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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’

During the time that I worked as the events coordinator at my local indie bookstore (Gibson’s in Concord) and then wrote a book review column (for the Concord Monitor and later for the New Hampshire Union Leader) I had the pleasure of getting to correspond with authors of all kinds of books, and their publicists. A few stand out as real people, the kind of people who like to connect as humans and so chat a bit in an email, or before an event. Even rarer are the ones who wrote me later to say they appreciated my reading and caring about their work, or who helped me feel as if my own writing was making the world a very slightly better place. Today I bring you some of the loveliest of those people and their latest books.

First, even though her book will be published last of the three, Tod Davies. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned her and her wonderful Exterminating Angel Press but longtime readers of bookconcious may recall my review of Jam Today Too and even farther back, Snotty Saves the Day (both of which came to my attention because of another really lovely person in the literary world, Molly Mikolowski). Well Tod remembered too, and sent me an email with an e-galley of her new revised edition of Jam Today: a Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got. Confession time: last year around this time I finally bought myself a print copy of the first edition of Jam Today and . . . it’s still on my “to read” shelf. So I decided Tod’s email was a sign that it was high time I read it. I don’t love reading e-books, but needs must.

One more aside before we go on — Tod and Molly were two of the kindest people when I was working on finding a publisher for my debut (and still unpublished) poetry collection, and they, along with Erika Goldman, the thoughtful publisher at Bellevue Literary Press, took time out of their busy lives to give me advice, even though they knew it was probably unlikely I’d ever get that book published unless I wanted to pay for it myself. The publishing world needs more people like these three wonderful women, who probably don’t even remember the emails they sent me, but who helped me see that being a bookless poet wasn’t the end of the world.

Ok, enough digressing already, let’s eat!

Jam Today is part cookbook — in a nontraditional this-is-how-you-do-it rather than a here’s-a-list-of-recipes way — part memoir and part philosophy book. I say that because right from the first pages readers find out that for Tod Davies, the way we think about food, not just the way we acquire or grow and prepare and eat it, is “direct political action.” She says in the book’s opening section, “Why I Love Food:” “If you’re well fed — if you’re well loved — well, that makes it easier to do just about anything. And if you have an entire population that is well fed — and well loved — and believes it can do just about anything . . . this may not be good for those who would rather lull and manipulate us into doing what they think best. But it’s definitely good for us and our world.”

Throughout the book, Tod’s advice is to pay attention; “. . . every moment of everyday life is what our world is made of . . . . Paying attention to what’s right in front of you is what life is about. No other way.” And “. . . food feeds both my physical and my spiritual selves.” She goes on to address what she means by spiritual and that she believes there is a “basic set of principles that all human beings can discover . . . indeed that I think all human beings are trying to discover.” Amen, sister. If only we set aside our quibbling about spiritual matters by focusing on this truth, that we all seek “the Good!” How and in what way wouldn’t matter so much if we all really tried to be, in the moment, human to, and open to the human in, each other.

And, I loved the way she addresses the way coming back home after visiting at the holidays we need to “heal up from the holidays.” And how a meal she made “was absolute crap” after a friend died, “I could see my body running away from the basic facts of my life, because those basic facts killed my friend and would kill me.” Do you see what I mean? This isn’t just recipes — although those are mouth watering — it’s a manifesto, a statement of faith, a guide to living intentionally and loving life and each other, while eating well. Also, she is complimentary towards Millennials (admiring the way “they’ve got this trend going of getting by with as few possessions as possible”) which as a mother and manager of millennials I appreciate. Too many people write off that generation without looking for the Good.

I haven’t tried cooking any of these recipes, but I’ve made paella from Jam Today Too and followed the spirit of Tod’s cooking in many other ways, although lately we’ve been just making food and not feeding ourselves and Jam Today was a good reminder that when we feel we are least able to make cooking a big deal si probably when we most need to. Tod’s spirit of intentionality is inspiring. That’s the key to keeping calm in difficult times, I think, being intentional, living deliberately, sharing love. I wish I lived closer because I’d invite her over for a meal — and you’ll want to do that too, when you’re done reading this delightful book.

