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Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter

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Nina MacLaughlin spent her twenties working at a Boston newspaper, sitting behind a desk and staring at a screen. Yearning for more tangible work, she applied for a job she saw on Craigslist—Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply—despite being a Classics major who couldn't tell a Phillips from a flathead screwdriver. She got the job, and in Hammer Head she tells the rich and entertaining story of becoming a carpenter.

Writing with infectious curiosity, MacLaughlin describes the joys and frustrations of making things by hand, reveals the challenges of working as a woman in an occupation that is 99 percent male, and explains how manual labor changed the way she sees the world. We meet her unflappable mentor, Mary, a petite but tough carpenter-sage (“Be smarter than the tools!”), as well as wild demo dudes, foul-mouthed plumbers, grizzled hardware store clerks, and the colorful clients whose homes she and Mary work in.

Whisking her readers from job to job—building a wall, remodeling a kitchen, gut-renovating a house—MacLaughlin examines the history of the tools she uses and the virtues and varieties of wood. Throughout, she draws on the wisdom of Ovid, Annie Dillard, Studs Terkel, and Mary Oliver to illuminate her experience of work. And, in a deeply moving climax, MacLaughlin strikes out on her own for the first time to build bookshelves for her own father.

Hammer Head is a passionate book full of sweat, swearing, bashed thumbs, and a deep sense of finding real meaning in work and life.

240 pages, Paperback

First published March 16, 2015

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About the author

Nina MacLaughlin

5 books175 followers
Nina MacLaughlin is the author of Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, a re-telling of Ovid's Metamorphoses told from the perspective of the female figures transformed, as well as Summer Solstice: An Essay. Her first book was the acclaimed memoir Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter. Winter Solstice is forthcoming. She's a books columnist for the Boston Globe and her work has appeared in or on the Paris Review Daily, The Virginia Quarterly Review, n+1, The Believer, Agni, American Short Fiction, the New York Times Book Review, Meatpaper, and elsewhere. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 263 reviews
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,720 followers
April 7, 2015
Is there a genre about twenty-somethings have a career crisis? If not, this book could start one.

Nina was an editor at a newspaper in Boston when she got tired of the daily grind and one day, she quit. On a whim, she applied to be a carpenter's assistant and she got the job, despite not having any experience. This book is about the months she spent learning to build stuff with her hands, and learning to let go of her old life.

I was drawn to this book because I used to be a web editor, and I could relate to her frustrations about the insatiable needs of the Internet. (Just post one more story! One more video! One more slideshow! One more quiz! Gaaaa. The Web Beast never sleeps.)

I like stories about people learning something new and changing their lives for the better, but the reason this memoir only got three stars was because it is overwritten. Seriously, ridiculously, eye-rollingly overwritten. Nina is the kind of writer who never met a description she didn't like. She describes each street. Each house. Each person in the coffee shop. She describes every tool she uses, and gives the history of the tool.

There were several stories I enjoyed, such as the time Nina built bookcases for her dad's home, and she was so proud of how well they fit and how sturdy they were. I also liked what she learned from her boss, Mary, and how Nina was reminded to "be smarter than the tool." It takes skill to solve carpentry problems, and Nina learned a lot from her mistakes.

There is some good writing here, but there is also a fair amount of plodding. I would recommend this memoir with the caution that you will probably have to do some skimming.

Favorite Quotes
"The screen exerts an oppressive power, and I am as seduced as anyone by the clips and pics, the news and noise of the Internet. I would rather e-mail than talk on the phone. I have pals I know only online and am grateful for those connections. But there is no other place I can think of where one can consume so much and absorb so little. The Internet has no equal in that regard. I am leery of its siren song, the way it beckons, and of my own inability to ignore its call. It's a rabbit-hole exit, a tumbling in space with Wonderland ever always one click away."

