For many of us, there is at least one place in New England where we like to spend our free time, a choice that says a lot about who we are. A book about that special place -- while we might not buy it for ourselves -- would make a thoughtful holiday gift.
Browsing in Porter Square Books in Cambridge recently, we happened on ''Idyll Banter, Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town" by Chris Bohjalian (Harmony), and immediately started poring through it. A 1986 transplant from Brooklyn, now one of Vermont's best known novelists (''Midwives" and ''The Buffalo Soldier"), Bohjalian chronicles daily life in Lincoln, Vt. (population less than 1,000, altitude more than 1,500). A collection of previously published newspaper articles and columns, it is some of the best writing we've seen about the ways in which rural Vermont has been changing visually (woods grow back, old buildings are restored, new houses are built), poignantly (the town's last herd of cows is sold), but not profoundly.
The ''farms may have left Lincoln but the sense of community hasn't," Bohjalian writes. He says this is a place where cellphones don't work but messages travel via the general store, and where all 106 schoolchildren (kindergarten through sixth grade) pick dandelions on their way through the village to decorate graves for ''Decoration Day," in Vermont, the first school day after Memorial Day.
''Just Walking the Hills of Vermont" by Alan Baye (Bondcliff Books) is another collection of well-written vignettes, this one devoted to exploring hidden and historic corners of the Green Mountain State -- finding petroglyphs in a canyon cave, and following the 18th-century Bayley-Hazen Road across the Northeast Kingdom and the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau through Brattleboro.
For serious lovers of Vermont, however, nothing may do but ''Freedom and Unity" by Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions, and P. Jeffrey Potash (Vermont Historical Society). This hefty new history of Vermont was published last spring to coincide with the opening of the Vermont Historical Society's new museum in Montpelier. It's a daunting but readable and nicely illustrated tome that includes the state's long, and long overlooked, Native American habitation and a serious examination of the current population rise.
''The Twelve Seasons of Vermont" (Vermont Life Magazine) features dozens of lush photographs from Vermont Life magazine, arranged to be savored, like rich chocolates, month by month.
First, you see the pictures -- crisp winter landscapes, lush green summer farmscapes, golden sunsets, autumn colors, mountaintops, and covered bridges -- but just as good and perhaps more deeply satisfying are the words of Vermont writers.
Bohjalian writes, ''The poet T.S. Eliot probably did not have Vermont in mind when he wrote that April was the cruelest month, but in all likelihood that was only because he never spent April here."
Howard Frank Mosher calls May ''the best month for trout fishing." Reeve Lindbergh describes July as ''the month I dream about, in January," and David Budbill describes November thusly: ''The earth is dank and chill as an old deserted cellar."
''The Nature of Vermont, a Year-Long Photographic Journal" (Countryman Press) is also arranged by month, but here the pictures speak for themselves, of a Vermont we seldom see, one with few signs of human intrusion.
David Middleton's camera focuses on lacy white woods and a snowshoe hare, a Canada lynx, a boxelder blossom, blue violets and bloodroot, a great horned owl, and a bear cub in April. It's a stunning book, a tribute to the photographer's timing, skill, and patience.
''Maine Living" (Gibbs Smith) isn't the trendy country living book its name suggests, even though author Carol Bass is cofounder of Maine Cottage Furniture. The 150 color photographs by Dennis Welsh include interiors, but these tend to be cluttered, like Jim Blankman's woodworking shop in Eastport. Sheds, artists' studios, spiderwebs, clothelines, tractors, as well as boats and barns make this a book to visit often.
Maine is, however, better known for painters than photographers. The rocky, trail-webbed island of Monhegan, 10 miles offshore, has been a magnet for some of America's best artists for almost 150 years. Proof is the newly published ''The Art of Monhegan Island" by Carl Little and Arnold Skolnick (Down East Books), which includes classic paintings by Rockwell Kent and Jamie Wyeth but also a variety and quality of images that may surprise even Monhegan devotees. They include ''The Blue Pool" by George Bellows, ''Fishermen" by James Fitzgerald, ''View From Our Window" by Hans Moller, and ''First Light" by Ronald Frontin.
Acknowledging that ''anyone with the slightest interest in American painting must have at least a rough picture" of Monhegan, Maine writer Elizabeth Peavey says the island ''also offers some of the most heart-pounding hiking trails in the state" in terms of beauty and rigor. She focuses on that aspect of the island in a vivid and funny account of her attempt to ''lay claim to Monhegan." It's one of 28 of her essays that have appeared in Down East magazine, recently compiled in ''Maine & Me: Ten Years of Down East Adventures" (Down East).
For the yachtsmen on your list, ''Maine Sail, An Artist's Journal of a Cruise Down East" by Margaret S. McCrae (Down East) may fill the bill. It is liberally illustrated with McCrae's watercolor renderings of a leisurely sail from Thomaston through Penobscot Bay and along the Bold Coast to Campobello Island and back.
By the same token, ''Wandering Through the White Mountains: a Hiker's Perspective" by Steven Smith (Bondcliff) will please New Hampshire hikers. Smith is passionate about the White Mountains, devoting so much time to bagging peaks, pursuing ponds, and exploring little-visited nooks and crannies that we began to despair that this amiable man will ever find time for a family (we're happy to report that he has). The proprietor of the Mountain Wanderer Map & Book Store in Lincoln, N.H., which specializes in compasses and topographic maps as well as hiking books, Smith is as skilled a writer as he is a hiker. This is a delightful book, part practical advice, part guide (our favorite chapter is ''Views in a Nutshell") and part diary.
Other recent Granite State books include ''Classic New Hampshire, Preserving the Granite State in Changing Times" by Linda Landry (University of New England), a compilation of 15 essays on one of the fastest-growing states but one that is committed to its traditions and historic icons. For young New Hampshire buffs, ''The Legend of the Old Man of the Mountain" by Denise Ortakales, illustrated by Robert Crawford (Sleeping Bear), is an account of a totally improbable ''campfire legend" about how New Hampshire's recently deceased Old Man -- the rock formation crumbled in May 2003 -- got his name.
''Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket" by Frank Conroy (Crown) gets our vote for the best Massachusetts gift book of the year. Conroy recounts the island's history from its whaling days to the present, vividly evoking the clash of cultures between the locals and the super-rich, with the fragile ecology of the island always in the balance.
Appealing regional books include ''Stones and Bones of New England: A Guide to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries" by Lisa Rogak (Globe Pequot), with readable accounts of nearly 100 cemeteries, and a classic winner, new in paperback, ''The Four Seasons of Mary Azarian" (David R. Godine) with essays by Lilias Macbean Hart. This treasury of large-format woodblock prints by Azarian, a Vermonter, is a persuasive reminder of why we live with winter's deep snow and snug kitchens through spring seedlings, summer gardens, and fall harvests, reading in bed, often under patchwork quilts.
Christina Tree is a freelance writer in Cambridge. She is coauthor with Sally West Johnson of ''Vermont: An Explorer's Guide" (Countryman Press).