Posts Tagged ‘In High Places with Henry David Thoreau’

Here’s the column, which appeared in today’s Concord Monitor.


For the Monitor

Sunday, July 14, 2013
(Published in print: Sunday, July 14, 2013) 

New Hampshire author Geoffrey James has written extensively about Elizabethan courtier/scholar John Dee. Sorcerer: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth’s Alchemist is inspired by Dee’s work in astrology, alchemy and divination. An expert on navigation, a mathematician and translator, Dee believed he could decipher messages from angels dictated by a “scryer,” Edward Kelley. Like other 16th century scholars, Dee didn’t see a conflict between academic and supernatural studies. His problems, which James incorporates into the novel, were practical: securing funding, keeping powerful patrons satisfied, avoiding religious condemnation, navigating European politics. Picking up the story just before Dee met Kelley, James also explores the personal and professional tolls of Dee’s studies.

Grand Mal Press, which published Sorcerer, describes itself as a “publisher of weird and wacky fiction,” mostly genres that aren’t my cup of tea, so I opened the book unsure of whether I’d enjoy it. But Sorcerer is a page turner. James’s familiarity with his subject and copious sensory and historical details transport the reader to another time and place.

A few quibbles: Occasional footnotes are confusing – I couldn’t immediately tell if they were fictional – and might work better as an afterword. Each main character’s point of view is numbered within numbered chapters like an outline, a distracting design. The proofreading is imperfect (I notice this in mainstream publishers’ books, too). Sometimes James lapses into archaic sentence structure or vocabulary, which might be historically accurate but isn’t consistent. A few scenes told more than they showed. But if you’re a genre fiction fan willing to overlook minor flaws, you’ll enjoy this debut, brimming with intrigue.

Science fiction, hiking and cooking

The Curiosity, by Vermont author Stephen P. Kiernan, is another intriguing debut: Scientists working for “The Lazarus Project” discover a dead man frozen in sea ice since 1906 and reanimate him. Kiernan writes movingly about “Subject One,” Jeremiah Rice, along with expedition leader Dr. Kate Philo, her egomaniacal boss Erastus Carthage, her colleagues and Daniel Dixon, a middling science reporter granted exclusive coverage of the project. The descriptions of Jeremiah’s introduction to 21st century Boston, as well as the pain he feels at the loss of his previous life, are lovely. Kate orders a coffee, laughing when Jeremiah is baffled by “double-espresso mocha latte with skim.”

Jeremiah thinks of his daughter: “It was no compensation for Agnes, no such thing existed, but that laugh leavened my heart nonetheless.” When the book opens, Kate looks back on events, explaining things ended badly for her. This tension, combined with science-fiction flavor, literary style and pacing, and humor, make The Curiosityappealing to a variety of readers. Book clubs would enjoy dissecting the novel’s social, moral and ethical conundrums.

Maine author John Gibson’s In High Places with Henry David Thoreau: The New Hiker’s Guide to Thoreau’s Mountain Travels, retraces Thoreau’s steps on 12 mountain treks: two each in Massachusetts and Maine, eight in New Hampshire. Gibson revisits Thoreau’s hikes, referencing his writings and other period sources, and explains in detail how to recreate the outings. Each chapter includes maps, photos, directions, suggested gear and recommended resources.

It’s amazing, considering today’s well-mapped, easily accessible trailheads with nearby parking, how far Thoreau walked just to reach hiking spots and how often he blazed his own trails. These details, along with what Thoreau carried and ate on expeditions, who he traveled with, what flora and fauna he saw, and what he wrote about each trip, make In High Places vivid reading. Gibson notes, “In using this guide you will, I hope, see the mountains as Thoreau saw them. . . . Ultimately, he went to the hills in pursuit of . . . another, exceptional universe . . . a world of high places. And now, with this guide in your rucksack, it is your turn to follow him.”

My family was delighted when another cookbook arrived, The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook: 150 Home-Grown Recipes from the Green Mountain State by Tracey Medeiros with photographs by Oliver Parini. Medeiros presents recipes from 107 farms, markets, co-ops, inns, resorts, bakeries and restaurants across Vermont, along with profiles of the people and places the recipes come from. Part of the book’s proceeds will benefit the Vermont Foodbank. I made Rory’s Irish Scones from Simon Pearce’s Restaurant in Quechee, Vt., Vegan Chili from City Market Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Bow Thai Pasta Salad from Woodstock Farmers Market and Maple Bars from Osborne Family Maple in Ferdinand. All were easy and delicious!


Finally, last summer I raved about Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman, a police procedural set in Concord as the world awaits the devastating impact of an asteroid. Winters’s sequel, Countdown City, is equally smart and funny. His writing is sheer pleasure – creative, thoughtful and engaging. He captures what’s best about humanity – distilled in his lovable hero, Hank Palace – in a zany yet believable story, even as he paints a society collapsing on itself. Fun, fast-paced entertainment that’s also thought-provoking and profound.

New Hampshire author Betsy Woodman also has a sequel, Love Potion Number 10, revisiting her unflappable heroine Jana Bibi in 1960s India.

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When it’s really rainy or really hot, it’s easier to set aside chores and read. So this month’s column is packed with books!

First up, a debut historical/suspense novel from a small press (Grand Mal) by Hollis, New Hampshire author Geoffrey James, Sorcerer: a Novel of Queen Elizabeth’s Alchemist, inspired by the Elizabethan courtier/scholar John Dee.

Shorter reviews this month include:

The Curiosity, an intriguing debut novel by Vermont author Stephen P. Kiernan

In High Places with Henry David Thoreau: a Hiker’s Guide with Routes and Maps by Maine author & hiker John Gibson

The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook: 150 Home-Grown Recipes from the Green Mountain State by Tracey Medeiros with photos by Oliver Parini (Bow Thai Pasta Salad from Woodstock Farmers’ Market went over very well as a July 4th side dish.)

and a brief but enthusiastic endorsement of the 2nd book in Ben H. Winters‘ The Last Policeman series, Countdown City, which I devoured on the screened porch over the last couple of days. I can’t say enough good things about these books, which in my mind are the perfect summer read: fun, entertaining, and also really thought provoking.

I also mention, for fans of last summer’s Jana Bibi’s Exellent Fortunes, New Hampshire author Betsy Woodman’s sequel, Love Potion Number 10, and as always, bring readers up to date on when and where to meet Mindful Reader authors around Concord. I turn the column in Monday and it should appear in the Sunday Concord Monitor on 7/14.

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