"Finishing a piece of writing, the sensation was relief coupled with a spentness, a short temper and depletion, grinch and hollow. After a deadline, I experienced a pinched feeling behind the eyes, and the next person I'd encounter would get strained smiles and diverted, unfocused attention ... Almost immediately upon finishing a piece of writing, the glow faded, and all I'd see were the flaws. Work with Mary [her carpenter boss] was different. I looked back on everything we'd built with satisfaction and pride, even the things that didn't deserve it ... My whole self felt more honest, more useful, and more used. There was no grinding back to a different world. I'd been there the whole time."

"What appealed to me so much about carpentry work is how far it is from words. The zone of my brain that gets activated building bookshelves is a different one than the one that puts together sentences. And what a relief it can be, not having to worry about the right word, not having to think, over and over, is this the best way to say this? The questions carpentry raises are the same, ultimately — will this work? Will this function as it should, be true and strong? But the answers come from different rooms in my head, and it is good to exit the word room in favor of a less-used realm that deals with space, numbers, tools, and materials. Much of what carpentry requires does not come naturally to me. Angles, numbers, basic logic. But with carpentry you have a tape measure, a saw, a pencil, a piece of wood. Concrete, understandable, real in the world, each of these things made for a specific purpose."
Profile Image for Edan.
Author 8 books33.1k followers
January 16, 2015
I really liked this book! It's beautifully written, with prose smooth as silk (or, um, sanded wood? Oh god, sorry, that's bad). I loved the literary references and philosophizing and it's balanced with vivid scenes and descriptions of work. Man, I loved reading about work, about the world of THINGS. MacLaughlin has an assured voice and she is wise, wise, wise. I want her to move to California and build me a bookcase. I highly recommend this one!

Profile Image for Brandon Forsyth.
899 reviews150 followers
March 20, 2015
The end of this book is beautifully written, and almost stirred me to give it four stars. Almost.
I just don't think I'm enough of a classicist to enjoy a transition like someone saying "you'd need wings to survive that fall" taking us into an exploration of the Daedalus/Icarus myth. It feels forced and showy to me. I also don't have the spatial intelligence to enjoy many of the descriptions of carpentry used here, and in some respects the book feels incomplete, like this is still the beginning of Nina MacLaughlin's story. I felt like she held back at times.
That being said, it's a wonderful book in many respects, and I did enjoy it. If you can handle a few more Ovid references than I can, you'll probably love this.
Profile Image for Andrew.
573 reviews166 followers
March 5, 2015
In the beginning was the Medievalist Mortician. Now there's the Classicist Carpenter. Find a Reformation Roofer and we're all set with alliterative school-career choices. Except the Reformation was total crap, which all good historians know.


This is a great look at the underestimated trades; at confounding gender stereotypes; and about crafting a niche for yourself in a pushy world that likes to tell you the right way to live. As a learner herself, Nina MacLaughlin is in a unique position to translate her work for us who never knew the difference between a rip and a cut. She makes us all understand the world of wood and screws and tiles and grout - and is talented enough to have us smell it too. Because a well sanded piece of pine is, truly, like velvet.

But it's also a book about relationships. About the patience to learn from others. About letting them challenge us to do things we thought we could never do.

And about starting over when you need to.
August 27, 2015
Deciding that you want to do something completely different from what you've been doing is awkward. After the phase of questioning all of your choices ever (paired with a bit of self-hate), you move into a phase where you either have to take a leap of faith or accept where you already are. Nina MacLaughlin wasn't entirely sure what kind of change she needed, but she knew she needed one. This is the story of her incredible leap into a career path she knew nothing about and the wisdom it brought her.

MacLaughlin's writing is fantastic. You can easily finish this book in a sitting. Somehow chapters about tiling or about building stairs aren't boring at all. And Hammer Head is rife with literary references and philosophy that manage to feel 100x more interesting than they do pretentious.

It's the leap itself that's scariest. Sometimes a story of how well it can all go is all you need to go ahead and take yours. You're going to have to eventually.

