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Mr. Doggett's Suggested Summer Reading for Students

Tracy Kidder has taken the true life tale of the building of a suburban home and turned it into a sort of mini-epic novel.  He presents the project from the viewpoints of the yuppie couple who are having it built, the four "hippie carpenters" doing the building and the visionary but fidgety architect.  One of the surprising things that emerges is the degree to which they each have their own vested interests and those interests are often, if not always, in direct opposition to each other.  The homeowners want great work & want it cheap.  The builders want decent work and want it to pay them well.  The architect wants the whole thing to come out the way he drew it up on paper.

In this case, the Souweines, the ultra-liberal lawyer/psychologist couple, are like the worst caricature of any of those yuppie scum couples you've ever seen on This Old House.  Despite their radical views, when it comes to getting their house built, the Souweines are just like any of the greedy money grubbing, worker-exploiting robber barons that they despise.  Meanwhile, the builders,  Jim Locke, Richard Gougeon, Alex Ghiselin and Ned Krutsky, whose company is known as Apple Corps, are kind of burn outs who build for the love of it, and they prove to be no match for the predatory Souweines.  The architect, William Rawn, just flits around in the background, trying to make sure that the clash doesn't affect his vision for the completed house.

Here is Ms Souweine complaining that Jim Locke won't give his opinion on decorating issues:

    "The builder sort of becomes the judge, and for some reason you care," she says.  She laughs. "Jim
    studiously avoided questions of taste during the planning.  He said"--she does a gruff voice--"'That's
    not my job.' That sort of very moralistic view.  We said, 'You can have an opinion, we can reject it.'
    Maybe that's why.  He didn't want it rejected.  It's safest on questions of taste not to offer an
    opinion.  But it's totally alien to me.  I always give opinions that no one ever asked me for."

Now I ask you, would you give this shrieking harridan your opinion and, worse,  the opportunity to give you hers.  I think not.  Kidder also points out that it's not in any builders best interest to get involved in these matters.  First because he can alienate a client, but second because his financial interests come into play.  More expensive alternatives often mean more profit.

The one criticism that I noticed in reviews (especially Christopher Lehmann-Haupt at the NY Times) and agree with, is that Kidder is so ostentatiously not present in the form of a narrative I, that it actually becomes distracting & seems almost intellectually dishonest, since we know that people are reacting to him or even acting out scenes for him.

At any rate, it all makes for an interesting and even, at times, exciting story.  If by the end we're hoping that the house burns down the day the Souweines move in, that's not the author's fault.


Grade: (B)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Review (NY Times, Lehmann-Haupt)
    -Review (NY Times, Paul Goldberger--Architecture Critic)
    -Review (House): A House Is Not a Home (Diane Johnson, NY Review of Books)
    -Review (Soul of a New Machine): Modern Times (Jeremy Bernstein, NY Review of Books)
    -Review (Soul of a New Machine)(NY Times, Lehmann-Haupt)
    -Review (Soul of a New Machine)  (NY Times, Samuel Florman)
     -Review (Old Friends)Growing Old in the 90's (NY Times, Mary Gordon)
     -Review (Old Friends)New Beginnings Near the End of Life  (NY Times, Lehmann-Haupt)
     -Review (Among Schoolchildren) How One Good Teacher Can Matter (NY Times, Eva Hoffman)
     -The Architecture of Daily Life:  A conversation with Tracy Kidder (The Atlantic)
     -articles about Home Town (Pioneer Valley News)
     -Flying Upside Down: The Hardy Boys and the Microkids build a computer (7/81 Atlantic article expanded into Soul of a New Machine)
     -The Ultimate Toy: Debugging the computer "Eagle"  (8/81 Atlantic article expanded into Soul of a New Machine)
     -Creative Non-Fiction: Writers and Their Works: Tracy Kidder
     -Woburn: The legal thriller (Michael Kenney, Boston Globe, on Kidder's contribution to A Civil Case)