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"Catalog Living at its Most Absurd" by Molly Erdman Courtesy of Plume Books

When it comes to home decor, I'm seriously lacking. My drapes don't puddle, my flow is not great, and my accent wall is too cluttered to even mumble, let alone sing. But I have one thing going for me. I don't own any giant wicker balls.

If you've ever thumbed through a home decor catalog, you'll recognize what I'm talking about. You'll find them, in one form or another, in almost every one. Some are small and are artfully heaped in a bowl. Some are as big as the ottoman, parked in a corner like a mutant dust bunny.

I had accepted these things as just another fashionable decor item that, like the puddled drapes, would not be happening in my living room. But after reading comedian Molly Erdman's new book, "Catalog Living at Its Most Absurd: Decorating Takes (Wicker) Balls" (A Plume Book, $18), I'll never look at them the same way again.

Erdman, a Los Angeles writer, actor and comedian, was relaxing at home late one night when she started thumbing through a current West Elm catalog. There, among stylish pillows, abstract lamps and of course, giant wicker balls, was a photo of a patio set.

"Nice chair, nice couch, nice table," Erdman says, "but on the ground was a silver platter of figs. I started wondering why it was on the ground, under the table and outside. It was just weird."

She then started looking at catalogs with an eye for the absurd, or at least the strange. And she found no shortage. There were baskets of pillows and linens left on a deserted pier, fruit lined up on the edge of a coffee table, a straw hat hanging from a digging fork.


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One thought plagued her: "Who lives like this?"

Erdman began to make a game of finding the items, then trying to justify them. She would post the photos and her comments on her blog, www.catalogliving.net. The site took off and soon attracted the attention of a literary agent.

"Now I have a book," she says, "from something that I didn't think anyone beyond my circle of family and friends would ever see."

The book shows how two fictitious people, Gary and Elaine, have decorated their home. The couple explains each of the photos. In one, a vivid, fuzzy green rug lies in front of a stark white bathtub, leading Elaine to say, "I don't much care for it, but Gary claims it helps him live out his childhood fantasy of bathing in the Astrodome."

In another, a bedroom done all in white with a television on a table at the end of the bed, screen facing away from the would-be sleepers. Gary comments, "Elaine, I'm exhausted. I just want to get in bed and watch the back of the TV."

Erdman has some sympathy for the photographers and designers charged with creating eye-catching displays, but her pity ends with the people who buy into the idea being sold them.

"Granted," Erdman says, "my circle of friends can't afford a bowl of moss balls. Our decorating needs are different, but there are people who do, and they need to be made fun of. In the bigger picture, people get swept up in filling their homes with things they think people want to see rather than just making them a place to entertain and enjoy. They buy the idea that if I have this plaster elk's head on my wall, I'll be happier, and my life will be better."

On the other hand, Erdman says, people would do well not to listen to any decorating advice she would offer, not that she would. But she has some general advice that is sound.

"Surround yourself with things that make you happy," she says.

Even if it's giant wicker balls.

Contact Joan Morris at jmorris@bayareanewsgroup.com.