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The Mindful Reader: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas turns keen observations on self

Last modified: 6/14/2013 12:19:16 AM
‘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: A Memoir of Life Observed. “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 has seen. This time she turns to a fascinating subject: herself.

From groundbreaking anthropological fieldwork in Africa with her family at age 18 to studying animal behavior, from writing for the New Yorker to serving on the Peterborough Board of Selectmen, from meeting Idi Amin to struggling with addiction, from 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’ roles 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 has learned through her experiences and tells a good story, too.

Poetry and money

Hillsboro poet Martha Carlson-Bradley’s second full-length collection, Sea Called Fruitfulness, addresses ideas that are contemporary and historical, individual and communal, and 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, such as “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 he learned 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.

New England cooking

To Eat: A Country Life, Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd’s last book together (Winterrowd died in 2010), is an artful tribute to their 7-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 and 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’s mouthwatering photographs). My son liked the brownies enough to make another batch. I cut the spicy nonalcoholic 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 she 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.

Book events:

Ben Hewitt will read from $aved at Main Street Bookends, 16 E. Main St., Warner, at 7 p.m. June 12. Call 456-2700 or visit mainstreetbookends.com for more information.

Gibson’s Bookstore, 24 S. Main St., Concord, will host Elizabeth Marshall Thomas at 3 p.m. June 20 and Martha Carlson-Bradley at 7 p.m. June 27. Call 224-0562 or visit gibsonsbookstore.com for more information.


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