One-Minute Book Reviews

May 20, 2009

Ambition 10, Fame 3 — Nancy Balbirer’s ‘Take Your Shirt Off and Cry,’ a Memoir of Near-Misses as an Actor in Hollywood and New York

Did she miss out on fame because Hollywood is ruthless or because she consulted wackos like the psychic who spoke in the voice of an ovary?

Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences. By Nancy Balbirer. Bloombsbury USA, 256 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Nancy Balbirer updates the saying that acting is a hard way to earn an easy living in this uneven memoir of two decades of near-misses in show business. Balbirer tells lively stories about how she landed modest roles on Seinfeld and MTV while paying her rent through jobs like cocktail-waitressing and blow-drying friends’ hair for $20, all the while yearning for stardom that came neither in New York nor Hollywood.

But it’s unclear how much of her book you can believe, and not just because an author’s note warns – here we go again – that some facts have been changed “for literary reasons.” Balbirer takes her title and theme from a warning she says she got during a private conversation with the playwright David Mamet, one of her acting teachers at the Tisch School of the Arts. As she tells it, Mamet said that as a woman in show business, she’d be asked to do two things in every role she played:

“Take your shirt off and cry. Still, there’s no reason that you can’t do those things and do them with dignity and the scene properly analyzed.”

Did Mamet really say those lines as written? Good writers tend to keep related words together unless they have reason to split them up, and you wonder if Mamet said, “Take your shirt off” instead of the more graceful “Take off your shirt.” And his “still” seems stilted for a conversation between two people walking toward a Seventh Avenue subway stop.

In the years that followed her talk with Mamet, Balbirer took her shirt off – literally and figuratively — more than once. Yet her willingness to expose herself may have had more to do with a lack of self-awareness than with the raw exploitation envisioned by Mamet. On the evidence of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry, Balbirer has that paradoxical combination so often found in actors: enough intelligence to welcome complex Shakespearean and other roles but too little of it to stay away from con artists, whether they take form of tarot card readers or manipulative lovers. She’s hardly alone among would-be stars in having found an eviction notice taped to her door before she earned redemption (which came, in her case, from writing and starring in the solo show I Slept With Jack Kerouac). But you wonder if she might have avoided some disasters if she’d given less money to people like “a psychic in Tennessee” who spoke to her in the voice of one of her ovaries.

“Wacky, yes, and even wackier that my ‘ovary’ had a thick Southern accent,” she admits, “and still … I believed.”

Best line: Two of the “the enormous angry placards” Balbirer saw in the waiting areas of casting offices: “ACTORS MAY NOT EAT IN THIS AREA!!!” and “ACTORS: CLEAN UP YOUR GARBAGE!!” See also the quote posted earlier on May 20.

Worst line: No. 1: Some parts of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry are so neat, they leave you wondering if they include made-up scenes, dialogue, or characters. Balbirer doesn’t clarify the issue in a vague author’s note that says that she has “in some instances, compressed or expanded time, or otherwise altered events for literary reasons, while remaining faithful to the essential truth of the stories.” No. 2: Balbirer likes cute words (such as “humonguous,” “bazillion” and “suckiest”) that at times work against the serious points she is trying to make.

Published: April 2009

About the author: Balbirer co-owns the Manhattan restaurant Pasita.

One-Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 10, 2009

The True Story of an Unemployed Manager’s Brutal Search for a Job: G. J. Meyer’s ‘Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:48 am
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Riches-to-rags stories are the morality tales of recessions, and G. J. “Jerry” Meyer’s is one of the best. Excerpted in Harper’s and hailed by Studs Terkel as “astonishing” on its first publication in 1995, Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America (Franklin Square Press, 245 pp., $21.95) is one of the most honest memoirs of our time about the pain inflicted on decent white-collar Americans who lose their jobs in a brutal market.

Meyer is a former vice-president of the McDonnell Douglas aircraft company who during a bruising job search came to see executive recruitment as a form of Kabuki theater, which requires actors to play roles based on myths. The process had little room for job-seekers who told truths that clashed with corporate folk wisdom. So Executive Blues is more than a diary of Meyer’s harrowing quest for work. It is the story of his effort to retain integrity in an age that routinely asks the unemployed to lie: about how much they want a job, what they can do for a company, and whether they are consummate “team players” or creative iconoclasts.