Full review: http://outlandishlit.blogspot.com/201...
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews159k followers
August 4, 2015
If you had told me that one of the books that would come to mean the most to me as a writer was the story of a woman who quit her job as a journalist to become a carpenter, I would never have believed you. But that’s exactly what Nina MacLaughlin’s Hammer Head has done. Not because it’s not really about becoming a carpenter. It is, and reading about MacLaughlin’s learning those skills – all those saws! the measurements! – is part of the great pleasure of the book. But the other great pleasure of this book is MacLaughlin’s beautiful, assured prose, from the way she describes the quality of the cold in the morning, to the use of a spirit level. She has an ability to see things, and to relate them, that resonates deeply. It is a book about becoming a carpenter, but it is also a book about learning to make anything, including a life, a self. I love it. –Kat Howard

from The Best Books of 2015 So Far: http://bookriot.com/2015/07/08/the-be...
Profile Image for Jennifer.
784 reviews24 followers
May 4, 2015
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I really understand the idea of wanting to do physical work, that feels concrete and has an actual end goal that you can see. I think those of us who tend to live in our heads really need to do this kind of work instead of sitting at a desk doing the work that comes easiest but leaves us empty. It was interesting to read the parallels that MacLaughlin made between making, doing and dying and I appreciated the emphasis she placed on the idea that physical work does not mean less intelligent workers but instead a different kind of intelligence, one full of problem solving and practical thinking as opposed to *thinking big thoughts*.
However - the writing grated on me a bit. I don't know if it really was too full of showy descriptions or if I am just grumpy (well, I'm definitely grumpy :)) but I almost abandoned the book when I got to the line "A stallion of a pick-up truck parked out front leaked testosterone out of the gas cap" ... uh, really? But I gave it to the end of the chapter and all in all it is a nice read.

*I've always loved November, when the bones start to show.*
Profile Image for Jennifer.
69 reviews2 followers
May 15, 2015
I like memoirs about change. In Hammer Head, a journalist quits her job, and, with no experience at all, becomes a carpenter. The book is about her learning to do carpentry and the adventures she has with the woman for whom she works. I liked that it's a book about strength- the strength needed to haul and lift and create. But also the mental strength needed to abandon a career and do something totally foreign. The author brings in stories about the history of various tools and she also makes literary references. These are great devices, but they are not woven in seamlessly, so each time one appears, it is really jarring. In general, however, Hammer Head is a quick and enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Ben.
192 reviews5 followers
March 30, 2015
Strongly recommended--I also started in the trades with very little prior knowledge and a college degree, so many parts of this resonated with me. I generally enjoy non-fiction about house building, and have been reading Nina MacLaughlin's blog for years, so I was predisposed to enjoy her authorial debut. I found her writing enjoyable and accessible, and her descriptions of the frustrations and satisfactions of carpentry were true to my experience. One of my favorite reads in recent memory!
Profile Image for Taylor.
291 reviews219 followers
July 6, 2020
The story of a woman's shift in career from journalist to carpentry. It was such a lovely surprise, beautifully written, inspiring, and quite moving. I came out of it thinking, wow, yeah, it would actually be really nice to know how to build and make things. I've had the urge to explore non-computer based trades for awhile now, and this definitely threw some more gas on that spark.
Profile Image for Heino Colyn.
286 reviews97 followers
February 17, 2021
I look at wood the way I look at meat. You can always cut more off a piece of wood and you can always cook meat a little longer. Start rare with meat. Start long with wood.

This is also true for beards.

