce naturally “wanted everyone to like him.” Alas, he was not the most popular, nor the most well-regarded, President though he bonded while in college with the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne stuck up for Pierce even when their views on slavery were night-and-day divergent.

It's been long-rumored that Abraham Lincoln and his friend, Joshua Speed, were lovers, though most historians dispute this. In an astounding move that could never happen today, Woodrow Wilson placed a private citizen, his BFF, Edward “Colonel” House – an inexperienced man who Ginsberg says craved power and whom Wilson met just one year before his election – in several positions of power and decision-making during World War I.

FDR's BFF was a woman who was his social equal – and it wasn't his wife, Eleanor. Harry Truman was known to say anti-Semitic things, though his best friend was Jewish. JFK's pal, David, was distantly related to the president by marriage. Nixon met his best friend because the guy owned a boat. And Bill Clinton's BFF was Hillary's friend first.

Why do we like someone? Usually, it's a natural thing, sprung from mutual interests – or, as author Gary Ginsberg shows, can be an engineered feat.

In that respect, “First Friends” can be as chilling as it is warm: some of the “friendships” here are downright all wrong and in certain chapters, Ginsberg gives your jaw plenty of reason to drop. Most of the pairings inside this book consisted of powerful man + private citizen who had the powerful man's ear and that, as you'll see, was loaded with possibilities, both good and bad. Surely, those friendships could've altered history. Can you imagine?

Then there's that warmth: in each story here, hair-raising or not, Ginsberg makes room for a soft aura of humanness, reminders that a man might be a World Leader, but he still needs a friend.

This book is a peek double-deep inside the Oval Office, and it's the kind of history lesson you don't often get. For historians and President-watchers, “First Friends” is the book you've been needing for ages.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.