Saturday, November 1, 2008

Review: Home Girl

Summary: After twenty years as a foreign correspondent in tumultuous locales including Rwanda, Chechnya, and Sudan, Judith Matloff is ready to put down roots and start a family. She leaves Moscow and returns to her native New York City to house-hunt for the perfect spot while her Dutch husband, John, stays behind in Russia with their dog to pack up their belongings. Intoxicated by West Harlem’s cultural diversity and, more important, its affordability, Judith impulsively buys a stately fixer-upper brownstone in the neighborhood.

Little does she know what’s in store. Judith and John discover that their dream house was once a crack den and that “fixer upper” is an understatement. The building is a total wreck: The beams have been chewed to dust by termites, the staircase is separating from the wall, and the windows are smashed thanks to a recent break-in. Plus, the house–crowded with throngs of brazen drug dealers–forms the bustling epicenter of the cocaine trade in the Northeast, and heavily armed police regularly appear outside their door in pursuit of the thugs and crackheads who loiter there.

Thus begins Judith and John’s odyssey to win over the neighbors, including Salami, the menacing addict who threatens to take over their house; MacKenzie, the literary homeless man who quotes Latin over morning coffee; Mrs. LaDuke, the salty octogenarian and neighborhood watchdog; and Miguel, the smooth lieutenant of the local drug crew, with whom the couple must negotiate safe passage. It’s a far cry from utopia, but it’s a start, and they do all they can to carve out a comfortable life. And by the time they experience the birth of a son, Judith and John have even come to appreciate the neighborhood’s rough charms.

Blending her finely honed reporter’s instincts with superb storytelling, Judith Matloff has crafted a wry, reflective, and hugely entertaining memoir about community, home, and real estate. Home Girl is for anyone who has ever longed to go home, however complicated the journey. -- Random House

When I read the description of HOME GIRL: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block by Judith Matloff, I knew it wasn't going to be a book that I related to. I have moved around a lot in my life, but I've always moved into brand new homes or ones that were only a year or two old. Because I am so not handy (that's an understatement -- when we need stuff done around the house, my husband and I tell everyone that we keep the economy moving), I am always amazed by people who buy fixer uppers and are able to turn them into beautiful homes. I knew that I would find the story of a couple who purchased a run-down home in Harlem, nonetheless, would prove to be very interesting!

I realize that this book is a memoir (and I know that means non-fiction), but I have to say that the idea of buying a former crack house in a major drug dealing neighborhood is so incredibly unbelievable to me that the book almost read like fiction. Call me naive and sheltered, but this story blew me away! The author, who was a former foreign correspondent and covered wars and other horrific stories, was most certainly a risk-taker and extremely courageous (although I thought at times she was crazy) to buy a home in West Harlem -- talk about an impulse buy. I am certainly not a risk-taker, either with buying a house in need of restoration or worse, buying in a drug infested neighborhood; however, I somehow was able to relate to Ms. Matloff's story. I am pretty sure that it was the author's writing style and experience as a journalist which made me appreciate the story so much and even "feel her pain."

While I thought this book was going to be about renovating a run-down house, it actually was so much deeper than that. I did find myself laughing (a lot) at the stories of her contractor fiascoes, the financial over-runs, the zany neighbors, and the various mishaps that occurred during the renovation; however, I think the true message that I took from this book was how the author and her husband managed to make this abandoned crack house and drug-filled neighborhood into their home and community. I was amazed how the author was able to "make friends" with the various drug runners and drug addicts in this neighborhood while also working with others in the community to clean it up. It was a story that showed that with determination and persistence, you can make things better!

There is a terrific video (that I found hilarious) which shows Ms. Matloff's house! The author takes you on a tour of her renovated house and you can "meet" many of the characters in the book. Warning: there are a few bad words and some adult content!


Anonymous said...

We buy newer homes, too. Carl's brother and sister-in-law have been in their house for a while, so they're having to update it now. I told her, "we just move." Sounds like a good book.

S. Krishna said...

I'm reading this one now and am really enjoying it - but I too feel like it's fiction!

Anna said...

I've seen a lot of favorable reviews of this book. It sounds like a great read, and I've added it to my list!

Diary of an Eccentric