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Posts Tagged ‘Howard Mansfield’

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go on — Tod and Molly were two of the kindest people when I was working on finding a publisher for my debut (and still unpublished) poetry collection, and they, along with Erika Goldman, the thoughtful publisher at Bellevue Literary Press, took time out of their busy lives to give me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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It was too hot to do anything more taxing than turn a page last night. So I read. Howard Mansfield is one of my favorite writers, and his latest book, Sheds is a kind of visual companion to the previous one, Dwelling In Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter.  Joanna Eldredge Morrissey, the staff photographer at the MacDowell Colony, a famous artists retreat in southern New Hampshire, took the photos of all kinds of sheds — from covered bridges and meeting houses to work sheds.

This is a beautiful book to spend an hour with, but I highly recommend you also read Dwelling In Possibility. Mansfield is an excellent writer. In Sheds he provides just a taste of his philosophy of the soul of shelter: “Sheds are utilitarian. Sheds contain small things — wood and tools — and big: summers, winters, solitude, festivity. The smallest sheds can be liberating: a bob house on a frozen lake, a summer cabin. The can shelter dreams.”  And this passage, on why people seek out covered bridges. Yes, partly for nostalgia, “But the strongest appeal of covered bridges, I think, lies in the surprising feeling of shelter they arouse in people. Passing into the bridge’s shadows, a traveler is enclosed and suspended, and in many bridges, open to the water — looking through the trusses or windows, or down through the boards of the roadway. This sudden enclosure and suspension reawakens the senses.”

We recently walked on the bridge in Littleton, and it’s very true. Mansfield has a way of writing that evokes a sense of recognition in readers; you read his books and continually think, “yes, that’s it exactly,” even though previously you weren’t really conscious of thinking whatever his words has awakened in your mind.

 

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Sheds and Dwelling in Possibility would make a great gift, for yourself or someone else. Don’t miss either.

Sometimes I just want to read something I can finish in one sitting, and last night Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fit the bill. I won’t go into much detail — I’m sure you’ve heard all about it. I enjoyed it, even though the script format is not as much fun to read as a novel. It’s a decent story, although nowhere near as good, or as in depth, as the first seven Harry Potter books — but could anything be? It was interesting to imagine Harry and his friends as people only a little younger than I am now. The focus is much more on what the characters think and feel than on the action, although there’s enough action — and magic — that I can’t imagine how complicated it must be to stage.

The way people look back on what happened nineteen years earlier is interesting too. You get the impression that Harry kind of misses the bad old days, that he’s a bit bored with mid-life. There are a lot of references to the characters and events in the earlier books, possibly meant to orient new readers, but those feel neither informative enough for someone who may not know the stories well nor subtle enough not to annoy those who do. There are also some absolutely clunky scenes — Act 4, Scene 7, for example, where Hermione is bullying Ron into making nice with Draco and Ron actually says “Fine. I um, I think you’ve got really nice hair. Draco.” And Hermione replies, “Thank you, husband.” Grown-ups just don’t act or sound like that.

Most disappointing is that without the build-up of a novel, the story doesn’t feel very likely. Why would nothing much have happened for nineteen years? What happened to all the people who fought on Voldemort’s side? Was there a process of reconciling the wizarding world, post-Voldemort? It seems likely that wouldn’t have been perfectly smooth, but readers are asked to believe that the hardest thing that’s happened is fathers and sons not having great relationships. That said, I definitely wanted to know how things were going to turn out. If you’re nostalgic for the days when you devoured the latest Harry Potter book because you could not put it down, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will remind you, somewhat, of that time, even if it’s not quite the same.

 

 

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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:

“Grace

Flowers

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.

Sidebar:

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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I’m finishing up the column for September, which will run on 9/8 in the Concord Monitor.

I’m reviewing Howard Mansfield‘s Dwelling In Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter

and wrote shorter reviews of:

Abigail Carroll‘s history book Three Squares: the Invention of the American Meal

Susan Crowther‘s The No Recipe Cookbook: a Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Cooking

Katharine Britton‘s novel, Little Island

and I’ll post the link and the text of my column here when it’s up.

 

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