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By Stuart Mitchner

Rostov … looked at the snowflakes dancing above the fire and remembered the Russian winter with a warm, bright house, a fluffy fur coat, swift sleighs, a healthy body, and all the love and care of a family.

—Leo Tolstoy, from War and Peace

I’ve never been to Russia in winter or spring or any other season. But I’ve been there all year round as a reader ever since the St. Petersburg summer I spent in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The following spring, I spent my first Russian winter reading The Brothers Karamazov in the Modern Library Giant edition. When you approach the world of Dostoevsky at the tender age of 19, the prospect is more inviting wrapped in an image of striking storybook simplicity: deep blue sky, snow tipped onion-domed towers above a white snowscape pure and clear against the black of a horse-drawn sleigh. So began a sophomore binge that carried me from Karamazov to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. My fate was sealed. I would graduate as an English major with a minor in Slavic studies.

Everything in a Flower

“A flower fell on the snow and he rushed to pick it up as though everything in the world depended on the loss of that flower.” The “everything in the world depended on it” essence of Dostoevsky is in that sentence, which comes toward the end of “Ilusha’s Funeral,” the last chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. The chaotic life and death intensity of the passage is driven by Ilusha’s crazed father running alongside the coffin, “fussing and distracted,” rushing to pick up the small white flower, as if his dead son’s flower and all the flowers in the world were one.

Gogol’s Overcoat

In “The Overcoat,” from Nicolai V. Gogol’s Tales of Good and Evil (Doubleday Anchor), the St. Petersburg climate is “a great enemy,” along with the “northern frost” that targets “the noses of Civil Servants” and makes “the foreheads of even those who occupy the highest positions ache with frost, and tears start to their eyes.” Gogol pictures the “poor titular councillors … running as fast as they can in their thin, threadbare overcoats through five or six streets and then stamping their feet vigorously in the vestibule, until they succeed in unfreezing their faculties and abilities.” The overcoat of the title belongs to Akaky Akakyevich, who finds on thoroughly examining it at home that “the cloth had worn out so much that it let through the wind, and the lining had all gone to pieces.” more

A book authored by local historian Harold James has been named to the Financial Times’ Best Books of 2021: Politics List.

The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalization, published by Yale University Press, reveals the origins of key buzzwords and concepts used in contemporary political debate such as “neoliberalism,” “geopolitics,” and “globalization,” while highlighting communication challenges associated with their misuse. more

Part of the Althea Ward Clark W’21 Reading Series at Princeton

Students enrolled in fall creative writing courses in the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Creative Writing at Princeton University will read from their new works of fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and literary translation on Tuesday, December 7 at 5 p.m. in the Chancellor Green Rotunda on the Princeton campus as part of the Program’s Althea Ward Clark W’21 Reading Series. The reading is the culmination of students’ work in the Program in Creative Writing’s fall creative writing workshops.  more

Labyrinth Books in Princeton will host a hybrid, livestream event with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon on Wednesday, December 1 at 6 p.m. Muldoon will introduce his 14th collection of poetry, entitled Howdie-Skelp: Poems. He will be joined by fellow poet Michael Dickman.

A ‘howdie-skelp’ is the slap in the face a midwife gives a newborn. It’s a wake-up call. A call to action. The poems in Howdie-Skelp include a nightmarish remake of The Waste Land, an elegy for his fellow Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson, a crown of sonnets that responds to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a translation from the ninth-century Irish, and a Yeatsian sequence of ekphrastic poems that call into question the very idea of an ‘affront’ to good taste. Muldoon is a poet who continues not only to capture but to hold our attention. more

Princeton Public Library invites book lovers to connect and enjoy community at the Beyond Words 2021 events. The virtual talks for November and December will conversations with journalist and novelist Omar El  Akkad on November 12 at 7 p.m. and novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz on December 3 at 7 p.m. The cost to attend is $60 per participant, per event. 

El Akkad is the author of the recently-released What Strange Paradise, which has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for excellence in Canadian fiction. He is also the author of the award-winning 2017 novel American War. He will be joined in conversation by Professor Deborah Amos, the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, an NPR international correspondent, and recipient of a 2021-22 Berlin Prize Fellowship.  more

By Stuart Mitchner

I still have the bound volume containing the first 20 issues of Classic Comics my parents gave me on my 7th birthday. Along with vivid graphic renditions of the likes of Moby-Dick and Gulliver’s Travels, I found poetry, everything from “Ojibwa War Songs” to Emily Dickinson’s “Railway Train,” pictured in the style of  “The Little Engine That Could.” I also found Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” where “each sings what belongs to him or her and to none else,” and Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” which told me the world “which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams” has “neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”

I doubt if Arnold’s message got through to me at 7 (what’s “certitude”?), but when I was moved by the poem years later in college, the feeling that I’d been there before deepened the experience. Poetry seemed to be a primal element, as much a part of life as the air we breathe. I felt it again at the same age during the singing of Christmas carols, breathing in the beauty of “Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by” in “Little Town of Bethlehem.” Ten years later, when I discovered Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” there was a chill of recognition as I read “And little town thy streets for evermore / Will silent be.” I’d been there before, long ago, in another little town.

Issues of the Day

In this pandemic-haunted year, a number of new poetry books for children reflect issues ranging from slavery to social justice to environmental awareness.

