Cleaning Plain & Simple

by Donna Smallin

Published by Storey Press

308 pages, 2006

Buy it online






The Bug Stops Here

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


Donna Smallin scares me. She peppers her prose with a whole lot of stuff I'm not really sure I want to know about. And the stuff I find I do want to know about fills me with a guilt so vast, I'd jump up and start cleaning and organizing, if I could just think where to start.

Here's a for instance: did you know that your kitchen drain and garbage disposal can be "the perfect environment for the growth of bacteria and mold." Yuck! In Cleaning Plain & Simple, Smallin advises dumping (actually, she says "pouring") a half cup of baking soda, followed by one cup of vinegar down the drain, once or twice a week. And it's not just dumping and pouring, there's some plugging, fizzing and boiling water involved, as well.

And, really, all of that would be fine -- easy even -- a couple of times a week, if there just weren't so much else to do. For instance, Smallin advises a monthly regime for kitchen maintenance that includes cleaning the inside of the refrigerator with a mixture of a baking soda and hot water; the cabinet and drawer fronts with a blend of vinegar, oil soap and water; the inside of the cabinets and the drawers, the trash can, wood cutting boards, the back to the disposal. I get a little dizzy just thinking about it.

But we're not done with the kitchen yet. Not by a long shot, in fact. The kitchen floor needs to be cleaned at least once a week "more often if you have shedding pets or crawling children or if you are a very messy cook." And sponges and kitchen clothes? Smallin suggests disinfecting them, but I'm thinking they should go into the fire because, "According to a University of Arizona study, the average sponge has as many as seven billion germs on it." Seven billion. How'd they even find someone to count them all?

But wait: it gets worse. Smallin writes that "there are more germs in your kitchen sink than on your toilet seat." Um, great. Now I have to start cooking in the bathroom.

The kitchen isn't the only thing that attracts Smallin's eagle eye in Cleaning Plain & Simple. In fact, everything gets cleaned and decluttered in Smallin's latest book. Everything. To get you started on the right foot, Smallin begins at the beginning: Part One is called "The Basics," and they are.

"Why do you clean? What's in it for you?" Smallin asks at the beginning of Chapter One, and then proceeds to tell us before breaking it all down to its simplest elements. The difference, for example, between disinfecting and deodorizing (in case all those years of commercials haven't made it clear) and what should be inside your cleaning closet. (I knew at this stage I was in trouble: I don't even have a cleaning closet to inventory.)

Those basics are then broken down still further: how to identify the perfect vacuum, the right sponge, the best way to dispose of cleaning products. Then on to strategy: dealing with pets and allergies; how to get the whole family involved; how to clear clutter "one drawer at a time;" the best way to clean floors, ceilings, wallpaper, blinds.

Deeper into the book, she goes all esoteric: "nine nifty uses for old toothbrushes," how to properly care for hair-care and cosmetic brushes and tools ("Do you know what's on your makeup brushes?" My answer: Do I want to know?) Later still, things get even more complicated: "Why should household cleaning stop with only what we can see? What about the air we breathe and the water we drink?" Help!

You will have gathered, just from some of my comments here, that I am not a "super cleaner" or even a "speed cleaner" and would even have to go a couple of miles to qualify as a "catch-up cleaner." That is to say that I tend to live quite happily with a certain amount of clutter and dust and I don't really have plans of any kind to correct this situation in the future. Heck: I'm not even totally certain my pleasingly messy abode requires any correction. (I'm even reasonably convinced that, if I brushed my toilet every day, as advised, it would probably crack and the finish would weaken. Or something. Whatever. I'm not doin' it.)

With this in mind, I approached Cleaning Plain & Simple fully intending to spend a lot of time scoffing. But, the fact is, once your mind has adjusted to the idea of a whole universe of germs happily colonizing your dishcloth, Cleaning Plain & Simple is a fascinating, well produced and even useful book. Sure: Smallin's tone is sometimes prissy, and you even get the idea that she might not be the most fun person at a dinner party (you'd be afraid she was checking the quantity of spottage on your flatware), but the research here is astonishing. Smallin is able to take all these diverse and hard won facts and turn them into tips and lists of how-tos and how-not-tos and what-to-dos. On a very real level, Cleaning Plain & Simple works. It's clear, concise and no-nonsense. Even if, sometimes, it's just a little bit scary. | March 2006


Sienna Powers is a January Magazine contributing editor.