Category Archives: Books and Arts

Heretics, Infidels, Founding Fathers: Matthew Stewart ’85 Examines the Secular Roots of American Independence

Matthew Stewart '85

Matthew Stewart ’85

The American Revolution led to the creation of the world’s first secular republic. According to Matthew Stewart ’85’s new book, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, it was this secular break from the supernatural religion of the British that made America’s independence truly revolutionary. The book offers a reappraisal of the religious and philosophical origins of America’s revolution and shows that it was secularist ideals, not Christian values, that drove the establishment of America’s most cherished freedoms.

To explain his argument, Stewart investigates the prevalence of deism: the belief that an impersonal God expects humans to reason out their own ethical codes. This belief system, which finds its roots in classical, pagan philosophy, was held not only by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, but also lesser-known figures like Thomas Young, instigator of the Boston Tea Party. It was these men and their largely secular, rational way of thinking that informed the ideas of personal liberty, religious freedom, and the proper role of governmental power — ideas that are now at the core of America’s most treasured documents.

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The Brandywine: An Intimate Portrait, by W. Barksdale Maynard ’88

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88

The author: W. Barksdale Maynard ’88, a lecturer at Princeton, has previously published six books, including Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency, Princeton: America’s Campus, and the award-winning Walden Pond: A History.

The book: The Brandywine River winds from southeastern Pennsylvania into Delaware and carries with it a rich story. Maynard offers a sweeping narrative of the river and the men and women who shaped the region’s culture and history. They include the du Ponts, who made their fortune there, and Andrew Wyeth, whose paintings captured the people and natural landscape of the region.

MaynardOpening lines: “It comes down from the Welsh Mountains and twists its way through some of the prettiest countryside in the middle states before gushing along a rocky gorge at Wilmington and meeting tidewater. The quintessential Piedmont stream, running lively over the rocks, the Brandywine finally loses itself into the flat and featureless Christina River, which joins the Delaware Bay.” Continue reading

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult ’87

Jodi Picoult ’87

Jodi Picoult ’87

To research her latest novel, Jodi Picoult ’87 travelled to the savannahs of Botswana, studied elephants at a sanctuary in Tennessee, and consulted a psychic. The result is Leaving Time, about a young girl’s search for her mother.

Jenna Metcalf is determined to solve the mysterious, decade-old disappearance of her mother, Alice, a young scientist who studied how elephants express grief in Botswana and at a New Hampshire elephant sanctuary. Jenna enlists the help of a disgraced psychic and a jaded private detective, and pores over Alice’s journals to assemble a portrait of her mother’s life.

Leaving TimeThe novel weaves together several voices to create a fast-paced narrative that is part crime story, part family drama, and it races to an unexpected finish. Alice’s journals take the reader into her research on elephant grief, as she lives among and observes her subjects. Alice carefully records, and finds herself responding to, the elephants’ behavior as they experience motherhood, loss, and crumbling family structures. Picoult (featured in PAW on Jan. 18, 2012) is the bestselling author of 23 novels, including My Sister’s Keeper, which was made into a film. She will be reading from Leaving Time at Rockleigh Country Club in Northvale, NJ, on Oct. 19.

Love Beads and Leopard-Print Bikinis: Novel Portrays Coming of Age in the ’70s

Professor Darcey Steinke

Professor Darcey Steinke

Twelve-year-old Jesse and her family move to a working-class apartment complex in Roanoke, Va., in the summer of 1972, a time when kids playing in the yard pretend the Viet Cong are chasing them and hitchhikers along the highway are wearing bell bottoms and love beads. Jesse’s mother is a dissatisfied housewife, her father a former pastor who has abandoned religion. Jesse’s struggles to figure out where she fits in — and the struggles of her mother and the divorcées living nearby — are chronicled in Sister Golden Hair, a coming-of-age novel by Princeton creative writing professor Darcey Steinke.

“I always wanted to go back and write about some of the women I knew in the ’70s,” says Steinke, who spent part of her childhood in Roanoke in a similar setting. “They were trained to be homemakers and mothers, and all of a sudden the culture was saying, ‘We want women to work,’ and the skills they had — keeping house, making apple cake — had been devalued. It was painful for my mother; she never really got over that.”

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States of Desire Revisited: Travels in Gay America by Edmund White

Professor Edmund White

Professor Edmund White

The author: Edmund White is one of the leading chroniclers of gay life in America and a longtime professor of creative writing at Princeton. His new book, States of Desire Revisited: Travels in Gay America, brings back a chronicle of gay life in the United States that was first published in 1980. White is the author of several novels, including the groundbreaking coming-of-age tale A Boy’s Own Story, as well as several memoirs about his life abroad, his many lovers, and his role as a self-described “archaeologist of gossip.”

The book: In a new introduction and afterword, White looks back at the late ’70s, when he traveled the country to explore gay liberation, political activism, and sexual freedom. The book covers San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, but also explores the less public gay life in places such as Kansas City and Memphis. Throughout, White peppers his prose with personal stories and colorful observations, capturing the nuances of gay life just before the AIDS epidemic rocked the community. White’s afterword explores how the Internet has affected gay culture.

White-States-of-Desire-cOpening lines: “Since this book came out in 1980, the world of gays has evolved more quickly than any other in peacetime since the beginning of history. Violence and war have been able to effect sudden and usually disastrous changes, but the changes that occur peacefully are most often slow and sedimentary. In fact this book shows a past world preserved in amber, despite the way that world was full of plans, impregnated by what it imagined was a utopian future.” Continue reading

Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State, by Robert Wuthnow

Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow

Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow

The book: From its lingering legacies of slavery and segregation to the rise of the Tea Party, Texas has a history that mirrors the story of America. Rough Country examines — through the stories of ordinary men and women — the intersection of religion, race, and politics in the Lone Star state, from Reconstruction to Gov. Rick Perry’s failed bid for president. The author explores the decisive role of religion in Texas, where more evangelicals live than any other state, and the way in which religion has been complicated by race and ethnicity.

The author: Robert Wuthnow is a professor of social sciences and sociology at Princeton and director of the Center for the Study of Religion. Widely known for his work on the sociology of religion, he is the author of Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future and Red State Religion.

wuthnow book coverOpening lines: “On Tuesday, Nov. 30, 1869, a well-respected businessman named B.W. Loveland failed to show up for the 7 p.m. meeting of the Lone State Odd Fellows lodge of which he was a member. Loveland operated a grocery store one block from Main Street in the heart of the city, only a few doors from the present-day site of Christ Church Cathedral and the Magnolia Hotel in downtown Houston. He was a quiet, unassuming man, a Confederate veteran who attended lodge and church meetings faithfully. And that made his absence puzzling. In fact, just that afternoon he had mentioned to a fellow member his intention of being present at the meeting. When his store remained closed the next day, a neighbor looked through the window and saw his body on the floor near the cash register. Someone had crushed his skull with a fatal blow to the back of his head.” Continue reading