This is a very strange book.
Situated somewhere between feature-story journalism and popular history, it provides exactly what its subtitle promises: Twenty case studies of things - career moves, inventions, marketing strategies - that seemed like good ideas in theory, but went horribly wrong in practice. The authors are journalists, and their dedication to the journalist's fundamental craft of getting the facts and presenting them clearly shows on every page. Each of the twenty short chapters is comprehensive, detailed, and well-sourced without ever feeling dry or dull, and each of them opens with a useful 2-3 paragraph overview of the idea, why it seemed promising, and how it went wrong. Taken individually, the chapters are superb. Those on the chemist who gave the world both leaded gasoline and CFCs, on the kudzu that blankets the American South, on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, and on the window-shedding John Hancock Building in Boston are the best introductions to those subjects I've ever read.
The quality of the research and the writing extends even to the more offbeat case studies - ones that, in less-careful hands, would have descended into smirk and snark. Smith and Kiger write about the offbeat sexual practices of the utopian, nineteenth-century Oneida Community without leering, and trace the spectacular flameout of world heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks' career without sneering. Many books on the history of technology and "weird history" recount the story of Thomas Edison staging the public electrocution of an elephant; Smith and Kiger provide the context you never knew was missing by recounting the history of other elephant executions. Many music fans of a certain age know that, for a brief time in the late 1960s, rising guitar god Jimi Hendrix opened for the pre-fab pop group The Monkees . . . but that's all they know about it. Smith and Kiger tell the other 99% of the story, asking (and providing a serious and plausible answer to) every music fan's first question: "What were they thinking?" Astoundingly, it actually does make sense in context.
The book's blend of topics - the grotesque (elephant electrocution), the farcical (the Hendrix-Monkees double bill), the tragic (Leon Spinks' self-destructiveness), and the deadly serious (the John Hancock Building) - lies at the heart of its strangeness. The authorial "voice" is consistent throughout, but the content swerves all over the map. The rise and fall of the Xtreme Football League shares space with the partial destruction of the Earth's ozone layer by CFCs, and the ecological catastrophe of kudzu with the paper dress. The strangeness is intensified by Smith and Kiger's definition of "fiasco," which encompasses everything from the impractical (flying cars) and the faddish (leisure suits) to the lethally dangerous (the Tacoma Narrows Bridge). The fact that each chapter ends with a small, boxed inset distilling each case study into a literal "recipe" for disaster brings it to a peak.
If you're interested enough in the subject matter to be reading this review, you'll almost certainly find the book interesting. Just be aware that you're in for a very strange read.