Book Review ~ Home Girl by Judith Matloff

Summary ~ Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block

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.

I’ll admit that I have never been to Harlem.  I’ve watched the Harlem Globetrotters on T.V. in exhibition games as well as when they were cartoon guest stars on Scooby Doo.  I have watched performances on T.V. that were broadcast from the stage of The Apollo Theatre too.  After reading Judith Matloff’s Home Girl, my interest in Harlem has piqued.  First of all, I did not realize exactly where Harlem was in relation to the Theatre and Garment Districts, Midtown Manhattan and another area I have frequented when in NYC, Soho. 

Home Girl is a retelling of events that happened to a former New Yorker and her Dutch husband John, when she purchases, practically without any idea of what she was getting into, a row-house on a drug infested block in Harlem.  After the rose colored glasses had been yanked off, Judith realized just how much work she and her husband would be in for.  Not only the work and money that would have to go into renovating their dilapidated house, but the work it would take to co-exist with crack dealers and scared, racist neighbors, who weren’t willing to make a difference themselves.

The house eventually recovers from the cancer that had plagued it for too many years.  Judith overcomes her odd feelings of loyalty to the drug dealers on her block and begins attending some community policing program meetings and starts to unite with the neighbors and community.  She finally feels a sense of belonging where, for the first three months after buying her house, she felt like the crazy outsider who didn’t belong.

After the adventure that was Judith and John’s life as foreign corespondents over the last twenty years, followed by the seemingly treacherous times after buying a major fixer-upper in West Harlem, they are faced with the most unknown of all territories, Parenthood!

Home Girl is an enjoyable, fly-on-the-wall look into the lives of author Judith Matloff, her patient and trusting husband, their wonderful dog, their new baby, the house that they resurrected from death’s door and the many dangerous, outrageous and kooky characters on their block that they adopt when they move to West Harlem and a colorful array of tenants in the upstairs and basement apartments of their beloved brownstone.  Judith captures life pre- and post- 9/11 beautifully and in Home Girl’s post 9/11 chapters, the sadness and unity that New York City goes through is described perfectly.

I loved reading about the relationships Judith built with some scary characters that surrounded her and entered her life.  I winced at all the work Judith and John had to do on their house and I breathed a sigh of relief when it all came together for them and knowing they are still living in their home on that “lawless block” shows that a home can be created out of the most undesirable of conditions.  Just ask some of Judith’s squatter-neighbors! 

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

A couple of months ago author Judith Matloff joined us here at Planet Books for her first blog guest post.  You can check it out HERE as well as watch the book trailer for Home Girl.  It’s cool to see the people that Judith got to know and wrote about in Home Girl, and she still spends time with.  To learn more about Judith Matloff, check out her web site HERE.   

Sunday Salon ~ October 5th, 2008

 

Hello there!  Well, this weekend was not a weekend for reading.  Last week was though and I started Judith Matloff’s Home Girl ~ Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block.  Back in August, Judith joined us here at Planet Books for a guest post.  You can check out her guest post HERE where Judith shared her writing experience with us.  So far Home Girl is reading very well.  It’s almost like watching an episode of HBO’s The Wire, reading about all the drug dealers on her ‘lawless block’ in Harlem and trying to live along side them.

 

 

This weekend did not bode well for reading because we were busy with acupuncture/massage on Saturday morning and with celebrating Hubby’s birthday which is Monday.  We thought he was leaving today for a business trip but that was pushed back a few days so we decided to make his birthday a weekend celebration.  Friday night we tried out a Chinese restaurant we had heard about a couple of years ago and damn was it good.  I think it may have been one of the best meals I have had at a restaurant on this island in three and a half years!  Delicious!!  For all of you readers out there who share this island with me, it was The Peacock Chinese Restaurant on Rte. 58 just south of Futenma Marine Base. 

Last night we went to dinner and karaoke with dear friends of ours, who after living in Okinawa for the last ten years are moving back to the States on Monday.  We will miss you Gale & Jim!!!!

Today I made waffles for Hubby and then we went to the commissary.  This evening Hubby and I (he did 90% of the work) made one of Tyler Florence’s lasagna recipes.  I gave Hubby two of Tyler’s cookbooks for his birthday so he picked the lasagna recipe to make this evening and we will be eating lasagna for the next four days.  It is amazing though and probably THE BEST lasagna I have ever had!  The cookbook is Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen: An Indispensable Guide for Anybody Who Likes to Cook.  The other Tyler Florence cookbook I got Hubby is Eat This Book: Cooking with Global Fresh Flavors

Did you have anything sinfully delicious to eat this weekend?  If you made something from a cookbook at home, please tell us about it and which cookbook you used.  Hubby and I love cookbooks as well as learning about new dishes. 

