The year 2020 will go down in the books for many things — including giving many people who were quarantined at home the opportunity to catch up with their reading.
The same was true at U.S. 1 where our “Off the Presses” column featured stories on works by area writers and publications off area presses.
Since this is a time of the year when people purchase books as gifts for others or themselves, it seemed a good time to revisit the year in books.
And let’s start with those that are all about local color.
William (Larry) Kidder’s “Revolutionary Princeton 1774 – 1783: The Biography of an American Town” recreates a place and time when the world was changing.
The retired Ewing-based history teacher and author of “A People Harassed and Exhausted: The Story of a New Jersey Militia Regiment in the American Revolution,” “Crossroads of the Revolution: Trenton 1774-1783,” and “Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Vision for Victory Unfolds” continues his personal quest to capture the region’s Revolutionary War history in words.
And his newest, at 384 pages, focuses on the uncertainties and challenges that Princeton residents experienced daily.
That includes a community dealing with divided loyalties, invasions, battles, and the creation of a new nation based on a revolutionary concept — a self-governing democracy.
Lay reader-friendly but heavily researched, the book is spiced with community details, prominent Princeton community members such as Richard Stockton and John Witherspoon, and quick appearances by such American legends as John Adams and Paul Revere.
There are also some unexpected glimpses, such as George Washington just be a human being, when the future president of the United States and former Continental Army commander who, while staying at Rockingham in Rocky Hill, takes an excursion with one of the spirits who inflamed the American Revolution, “Common Sense” writer and Bordentown resident Thomas Paine.
Kidder’s account is as follows: “During Paine’s visit, Washington suggested a scientific experiment after being told by local people that the creek running near the bottom of Rocky Hill could be set on fire. Paine learned that in the opinion of the local people ‘on disturbing the bottom of the river, some bituminous matter arose to the surface, which took fire when the light was put to it.’ However, Paine ‘supposed that a quantity of inflammable air was let loose, which ascended through the water and took fire above the surface.’ At Washington’s suggestion, a small boat was found along with several soldiers to guide it with poles. According to Paine, ‘General Washington placed himself at one end of the scow and I at the other. Each of us had a roll of cartridge paper, which we lighted and held over the water about two or three inches from the surface when the soldiers began disturbing the bottom of the river with the poles.’ This caused air bubbles to rise fast, ‘and I saw the fire take from General Washington’s light and descend from thence to the surface of the water.’ This provided evidence that the river was set on fire by inflammable air rising out of the mud.”
At the end of the book, Kidder reveals its heart and his own by reminding us about the importance of history: “In many ways, they were like us today, and understanding their struggles in the 18th century can help us understand our struggles today.”
“Revolutionary Princeton 1774 – 1783: The Biography of an American Town” by William (Larry) Kidder, 2020, $19, 384 pages, Knox books.
“Seeing the Sourlands” is conservator Jim Amon’s valentine to regional treasure.
Published by the Sourland Conservancy, with support from Bristol-Myers Squibb, the former D&R Canal Commission executive director, D&R Greenway stewardship director, and Sourlands Conservancy board members uses photographs and words to celebrate a location and invite area readers to wonder.
Making a direct connection to American poet — and New Jersey resident — Walt Whitman’s statement “I see nothing but miracles,” Amon writes, “Everyone wants to witness a miracle. Yet, if Walt Whitman was right, and we are actually witnessing them every day, why aren’t we more aware of our good fortune? There may be many reasons, but one of them is surely that we don’t know enough to recognize a miracle when it is before us.”
His easy-reading short essays and musings are a good way to tune the eye.
“Seeing the Sourlands,”$39, 168 pages. Available at www.sourland.org. All proceeds benefit the Sourland Conservancy.
“Ralston Heights” is Hopewell writer James Betz’s novel inspired by the 19th-century Hopewell Castle and its most infamous inhabitant.
Ralston may seem to be an actual person’s name, but it is an acronym representing its founder’s formula for productive living: Regime, Activity, Light, Strength, Temperation, Oxygen, and Nature.
Here’s some more background: the Ralston’s name was coined by the self-appointed 19th-century health pundit Webster Edgerly (1852 to 1926). One of several late 19th century Americans who sipped from a heady cocktail of Darwinism, health fanaticism, idealism, and consumerism, Edgerly sold mail-order self-improvement books through his Ralston Health Club.
