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Book Report: About the House With Henri de Marne

Aboutthehouse_2It seems to me there are two kinds of homeowners: those like my friend Kitty who have a keen awareness of the state of their home's condition -- what's working and what needs to be fixed -- and those like me, who walk around in a state of denial about their home's shortcomings, hoping that the house will somehow heal itself.

And let me tell you: A house does not heal itself.

Which is perhaps why I'm so fond of About the House With Henri de Marne: How to Maintain, Repair, Upgrade, and Enjoy Your Home. It's a question-and-answer book you can browse randomly, flitting from topic to topic until you come across a problem you have in your own home and then find an immediate solution to it.

Moisture between the panes of your dual-pane windows? Stains on stucco? Sewer odors coming from the sink? Algae-stained shingles? Yep, these are all problems with causes and solutions.

De Marne writes a syndicated column called "First Aid for the Ailing House," and in interviews I've found him to be a delightful handyman type with a French accent. What could be more appealing?

"About the House" is a compilation of columns that have been updated, the book jacket says, "to reflect the latest in research, materials, methods, concerns and tastes." The author gives just the right amount of information, and there's no showing off. He speaks in a language readers can understand.

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For example:

Question: We removed ivy that had crept up our brick walls for years, but we can’t seem to get rid of the little feet that stuck to the bricks. How can this be done as easily as possible?

Answer: Burn them off with a butane torch. Be careful of adjacent woodwork. This system is very effective but can only be used on masonry. With wood buildings, the tentacles have to be scraped off — a tedious job.

However, this sample also illuminates the book’s main drawback: Much of it does not apply to homes in Southern California. Although brick homes are the norm in many parts of the country, they are fairly rare here.

On the upside, it’s kind of fun to read about — and be grateful for — all the problems we don’t generally have: powdery residue on bricks, damp basements, problems with chipmunks, storm doors, oil-fired furnaces and many, many more.

The 453-page book is divided into nine sections: foundations, basements and crawl spaces; roofs and siding; windows and doors; plumbing, electricity and HVAC (that’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning); kitchens and baths; interior surfaces: floors, ceilings and walls; insulation; critters and pests; and outside the house.

One caution: This is not a classic how-to book in that there are barely two dozen photos and illustrations and no stepped-out instructions. But the lack of photos allows more space for the author to weigh in on hundreds of home issues and gives enough information to steer readers in the right direction.

I found the book a good read, but it does dissolve my denial. It’s getting clearer to me all the time: This house is not going to recover on its own. I will have to get in the game, and De Marne makes for a good coach.

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