The alleged demise of book publishing frequently touted by digital sources has yet to catch up with reality. The proof is in the printing — or more to the point the number of books that appeared at the office over the past year. And what better time to provide a review of books than December — when a book could be the perfect thing to close the book on holiday gift shopping. Yet there is something else to consider: the following are either by a regional writer or dealing with a regional subject, making the act of creating an ongoing gift to all of us.
The Lost Landscape is the latest by one of America’s most prodigious writers — roughly 40 novels, 19 volumes of poetry, 35 books of short stories, 20 plays, dozens of criticism, and still writing — Joyce Carol Oates, who lives in Hopewell and teaches at Princeton University. Subtitled “A Writer’s Coming of Age,” the 254-page book seems a companion piece to Oates’ 2003 book, “The Faith of a Writer,” with both works sharing a common “chapter”: “District School #7, Niagara County, New York “ — the “magical” one-room schoolhouse where the writer discovered her loves: school, learning, and writing.
Yet, as Oates warns early on, the book is not a memoir of a life that began in 1938 but “an accounting of the ways in which my life was shaped” and a landscape from which “much of the materials of my writing life have spring but also the very wish to write.” It is the recollection of an “articulate, verbal child for whom language was both a means of communication and a scrim behind which I might hide, unseen.”
Her approach is both conversational and literary — with chapters or sections opening with statements that could easily start a short story or a play: “Why would you do such a thing? That is not a good idea.” And in the middle of her account of becoming engaged to the man who would be her husband of 48 years, Raymond Smith, and her bouts with tachycardia (an abnormally fast heartbeat), she inserts the intriguing statement, “Insomnia allows you to see clearly — like seeing things when you aren’t present, or after you have died.” The effect allows the writer to both communicate the moments of a writer’s life as well as slip unseen into our thoughts to make her story part of our own.
The Lost Landscape, $27.99, Ecco, an imprint of Harpers Collins.
Surprise Encounters is another memoir by another Princeton-area presence, Scott McVay. The 554-page book provides the recollections of a “lucky guy” who celebrates his fortune in marriage — to Helena in 1958 — and engaging work: Army intelligence in Berlin, dolphin studies with John Lilly, assistant to Princeton University President Robert F. Goheen, executive director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, president of the Chautauqua Institution, and more.
He also celebrates his love of whales and poetry, reflected in the creation of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival (the largest of its kind in the United States) and the Helena and Scott McVay Poetry Walk at the D&R Greenway in Princeton.
McVay, 83, combines his English and literature major background early with a quote from Boccaccio’s 1353 “The Decameron”: “I shall narrate a hundred stories or fables or parables or histories or whatever you choose to call them” to provide the organization of his recollections and observations that range from family history — his grandfather’s nose — to leadership and the value of art.
They’re all arranged in thematic or suggestive sections and somewhat bookended by Walt Whitman’s “As for me I know nothing but miracles” and Lucretius’ recommendation that humans conquer their fears and “accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.” Or as McVay says at the end of his amazed reflection of a life, “I only know that at this stage of life it is fun to put down selected recollections in the hope that they might be of interest to others.”
Surprise Encounters, $35, Wild River Press.
The Long Way Home is Hopewell writer Janet Purcell’s second of three interconnected novels — the 2008 “Singer Lane” and the upcoming “Rooster Street.” The mystery involves an arts journalist, a stranger who arrives at night, and the nearly lost history of a house in Cape Cod.
Yet the book draws heavily on Purcell’s own background: She is a well known and frequently exhibiting visual artist (whose work can be seen on the book’s cover). But more importantly, she is the longtime arts columnist for the Times of Trenton, and, although she is a Trenton native and firmly rooted in the region, she lives a portion of the year on Cape Cod. While she writes that the book was inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s haunting painting “Christina’s World,” the real inspiration is something deep in all of us — a longing for home.
The Long Way Home, $10.99, Sunpenny Publishing Group.
Adventures Along the Jersey Shore is the latest book by the writing team of Dave Hart of Trenton and John Calu of West Trenton — authors of the 2010 “Trenton, A Novel.” This time around the duo provides a compilation of adventures, including six previously printed works that had “undergone rigorous updating and re-editing” and a new novella, “Storm Warning.”
Like the Trenton book, the New Jersey-themed stories combine fact, fiction, and the familiar. Local features include Tucker’s Island, the lost lighthouse island in Barnegat Bay; the Jersey Devil lurking in the Pinelands, the “painted rock” known to travelers along Route 539 from Trenton to Tuckerton, and “The Lost Mission of Captain Carranza,” the “Lindbergh of Mexico” whose plane crashed in the Pines in 1928; and Hurricane Sandy. Think of it as Jersey Fresh Lit.