One of the most appealing expressions of a time of loss, loneliness, and togetherness is Patrick Guest’s Windows (Starry Forest 2020), illustrated by Jonathan Bentley. Guest wrote the rhymed story at a time when he was forced to isolate from his family as a medical worker. The book begins: “Out the window, I can see a new world looking back at me. The streets are still, there are no crowds … but looking up, I see the clouds.”

A physiotherapist by day and a children’s book author by night, Guest lives in Melbourne, Australia. An award-winning illustrator of over 30 children’s books and the author and illustrator of four of his own, Bentley grew up in West Yorkshire, England. more

On August 16, from 7 to 8 p.m., Princeton Public Library presents a virtual Poets at the Library featuring readers Catherine Doty and John David Muth. Each reader will share their work for 20 minutes followed by an open mic session. Poets who sign-up in advance may share one poem during open mic. To sign-up via crowdcast to attend this virtual event, or to reserve a spot during open mic, visit https://princetonlibrary.libnet.info/event/5414024. 

Doty is a poet, cartoonist, and educator from Paterson. She is the author of Wonderama and Momentum, volumes of poems from CavanKerry Press and Just Kidding, a collection of cartoons from Avocet Press. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as an Academy of American Poets Prize and fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.  more

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m beginning the summer Book Scene in the spirit of the old Billie Holiday song, “Back In Your Own Backyard,” where “the bird with feathers of blue is waiting for you.” The traffic at our community of bird feeders kept us smiling during the long haul of the work from home mandate, providing a cheerful, melodious alternative to “sheltering in place.” It helped to imagine the chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and goldfinches as a microcosm of pre-pandemic society where the only masks were worn by the cardinals, with comic relief coming from the acrobatics of squirrels; even the mob scenes made by starlings and grackles were welcome signs of life.

Taking the architectural/design theme to the backyard, I see a miniature Swiss chalet favored by the goldfinches, a rustic green bungalow for the cardinals, and a suet feeder with a rust-red roof favored by the woodpeckers, and, on either end, two elegant Edwardian towers, the larger of which reminds me of Norman Foster’s London Gherkin. After checking out the possibilities in birdland, I found The Bird House Book: How To Build Fanciful Bird Houses and Feeders from the Purely Practical to the Absolutely Outrageous by Bruce Woods and David Schoonmaker; Paul Meisel’s Wild & Wacky Bird Houses and Feeders: 18 Creative and Colorful Projects That Add Fun to Your Backyard, in paperback from Fox Chapel Publishing; and 23,000 Bird Feeders: A Common Sense Guide for Crafting Success by Connie M. Thompson, which describes how the author and her husband Pat sold 23,000 of their hand-painted bird feeders at craft shows and art fairs for over 20 years, “as well as thousands of bat houses, squirrel feeders, snow gauges, walking sticks, and butterfly houses.” more

Princeton Public Library (PPL) presents an evening of historical fiction featuring two bestselling authors discussing their latest novels, one set in Poland during WWII and the other in prewar Italy. This is a virtual event hosted by the platform Crowdcast. The authors will be speaking from 8 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 8.

To register, visit https://princetonlibrary.libnet.info/event/5300423. This program is free to attend and is best suited for teens and adults.  more

By Stuart Mitchner

Summer reading generally signifies something light rather than, say, a novel with literary heft, a page turner with a purpose. Even at the best of times, with the pandemic in remission, you don’t take Proust or Darwin to the beach. Summer is more suited to short stories and comics that make easy reading. The Gotham Archives, for example, has a great reading list for those interested in the DC universe, whilst your local bookshop will have an excellent selection of short reads you can flit through as you relax in the summer sun.

However, I know of a seriously literary novel that feeds your mind even as it cools and refreshes you, plus it comes passionately recommended by one of the great American critics. R.P. Blackmur (1904-1965) was 17, working in a bookshop and attending lectures at Harvard without ever enrolling as a student, when he was advised to “read something by Henry James.” So he went to the Cambridge Public Library, where he found the book that introduced him to the “ecstasy of reading”:

“The day was hot and muggy, so that from the card catalogue I selected as the most cooling title The Wings of the Dove, and on the following morning, a Sunday, even hotter and muggier, I began, and by the stifling midnight had finished my first elated reading of the novel …. The beauty of the book bore me up; I was both cool and waking; excited and effortless; nothing was any longer worthwhile and everything had become necessary. A little later, there came outside the patter and the cooling of a shower of rain and I was able to go to sleep, both confident and desperate in the force of art.”

Reading Against the Wind

One book I actually tried to read at the beach is Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. I was in Mykonos with friends, and we were sharing various paperback reprints of the novels in The Alexandria Quartet. I say “tried to read” because the sun was hot and dry, and the wind was blowing. The Dell paperback was gritty with sand and had to be held tight or else the Aegean gusts would have blown it away. There was a bonus of sorts in knowing that the author himself would be sitting a table or two away from us at the same waterfront cafe that evening. Durrell’s rich, lush, sexy prose was the essence of Greek island summer weather, the narrator writing of “a sky of hot nude pearl in mid-day” even in winter as he muses on “the lime-laden dust” of summer afternoons in Alexandria. more

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