by Hugh Gilmore

The person you’ll meet in today’s column, “GOdesignbuild,” was a mystery man to me until this week. Back in January he emailed a response to a column I’d written about the shortcomings of the Penn Bookstore at the U. of P. He seemed obviously confident, witty and literate. But he didn’t sign his message and didn’t respond when I wrote back asking, “Who are you?”

I saved his email address though, and asked recently if he’d like to contribute to this reading roundup. In response, I received an enjoyable letter, much of which I now offer in a slightly edited form.

“Dear Hugh,

“Please excuse my earlier lack of identifying information … when the resident book lover ends his columns with an email contact, it is easy to assume familiarity … I forgot to introduce myself. I am Greg O’Donnell, a local general contractor, working mostly through word-of-mouth referrals on kitchen and bath projects in Chestnut Hill, well known among my group of homeowners, subcontractors and suppliers and comfortably anonymous otherwise.

“Many of the homeowners with whom I work share my fondness for reading, which has fueled many pleasant conversations after the dust has settled. Their homes and their projects are stories in themselves, requiring careful reading, sometimes-sensitive translation, and always-strong editorial guidance.

“Books and contracting go hand in hand, supplemented by an ever-growing number of online resources, making it now possible to Google almost any question, although a careful culling of the ensuing data is required. Every project we accept has its unique aspects and is an extended exercise in problem-solving, so my shelves are lined with books covering the many trades that contribute to a renovation of moderate complexity and an equal number are dedicated to design issues.

“I always tell my clients that a well-designed project is not significantly more expensive than one that is mediocre, and it will bring satisfaction on so many more levels.

“That brings me to my first offering: ‘The Design of Everyday Things,’ by Donald A. Norman. Norman has degrees in psychology and engineering, and he has made it his life’s work to understand why we have so few ‘user-friendly’ interactions with the gadgets we encounter every day. Understanding his approach takes a little effort at first, but once you have absorbed it you will never look at stoves, light switches, car stereos or remote controls the same way, and you will be much slower to label yourself as too stupid to make something work. Instead you will proclaim with authority: ‘Bad design!’

“More specific to renovation, I highly recommend the book, ‘Home by Design,’ by Susan Susanka. This book is so beautifully conceived and organized that, even if you only read the chapter headings and referenced the accompanying photos, you would multiply your design acumen tenfold. It gives the homeowner and builder a common design language, useful when the owner wishes to be more active in the process. [Check out: Designing ‘No Place Like Home’: NPR].

“But for sheer enjoyment, I would suggest ‘The Last Chinese Chef,’ by Nicole Mones. This is the third book by Mones that I have read, all set in China. [Check out: 2009 SILF Podcast: Nicole Mones The Last Chinese Chef – Shanghai – Shanghai Blogs Blog | City Weekend Guide]. It is a story about two people from different cultures using their encounter to find healing.

“It’s told in a way that leaves you wondering if the grieving woman in the story will be able to let go of the pain of loss and betrayal. The tenacity with which she clings to her pain seems more consistent with the rough edges and stubbornness of real life than the formulas imposed by fiction.

“This story is told against the backdrop of the modern manifestation of a rich Chinese food culture, built on a philosophical foundation developed over thousands of years, a culture that makes use of food as the first choice in restoring emotional and physical balance.

“Imagine hundreds of dishes that carry the medicinal weight of our chicken soup, are as emblematic of local and national pride as our apple pie, but go so far beyond that they become the inspiration for epic poetry. This viewpoint will be foreign to most, especially if your exposure to Chinese food has been limited to Americanized, strip-mall, take-out varieties.

“My wife, Xuan (“Helen” to English speakers), is Chinese, and she has taken me on a tour of her cuisine in restaurants that have stretched from Philadelphia to Manhattan, and across the river in Flushing, where the sea of Asian faces and dialects will have you believing you have secretly passed into the East. They have been mostly out-of-the-way, family-run restaurants offering regional dishes, and this fall we will travel to China.

“I recently had a chance to try the food of Xian, China’s one-time capital, served on Styrofoam plates in a dingy basement food court, off of Main Street, in Flushing. Delicious and indescribable, already discovered and blessed by Anthony Bourdain, whose signed photo hangs on the wall. Each experience has been more amazing than the last, and when I ask her if this is the best Chinese food I will ever eat, she answers, ‘Just wait…’

“Thanks for the invitation to contribute. Take as much or as little as you find helpful. Just imagine the result if you had asked for half a dozen recommendations.“Greg  (”

HG: I’m pleased to provide the means for the rest of us to get acquainted with Greg O’Donnell. The diversity and depth of knowledge found among our neighbors continues to amaze me. BTW: Nicole Mones, mentioned above, is also the author of the book-to-Academy-Award-winning movie, “Lost in Translation.”

OPEN CALL: Next week you’ll have a chance to hear from another group of interesting readers who live in our area. If you’d like to be included, please send me a message. Tell me about a book or two you’ve read lately that you wholeheartedly, joyously or seriously recommend. Deadline: July 2. will lead you to more of Hugh Gilmore’s writings.

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