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Book Review

A bagel, a bomb, and other amusing oddities

'Taking Things Seriously' profiles curios, such as the ambiguous needlepoint stitched by an aunt of Carol Hayes's. 'The mystery of it is what attracts me, but it's also what bothers me,' she says. "Taking Things Seriously" profiles curios, such as the ambiguous needlepoint stitched by an aunt of Carol Hayes's. "The mystery of it is what attracts me, but it's also what bothers me," she says.

Like many of the objects photographed and written about in "Taking Things Seriously," it's hard to know what to make of this offbeat, one-of-a-kind book. Co-author Joshua Glenn describes it as a "show-and-tell book" about objects that "may not appear particularly valuable," but have colorful, bizarre, and amusing stories behind them. Each object is photographed and accompanied by the owner's short essay explaining its significance. Either you enjoy this sort of thing, in all its glorious quirkiness and potential campiness, or you don't.

San Francisco journalist Marilyn Berlin Snell's significant object is a handful of dirt gathered outside a teepee in New Mexico. She had spent the night around a campfire "ingesting peyote" and had a life-altering epiphany: "I stopped moving that night, stopped being afraid of my future. I realized that I carry my home with me." Writer John F. Kelly adores actor Christopher Walken, and prizes a bagel burned by his movie-star idol. Kelly explains that Walken was allowed to cook at Robert De Niro's New York City restaurant. Kelly's friend Tracy ordered a bagel that Walken prepared and burned. "Unable to eat it," Kelly explains, "Tracy took the bagel home and mailed it to me."

Many of the objects have serious, often quite dark, stories behind them. Writer Thomas Frank owns a French army helmet from World War I. The helmet reminds Frank that "millions of brave men were ordered to die in an ill-planned and essentially futile conflict" long ago, and it can happen again. Children's author Megan Cash owns a voodoo doll representing her hippie mother's worst ex-boyfriend. The doll, crafted when Cash was 8, has two large pins stuck in its right shoulder, just above its "fake heart." Owning it, Cash writes, "made me feel like I had some sort of advantage over" the loathsome ex-suitor.

Some objects and their stories are head-scratchingly mysterious. Carol Hayes owns a needlepoint sampler made by her aunt and once hung in her relative's Massachusetts home. Eschewing the typical "Home Sweet Home" sampler message, this aunt's framed sampler had a single word surrounded by roses: "Thoughts." Hayes finds the indeterminacy of the sampler's message provocative: "The sampler's vagueness plunges me into philosophical confusion. The mystery of it is what attracts me, but it's also what bothers me."

Some objects included by Hayes and Glenn, a former Globe staffer, are simply bizarre. Mimi Lipson has a cupcake collection that dates back to 1988: "After a few weeks the cupcakes would harden, crossing the line from confection to decor," explains Lipson. "I kept them in a display case." Tony Leone, a graphic designer from Jamaica Plain, owns a "one-hundred-pound practice bomb" from the US Navy, given to him by his high school girlfriend as a birthday gift. Later, explains Leone, the girlfriend "dumped me for another guy." He should consider himself lucky.

New York artist David Scher, in an effort to memorialize his late mother, had the arm of her beloved couch sawed off and shipped to him, "the one with the cigarette burns. The dog-chewed, ketchup-stained, Miracle-Whipped, pawed-by-a-thousand-little-hands arm."

As the old sayings go, art is in the eye of the beholder and one person's junk is another person's treasure. "Taking Things Seriously" is a fun, off-center collection of objects and stories that will have you looking at the objects around you with fresh eyes and strange questions, like "Would Christopher Walken autograph my burned bagel?" or "Is it a good thing to get military ordnance for your birthday?"

Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects With Unexpected Significance
Edited by Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes
Princeton Architectural Press, 176 pps., $17.50

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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