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Book Reviews

The Ultimate Book of Household Hints and Tips

by Cassandra Kent

I Can Fix That

by Susie Tompkins

Home Improvement 1-2-3

by various authors

Quick and Easy Remodeling Projects to Customize Your Home

by Jack Kramer

Home Repairs and Improvements on a Budget

by Gary Branson

Be Your Own Home Contractor

by Edward M. Walsh

I get a big kick out of watching home improvement shows. There’s a surreal sense of hosting optimism infused with a healthy dose of magic realism at work. Every project is a series of well-orchestrated, hygienic steps transforming dilapidated structures, pieces of furniture, or faux-paneled rec rooms into glistening new entities. Murphy’s Law dictates that in the real world of home improvement, pieces of wood will get inexplicably mismeasured, walls that were supposed to be straight and true cant dangerously, a room that looks square turns out to be a rhombus, and of course, when paint spills on the carpet the cat will walk through it before jumping onto the chesterfield.

These shows, now more pervasive than ever, are an offshoot of the economic downturn and the ’90s mantra that embraces back-to-basics and self-sufficiency. As a result of this do-it-yourself boom, people who were at one time content to call in the repairman to change a fuse are now rewiring their garages, drywalling their basements, and putting four-level decks off the back ends of their houses. Stores like Home Depot have sprung up in the hinterlands of metropolises across North America to capitalize on the trend, with enticing displays and layouts that scream tool empowerment.

Thus it’s no surprise that there has been a parallel boom in the publishing sector. Where once Time-Life was virtually the only home repair player around, the shelves are now sagging with books designed to help aspiring Bob Villas master their domains. From overviews to jobspecific manuals, it’s a somewhat intimidating wall of information.

The Ultimate Book of Household Hints and Tips – a general primer offering remedies for moistening dry hair (use mayonnaise) to removing cigarette burns from carpets (sandpaper) falls into the neophyte-but-willing-to-learn category of home repair books. Rich in colour, easy of index, and saturated with diagrams, this is the type of book that glides easily from topic to topic, never delving deeply, never offering explanations. The effect is a bizarre series of suggestions (keep candles in the freezer so you can find them in a blackout) and cheerful remedies (tie a piece of string to a dripping faucet to quell the irritating noise), designed to inspire blind faith that domestic disasters can be dealt with. But woe the homeowner who actually needs real help (theoretically the sort of person the book was intended for). There is a blithe warning to the reader “to be sure window panes are sealed properly.” What is properly? How do you seal a window pane? It’s the sort of non-instruction that serves to reaffirm the mistaken belief that there are two types of people in the world: those who are good with their hands and those who aren’t.

An antidote is the far more useful introduction to home repair called I Can Fix That published by Harlequin and subtitled A Guide for Women Who Want to Do It Themselves (at first I thought this might be some sort of self-love self-help manual). Both genders will gain a better understanding of the electrical and plumbing systems in their houses and the requisite confidence to undertake some basic upkeep tasks. Though it’s not detailed enough to be a definitive guide, I Can Fix That is a good place to start.

Home Improvement 1-2-3 (Expert Advice from the Home Depot) adds to I Can Fix That by providing step-by-step instructions on everything from fixing a compression faucet to installing patio doors. Accompanied by wonderful diagrams, skill requirements, time estimations for job completions, and a tool list, the book is high-gloss eye-candy that will entice the aspiring home repair enthusiast to motor to the nearest Home Depot and exercise his or her power of purchase. Home Depot’s involvement might appear to be a marketing ploy similar to Dave Nichol’s Cookbook (where every second ingredient was a President’s Choice product). It’s not. The straightforward instructions and comprehensive scope of subject matter make this required reading for any homeowner. A word of caution however: in the spirit of optimism, skill levels for many projects seem recklessly low. For example, replacing windows in a house is a meagre 2 out of 7 on the difficulty scale. The first instruction casually mentions removing the interior wall surface, as if an interior wall surface was Lego and could be snapped back on when the job is complete. Accompanied by a CD-ROM (which does not add to the text), Home Improvement 1-2-3 deconstructs domiciles but should be used in conjunction with more detailed secondary sources when attempting complex projects.

Gary Branson’s Home Repairs and Improvements on a Budget and Jack Kramer’s Quick and Easy Remodeling Projects to Customize Your Home are two in a series of home improvement manuals by Betterway Books. The first hint that these books will disappoint can be found in their titles. Unless you’re Bill Gates, home repair never needs the qualifier “on a budget.” Only by hiring a professional and going on vacation for two months will remodeling ever turn out to be quick and easy. With production values stuck in the seventies, both these books look and feel dated. They generalize complex tasks and offer suspiciously vague instructions like “block underneath your joists as often as it feels necessary.” If a person knew what was necessary, chances are they wouldn’t be using the book in the first place.

Whether the home repair enthusiast has a vacant piece of land that gets good morning sun and could use a dream house or is simply interested in demystifying the steps involved in house construction, Be Your Own Home Contractor provides an excellent overview. Rather than getting too job-specific, the book explains how to hire and co-ordinate subcontractors, order supplies, obtain permits, estimate budgets, and cut costs. The principles explained can also be applied to renovations as well.