Christmas Books Special: Self-Help books reviewed

How to do dishes, date and not be desperate
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The Independent Culture

Lucky Jane Austen didn't have to deal with the ambiguities of the text message. She also died a spinster at 42, but that didn't stop novelist Lauren Henderson from writing a guide to dating based on the wit and wisdom of her novels. Jane Austen's Guide to Dating (Headline, £9.99) has been a huge bestseller, clearly rekindling a nation's fantasies of capturing the heart, and nipples, of Colin Firth. Triggered by a taste of the New York dating scene - infinitely more complex than its Regency equivalent - it takes ten principles, culled from her novels, and applies them to situations she has experienced, or observed. You might want to draw the line at working out "which Jane Austen character is the man you like", but there's plenty of common sense on the cauchemars of courtship in an age of commitmentphobia.

How to Walk in High Heels (Hodder, £14.99) sounds like a bible for the Sex and the City generation, and Carrie Bradshaw's favourite footwear does indeed feature prominently. "I think you must always show some toe cleavage" says Manolo Blahnik, one of a number of "experts" who have bestowed their blessing, and tips, on Camilla Morton's book. For someone who'd rather have a holiday than a pair of strappy sandals, it's an offputting start, but it does get better. It is, in fact, packed with handy hints on almost every aspect of contemporary life, from "how to burn a CD" to "how to read a map" and "how to achieve perfection" - which, apparently, includes having a fortnightly Brazilian.

Less challenging, and certainly less painful, is How to be Lovely (Robson, £9.99), a guide to "The Audrey Hepburn Way of Life". This little piece of froth, punctuated, of course, with lots of photos, offers little nuggets of wisdom from the gamine actress, like "whatever a man might do,... it doesn't matter because you love them" and "what has helped me a great deal... are the clothes". Author Melissa Hellstern apparently "spent five years researching the life and words of Audrey Hepburn". Next project, presumably: How to Get a Life.

Clothes are, of course, the province of Trinny & Susannah, whose new book, What Your Clothes Say about You (Weidenfeld, £20) is a searing postmodernist study on clothes as signifiers of cultural change. Perhaps not, but it is meant to offer a "psychological approach to make women feel good about themselves".

The self-styled post-Freudians offer such razor-sharp insights as "you are not a number, you are a free woman" and handy lifestyle tips like "smile" and "have a spa day". If you're looking a bit frumpy, you may, they say, be "suffering from a bout of mild depression". Give these women a Nobel prize.

The author of How to Run Your Home Without Help (Persephone, £10) can't have had much time to spend on her own appearance, so gruelling are the routines she sets out in her book. Kay Smallshaw was editor of Good Housekeeping and her book, first published in 1949, was aimed at housewives who suddenly found themselves without servants. "That mending!" laments Smallshaw. "When you're longing to relax,... it seems like the last straw, but what man doesn't expect his wife to take it in her stride?" For those, like me, who prefer to believe that homes, like cats, will clean themselves, it's a salutary, and comic, reminder of an age when wifely duties were as strong to your house as your husband.

The word "housewife" is, in fact, enjoying a new lease of life, largely due to the success of the Channel 4 series about the dark, and highly coiffed, side of suburbia. Pop the word "desperate" in front of it, and a lovely pink jacket and you have a surefire bestseller. Well no, actually. Charlotte Williamson's How not to be a Desperate Housewife (Robson, £7.99) aims to offer profiles of four major types of "desperate housewife", with tips on how "not to be desperate". Answer: "relax". Yes, really. I don't like to be unkind, but this cynical piece of platiduinous nonsense really is a load of what a Man from Mars would call - it being the only area of his household responsibilities - garbage.

Lynne Truss doesn't like to be unkind, either. Talk to the Hand (Profile, £9.99), her long-awaited follow-up to the monster phenomenon that was Eats, Shoots & Leaves, is devoted to "the utter bloody rudeness of everyday life". It is not, she says, a guide to manners, but to the general principle of manners as "based on an ideal of empathy", a principle she sees violated at every turn. Like all her writing, it's funny and wise, but witty, commonsense observation does, at times, seem to veer into flights of fancy that are verging on misanthropy.

If only she, an eminent sports writer in a previous incarnation, had written Everything a Girl needs to know about ... Football (A & C Black, £6.99). Authors Simeon de la Torre and Sophie Brown aim to help you "pick 11 men to share the rest of your life with" and explain the offside rule with, you've guessed it, Manolo Blahniks. I'm sorry, but I just couldn't stop my eyes glazing over. Now if it was Jane Austen's Guide to Football, perhaps I could.