new england literary news

Henry David Thoreau as climatologist

One of Walden Pond’s “magic circles,” a hole in the glaze of ice allowed an upwelling of  water that froze overnight.
One of Walden Pond’s “magic circles,” a hole in the glaze of ice allowed an upwelling of water that froze overnight.

Thoreau as climatologist

Two new books by academics roundly praise Henry David Thoreau as a pioneering citizen scientist. Thoreau, for his part, was dismissive of his Harvard education. “Let every sheep keep but his own skin,” he once wrote, referring to his “old joke of a diploma.”

Boston University biology professor Richard B. Primack, who studies the effect of warming temperatures on plants and animals, writes that he has come to regard Thoreau as a scientific colleague. In “Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods” (University of Chicago), being published in April, Primack compares Thoreau’s meticulous observations to his own studies. For example, he reports that in 2012, blueberries began flowering on April 1, six weeks earlier than in Thoreau’s time.

Thoreau’s botanical records have long been admired by naturalists, but what’s been less well known is his grasp of geology, according to “Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science” (Harvard University) by Robert M. Thorson. The book quotes from Thoreau’s journals about a walk he took on a moonlit night in the winter of 1852: “It looks as if the snow and ice of the arctic world, travelling like a glacier, had crept down southward and overwhelmed and buried New England.”


Thorson, who teaches geology at the University of Connecticut, calls this passage the “smoking gun” that proves Thoreau “understood how ice sheets are born, where they come from, how they move, and that one might have visited Concord in the recent geological past.” This wasn’t common knowledge at the time. Thorson will speak at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History at 2 p.m. Saturday. The talk is free with museum admission.

Starred reviews for ‘North of Boston’

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Brookline author Elisabeth Elo’s debut novel “North of Boston” (Viking) has received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist, two of the book trade’s bibles. In the thriller, Pirio Kasparov sets out to discover why a freighter rammed a fishing boat, a collision that took the life of her friend. Elo, who used to live in Newburyport and once worked at an aquarium on Cape Cod, will read from “North” at Brookline Booksmith at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Columnist Powers honored

Katherine A. Powers, a literary columnist for The Boston Globe for more than 20 years who is now a columnist for Barnes & Noble Review, is being honored by the National Book Critics Circle. The Cambridge resident is this year’s recipient of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

Last year Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a book she edited about her father, a National Book Award-winning novelist. It’s called “Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963.” In an e-mail, Powers said being on the other side of reviews strengthened her view “of how important it is to write about what a book is about and not what one hoped it was going to be about.”

Coming out

 “The Second Arab Awakening: And the Battle for Pluralism” by Marwan Muasher (Yale University)


 “An Officer and a Spy”by Robert Harris (Knopf)

 “Ripper”by Isabel Allende (Harper)

Pick of the Week

Jean-Paul Adriaansen of Water Street Books in Exeter, N.H., recommends “Mercy Snow” by Tiffany Baker (Grand Central): “In the sleepy New Hampshire town of Titan Falls, where life fluctuates with the ups and downs of the local paper mill, a school bus crashes into a ravine. The son of the Snow family, always known as good-for-nothing, is accused of causing the accident. Meanwhile, the McAllisters, the mill owners and leading family in town, court trouble as old secrets connected to the Snows threaten to be uncovered.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner Follow her @JanLGardner.