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What We're Reading Now: 'Hammer Head' by Nina MacLaughlin

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If you spend your days in front of a computer, chances are there are moments, whether frequent or flickering, when you dream of a different life: Of being outdoors, of working with your hands, of creating something as opposed to typing, clicking, emailing, repeating.

Nina MacLaughlin, author of the new memoir Hammer Head, worked at the Boston Phoenix, a weekly alt-newspaper. She loved it for years—until she didn’t, and started to feel numb and suffocated. She answered a Craigslist ad for a carpenter’s assistant, and embarked on a new career—a move that would feel like a convenient book ploy, if you didn’t know that she was still working with Mary, her endearing, soft-spoken carpenter boss, today.

MacLaughlin leans on her knowledge of classics and literature, mixing insights from Ovid, Joan Didion, and John Cheever into her clear and sturdy descriptions of building a wall or tiling a floor. It wasn’t easy for her to move from an abstract, cerebral world into a more concrete one, but she did it.

Reading Hammer Head, like consuming Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, feels like a crucial education, as if you’re providing yourself with a manual for skills you might need in the future. Both books place such emphasis on the doing, that simply reading about MacLaughlin and Strayed’s strength and survival feels insufficent. You want to prop Hammer Head on the bench next to you as you build a bookshelf, and stuff Wild into your pack as you head off onto a solo hike. We rely so much on the ease of technology to accomplish things. And similarly, we lean on other people. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using your resources, or asking for help. But these women teach us by example that it’s possible to forge through this world alone, with your own hands and the right supplies, and some good, poetic instruction along the way.