By Stuart Mitchner

Green energy! Even though those two words underscore issues like climate change and sustainability, my first thought is of the green energy of poetry, of the “goat-footed balloon man” of e.e. cummings “blowing far and wee when all the world is mud-luscious and puddle-lovely” and of Dylan Thomas’s “force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” From there, primal word-association brings forth comic strip images of the superhero energy of The Green Hornet reincarnated in DC comics’ Green Lantern (“Beware My Power”), which inspires in turn fantasies of Henry David Thoreau as a graphic super hero, the Wizard of Walden, and Melville’s Moby-Dick reduced to the energy-efficient size of a Save the Whale comic book.

In fact, a British graphic artist named Nick Hayes has produced The Rime of the Modern Mariner (Viking), a green redo of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s immortal Rime. In an article on the Sierra Club website (“4 Thought-Provoking Graphic Novels About the Environment”), Chelsea Leu notes that Hayes has the mariner shoot the albatross with a gun rather than a crossbow and uses Coleridge’s “naturalistic ideas to illustrate (literally) the frightening 21st-century environmental issues we face” in a world Hayes calls “detached from consequence.” After killing the albatross, the modern mariner “sees all manner of horrors — a North Pacific drilling barge leaking a ‘glossy thick petroleum slick,’ swaths of polystyrene bobbing in the heart of the North Pacific gyre, and nylon netting in the body of the albatross itself — all rendered in precise but nightmarish line art.” During a “lavishly illustrated dream sequence, the mariner comes to an understanding of his place in nature, a sort of rebirth that has him feeling truly interconnected with life on earth.” Hayes also manages to work in jawbreakers like “polymethyl methacrylate” and “Themisto gaudichaudii,” presumably without undue damage to the original meter and rhyme scheme. Whole pages of “painstakingly detailed” drawing are devoted to a single elegant line of verse, accomplished with art that is “streaky and ragged or simple and clean-cut in all the right places.”

Another graphic adventure is Philippe Squarzoni’s Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science (Harry N. Abrams), a 480-page novel in images about the author’s quest to educate himself on the basics. As “meticulously researched as it is illustrated,” Climate Changed is, in Leu’s words, “a crash course on the science, explaining everything from how the emissions in our atmosphere contribute to warming to the benefits and pitfalls of our renewable energy options.” A starred review in Publishers Weekly credits Squarzoni for taking on “one of the most important topics of our time” in a form “that is dense but comprehensible, informative and fascinating.”

The other two graphic books on the Sierra Club list are John Muir, Earth – Planet Universe, by Julie Bertagna with illustrations by William Goldsmith, and I’m Not a Plastic Bag by Rachel Hope Allison. more

1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar

One hundred years later, there is a continued fascination with “The Roaring Twenties,” the only decade in American history with a widely applied nickname. How did a surge of innovation and cultural milestones emerge out of the ashes of WWI? Eric Burns, author of 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar, will look back at that critical (and often misunderstood) time, highlighting events that set the tone for the century that followed. more

Writing in Plague Time

By Stuart Mitchner

The bubonic plague hit Stratford on Avon in the summer of 1564, a few months after Shakespeare was born, killing up to a quarter of the town’s residents. Four and a half centuries later, another Warwickshire resident named William Shakespeare made headlines as the first male Briton to be injected with the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.

Predictably, the coincidence set off an epidemic of Shakespearean puns and wordplay (viz. The Taming of the Flu, Two Gentlemen of Corona). Not so predictable was the timely arrival of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague (Knopf $26.95), which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2020 by the editors of New York Times Book Review. As Geraldine Brooks suggests in her lead NYTBR article, the novel explores why Shakespeare titled his most famous play after the 11-year-old son who had died several years earlier (Hamlet and Hamnet being considered essentially the same name in parish records of the time).

