Sometime during the pandemic I began getting emails from a D.I.Y. site called Hometalk. Mine is not a do-it-yourself household, and won’t be until they come up with D.I.Y. liposuction. But every day there is this email, a little ray of hope that I will become the kind of person who could make a pretty Christmas tree with 10 flattened toilet paper tubes or a “fun cork Christmas gang” courtesy of my weekly chardonnay consumption. It could happen! I love these projects and their valuable life lesson: You are not truly living without pipe cleaners, Styrofoam cubes and a bedazzler.
It appears that the publishing world also found value in D.I.Y. projects during our long enforced hiatus, since there are now new books on how to make everything from your own hydroponic bathroom garden to your own musket. Let’s skip the bathroom weed and weaponry, shall we, and focus on a few more family-friendly projects.
Jasmine Roth is the endearing star of HGTV’s “Help! I Wrecked My House!” and it is her life’s mission to save us from ourselves. The idea behind HOUSE STORY: Insider Secrets to the Perfect Home Renovation (Ten Speed Press, 288 pp., $35) is that your home talks — it tells a story. This idea is deeply appealing, because I know that if my home could talk it would be saying, “Why did you do this to me?” So Roth really helps D.I.Y. designers break down the four basic styles — contemporary, cottage, traditional, rustic — and shows how, given one style, you can create your personal story with add-ons from other styles. She helps you identify what will work based on how you and your family live, and she’s excellent at the kind of advice a beginner desperately needs — like, “Here are some paint colors any idiot could choose and not make a horrible, horrible mistake.” (OK, I’m paraphrasing.) Perhaps “House Story” is so useful because Roth did not start off as a professional designer — she still remembers what it’s like to be clueless.
Oh, the things I do for you, my Readers. Right now I am walking around with a head that smells like Starbucks, thanks to trying one of the many suggestions in Charmaine Yabsley’s MAKE YOUR OWN BEAUTY PRODUCTS (White Owl, 192 pp., paper, $29.95). This particular tip involves using coffee grounds and coconut oil to darken your gray roots between salon visits (it works if your hair is more or less the color of mud). I have also exfoliated with oats, cleansed with tomato and milk and moisturized with avocado. Yabsley tells you what works and what doesn’t. (Hint: Ditch the sugar waxing and coal masks.) True, you need a tolerance for mess, but crunchy girls among us might enjoy the savings and the lack of chemicals on our bodies. Even if you go back to pricey beauty products, you will be stocked up on enough cocoa butter and rose hip oil to feel you’ve time-traveled back to 1977.
I confess I was sold on Heather Hunt’s LIFE’S A PUPPY PARTY: Recipes, DIYs, and Activities for Celebrating the Seasons With Your Dog (Tiller Press, 176 pp.,$19.99) before I cracked the cover. Really, how could anyone not appreciate a book that teaches you how to turn the veterinary cone of shame into a festive spring flower costume? A spinoff of Hunt’s poochcentric website, TheDapple.com, “Life’s a Puppy Party” provides instructions we never knew we needed: making pupsicles and Easter bunnies (please, not chocolate, which is poisonous for dogs — choose carob), throwing your dogs a Harry Pawter-themed birthday party and completing their New Year’s attire with a dashing bow tie. In the same way Oprah’s favorite (and only) cover model is Oprah, Hunt uses only her own pups, Dave (dachshund) and Elizabeth (corgi), as models, and — well, can we admit that Dave and Elizabeth look like they’re in hostage videos, and moreover that the costumes are kind of awful? By the time I found Hunt’s “woof in sheep’s clothing” that featured googly eyes and cotton balls, I wanted to take away her glue gun. But that’s what makes this book so perfect. She’s not Martha effing Stewart. She’s a girl at home, during the pandemic, gluing cotton balls onto felt for her best friends — and having a darn good time.
Sometimes the comfort of D.I.Y. projects can have unintended and wonderfully profound effects. In the Tony Award winner Sutton Foster’s memoir, HOOKED: How Crafting Saved My Life (Grand Central, 256 pp., $28), she claims, “Crocheting, collaging and cross-stitching have literally preserved my sanity through some of the darkest periods of my life.” Those times include not just mean-girl backstage politics, nasty breakups, divorce and, later, the soul-sucking rigors of infertility, but also growing up with a narcissistic, agoraphobic, deeply critical parent.
Along the way we get some backstage theater buzz (bonus: a fantastic Q. and A. with Patti LuPone) as well as instructions on how to knit a Badass Baby Blanket. But this book is mostly about Foster’s relationship with her family. In those moments where she knitted or drew or stitched, Foster was free from the worry of the world’s judgment; she could relax or celebrate or — as in the case of the granny square blanket replete with owls — mourn for her mother as she was dying. And isn’t this why many of us get into D.I.Y. projects when spending money is often easier? It’s that combination of escape and productivity and, often, doing for others that Foster captures so well.
Foster could not complete her owl blanket then, so she decided to try again for her daughter several years later. “This blanket is the story of my daughter’s grandmother,” she writes. She hasn’t quite been able to finish it. “It’s the story,” she says, “I am still trying to tell.”