I anticipated this being one of my top 5 books of 2021, and I think it will make the cut? I totally get the author when she talks about the yearning for more tangible work - I've often thought that my dream job might be an apprenticeship in a woodshop. Actually, it is being Adam Savage's apprentice in his cave, but whatever. From what I've heard of the book, I was prepared to give it FIVE POINT FIVE STARS, but ended up not loving the writing. I don't know why. It felt like a little too much. Oh! And Mary's shop! It sounded magical and mysterious, but also horrifying. Exactly the opposite of the type of space I like to work in. That said, I kind of wanted more "Adventures in Mary's Shop" stories, or just more about interesting jobs they worked on. But... not that kind of book. I get it. Still. Had a good time.
Profile Image for Laura Hoffman Brauman.
2,596 reviews36 followers
November 15, 2021
Nina McLaughlin spent the earlier part of her career as a journalist. She was feeling burnt out when she came across an ad for a carpenter's assistant that said that women were strongly encouraged to apply - and so began a transition for her into working with her hands - creating and contributing to tangible products that others could see and touch and use. I enjoyed this memoir and the ties she makes between constructing a physical space and constructing (or dismantling) a life. There were times when the comparisons felt a little forced, but overall it worked. I've had this on my shelf for a while, but we are doing demo work on a house right now and I hoped it might give me a little motivation and inspiration. Not so much a success on that front - I'm very much ready to hand this project off to more experienced hands - but I do have a greater appreciation for what those hands are going to accomplish in the space. All in all, a solid read.
Profile Image for KWinks  .
1,224 reviews15 followers
September 5, 2015
I love books in which the main character gives up one way of life in order to explore a new one. I like it even more when it's a true story. I found myself relating to someone who wants to make something tangible, with her own hands. Go girl!
Overall, it's a good read. I found myself getting a little frustrated because I wanted more day to day details (what did she pack for lunch, how did she dress to work in the harsh weather, what did she do in her six months off a year, and how was she managing the money???????) Instead, I had to plow through a bunch of quotes from Ovid and a more philosophical look at carpentry. While some of the history of tools was interesting, I felt the book was missing the details about the actual jobs. My brother is an exterminator and he has "stories" about the houses he visits and the pests that he battles. I can''t believe many of Nina and Mary's jobs were this unspectacular. I don't mean this in a gossipy way. Sometimes a client just tells a good story, or is a great character. There is one in the book, but that's it. In five years of work?
So I feel like this is more a frame of a story, and it's light on details.
I am inspired, however, to learn to swing a hammer myself, so that is awesome.

Also, BOO to no photos! Seriously, we don't even get to see the bookcase?
Profile Image for Heather.
5 reviews2 followers
March 14, 2015
I received an advanced copy of this book from ALA, and from the beginning was excited about the premise. As a woman who has been a steelworker (on the floor of the mill doing the labor), and worked in construction (as a supervisor, not doing the labor), so much of what MacLaughlin talks about in this book resonated with me. Also, I'm excited to see any book that has the potential to encourage women to go into the trades!