Like Aristotle, Meyer believes “how we’re supposed to live our lives is the biggest question of all.” And one of the many virtues of his memoir is that it reflects a struggle to keep his life from becoming a subsidiary of his work, or lack of work. Meyer doesn’t give advice to job-seekers – let alone flog them with bulleted lists – but offers a quietly powerful reminder that all of us are more than what we used to do.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda.

October 6, 2008

‘Speaker Pelosi, I Named My Dog After You’ And Other Things Nancy Pelosi Has Heard in More than 20 Years in Politics

How do you become the highest-ranking elected female official in the U.S.? Pelosi didn’t iron her husband’s shirts

Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters. By Nancy Pelosi with Amy Hill Hearth. Doubleday, 180 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This book has inspired toxic comments on Amazon, apparently coming both from Republicans opposed to Nancy Pelosi’s liberal politics and Democrats enraged by her refusal to support impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush. Those diatribes may be too harsh. How bad can a book be when it includes an admission by the nation’s highest-ranking elected female official that she got where she is partly by declining to ironing her husband’s shirts?

Know Your Power isn’t a definitive autobiography but a brief memoir that its publisher optimistically but rightly categorizes as “motivational.” And it would be welcome if only because it offers an alternate model to any woman who thinks she could never meet Sarah Palin’s standard of running for high office as the mother of an infant and four other children. An implicit message of Know Your Power is: You don’t have to.

In this book Pelosi describes how she found her rewards sequentially. She got her start in politics when the mayor of San Francisco appointed her to the Library Commission while she was a full-time wife, mother, and volunteer who had given birth to five children in six years. But she didn’t become Speaker of the House until decades later. After becoming a Congresswoman, Pelosi seems to have accepted that she could never be the perfect wife envisioned by some of the women’s magazines: She has represented her California district since 1987, and her husband has never lived in Washington. A cornerstone of her philosophy of life is, “Organize, don’t agonize.”

Pelosi gives a strong sense of the rewards of a life in politics, some learned from her father, a Congressman from Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. She also sees the comic absurdities faced by elected officials of both sexes. One fan told her, “Speaker Pelosi, I named my dog after you.” One of the strongest sections of the book deals with her remarkable mother, who raised seven children — one of whom died at the age of three — and made sacrifices that indirectly underscore the need for elected female officials of both parties.

“My mother was a wonderful wife and parent, and she was also an entrepreneur and visionary,” Pelosi writes. “She started law school but had to stop when three of her sons had whooping cough at the same time. She made astute investments, but Daddy would not sign off on them (which, sadly, would have been necessary at the time). She had a patent on the first device to apply steam to the face, called Velex – Beauty by Vapor. It was her brainchild, and she had customers throughout the United States, but Daddy wanted her close to home.”

Amid such reminiscences, Pelosi offers advice to anyone who aspires to career in public service. “Don’t overstate what you will deliver, and always complete the task agreed to.” “Quality childcare is the missing link in the chain of progress for women and families.” Then there’s the advice she got from Lindy Boggs, former Congresswoman from Louisiana: “Never fight a fight as if it’s your last one.”

Some of the nastiness in politics today clearly results from the problem noted by Boggs, that many elected officials fight every fight as if it were their last. It’s easier to take an end-justifies-the-means view if you think you’ll never face your opponent — or American voters — again. Partly for that reason, if Know Your Power is billed as a book for “America’s Daughters,” it has a message for American’s sons, too.

Best line: On why she majored in history at Trinity College in Washington. D.C.: “I had intended to major in political science, but at Trinity at that time you had to major in history in order to study political science. Our teachers often quoted the great English historian J.R. Seeley’s aphorism: History without political science has no fruit. Political science without history has no root.” As someone who majored in political science major, I think Trinity had it right here. I had good poli sci professors but almost no history courses, which left me with an inadequate context for some of their lessons. If I had it to do over, I would major in history or English, which might have required me to take a few Shakespeare courses. I thought I had enough Shakespeare partly because I’d had a wonderful introduction to his greatest plays in high school. Wrong. You never have enough Shakespeare, especially if you’re a writer.

Worst lines: “This is an historic moment …” “This was a historic day in our house.” Pelosi apparently can’t decide whether its “an historic” or “a historic” and is hedging her bets. “A historic” is correct. To oversimplify: “An historic” dates to the early English settlers of our continent, many of whom dropped the “h” at the beginning of words, and the construction perpetuates the outdated language.