He also concocted the pen name Edmund Shaftesbury to be the author of more than 80 books designed to address a variety of physical and psychological issues.
Although devoid of science, the books found an international clientele of 800,000 subscribers.
After some unsuccessful attempts to establish himself in various locales — including his home state of Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. — Edgerly started purchasing farmland in Hopewell, New Jersey, in order to create a community based on his ideas that ranged from perfecting personal magnetism to fostering racial purity through eugenics — including castrating non-Caucasian men.
“It was sobering to find out that a pioneer of eugenics lived so close to home, and it was too much to turn my head the other way,” says Betz in a U.S. 1 interview (September 16, 2020).
Betz’s story follows Trevor Marino, a young man who is “in a predicament that is transformative, and he can’t escape,”
Seeing his family fall apart because of his father’s infidelity and his own humiliation from being thrown out of Rutgers, Marino moves from Princeton to Hopewell and becomes entranced by the nearby mansion that looks like a castle.
He’s “a character stuck in a rough time and feels that the weight of the world is on his shoulders. He is not very good at dealing with his problems. He feels entitled but feels like he’s not going anywhere. So when something closes on him, he denies it. He’s already in a rough state, and it is only going to get worse.”
And so it does in this stylistically bumpy but regionally interesting supernatural yarn.
“Ralston Heights,” $19, 120 pages, Farfallina Press. For purchase information, go to www.facebook.com/RalstonHeights.
“The Rider University Women’s Suffrage Centennial Cookbook” was created to celebrate this year’s centennial of women’s suffrage.
Subtitled “Advancing the Cause for Voter Engagement,” it features recipes and contemporary political messages created in the tradition “of our courageous Foremothers.”
Published by Pamela G. Mingle and Polly Dell’Omo, co-directors of the Gail Bierenbaum Women’s Leadership Council (GBWLC) at Rider University, and edited by Joan Mazzotti, vice chair of Rider University’s board of trustees, the 184-page book’s mission was “to honor the women of the past as well as to encourage women — of all ages — to be active and engaged citizens and to VOTE!”
The coordinators say they hope the collection and personal messages will be “an advocate for the elevation and enfranchisement of women.”
Designed to raise funds to support scholarships for women attending Rider University, the book features recipes ranging from New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way to current Rider University students.
Overall, the book offers a heaping helping of light reading and hefty meals while serving a worthy cause.
Rider University Women’s Suffrage Centennial Cookbook, $19.20, 184 pages, available at www.rider.edu/cookbook.
“Einstein on Einstein” was written in 1946 when one of the world’s towering thinkers and most prominent New Jersey figures sat down at his desk at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and wrote, “Here I sit in order to write, at the age of 67, something like my own obituary.”
And while his death would not occur for another nine years, Albert Einstein was writing a type of intellectual will — an autobiographical essay as part of the Library of Living Philosophers.
That still extant series was launched in 1939 by German-born American philosophy professor Paul Schlipp, who saw Einstein as more than a physicist and invited him to participate.
While Einstein initially hesitated, he had a change of heart and wrote, “I am doing this not merely because Dr. Schilpp has persuaded me to do it, but because I do, in fact, believe that it is a good thing to show those who are striving alongside of us how our own striving and searching appears in retrospect. After some reflection, I feel how important any such attempt is bound to be.”
Subtitled “Autobiographical and Scientific Reflections,” the 217-page collection of writings was edited and developed by Hanoch Gutfreund, physicist and academic director of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Jurgen Reen, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.
Calling Einstein’s autobiographical statement “one of Einstein’s most significant but largely neglected texts,” the editors say it clearly shows “how a man of his kind thinks, as well as the challenges and tensions he encountered along his quest for a scientific worldview and not the final formulation of successful breakthroughs.”
Organized in six parts, the book provides context, commentary, and background before getting to the main event: Einstein’s 26-page “Autobiographical Note.”
And it is here he provides something that academicians of all types should consider: “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and sense of duty.”
The reading is not always easy, but it is always interesting to hear one of the region’s greatest thinkers thinking aloud.
“Einstein on Einstein: Autobiographical and Scientific Reflections,”2020, $35, 217 pages, Princeton University Press.
