Category Archives: Books and Arts

Hirshfield ’73 Explores How Great Poetry Is Made

Jane Hirshfield ’73

Jane Hirshfield ’73

“A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem — protean, elusive, alive in its own right,” Jane Hirshfield ’73 writes in the opening of her essay collection Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. But what factors make a poem move its readers? In her essays, Hirshfield answers these questions by walking readers through a series of classic poems. Of Seamus Heaney’s Oysters, for example, Hirschfield writes, “We stand in this poem with a master of shaking things together — the personal with the historical, the local with the large .… Part of this poem’s specific gravity is its confident leaving out of the inessential.”

A member of the first undergraduate class to admit women as freshmen, Hirschfield is herself a poet, renowned for her spare language and spiritually infused verse. As a companion to Ten Windows, she released a collection of poetry, The Beauty, which explores the physical body interacting with the sensory world. In the poem Like Two Negative Numbers Multiplied by Rain, she begins:

Lie down, you are horizontal.
Stand up, you are not.

I wanted my fate to be human.

Like a perfume
that does not choose the direction it travels,
that cannot be straight or crooked, kept out or kept.

9780385351058Of her poetry, The Washington Post wrote, “Very quietly, Jane Hirshfield has been producing work that is earning her a place in the pantheon of those modern masters of simplicity.” This is Hirshfield’s third essay collection and her eighth collection of poetry. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.

A Young Doctor Writes a Novel About Love and Medicine

Kathleen Coggshall ’05

Kathleen Coggshall ’05

At the end of medical school, Kathleen Coggshall ’05 often found herself in the sky, flying across the country for interviews for residency programs. During several trips, as her mind drifted to thoughts of airlines disasters, she was struck with an idea for a novel about a plane crash and a young woman whose medical expertise keeps the survivors alive.

In Girl Underwater, Coggshall’s debut novel, competitive college swimmer Avery and two of her teammates are on a red-eye flight from California to Boston when the plane crashes in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains. Only Avery, fellow swimmer Colin Shea, and three little boys survive, and the medical knowledge imparted to Avery by her physician father helps her care for them for five days until they are rescued. The book follows Avery’s fraught recovery at home and the crash’s aftermath. The novel was published under the pen name Claire Kells. Continue reading

Peter Slevin ’78’s Biography Examines the Life of Michelle Obama ’85

Peter Slevin (Andrew Johnston)

Peter Slevin ’78 (Andrew Johnston)

In 2014, first lady Michelle Obama ’85 told a group of students “to never, ever listen to the doubters,” and cited a moment from her undergraduate years to illustrate her message. She recalled a Princeton professor whose class she had aced telling her, “You’re not the hottest thing I’ve seen coming out of the gate.” Wounded, she decided “that I was going to do everything in my power to make that man regret those words,” she said. Obama worked doubly hard for him as a research assistant and eventually won his praise, concluding that she had shown “not just my professor, but myself, what I was capable of achieving.”

That anecdote is one of many in Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin ’78. The book is a comprehensive account of her life, from her childhood in a working-class, largely segregated Chicago neighborhood to her role as “the unlikeliest first lady in modern history,” according to Slevin. A former Chicago bureau chief for The Washington Post who began reporting on Obama during her husband’s run for the presidency in 2007, Slevin is a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

The book takes a detailed look at Obama’s parents and extended family, and devotes a chapter to her years at Princeton, of which she once said, “As a black girl from the south side of Chicago, I wasn’t supposed to go to Princeton, because [my high school counselors] said my test scores were too low.” Slevin interviewed Obama twice during her husband’s 2008 campaign but did not speak to her for the book. He interviewed her friends, relatives, colleagues, professors, and mentors. Continue reading

Sahner ’07 Mingles Memoir and History in Book on Syria

Christian Sahner ’07 GS

Christian Sahner ’07 GS

When Christian Sahner ’07 GS visited Syria for the first time, he expected to find the country that he had seen on the news: a police state that would neatly fit its categorization as part of the axis of evil. What he found was far more complex. “There was this constant sense of being watched, of feeling that you were being monitored,” he says. “At the same time, there was this very rich, beautiful culture and wonderful people.” Sahner visited several times over three years, living with a Syrian family, learning to say Mass in Arabic, and experiencing life under an authoritarian regime that would crumble just months after he left for the final time in 2010.

In Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present, Sahner, who currently is earning his Ph.D. in history at Princeton, interlaces his experiences with a history of Syria extending back to ancient times. He wanted to “introduce a new aspect of Syria into public conversation,” he says. “There is much justified focus on militants and Islamic groups, but there’s another plotline — the cultural and religious diversity. A lot of people don’t realize that for many centuries Christians were the majority of the population.” Continue reading

Mourning — and Celebrating — Abraham Lincoln’s Death

Martha Hodes *91

Martha Hodes *91

The president literally stopped the show when he walked into Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, had arrived late to that night’s performance; the comedy Our American Cousin already had begun. As they took their seats in the dress circle, the actors onstage paused and the audience cheered. Lincoln bowed. Around 10:15 p.m., as Lincoln laughed at a line in the play, John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of the head. The next morning, Lincoln was dead.

The nation’s seemingly universal reaction to the first presidential assassination is well documented in contemporary newspapers, in the formal expressions of condolences that followed, and in memoirs published in later decades. In Mourning Lincoln, Martha Hodes *91 asks: What were the “raw reactions” of people on the street, with their families, and by themselves when they heard the news? Some felt that “North and South are weeping together” but others thought the news was “glorious,” Hodes writes. She also explores how the aftermath of the assassination ultimately shaped the legacy of the Civil War. Continue reading

Two Princetonians and a Motorcycle, Along the White Nile

John Hopkins ’60

John Hopkins ’60

It is 1961, and John Hopkins ’60 and Joe McPhillips ’58 have just returned from Peru. After responding to the letter of a fellow Ivy Club alumnus who has invited those traveling to Kenya to stay with him, Hopkins and McPhillips decide to board a ship to Naples and from there travel through Europe to Africa. In Munich, they buy a white BMW motorcycle they christen “The White Nile” for the African river they will follow during their journey. Hopkins’ The White Nile Diaries retraces the two friends’ long ago adventures and offers a glimpse into a time when Africa was a tantalizing adventure for some young men.

The book intersperses accounts of the pair’s sojourns in each country with letters from their host in Kenya. Along the way, Hopkins and McPhillips are set upon by a group of armed men seeking revenge for violence in Tunisia and are shot at by Libyan soldiers as they try to slip unnoticed across the border with their undocumented motorcycle. They experience the 120-degree dry heat of the Sahara, the inside of a jail cell in Libya, and the wonders of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Like a North American Che Guevara and Alberto Granado, Hopkins and McPhillips travel 6,000 miles and arrive at Impala Farm, which turns out to be very different from what they expected. Continue reading