Camus and Human Nature

Another book-oriented side effect of the pandemic was the sudden resurgence of critical and commercial interest in The Plague (Vintage $15) by Nobel laureate Albert Camus. In a New York Times op-ed (“Camus on the Coronavirus”), Alain de Botton says that Camus “speaks to us in our own times not because he was a magical seer who could intimate what the best epidemiologists could not, but because he correctly sized up human nature.” Writing in The New Yorker (“The Coronavirus Crisis Reveals New York at Its Best and Worst”), Adam Gopnik observes that the plague, as Camus insisted, “exposes existing fractures in societies, in class structure and individual character; under stress, we see who we really are.”  more

The Friends of the Princeton Public Library will host a virtual fundraiser on Saturday, January 30 at 11 a.m. via Zoom. “Restoring Civility and Bringing Social Justice to American Life: A Virtual Brunch and Talk” features four lifelong advocates for social justice as they share their vision for a more just, egalitarian, and united America.  more

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m heading this Book Scene with the grand old sales slogan online sources say was first used in 1926 by the Victor Talking Machine Company. My excuse is Brandon Stanton’s new book Humans (St. Martin’s $35) and its 2013 predecessor, Humans of New York: Stories.

Just as Victor’s phonographs and records kept on giving the gift of music to listeners, Stanton’s books and blogs offer an ongoing many-faceted gift of New York life to readers who love and are lonely for the locked-down city. I found myself engaged in a variation on the practice at a holiday office party centered on anonymous gifts chosen by number in an all-in-good-fun lottery, the idea being that the gift you just unwrapped could be traded for someone else’s. It happened that two years in a row, the gift-wrapped package I pulled out of the holiday grab bag contained Humans of New York, which proved to be one of the most continuously rewarding presents I’ve ever been given. What do you do when you’ve been given an extra copy of something that makes you smile whenever you open the covers to take a walk in Stanton’s New York? Do you cast the precious object back into the holiday trade winds for a colleague’s bottle of wine? No, you give it to a friend you hope will cherish it as much as you do, and all the better if the friend happens to be moving to the city. more

Two eminent scholars with a shared interest in women’s history and the history of materiality, Caroline Bynum and Brooke Holmes, will be discussing holy objects on Tuesday, October 27 at 6 p.m. for a virtual audience. This event is presented by Labyrinth Books of Princeton in partnership with the Institute for Advanced Study and the Princeton University Humanities Council. more

By Stuart Mitchner

Craig Fehrman’s introduction to Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote (Avid Reader Press $30) features a photograph of then-Senator John Kennedy standing between poet W.H. Auden and novelist John O’Hara. The occasion was the 1956 National Book Awards at which Kennedy delivered the keynote address, “The Politician and the Author: A Plea for Greater Understanding.” He was 38 at the time, November 1956, and his book Profiles in Courage was climbing the best-seller list. In his talk he playfully presents himself as being “in the camp of the enemy; you, the authors, the scholars, the intellectuals, and the eggheads of America, the traditional foes of politicians in every part of the country.”    

Four Novembers later the junior senator from Massachusetts was elected president, thanks in part to intellectuals and authors like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kenneth Galbraith, and Norman Mailer, who reimagined Kennedy as a movie star-charismatic hero with “the eyes of a mountaineer” in his Esquire essay, “Superman Comes to the Super Market.”

“Miles to Go”

The concept of the president as author encouraged by Fehrman’s book and the image of young JFK standing between a poet and a writer may have influenced my response to the close-up on Kennedy on the cover of Fredrik Logevall’s JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917–1956 (Random House $40). If you think of the future president as the eventual author of his own story, it’s possible to imagine him seeing beyond his political ambitions to a darker, more daunting challenge. I find more of the poet than Mailer’s mountaineer in his expression. There’s a “miles to go before I sleep” look in his eyes, as if he were peering into Robert Frost’s “lovely, dark and deep” woods with a troubling presentiment of “promises to keep,” perhaps already sensing the vague outlines of the mission he was embarking on. In a speech from the same period, the senator suggested “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, … the world be a little better place to live.” No wonder, then, that JFK combined poetry and politics by having Frost read a poem at the  inauguration, the opening chapter of his presidency. more

The Shakespeare Book Club unites Bard-ophiles and Shakespeare novices via fun, social, thought-provoking, and informative exploration of his plays. This fall, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has announced that the Shakespeare Book Club can now be experienced in-person at its Kean Theatre Factory or through Zoom for participants who wish to engage remotely.  more

