Posts Tagged ‘Paul Harding’

I’ve said it before (but at the time I may have still been events coordinator at our local indie bookstore, and therefore professionally invested in exhorting people to attend) and I’ll say it again: there’s nothing quite like hearing an author read and discuss his or her work. Take Paul Harding, who I heard at Gibson’s today. Admittedly I’ve said many times I could listen to him read his grocery list and learn something. But hearing him read from his new book Enon helped me understand the reaction I’d had to the book in a way even discussing it with other readers couldn’t.

I read this book during my vacation reading binge. I came away feeling somewhat drained; I describe Enon as devastatingly brilliant and just plain devastating. I chatted with a writer friend about what we each thought — it’s stylistically different than Tinkers, which Paul* described today as an unlineated lyric poem. Enon is first person narrative, a book with dialogue. She felt Enon wasn’t as “tight” as Tinkers and said although she admired it she didn’t enjoy it, which gave me pause.

I agreed but then rescinded that feeling today: I stand by my original assertion that I enjoyed it. It’s a tough book, emotionally. But even in its darkest parts, Paul noted, he made sure never to extinguish the light altogether; he hoped the light — hope — would be the brighter for the darkness. Paul described it today as a ghost story, and a book about a person, Charlie Crosby, experiencing grief.

He noted that a narrative about an actual grieving person is not a meditation on grief. Instead, he called it a lamentation, a psalm. He said that Charlie’s sense he shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing, and then his doing it anyway, is straight out of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I sat there thinking “that’s so true, and I hadn’t thought of that.” A few minutes later he said something I’ve heard him say before: that he tells his students, what a writer should strive for is that readers will read a sentence and say “that’s true, and I’ve always known it but I’ve never seen someone put it into words like this before.”

That sense of profound truth, of human experience writ both small, in the story of a particular person, and large, in the sense you get reading it that this man is every man who ever lived, now and in the past and the future, that time has compressed, as Paul would have it, and that reading this book reveals what is, what was, and what will be in the human heart, well, that is just about as beautiful an experience as a reader can have.

And that is why I enjoyed Enon, in all its devastating, heartbreaking, gutsy raw truth.  The literary pyrotechnics aside — Paul’s inordinate skill at not only writing prose that it strong and powerful and lovely but also at weaving so much detail into his world that you feel you could walk through the town of Enon and know your way — this book will enter your mind and heart. Paul Harding makes me see the world differently. It’s both a more difficult and a more hopeful place, which I always knew, and never heard anyone else put it into words quite the same way before.

*I’ve spoken with him several times and actually sold a copy of Tinkers to his mother at one of his events before I realized that’s who she was. Also he’s possibly the only Pulitzer prize winner I’ll be on a first name basis with, so I’m taking the liberty of referring to him as Paul.


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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:



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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Last week the bookconscious household visited Isle la Motte, Vermont. We rented a cozy cottage on the west side of the island, with copious views of Lake Champlain and its gorgeous sunsets. We walked, biked, ate large breakfasts of fresh local eggs accompanied by many pork products, picked raspberries, visited farm stands, grilled most of our dinners, made s’mores (a first for the Computer Scientist) over a camp fire, kayaked, canoed, looked at the lovely blue moon, sampled local maple creemees, apples, cider donuts, ice ciders, and beers, and relaxed. It was a really perfect end of summer week, and a memorable family vacation.

I took along four books and ended up reading all of those plus three and a half more on my iPad. It was heavenly. Spending long stretches of time lost in a book brought back my childhood summers and the joyful sense of freedom I felt, reading as long and as much as I wanted.

Most of what I brought had been in the “to-read” pile for some time: Dave Eggers‘ novel A Hologram for the King (funny and touching but felt to me like an overgrown short story), Margaret Drabble‘s novel based somewhat on her family history, The Peppered Moth (Wow! An amazing multigenerational story that’s also a kind of social history of women; I want to read everything Drabble has ever written!), Elinor Lipman‘s essay collection I Can’t Complain (sealed my previous view that Lipman is not only someone I’d like to know but also someone I’d like to be), and Paul Harding‘s forthcoming novel Enon (both devastatingly brilliant, as I expected it would be, and just plain devastating).

The three e-books were: Aimee Bender‘s The Color Master (short stories, which I checked out of the NH Downloadable Books website while giving a demo to a patron at the library a few hours before we left for Vermont because I remembered that Ann Kingman recommended it on Books on the Nightstand; I liked some pieces, including the title story, but didn’t like others), Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway (I had somehow managed not to read this yet, and I loved it), and Katharine Britton’s Little Island (which I’ll review in September’s Mindful Reader column).

The book I started on vacation and finished yesterday, also an e-book from the library, is Anthony Marra‘s A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaLongtime bookconscious fans know I am generally suspicious of “It” books that the literary industrial complex promotes heavily. I tend to be a contrarian about books I’m told I will love. Besides, with works like Mrs. Dalloway still to read, I’m not interested in every hotshot emerging writer that comes along. But in this case, the hype is justified. Marra is so young; like Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife, it’s hard to imagine how with relatively little life experience he managed to tap the emotional range required to conjure his characters, people of various ages living in war torn Chechnya. Which he didn’t even visit until the book was nearly finished. And like Obreht he blew my mind.

Great literature is emotionally evocative and universally relatable — it takes you so richly into the characters’ experience that it doesn’t matter whether it’s set in a place and time and culture you are unfamiliar with. I’m probably never going to live in a war zone, God willing. I knew only a little bit about Chechnya before I read this novel. But I ached to the core for these people, and Marra’s stunningly beautiful writing had me both turning pages and savoring, even the sections full of violence and horror that in lesser hands would have made me skip. It was especially moving to read in light of the conflict in Syria, as I followed the news and tried to imagine what it’s like for ordinary people caught in a civil war.

I’m really fortunate that I get to read so many good books. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beyond good.

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