"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Practically Perfect in Every Way: My Misadventures Through the World of Self-help - and Back by Jennifer Niesslein

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Summary: A magazine editor refers to the experts to try and live her best life.

I had heard about this book five years ago, when I was a reader of Brain, Child magazine. The cover art was off-putting, (who wants to be a 1970s housewife?) and I really couldn't understand the concept of the book. Then after I read Gretchen Rubin's recent book The Happiness Project, I got enthused about the idea of another self-improvement memoir, so I picked up Practically Perfect.

Jennifer Niesslein is the editor of Brain, Child magazine, mother to seven year-old Caleb and husband to Brandon and she's not as happy as she could be.
The best way I can describe it is this: My body is a glove and my hand - my mind - can't get itself into the glove right. As if one of the gloves' fingers got twisted funny in the wash. On these days I'm in a low-grade funk.
I know people who feel like this and some days, when it's freezing cold and I can't stand the four walls of my house anymore, I feel like this, too.

It started out hysterically funny, and I was kicking myself for not reading this book sooner. She sits down with Real Simple magazine one evening. :
The clutter-busting section begins with a quote from Tina Turner: "Whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you'll find out that when you're free, your true creativity, your true self comes out." Spice cabinet, I don't care who's right or wrong - I don't really wanna fight no more.
I laughed aloud during the clutter section, especially since she refers to and reads the same authors (Karen Kingston, The Fly Lady, etc) that I do.
"Okay, babe!" I say cheerfully and perhaps frighteningly. "We're going to pick up twenty-seven things that we don't want anymore and get rid of them. We'll fling them in this bag!" Christ Almighty. I just used "fling" in an unself-conscious manner with my child. "One. Two. Three. Go!"
Caleb, armed with a plastic grocery sack, races around downstairs, showing off his counting skills.
"What do we do now?" he asks.
"We just throw it in the trash!" I say. "We don't need it!"
He starts crying. "You didn't tell me I was supposed to pick up garbage!" It occurs to me later that Caleb finds nothing unusual in the idea of garbage lying around our house.
The following chapters focus on money, marriage, neighbors, health, religion and charity. Jennifer goes from book to book and chapter to chapter trying to find an expert who makes sense to her. With money, she explores advice from Suze Orman and David Bach. With marriage, she reads Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Dr. Phil McGraw. She really struggles with the marriage advice section, which surprised me, since her marriage seems the strongest part of her life. But her book choices are where she goes wrong. She picks books from people she can't possibly respect, simply because of who she is.  One of the best pieces of advice I got from Rubin's Happiness Project is her advice to "Be Gretchen" which really means be true to who you are and what makes you you. When Jennifer picks a book that speaks to her - Authentic Happiness - her enthusiasm for both the subject and the author is so appealing to read.

Until she gets to the health section. When I found out that she was an active smoker, I was upset. It seemed hypocritical to me that she lets her seven-year-old son sleep in bed with her and her husband, all while she's reeking of cigarette smoke. That b*llsh*t might have been acceptable 20 years ago, but certainly not in 2005. I simply couldn't respect her as a parent any more and all the things we had in common felt so different once I knew she was such a heavy smoker. Based on the author photo, Niesslein is seriously overweight and suffers panic attacks. She gets her exercise regime from an article in Oprah's magazine and refuses to see a therapist about her crippling panic attacks while driving. Instead, she sells her car. Once I saw how uncommitted she was to getting herself healthy, I gave up on the book, kinda like she gave up on herself. This book went from 5 stars to 4 stars to 3 stars as I finally finished the book.

Practically Perfect in Every Way: My Misadventures Through the World of Self-Help--and BackPlease note: I picked up the hardcover version of the book with that terrible cover art, but there is a paperback version with a much more appealing cover that I think will sell much better.

After such a funny promising beginning, I was disappointed about half-way through this book. In this way, I feel like Jennifer is a typical American in that she knows what she needs to do, but feels like she's okay enough not to do what she should. Of course, it's boring to do what you know you should do, instead what feels good. Contributing to this is the fact that her project spans almost two years. The more modern gimmicky memoirs do something for one year, but I think that Niesslein got burnt out by all the self-improvement jobs she had to do.

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