This Old House – by Charlotte Canelli

Charlotte Canelli is library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin each Thursday. Read past columns here.

Six million copies of British author Bill Bryson’s books have sold in the U.S. (Bryson was born and raised in the United States but moved to England to become a journalist.) He is wildly popular on both sides of the pond with titles such as “In a Sunburned Country” (his tour of Australia) or “A Walk in the Woods” (Bryson’s 2,000 mile walk along America’s Appalachian Trail.)

In his latest book just published this fall, “At Home: A Short History of Private Life”, Mr. Bryson journeys yet again – this time through objects in and around his own home. The book is filled with fascination and humor as Mr. Bryson inspects the mundane in the things which surround him. And, he never leaves home to do so.

Home. Sweet home. Home is where we hang our hats.

It is where (as Robert Frost once wrote) “they have to take us in” and also where (as Jane Austen wrote) “where we find our comfort.” It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us focus on the four walls that surround us at home and so many of us expend so much of our sweat and spend much of our time and income perfecting it.

I purchased many homes during the several decades my family and I moved around the United States. One of them was ground-up construction and I made hundreds of agonizing choices. I spent months sweating over the details – the style of roof, paint colors, faucets and fireplace brick.

A few years later as a single woman I became the hardy owner of an “old house”. It was a post-Civil War home perched on a mill pond in a picturesque New Hampshire town. There I battled frost-heaved brick staircases. weather-beaten paint and crooked wall and floors.

Surviving that experience I thought that I had become an expert on finding contractors and navigating electrical and plumbing vocabulary. When I moved from New Hampshire to Massachusetts I bravely purchased a forlorn and neglected Victorian home. I laughed the pundits off. Of course I hadn’t made a mistake!

The joke, it seemed, was on me.

Half a year later I was still scraping ancient and yellowed wallpaper off the horsehair plaster and battling steam radiators that jostled and roared on their own schedules. I fought fits of pessimism. The ceilings, floors and walls bellowed and guffawed at my naiveté and my diminishing bank account. Undaunted, I somehow did bring that some semblance of its original glory back to that 1890s home.

Home. Sweet new “old home.”

Many of us read Frances Mayes’ most popular book, “Under a Tuscan Sun”. In the book Mayes is recently divorced and unduly euphoric about her “old house” in Northern Italy. She recounts her renovation woes while we chuckle along with her.

In another amusing account ,“Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block”, author Judith Matloff and her husband decide to settle down after living and working for two decades in the foreign press corps. Interestingly, having never lived as adults in the United States, they settle on New York City. Harlem, to be exact. They purchase a 4,800 square-foot townhouse in desperate need of renovation and the real story is in the education they need and receive … on combating rodents, on searching for local crews who will actually help them rebuild and on encountering neighborhood activists.

Several more books recount the winning and losing battles of new “old home” ownership. In “All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House” author David Giffels battles rodents and an invading wisteria vine. In “The Barn House: Confessions of an Urban Rehabber”, author Ed Zotti and his family brave falling-down ceilings, defective wiring and a sketchy neighborhood. In “Renovations: A Father and Son Rebuilt a House and Rediscover Each Other” John Marchese recounts how he enlisted the help of his septuagenarian father, a cranky Italian immigrant construction worker, in his plan to fix up his new fantasy project – a one-and-half-story Cape Cod. Marchese had just turned 40. True to form of many midlife crises, Marchese tore some things apart to only to rebuild others. Funny moments are when his father laughed out loud when his white-collar son put on a tool belt for the first time. Or when that son learned to use his first power tool. In “Gutted: Down to the Studs in My House, My Marriage, My Entire Life” author Lawrence LaRose got married, bought a decrepit old house … and promptly lost his job. His book describes the creative steps he needed to take order to learn the skills necessary to rehab his fixer-upper and at the same time salvage his marriage.

If you’ve been bitten with the bug (termite, cockroach, mosquito or flea) and have dreamed about renovating an old home that is in need of love and repair, be sure to read these books first. For help searching for these titles visit the Morrill Memorial Library, call the Reference librarians (781-769-0200) or visit the Minuteman Library Catalog on our website,

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