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

By Stuart Mitchner

No beach for me. Right through my teens into my twenties, I summered in the city. Better to be simmering in Manhattan than summering in Bloomington, Indiana. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” is a great song, sheer euphoria, especially when you know they’re singing about the Apple: “Been down, isn’t it a pity/Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city.” Down is right: “All around, people looking half dead/Walking on the sidewalk hotter than a match head.” I never thought “it’s a pity” that “the days can’t be like the nights.” I just headed for Central Park or Washington Square.

No air-conditioning cools my memories of New York summers. Whether in walk-ups on Christopher or West 87th or East 53rd, the windows were open, the hydrants were gushing, the kids were splashing, and I was reading and sweating. But of course, reading is cool in itself. You can bask in a book, suck oxygen from it, get drunk with it. It’s your best friend, your companion, your pet. It’s also a pleasure to watch someone in the act of reading on a summer’s day. Like the barefoot girl stretched out in Central Park in John Cuneo’s charming May 6 New Yorker cover. She’s leaning on her elbows over an open book while her snoozing dog uses her for a cushion, head back, paws hovering above the volume it seems to have been reading as it dozed off, a whimsical touch that suggests the fate of all summer-drowsy readers; soon enough the girl herself may nod off, her head pillowed in the open book.

Some Hard Choices

As for what to take with you this summer, hardcovers cost more and weigh more, while paperbacks have the advantages that prompted the lords of publishing to create them in the first place. I don’t do ebooks or audibles, but they, too, have obvious advantages.

Beginning with hardcovers, a brand-new novel by Titusville resident Ellen LaCorte, The Perfect Fraud (Harper Collins $26.99), promises to keep you wide awake. Kirkus Reviews says “This is a dark, dark thriller, and the villain is absolute. But alternating voices allow for a more nuanced building of tension …. LaCorte delves deeply into horrible things that humans do — and, as in life, not all evil is punished — but still offers hope and healing in the end.” According to Publishers Weekly, “Mysticism and medicine intersect with dramatic results in LaCorte’s accomplished page-turning debut …. Those who like a dash of the supernatural in their thrillers will be well satisfied.”

A book of interest to fans of Harper Lee and true crime fiction who might want to read it while rereading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf $26.95) “explains as well as it is likely ever to be explained why Lee went silent after To Kill a Mockingbird.” Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Michael Lewis goes on to suggest that it’s in Cep’s “descriptions of another writer’s failure to write, that her book makes a magical little leap” and “goes from being a superbly written true-crime story to the sort of story that even Lee would have been proud to write.” 

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (Nan A. Talese $28.95) is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which has found a new generation of readers thanks to the Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss. The sequel begins 15 years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the testaments of three female narrators from Gilead. It also comes with a message from the author: “Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”

Paperback Possibilities  

Among paperbacks, there’s Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (Back Bay $15.99), winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. In a New York Times Book Review notice, Christopher Buckley says, “Laughter is only a part of the joy of reading this book. Greer writes sentences of arresting lyricism and beauty. His metaphors come at you like fireflies.” Less is “excellent company” and “no less than bedazzling, bewitching, and be-wonderful.”

The 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner, already in paperback, is Richard Powers’s The Overstory (Norton $18.95), which novelist Ann Patchett calls “The best novel ever written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period.” For Nathaniel Rich in The Atlantic, “Powers is the rare American novelist writing in the grand realist tradition …. He has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma.”

One the most critically acclaimed novels in recent history, Tommy Orange’s debut work of fiction There There (Vintage $16), now available in paperback, has aroused excited responses from other novelists, including Colm Tóibín (“Sweeping and subtle … pure soaring beauty”) and Louise Erdrich (“Welcome to a brilliant and generous artist who has already enlarged the landscape of American Fiction”).  A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program and an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, the author was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California.

