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

By Stuart Mitchner

Amsterdam was the first stop on my first trip to Europe and the first time in my life that I’d walked into a museum on a whim, on my own, casually, without thinking of it as a prescribed learning experience. Every painting was by the same artist. At 19, I knew about Van Gogh of course. I’d seen Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life. But here was the reality, vividly, wildly, uncontainedly there in the gobs, clusters, and swirls of paint everywhere I looked, and no one else was around, no crowds to contend with; somehow some way I’d lucked out and had the place to myself, just me and Van Gogh. I could almost hear him breathing, smell the smoke from his pipe, as if he were working as I watched, no brush, I imagined him squeezing the paint between his fingers and then slapping it on. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, I’d landed all by myself on the shore of a new world of art.

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By Stuart Mitchner

As someone who grew up in Bloomington, “the Gateway to Scenic Southern Indiana,” I know something about fall colors. Even for a kid with limited aesthetic awareness, there was no ignoring the splendor of the leaves. I walked to school splashing through puddles of gold and red, and since bonfires were allowed in those days, the air always had a hazy, mysterious quality. Whenever I think back to that time of year, I’m in seventh grade and we’ve moved from graduate student barracks on the outskirts of town to a large two-story house five blocks from the University campus. Suddenly my parents had a veritable mansion to furnish with enough space for a grand piano, sofas, easy chairs, coffee tables — this after four years in the equivalent of a four-room cabin with a pot-bellied stove in the living room.  more

By Stuart Mitchner

I never had to deal with the college search process. The Indiana University campus was five blocks away, and since my father was on the faculty, the cost was minimal. I’ve never regretted staying at home. Besides making some lifelong friends, I wrote a novel, having figured out a plot in a sophomore geology class taught by a man whose amusingly morbid mannerisms influenced my depiction of a predatory professor at a fictional Eastern college. So even though I didn’t go away to school myself, my main character did, and came home to Indiana disillusioned about love and life. When the book was published the summer before my senior year, several reviewers gave me credit for at least not imitating J.D. Salinger, while others took the patronizing tone of the notice in the New York Times snidely titled “College Capers.” The Saturday Review quoted Picasso to the effect that “it takes a very long time to become young.”

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The Making of the Teresa Caffé Cookbook

By Anne Levin 

Food photography by Guy Ambrosino

Food styling by Paul Grimes

Whenever Raoul Momo or any of his four siblings go to Chile to visit their mother, Teresa, she asks them the same question: “What do you want to eat when you get here?”

For Momo, who with brothers Carlo and Anthony run Princeton restaurants Mediterra, Eno Terra, and their mother’s namesake, Teresa Caffé, along with Terra Momo Bread Company, it is probably Risotto Milanese with Ossobuco. “Oh my God,” he says, practically salivating at the thought. “But whatever she makes, it’s delicious. When we were growing up, she was cooking all the time. It was just part of our childhood.” more

By Stuart Mitchner

The freshest, most appealing baseball books of the summer look to be I’m Keith Hernandez (Little Brown $28) and The Comic Book Story of Baseball (Ten Speed Press $18.99), with words by Alex Irvine, and graphics by Marvel artists Tomm Coker and C.P. Smith.

I grew up in post-war southern Indiana loving baseball. The nearest major league team was the Cincinnati Reds. About 250 miles to the north were Chicago and the Cubs and White Sox. St. Louis and the Cardinals were about the same distance to the west. I still remember Cubs broadcaster Bert Wilson exulting, “It’s a beau-t-iful day for a ballgame!” But I was never a Cubs fan, nor did the Reds ever mean much to me. more

By Stuart Mitchner

Samuel Johnson had it right when he said, “It is better to live rich than to die rich.”

Although I’m well past retirement age, I’d never given it much thought until I sat down to write this article. If you’ve been writing since you were 10 and intend to keep on doing so, whether or not you do it for a living, retiring simply isn’t an option. While I appreciate the virtues of planning ahead, “saving for a rainy day,” and so forth, the whole idea is alien to my sense of what makes life worth living.  more

By Stuart Mitchner 

In Hillary Clinton’s What Happened (Simon and Schuster $30), published less than a year after her shocking defeat, she says of women: “We’re not the ones up there behind the podium rallying crowds…. It’s discordant to tune into a political rally and hear a woman’s voice booming (‘screaming,’ ‘screeching’) forth. Even the simple fact of a woman standing up and speaking to a crowd is relatively new.”  more

First Lady Michelle Obama tours the Mirror Room in the Italian Pavilion with Mrs. Agnese Landini at the Milan Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, June 18, 2015. Mrs. Obama led the presidential delegation to the expo, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

By Anne Levin // Photos Courtesy of Amanda Lucidon from Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer (Ten Speed Press). 

This past November, photographer Amanda Lucidon spoke at Princeton Public Library about her new book Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer. The large crowd that turned out was no surprise. Princeton is a very blue town in a blue state, and the evening promised a bit of nostalgia for those who miss the days when Barack and Michelle Obama, Malia, Sasha, and their dogs were in the White House. more

By Stuart Mitchner 

Summer camps in literature are not easy to track down. One that comes immediately to mind is J.D. Salinger’s Camp Hapworth, from which 7-year-old Seymour Glass pens the longest summer camp letter ever written. The last work by Salinger released for public consumption, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which runs between pages 32-113 in the June 19, 1965 New Yorker, offers a unique — which is to say Salingeresque — view of camp life at Hapworth Lake in Maine. Then there’s Humbert Humbert’s favorite camper, Dolores Haze. Readers of Vladimir Nabokov’s landmark 1955 novel Lolita and viewers of the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film may recall Lo’s eventful stay at all-girl Camp Q in the Adirondacks, where she is deflowered by the camp mistress’s son Charlie, the only male on the scene.   more

By Stuart Mitchner

Among the holiday season’s crop of new books, most of which are immense, amply-illustrated volumes destined for display, some of this year’s stand-outs feature interesting women, whether photographers like Mary Caperton Morton (Aerial Geology), painters (Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900), or women of the Old West like Calamity Jane (The Calamitous Life of Martha Jane Cannary), or superstars like Wonder Woman (The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen) and culinary legend Alice Waters, whose modest-sized, compulsively readable best-selling memoir is more suited to bedside than coffee tables. more