Central New Jersey writers have been busy over the past year telling tales and bringing history to life.
Here’s an overview of just some of the publications that have arrived at the office and could enhance a personal library — or be a perfect last-minute holiday gift.
If These Stones Could Talk
If These Stones Could Talk is regional historians Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills’ documentation of a hidden history that could have easily been lost to time. Subtitled “African American Presence in the Hopewell Valley, Sourland Mountains and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey,” the book’s title alludes to the headstones in one particular African American cemetery, the Stoutsburg Cemetery in Hopewell. As the writers explain, “The land on which the cemetery is located was purchased by African Americans in the mid-19th century to bury people of color with honor and dignity. On this journey, however, we will be referring to all of the above mentioned cemeteries in the region, which are interconnected and have their own stories to tell.”
The stories are both personal — with the writers sharing their stories of their own lives — and communal. Mixing archival records and interviews, the authors also strive to correct an historic omission: that slavery existed in the northern states and in New Jersey.
But the point is more than that. As Mills writes, “Our story is being told to educate people. It is not an indictment of past sins. We welcome people of all backgrounds to celebrate as well as learn with us as we open the window to our past — indeed to an important aspect of our nation’s intermingled and multicultural past — as we share the back story of the African-American contributions to the society and economy of the Sourland Mountain region and surrounding areas.”
The 345-page book with several surprises — the film “Casablanca’s” piano playing Dooley Wilson lived in Pennington! — has the power to touch many people in the region. It also has the power to make people agree with the title of one of the final chapters: “African American History is American History.”
Published by Lambertville-based Wild River Press. $29.95.
Sourland Region Hiking Atlas
Sourland Region Hiking Atlas puts the Sourland region on the map and into the hands of hikers. The 54-page spiral book features 24 maps and a handy “Hike Site” that lets readers plan easy outings ranging in distance from the 1-mile trail at Skyview Preserve in Hopewell Township to the 14-mile Ridge Preserves trail ambling through East Amwell and Hopewell townships.
Each map is accompanied by text previewing what hikers will encounter and providing information regarding property administration, GPS coordinates, and where to park.
The guide was created by past conservancy board member and global information specialist Kevin Burkman and published by the nonprofit Sourland Conservancy — created to protect, promote, and preserve the 90-square-mile region of forest shared by Mercer, Hunterdon, and Somerset counties. Bristol Myers-Squibb and Capitol Copy Service supported the project.
Online at www.tiny.cc/SupportSC or at the Sourland Conservancy office, 82 Princeton Avenue, Hopewell. $18.
The TVs of Tomorrow
The TVs of Tomorrow is a regional guide of another sort: the innovations taking place at the Sarnoff Research Center (now SRI) on Route 1. Subtitled “How RCA’s Flat-Screen Dreams Led to the First LCDs,” the book by Benjamin Gross leads readers into the Sarnoff Center’s glory days of postwar electronic innovation and the creation of technologies that continue to define contemporary life.
As Gross notes, “The scientific effort that led to the first LCDs was a triumph, capturing attention from both the popular and scientific press and launching an entirely new sector of the electronics industry.”
Rather than put the spotlight solely on a star like David Sarnoff, Gross lets the lesser-known team members shine, providing a “sustained focus on the chemists, physicists, electrical engineers, and technicians responsible for flat panel television research at RCA.”
After all, writes Gross, “For as much as high-ranking executives like Sarnoff or James Hillier cast themselves as authorities when it came to the future of electronics, they depended on the expertise of company scientists and engineers to evaluate new technologies.”
Gross knows his stuff. He immersed himself in the Sarnoff archives while working on his 2010 Princeton University dissertation and later served as the curator for the Sarnoff Collection exhibition at the College of New Jersey.
And while the subject is certainly not popular fare, this generally lively and informative 288-page book will appeal to history buffs and those interested in finding out what was happening in those buildings on Route 1.
University of Chicago Press. $40.
The Jersey Shore: The Past, Present & Future of a National Treasure
The Jersey Shore: The Past, Present & Future of a National Treasure is Dominick Mazzagetti’s personal tour of the state’s playground. The author is also the former law secretary to the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and acting commissioner of banking.
The opening line of the 352-page book says it all: “I come to the subject of the Jersey Shore with a personal bias. For the millions of us who grew up in New Jersey, the Jersey Shore has a pervasive hold. We may not remember the first time we were dipped in the ocean by our parents, but the Jersey Shore has become part of who we are.”
With an eye on history, it also describes who “we” were, starting with the Native Americans and the various European colonizers and their practices: whaling, pirating, smuggling, and so on.
Subsequent chapters deal with the rise of resorts, the creation of railroads, the establishment of religious retreat centers, shipwrecks, and thoughts regarding the shore’s future.