Recommendation? Know Your Power has crossover appeal. Doubleday has packaged it as a book for adults, and in bookstores and libraries, you’ll find it with the new adult nonfiction. But this book may especially appeal to teenage girls, including college students, who are hoping to go into public service.

Reading group guide: Doubleday has posted one at doubleday.com/2008/07/28/know-your-power-by-nancy-pelosi/, but this is a guide that’s almost worse than none. Sample questions: ” What roles do women occupy, or have they occupied, in your family? Did you have older female relatives who worked while raising a family?” These questions do not engage the serious issues Pelosi raises. You could ask them about almost any book by any female author from Edith Wharton to Toni Morrison.

Published: July 2008

Furthermore: Pelosi represents California’s 8th Congressional District, which includes much of San Francisco. She became Speaker of the House in January 2007 www.house.gov/pelosi/biography/bio.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 6, 2008

How to Get Started as a Book Reviewer — Tips From the National Book Critics Circle

If you think that trying get book-review assignments is like trying to get work decorating staterooms on the Titanic, the NBCC suggests how to avoid the icebergs

Later today I’m going to announce a new series of negative achievement awards for hyperbole in book reviewing that will begin Friday on this site, so I’ve been looking around the Web for posts that tell how to avoid over-the-top praise in reviews (and, indirectly, how critics can keep their name off the list of winners). The Tips for Successful Book Reviewing page www.bookcritics.org/?go=tips on the National Book Critics Circle site wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, partly because it’s more about how to get started as a book reviewer than about how to write good reviews.

But it has great advice for anyone who’s wondering if you can still get review assignments now that so many books sections have shrunk or vanished, or if this effort wouldn’t be like trying to get work decorating the staterooms on the Titanic. Rebecca Skloot www.home.earthlink.net/~rskloot/of the NBCC compiled the page with help from Elaine Vitone and delivers on the subtitle of her article, “Strategies for Breaking in and Staying in: Getting started as a critic, building your reviewing portfolio, going national, and keeping editors happy.” Here’s her most important point:

“Read good criticism. There are several authors who regularly gather their reviews and essays into collections that show how good criticism must be to stand the test of time. The NBCC has awarded several of these books prizes in our criticism category: Cynthia Ozick’s Quarrel & Quandary, William H. Gass’ Finding a Form, John Updike’s Hugging the Shore, Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche, William Logan’s The Undiscovered Country, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Making Waves are essentials in any critic’s library. Going back even further, the essays of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Borges, and Orwell remind us how criticism can be the intellectual record of our times. Notice, too, how the very best criticism is driven by metaphors and ideas and examples, not adjectives.”

Skloot is right about those adjectives, and if you aren’t sure how many adjectives are too many, watch this blog for examples after the new awards series is announced.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda is a former member of the NBCC board of directors.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 27, 2007

Are You Spending Enough Time on Your Blog to Get the Results You Want? Quote of the Day (Deirdre Day-MacLeod)

Why do some blogs succeed and others fail? Part of the answer may lie in how much time their creators spend on them, Deirdre Day-MacLeod suggests in her new book for teenagers, Career Building Through Blogging:

“According to a study of bloggers conducted by the University of Massachusetts, 31 percent of bloggers spend one to four hours per day doing research for and writing their posts,whereas 65 percent spend less than one hour. The study concluded that: 1) blogs take time; 2) blogs should be planned; 3) blogging is about interaction; and 4) the writing in a blog should be clear, real, focused, and above all, interesting.”

Deirdre Day-MacLeod in Career Building Through Blogging (Rosen Publishing, $29.25) www.deirdredaymacleod.blogspot.com. Her book is a part of Rosen’s Digital Career Building Series for teenagers, which also includes Career Building Through Digital Photography, Career Building Through Interactive Online Games and Career Buidling Through Podcasting.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 3, 2007

Stephen H. Baum Offers an Antidote to Some of the Lessons of ‘The Apprentice’ in ‘What Made jack welch JACK WELCH’

A leadership coach draws on the stories of CEOs and others in a book that focuses on developing character, not unchecked ambition

Here’s something even scarier than Donald Trump’s hairdo: A lot of people who are just starting out in business have taken many of their ideas about how to succeed from The Apprentice. In some ways, that’s exactly what they shouldn’t do, says leadership coach Stephen H. Baum in What made jack welch JACK WELCH: How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Leaders (Crown Business, $24.95) www.crownbusiness.com, written with my friend Dave Conti.

