Reading Room

Notes on new books with a local flavor in September 2010

The Valley has long been known as a stomping ground for artists of all types — including writers. The area’s natural beauty has acted as muse for wordsmiths from James Fenimore Cooper to Edith Wharton.

river of words book

In River of Words (Excelsior Editions/SUNY Press, $29.95), Nina Shengold (an accomplished author in her own right) and photographer Jennifer May (whose images grace these pages on a regular basis) present profiles of 76 contemporary novelists, poets, memoirists, journalists, and screenwriters who live and/or work in the Valley.

writers sunny and da chenLiterary duo: Acclaimed Chinese émigré Da Chen and his wife Sunny, both authors, are profiled in River of Words. Read an essay by Da Chen in Final Word

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Included are such literary luminaries as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Ashbery; Things Fall Apart novelist Chinua Achebe; and Julie Powell, whose memoir Julie and Julia was the basis for last year’s sleeper hit film of the same name. Shengold’s concise essays (some are just a page long) get to the heart of each subject, conveying just enough detail so we know what makes him or her tick. And May’s elegant and revealing black-and-white portraits — frequently shot outdoors, with writers silhouetted against tree branches, stone buildings, or the riverfront — provide a perfect counterpoint to the prose. For those interested in good writing — and the local people who craft it — this is a must-read.

red rain book

A Stone Ridge resident, Bruce Murkoff earned kudos for Waterborne, his debut historical novel about the construction of the Hoover Dam. The author’s second effort, Red Rain (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95), is set in Ulster County during the last years of the Civil War. With a well-drawn cast of characters — ranging from a local farmer and an orphaned boy to a rough-and-tumble Irish immigrant — the novel explores the effects of the war, Western expansion, and the interplay among the various nationalities and ethnic groups in the young United States.

harriman state park book

The latest local title in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, Harriman State Park by Ronnie Clark Coffey ($21.99) traces the history of New York’s second largest state park (located in Orange and Rockland counties). From its creation in 1910 — thanks to the beneficence of the Harriman family, which donated 10,000 of the site’s 46,000 acres — through its current status as a premier spot for hiking, camping, fishing, and other outdoor endeavors, the park has welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors and yet retains its sense of wilderness and natural beauty. This book tells the park’s story with period photos accompanied by well-researched captions.

crossing the hudson: historic bridges and tunnels of the river book

Engineers and history buffs alike will take a shine to Donald E. Wolf’s Crossing the Hudson: Historic Bridges and Tunnels of the River (Rutgers University Press, $26.95). From the Waterburgh-Lansing Bridge (which opened just north of Albany in 1804) to the second span of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge (which started ferrying traffic in 1980), Wolf explores the construction of all 19 river crossings — as well as the politics and personalities that brought each of them into being. Thoroughly researched and written in an authoritative but lively style, this tome tackles an aspect of the Valley’s past that is only infrequently mentioned by other writers.

hudson valley trails and tales and hudson valley faces and places

Now in their sixth printing, Hudson Valley Tales & Trails and Hudson Valley Faces & Places (Overlook Press, $19.95 each), Patricia Edwards Clyne’s well-organized guidebooks which double as historical narratives, recently have been rereleased. In Tales & Trails, Clyne takes her readers to Orange County’s hidden iron mines; the curative springs in Saratoga; and various stone monuments of both the prehistoric and the Opus 40 variety (among many other spots). The “tales” sections feature stories of legendary Valleyites both well-known (Washington Irving, John Burroughs) and less so (Tom Quick, Claudius Smith, the Leatherman). Faces & Places focuses on distinct personalities and their connection to the Valley, again mixing the famous and the obscure: Harriet Tubman, Stephen Crane, and President James Garfield share the pages with Edwin Howard Armstrong (the Yonkers inventor who developed FM radio) and Henry Backus (a 19th-century street musician known as the Saugerties Bard). Clyne’s chapters are short but full of life, offering stories and adventures that speak to her diverse yet readable style.

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amos and the cosmos book

In 1984, history buff Amos Boris Lardowitz becomes a literary star after publishing a book containing the love letters of Rebecca, an African-American slave. What Amos doesn’t reveal, however, is Rebecca’s true identity: she was his great-grandmother. With Amos and the Cosmos (iUniverse, Inc., $18.95), Rhinebeck author Alan Schwartz relates the story of Amos’s cross-country quest to learn the truth regarding his family’s heritage. Schwartz’s memoir-style novel is rife with adventure and a heavy dose of Americana.

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