She does an excellent job of describing the satisfaction one can get from spending a day working with your hands and actually creating something that is simply not found in more esoteric work. Though brief, the time spent in the book discussing how working in a male dominated industry and dressing in a desexualized manner can affect your sexuality and the way in which you are perceived spoke to me as well. MacLaughlin is clear in her writing, using her own learning curve to introduce the reader to the foreign language of carpentry in a manner that does not seem condescending. Though it is certainly not necessary to like the people in a book in order to like the book itself, I came away from this book liking both Nina and Mary and wanting to spend time working on their crew with them. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Andrea.
731 reviews28 followers
June 14, 2015
I really loved the lines of this memoir - that a woman accustomed to doing desk/intellectual work chucked it all to pursue carpentry, a career of tangible products. I think it would perhaps have been more suited to being an article though: MacLaughlin relates her experiences working and learning, but pads those interesting portions with digressions on the history of tools and classical literature quotes. A fast read.
Profile Image for Vicki.
857 reviews61 followers
July 29, 2015
Decent concept, but a bit pretentious in parts. Also it got pretty repetitive and there was evident filler -- not to mention the huge typeface and margins -- this was probably better suited to a long-form piece in a magazine. But it was not a bad read, all told.
Profile Image for Coloradobetta.
182 reviews
January 12, 2015
Surprisingly enjoyable and deep. A must-read for any girl who has ever done a project with tools.
Profile Image for Megargee.
643 reviews16 followers
May 9, 2015
To read the summaries, one would think that the central theme of this memoir is about a woman struggling to succeed in a primarily male occupation. However, any gender issues which might affect acceptance, remuneration, or bidding on jobs had long since been resolved by her mentor, Mary, the widely respected master carpenter who hired Nina as her assistant and trainee. They are used as a MacGuffin, a device to arouse the reader's interest and involve them in the narrative.
MacLaughlin's real focus is on a person, who happens to be a woman, defining herself and her role in life. Dissatisfied with her job as a journalist, she seeks something, anything, more fulfilling, eventually answering an ad for a carpenter's assistant, woman preferred. In this narrative carpentry is a metaphor for work and work is a metaphor for life. For Nina, carpentry, and life involve growth, productivity, and having an impact on the world by creating tangible objects. Work gives life meaning. The basic tools and materials she uses connect her with long dead artisans and craftsmen. Without work, such as during the long winter layoff, she questions her worth as a person and recalls how her own father had lapsed into a long term depression when he had been permanently laid off at 55.
Over the five years covered by this memoir Nina grows in skills and insight, tackling increasingly more responsible projects and working more independently toward the fulfillment she initially sought. That said, I must confess I would have preferred more carpentry and less philosophy.

Profile Image for Nicole.
41 reviews1 follower
August 9, 2016
I received an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Giving this book three stars is a bit of an insult. It's more of a three and a half or high three, not just a simple and low three stars. It is not a terrible book by any means. I think that depending on a reader's preference and perhaps how open-minded they are could determine whether or not this is a memoir or possibly even more of a motivational book that provides the inspiration to kick start into some kind of change that perhaps the reader had been considering for a while.

I think that this book may appeal to those a bit older or those looking for a drastic change in their lives (whether it be career wise or something in their personal life). It is about the author Nina, and how she was sick of her insignificant and boring desk job working for the newspaper and she decided to apply for a carpentry job. The rest of the book is about her learning curve, life lessons, famous quotes and stories about following your heart and not being afraid to go after what you want.

The in depth carpentry references were a bit much and waaaaayyyyy over my head, which for me, personally, was not the most enjoyable. But hey, if that's what you're into!
Profile Image for B..
2,029 reviews10 followers
August 7, 2019
The author beautifully captures what it's like to have a writing job in this digital age and the need to create. I would alternately cringe, thinking "that's not how you do that," and quietly chuckle to myself going, "ha, I remember doing that once - that's a dumb thing. you never do *that* more than once!" I remember building my first bookshelves, and the author captures that feeling beautifully as well. Still further, the discussion of being one of the few women in a male dominated field is also well captured. All in all, this book had a high level of appeal, and some of the projects discussed in the book reminded me of changes I could make to improve the functionality of my own home - things I had initially intended to address and then forgotten about. It's been a few months since I've hit the hardware store - looks like it's that time again!
Profile Image for Andi.
407 reviews40 followers
April 9, 2015
This book is dangerous. I want to build all the things...demolish all the things...renovate all the things! I wasn't sure I was going to find this book very interesting and even passed over it the first couple of times I saw it on book recommendation lists, but when it kept showing up again and again, I thought I'd give it a shot. The worst thing would be that I didn't like it and *gasp* wouldn't finish it. So, why not? I put myself on the library's hold list so I'd get a copy as soon as it was released, and I did finish it because it did keep me interested. It was fun and funny and also smart and inspiring. Nina McLaughlin has an enjoyable writing style and I can see why she had a place in the world of journalism for the better part of a decade.
Profile Image for lauren.
293 reviews4 followers
December 15, 2015
Where is my lesbian carpenter mentor???

