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"Journey on the James," by Earl Swift; "Dreamcatcher," by Stephen King; "Buddha," by Karen Armstrong.

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A Powerful and Capricious River
In Earl Swift's new book, "Journey on the James" (University Press of Virginia, $27.95), a newspaper reporter tells the story of his 22-day, 430-mile trek that traced the path of the James River from trickling spring in Highland County to expansive mouth in Hampton Roads. Each chapter chronicles a day on the river — on foot at first, then by canoe and kayak — complete with conversations, observations and accounts of events that occurred in the river's watershed.

Along the way, Swift fights river rapids and incoming tides. Into this mile-by-mile narrative, he threads accounts of Bacon's Rebellion, the Jamestown settlement, the building of the James River and Kanawha Canal, and the onslaught of Hurricane Camille, among other stories. Readers will meet little-known Virginians like Hannah Dennis, who was captured by the Shawnees at her homestead on Purgatory Creek, and who escaped after years of submersion in the Native-American culture. Present-day people who live and work near the river provided Swift with anecdotes and oral histories that liven up the book. Quotes from writers such as Thomas Jefferson, as well as references to histories written about the places Swift paddles past, demonstrate that he did his homework.

Interested in the history of mining in Richmond? Dam construction? The rebirth of the beaver? If it happened on the James, chances are you'll find it in this book. Photographs by Ian Martin, who provided support for the trip from the comfort of the riverbank, accompany the text. Curiously missing from a book about a journey, however, is a map depicting the route.

Just like the river that flows through it, "Journey on the James" has many faces. Swift describes the river as "by turns trusted friend and impassive stranger, its mood shifting with each mile. And with each day, as well, for the whims of weather can swell it into a foaming terror, or bake it almost dry." By turns travel narrative, history book and comic adventure, "Journey on the James" breathes life into the affairs of one of our most beautiful and significant rivers.

— Katherine Jackson

Out of This World
Stephen King returns to the strange and mysterious city of Derry, Maine, ("It" and "Insomnia") for his latest corker, "Dreamcatcher" (Scribner, $28).

This is vintage King, albeit not in the same class with "The Stand." He begins his story with four boys who grow up fast friends, another younger boy with Down's Syndrome, and the brave act that brought the five together.

You won't get far into "Dreamcatcher," though, before typically Kingsian strange things begin to happen. As the plot heats up, it's a quarter century later, and the four friends are all grown up and off on their annual hunting trip in the woods of Maine. When a lost and disoriented man comes wandering out of the woods, the four friends don't suspect anything unusual. But they're wrong — dead wrong.

Soon the friends are involved in a Titanic struggle against forces they can only dimly comprehend, forces that mean to wipe out the population of planet Earth in the most horrible way imaginable.

It's not long before the four discover also that the rules of reality have been altered by beings from another world and that their only hope for saving themselves, and humanity, is to revisit their past — brutal, threatening and gruesome though their challenge may be.

"Dreamcatcher" is a fast-paced, can't-put-it-down novel, perfect for reading while traveling or while sitting by the pool this summer. But despite its involving story, it's sad that King continues to allow his homophobia to creep into his novels. Lines such as "Nah, there it is, ya fag," spoken by one of novel's main and most sympathetic characters, are scattered throughout the book and serve only to gratuitously insult a portion of his audience. But King has sold a humongous number of novels, and perhaps he just doesn't have to be bothered if he turns off a few readers.

— Don Dale

The details of the life of Siddhatta [Siddhartha] Buddha are lost to time and myth. But the lessons of his life and teaching are alive. Karen Armstrong's "Buddha," (Lipper/Viking, a Penguin Life, $19.95) does a fine job of explaining the way of living that the Buddha taught his disciples to follow.

Armstrong tells us that the Buddha came along in the 5th century B.C.E. in a seminal period of world history — a period that has been called the Axial Age (800-200 B.C.E.) — in which men and women "became conscious of their existence, their own nature and their limitations in an unprecedented way. Their experience of utter impotence in a cruel world impelled them to seek the highest goals and an absolute reality in the depths of their being." New religious systems emerged during this period, and they included Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Hindusim, Monotheism in Iran and the Middle East, and Greek rationalism in Europe.

Armstrong clearly explains the Buddha's teaching that includes ethical living, acceptance, compassion and discipline. This little book is a good beginning for those who want to know why Buddhism has appealed to so many from the Buddha's time until today.

— Rozanne Epps

Want to know more about Buddhism? Here are some recommendations for further reading:
From Carmen Foster, a Richmond consultant: "Dreaming Me, An African American Woman's Spiritual Journey" (Riverhead Books, $23.95) by Jan Willis and Janice Dean Willis and "Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life" (Hyperion, $14.95) by Jon Kabat-Zinn

From historian Spencie Love: "The Awakened Self: Encounters with Zen,". (Kodansha International, $15) by Lucien Stryk, "Being Peace," (Parallax Press, $16) by Thich Nhat Hanh and "Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness" (Penguin USA, $14) by Robert

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