It’s a lively and fact-filled book to dip into and come out wet with history. For example, we learn “the town of Bay Head was founded by a group of Princeton bankers and remains one of the most exclusive spots along the Jersey Shore” and salt water taffy was taffy left out in 1883, washed over by higher than usual nighttime waves, and then sold as a novelty in Atlantic City. And that image on the cover? It’s Winslow Homer’s “Long Branch, New Jersey, 1869.”
Rutgers University Press, $29.95.
Standing on Principles: Lessons Learned in Public Life
Standing on Principles: Lessons Learned in Public Life is Jim Florio’s autobiographical account of his path from Brooklyn kid to New Jersey governor.
Inheriting the drive of his Italian father, a “rough around the edges” Brooklyn shipyard painter, and the love of books from a serious-minded Irish mother, Florio, 81, says he is not what you would call a natural politician. “I had to work very hard to develop the accepted practices — the hand shaking, the backslapping, the baby kissing — of retail politics.”
More to his nature, he was a boxer, high school dropout, sailor, and a Trenton State College student — where, he says, his eyes were opened to new ideas and concepts.
Written mainly by talking into a recorder, the book hits and maintains a personal tone that bursts alive when he talks about coming to Camden to study law at Rutgers and getting into Camden County politics. That includes Camden Mayor Alfred Pierce sending a ward leader to show the future political leader around: “We would drive around the city and meet for coffee with guys who were known by names like ‘Chester the Squirrel’ and ‘Charlie Debaunch,’ characters straight out of a Damon Runyon story.”
Those characters would help Florio become a New Jersey State Assemblyman and then a member of the United States House of Representative, where he would champion the Superfund law regarding toxic cleanups.
He also ran for New Jersey governor three times, setting two historic records: losing to Tom Kean with the smallest margin and later as an incumbent losing by the second smallest margin to Christie Todd Whitman.
It is Florio’s reflection on elections and winning and losing where the book shows its true value — especially to those interested in running for office: “You cannot run a retail campaign statewide. What I gleaned from Tom Kean’s success is that a statewide election is thematic. You’ve got to develop a theme and an image that people associate with you, as opposed to trying to touch people one by one. You have to develop a persona to which people can relate.”
Then there are thoughts regarding staying in office: “My record of cutting the state payroll by 10,000 jobs, which probably won me some votes around the state, cost me dearly in the place where most state employees live: Mercer County.”
Also hurting him, he writes, was that the “election really did come down to two issues: guns and taxes.” Citing his desire to be fiscally responsible and increase state taxes, he feels vindicated and points out a Bergen Record editorial that called him “a politician with backbone. As a result of his hard work and political courage, he leaves the state in better shape than he found it” (and the reality is that the Whitman administration began the crippling practice of borrowing from the state pension fund).
Florio exposes his backbone again in the final chapter “The Issues I Still Care About.” They include climate change, gun control, water and transportation infrastructure, education, and curbing the power of special interest groups. That he does it by asking to look for new solutions and accept change is something that can make one sit up and maybe even stand on something.
Rutgers University Press, $24.95.
The Patch is the latest book from Princeton-based writer John McPhee. Divided into two sections, the 256-page book’s first section allows the celebrated 87-year-old non-fiction writer to examine “The Sporting Scene.” That’s where the first idea for the title is touched on: a “patch” of water related to a fishing experience. This section also allows McPhee to construct “patches” of writing that shift from objective information to personal revelation. And the patch is also an apt reference to his hometown, Princeton, where he has reeled in stories for the New Yorker and his 33 books.
A patch is also something reflected in the second section, “An Album Quilt,” made of patches of material. Here, McPhee does something unexpected and, as he writes, “Looked through pieces written for both public and private occasions through the years, and selected a passage here and there … I sifted about 250,000 words and got rid of 75 percent. I didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything. Instead, I was looking for blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions. Or changed tenses — trying to make something, not just preserve it, and hoping the result would be engaging to read.”
The result is an arrangement of quick reads — from a single paragraph to several pages. With topics ranging from his first drink of whiskey (at 10) to American author Thomas Wolf — “whose sea was the land of his birth” — the works are linked by energy, tone, and wryness.
And if one is engaged by McPhee’s description of a professional writer as a “person clothed in self-denial” who would leave “the idle crowd, go into this writing sanctum, shut the door, shoot the bolt, and in the lonely sacrifice turn on the Mets game,” then “The Patch” scores.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26.
The Last Utopians: Four Late 19th Century Visionaries and Their Legacy
The Last Utopians: Four Late 19th Century Visionaries and Their Legacy by Michael Robertson takes readers to “an extraordinary period of utopian writing and social experimentation” in both the United States and Great Britain.