“Analogia: The Emergence of Technology Beyond Programmable Control” is science and technology historian George Dyson’s new book tracing 300 years of the interaction between people, nature, and technology and how a new age is unfolding.
Author of “Baidarka the Kayak (1986), “Darwin Among the Machines” (1997), “Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965” (2002), and “Turing’s Cathedral” (2012), Dyson is also known as the son of familiar Princeton figures, the late theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson and mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson.
And while not completely focused on the area, the 67-year-old writer gives some credit to Princeton and New Jersey’s role in the title’s emergence and brings attention to the invisible history around us:
“Nowhere in postwar America was there more electronics, and better electronics, than in New Jersey. From RCA’s vast Camden works and Princeton laboratories to the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, it was New Jersey that led the way in electronics just as Thomas Edison, and the city named after him on the shores of the Raritan River, had led the way in delivering electric light.”
“Analogia: The Emergence of Technology Beyond Programmable Control,” by George Dyson, $28, 304 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Now here are a few fun Jersey Fresh books that took a different look at the Garden State:
“Making the Scene in the Garden State: Popular Music in New Jersey from Edison to Springsteen and Beyond” is Dewar MacLeod’s examination of New Jersey’s contribution to American music.
A history professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, MacLeod is a California transplant who in addition to specializing in American studies and foreign policy focuses on popular culture.
A musician and author of the book “Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California,” MacLeod notes early on, “My interest lies in the social history of the ways in which people produce and consume music.”
And keeping with the subtitle, he organizes the book around “scenes” or “the types of historical groups of people around music.” That includes the founding of a major recording center in Camden, legendary jazz recordings in Cliffside, Bruce Springsteen and Asbury Park, and Hoboken’s independent rock scene.
Even though MacLeod realizes that the task of documenting New Jersey’s various music scenes was beyond his reach at the time, his book is a fun read that captures plenty.
“Making the Scene in the Garden State: Popular Music in New Jersey from Edison to Springsteen and Beyond,” $29.95 180 pages. Rutgers University Press.
“New Jersey State of Mind” is NJ.com’s veteran food and features writer Peter Genovese’s newest effort.
Joining his other 10 New Jersey books — including “Jersey Diners,” “Roadside New Jersey,” “The Jersey Shore Uncovered,” and “Food Lovers’ Guide to New Jersey” — his latest 156-page work is a love letter to a small state big enough to include 9,200,000 people (the nation’s most densely populated), 39,000 miles of highway, 525 diners (another national record), and more stores than the square of the number of registered vehicles (6,628,080).
“I live, breathe, and even dream New Jersey,” says the Trenton-born, Ewing-raised, Genovese at the top of this Jersey-fresh collection of stories that continue a personal objective to capture and preserve New Jersey places and people in ink — all conveyed in a chatty and detail-rich style.
Just open the book to any of its 27 chapters and for an introduction to New Jersey locales ranging from a Camden “cheesesteak paradise” to a Pinelands canoe trip to the “world’s largest salad” in Hoboken.
“I wanted to get away from the stereotypes of when people think about New Jersey,” he said about his intent during a U.S. 1 interview (July 8, 2020).
He also shared his secret for getting the goods. “I have an easy way, and people tell me their stories. Everyone has an interesting story. We all have a story to tell. I think you start there and you have to draw them out. And tell it truthfully and compellingly.”
Consider it Jersey fresh fun from a New Jersey master.
“New Jersey State of Mind” by Peter Genovese, $24.95 156 pages, Rutgers University Press.
The region is fortunate to be home to two major universities with professors whose works focus on topics that challenge our views and help us see the world in new ways. Here are a few works from the region’s campuses:
“Begin Again — James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own” opens with the following statement: “I, Jimmy Baldwin, as a black writer, must in some way represent you. I’ll make you a pledge. If you will promise your elder brother that you will never, ever accept any of the many derogatory, degrading, and reductive definitions that this society has ready for you, then I, Jimmy Baldwin, promise you I shall never betray you.”
That 1963 declaration made to students at Howard University by the author of the books “Notes of a Native Son” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and the plays “Amen Corner” and “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” was “an avowal of love and a declaration of his responsibility as a writer dedicated to speaking the truth,” writes Princeton University professor and Department of African American Studies chair Eddie S. Glaude Jr. in his book on Baldwin and his thoughts regarding America’s systematic racism.