Adventures Along the Jersey Shore, $15.95 Plexus Publishing.
November Night Tales is a reprint of Henry Chapman Mercer’s 1928 book of the same name. Mercer, who lived from 1856 to 1930, was a Doylestown, Pennsylvania, archaeologist, anthropologist, ceramist, scholar, and antiquarian. He built three buildings that still have his collections on view: Fonthill Castle, Moravian Pottery and Tile Work, and Mercer Museum.
The seven short stories are, as Mercer Museum vice president Cory Armsler writes in the book’s introduction, “set in a world of the fantastic, the mysterious, the horrific, and the magical. In his writing, Mercer found inspiration in the romantic, Gothic fiction of the 19th century. Authors like Poe, Shelley, Stoker, and Canon Doyle were his muses.”
Yet fans of supernatural tale spinning will sense the influence of masters M.R. James and Sheridan Le Fenu whose clarity, scholarly reference, and everyday-sense create a satisfying eerie plausibility.
November Night Tales, $16. 99, Valancourt Books.
Mercer Magic by Princeton historian and researcher Clifford Zink commemorates something real and alluring: cars created by the Mercer Automobile Company in Trenton. The company started in 1909 with the financial blessing of two influential and well-known regional families: the Roeblings and the Kusers.
As Zink writes, “Mercer manufactured 5,000 to 6,000 cars in 15 years, including some 1,000 to 1,500 Raceabouts. About 142 Mercers are extant in private and museum collections. All cherished by their owners as extraordinary examples of early American automobile design and manufacturing.”
The 200-page coffee table book is a balance between documentation — overviews of years, first-person testimonies, and several pages of racing records — and illustrations — historic and contemporary photos, advertisements, and company catalog pages and specification sheets.
Mercer Magic, $60, published by the Roebling Museum, Roebling, New Jersey.
A Small City’s Culture, a Worldly Future: How IBM Began is Lawrenceville-based writing team Marcia and Harvey Steinberg’s 86-page monograph on the powerhouse company’s humble beginnings in Binghamton, New York. The couple has their own powerhouse background — she has a doctorate from City University in New York and he a juris doctorate from Brooklyn Law School. Their byline appears frequently in newspapers and publications, including Mercer Business.
This small work, they write, was born when their curiosity was sparked by an encounter with a late 1800s time clock, a once-new device designed to monitor worker punctuality but now a common workday experience. That interest led to the Bundy Time Recorder and two brothers struggling to succeed in business in the lower New York State.
While the narrative is about the early history of a company in a different state, the writers say it is a glimpse of the early days of American and Trenton manufacturing.
A Small City’s Culture, a Worldly Future: How IBM Began, $20. Self-published. To order E-mail email@example.com.
Math Geek is Princeton resident Raphael Rosen’s “guide to the nerdiest math facts,” 100 of them to be exact. “I hope to show you that mathematics is not just a series of rote exercises performed in a classroom,” Rosen notes in his introduction, but “something built into the fabric of reality: a collection of shapes, patterns, numbers, arguments, and . . . the air you breathe, the sidewalks you walk on, and the buses you take to work.”
Divided into four sections of shapes, behavior, patterns, and special numbers, the book is an invitation to take a break and go “hmm.” For example, for fact number 29, “Packaging M&Ms,” the reader is told “a link to 17th century mathematics might be no farther than the candy aisle at the nearest grocery store.” Then we meet Johannes Kepler — of planetary motion fame — and his musings about how to best fill a jar with spheres or saucer-like M&Ms.
Rosen says he caught “the science writing bug” while working at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum that conveyed information in a simple and direct manner. It was something that obviously counted for the journalist who has written for the Wall Street Journal, EARTH Magazine, Discover, Scientific America, and Princeton Plasma Physics, and who wants to give readers the opportunity to see the world anew — and share some tidbits on that bus to work.
Math Geek, $15.99, Adams Media.
The Pork Roll Cookbook is by former Times of Trenton writer Jenna Pizzi and current restaurant reporter Susan Sprague Yeske (who supplied the recipes). It’s a breezy book chronicling the history of a New Jersey delicacy born in 1856 “when the Taylor Provision Company set up shop in Trenton. John Taylor formed the company and started churning out the cured port treat. He called it Taylor Ham.”
Taylor — also a senator — was Trenton’s pork roll king until 1909 when Case’s Pork Roll set up shop and became a rival. The winner is the pork roll lover who gets to savor the book’s 50 recipes, including pork roll and cheese crepes, stuffed French toast, and Trenton-style spaghetti a la carbonara, contributed by Randy Forrester, chef at Brothers Moon Restaurant in Hopewell.