If you’ve read any of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s and/or Sy Montgomery‘s books you know they have much in common and that they refer to each other (and each other’s animals) in their writing. What I didn’t know until I read Vicki Constantine Croke‘s forward to Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind is that they became friends when one of Sy’s ferrets bit Thomas.  Croke explains, “The essays here are mostly collected and adapted from their joint column in The Boston Globe . . . .” Croke goes on to say, “They are, one might say, the kettle corn of nature writers,” by which she means they are “sweet” but share “a real saltiness to their skepticism.”

Whether you’ve read some of these essays before or not, this spirit, which Croke alludes to and which shines through both women’s writing, is a pleasure to encounter or re-encounter. Their lovingly writing on everything from snakes to dogs is accepting of animals as our equals in many ways (and our betters, as Sy explains, in others. Can you re-grow a limb?), and yet they are ready to zap irrational human arguments about mistreating or disrespecting animals. Both Thomas and Sy deploy warmth and wit, philosophy and science. They share stories of animals they have observed or loved, and they question much of the habits of thought and misinformation that lead us to flawed human-animal relations.

Thomas writes, “Our species is just one in 8.7 million. How many of these can we name? How many do we know or understand?” If you read this collection you will know about some of them, you will learn to look at things through animal eyes, and you may be less quick to judge (or misjudge, really) what seems like contrary or mis-behavior but which is understandable if you try to think from the animals’ perspectives. And if you love animals you will feel a kindred sense of understanding with these authors who have between them done so much to advance human understanding of both the wild and domestic creatures we are so fortunate to share this planet with. You’ll also be amazed — even the most devoted naturalist is going to learn something from this book. Have you ever heard of water bears? Me neither. And now I am dying to know more! Did you know that rats laugh, we just can’t hear the frequency? Me neither, but it makes me want to re-read Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White was brilliant in many ways but I wonder if he was tuned into rat frequency?

Finally, Sy Montgomery’s husband Howard Mansfield also has a new book out, from the wonderful New Hampshire small press Bauhan PublishingSummer Over Autumn: a Small Book of Small Town Life. Most of these essays were new to me, but are collected from Howard’s writing for magazines and the Boston Globe. He is one of those writers who is not only gracious to bookstore staff and part time book reviewers (and probably everyone else) and whose writing is warm and funny but also, as they say in these parts, wicked smart. He’s a kind of a people’s intellectual, whose cultural and historical knowledge sparkles on the page but whose ability to read other human beings, and not surprisingly since he is married to Sy, animals, infuses his essays with a generosity that makes you feel like you’re sharing in his brilliance, not having it bestowed upon you, the lowly reader. 

Plus, he’s writing about one of my favorite topics: New Hampshire. The Computer Scientist and I tell people this is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose. It feels like home — for no good reason, since neither of us is “from” here, nor as far as we know are any ancestors. Besides sharing an outsider’s love of our adopted home, I just really admire the way Howard takes ordinary things like yard sales or his local garage and creates something beautiful on the page not only because he notices things and writes well but because he cares about people’s stories. In “On Going Late to Yard Sales,” for example, he writes about the “puzzles that are left when the boxes are nearly empty,” and the way the sellers seem to have “watched themselves scatter to the winds.” Something I had never really thought about, but I recognized when I read his essay.

It’s a good time to read this book as we’re in what Howard refers to in the title essay: “Summer Over Autumn isn’t a season. It’s a glimpse, the moment when we see the skull beneath the skin, the death that is always a part of life.” A few leaves are changing, but it’s still warm, even sometimes hot during the day. Evenings and mornings are chilly enough to cause us to think about a coat was we rush to the car. There are both wonderful tomatoes and wonderful apples at the Farmers’ Market. There is both observation and deep human truth in Howard’s essays.

So, this Summer Over Autumn afternoon you could’t go wrong reading any of these books. Or more importantly sharing time with people who care not only about the books they write, but also the people they ask to be a part of bringing those books into the world. Enjoy!

 

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Here’s the link to the Mindful Reader column in today’s Concord Monitor.

I’ve pasted the text below for anyone who can’t take the link.

