Gift ideas -- choicest new books for the holidays; Cruising the Mississippi; The Father of Waters, by Norah Deakin Davis. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. 178 pp. $27.50.

Steven Anderson and Robert Weyeneth devised the idea of a Mississippi River canoe expedition that would traverse the river while also functioning as a floating classroom. They were accompanied by writer Norah Davis and photographer Joseph Holmes, their adventures forming the basis of this Davis chronicle. The tediously researched narrative mixes description and history, ecological analysis and folklore. We see the river as the first explorers saw it and as it is today, its mystery and magic, its struggle to survive increasing levels of pollution.

Enhanced with historical illustrations, and Mr. Holmes' magnificent photographs, the book offers a rich biography of the ''Father of Waters,'' whose story is to some extent also the story of America.

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