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Home and the heart

May 04, 2006|Michelle Huneven | Special to The Times

THE first order of business in the kitchen remodel was to widen the doorway. The contractor went to work on the doorjamb with a crowbar. Nails screamed, the wood came free, and an avalanche of brick and debris crashed into the room. The owner was horrified -- and stunned by the force of her feeling. "Hey, this was just a kitchen remodel and suddenly I felt as if someone had unzipped my skin and made me look at my own bones."

Nothing people hear or read -- no cable TV fix-it show or glossy shelter magazine -- can prepare them for the personal intensity of some moments in home ownership.

Yet the human connection to home is, after all, primal and profound. Recently, a number of very different books have set out to explore this connection, which suggest a new appetite for house books that are both less escapist than the foreign-home-remodel-memoir and more emotionally, psychologically and environmentally aware than the usual how-to library of decorate, fix-up and buy/sell titles.

'House: a Memoir'

In "House: a Memoir," author Michael Ruhlman and his wife, Donna, take possession of a grand, if neglected, century-old house in his hometown of Cleveland. On his website, Ruhlman writes, "The experience of purchasing a home place, among the most common events in an adult's life, felt more cataclysmic than, well, buying a house ought to feel. Second to childbirth on the seismic charts of human emotion."

Ruhlman originally began his book as a novel in which to unpack and explore the emotions stirred up by his house purchase. He did not, he said, think the subject was "important enough" for a book-length work of nonfiction. His agent thought otherwise, and urged him to recast the book as the memoir the novel was thinly disguising. Ruhlman, a yeoman journalist, interweaves his personal tale with thought-provoking essays into house lust, American itinerancy, the streetcar suburb, ghosts, Cleveland and reclaiming one's geographical roots. In gutting the house, he gets a crash course in a house's inner workings. In researching the specific history of his home and neighborhood, Ruhlman not only unearths curious facts and meets local characters, he also discovers that the micro history of his new property directly connects to the greater stories of suburb, city, state and nation. He learns much about the home's former occupants, and locates his own family in the ongoing narrative of place. The memoir itself is an act of integration and connection, a self-portrait of emotional expansion and a mature, unsentimental happiness.

As such, "House" signals a new, more domestic and psychologically aware direction for the home-makeover memoir. Ruhlman's home, after all, is not a quaint ruin in the south of France, or Italy, or San Miguel de Allende, but a big shabby old manse in an older suburb of a mid-American city. Of course, to the average American who moves every four years, making a home in the suburbs may well seem as exotic as colonizing a crumbling villa in Tuscany. At any rate, to the rest of us who have been setting down roots and trying to make sense of it all, Ruhlman says much of what we need to hear, his parochial subject matter clearly "important enough."

'House Thinking'

Whereas Ruhlman reveals a lot about homes by focusing on one, Winifred Gallagher in "House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live," ranges through many houses and disciplines to discover how various rooms we inhabit shape our lives.

Gallagher, whose previous books include "The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions" and "Just the Way You Are: How Heredity and Experience Create the Individual," here employs the new social science of environmental psychology (along with healthy helpings of history, architecture and philosophy) to ask how the decisions made in our domestic world reveal and influence our inner world and how we might then make better domestic choices.

An engaging book, "House Thinking" is more free associative and less systematic than the subtitle suggests. Homes, we're told, should have places where we can nest, and places where we can perch -- that is, places where we can retreat, curl up, snuggle and places where we can look out on the world, see the sky, survey the realm. The living room for Gallagher is the most expressive room; the dining room is all about "status and stuff," where we show off family heirlooms and collections. The bathroom is viewed in terms of the body-consciousness and health; the bedroom, privacy and sex.

Homes can encode our family traditions and habits. Homes express our unconscious longings and nostalgias and, of course, neuroses. As someone who recently realized with a start that she'd painted her present bedroom the same colors as her childhood bedroom, I was not surprised to learn that we unconsciously re-create our environmental pasts.

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