The focus is on four influential writers: Boston’s Edward Bellamy whose “Looking Backward 2000-1887” was hailed as reaction against industrial capitalism; British artist William Morris’ vision of a postindustrial future where artisans produced works of beauty; Edward Carpenter, a “British Thoreau” whose ideas of “homogentic love” and “intermediate sex” would usher in a more egalitarian future; and American Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her novel “Herland,” a society “Populated by women who reproduce by parthenogenesis, bearing only daughters.”
A professor of English at the College of New Jersey, Robertson knows the territory and keeps the trip interesting and lively, bookending the material in an engaging way. In the first chapter he provides a brief history of “Utopia,” with Sir (and Saint) Thomas More coining the name for this ideal place by using a Latin phrase for “nowhere.”
In the sixth and last chapter, “After the Last Utopians,” Robertson looks at how the utopian vision still influences thinking and imagination. That includes downtown Trenton and Robertson’s encounter with the Sage Coalition arts group’s effort to renovate East Hanover Street by building gardens. There Will Kasso Condry expresses the spirit of Utopia by saying, “A garden is about rebirth, renewal, rejuvenation, isn’t it? I think of us as alchemists, turning crap into gold.”
Princeton University Press, $29.95.
Junctures in Women’s Leadership: The Arts
Junctures in Women’s Leadership: The Arts examines the work of 14 art leaders who are also women. Part of the Juncture in Women’s Leadership series, with other books focusing on social movements and business, this book is by two regional cultural leaders, Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin.
As the two arts leaders themselves say, “These case studies show how belief in the importance of the arts and a commitment to feminist principles of social justice (even if some of the women in our case studies may not have called themselves feminists) led women leaders to transform global culture by dedicating their lives and careers to abolishing the misconception that white men are the only worthy cultural creators and providing access to the arts for diverse audiences.”
They then provide case studies in chronological order to show “how women leaders persevered and how their concerns shifted to reflect the global social, political, and economic changes taking place during the 125 years covered by the cases studies, ranging from Bertha Honore Palmer, who was born in 1849 and whose leadership activities occurred starting in the 1890s, to Veomanee Douangdala and Joanne Smith, both born in 1976, who became cultural entrepreneurs in the early years of the 21st century.”
The book has an interesting approach. The authors create a situation and then show how each woman resolved it, allowing readers see the individuals in their social context and then seeing their choices to move forward.
Brodsky and Olin’s comment on a team of women sums up the spirit of the book: “Their success is an inspiration.”
Rutgers University Press, $24.95.
Rush by author and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism instructor Stephen Fried, tells the story of Benjamin Rush, the noted physician, writer, and Philadelphia-based a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
The son-in-law of Princeton’s Richard Stockton, Rush was in the Mercer County region for the most significant events during the Revolutionary War, especially the battles of Trenton and Princeton, where he was the physician who attended to stricken General Hugh Mercer.
Fried brings the reader directly into the fray with some surprises: “The Second Battle of Trenton was on, and Rush was having his first experience with ‘the terrible aspect of war … all was now hurry, confusion, and noise.’ The battle began and went on for several hours before the wounded started being brought to Rush for triage. The first soldier he had to treat was from New England. A cannonball had hit him directly in the forearm, and ‘his right hand hung a little above his wrist by nothing but a piece of skin.’ Rush asked (Charles Willson) Peale to help, but the artist-turned-solider said he was too drunk. He had managed to bring a quarter cask of rum with him, and when the fighting ended for the day, he offered drinks to his compatriots. He was happy to be too inebriated ‘to assist in cutting off the limbs and dressing the wounds of those unfortunate men.’”
The 598-page book is history coming alive loud and clear.
Crown Publishing, $30.
The Hidden Ally
The Hidden Ally — Princeton writer Marvin Cheiten’s novella that first appeared in the August, 2017, issue of the Princeton Echo — is now available in paperback. The fictional story takes place in Princeton during the years between the Civil War and World War II and follows thoroughly unlikable and morally bankrupt businessman Thaddeus Strong and the interwoven tales of his descendants. Cheiten notes in his online biography that he “has lived with the types of families he describes in this novel all his life.”
Lift is the leading poem in Luray Gross’ new volume of poetry, published by Ragged Sky Press in Princeton. The former New Jersey resident now living in Bucks County has strong New Jersey arts roots. She received a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship for poetry and was named a Distinguished Teaching Artist in the arts council’s artists in the schools program.
Dedicated to established Lawrenceville poets David Keller and Peter Wood — her friends and mentors — the approximately 90-page volume has five main sections giving testament to her advice about writing: “Listen: in your dreams, a world blossoms, whole phrases rise and float ready to be heard.”
Ragged Sky Press, $15.