Reading Room Book Reviews: New Books by Hudson Valley Authors in December 2012
New and interesting books with a local flavor
Native Americans are often on the margins of many accounts of early American history, at best confined to their interactions with European explorers. In his first book, The Memory of All Ancient Customs: Native American Diplomacy in the Colonial Hudson Valley (Cornell University Press, $35), historian Tom Arne Midtrød provides a valuable corrective to this common oversight, meticulously reconstructing the social, political, and diplomatic relationships that existed between the Valley’s diverse Native American communities. In doing so, Midtrød sheds new light on the history of European-American contact as well, uncovering the traditions and assumptions through which American Indians understood their world and relations with European colonists.
Veteran travel writers Lucy D. Rosenfeld and Marina Harrison deliver an expansive guide to the region’s must-visit agricultural attractions in Exploring Nature’s Bounty: 100 Outings Near New York City (Rivergate Books, $24.95). Ranging from apiaries and aquaponic farms (where vegetables and fish are raised together) to vineyards and nature preserves, these entries are jam-packed with detail and guidance. Although it is written with city dwellers in mind, this rich compendium has lots to offer Valley residents: Rosenfeld and Harrison cover both low-profile local treasures and day trip destinations in nearby states, and sprinkle their book with enticing recipes and how-to guidance.
With stunning photography and comprehensive descriptions of more than 100 of the state’s most notable cascades
and cataracts, Waterfalls of New York State (Firefly Books, $29.95) works equally well as a coffee table book and as a travel guide. Authors and waterfall enthusiasts Scott A. Ensminger, David J. Schryver, and Edward M. Smathers provide travel directions, geological information, and of course beautiful pictures for each waterfall featured. Check out the dozen Hudson Valley favorites (including Awosting and Kaaterskill Falls) featured in the work, plan a day trip to farther-flung destinations like Watkins Glen State Park and, of course, Niagara Falls, or just admire some of the Empire State’s coolest cascades from the comfort of your living room.
Take a walk through a local field or forest and chances are you’ll come across one of the Valley’s countless stone walls, once the all-important boundary lines dividing up the region’s rich farm land. They’re everywhere, but today most are no longer in use. So where did they come from? Who built them? How? Why? Susan Allport answers these questions in her recently reissued Sermons in Stone: The Stone Walls of New England & New York (The Countryman Press, $16.95), a fascinating (really!) and highly readable look at the history and culture surrounding these ubiquitous monuments. Accompanied by David Howell’s beautiful illustrations, Allport leads us from the Ice Age to the present day, focusing on how we have shaped and been shaped by the walls surrounding us.
Growing up in Somers, Westchester County, award-winning poet Jo Pitkin always knew her hometown had an unusual history: As the home of some of America’s first exotic animal shows and traveling menageries in the 1830s, Somers produced some of the country’s first circus acts. In her new book, Cradle of the American Circus (History Press, $16.99), Pitkin intersperses her evocative poetry with old pictures, advertisements, and other artifacts as well as explanatory essays by regional historians. At once a riotous celebration of the town’s rich and colorful past and a meditation on history and show business, the book is at times funny, sad, serious — but always entertaining.
New York Times bestselling author and former Highland resident Da Chen tells the sprawling story of Samuel Pickens, an American caught up in the political and personal dramas of 19th-century China, in his newest novel My Last Empress (Crown Publishers, $25). Still scarred by the tragic death of his teenage love, Pickens travels to China, where he encounters Qiu Rong, an concubine who bears a uncanny resemblance to the dead girl. Like Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, Pickens is a contemptible, obsessive man, but thanks to Chen’s brisk, exciting prose and complex characterizations, readers will find themselves sympathizing with him as he becomes increasingly embroiled in palace intrigue and his own forbidden passions.
The dystopian society of Beacon-based author Jeff Hirsch’s second young adult novel, Magisterium (Scholastic Press, $17.99), seems like paradise. When teenager Glenn Morgan discovers the secrets of the world outside its walls, however, she quickly finds herself at the center of a massive struggle between magic and technology. Hirsch’s taunt but epic story of government conspiracies and diametrically opposed worlds hits all the right buttons to please both sci-fi and fantasy junkies.