Field Guide to Stains: How to Identify and Remove Virtually Every Stain Known to Man

by Virginia M. Friedman, Melissa Wagner and Nancy Armstrong

Published by Quirk Books

352 pages, 2002

 

How to Be A Villain: Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More!!!

by Neil Zawacki

Published by Chronicle Books

160 pages, 2003

Bad Hair

by James Innes-Smith and Henrietta Webb

Published by Bloomsbury

128 pages, 2002

 

 

The Man with the Dancing Eyes

by Sophie Dahl

Published by Bloomsbury

64 pages, 2003

All My Life For Sale

by John D. Freyer

Published by Bloomsbury

210 pages, 2002

 

 

 

 

What Were They Thinking?

Reviewed by Sienna Powers

 

Sometimes it's hard not to wonder just what it is that publishers are thinking. Sure: they want to sell books. In fact, they have to sell books so that they can publish still other books. But when we keep hearing how tough it is to get a book published, you sometimes have to just stop and shake your head and say: What were they thinking?

I'm not talking here about bad books. Though they exist, books that are just plain and irredeemably awful are too sad to waste time thinking about. No: the books I'm presently pondering aren't necessarily bad -- though some of them are -- they're just so... well... dumb and unplaceable, it's difficult to imagine book store owners knowing what to do with them, let alone book buyers. If they manage to find them. Let me give you some examples.

If you suddenly find yourself with a house guest from outer space, rush out and get a copy of Field Guide to Stains. As the title suggests and instructs, this is in fact a field guide in the most classic sense. It's small -- it would fit snugly into a coat pocket and easily into a backpack -- and the center section is comprised entirely of brightly colored illustrations. It's a book clearly intended to take with you into the field. Except, of course, that most of us don't actually do much cleaning there. In the field, that is. Most of us do our spot removal at home, where books can be as big and bulky as they please. So, right away, there's the conundrum: what's the point? In the first place, does anyone on the planet -- this planet -- care enough about stain removal to have a whole book about it? And, in the second place, if someone does care that much, why -- except for cuteness' sake -- make it a field guide since, as far as I know, Maytag makes very few models meant to function (ahem) in the field. Why not just make a size and shape appropriate to the laundry room where most of us would do our stain repair?

If, however, as stated earlier, you come across an alien struggling with human concepts and ideas, Field Guide to Stains will rock their world. Each possible stain-making substance (which is just about everything, when you think about it) is broken down to its simplest, most understandable form. And so we learn that cheese is "A food prepared from the curds of milk separated from the whey, often pressed and allowed to ripen" and that milk -- in case the cheese definition threw you -- is "An opaque white or bluish-white liquid secreted by the mammary glands of female mammals, serving as the nourishment for their young." (And can't you just imagine said aliens wrinkling up their bumpy noses at that description and saying, "Ewww, gross. So much for the ice cream idea.")

Field Guide to Stains is a lovely little book. It's beautifully produced and designed. The writing is sharp, the advice is good and the photos are appropriately illustrative. You just have to wonder: Who the hell cares?

In another era How to Be A Villain might have been downright funny. In tone and concept it is not unlike Cameron Tuttle's highly successful Bad Girls series, that started with The Bad Girls Guide to the Open Road. Like Bad Girls, How to Be A Villain is spirited, beautifully designed and -- I suspect -- all in good fun. However in 2003, the world seems suddenly all too full of evil. Evil seems, in fact, to be almost everywhere we look. It's hard, sometimes, to tell the good guys from the bad guys in a world suddenly on the brink of war. World events, I think, have sapped some of the fun out of Neil Zawacki's probably well-intentioned book. The first text page will give you a hint at what I'm talking about:

Whatever your background or experience, rest assured there's an aspect of evil that's right for you. If you don't find your niche immediately, don't despair. This handy guide is designed to help you discover and nurture the darkness within for a lifetime of heedless villainy. No matter how well adjusted you may appear to friends and family, you are the only one who can truly know your evil potential.

In 1999 I think this would have been knee-slappingly, beer slurpingly funny. In 2003? I'm not so sure. The execution is wonderful, the design and production -- as I mentioned -- are bang on. But maybe -- just maybe -- in a world that seems suddenly to have a surfeit of evil, even the pretense of schooling more is slightly off.

Most of the books included in this roundup are long on execution and short on really good ideas. That is, they're very well done books -- writing, design you name it -- that just somehow missed the mark. However Bad Hair by James Innes-Smith and Henrietta Webb was pretty much a great idea. It just could have used a little more elbow grease in the R&D department.

