Monday, July 6, 2009

Takin' Care of Business: 5 Great Reads About J.O.B.'s

These days, we're all about the job. Even before the recession made working a full-time obsession, Americans have struggled with making a living--not just earning enough, but how to meet goals, deal with coworkers, and balance relationships outside the workplace. And these days, getting a job and keeping it has been a huge challenge for everyone, whether you're a CEO, a cashier, or one of the many drones in between. Holding on to your red Swingline? Even bigger.

That said, I love reading about work. It never fails to astound me what a plethora of jobs there are, each one with its own set of stereotypes (office workers are pale and petty; food servers are actors, slackers, or "slactors"; et cetera), unique challenges (in the end, it usually comes down to making someone else happy), and most importantly, potential for drama. With that in mind, I present five terrific books (fiction and non) about the trials and tribulations of the employee.

1. The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: If I could buy Michelle Goodman's helpful and hilarious book for every young working woman, I would. Goodman toiled in various urban office jobs before fleeing the cube for good (aside from the occasional temp job) in her late twenties. Now a successful writer and editor, Goodman offers war stories and advice on everything from finding your dream occupation, to fitting in your pet project when you work 40 hours a week, to navigating the growing worlds of telecommuting and part-timing. She also explores the basics of starting your own business or nonprofit organization, gleaning assistance from female success stories in New York, Seattle and everywhere in between. Subtitled Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube, The Anti 9-to-5 Guide doesn't deride the working world. Rather, it praises its flexibility--and shows you just how to make a job work for you. Because, as Goodman says in the introduction, "life is too short to stress about work when you're sleeping."

2. How Starbucks Saved My Life: Have you ever watched Mad Men? (If not, I highly recommend it--and not just because Jon Hamm is one of the Top Five Most Gorgeous Men on the Planet. But I digress.) Picture Don Draper--or some equally high-powered exec with a liquor cabinet in his office--suddenly losing his job, and therefore a large part of his identity. Then picture Don Draper serving you a Frappuccino and mopping the floor under your table. This is the true story of Michael Gates Gill, a self-proclaimed "son of privilege" who had risen to the top at his company after twenty-five years of hard work. After a sudden layoff, Gill attempted private consulting for ten years with little success. In the meantime, he fathered a child with a woman who wasn't his wife, and realized he didn't know his three adult offspring at all. While drinking a latte at Starbucks, a luxury he couldn't really afford, he was jokingly offered a job by Crystal, a smart and savvy young African-American woman who managed a store in Harlem. In working for Crystal, Gill grew to appreciate and adore a company that expects a lot from its employees--but gives a lot (great health insurance, advancement opportunities and community) in return. Even after the publication of this best-selling book, as well as a movie option involving Gus Van Sant and Tom Hanks, Gill still works at Starbucks and calls it the best job he's ever had. Gotta love that.

3. Waiting: Debra Ginsberg is a writer. And an awesome one at that--she's penned terrific books about her interesting, unusual life with two freewheeling parents, five overbearing siblings, and one son that's special in every sense of the word. For most of her life, Debra Ginsberg has also been a waitress. This is her first book, a fun and honest look at all the places she's served food over twenty years--from an upstate New York luncheonette run by her own father, to a chaotic Los Angeles diner. Ginsberg tackles bad tippers, sore feet, and the colorful relationships she forms with coworkers and patrons--those who buy her drinks, give her writing jobs, and puke in napkins they hand to her. When I too was on my feet a lot, as a bookstore clerk, I hand-sold Waiting several times--it's just that entertaining. Having had several occupations in her lifetime, Ginsberg takes the most pride in waitressing. After all, it's enabled her to support a child, jump-start her writing career, and learn exactly who she is: an independent, hardworking woman with a ton of interesting stories to tell.

4. Citizen Girl: Twenty-four-year-old Girl is an intelligent Wesleyan graduate who just wants to make a difference in the lives of women. Unfortunately, her nonprofit job is more administrative than activist--and her boss is wackjob as much as she is feminist. Frustrated and disgusted, Girl resigns, and is offered a lucrative corporate gig at My Company. Although My Company's CEO appears chauvinistic and clueless, Girl is sure that she can turn things around...and in the meantime, the money is really, really nice. As My Company shows less and less respect for the females it seeks to attract, will Girl succumb to the big paychecks and perks that will enable her to assist a struggling women's organization? Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, authors of The Nanny Diaries, beautifully capture the dilemma of many twentysomething wage slaves: at what point do you draw the line between changing the world and making a living?

5. Bought: While at the Printer's Row Book Fair last month, I attended a Q&A with Jen Lancaster and Bought author Anna David. The latter was a former L.A. celebrity journalist who started writing fiction because many of her colleagues were getting published and "if that bitch could write a book, so could I!" (She also referred to one of her prospective literary agents as a "douchebag." I developed a girl-crush then and there.) Bought, Ms. David's second novel, chronicles the journey of struggling freelance reporter Emma Swanson, who has learned the hard way that covering Hollywood parties is a lot less fun than attending them. When Emma meets Jessica, a professional escort--who offers more of a girlfriend experience than a straight-up sexual transaction, and accepts gifts and rent payments more than she does cold, hard cash--she is intrigued as to why an increasing number of women are voluntarily choosing and even celebrating this occupation. Jessica readily agrees to be the main subject for a story that could catapult Emma's fledgling writing career to new heights. As she and Jessica spend more time together, Emma gains confidence and is offered an amazing career opportunity. However, Emma soon learns that in Jessica's world, nothing is as easy or free as it appears. David's writing is both breezy and thought-provoking, giving new insights into life, love and work in the land of Hollyweird.

What are some of your favorite "work books"? Leave a comment!


  1. These sound really good! I always think people's working life doesn't get enough attention in books. I mean, that's where most of us spend a huge chunk of our lives. It's definitely a big reason I love Mad Men, now that I think about it. I'm fascinated by the social mores of the time, but I especially love seeing how other creative people approach projects, how office politics play out, etc.

    Maybe I would relate to more protagonists if more of them had office jobs.

    I honestly can't think of a good book dealing with work!

  2. Mad Men is so awesome! And I'm with you--one of my favorite parts of the show is when they are trying to figure out how to advertise a product, and the often-amazing results. (The genius Popsicle ad at the end of season 2 comes to mind.)

    The American Office in its heyday--for me, season 2--did a great job at showing office life, politics and people.

    Thanks for reading, Bryn!

  3. I can tell you that I am reading "Bought" and well I am so glad that I bought "Bought"
    Its been a wild ride and a great book!
    There is some awesome advice and Anna David has a style that places me right into the pages of the book as a participant!
    I just love it!