The Pork Roll Cookbook, $16.95, Cinder Mill Press.
The Thousand Dollar Dinner is Yardley, Pennsylvania, writer Becky Libourel Diamond’s savory account of “America’s First Great Cookery Challenge.” The book’s focus is an 1851 gastronomical contest between two groups of 15 “good-livers” — wealthy men in New York and in Philadelphia who “spent one day in every year and all their spare cash in trying to rival each other’s banquets.”
When the one-upmanship grew more serious, two titans of the table were recruited to dole it out: Lorenzo Delmonico, the New Yorker who presided over one of the finest restaurants in the nation, and Philadelphia restaurateur James Parkinson, who was told not to worry about cost.
Since the results are known — the New Yorkers stood and applauded chef Parkinson’s meal midway into their 12-hour dinner — the book’s main entree is a chapter-by-chapter description and historic overview of each of the 17 courses, making the book a fun history of food and culture.
It also reflects Diamond’s forte as a journalist and researcher who recreates 18th and 19th century American recipes and the book her earlier book, “Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School”
The Thousand Dollar Dinner, $26, Westholme Publishing. Diamond speaks at Princeton Public Library, Thursday, January 7, 7 p.m.
New Jersey Artists through Time is Middletown, New Jersey, artist Tova Navarra’s 96-page historic survey of visual artists linked to the Garden State. The first book of its kind since the 1964 “Painting and Sculpture in New Jersey,” this book — admittedly hampered by a budget and space — used the 350th anniversary of New Jersey to build on that earlier publication and continue to document New Jersey artists, past and current.
The book mainly includes artists whose images Navarra could obtain from the artist or museums — which sometimes charge high prices for reproductions. Consequently those without images are simply listed on the last page. Instead of arranging them in alphabetical order, Navarra lists artists by their year of birth.
And early on the publication hits an interesting note: one of the first New Jersey artists is Patience Lovell Wright (1725-1786), who lived and sculpted wax figures in Bordentown before moving to London, where she was accused of being a spy (and storing messages in wax figures).
Other represented state artists with connection to this region include Judith Brodsky, Mel Leipzig, Harry Naar, Marie Sturken, and Seward Johnson, as well as the late artists Michael Graves, George Segal, Ben Shahn, and Bernarda Bryson Shahn. The effort is a tall order, and as Navarra says, quoting one her idols, the New Jersey-born photographer Dorothea Lange, the book was a “grab at a hunk of lightening.”
New Jersey Artists Through Time, $22.99, Fonthill Media.
Cezanne and the Modern is the Princeton University Art Museum publication commemorating an exhibition of masterpieces of European art from the Pearlman Collection, on view through Sunday, January 3
“The art collection assembled by Henry and Rose Pearlman comprises over 70 master-works of impressionist and post-impressionist art, making it one of the most distinguished private collections of early modern art in the United States,” writes PUAM director James Steward of the collection — on long term loan to the museum since the mid 1970s.
Although Cezanne appears in the title and is well represented in the collection and publication (with an essay devoted to the artist’s watercolors), the book also devotes chapters to 14 other notable artists, including Manet, Van Gogh, Modligliani, and Oskar Kokoschka, whose portrait of Pearlman is discussed. The comments of 15 curators and scholars will appeal to both professionals and interested lay person and reflect the spirit of collector Henry Pearlman — the founder of Eastern Cold Storage Company in New York City.
“The son of immigrants, and with only a high school education, Henry Pearlman never set out to collect, nor was he born into it. Rather, as he observed on several occasions, collecting found him,” notes one of the authors about the man who loved paintings.
And one of the attractions of the book is its inclusion of Pearlman’s voice and thoughts: “One day in 1943 while passing the American Art Auction galleries in New York, I saw a very colorful painting by Chaim Soutine, titled ‘Village Square,’ in blue, yellow, and gold colors slashed on as if by a towel. When this painting came up for sale, I was the high bidder . . . when I came home in the evenings and saw it I would get a lift, similar to the experienced of listening to a symphony orchestration of a piece well known and liked. This first pleasant experience with a modern painting started me on a road of adventure that has been both exhilarating and satisfying. I haven’t spent a boring evening since that first purchase.”
While the current exhibition is one of the rare occasions the entire collection is on view, the publication helps keep the collection on view and the collector in our minds.
Cezanne and the Modern, $65, Princeton University Art Museum.
Creating Worlds is Trenton-based artist Charles Smith’s 30-page artist’s book (with 25 images). The title is apt. Smith is an “outsider” artist who creates intricately designed, often brightly colored machines that hover in space and boldly cross earth-like spheres.