“While the show teaches the value of hard work, outside-the-the-box thinking, and resourcefulness, it also displays the contestants scheming, manipulating, feigning team spirit, and lying to beat both their teammates and their competitors for the single position in Trump’s organization,” writes Baum. “It promotes a ‘win at all costs’ culture. Had these stories taken place in a real company with real colleagues, most of the young executives would have earned the enmity, not the respect, of others. They continually display many of the hallmarks of [pretenders] and too few of the hallmarks of real leadership. Who in the world would trust them enough to want to follow them? No one I know and respect would hire them or work for them.”

Baum offers an antidote to the me-firstism of The Apprentice in a book that taps the stories of leaders such as Rudy Giuliani, Cathleen Black, Gordon Bethune, Gen. Tommy Franks and former Sen. Bob Kerrey, now president of the New School. So his book could be a fine gift for a recent graduate who knows there’s more to success that the show lets on but isn’t sure what it is. Baum www.stephenbaumleadership.com expresses a cornerstone of his philsophy early on: “Character means doing the right thing when no one is there to see as well as when your actions or visible or will likely be revealed to the world at large.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 17, 2007

Nigel Marsh’s ‘Fat, Forty, and Fired,’ a Memoir of Unemployment

An English advertising executive in Australia discovers that – surprise – caring for his children is harder than he thought

Fat, Forty, and Fired: One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Leaving His Job and Finding His Life. By Nigel Marsh. Andrews McMeel, 288 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

A couple of decades ago, American newspapers regularly published articles by men who had decided to stay home with their children and realized – to their amazement – that the work their wives did was actually hard. These gee-whiz accounts became a journalistic cliché fast enough that they have pretty well played themselves out here.

But apparently the trend still has life in Australia, where Nigel Marsh’s memoir of nine months at home with his family earned him spot next to Dan Brown and John Grisham on the bestseller lists. Not that Marsh signed on for the project as willingly as some of those former American “househusbands” who have since been recast as “stay-at-home dads.” Born and raised in England, he was the CEO of an advertising agency when a merger left him jobless. Instead of going right back to work, he decided that he wanted to stop being “a bit player in my own family” and spend more time with his wife, Kate, and four children under the age of 9.

Fat, Forty, and Fired is a breezy account of this experience that reads at times like a book fished out of an American time capsule from the 1980s, or a treatment for an offbeat Australian version of The Simple Life with the author alternately playing the roles of Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and one of their hosts. Marsh pats himself on the back when his stint as a school cafeteria volunteer goes well, and he’s irritated when his wife doesn’t “thank” him for dressing his twin daughters. Fortunately, Kate sets him straight quickly: “Why should I thank you when you do the basic things that you should be doing anyway?” And his book becomes more interesting as he flings himself other goals – to lose 30 pounds, train for an ocean swimming race, and conquer the alcoholism that he’d been denying even while knocking back six beers a night after work.

By the end of the nine months, Marsh has achieved several of his aims. But his hope of achieving “a more balanced life” is another matter. Recidivism sets in almost as soon as he takes a new job as CEO of Leo Burnett Australia. And he concludes that all the books and articles that tell men how to achieve “work-life balance” are not only misguided but part of the problem, because men can’t “have it all” any more than women can. That may be true, you have the sense that he’s known that all along. So what did he really gain from his experience?

In his time off, he quit drinking, lost weight and had many lyrical moments with his children, who play amusing and at times poignant roles in the book. And such gains, he suggests, were enough. “I may be struggling,” he admits, “but the struggle is slightly more enjoyable less damaging to those around me than it was a year ago.”

Best line: One of the strongest chapters deals with how people reacted after learning that Marsh had quit drinking. One group insisted bizarrely that he’d never had a problem with alcohol: “I was somehow offending these people’s sense of what a ‘real’ drunk’s story should be. I wasn’t a professional drunk – I was merely third division. Pathetic. My life hadn’t gone off the rails enough for them. If only I could have an affair, lose my job, or maim someone in an accident, I’d be a first-class guy. It just didn’t impress these people that I stopped before a dramatic disaster befell me.”

