My column ran today in the Concord Monitor. I’m pasting my own version below, because the paper always lays the paragraphs out differently. Not sure why. This month I review Tory McCagg‘s Bittersweet Manor, Henry & Catherine Petroski’s The House With Sixteen Handmade Doors, and Lisa Cain‘s Snack-Girl to the Rescue.
May 2014 Mindful Reader Column
by Deb Baker
Part time New Hampshire resident Tory McCagg’s debut novel Bittersweet Manor tells the stories of three generations through a conversation between two women. Matriarch Gussie Michaels has removed her “beeper bracelet” and left assisted living on a chilly April day. Her granddaughter Emma has come to tell her she will sell the family home on Bittersweet Lane in Poquatuck Village, Connecticut. Or will she?
The conversation wanders, as Gussie’s mind does, through memories and decisions, misunderstandings and betrayals. As Gussie struggles to piece together recollections and Emma’s mind flits over everything that has led to her tenuous decision, McCagg shows how family roots are a tangle of places, the people who inhabit them, hopes and ambitions. She also examines the way these roots impact each generation.
McCagg sometimes tells too much about what her characters are thinking, instead of letting readers connect the dots. For example in this passage where Emma’s aunt “Alyssa cleared her throat, but with no intention of saying anything, because, thinking back, into the confusion of the past, she realized that sometimes betrayal is done with the best of intentions. And that the helpless reaching back to change everything . . . was impossible.”(Commas and ellipses are the author’s.) It’s also hard to read about relatives being unkind to each other. And yet, it sometimes rings true. A Thanksgiving scene fraught with awkward tension is certainly realistic.
Unlike some family sagas, Bittersweet Manor offers no easy resolution. It ends on a hopeful, if somewhat ambiguous, note — family, for better or worse, are a constant. Alyssa observes “That’s the beauty of being sisters . . . we aren’t best friends or anything. But here we are forced together, again and again, to learn something.” The Michaels’ family mostly don’t learn, and their privilege is hard to relate to. But McCagg leaves readers sensing that Gussie has given Emma what she needs. And that struck me as real too – family wounds don’t magically heal, but a searing conversation can sometimes clean out what’s festering.
The House With Sixteen Handmade Doors: a Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship is the story of a small house off Spinney Hill Road in Arrowsic, Maine where author Henry Petroski, a professor, engineer, and writer, and his wife Catherine, a writer and photographer, live part time. It’s also the story of Bob Phinney, who built the house; a meditation on craft, engineering, and design; a tribute to Mainers; and an appreciation of the history and traditions of Arrowsic and the surrounding area. And it is utterly charming. Henry Petroski writes with admiration and insight, as in this passage: “The vertical set of drawers stacked beneath one end of the kitchen counter contains units of five distinctly different heights, which are graduated in subtly increasing size from top to bottom. The more I look at Phinney’s work the more I see, and the more I see the more I marvel at his attention to detail, proportion, order, and unity.” Catherine Petroski’s photographs are a great asset for non-engineer readers. If you’ve ever wanted a simple summer home, or wondered how things were built when most work was done by hand, or loved a small town in coastal Maine, this book will delight you. It’s always a pleasure to read a book that is both erudite and intelligible, and the Petroskis’ affection for their subject makes this one even more satisfying.
Lisa Cain, Ph.D., western Massachusetts mom, and creator of Snack-Girl.com, distills her personal experience making healthy changes into Snack Girl to the Rescue! A Real-Life Guide to Eating Healthy, Slimming Down, and Enjoying Food. There are no strict rules here, nor easy answers. Her advice is not new –read food labels, pay attention to portions, eat more homemade food and less junk, meet your cravings with healthy alternatives, get off the couch and move. But the way she addresses these issues is refreshingly down-to-earth. Having trouble getting to the gym? Cain recommends walking five minutes a day and building from there. She wisely notes that everyday empty-calorie temptations are unavoidable, and offers sensible ways to manage things like office treats, parties, and holidays. She also advocates finding “comfort without food,” dealing with other kinds of “emotional eating,” choosing well in restaurants and grocery stores, and preparing affordable, nutritious, satisfying meals and snacks that will help you lose or maintain your weight. The book includes one hundred recipes; my family tried and liked Lentil Curry Stew, Roasted Vegetable Quesadillas, and No-Bake Peanut Butter Balls. If you’ve struggled with being healthy, Cain’s advice is simple and supportive: “Don’t give up. Just keep trying new things and good stuff will happen.”
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