“I do space pictures. At first, I did cities. Then I caught on to the space ideas. I made space ships. I draw robots that look out-of-this-world and cars that could be on the moon,” says the 64-year-old artist about his work in one of the few notes in the book.
Smith is a member of the A-Team, a nonprofit community of mainly self-taught artists meeting at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen since 2001 and attracting the attention of exhibitors in the region. The group regularly exhibits at the Princeton Historical Society’s Updike Farm and at the Outsider Gallery in Frenchtown.
Smith’s work also has been attracting the attention of collectors and members of the arts community, including an anonymous New York City-based artist who contributed money for this limited run publication produced by the A-Team. “My art came to me in 1970. Why it did — that’s the part I can’t figure out. It just popped up,” says Smith.
Creating Worlds, $20, Trenton Community A-Team, order at www.trentoncommunityateam.org.
The Peck Shahnama, another Princeton University Art Museum publication, takes part of its name from Princeton University’s “Great Book of Kings” (or Shahnama in Persian). Another part comes from Clara Sargent Peck, who donated a late 16th century manuscript to the university in 1883.
No matter the name the 208-page volume created for an exhibition that continues through Sunday, January 24, is a testament to its royal subject and a handsome combination of history, narrative, and art.
The epic narrative — containing approximately 60,000 verses composed over 1,000 years ago by the Persian poet Abu’l-Qaism Firdausi (935-1020) — tells the story of Iran and its peoples from the dawn of time until the arrival of Arab Muslims in the mid-7th Century A.D.
As scholar and curator Marianna Shreve Simpson writes in the book, Firdausi’s work “has been a vital source or artistic inspiration in Iran and other Persianate cultures for centuries; hundreds, if not thousands, of illustrated copies of the poem survive today in collections worldwide. (They) allow us to trace the history of Persian miniature painting as it developed during the 14th through 16th centuries.”
Museum director James Steward notes the Peck manuscript with its 48 paintings “is a particularly sumptuous example of the Persian arts of the book — painting, decoration, and calligraphy.”
The intricacies of Persian culture and artistry are carefully examined in the early part of the book, giving way to the main portion of the publication where the reader finds full pages with the luminous and elegantly designed illustrations accompanied by a page of narrative and commentary on the illustration to bring the story to eye’s mind. Yet the power of the book is in the images — an interwoven combination of figurative, geometric, and abstract designs. They’re both an eyeful and a mindful.
The Peck Shahnama, $50, Princeton University Art Museum.
Frank Stella: A Retrospective is the 128-page companion piece to the artist’s exhibition at the new Whitney Museum of Art, currently on view through Sunday, February 7. The first retrospective of an artist in the Whitney’s new building in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, the exhibition and book connect to this region: Stella developed his innovative approach to abstract art when he attended Princeton University in the 1950s.
According to Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg’s introduction, Stella chose to attend Princeton because of its proximity to the 1950s New York City art world. While the university did not have a painting major at the time, Stella, a medieval history major, took advantage of the new artist in residence program and newly introduced painting courses that landed him the center of cultural debates involving abstract art and tradition. He also forged friendships with other young artists who embraced new ideas and supported one another at Princeton and in New York.
Notes Weinberg: “Stella’s senior thesis, written for the department of history on the hefty topic of ‘Art in Western Christendom’ . .. has often been cited in relationship to the development of his own art, particularly as it evolved in the 1970s. In this text, he makes a case for the development of ‘aesthetic thinking or feeling,’ embracing an individualistic, self-directed perspective that, in effect, elevates the best illumination from mere decoration to the level of art. This was significant for the artist in his reconsideration of illusionistic space, a space he believed Pollock had reinvented, and a space he sought to push to the limits in his own art.”
The introduction is the pathway to other two essays: Modern Art Museum of Houston’s chief curator Michael Auping’s “The Phenomenology of Frank / “Materiality and Gesture Make Space,” which includes an exploration of Stella’s use of geometry and color, and American artist Jordon Kantor’s “Frank Painting / Some Aspects of Stella’s Work,” touching on the artist’s refusal to conform to “a goal-driven, teleological narrative of development” and his urge “to create novel pictorial spaces through abstraction.”
Also included are Stella’s lecture at the Pratt Institute, an interview with painter Laura Owens, and a chronology that spans the vigorous career of an artist who said at Pratt, “There are two problems in painting. One is to find out what painting is and the other is to find out how to make a painting.” The copious number of paintings — a fraction of the thousands Stella has created since the 1950s — show how one artist solved that problem.
Frank Stella: A Retrospective, $65, Yale University Press in association with the Whitney Museum of Art.