Glaude is a man with a keen eye on our times and says the idea of America is in trouble. And “it should be. We have told ourselves a story that secures our virtue and protects us from our vices. But today we confront the ugliness of who we are — our darker angels reign. That ugliness isn’t just Donald Trump or murderous police officers or loud racists screaming horrible things. It is the image of children in cages with mucus-smeared shirts and soiled pants glaring back at us. Fourteen-year-old girls forced to take care of two-year old children they do not even know. It is sleep-deprived babies in rooms where the lights never go off, crying for loved ones who risked everything to come here only because they believed the idea. It is Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter facedown, washed up on the banks of our boarder. Reality can be hard and heartless.”
The book is obviously timely reading and something Glaude says was guided by “Jimmy’s delicate hands.”
“Begin Again — James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own” by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., $27, 272 pages. Crown.
“Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition” is the story of P. Carl’s personal journey from his life as a girl to the man he longed to be.
A distinguished fellow in American studies at Princeton University, the writer is a theater producer and dramaturg, the founder of the online journal HowlRound, and has published work in the New York Times Magazine.
In his first book, the writer shares some thoughts on his journey that generate understanding and consideration: “Trans people who have chosen to change sexes often describe the desire as ‘an irresistible longing’ or ‘an irrepressible drive’ to live and be seen as the other sex. I see this drive in trans-masculine men on social media. Though my guess is many identify as queer, and they are definitely out as trans, they go into funks of deadly depression when misgendered. Why does their queerness, my queerness, need the certainty of language, of specific pronouns, to feel seen?
“Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition” by P. Carl, $26, 230 pages, Simon & Schuster.
“Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism” is Princeton University economists Anne Case and Nobel laureate Angus Deaton’s investigation of the rise of mortality rates among of white Americans between the ages of 25 to 64 and its place in a larger and more disturbing social trend.
As the married couple note in their book’s preface, “This book documents despair and death, it critiques aspects of capitalism, and it questions how globalization and technical change are working in America today. Yet we remain optimistic. We believe in capitalism, and we continue to believe that globalization and technical change can be managed to the general benefit. Capitalism does not have to work as it does in America today. It does not need to be abolished, but it should be redirected to work in the public interest.
“Free market competition can do many things, but there are also many areas where it cannot work well, including the provisions of healthcare, the exorbitant cost of which is doing immense harm to the health and wellbeing of America. If governments are unwilling to exercise compulsion over health insurance and to take the power to control costs — as other rich countries have done — tragedies are inevitable. Deaths of despair have much to do with the failure — the unique failure — of America to learn this lesson.”
The book was important when it arrived off the presses in the early spring, but with a new president taking office during a deadly pandemic this book has plenty of insight to share to shape the future.
“Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, $27.95, 320 pages, Princeton University Press.
“What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life” is National Book Award-winning poet and Rutgers University creative writing professor Mark Doty’s meditation on the major American poet’s influence on world literature and on his own life.
“Of the many poets I love, none has haunted me as Walt Whitman has,” writes Doty early in the book that merges literary criticism with personal memoir — including the New York City-based Doty’s visit to the Walt Whitman house and museum in Camden.
Whitman’s influence on literature has been so pervasive that it is easily not recognized, but Doty’s work refocuses our attention to the appearance of “a book with no author’s name on the cover or title page, with a densely printed rather florid preface followed by twelve poems. Were they poems? No consistent meter, no comfortable and familiar pattern of rhyme. Not to mention the fact the book’s opening salvo is a dizzying sixty-five-page text, the sheer rock-wall of it divided only by stanza breaks. The sweeping lines, colloquial and Biblical at once, seem meant to carry us from earth to — well, not heaven exactly, but the earth seen in radical illumination. ‘I believe a leaf of grass,’ he writes, ‘is no less than the journey-work of the stars.’ He mocks religion while proclaiming the world holy. He loves being incarnate, relishing sheer physicality — to walk, to feel the movement of atmosphere on one’s skin — and the thrilling energies of eros, the firefighter’s fine muscles moving under their clothes. His feints and silences are so transparent they reveal at least as much as they conceal.”
A fine meditation on what made the voice of Whitman so strong.
“What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life,” Mark Doty, $24.95, 280 pages, W.W. Norton & Company.