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The handsomest book published in our roundup for holiday giving this year is also far more than that, though its outstanding beauty is a considerable distinction in itself. Galen Rowell's Mountains of the Middle Kingdom (Sierra Club Books, $40) began as a rediscovery of the remote, immense stretch of high peaks in western China following the 30 years (1950-80) during which this fabled land was effectively sealed off to foreigners by the People's Republic. And with its remarkably evocative photographs and authoritative text, a rediscovery it is. But Rowell discovered quickly that what he was seeing and photographing as one of the first outlanders given access often bore little resemblance to the propaganda and the rare approved reports published in those 30 years. His firsthand account of what happened to millions of people and their culture is a journalistic coup and sure to excite controversy in a number of world capitals as well as among the exclusive fraternity of "old China hands."

For the fisherman on your list—there has to be at least one on every list—this year give him something guaranteed to amuse and entertain instead of a costly gadget, which he'll probably exchange anyway. Give Professor Louis Rubin's The Even-Tempered Angler (Winchester Press, $12.95). University Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Rubin pokes gentle fun at many classes of anglers—the Trout Fisherman (Piscatorius magisterius salmonides); the Black-bass Fisherman (P. bocagrande plasticum)—with a style and erudition all too infrequently encountered these days. And he advocates a method of catching fish—after all, the real basis for the sport—that I'm going to leave you to guess at on the way to the bookstore.

While you're there, pick up, carefully, a fisherman's treasure trove, Austin M. Francis' Catskill Rivers: Birthplace of American Fly Fishing (Winchester Press, $24.95), and see if you can resist buying this magnificent volume for the person starting or augmenting a library on the sport. A five-year labor of love, these diligently researched and beautifully illustrated pages are devoted to the well-worn range of mountains that cradle the six major Catskill streams where American fly-fishing was born and evolved: the Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Neversink, Esopus, Schoharie and Delaware. Though Francis omits nothing of importance from the days when "water covered everything that is now the Cats-kills," this is no dust-dry history or anthology but a lively tale, rich with anecdote, custom, controversy and personality—and even instruction in the art that yields pleasure for millions.

The noble dog is a friend of mine, though not my best friend by any means. In the event that he is yours, however, you will surely appreciate the fat (344 pages), lavish celebration of itself by the American Kennel Club on its 100th anniversary—The AKC's World of the Pure-Bred Dog, edited by Duncan Barnes (Howell Book House, $29.95). For true believers there are well-illustrated chapters on everything from a history of the AKC to "Famous Dogs and Their People" and "Famous People and Their Dogs" to a portfolio in color of many of the AKC's own collection of the dog in painting and sculpture. For those, like me, merely amicably inclined toward dogs, there's a good selection of the dog in prose, with two of my favorites: James Thurber's "The Dog That Bit People" and Corey Ford's "Every Dog Should Own a Man."

On the other hand, if your best friend has had some wild boar cutlets in the freezer for a while, waiting for the right recipe to come along, get him or her The L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook by Angus Cameron and Judith Jones (Random House, $19.95). The first step in preparing boar cutlets is to submerge them in buttermilk for three days, but other dishes, including moose Bourguignon, squirrel cacciatore and chicken-fried kit beaver, require less patience. This is the most comprehensive game cookbook I've ever seen. Further proof that the sport of eating is not to be taken with too much salt is found in nutritionist Frances Sheridan Goulart's The Official Eating to Win Cookbook (Stein and Day, $16.95). I don't know what makes this book "official," but I'm not going to fight with Ms. Goulart, who runs and swims and bicycles 4,000 miles a year. There's a predictable amount of hijiki, masa harina and ascorbic acid powder here, but also a lot of (currently) sound advice on food for weekend athletes and recipes on everything from honeysuckle roses to Boston Marathon cream pie. Goulart is not going to get you to run like Rodgers or Waitz, but it won't hurt you to eat the way the author does. I hope not, anyway.