Worst line: Marsh’s treatment of most subjects is skin deep and sinks into psychobabble when he tries to sum up what he learned from his time off. He says the hiatus “started me on a personal journey” and that “I’m basically working on the habit of counting my blessings, not whining about the challenges.”

Reading group guide: A readers’ guide to Fat, Forty, and Fired was posted, before this review, on May 17, 2007, and is archived in the Totally Authorized Reading Group Guides category. This is guide is not just for book clubs but is also for individual readers who would like to learn more about the book.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: April 2007

Links: www.fatfortyandfired.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Nigel Marsh’s ‘Fat, Forty, and Fired’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Fat, Forty, and Fired:

One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Losing His Job and Finding His Life

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and only for your personal use. The sale or reproduction of this guide is illegal except by public libraries that many copy it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

After losing his job as the CEO of an Australian advertising agency, Nigel Marsh realized he wanted to stop being “a bit player” in his family. So instead of going right back to work, he decided to spend more time with his wife and four children under the age of 9. Fat, Forty, and Fired is a breezy account of the nine months he spent pursuing that and other goals he set for himself – to lose 30 pounds, compete in an ocean swimming race, and conquer his alcoholism. Since achieving some of his goals, Marsh has returned to work and is chairman of the Leo Burnett agency in Australia, where his book was a bestseller.

Questions for Discussion
[All quotations and page numbers are based on the advance readers’ edition and may differ in the finished book.]

1. Marsh talks with a friend about wanting “a more balanced life” while they are exploring Tasmania early in the book. [Page 78] Do you think he really wanted this or thought he was supposed to want it? Does he achieve his definition of “a more balanced life”? Does he achieve yours?

2. In the chapter called Winegums,” Marsh concludes that books and articles that tell men how to achieve “work-life balance” are not only misguided but part of the problem, because the idea of “having it all” doesn’t work for men any better than it does for women. He writes [Page 266]:

“Stressed executives all over the developed world now have the added stress of trying to do it all. All our striving for balance is making us less balanced, not more. The bar has been set at a completely unrealistic level. Many men try desperately hard to do it all – and then beat up on themselves when they aren’t home for their kids’ suppers. When they finally do get home, they feel like failures and deal with their frustration by being morose and shouting at the wife and kids.”

What evidence does he offer for this besides his experience? How strong is the case he makes for his point of view? Do you agree or disagree with him?

3. Fat, Forty, and Fired tells us little about the work that Marsh did at the Darcy agency before his job was merged out of existence, except for saying that he had to fire people when the shop closed. He doesn’t talk about any of the advertising campaigns he worked on or their rewards and frustrations. Would this kind of information have added to or detracted from his story? Why?

4. Born and raised in England, Marsh was living in Australia when he lost his job. To what degree do you think his background influenced his views? How might Fat, Forty, and Fired have been different if an American had written it?

5. Marsh says that when he was five years old, his parents sent him a boarding school in the west of England. He calls such institutions “soul-destroying quasiprisons.” [Page 43] How might this experience have affected his views?

6. At one point Marsh is annoyed that his wife doesn’t thank him for dressing his twin daughters. [Page 64] Kate puts him in his place. “When do I get thanked?” she asks. “I dress the girls all the time and you never thank me. Why should I thank you when you do the basic things that you should be doing anyway?” [Page 64]

How does this passage relate to your life? Some people might call Marsh a sexist for expecting to be thanked for dressing his daughters. Would you agree or disagree?

7. Did you sense that there was a subtext to Marsh’s relationship with his wife that he couldn’t discuss without violating her privacy? What was the subtext?

8. Marsh speaks vaguely of his financial worries, such as when he writes about letting the nanny go and moving. But in Fat, Forty, and Fired, he seems mostly unconcerned with finding work. He describes no serious efforts to look for a job and, when he gets one, it seems to arrive out of the blue, almost as a deus ex machina. Nor does he cast unemployment as the crushing assault on the ego that it is for many men. Why do you think this is so? Do you think his feelings were too painful to write about? That he was confident he could get another job? That something else was going on?

9. Fat, Forty, and Fired includes bits of Marsh’s philosophy of life. Which do you remember best? Which do you think he was or wasn’t able to live by?

