Posts Tagged ‘Hillary Nelson’

Today’s book section of the Concord Monitor includes an “oral history” from Maxine Kumin introduced by Mike Pride, an interview Hillary Nelson did with Paul Harding, and my column. Perhaps because the section was so full, the end of my column was lopped off. So here’s the link, but you can read the original version below.

September 2013 Mindful Reader column

by Deb Baker

Howard Mansfield’s Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter is erudite, thoughtful, and deeply interesting. Like a novel-in stories, this is a book of linked meditative essays. Mansfield turns his powers of observation, his keen eye for illuminating details and anecdotes, and his thorough research to an exploration of what makes us feel at home.

First, he examines “Dwelling in the Ordinary” – exploring life at home after the ice storm in 2008, “The Age of Clutter” and the cult of organizing, the Zimmerman House in Manchester, and Hancock, New Hampshire’s attempt to modernize but preserve a footpath. The next section looks at “Dwelling in Destruction,” and covers the development of official policies to destroy homes during WWII and the Vietnam War and the work of sheltering victims of Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi. Finally Mansfield spends time “Dwelling in Possibility” as a census taker, an admirer of sheds (including saunas and bob houses, work sheds and barns, covered bridges and meetinghouses, A-frames and Quonset huts, cabins, teahouses, and “anti-sheds”), and a student of “dwelling.”

Mansfield notes, “The mystery that holds my attention is that some houses have life – are home, are dwellings – and others don’t.” From FEMA trailers to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, from trends in “stuff” to David Budbill’s poem “The Chainsaw Dance” in which “Hermie Newcome lived in a bread truck,” Mansfield roams New England’s dwellings, and roams literature, and then holds forth in his accessible but cerebral style. You could learn something from any page of this gem of a book.

Whenever I read Mansfield’s work I come away feeling not only informed, but expanded. His books don’t just sit on the surface of my mind, but enter it, giving me pause, inspiring me to think in new ways and invoking old conceptions which surface in fresh form. And he does this with grace and humor, which makes it possible to digest the steady flow of ideas without feeling overwhelmed. “We are most at home,” Mansfield writes, “when we’re sheltered completely, body and soul.” Dwelling in Possibility is a shelter for the intellect, inviting, warm, and true.

Vermont historian Abigail Carroll’s new book, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal examines the origins and development of breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as Americans’ notoriously copious snacks. From the earliest settlers to the current day, Carroll looks at how food and eating habits reflected the growth of our nation and are intertwined with American identity and culture. “Take breakfast, for example. When we pour milk into a  bowl heaped with rice puffs or bran flakes, we probably don’t realize that this morning meal has a lot to do with nineteenth-century religious health reforms . . . . Lunch and dinner are also living artifacts that say as much about the cultures and ideals of the eras in which they were born as they do about our modern lives today.” Why look back on these origins? Carroll notes, “the connection between obesity and the unraveling of meal patterns becomes more compelling every year. . . . Perhaps the family meal is worth saving . . . .” She draws on historical accounts of ordinary Americans’ eating habits as well as reformers, nutritionists, social commentators, and food critics whose “voices offer a compass with which to navigate the future.” A fascinating, readable history.

In The No Recipe Cookbook: a Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Cooking, Brattleboro chef  Susan Crowther uses charts, lists, and a breezy Q&A style to explain the essential principles  and techniques of cooking. Peppering her instruction with anecdotes from her own education at the Culinary Institute of America and training under master chefs, she covers how to choose ingredients, put a meal together from what’s on hand, combine seasonings, prepare food and know when it’s done. There’s a good bit to learn here, if you can get past the cute headings (“The Good, the Bad, and the Smoothie”) wordplay (vegetarian proteins are “meetz”) and distracting design (multiple fonts and text colors, frequent italics and overuse of capital letters). Crowther is passionate about her subject. I appreciated that she cautions against eating meat but admits craving it herself, but other advice came across as less tolerant, such as an anti-caffeine “soapbox.” That said, if you want to gain confidence or learn more about experimenting in the kitchen or you’re curious about what’s taught in culinary school, The No Recipe Cookbook is an interesting, informative resource.

Vermont author Katharine Britton’s second novel, Little Island, is a family tale replete with misunderstandings, secrets, and sibling dynamics. Set mostly at the Little family’s inn on an island off the coast of Maine, it’s the story of Grace, whose mother Joan left a cryptic note Grace interprets as her last wishes:



By the Water

Have Fun!”

And it’s the story of Grace’s children, Joy, whose only child has just left for college, and twins Tamar, a power lawyer whose insecurities are impacting her own young twins and her marriage, and Roger, the family black sheep. The family gathers for Joan’s memorial service, bringing their baggage, and it’s a revelatory weekend for all. I really enjoyed Britton’s portrayal of Grace and her husband Gar, whose marriage has withstood all the buffeting of parenthood and inn keeping. Their calm acceptance of life’s dramas anchor the story. Joy wonders “How many of us live lives driven by rules and assumptions that we never test?” but also realizes it’s never too late to adjust course, a comforting message for readers facing their own major life changes. A good read for fans of “hen lit” or family drama.


Howard Mansfield will read at Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 S. Main Street, on Wednesday, Oct. 2, and Katharine Britton will be there on October 17, both at 7pm.


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