Review: “A Window Opens” by Elisabeth Egan

a-window-opens

There was this article in The New York Times a couple of years ago about Amazon, which sparked a larger debate about work culture at tech companies, that kept flashing in my head as I read Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens. Although the debut novelist sends her protagonist to work at a company called Scroll, the similarities between the two retail giants are fairly obvious. Both start off selling books and quickly expand to include anything a customer might want. Both make use of computer-generated data for a laser-like focus on commercial success. And both, apparently–if the Times report is to be believed–expect nothing less than complete, servile allegiance from their employees.

As A Window Opens begins, Alice is a part-time books columnist and a full-time mother of three. A New Jersey suburbanite, she enjoys spending time with her best friend, who owns an independent bookstore, her lawyer husband, and their extended family. The only disruption in her merry life is her father’s cancer, which has robbed him of his voice but appears to be in remission. All that changes when her husband’s career goes off the rails, and Alice is forced to seek a full-time job.

At first, the position at Scroll sounds ideal. Although Alice doesn’t understand much of the jargon of her new workplace, she is thrilled to be “Content Manager-slash-Industry Liaison,” or, as she is told by her chummy supervisor Genevieve, “an arbiter of impeccable taste,” collecting titles to sell in upscale Scroll “lounges.” She learns to call printed books “carbon based” and to mouth tenets like “we don’t sell merchandise, we sell the future.”

Although the job quickly becomes more than full-time and Alice misses “the kindergarten ice cream social, the first day of school, a PTA meeting,” she is content. Only just as Alice is almost accustomed to both the new grind and the loss of family time, her father’s health takes a turn for the worse. And then her bosses begin to ask for more, pushing Alice into a new position that targets her sensitivities both as a longtime bibliophile and as a mother.

That’s where Ms Egan, currently the books editor at Glamour magazine after a brief stint at Amazon Publishing, falters. Although the “pivot,” to use a Scroll word, isn’t that far-fetched, it is one step too far. It’s all a little too perfectly horrid, just as Genevieve is a little too duplicitous, bonding with Alice over House Hunters before firing off denigrating emails to Alice’s work account.

Likewise, her colleagues–all younger and apparently childless–are a little too clueless. Not one seems to have any understanding of how cancer affects a family, as if illness were only confined to the over-35 crowd, and when, on a visit to corporate headquarters, Alice overhears the line “What can I say? She’s a mom,” she recognizes it as an insult.

 With its sharp, perceptive humour, this novel plays like The Devil Wears Prada for the online giant, poking fun at the kind of ridiculous situations that anyone who has worked with a start-up will recognize. But A Window Opens lacks The Devil Wears Prada‘s moment of realization–that is, any revelation about the awful boss’s humanity. While we do get to see the toll of the stress on Genevieve–“her nails were dull, bitten to the quick. There was a greenish cast to her skin“–we never learn what motivated her. Without more understanding of how she became the “befriend then berate” leader who so disappointed Alice, Genevieve remains one-dimensional, as do too many of the supporting characters in this book.

Ms Egan obviously tapped into the zeitgeist with her debut, capturing not only the craziness of an Amazon-like company but also the debate over the “Lean In” philosophy that would have women, even mothers of three, commit to their jobs at any cost. She does so with wit, weaving the family stories into the workplace saga. But at almost-400 pages, A Window Opens is a little too long for what is simply a humourous, topical novel. The Scroll jargon must have been great fun to write, but replacing some of that with more fully realized characters would have made this book better.

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Review: “The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar

Art of Choosing

Sheena Iyengar is the psychologist responsible for the famous jam experiment. You may have heard about it: At a luxury food store in Menlo Park, researchers set up a table offering samples of jam. Sometimes, there were six different flavours to choose from. At other times, there were 24. (In both cases, traditional flavours like strawberry were left out.) Shoppers were more likely to stop by the table with more flavours. But after the taste test, those who chose from the smaller number were ten times more likely to actually buy jam: 30 percent versus 3 percent. Having too many options, it seems, made it harder to settle on a single selection.

The study hardly seems mine anymore, now that it has received so much attention and been described in so many different ways,” Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, writes in The Art of Choosing. “From the various versions people have heard and passed on,” she adds, “a refrain has emerged: More is less. That is, more choice leads to less satisfaction or fulfilment or happiness.”

