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26 April 2010

#17 All The Way Home by David Giffels

This title was featured in the "Great Reads" blog from Columbus Metropolitan Library. I picked it up because of the recommendation and to read a firsthand account of home renovation. I've found that I enjoy journalistic nonfiction, and this looked like a good break from the F&SF stuff I generally read.

Akron, OH saw a boom early in the 20th century fueled by rubber and tire production. Goodrich, Firestone, Goodyear, and others all operated out of Akron. When the automobile industry took off, the executives of the rubber companies all got quite wealthy and many built fabulous homes around Akron.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Globalization has killed the rubber wealth in Akron, and their legacies are crumbling. Giffels career as a writer is becoming more established, as is his family: the birth of his first child means the home they live in is quickly becoming too small. The house on N. Portage Path is full of opportunity: plenty of bedrooms, plenty of yard, and and plenty of opportunity for David to flex his crafting muscles as he renovates the house. You see, the house is crumbling. Wildlife has settled in the upper floors, squirrels and raccoons freely coming and going through the holes in the roof. Water has laid waste to the walls, dripping into collection pans that line the floor. The garage is a deathtrap, spitting bricks from its walls and threatening to topple at the slightest provocation. But, the beauty and elegance once inherent in the house is undeniable. Six fireplaces, a billiards room in the basement. A main staircase, and a back staircase for the help. Servants quarters, and the Giffels are hooked.Upon securing ownership (which came with its own trials) the Giffels budget out the cost of renovations. A quirky contractor brings in a slew of characters (including Rod Stewart as an electrician and a rock-band drywall crew) who make the place habitable for humans. Friend and family all turn up to lend support, and slowly, painstakingly David wrests a home from the wreckage.

I expected a little bit more human interaction from this book. It's subtitled "Building a Family in a Falling-Down House", but would more accurately read "There's This House I'm Fixing, and Oh Yeah I'm a Daddy." Giffels spends much of his book on self-discovery through house renovations. The book includes three interludes written by Mrs. Giffels (about 10 pages out of 312), and these help add a little perspective. Her words give a little insight into David, humanizing him more than he does himself. However, there's very little actual depiction of family life. Their son plays a bit-part throughout, but extended adult family has a much larger role in the narrative than does the immediate family. I was hoping for a more detailed account of how to manage the balance of family and work and hobby renovations, but such did not exist in this book. For one, the project of renovating the house was absurd. This was more than the average "handyman's special" that needs a bit of updating; this was a full-out rebuilding of an effectively condemned building. There can be no balance in a hobby like that, not when it's your home. The project eats your life, leaving nothing for family or recreation. The stress of making the home livable pushes on every member of the family, and with no end in sight from the book, it leaves a reader on a resigned, almost negative note. I'd recommend this title as an example of what you might get into renovating houses, but not as a piece of literature or great writing.

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