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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bitch, Ph.D. announces: book reviews for holiday shoppers

posted by bitchphd
Welcome to the holiday season, B-Mart shoppers! Beginning today, we will be reviewing the pile of books sitting at my elbow every few days, as I finish reading them! I think we have stuff for everyone on your book-receiving list: self-help, history, politics, academia, fiction. We are your full-service blog, here: bra sizing, random bitching, feminist activism, mommy stories, and now holiday shopping. Yes, you're welcome.

Plus! Extra-special book review launch announcement! Today the author of one of the two books being reviewed, Susan Newman, will be doing a Q&A in the comment section. Any questions about how the hell to tell people to fuck off (but nicely!) so that you can actually *enjoy* your vacation? Ask Dr. Newman.

Okay, so. For the colleague, friend, partner with whom you commiserate about overcommittment (or for the mentee who needs to stay focused on tenure, not on agreeing to run independent studies or advise undergraduate organizations), a relatively inexpensive gift and quick read. Dr. Newman's book is called The Book of No. She generously offered to send me a copy after she read one of my many "ahh! I'm losing my mind!" blog entries, and I said sure, send it along, and if it's any good I'll write you a review. Which here it is, so obviously I liked the book.

Now, I, personally, find self-help type books a guilty pleasure. I buy them when I'm in that "god, what is wrong with me?" state of mind, and then I read them mostly to procrastinate about actually *doing* something about whatever-it-is the book promises to help solve, or else to enjoy the narcissistic pleasure of taking personality quizzes. I never, ever, go through the series of steps that the book directs you to follow in order to fundamentally change your personality, and I'm hypercritical about the tone most self-help books take: the eighth-grade reading level that the author's publisher probably insists is appropriate for the genre, and the condescending "you can do it!" thing usually gets my back up. (Though it's better than the alternative, lecturing voice some writer use.) Shit, I don't talk to my kid that way.

So I found The Book of No kind of a breath of fresh air: rather than asking you to delve deep into your personality type, or begin with a series of exercises, or advising you to keep a journal, or what-the-fuck-ever other therapeutic activity is going to take too long (for therapy, I talk to a therapist: when I buy a book, I want something I can do *now*), Dr. Newman gives you what is, basically, a series of scripts. 250 of them. Each offers a scenario, a brief analysis, a scripted reply, and an "alert"--this last is the mantra, the rationale you might need to keep in mind to help you not feel guilty. So like, for instance:
Scenario: "The members need to be alerted to the time change for the next meeting. Will you send e-mails to everyone?"

What's going on here: Why me? There are six other people in the room who can do it. For sure, someone's e-mail address has changed and the e-mail will bounce back. You'll have to track down the new one with a phone call. All this takes time.

Response: "No, can someone else please handle the emails?"

Alert: Dodging is more than an acceptable solution for overload.
I chose this one because "I'll email everyone" is precisely the kind of crap I always volunteer for. "It's easy and short," I think. "Someone has to do it." I do not think "someone else can do it" or "what if an email bounces?" and yet it's true, some email usually *does* bounce, and even if not, the emailer always ends up in charge of keeping track of the responses or whatever. It's one of those "little" things that ends up being a pain in the butt. So what I like about the little scenario here is that it gives you either the internal dialogue you have (but don't voice) or, in my case, offers you the internal dialogue that you should be having, and then gives you a tactful way to say no, and a little rule to keep in mind for parallel situations.

The scenarios cover work (obviously), family stuff (e.g. passive-aggressive bullshit like "your [irritating] sister will be so sad if you don't invite her and her [asshole] husband"), and situations with friends. The scene/dialogue thing, which initially I thought "huh? what if your situation isn't in here?" actually turns out to be pretty helpful, for a couple of reasons. The repetition kind of trains you in doing the quick think-through of situations where you want to say no but don't feel like you can; and, importantly, the scenarios' brevity and fixed form make them surprisingly fun to read. It's kind of like reading an advice column, or anecdotal blog comments: here's someone with a manipulative mother, here's someone whose friends all think she's super-competent, here's someone whose boss loves to ask for overtime. If you or someone else has the paradoxical problem of finding it hard to say no but also appreciating a no-bullshit approach to problems, The Book of No cuts to the chase.

On the other hand: Arianna Huffington's On Becoming Fearless? Eh. If your mom or aunt or someone has relentlessly middle-brow reading habits, little to no real feminist awareness, and is at a crossroads of some kind--a divorce, a death, kids moving out, a job change--then maybe. This is a book for the woman who finds Lifetime movies inspirational. You'd think that Arianna Huffington might be able to offer some interesting gossipy biographical detail, or a window into the internal monologue of a pretty successful woman; at least, that's what I was hoping to find here. Instead we get relentless name-dropping ("The consequences of speaking out fearlessly cut even closer to home when my daughter Isabella's godmother, who happened to be Elaine Chao, married Senator Mitch McConnell, whom I had often castigated. . . .") and dubious pep talks about how important it is to get enough sleep. ("One of the benefits for me is how much less food I need.") I mean, what is there to say about this kind of thing? If you need a gift that looks pretty (seriously, the art designer who did the cover did a lovely job), looks semi-feminist but isn't going to offend a living soul, and isn't something you'll be tempted to keep for yourself, then maybe this is it. Otherwise, don't bother.

Don't forget: if you have questions for Dr. Newman, leave 'em in the comments section; she'll be around for the rest of the day. I, myself, am going to try to get my study cleaned up.
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