Friday, December 15, 2006

book review

Christmas tips

Problems you did not know you had

Dec 13th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Tying the Perfect Parcel: Everything You Should Know How To Do
By Rosemarie Jarski

New Holland; 304 pages; £9.99

Buy it at

WHAT better to give for Christmas than a book that explains how to wrap presents, carve the turkey and wash up afterwards? That is doubtless the aim of the chirpy Rosemarie Jarski, a former au pair and author of this compendium of household and other advice.

Books filled with commonsensical tips on life and how to live it are numerous and mostly bad, with Martha Stewart's snobby and fiddly lifestyle guides being among the worst. Shirley Conran's 1975 “Superwoman”, with its advice to stop fussing, to buy proper equipment and household chemicals, and to concentrate on fun, was one of the best. “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom,” she famously said.

Ms Jarski's book would make Ms Stewart wince, and Ms Conran cheer. It is utterly unambitious in the kitchen department: the reader learns how to cook pasta, boil vegetables, make tea and carve meat, and little else. But that plain fare is leavened with titbits of knowledge of the world outside the kitchen that even the savviest reader may lack: for example, the terminology and etiquette of sushi, or the way that smelly books can be de-odourised with bicarbonate of soda (how they become smelly is not explained). Ms Jarski's recommendations for descaling a shower-head in situ are truly ingenious.

This is a wisely constructed menu. A list of tips, however necessary, aimed solely at the most dimwitted or ignorant readers would be too shameful to give, or to read. The trick is to provide the most basic information about life (for example, a solemn page on the correct use of lavatory paper: how to hang it and, worse, how to use it) in a format that looks amusing and stimulating for the general reader.

Ms Jarski's assumption—probably correct—is that skill in dealing with chores and household management does not travel as easily between generations as it once did. A mixture of convenience food, life on the hoof, indulgent parents and sulky teenagers means that, for example, students newly living away from home as they start university may be blessedly ignorant of the simplest domestic tasks. A book that unstuffily explains the basics of tidiness, hygiene and organisation may be surprisingly useful.

There are three weaknesses. Some of the advice is wrong, or incomplete. Lemon juice or vinegar is a much handier way of removing chewing gum from fabric than the eucalyptus oil that the author recommends. Second, some of the tips (making beeswax furniture polish) would have seemed arcane even 50 years ago and give a whiff of borrowing from other, older authorities. There is a suspicious lack of acknowledgments, let alone a bibliography. Third, the tone is so relentlessly bright that even the most laid-back reader may end up wanting to hurl the book into a pile of dirty laundry and retire to an unmade bed with a takeaway meal.

As for those parcels? The advice is excellent, if a bit demanding. Use foreign comics as unusual wrapping paper, or use a furoshiki cloth, Japanese-style (try a napkin, scarf or handkerchief). Less originally: put irregular-shaped presents in boxes to make them easy to wrap neatly.

Tying the Perfect Parcel: Everything You Should Know How To Do.
By Rosemarie Jarski.
New Holland; 304 pages; £9.99

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