The New York Public Library (NYPL) has admired all the creative energy some people have been able to muster while they are staying at home these days. Having an outlet for imagination and play is a great strategy for keeping your energy up and creative juices flowing. more

American Girl (AG) has announced that it will share its most popular book series for free online at https://www.americangirl.com/explore/articles/onlinelibrary. Each week, AG will release a new set of books that highlight the brand’s many historical fiction and advice offerings. more

This May’s Historical Fiction Book Group session presented by the Historical Society of Princeton is Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing. The novel is one of several best-selling works by New England-based writer Brooks.  more

By Stuart Mitchner

Once upon a time I asked the owner of a second-hand bookstore, who sold vegetables from his garden there, how he disposed of the moldering throwaways on his back porch, this being years before books could be recycled. “Fertilizer,” said he. “Mulch for the veggies.” Glimpsing some trashed volumes of Shakespeare in the pile, I imagined eating tomatoes and cucumbers grown in Bardic book mulch, organic ingredients for a literary salad to serve on the side with shepherd’s pie.

The connection came to mind when I saw Roy Strong’s The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden (Thames and Hudson $19.95) among the new books on flowers and plants previewed here. I also found the flavor of the idea in Publishers Weekly’s observation that Sir Roy, a museum curator, writer, broadcaster, and landscape designer, “spills stories as if seated by a fireplace after a banquet” in prose that “layers fine, formal English over the crisp, juicy histories that he’s expertly researched.” more

Hosted by Anna Borges, a mental health journalist formerly at Buzzfeed, senior editor at Self Magazine, and author of The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care, We Are YA can help keep teens company in these days of social distancing. more

By Stuart Mitchner

This Oscar Night fantasia was inspired by the winner of the Book Scene Award for the Best Cover Art on a Science-Related Topic — Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life (Duke University Press $29.95 in paper), an anthology edited by Princeton Associate Professor of African American Studies Ruha Benjamin. If I were following the Academy model, representatives from the publisher would join the editor onstage, but the person accepting the trophy should be Manzel Bowman, the artist whose brilliant, complexly suggestive digital collage, Turbine, not only illuminates  the cover’s catch word but helps lighten the weight of the subtitle.

“A Mysterious Sexy Stranger” 

The Einstein Oppenheimer “Spooky Action at a Distance” Oscar goes to theoretical physicist Sean Carroll’s Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime (Dutton $29). On accepting the award and paying homage to the two Institute for Advanced Studies legends it was named for, Carroll playfully credited Einstein for “sticking quantum mechanics with the label it has been unable to shake ever since,” namely spukhafte, or “spooky.” There were #MeToo murmurings from the audience when he described the alluring inscrutability of quantum mechanics as “a mysterious, sexy stranger” tempting us “into projecting all sorts of qualities and capacities onto it, whether they are there or not.” more

By Stuart Mitchner

Sometimes I think if ballet didn’t exist, the New York Times would have invented it. That’s how often I see some form of balletic imagery dancing across the front page of the Arts section. In “Dancers, Glittering and Supernatural,” Times dance critic Gia Kourlas mentions “certain New York City Ballet performances that have a way of making you feel you’ve danced yourself, even as you sit, quiet and still, in your seat.” The article is accompanied by a photograph of Emily Kikta, who is described by Kourlas “as authoritative and smoldering … like a modern ballerina who has grown up in the era of #MeToo and learned a thing or two.” But what most impresses me about this dancer, shown performing in a recent production of George Balanchine’s Jewels, is that she looks so happy. The seemingly heartfelt spontaneity of her smile breaches the barrier of formality I’ve always felt between myself and ballet.

I began with ballet because two of the most imposing coffee table books this holiday season are The Style of Movement: Fashion and Dance (Rizzoli $75) and Ballerina Project (Chronicle Chroma $40). With a foreword by Valentino Garavani, The Style of Movement is the second volume from photographers Deborah Ory and Ken Browar, the husband and wife team behind the New York City Dance Project. According to Pointe magazine, “the book showcases couture gowns, jackets and trousers in a way that only dancers can,” capturing, in the words of Harper’s Bazaar, “the poetic beauty of dancers in motion.”

