Ron Tanner's cross-country tour

If you ever thought writing a book was tough, just consider the pain of marketing it. One example: the 66-city tour by Loyola University Maryland writing professor Ron Tanner in a beat-up van -- a voyage that has included savage mosquitos, a busted toilet and a fair share of overnights in Walmart parking lots. (You can follow along on his blog.) Tanner is promoting his latest book, "From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story," which describes the work in renovating a Baltimore rowhouse. His next reading in Baltimore is scheduled on Aug. 25 at 5:30 p.m., at The Windup Space, 12 W. North Avenue. Meanwhile, enjoy this review kindly provided to Read Street by local author Rosalia Scalia:

When novelist and Loyola professor Ron Tanner and his then-new girlfriend of one month, Jill, first saw the enormous, crumbling, wrecked Queen Anne rowhouse in Charles Village, they imagined its former glory and future potential. It was their dream house.  It was 2000, and if they weren’t yet in love with each other, they were in love with the idea of salvaging the wreck together and restoring the 4,500 square foot ruin to its former glory. Ignoring the advice of well-meaning friends, relatives and loved-ones -- in fact anyone with more experience and knowledge about home preservation -- they took a leap of faith, deciding to buy and restore the ruin. That’s when they inadvertently stepped into the Narnian-like world of the do-it-yourself home restoration, complete with villain -- termites, rats and contractors who fail to show up -- and heroes that come in all forms, beginning with their Realtor who happened to hold a contractor’s license and who decided to stick around. 

The couple themselves became transformed as the slow work on the Queen Anne progressed, eventually leading to it being featured in “This Old House” magazine. And now Tanner chronicles the transformation of the Queen Anne and their personal journeys of going from just dating to just married in “From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story,” published by Academy Chicago Publishers with a book tour recently launched at the Enoch Pratt Library. He is the author of two previous books, most recently the novel "Kiss Me Stranger" and before that, an award-winning short story collection, "Bed of Nails."

In "Animal House to Our House" -- Tanner’s first book of non-fiction -- he describes the painstaking and daunting process to reclaim the structure that had served as a notorious frat house for a decade before being abandoned. He does not sugar coat the story, revealing how he and Jill found themselves at odds daily as each held vastly different perspectives about home renovation. The couple learned quickly that they had failed to fully comprehend the Mount Everest of home renovation and preservation on which they embarked. For starters, they faced ceiling to floor debris and garbage left by the fraternity, not to mention a yard overrun with rats.  Tanner tracks all, things missing and things found, and, like Delillo’s White Noise, the book is filled with lists and numbers.

“The counting began with the missing balusters,” Tanner said of the 72 hand-turned balusters that the frat boys had knocked out of the staircase with baseball bats. “But it quickly moved to the number of Dumpsters and trash bags needed to remove the garbage. We innocently thought we only needed one Dumpster. Boy were we wrong,” he said. The first 74 garbage bags “the size of dishwashers” carted to the dump even before a contract was signed comprised only the lightest stuff in the house.  The counting continued: 25 damaged doors, 14 ruined closets,  33 door-sized windows all needing replacement or repair.

Although Tanner didn’t keep a journal about the renovation progress, he did write and save copies of long letters that he’d sent to his friends and family -- long-held practice. These letters subsequently provided him the documentation and materials when he decided to set the experience of restoring the Queen Anne to paper. “At first, I put everything in the book. Then I edited out everything that did not relate directly to the renovation,” Tanner says of the experience that consumed so much of his life then and now, including a website about the house and dedicated to old house repair: Now a licensed house inspector as a result of the restoration, Tanner -- ever the teacher -- also makes and uploads how-to videos for others inclined to do-it-yourself home repair and renovation.

The 287-page book can serve as a primer for do-it-yourself home preservationists, renovators and weekend builders.  It painstakingly explains his on-the-job learning of basic home repair and his growing acquaintance with tools, knowledge he shares by fearlessly revealing his mistakes and mishaps. As in his novel, "Kiss Me Stranger," the book also contains an assortment of Tanner’s sketches, in this case showing the difference between a termite and an ant, what a garbage dispoal “wrenchettte” looks like, how the blade for a circular saw needs a diamond-shaped insert removed before it the blade can be installed.  

The book can also serve as a how-to primer for building healthy relationships. Tanner finds humor in the conflicts that forced the couple to learn how to compromise on the home renovation in particular and about other life situations. He chronicles their increasing tension due to their disparate approaches to home repair, Jill’s natural inclination for doing something right the first times, and their acquisition and care of various pets. During the labor-intensive, time-consuming and physically demanding work, the couple endured bouts with lead poisoning at the same time they dealt with job and career pressures, the threat of financial ruin due overwhelming house repair, unmet family expectations, and the needs and requirements of and too many pets—dogs and cats—each with its distinct personality and two of them ailing and senile.

Because the book’s unblinking honesty raises it to the universal, whether a reader is contemplating a home renovation in the near future or not, "From Animal House to Our House"  offers itself as the ultimate primer, an inspirational and often hilarious how-to for handling the good, the bad and the ugly of what life and situations and decisions can throw at any one—usually all at the same time.

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