Now Iyengar is having her own say about the jam experiment and the many other puzzles and paradoxes of choice. More choice is not always better, she suggests, but neither is less. The optimal amount of choice lies somewhere in between infinity and very little, and that optimum depends on context and culture. “In practice, people can cope with larger assortments than research on our basic cognitive limitations might suggest,” Iyengar writes. “After all, visiting the cereal aisle doesn’t usually give shoppers a nervous breakdown.”

A congenial writer, Iyengar is less hard-edged and ideological than Barry Schwartz and less glib than Malcolm Gladwell, who she says encouraged her to write this book. The Art of Choosing should appeal to fans of both writers. It’s full of the experimental results that make for good cocktail party chatter, but it offers fewer explicit lessons. Iyengar favours exploration over conclusions. “Isn’t this interesting?” she asks, rather than “Isn’t this awful?” or “Isn’t this useful?”

Take a mundane question: Do you choose to brush your teeth in the morning? Or do you just do it? Can a habit or custom be a choice? When Iyengar asked Japanese and American college students in Kyoto to record all the choices they made in a day, the Americans included things like brushing their teeth and hitting the snooze button. The Japanese didn’t consider those actions to be choices. The two groups lived similar lives. But they defined them differently.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Iyengar is drawn to such cross-cultural comparisons. Consider an experiment she conducted with elementary-school children in San Francisco’s Japantown. Half were what Iyengar calls Anglo Ameri­can, and half were the children of Japanese or Chinese immigrants who spoke their parents’ native language at home. “Ms Smith” showed each child six piles of word puzzles and six marking pens. Each pile contained one category of anagram — words about animals, food, San Francisco, etc. — and each marker was a different colour. A third of the children were told to pick whichever category and marker they wanted to play with. Another third were told they should work on a specific category with a specific marker. With the final third, Ms Smith riffled through some papers and pretended to relay instructions from the child’s mother. In the latter two cases, the category and marker were, in fact, the ones picked by the most recent child to select freely.

The two ethnic groups reacted differently. The Anglo kids solved the most anagrams and played the longest when they could pick their puzzles and markers, while the Asian children did best when they thought they were following their mothers’ wishes. To the Anglo children, their mothers’ instructions felt like bossy constraints. The Asians, by contrast, defined their identities to a large extent by their relationship with their mothers. Their preferences and their mothers’ wishes, Iyengar writes, “were practically one and the same.” Doing what they thought their mothers wanted was, in effect, their first choice.

Anglos and Asians did share one critical reaction: “When the choices were made by Ms Smith, a stranger, both groups of children felt the imposition and reacted negatively.” Just because people happily comply with the choices of an intimate — or, for that matter, an authority they’ve selected themselves — does not mean they want bureaucratic strangers making their decisions. Advocates who want to use psychology experiments to justify choice-limiting public policy should keep that lesson in mind.

Iyengar began her scholarly exploration of choice with an undergraduate research project. She suspected that religiously observant people who obey lots of behavioural restrictions would feel unable to control their lives and thus pessimistic. To test this hypothesis, she interviewed more than 600 people from nine different religions, ranging from fundamentalists to liberals. She surveyed their religious beliefs and practices, asked questions to test optimism and had them fill out a mental health questionnaire. What she found surprised her.

Members of more fundamentalist ­­faiths experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts,” she writes. “Indeed, the people most susceptible to pessimism and depression were the Unitarians, especially those who were atheists. The presence of so many rules didn’t debilitate people; instead, it seemed to empower them. Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives.”

In retrospect, the result seems obvious. Even many atheists would agree that believing that God cares about you or that your life is part of a cosmic plan can be a powerful source of hope (or, to put it pejoratively, a crutch). Meaning is as important as choice. Besides, Iyengar conducted her survey in the United States, where people are free to switch religions and often do. If keeping kosher or refraining from alcohol makes you feel constrained and helpless, you can abandon those strictures. The only people left in the restrictive groups are those who value the rules. In a modern, liberal society, religious observance does not “take away” choice. It is a choice.

