Jeff Taylor

Only the most riveting and surprising books at least one eyebrow-popping surprise per page rate a place of honor on our bathroom bookshelf. Such books should be diverting and preferably brilliant; no long fiction, please, and frankly, I'm tired of trivia tomes and porcelain poetry. How about a book that explains the mystery of all these deodorants, unguents, balms, perfumes, safety razors, disposable diapers, and the evolution of drugstores from prehistory to their current sorry state? Imagine my delight to find Vince Staten's newest book, subtitled “A Trip Inside the Corner Drugstore.” A trip? It's more like a safari into a forgotten world. If you're old enough to remember phosphates and egg creams at the soda fountain, the blood-building iron/sugar/alcohol magic of Geritol tonic and that weird old crone staring at you from the label of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, you'll immediately recall the great smell of the old corner drugstore. That's what you miss in the sterile breathing atmosphere of a modern chain pharmacy.

In the hands of a less risible writer, a book about America's corner drugstores could be literary Sominex, fit only for the bedroom shelf; or worse, one long arch bathroom joke. But fans of Staten's previous books will understand why I actually cracked a rib laughing at his method of scientific inquiry, as directed toward product packaging. (Two words: Fuji audiotapes.) He relates unbelievably wild but true anecdotes about the origins of some name-brand products. A thousand incredible factoids are sprinkled throughout the book. (Fingernails grow faster in warm weather; body odor may be a natural defense against being eaten by predators; the disposable-diaper boom began with one disgusted grandfather.) Staten's style is not just comfortably conversational, but also perfectly funny in the oddest spots. For instance, he personally tests Rogaine over a four-month period, to hilarious effect. The historical record is probed with deftness and taste, revealing a thousand years of cultural embarrassment over our own bodies. Its pinnacle, the toxic shock of Victorian morality, made certain hygiene and health products invisible. Prudes literally died before discussing parts or functions of the body that were verbally taboo. (Even today, Preparation H is one of the most shoplifted items.) No one could conquer their shyness enough to purchase sanitary pads, so an advertising genius hid it at the back of the drugstore, next to a money-box; Kotex, a giant in the multi-billion-dollar feminine-hygiene market, began as an open sack of product on a bench, self-serve, sold on the honor system.

What makes this a great bathroom book is not only that it can be read with real enjoyment, and to tatters, over a 50-year period by the same person. No, after reading it, you'll want six more books by Staten for all the other rooms in your house. And he's already written them.

Reviewed by Jeff Taylor.

Only the most riveting and surprising books at least one eyebrow-popping surprise per page rate a place of honor on our bathroom bookshelf. Such books should be diverting and preferably brilliant; no long fiction, please, and frankly, I'm tired of trivia tomes and porcelain poetry. How about a book that explains the mystery of all […]

BookPage has the distinction of being the first to interview Dave Barry on his first novel, Big Trouble, a flaming rollercoaster ride through the mean streets and fleshpots of Miami. In these pages you'll find crazy Russian mobsters, icy Mafia killers, beautiful women, ugly sociopaths, a poisonous toad the size of a bowling ball, a dog with a dilemma, and one ticking suitcase that puts them all in harm's way.

BookPage: First of all, the painfully obvious question, just to get it out of the way: Are you making this up?
Dave Barry: Yes and no. I've read a lot of interviews with fiction writers, and apparently many people don't realize that it's possible to make things up out of thin air, which is called fiction. In this case, the characters are all made up. Except for the ones I didn't have to make up. The city of Miami has got to be the weirdest city in the United States. You can't really embellish it. So any of these characters could be found in Miami.

BP: Big Trouble starts and ends with Puggy, a homeless individual. He's admirable in every way; you obviously like him a lot. Is this an alter ego, who Dave Barry might have been if not for kismet?
DB: In the sense that Puggy really likes beer, yeah. I like to think that I'm a few notches higher on the IQ level than Puggy, although so are most domestic animals. He always ends up doing the right thing, although his real quest is for more beer.

BP: Was writing this book a whole lot of work, or did you dash off this first novel in your spare moments?
DB: It was a whole lot of work, but I really enjoyed the process. It's so different from writing columns or nonfiction books. With a novel, you find yourself lying in bed wondering, "What will they do next, and how will they do it?" I was worried at times that I wouldn't be able to figure it out, but then when the next part came, it was extremely satisfying. And often surprising. I talked to several writers — Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, James Hall, and Les Standiford, just to name a few who were generous with advice — and they all said there would come a time when each character would make it clear what he or she wanted to do. And they were all exactly right.

BP: Big Trouble has "Make Me Into a Movie" blazoned across it in sky-high neon letters. Who do you see Stanley Tucci playing?
DB: Probably one of the Mob guys, or one of the Russians. But he's such a wonderful actor, he could play Jenny or Monica or Roger the dog and still make you believe it.

BP: Did you write the FBI men, Greer and Seitz, with Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci in mind? Or do you see taller Feds?
DB: No no no. One is tall, one short. They're physically different in every way. Actually, I named them after my neighbors across the street, who are both incredibly wonderful people. So I lifted the names, transposed first and last, and made them horrible, amoral government agents.

BP: In the inevitable movie, name a cameo role you could play.
DB: One of the four jerk lawyers smoking cigars in the crowded restaurant. Maybe the one who figures out real quick that the smoking lamp is going out, per the gentle suggestion of the hit man, Henry.

