From the second sentence of his I read, I’ve been a devoted admirer of Michael Ruhlman. When I discovered him I was at a low moment, in dire and specific need of a fix of good writing. Last fall, you see, I had to read four books in damn short order and write a group review of them for a newspaper. These were all nonfiction books, personal narratives that each addressed, in one way or another, the subject of marriage. They were an interesting lot in many ways, but the first two I read were not exactly music to the ears, stylistically speaking. The first was workmanlike, earnest–it got the job done, but it bumped and bruised my sensibilities along the way. The next was so overwritten and overwrought I actually flung it across the room once or twice in despair. (Didn’t do any good.)
So my expectations were damped down flat when I moved along dutifully to the third in the set, a book of which I knew nothing going in. It was with resignation that I opened it, the resignation to continue plowing through–but I discovered almost instantly that, in this case, I would be not be plowing but gliding. With Ruhlman’s House: A Memoir I was recognizably in the hands of a genuine writer, and surprised by the extent to which a stiff dose of turgid prose can make you forget what that even feels like. Here are the opening sentences that made the clouds part–they don’t smack you upside the head with their brilliance, David Foster Wallace-style, but they’re finely crafted in an understated way that seemed then, and does now, attuned to the needs of the reader:
It was our house now–I had the key in my pocket. I steered into the empty driveway for the first time; until this moment Donna and I had been visitors, and we felt as welcome as a threat. But all that was over. They were gone at last. The old brick house on the shady street was empty.
“As welcome as a threat”: after the clotted prose I’d so lately been subjected to, the clean elegance of the phrase made my heart leap up. It may not seem like much, but it’s right, and it struck me as a clear if small sign that I was in good hands. Other such signs followed, and the book proved a fascinating original. It tells of buying and rehabbing a Victorian house in Cleveland Heights and mounts an eloquent defense of the American suburbs and, yes, meditates on marriage and its settings. By virtue of writing that seems always to have the reader’s best interests in mind, as well as the particular demands of its subjects, a hybrid book that could all too easily have been a mundane or messy melange turns out to be wonderfully inviting, rewarding, and elegant. I know that calling a writer a consummate professional will sound to some ears like backhanded praise, but this book made me feel–as I wrote in my review–that in the very best sense, professionalism is a form of kindness. What I primarily felt while reading this book was well taken care of.
One of the unlikeliest but most winning chapters of House simply narrates a tour the Ruhlmans took of their prospective house. They were starting to get serious about buying and engaged the services of a home inspector. Through physical description but mainly through uncannily capturing the way he talks, Ruhlman makes this mildly odd character jump straight off the page.
With what seemed like pleasant anticipation, he then said, “Let’s march on down to the basement, shall we?”
“You like the basement,” I said.
“It’s where I spend most of my time,” he said, taking long, duck-footed strides toward the back door. “Most of a house’s mechanical systems–plumbing, electric, heat–originate and extend out through the house from there. It’s where the foundation of the house is visible.”
“The foundation is one of the main things you inspect.”
He stopped and turned at me. “The entire house rests on…the foundation.”
“Right,” I said.
The inspector’s bare yet cordial tolerance of his clients’ ignorance, here and throughout the chapter, is funny and endearing. I doubt most writers would have hit on him for a likely subject, and the good results reminded me a bit of my favorite M.F.K. Fisher essay, the one about the very exacting waitress (“she’s a funny one”). This chapter also catches Ruhlman sneaking into a mostly anomalous book a taste of the subject he more typically writes about: men at work.
In his books about cooking, The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef, and his book about pediatric heart surgeons, Walk on Water, Ruhlman delves into the working lives of specialists who have to perform under stressful circumstances at incredibly high levels of expertise and manual skill. It’s a fascinating fascination. I ordered all three books before I had finished reading House and ripped through The Making of a Chef as soon as it arrived. I’m now near the end of Walk on Water, a book about surgeons who operate on heart defects in children and infants, a line of work that on paper looks just about impossible. And I’ve already taken a sneak peek into the next in this queue, The Soul of a Chef. As someone who has been known to while away an afternoon reading cookbooks without the slightest intention of chopping or heating anything, I’m having to resist the temptation to try to read both this and Walk on Water at the same time.
It’s been a while since I went on a one-author tear this way, and I’m really enjoying it. All of the features of my first encounter with Ruhlman’s work that hooked me on it have been borne out in these other books: the smart, modest, incisive writing, and the author’s knack for generating fascination and granting comprehension. Reading these books reminds me of seeing a great documentary film, offering the same combination of a new window on some corner of the world quite remote from your own and aesthetic pleasure. I’m looking forward to his about-to-arrive Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (though not quite as much as a certain fishy friend who is himself an inveterate salter, smoker, and curer and will no doubt make his thoughts known in the fullness of time). In the meantime, read this lively interview Ruhlman did with Dan Wickett a while back and, of course, read the books.