10. Marsh never explains how he came to write Fat, Forty, and Fired – specifically, whether he knew he was going to write a book when he began his time off. Some critics would say that if he knew this, he had an ethical obligation to say so, because it makes a difference to the story. We might see his money worries differently if we knew he had received a book advance that wasn’t an option for other men. Or we might suspect him of having sought out some experiences because they would make “good copy” or believe he had extra motivation to achieve some goals because a book advance was riding on them. Would it make a difference to you if you knew Marsh had received or not received a book contract before starting what he calls a “personal journey”? Or does the book justify itself? Note: Since this guide appeared, Nigel Marsh has posted a response to this question in the “Comments” section. Thanks, Nigel! His response follows. Jan

Hi Janice,

Subject: ‘Fat, Forty and Fired’

A friend just showed me this and I wanted to provide some answers regarding question 10.

I didn’t decide to write a book about my experiences until 4 months into my time off work, moreover I didn’t get a book deal until well over a year after I had returned to work.

Hope this helps provides some useful context for your book club readers.

Thank you for taking an interest in ‘Fat, Forty and Fired’.

Best wishes from Down Under

Nigel Marsh

Vital Statistics:
Fat, Forty, and Fired: One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Leaving His Job and Finding His Life. By Nigel Marsh. Andrews McMeel, 288 pp., $19.95. www.fatfortyandfired.com Published: April 2007

A review of Fat, Forty, and Fired appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on May 17, 2007, and is archived with the May posts and in the “Memoirs” category.

If you found this guide helpful, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing others. The guides are posted frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 27, 2006

The New Year’s Resolutions of Kate Reddy, Working Mother

Allison Pearson satirizes sexual double standards at work and at home

I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother. By Allison Pearson. Anchor, 338 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Working mothers! Can you identify with any of the following New Year’s resolutions?

“Adjust work-life balance for happier, healthier existence … Spend more time with your children … Don’t take [husband] for granted … Attempt to be size 10 … Call friends, hope they remember you.”

These are the resolutions of Kate Reddy, the high-octane fund manager and heroine of Allison Pearson’s merciless send-up of sexual double standards, I Don’t Know How She Does It. Kate believes she was “educated for something better than the gentle warming of Barbie pasta.” But her firm’s diversity initiatives are sham, her young children “have not grasped the principle of Quality Time,” and when her nanny calls in sick, the only available temp is a “close relative of Slobodan Milosevic.” Kate’s husband means well, but his good intentions are destined to count for only so much “until they programmed a man to notice you were out of toilet paper.”

One of the great virtues of this novel is that Pearson understands – and lampoons – the cultural forces that hold women back, such as diversity programs designed to more protect firms from lawsuits than to end discrimination. She never suggests that Kate would have fewer problems if she had a different husband or children or had spent years in therapy. But she hedges her bets with an over-the-top subplot about Kate’s father that that shows that not only does her heroine work with cretins – her father was pretty awful, too. Pearson tries to connect the two ideas by suggesting that women who succeed in finance tend to be “Daddy’s girls.” This may be true, but she tells us this instead of showing it convincingly, and at times causes the novel to cross the line from satire into farce. And when the inevitable marital crisis erupts, Kate’s husband takes action too cruel for a man who cast as saintly until them.

Even so, nearly every page of the novel has a sparkling or trenchant observation that helps to make it the best send-up of sexism at work of the new millennium. Every reader may have his or her own favorite line. Here’s one that fits a holiday week: “Like any other family, the Shattocks have their Christmas traditions. One tradition is that I buy all the presents for my side of the family and I buy all the presidents for our children and our two godchildren and I buy Richard’s presents and presents for Richard’s parents and his brother Peter and Peter’s wife Cheryl and their three kinds and Richard’s Uncle Alf … If Richard remembers, and depending on late opening hours, he buys a present for me.”

Best line: Here’s one that involves Kate Reddy’s 18-month-old son: “Ben has discovered his penis. Lying on the changing table, he wears the rapt, triumphant expression of a being who has just found the on-off switch for the solar system.”

Worst line: “My dad has always confused sentimentality with intimacy.” This is telling, not showing. And that “intimacy” is one of Pearson’s rare descents into psychobabble.

Recommended if … you have incipient carpal tunnel syndrome from all the packages you wrapped while your husband was watching The Game.

Editors: Jordan Pavlin at Knopf, Alison Samuel at Chatto, and Caroline Michel at Vintage.

Published: October 2002 (Knopf hardcover edition). September 2003 (first Anchor Books edition).

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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