New York City-based photographer Dane Shitagi’s Ballerina Project, subtitled (Ballerina Photography Books, Art Fashion Books, Dance Photography), features 170 images accumulated on Shitagi’s Instagram, which has more than a million followers. Showing ballerinas posed in a variety of visually striking locations around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, London, Rome, and Paris, the volume is bound in pink satin cloth with gold foil stamping, a pink satin ribbon marker, and introductions by principal ballerinas Isabella Boylston and Francesca Hayward.  more

By Stuart Mitchner

This Book Scene began with lunch at cookbook legends Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer’s newly opened Canal House Station restaurant in Milford, N.J.

At the time, all I knew about the Canal House series was what I heard from my wife on the drive up. According to an August 12 article in Food and Wine, the “meticulous restoration” of the Milford station took about two years, with the result evoking “the warmth of a dear friend’s home…. Even the entrance, past the small garden and through a back door, contributes to the familiar sensibility the brand new restaurant has already managed to create.”

I understood “familiar sensibility” as a way of describing the quality that has made the Canal House books so popular, an idea that accords with the Cambridge English Dictionary definition of sensibility as “an understanding of or ability to decide about what is good or valuable, especially in connection with social activities.”

Poetry Up Front

I found the “familiar sensibility” in evidence as soon as I opened my wife’s prized copy of Canal House Cooks Every Day (Andrews McMeel $45) to a photograph and a poem that would seem to have more to do with what is “good and valuable” than with cooking. The first image you see after turning the title and dedication pages is a blurry vision of blue sky and cloud mass photographed through the window of a plane en route to Istanbul; taking up the facing page is C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca,” which begins, “When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,/pray that the road is long,/full of adventure, full of knowledge” and ends “Wise as you have become, with so much experience,/you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.”

As someone whose heart has never soared at the sight of a cookbook, I was more impressed by the association of cooking with a “beautiful voyage” than with any of the celebrity testimonials on the endpapers, except perhaps the tribute to “this kitchen bible” from actress Jamie Lee Curtis, a Canal House devotee who, like me, is not a “foodie” and admits to “no discernible culinary talent.” In fairness to Jamie Lee, the resemblance is strictly superficial; she cooks every day for “lots of people” and I’m a back-up cook, occasional sous chef, grater of cheese, composer of salads, and cleaner-upper. more

By Taylor Smith

“I wait for my mother to haunt me as she promised she would; long to wake in the night with the familiar sight of her sitting at the end of my bed, to talk to her one more time, to feel that all the pieces have been put into place, the puzzle is solved, and I can rest.” – Sally Field

The public is invited to “An Afternoon with Sally Field” at Rider University in Lawrenceville on Sunday, October 27 at 1 p.m. The talk is presented by Penn Medicine Princeton Health as part of its Community Wellness programming. Early registration is $40 per person and includes a copy of Field’s memoir, In Pieces. Purchase tickets, here: https://bit.ly/35itbFA more

Ellis Island Arrivals, Ellis Island mural detail, 1937. Photo courtesy of The Public Buildings Service, General Services Administration, Washington, DC.

By Stuart Mitchner

Mural painters love walls. In place of a symbolic denial of freedom, a barrier between two countries, they see an immense panorama of possibility, a space free but necessarily and beautifully finite. When muralist Edward Laning (1906-1981) looked at the 100-foot-long wall of the Aliens Dining Hall at Ellis Island, he was pondering his assigned subject, “The Role of the Immigrant in the Industrial Development of America.” He was happy to have the work. It was 1934, he was broke and months behind in his rent for a top-floor loft with skylights on East 17th Street. As he recalls in “Memoirs of a WPA Painter” in American Heritage (October 1970), doing justice to his subject meant “learning how railroads were built and saw mills were operated and coal was mined and steel was manufactured.” more

By Taylor Smith

In The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, authors B. Janet Hibbs (psychologist and marriage therapist) and Anthony Rostain (psychiatry and pediatrics/Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania) write that today’s students “experience the very real burdens of constant striving on behalf of uncertain futures, amidst swiftly changing political and economic landscapes. They’re also stressed by the 24/7 availability of the internet, by social media pressures, and the resulting metrics of constant comparisons, whether social or academic.” more