Every year someone takes a shot at the definitive book about the cowboy, in all likelihood this country's most influential product worldwide. Some of the efforts have been outstanding in one aspect or another, but none has prepared us for the absolute excellence of this one: The American Cowboy by Lonn Taylor and Ingrid Maar (Harper & Row, $50). Its unlikely genesis is a U.S. Library of Congress exhibition that can be seen next year in San Antonio, Denver, San Jose, Calif. and Calgary, Alberta and shouldn't be missed. The book itself portrays an incomparable collection of paintings, sculpture, pictures, maps and memorabilia from the library's apparently inexhaustible treasure vaults. There are richly woven texts by Taylor on the open-range cowboy and the cowboy hero of myth, and one by B. Byron Price on modern cowboy life on the Texas plains. Both men are historians and museum directors with clear authority in this area. But why does a creation of skill and scholarship like this have to end on the jarring note that it does? The last feature is a hip make-believe dialogue between two urban cowboys named Virgil and Bubba, composed by country and western songwriter Dave Hickey. Don't ask me how it got into the book.

The quality of this holiday season's baseball gift books is underwhelming; I still believe Donn Rogosin's previously reviewed tribute to the men of the Negro leagues, Invisible Men (Atheneum, $14.95) is the year's best. But there are two current volumes worth your while, at least for younger fans. They are illustrated histories of The American League and The National League by Donald Honig (Crown Publishers, $19.95 each). Both books offer brief accounts of pre-1900 developments and then fuller treatment of progress through 1982. Honig's text for each book is complemented by more than 550 pictures of players and events, many previously unpublished. Honig's season summaries are knowledgeable, helped considerably by the fact that in the space allotted to him he has not had to deal with each year's World Series. Those affairs, which began in 1903, presumably will be the subject of another volume next year.

Your bird-watching friend or relative should also be a student of the subject and a lover of the beauty of words if he's to appreciate North American Marsh Birds by artist Gary Low and writer William Mansell (Harper & Row, $39.95 until Dec. 31; $44.95 thereafter). This exceptional presentation of paintings and drawings of 52 species that make the marsh their home is truly distinguished, in my view, by Mansell's text. Marsh Birds brims with the wit and charm of 50 years of personal observations. For both men, the book is a serious, if low-key, "crusade for the preservation of marshes and their inhabitants," and in a telling introduction, Mansell explains why.

The last place on earth where one can still observe big game in natural abundance and behavior—lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos, buffalo—is the 700-square-mile Maasai Mara Reserve in Kenya, which abuts the equally vast Serengeti National Park of Tanzania. There, in the Mara, two devoted and highly skilled Englishmen, writer Brian Jackman and photographer Jonathan Scott, spent five years following the lives and deaths of a pride of lions and have produced an astonishingly vivid record of their efforts: The Marsh Lions: The Story of an African Pride (David R. Godine, Boston, $19.95 until Dec. 31; $24.95 thereafter). Over the years the lions and other carnivores apparently began to take for granted the men and the trucks that allowed the men to get close enough to note and photograph daily events. Nevertheless, there were a few close calls with disaster. It may never again be possible to capture the relentless rhythm of birth, bloody feral existence, decline and death on such a scale as these two men have; their success is a landmark in the history of the world's wild places.

Whatever Ralph Nader thought of him, or however bona fide critics judged his works, Harley Earl was, as this book sums him up, "the most influential designer of the twentieth century." The sole arbiter of the styling of General Motors cars from 1927 to 1959, Earl lived to see 50 million of his creations, with their incalculable effect on far more than mere transportation, displayed on every street in America.

The prime innovator of the then-revolutionary notion that appearance had something to do with sales, he introduced chrome, tail fins, hardtops and dozens of today's stylistic clichés, often revealing his own fascination with aerodynamics and space flight and nearly always designing longer and lower models. Harley Earl and the Dream Machine, by Stephen Bayley (Alfred A. Knopf, $20) tells this story magnificently in both words and pictures, from Earl's early days in Hollywood, when he custom-designed cars for many of the stars, through the 1927 La Salle, the Buick "Y" Job, the '50s Cadillacs, the Corvettes and all of the "dream cars" that mesmerized millions of Americans.

Games and puzzles in book format, especially for children, are an old tradition, but I have not seen anything as good as Photo Crimes (Simon and Schuster, $7.95) in some time. It is definitely not for the kiddies, but for you; it challenges you to play detective competitively. Twenty crimes—thefts, murders, industrial espionage—are enacted in step-by-step photographs, and you have to identify the culprits after examining clues and evidence. The clues are optional; for each one you decide to look at, you deduct points from your score; if you think you know who done it without their help, your score is that much higher. Then you compare your score with that of your opponent on each case. The cases are not easy, and I found them great fun. One interesting puzzle is the book itself. It was produced in England by four enterprising women, manufactured in Singapore and is offered to you by our own S & S. Oh, the miracles of Christmastime!