I had moments of not being able to read this book because it really roused my angst about sitting in front of a computer all day instead of making stuff.
Profile Image for Bailey.
434 reviews115 followers
August 12, 2015
I wasn't expecting to read this in a few hours, but I loved it. This book will make you want to quit your job and go follow your wildest dream.
504 reviews2 followers
July 30, 2018
Another favorite topic: building ...and, again, a liberation story. The author, a journalist, becomes impatient with her office job tapping computer keys, and goes to work with a woman "journeyman" carpenter in what becomes a sort of apprenticeship. In the book, organized around some of the iconic tools of the trade -- tape measure, hammer, screwdriver, clamp, saw, and level -- we follow her from her first uncertain steps right through to the point where she, too, could be called a journeyman, taking on projects of her own.
Like her, I'm a words person born and trained who's acquired woodworking skills along the way -- I, too, classify myself as a journeyman carpenter -- and it has been my honor and delight to have two daughters as apprentices ...and so this book had a nice emotional resonance for me. I stumbled over some of the literary references, from Pliny and Ovid to Annie Dillard, which sometimes felt like a reach. There's also family context, the break-up of the author's parents, that either enriches the book (here's a real person!) as it did for me, or obscures the underlying story. (Nina, I'm interested in the sequel.) As always, in a book about women "invading" the territories traditionally held by men, there's skirmishing along the border, and here it also enriched the story for me. Who knew that fewer than 1% of carpenters in the US are women? Watching the care and finesse of my own daughters at work, I think that's a shame. While I understand the author's obsession with dust and chemicals making their way into her lungs, I didn't think it belonged in the book: I kept expecting to turn a page and find Mary dying of lung cancer. Please, no!
Mary, the journeyman teacher, is a super-hero of sorts, full of the wisdoms of carpentry ("Measure twice, cut once" and "Cook meat rare; cut boards long") and the more-or-less infinite patience, finesse, and problem-solving legerdemain that day-in, day-out carpentry instills in its practitioners. Lucky Nina, for having Mary as her guide.
My elder daughter and favorite carpentry partner would like this book.
113 reviews
February 18, 2019
Before reading Hammer Head, I started off with Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft and was put off by his erudition, where it seemed his goal was to out smart, out history, out philosophize, out Aristotle, anyone who deigned to denigrate the value of blue collar work. Admittedly, I didn't finish his book, mostly because I started MacLaughlin's and was simply blown away. She too can reference ancient texts, in her case Ovid ("What was is now no more and what was not has come to be. Renewal is the lot of time.") as well as more contemporary ones like Cheever, and she too can wax historical, but in her case it is the backstory of the hammer, the saw and the screw. I was delighted by her and her mentor's tales of carpentry, a profession so male heavy and dominated that MacLaughlin's use of a hammer, chop saw, table saw, level, etc. felt like radical acts of defiance against that tradition. The blend of history, family, personal struggle, the gritty realities of carpentry with stories such as Inuit people measuring the depth of their anger by walking away from camp with a pole and planting it once the rawness of their feelings subsided, along with feelings of desexualization as a result of the kind of work one does and the kind of clothes one wears to do that work were revelatory and created so much texture and made this such a pleasure to read. In the end it's more than carpentry, it's about seeing yourself and the world around you anew because of the choices you make everyday, "'Knows the way, stops seeing.' It's not an argument for getting oneself lost, I think, but a nudge to stay awake, stay focused, alert even when time and experience have dulled us."
Profile Image for Cheryl.
234 reviews
May 15, 2018
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author honestly and gently writes about difficult but necessary transitions and the fears and rewards of making a change.
"How literal-minded we are when new to work. How pleasing to learn that there's slack in the toil, room for error and play." p. 30
"What a villain a nail can be. It took on an intelligence, a sinister character -- a worm, a non-cooperative enemy. Whacked wrong, the metal seems to alter form, from something strong and firm to something flimsy, crushable, and twisting. An ugly weak thing, a bent nail. But then frustration shifted back to where it belonged: the nail's not the one with intelligence. My arm and aim became the enemy, my own unskilled self." p. 66