Keeping Her Eyes Open

“While wandering down the road of life, it helps to look for something more meaningful than oneself .  .  . .  I find it by keeping my eyes open,” writes Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in A Million Years With You. “I see it in the stars when I look up and the soil when I look down . . . .” Fortunately for readers, her keen observation, attentive and inquisitive nature, and thoughtful, unvarnished writing grace numerous books devoted to sharing what she’s seen. This time she turns to a fascinating subject: herself.

From doing groundbreaking anthropological fieldwork with her family in Africa at eighteen to studying animal behavior, writing for the New Yorker to serving on the Peterborough Board of Selectmen, meeting Idi Amin to struggling with addiction, helping her grown children overcome grave injuries to surviving breast cancer, Thomas reflects on her life. She maintains a tone of wonder and gratitude, as well as gently self-deprecating humor: “. . . if you want a long marriage,” she advises, “. . . marry young and wait.”

Thomas examines her parents’ and grandparents’ role in nurturing her lifelong affinity for the natural world, her perseverance in the face of life’s obstacles, and her faith in wisdom, human and animal. There is a great deal of wisdom to glean from this memoir as well as sheer enjoyment. Thomas generously shares what she’s learned through her experiences, and tells a good story, too.

Poetry, Money, and Food

Hillsborough poet Martha Carlson-Bradley’s second full length collection, Sea Called Fruitfulness, addresses ideas contemporary and historical, individual and communal, emotional and intellectual. Her poems brim with visceral imagery – flies landing on fruit and tripe in a market, gall bladder removal, “the wafer, Giovanni, working/ its miracle –  body of Christ – on the hot/damp expanse of the tongue.” They are lyrical, rich in sound and rhythm. The title derives from the 1651 Riccioli-Grimaldi map of the moon, created by two Jesuit astronomers. Carlson-Bradley addresses or imagines the two in several poems such as “Bearings,” where they walk “while Bologna’s roofs and porticoes/ cut the world into heated planes of red clay/ and coverts of shadow . . . .” In others, like “Heavenly Body,” she roots her themes in human experience, “. . . that wave of hormonal blues,/. . . my body, abandoned,/ was hollowed out—his soul no longer/my center of gravity.” Notes reveal the extensive research that went into this thoughtful, expressive collection.

Vermonter Ben Hewitt’s $aved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World, is thought-provoking; I marked dozens of passages. Hewitt’s friend, Eric practices “self-imposed frugality,” making him both the poorest and the wealthiest person Hewitt knows. Hewitt studied his friend’s understanding of money and wealth and ended up learning the intricacies of monetary policy and the economy, the physical and conceptual definitions of money and debt, the social and environmental impact of our “unconscious economy,” and patterns of earning, spending and saving disconnected from the true sources of wealth in our lives – time spent with family, community, and issues and pursuits we care about. He’s a terrific writer, clear, funny, observant, even poetic: “We are repeatedly told that the path to prosperity and contentment is the one paved by the commodity economy, the one that separates and compartmentalizes us. We have been told this so often, and for so long, that sometimes we forget to take our eyes off the path, to look up and around. To look forward. To look inward.” $aved made me laugh and think.

To Eat: A Country Life, Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd’s last book together (Winterrowd died in 2010), is an artful tribute to their seven acre southern Vermont garden and their passion for raising, preparing, and eating food together. Even lettuce becomes luxuriant in their exuberant and informative hands. Bobbi Angell’s drawings and Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta’s recipes, along with Eck & Winterrowd’s elegant prose, take readers through the northern New England seasons, featuring one food per chapter. The book is seasoned with history, anecdotes, and abundant practical advice, and with reverence for land and tradition, “ . . . the deepest reward of a country life is that its deliberate embrace of a small conserving ethic opens one to the rhythms, values, habits and flavors of another time.” Whether or not you garden, To Eat is a vicarious pleasure.

