Thursday, July 31, 2008

Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block by Judith Matloff

Greetings, everybody. Sorry (yes, I really am - I'd much rather be here doing this than, say, at my pooey job) it's yet again been a week since I've been able to entertain you with my thrilling anecdotes and thoughtful book reviews. I've been busy working at that aforementioned pooey job and, get this, reading books. I finished The Abstinence Teacher which is another one that needs to marinate a while before I decide if I did or did not like it or if I fall into neither camp. I'm about halfway through the first Farworld book, and it's a great page turner. Also, again with the help of the TBR randomizer which somehow "knew" that I was hoping to alternate fiction with non-fiction and chose me a non-fiction title, I've just started The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn - at least, I think that's what it's called. The title is so long that I wouldn't put it past me to screw it up. Anyhow, it's a memoir by a woman who got fired from her corporate management job which she didn't particularly like in the first place and then decides to follow her dream to learn to cook at famous French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. I've only read a few pages, but it already seems promising.

I'm afraid I've been putting off my review of Home Girl. Not because I didn't like it - I actually liked it quite a bit. I just don't feel like I have anything especially penetratingly insightful to say about it. That, and the working and the reading usually leave me with hardly enough time to even say penetratingly insightful things about books for which penetratingly insightful thoughts do readily come to mind. Anywho, I fully intend to make a solid attempt forthwith even if I have to do so without my usual penetrating insight.! Yeah, you! Quit rolling your eyes!


Okay, I think I'm ready now.

After years of cultivating a successful career as a foreign correspondent that had her traveling to all manner of dangerous locations, Judith Matloff stumbled into her mid-life crisis seeking all the things that she had neglected all her life: commitment, safety, and family. When she loses a baby in dangerous and painful fashion in Russia after chasing a story in Chechnya, she vows to change the way she lives and seek out a real home in New York City, her hometown. Having accumulated a fair amount of funds, she sets out to find the right neighborhood for herself, her husband John, and their well-traveled canine companion, Khaya. Her scouting leads her to West Harlem (before it was cool or even safe to live in West Harlem) a place she deems to be a thriving neighborhood with lots of Latin American flavor that reminds her of her past travels. When the opportunity comes to buy a run-down, fixer-upper of a house at a rock-bottom price, she pays cash on the spot without a second thought as to why the asking price is so low, hoping for the best from the house and from her new neighborhood.

What she gets is far from the best. Judith soon realizes that the reason the house was shown so early in the morning was that by noon the street becomes a hotbed of cocaine-dealing activity complete with hoards of Dominican men eager to be rich back in their own country effortlessly coordinating massive drug transactions providing drugs to much of the east coast. The dealers think nothing of leaving trash everywhere, urinating on her front steps, and leaning somewhat menacingly on her gate. As if this wasn't bad enough, there's Salami, the unhinged crack addict next door, and he's angry about being displaced from "his" house. While Judith assembles a motley crew of workmen to begin the long task of restoring the house, Salami spends all his spare time, of which he has a lot, skulking about and singing "I'll be watching you" in an effort to get Judith to abandon the house he still thinks of as his.

What's surprising about this book is not that Harlem was a hub of criminal activity nor that frightening and disruptive people seemed to be lurking at all hours in this dangerous neighborhood, but how Judith and John embrace their melting-pot neighborhood. Judith strikes up a surprisingly respectful and businesslike friendship with the director of the local drug crew, Miguel, at the same time as she is collecting another group of acquaintances at community meetings where, it is thought, her white face will encourage a stronger response from police to the neighborhood's many problems. Clarence the super from across the street doesn't have the most attractive personality, but he does have a natural cure for whatever might be ailing you while Mackenzie a well-educated recovering addict squatting in the basement of Clarence's building is a frequent borrower of books from Matloff's collection. Other interesting neighbors include a Julliard-trained organist who grows a garden of fake flowers and a feisty elderly black woman still going strong in her 80s who is renowned throughout the neighborhood.

Matloff's connections with the many unique characters that make up her neighborhood even as it begins to transform from underprivileged drug Wall Steet to the dwelling of yuppies are what makes this book shine. It's as charming as it is ironic to find one of the first white couples to venture into West Harlem embracing their community and its members embracing them. Sure, there are many bumps, and occasional bottomless craters, in the road which Matloff renders honestly, but by the time the house is restored and police have finally begun to crack down on the most egregious drug activity, it's clear that her house in Harlem proved to be a great growing experience for Judith and that the she did, at last, find just the sort of home she was longing for albeit in the most unlikely of places.


  1. Megan,

    You sold yourself short on this one! It's an excellent review! You just added another book to my TBR.

    I just linked your review to the ARC Challenge post on my blog.

  2. I second Teddy Rose's comments. This sounds like a very interesting book, one that I havent' heard of before. Onto the wishlist it goes!

  3. It could be a very nice book and a very very nice article. Thank you for sharing.....