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House : A Memoir [Hardcover]

Michael Ruhlman

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Hardcover, 17 Mar 2005 --  
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First Sentence
It was our house nowI had the key in my pocket. I steered into the empty driveway for the first time; until this moment Donna and I had been visitors, and we felt as welcome as a threat. Read the first page
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A very mixed book, though ultimately satisfying 21 May 2006
By Richard A. Jenkins - Published on Amazon.com
This book interested me as a native Clevelander and a former resident of Cleveland Heights. It also happened that I had recently sold an old house (in Atlanta) and had happily cast off the annoyances of homeownership.

For Ruhlman, the old house that he & his wife buy becomes imbued with many meanings of home. Ruhlman grew-up in the nearby suburb of Shaker Heights and the house becomes a meditation on growing up in suburban Cleveland and being able to recapture some of that life as an adult and for his children. Cleveland Heights once rivaled Shaker Heights for prestige, but was never as carefully as planned a city and always had a socially and economically more diverse population. Shaker Heights is a beautiful suburb, but Cleveland Heights is somehow more comfortable and real. Much of Cleveland Heights predated zoning laws (which became established in law because of a court case in the nearby suburb of Euclid, Ohio), yet the basic layout of things has endured and has proven to be just as livable today as it was decades ago. Partly for privacy reasons, Ruhlman doesn't give too much detail about his immediate neighborhood, but in doing so, he fails to give Clevelanders and non-Clevelanders a real sense of place and context. Cleveland Heights is filled with leafy streets and an ecelctric mix of "traditional" architectural styles, with the odd modern, sometimes architecturally significant, interloper. The broad boulevards include tudors, french provincials and federal style homes. The side streets include various kinds of "colonials" including "dutch colonials", bungalows, "California" contemporaries and small scale tudors. Near the commercial strips, one finds the frame 2 and a half family wood framed "Buckeye front" houses that are unique to Cleveland. I have coveted many a Cleveland Heights street and home.

The book moves back and forth between a number of narratives. It begins with the straightforward acquisition of the house. At points, it digresses into Ruhlman's past and that of his wife, whose reluctant transplantation to Cleveland is a recurring theme, and their marriage. There's a long digression into scholarly work about suburbs that's overwritten, needlessly academic, and just doesn't work. Ruhlman tries to defend suburbia, but isn't very convincing. Shaker Heights & Cleveland Heights were streetcar suburbs and Shaker still has the streetcars. They have the density and layouts to permit neighborhood business districts and neighborhood life to exists in ways that are more "urban" than suburban and certainly different from much of post WWII suburbia. Cleveland Heights is the kind of place where "suburbia haters" wind up buying a house.

Some of the best parts of the book deal with buying the house and restoring it. I found myself jealous of his home inspector, a man who found the kinds of very expensive plumbing and drainage problems that my inspector missed. Instead, I would up redoing an already remodled bathroom and spending thousands on french drains. The book become somewhat jarring because we don't get more of the evolution of the house from "wreck with good bones" to home. OTOH, one of the most interesting seques is the reconstruction of the house's history. This leads Ruhlman to contact former occupants, who put him in touch with other people who spent time as visitors or residents of the house. One former resident even returns for a visit.

Ruhlman ultimately ties up most of the loose ends, although we aren't privy to how things came together, in his marriage, or in the restoration of the house. In stories like this, one expects to read of ill-timed cost overruns, periods of primitive existence, and follies in home imporvement. Instead, we get a little mortaring, some painting, and a steady stream of rich people's castoffs from Ruhlman's mother in Florida.

Still, the book reminded me how a house becomes caught up in many other things in one's life, and most of the time, that's a good thing or at least a useful thing. For some people I know in Atlanta, the house is their excuse for staying there--almost like a bad marriage. For Ruhlman, the house was a way to keep the marriage together, although his wife didn't always see it that way. The book would have been better if we hadn't been lectured about urban planning and if we could have seen how the house's history, it's restoration, and Ruhlman's marraige get pulled together.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Historic home revisited 1 Jun 2005
By J. Mackin - Published on Amazon.com
Ruhlman's latest book focuses on his family's renovation of a hundred year old Victorian home in the Cleveland Heights section Cleveland. Ruhlman manages to weave a history of suburbia, and America's tense relationship with its very idea, with a personal remembrance of renovating something from the studs. His discussion of the history of the Cleveland Heights section as well as his own home's owners helps to bring the area to life; I found it to be an interesting look at a city that is struggling to regain some of it's urban power. The changing nature of suburbia is the backbone for much of what he writes - how America, an ever moving nation, has changed it's view on not only suburbs but also on the very notion of home and family. He also discusses the problems this presents for him, questioning why he and his wife are choosing to subject themselves to living in the attic of their new home while contractors built what must be one of the most beautiful kitchens in the world! Ruhlman does not shy away from the tensions that are laying under the surface of his life. And even if he does not flesh them out fully or always understand his desire for this massive Victorian structure, he is honest in his confusion.

In a few instances Ruhlman can get a bit preachy about what it means to have a home. In some ways he invest too much in the actual physical property rather than what makes his house a home: his family, his wife, his neighbors, even his cooking. That would be the only slight drawback to an otherwise excellent read, one that has you thinking about the nature of urban development as well as laughing about the ups and downs of major renovations.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the reasons we moved home... 5 Oct 2005
By CopyGal - Published on Amazon.com
My husband is a native Clevelander, and we met in the city before moving to Florida shortly after our marriage. We were there 2 years when I read a review on this book, and it was one of the catalysts in bringing us back to Cleveland, snow and all. Michael Ruhlman is a gifted writer, and this is clearly his love letter to his home and neighborhood. I loved it, although I'm not sure if it will be as well-received by people who do not know and love Cleveland Heights the way I do! Fascinating.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars From Cleveland but didn't like it 12 Mar 2012
By Ruth M. Elder - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
I was sure this book would be a winner for me. I'm from Cleveland and love it and also have a soft spot for old houses.

But this book was 'a miss' for me. First, there were too many times the author wandered off for pages and pages of monologues about the meaning of home, the literary aspects of home and while I am a college graduate, these bored me to no end.

The history of Cleveland itself was interesting enough, if overlong. But the two biggest disappointments to me were the fact that almost none of the renovations were done by the homeowners, save painting and minor demolition. And the details of the renovations were not given.

Secondly, from the very first page, almost, the author describes the house as 'creepy' and 'dark' and 'having a bad feeling'. They argue when inside, their daughter hates the place, and yet they STILL buy it. This made me loose respect for the author right off the bat.

This book is bound for Goodwill, as I will never read it again.
4.0 out of 5 stars worth a quick read if you like old houses 9 Feb 2013
By Nancyd - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I heard the author speak about his Culinary book and read that; then I found this one, which I found very interesting, I always like to read about house renovations because I will never have enough nerve or energy to do one myself. I also learned about the history of Cleveland, OH, which I appreciate more. I recommend it for a quick read.
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