BP: In the flashback scene where Eliot quits by giving his idiot boss's computer a flying brogan, I sensed either a secret desire or an actual event in history. Which is it?
DB: Never happened. Not that it couldn't. But I was taking the obligatory potshot at the newspaper industry, where everything is processed by committee and the end goal is to create a commercial product. There's a covert war that's always going on between editors and writers. However, let it be writ large that where I work at the Miami Herald, there are zero editors who are that jerky. No, it was just getting some old grudges out at the business, and I wanted to make it plain why Eliot would wind up so dramatically stuck in advertising. Because he burned his bridges in journalism.

BP: Is any resemblance of a living person to the Client From Hell purely accidental? And have you ever met, or licked, the Enemy Toad, arch-nemesis of Roger the dog?
DB: Surely a Client From Hell exists somewhere, possibly named Legion. And speaking of toads, one of the things that struck me when I moved to Miami in 1986 was all the dangerous wildlife living around here. Pretty scary when you think about it. Back then I lived next to a canal, and this giant Bufo marinus toad — you can't believe how ugly these things are — marched up and took over my dog's dish. And he was a big fierce dog, too. So that part actually happened. By the way, dogs are such wonderful characters in real life that I had to write Roger into the book.

BP: In one particularly scary scene with Snake and Eddie, the reader encounters a moment of fairly graphic sex and violence.
DB: Well, it was really hard for me to write that scene, but I wanted to show that Snake and Eddie, who previously seemed to be harmless losers, are in fact truly bad guys. Especially Snake, who is an actually evil person: rotten, unlikeable, impolite, unchivalrous, and mean-spirited.

BP: Earlier you mentioned the scene involving four cigar-puffing lawyers in a crowded restaurant. Was this a personal fantasy, or were you just giving your readers a uniquely satisfying moment in literature?
DB: Oh, occasionally I've wished I were a large and ugly Mafia hit man with no sense of humor about violations of common courtesy and the Clean Air Act; and yes, I have more than once been in restaurants where the same scene occurred but without such a happy ending. Not that I encourage aggravated assault on the criminally inconsiderate, or mean people who are otherwise immune to reason. That would be wrong. Delightful to witness, but wrong.

Jeff Taylor is author of Tools of the Trade and Tools of the Earth (both by Chronicle Books).

BookPage has the distinction of being the first to interview Dave Barry on his first novel, Big Trouble, a flaming rollercoaster ride through the mean streets and fleshpots of Miami. In these pages you'll find crazy Russian mobsters, icy Mafia killers, beautiful women, ugly sociopaths, a poisonous toad the size of a bowling ball, a […]

In 1985, David Owen bought an old house in the country, fleeing the concrete cubic-foot confinement of an apartment in the Big Apple. Owen's new home was built in 1790, a big old dilapidated house that had been a former prep-school dormitory. Casting sensibility to the winds, he and his wife purchased it on pure intuition, omitting research into its faults that surely would have persuaded them not to buy it in the first place.

Then they began renovating, slowly. He wrote a book about it, called The Walls Around Us, and if you haven't read it yet, you've missed a funny and insightful book on old-house renovation, resonant with undertones of confidence fueled by the heat of burned bridges. By itself, the section on How to Find the Best Paint is worth the price of that book.

Around the House takes readers even deeper into the mystical aspects of home ownership, one salient of which is an unwritten law: those who work on their houses always wind up remodeling the space between their ears. Like an ancient house, the book has some funny rooms, with chapters like Nature's Double Standard and Benign Neglect. Well-written humor comes as no surprise to those familiar with Owen's previous books.

However, this one sings in the darndest places. Part of it is the astounding ease with which Owen gives you back fleeting moments of your own childhood, exploring mysterious rooms in creaky old houses. Some of it can be found in beautifully crafted epigrams, such as Owen's Law: whatever you learn by renovating an old house is exactly what you needed to know before you started. Much of it lies in the fact that, while Owen blithely tackles gigantic projects and labors that would startle Hercules he bought his first computer in 1981, to give you an idea of his daring he relies on manly instincts of procrastination when it comes to nonessential repair. Roof leaks? Find bucket. Air infiltration? Duct tape. He is one of us.

Best of all, though, Owen leads by example, showing his readers the utter futility of working on a house with the goal of finishing it. Like most, he is neither a working fool nor a loafer, although his apathy toward yard work will endear him to every homeowner in America. His dogged quest for more storage space balances it nicely, even when he explains that the concept of enough storage space is a wholly nonexistent ideal. Pursuing lost causes is its own reward.

The essays are short but full of sweetness, philosophy, humor, hopeless optimism, cautionary tales, and practical advice on how to saw the legs of a bed when the floors slope. Around the House will make you think, especially at those critical times just before you start tinkering with your own rooftree. Read this book first, to prepare your psyche for the adventure. Like any big project, it's a labor of love, which is always much wiser than mere logic.

Jeff Taylor is author of the book Tools of the Trade: The Art and Craft of Carpentry and the upcoming Tools of the Earth: The Practice and Pleasure of Gardening, both from Chronicle Books.

In 1985, David Owen bought an old house in the country, fleeing the concrete cubic-foot confinement of an apartment in the Big Apple. Owen's new home was built in 1790, a big old dilapidated house that had been a former prep-school dormitory. Casting sensibility to the winds, he and his wife purchased it on pure […]

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