This Week's Reads

Barbara Ehrenreich and Danny Wallace.

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

By Barbara Ehrenreich (Holt, $24) All Barbara Ehrenreich wants is a white-collar job at 50K a year plus benefits. Yeah, well, join a little club called America, honey. In Bait and Switch, this veteran social critic deploys the same undercover approach as her best-selling 2001 Nickel and Dimed to explore life in Dilbert Country. Her goal: Land a corporate cubicle and report from within. Alas, few things are so simple. Ehrenreich changes her name, opens a checking account, and concocts a bogus résumé. She even employs a team of career coaches who, for a mere $200 an hour, provide useless assignments (describe your fantasy job!) and personality tests. After a year, however, the best Ehrenreich can muster are gigs pimping the respective fruits of AFLAC (quack!) and Mary Kay. As both involve independent contractor status, she decides to pass. Given this failure, Bait and Switch is not so much an insider's exposé of corporate America as it is a frustrated and politicized job seeker's diary. While Ehrenreich ventures out to coaching sessions, executive boot camps, and a host of networking events at exurban chain restaurants and evangelical churches, she's never in a position to observe other job seekers over the long term. What's missing in "on the job" immediacy, however, is sometimes made up for in analysis. Take her distinction between blue- and white-collar job hunting. In the former, a pulse and a drug test can usually get you through the door. No one expects anyone to be passionate about servicing the drive-thru window. Not so in corporate America, where employers demand an almost spiritual calling for work that often does little but gnaw the soul. For Ehrenreich, downsizing, offshoring, and the rise in white-collar unemployment all amount to a shattering of a social contract understood by generations of Americans. That is: work hard, remain loyal to the company, and be rewarded with security. The irony here is palpable; where dissident intellectuals once lamented the conformist oppression both meted out and endured by incarnations of "the man in the gray flannel suit," now they'd line his return path with lotuses. But since Ehrenreich never gets to spend real time with those dream chasers inside their institutions, Bait and Switch is incomplete. It's hardly thoughtless, just not what it bills itself to be. Covers notwithstanding, sometimes you can judge a book by its title. JOHN DICKER Barbara Ehrenreich will appear at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-652-4255; $5), 7:30 p.m. Mon., Sept. 19. Yes Man

By Danny Wallace (Simon & Schuster, $21) The first book by BBC personality Danny Wallace, Join Me, chronicled his successful attempt to found a philanthropic cult. It was endearing largely because the author was an unknown quantity, at least to most Americans. He's lost that element of surprise in Yes Man, so he makes up for it by turning himself—rather than hundreds of unsuspecting Britons—into the subject of his daffy sociological experimentation. Based on an old man's offhand advice ("Say 'yes' more"), he vows to respond only in the affirmative when confronted with life's choices. When a friend he's been avoiding asks him out for a pint, he says yes. When a spam e-mail offers him Viagra at 95 cents per dose, he cheerfully agrees. And when an acquaintance asks him if he wants to buy a used Nissan Figaro—well, you know what's coming. As the scale of his yeses escalates, Wallace travels to Barcelona to meet the Yes Man of Spain, an average guy who has become extraordinary—known to all, loved by all—simply by following a three-word mantra: sí a todo ("yes to everything"). Yet when the author, in response to more spam, visits Holland to claim a murdered sultan's fortune—yep, that one's been cluttering up my inbox, too—his try-anything persona wears thin. It's not the adventure itself that grates on you, but Wallace's insistence on feigning gullibility. There's a difference between childlike wonder and forced naïveté, and here he crosses the line. Mostly, though, Yes Man is a breezy, charming read. Wallace anchors the book with a love story, yet his most moving Yes Moment occurs when he Googles the phrases "I wish I had said no" and "I wish I had said yes." He learns that people's deepest regrets are usually the result of having said no when a yes was warranted, not the other way around. Wallace isn't a subtle writer; his goofy, all-things-to- all-people sense of humor persists, and occasionally annoys. But he never pummels you with syrupy optimism. It seems to be his simple contention that in our increasingly mechanized world, living by serendipity is both an act of rebellion and a pretty good way to seek happiness. And I can say yes to that. NEAL SCHINDLER

 
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