Unlike “provocative” books designed to stir controversy, “The Art of Choosing” is refreshingly thought-provoking. Contemplating Iyengar’s wide-ranging exploration of choice leads to new questions: When is following custom a choice? How costly must a decision be to no longer qualify as a choice? Did Calvinism spur worldly achievement because its doctrine of predestination removed all choice about the hereafter? Do con­temporary Americans adopt food taboos like veganism because they crave limits on an overabundance of choices?

Human beings, Iyengar suggests, are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them, from advertising-driven associations to personal relationships and philosophical commitments. Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words. “Science can assist us in becoming more skilful choosers,” Iyengar cautions, “but at its core, choice remains an art.”

Review: ‘#GIRLBOSS’ by Sophia Amoruso

GIRLBOSS

Cover via Goodreads

A #GIRLBOSS is someone who’s in charge of her own life. She gets what she wants because she works for it. As a #GIRLBOSS, you take control and accept responsibility. You’re a fighter–you know when to throw punches and when to roll with them. Sometimes you break the rules, sometimes you follow them, but always on your own terms. You know where you’re going, but can’t do it without having some fun along the way. You value honesty over perfection. You ask questions. You take your life seriously, but you don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re going to take over the world, and change it in the process. You’re a badass.

And so begins #GIRLBOSS, a story of how an eBay seller went from being totally broke to becoming the CEO of a multimillion-dollar international fashion retailer, Nasty Gal.  Author Sophia Amoruso has a strange life story. She went from a high-school drop-out to anarchist shoplifter to eBay seller to CEO, the last transition happening in just eight short years. The big question is: Is her success repeatable? By shelling out over 1000 rupees (like I did), can the reader also become a #GIRLBOSS? (Clarification: This is how the phrase “girl boss” appears in the book. Every. Single. Time.)

Sadly, the answer is that it’s very improbable. While the book gives a fairly comprehensive account of how Nasty Gal came to be, it is severely lacking in genuinely thoughtful advice on how to become a #GIRLBOSS. For someone who got her retail experience from shoplifting bestsellers from bookstores and reselling them on Amazon while hitchhiking, dumpster-diving and reading anarchist literature, I expected a lot more analysis of her transition from freegan to CEO. What it boiled down to was that she got sick of “agonizing over the political implications” of her lifestyle and realized that she liked “nice things“.

That’s fine. Amoruso might not have an answer to the big philosophical questions in life but since she has portrayed herself as a no-nonsense leader, you’d think she has some solid tips on how to run a successful business or be a good manager. Again, the “advice” in this book is full of cliches like “work hard” and “be yourself”. None of it is specifically directed at girls, which makes the unfortunate title of the book redundant. Instead, there is a chapter called “On Hiring, Staying Employed and Firing” which focusses on how to get an entry-level job. And like many successful people, Amoruso likes to emphasize her own attributes and discount the lucky breaks she caught along the way. She got off with a warning when caught shoplifting. She didn’t face familial pressure to go to college or get a steady job. She sold clothes on eBay in its heyday as an alternative marketplace. My problem with bootstrapping narratives like this one is that it implicitly rebukes anyone who didn’t “make it”, as if it shows that they simply didn’t want it enough.

There were also two big issues that the book also failed to address. First, nowhere did it mention the unique challenges that women face on their journey to becoming #BOSSes, like balancing work and family, negotiating salary and walking the fine line between being persuasive and powerful and being perceived as “pushy” harridans. On the contrary, she equates bringing in a baby with you to an interview to bringing in a beverage or a pet and calls them both “Interview No-No’s That May Doom You To Unemployment“. Second, the book said next to nothing about fashion considering the author is the CEO of a multimillion-dollar fashion brand. From what I gathered, Amoruso doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of fashion and compares the New York Fashion Week to a “high-school outfit contest“.

I appreciate Amoruso’s attempt to empower her readers and the life experiences she shared were unique and entertaining, but I didn’t enjoy reading the book. I wasn’t inspired by her personal message as I was by her story, if you know what I mean. Make no mistake, I honestly and deeply respect: her work ethic, her persistence and perseverance, creativity, resourcefulness and entrepreneurial success in creating a highly profitable business without having the advantages afforded by a formal education or financial backing.

Sophia Amoruso seems to be an amazing woman and what she has done for herself is inspiring. But is #GIRLBOSS also inspiring and amazing? I didn’t think so. I would still recommend it to others my age because it might motivate them and they might get more out of it than I did. Speaking for myself, I’d just say…meh.