Reading Manhattan

My favorite books about New York range from Henry Roth’s epic of the Lower East Side, Call It Sleep, to Patti Smith’s caffeinated West Village memoir M Train. Ultimately, no author has done more for Manhattan and Central Park than New York City native J.D. Salinger, who was born 100 years ago January 1, 1919. Millions of readers have come to the city for the first time in The Catcher in the Rye and had their first view of Central Park through the eyes of Holden Caulfield. I’d like to think that even with the skyline surrounding the park becoming disfigured by high-rises devoid of beauty or character, someone will still be summering under a tree reading a Central Park story like Salinger’s “The Laughing Man,” or, better yet, one of the new pieces about the Glass family he was working on for 40-plus years in New Hampshire. It’s too bad that his centenary isn’t being celebrated with the publication of new work, or, at least, with his extraordinary summer camp novella, “Hapworth 16, 1924.” At least Little Brown is planning centenary editions of his published fiction.

By Stuart Mitchner

Princeton University Press celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005, the same year that Peter Dougherty began his illustrious 12-year term as director and British singer songwriter Kate Bush recorded a love song about a man obsessed by “a complete infatuation with the calculation of Pi (π),” the mathematical truth that coincides with the March 14th birthday of Albert Einstein, Princeton’s most renowned citizen.

Bush’s song about a man who loves loves loves his numbers lends a retrospective allure to my mathematically embattled school days, especially when she croons — sensually, caressingly, deliciously — a series of nothing but numbers that become things of beauty as she makes love to “three one four one five nine two six five three five nine” and on into infinity. And when she imagines a “great big circle” of numbers surrounding her pi-infatuated lover, she could be describing the cover of Millions, Billions, Zillions: Defending Yourself in a World of Too Many Numbers, by Princeton professor of computer science Brian W. Kernighan, whose small but numerically mighty book landed on my desk recently along with The Discrete Charm of the Machine: Why the World Became Digital by his computer science colleague at Princeton Ken Steiglitz. Both books are, of course, from Princeton University Press, as is Daniel Kennefick’s No Shadow of a Doubt, timed for the 100th anniversary of the 1919 eclipse “that confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.” Although Kennefick is a physics professor at the University of Arkansas, he qualifies as a local, his previous books, all about Einstein, having been published by Princeton. more

By Taylor Smith 

Each year, thousands of new movies are produced and released, and only a few are nominated for Academy Awards. Many of these chosen films actually began as books, plays, and short stories. Here is a collection of seven written works that have gone on to become beloved Oscar-winning films.  more

How to clean up your home and work space once and for all

By Taylor Smith 

Organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has sold over two million copies for good reason. 

In her native Japan, Kondo says that tidiness and simplicity are a matter of everyday living. She cleverly applies these feng shui principles to cleaning house, simultaneously challenging long-held beliefs in cleaning little-by-little every day, storing things for a different season, and/or discarding one item for every new item brought into your home.  more

By Stuart Mitchner

My only problem with “Black History Month” is in the way “history” implicitly detracts from the ongoing immediacy of the African American experience. “Lives” in my title can be read both as a reference to the lives of people and to the force that lives in the present, which happens when we listen to Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday, read James Baldwin or Frederick Douglass, admire a painting by Jacob Lawrence or a photograph by Gordon Parks, or go online to watch First Lady Michelle Obama’s stirring speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention.

The good news is that millions of people have been reading Obama’s memoir, Becoming (Crown $32.50), and David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster $37.50).

Blight’s landmark biography begins with President Barack Obama’s September 24, 2016 dedication speech at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in which he delivered “a clear-eyed view” of the “tragic and triumphant” experience of “black Americans in the United States.” After referring to “the infinite depths of Shakespeare and scripture” in black history, Obama paid tribute to “the fight for our freedom … a lifetime of struggle and progress and enlightenment … etched in Frederick Douglass’s mighty leonine gaze.” more

By Taylor Smith

It’s the start of 2019 which means one thing — you’re probably assessing your New Year’s resolutions. While a gym membership and a trip to Whole Foods may help you to exercise and eat better, real change begins with a fresh perspective and more all-encompassing lifestyle habits. Here are a just a few books that might help guide the way to a new and improved you. more