Guest Post ~ Author of Home Girl – Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block, Judith Matloff

Author Judith Matloff is joining us at Planet Books for her first guest post ever.  Her new book, Home Girl – Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block, went on sale on June 24, 2008, and I can’t wait to read my copy.  Below you can read a summary of the book as seen on Judith’s web site below.  You can also listen to interviews with her HERE and HERE where she talks about Home Girl.  At the end of this post is the book trailer for Home Girl – Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block

 

Summary ~ HOME GIRL – Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block

After twenty years abroad as a foreign correspondent in tumultuous locales including Rwanda, Chechnya and Sudan, Judith Matloff is finally 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 importantly, its affordability, Judith impulsively buy a fixer upper brownstone in the area.

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 – on a block 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 crack heads who loiter there.

Thus begins an 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 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.

 

In brief, the book is about what happened when I abruptly decided to ditch a 20-year career as a foreign correspondent and move back to my native New York City.  I was tired of covering wars and wanted to start a family in peace.  However, I didn’t do my research and didn’t have much money so I bought what I thought was an incredible steal, without realizing that it lay on one of the worst drug afflicted streets on the eastern seaboard.  So much for the quiet life.  That’s only chapter two.  The rest of the book involves my attempt to make a comfortable life in this unlikely spot.  It spans several genres — humor, home improvement, urban affairs and memoir.

People invariably ask how I came to write this book.  I had authored one before, and was now underemployed and looking for a “project.”  I missed full-time work and we desperately needed money.  A couple people were amused by the tales that we told about the misadventure, and a book editor who happened upon a dinner at our house suggested turning a piece that I had written for The New York Times into something longer.  It made sense, and to make a long story short, I quickly found an agent and publisher (Random House.)

The biggest appeal of the book, to me, was writing something amusing.  Most of my journalistic work has been grim stuff about places falling apart.  The most common response I get about my articles is, “That’s depressing.”  I wanted to try a new type of writing, and to entertain people.  I didn’t know if I could pull off the humor, but wanted to give it a try.  The process was surprisingly excruciating.  Not at all fun.  I generally wrote straight and then tweaked the copy to be comical.  Then I’d ask the opinion of witty friends.  I can’t tell you how many drafts fell flat.
 
I knew from past experience that one had to be passionate to execute a book, and I didn’t lack for drive.  I was engaged with the material, particularly the rich characters that lived on the block.  At first I contemplated writing a novel, because I was a bit worried that the narcotics dealers might come after me if I published under my own name.  I also didn’t want to alienate any neighbors by violating their privacy.  But it seemed unnecessary to mask all this truth as fiction – all I would have done was tell the same story.  As it turns out, so far no one has shot me and the neighbors are actually thrilled to be characters. When the book came out, the main protagonists held a party – even the man from the DA’s office came.  The matriarch on the block has ordered more than a dozen copies for her assorted relatives, and one of the crack heads has asked for a signed copy.  (The other addict character keeps asking me if a movie is going to be made.  “Tell them I want Denzel Washington to play me.”)  The other day I was walking down the block and one of the streetwalkers called out, “Mami, where can I get a copy of the book?”  It’s not every day that you get good reviews from the homeless crowd.  In some ways, that is more gratifying than any review in a newspaper.

I was also worried about what my family would think.  Fortunately – whew! – they all like how they’re portrayed.  (Although my mother doesn’t like my depiction of her driving. On that we stand to differ.)  My son, Anton, who’s now seven, is thrilled to have a chapter named after him.  He likes to stand up front with me when I do readings.  Even though he barely reads Anton seems to think he co-wrote the book.  (While I was writing he’d sometimes climb on my lap and dash off some nonsense on the screen.  I get the impression that he thinks those creations were incorporated into a coherent book.)

Speaking of Anton, many people ask me if I’m nervous bringing up a child in this environment.  After all, our street was once called “Ground Zero” for the drug trade on the northeast.  The answer is: no.  When Anton was a baby he wasn’t aware of what was going on around him. Kids take things at face value without the context — he enjoyed swirling to the meringue music coming from a car without knowing that it belonged to a cocaine baron.  The neighborhood has cleaned up quite a bit so Anton is unlikely to run into narcotics dealers by the time he’s 12.

The final question of course is what comes next.  I had been thinking of a novel or a serious book on war, my journalistic specialty.  But so many strangers have written to ask about the characters that I’m tempted to write a sequel.  That, of course, depends on how everything turns out.

Bio~ Judith Matloff is the author of “Home Girl – Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block” (Random House.)  Judith Matloff was a foreign correspondent for 20 years, lastly as the bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor in Moscow and Africa. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Newsweek and The Economist. She is the recipient of various awards, including a MacArthur Foundation grant, a Fulbright fellowship and the Godsell, The Monitor’s highest accolade for correspondence. Matloff teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and is a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

She still lives in West Harlem with her family and is at work on a new book.

LINKS

Profile written on Women’s eNews