As someone who has found myself in a fallow period, I appreciated how this dilemma was articulated:
"Fallow periods are something to savor. Times of low productivity can be one of life's luxuries. ...
But for those fallow periods to feel both purposeful and luxurious, they need to be book-ended by accomplishment, by doing and producing." pp.126-127
I also enjoyed the references to other works of literature, writers, poets, reference books, as well as her short discourses on the history of the tools of the trade. Life lessons extracted from the use and purpose of the tools.
"To begin was to open the possibility of fucking it up." p. 209
From the chapter titled "Level"
"I sometimes wish a tool existed that could measure the plumbness of our spirits, a tool that would help us decide what's right for our own lives. ... If your spirit is level one minute, there's no guarantee it will be level the next. We shift, or don't, make adjustments, change, with the intention and the hope --and sometimes nothing so intentional--that the bubble will find center. ...
How do do we decide what's right for our own lives? The question never gets easier to answer. If we 're lucky and we pay attention, pieces here and there will start to fit together. Parts shift into place, feel flush underneath the skin of the fingertip. For a moment, the bubble dips and shifts to show you level, at home with what you are, what you have become, and what you are becoming." pp 208, 216.
And the illustrations are great!
Author 42 books211 followers
July 23, 2017
I love "A Degree of Mastery" by Annie Tremmel Wilcox, in which the author leaves a graduate degree in the Humanities (English) to become the first woman apprentice of a master bookbinder at the University of Iowa. I am forever looking for another memoir like A Degree of Mastery, so I was thrilled to come across Hammer Head. I was hoping for insights into what I love about working with my hands, whether creating or mending (I love both bookbinding and woodworking, and I am very much an academic). Well, Hammer Head is no Degree of Mastery. While the author did try to offer profound insights, it failed where I was concerned - sudden segues into classical mythology felt unnecessary and a tad smug to me (I am not at all opposed to reading these allusions in principle, I am an academic! But these did not feel fresh or interesting). Actual stories of the author's work with Mary were interesting. I liked Mary, and that kept me reading. The author's discussions of the author's heterosexuality and her perceptions of womanhood felt really jarring as they seemed to be included to position the author in contrast to Mary, a lesbian.
This book fell short for me, but I finished it.
Profile Image for Sienna.
794 reviews13 followers
September 2, 2018
Recommended to me by my dad, with whom I work on many projects in our homes & rentals. It's my favorite work, for some of the same reasons Nina describes in this book about her own education. The attention required at each & every step turns out to be a gift. Working with wood, drywall, tile, & all the powdery forms of good (from concrete to grout) develops the eyes, the imagination. The parts, many invisible, come clear along with the possibility. Words are much messier, not always as useful as we think. The communication between Nina & Mary, in few words, show not tell, resonated with me. Also, how the lessons of the work are much bigger lessons:

"Mary showed me, over and over again, how a little time and effort, a little care and thought, can correct almost every ill. It's a lesson that translates to love of course... Patience, a little finesse, the ability to stay with something that periodically bored or frustrated you, that periodically drove you to the edge of madness, these are skills necessary too for sharing a life with someone. I do not think it a coincidence that the deepest strongest love I've experienced began after I started this work."
Profile Image for Adriana.
919 reviews71 followers
August 22, 2019
3.5 stars

Hammer Head made me feel simply comforted. Her journey was relatable to my own in some ways and in other ways I saw my personality in hers. Her worrying over sawdust would be me. Her want to work with her hands - something I am wanting but with a different medium. Her unsureness of making her father's bookshelves - oh I feel that all the time. But her decision to change career fields, that is just like me. The history and talk of books, everything really was just comforting to me. It's relaxing and interesting read. I did at points zone out though so it wasn't a perfect read but an enjoyable one all the same.
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