My family hopes I’ll review more cookbooks like Yankee Magazine’s Lost and Vintage Recipes by Amy Traverso and Yankee’s editors. I made “Shirred Eggs and Ham,” “Fan Tan Rolls,” “Yankee’s Crisp-Chewy Waffle Iron Brownies,” and “One-Week Ginger Beer.” Everything turned out as described (and pictured in Heath Robbins’ mouthwatering photographs). My son liked the brownies enough to make another batch. I cut the spicy non-alcoholic ginger beer with seltzer; my neighbor mixed it with sparkling wine, an excellent variation. I enjoyed Traverso’s notes on the recipes, which “tell the rich story of our region’s people and places.” She notes “our mothers and grandmothers were making rich dishes . . . without creating a national obesity epidemic,” and suggests readers “needn’t fear . . . but, rather . . . enjoy them in moderation.” One quibble with this otherwise wonderful volume: the font is too small for reading across the kitchen counter.

 

 

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I’m reviewing Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s A Million Years With You: a Memoir of Life Observed, as well as brief reviews of Martha Carlson-Bradley’s new poetry collection Sea Called FruitfulnessBen Hewitt’s $aved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the WorldTo Eat by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, and Yankee Magazine’s Lost & Vintage Recipes by Amy Traverso and the editors of Yankee.

I turned the column in today and it will run in the Sunday, June 9 Concord Monitor.

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I finished Alexandra Horowitz‘s On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes last night, and earlier this week finished a book for next month’s column, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s A Million Years With You: A Memoir of a Life Observed.  Thomas is an amazing woman, who learned at an early age the value of being fully present (both to people and animals) and observing closely. More on her book in the column. Horowitz is a cognitive scientist specializing in animals — both women wrote very popular books about dogs. But her latest book looks at what we humans don’t see, hear or sense in our everyday environments.

On Looking is about Horowitz walking her own block and other city streets with eleven experts: her toddler son, a blind woman, an insect tracker, one of the foremost raccoon experts in the world, the artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a typographer, a physician, a public space specialist, a sound engineer, and her dog. On each walk Alexander immersed herself in the specialty of the person (or dog) she was with. By identifying signs that other creatures were nearby (or what lettering or types of stone reveal), understanding how the blind (or a toddler, an artist, a dog) experience the world, and so on with each of her walk-mates, she considered the unique perspectives of her experts, and all that was there to explore in plain sight.

All of us have experienced — at work, at home, in friendships and with our families —  the way differences of perception color our everyday experiences. What we each notice and what even those closest to us notice is not always aligned. But Horowitz reveals that not only do humans perceptions vary, but beyond that, we don’t give our full attention to what’s right in front of us. As a longtime (and very unskilled) student of mindfulness I knew this, but Horowitz’s book examines this phenomenon beautifully.

She finds as she walks around her block at the start of her project, “What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see . . . .” Throughout her fascinating research, walking with people who guided her beyond the familiar, Horowitz discovered “the unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe.” She writes with humor and very accessible intelligence, as well as curiosity and admiration for her fellow walkers.

Will I ever be as attentive as she is? My monkey mind gets in my way all the time, and I’m not sure I can ever wrangle my synapses’ high capacity magazine with a mindfulness trigger lock. I recently read that creative types and “sensitive” introverts have overly active brains so maybe fighting the way my brain works is counterproductive, but some stillness and attentiveness has got to be better than none. I don’t expect to reach Horowitz’s level of attention on my next walk, but she’s given me a great deal more to notice.

Which brings me to the seeing part of the post: thanks to an attentive friend, I heard about and attended the rally in our town on Monday in support of our homeless community, who’ve been evicted from both public and private land and had their belongings seized, including donated tents handed out by a number of churches and social organizations when winter shelters closed. At the rally I noticed that one of the problems facing the homeless is perception: people see someone rough around the edges and assume mental illness or addiction. But the only accurate definition of someone who is homeless is that he or she has no home.

If you or I had nowhere to rest, clean up, or be safe, we’d look a little rough. As my friend Kellie’s sign said: poverty is not a crime. Treating it as such isn’t productive. Refusing to see the homeless will not make the problem of homelessness disappear. Thank God telling them to get out of sight won’t put them out of mind of the concerned citizens who were present on Monday. I’m thankful for those that not only see but also do, who are providing legal representation, practical support, and loving kindness to people who have little else in this world.

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