Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block

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Random House Publishing Group, Jun 24, 2008 - Biography & Autobiography - 304 pages
40 Reviews
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.

Advance Praise for Home Girl

“Although I always suspected that renovating a house in New York City would be a slightly more harrowing undertaking than dodging bullets as a foreign correspondent, it took this charming story to convince me it could also be more entertaining. Except for the plumbing. That’s one adventure I couldn't survive.”
–Michelle Slatalla, author of The Town on Beaver Creek

“After years of covering wars overseas, Judith Matloff takes her boundless courage and inimitable style to the front lines of America’s biggest city. From her vantage point in a former crack house in West Harlem, she brings life to a proud community held hostage by drug dealers and forgotten by policy makers. Matloff’s sense of humor, clear reportage, and zest for adventure never fail. Home Girl is part gritty confessional, part love story, and totally delightful.”
–Bob Drogin, author of Curveball

“Here the American dream of home ownership takes on the epic dimensions of the modern pioneer in a drug-riddled land. Matloff’s story, which had me crying and laughing, is a portrait of a household and a community, extending far beyond the specifics of West Harlem to the universal–as all well-told stories do.”
–Martha McPhee, author of L’America

From the Hardcover edition.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - amandaking - LibraryThing

A poignant, honest portrayal of a woman searching for home, Home Girl is an intriguing if sometimes wandering, snapshot of a ex-pat putting down roots. She doesn't candy-coat, and I think that is what keeps the majority of the memoir from becoming trite. A good read. Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - emcelroy - LibraryThing

The one thing that bothered me the most about this book was that I really had no sense of her husband. She worried about his reaction to the house, but it was glossed over. Almost anything having to ... Read full review


Chapter Somewhere Uncivilized
Chapter? The Decision
Chapter Only God Can Protect Us
The Narcotics WallStreet
Peace Talks
Chapter to Homeland Insecurity
Nice Bones Rotten Organs
A Parking Space for Mom
Charming Apartment with Doorman
State of Emergency
Latte Arrives
Smorting Anthrax
Adiós Miguel
ASon of the Calle

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?
Pioneer Living
Ways to Killa Cat
The Men from Montenegro
Lights Out

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About the author (2008)

Judith Matloff is a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She was a foreign correspondent for twenty years, lastly as the bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor in Africa and Moscow. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Economist, Newsweek, and The Dallas Morning News, and she is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, a Fulbright fellowship, and the Godsell, the Monitor’s highest accolade for correspondence. Matloff still lives in West Harlem with her husband and son.

From the Hardcover edition.

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