In the first place there is no text at all in Bad Hair. No -- though it might have been a reach, it would have been funny -- history of bad hair or aids in the progress of bad hair development or even -- and this one would have been crucial -- a definition of bad hair. Bad Hair is comprised entirely of photos of moderately bad hair. In fact, enough of the photos are from the 1970s -- a notoriously bad hair decade -- that the book might just as easily have been subtitled: weren't people dorks in the 1970s? Most of the photos look to have been clipped from old hair styling magazines and, as such, they were the best of the best of their time. Granted, the best of then looks pretty goofy now, but when I think of bad hair, I don't think of the best of any era. A little more research and extension of resources could have netted the authors an interesting -- perhaps even valuable -- book. As it is, Bad Hair is flat and uninteresting. Most of the bad hair here is hardly worse than looking through your own family albums, loathe though we may be to admit it.

A little celebrity seriously doesn't seem to hurt when it comes to landing a book contract. Everyone from Madonna to Steve Martin to Stephen Cannell are writing books these days. Though the six children's books Madonna recently signed up to write are still unpublished, I've read books by Martin and Cannell and both are really wonderful writers. Madonna has done so well at just about everything she's determined to do, I have no doubt her books will be lovely. Sophie Dahl, however, might do well to not quit her day job. Or, at least, to think what she's saying through a bit further before she says it.

Dahl, a 23-year-old model whose name has appeared in magazines more for the men she's been linked with (including Mick Jagger, Griffin Dunne, Mark Lamarr and others) than the clothes she's worn, is the daughter of the writer Tessa Dahl and the granddaughter of children's writer Roald Dahl. Sophie's first literary effort is The Man With the Dancing Eyes, an illustrated (by Annie Morris) fairy story intended for adults. At first glance, The Man With the Dancing Eyes is charming. The heroine is a girl named Pierre:

Her birth and name were the result of an unlikely liaison between a bumbling botanist and a ravishing yet distant soprano, who found themselves stranded, away from their native lands, on a strange electric night. Amidst the linen sheets of the Pierre Hotel, as a fearful storm raged outside, our heroine was conceived in the great city of New York.

If, as you've begun to read, you have any doubts who this book is intended for, you don't after you've read that paragraph. Only grownups need apply.

The prose is, for the most part, pleasantly startling: childish and sophisticated at the same time. The problem -- and for me it's a huge one -- comes not with the telling of the story, but with the story itself.

Pierre falls in love with the man with dancing eyes, a painter, and they begin on the road to happily ever after, until a couple of things happen. First, the man with the dancing eyes makes Pierre his muse but, as Dahl writes and probably knows, "to be a muse is a dangerous thing." Then a final blow: the man with the dancing eyes "committed an indiscretion that tore her in two." She gets away from him quickly and cleanly, leaving London and moving to New York, the city of her conception. And though in New York we share in Pierre's many diversions, she finds that something is missing in her life.

One day (and this is a spoiler, so if you don't want to know how it ends don't read this) the man with the dancing eyes appears and confesses undying love and the desire to move with her to Italy and "have an Aga, four babies and a goat."

And she takes him back.

Which was so not the ending I was expecting. I wanted -- needed -- development and growth. Strength of self and self-esteem. Sure, it's a fairy story. But if you're going to give me a fairy tale, please give me one without cheating life partners. Seriously. I demand nothing less. I suspect I'm not the only one.

All My Life For Sale is all the description you need. In it John D. Freyer documents selling everything he owns on eBay, then driving around the United States visiting a lot of the stuff he sold when he moves from Iowa (where he's been attending grad school) to New York City. There are no great revelations. Most of Freyer's stuff was junk and the prices he got for things reflect this, so it's no one's idea of a rags to riches story. If anything, it's more like rags to rags since he used all of the money he raised selling his stuff on his travels to visit his stuff and the people who bought things.

All My Life For Sale is the best bad book I've ever seen. The design is lovely: bright and innovative (Freyer did it himself), the writing is frequently funny and often sharp, the photos of all of Freyer's stuff are appropriately illustrative, making his bag of small roasted cuttlefish, five rolls of exposed but unprocessed 120 film, a broken light meter and all of his other weird possessions look just about as good as they can. The book is downright fascinating. Freyer sounds like a delightful and talented kook and the project he undertook -- selling his life -- becomes something akin to performance art.

With all of these praises I'm singing, where's the bad part? Personally, I just can't imagine why anyone would actually purchase this book. Where does it fit? It won't help you sell stuff on eBay. It's not enough of an art book to fit in nicely on your art book shelf. And for a gift? I dunno. I can see giving someone a book about being evil or a slender book about being in love penned by a model. But a book about a geek filmmaker in Iowa selling all his geeky stuff and then visiting it? Who would you give it to?

Now, all of that said, All My Life For Sale came out in November 2002 and seems to be doing quite well. Which just goes to show you why you can never trust roundup reviews of bad books: it's only one person's opinion. | March 2003

 

Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.