Book Reviews: Dating Tips for the Unemployed by Iris Smyles

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I don’t know what I was looking for when I found Smyles book in the fiction section of my local library. Perhaps what I was looking for was a story about a woman’s difficulty navigating the world of love and romance while also being out of a job, something I bet a lot of us can relate to. Dating and trying to the find the “right one” or at least the “right one at this particular time because I want to get laid or at least not spend a Saturday night on the couch with a remote in one hand and a pint of store brand of mint chocolate chip mint ice cream in the other” while out of work can be quite a conundrum. It can also make for one heck of a book. Alas, not this book.

At first, Dating Tips for the Unemployed looked promising. Its book jacket provided a lot positive comments and Smyles’ author photo showed an attractive woman in a fetching retro look. And speaking of retro, throughout the book featured old school ads found in the back of magazines ages ago.

Smyles can be an entertaining writer, at times filled with wit and whimsy, and at other times, moribund and melancholic. But as Dating Tips for the Unemployed went on (and on, and on, and on), I found Smyles writing style and her story tiresome.

Dating Tips for the most part reads more like a memoir than a novel. First off, the main character is named Iris Smyles. Gee, I guess coming up with a different name was too difficult for Smyles.

For someone unemployed Iris has it pretty easy. There are no stories of trying to get unemployment, updating one’s resume, navigating the on-line obstacle courses of job searches, bad interviews, rejection letters…or worse, no feedback at all. There are no stories of trying to stretch a dollar until it screams, living on Ramen noodles, crying over wondering how you’re going to pay the rent and bills, and thinking you hit the lottery when you find a five dollar bill in a pocket of your blue jeans.

In fact, this book makes unemployment sound like a grand adventure of dating a lot of guys, travels to Greece, and fun nights on the town and goofy tales of family antics. Sure, this pretty much explains what it’s like to be out of work for most people…only not.

But apparently Iris lives in a different world than most of us. She appears to be fully supported by mommy and daddy even though she’s well into her thirties (Smyles was born in 1978). She travels to her family’s country of origin, which is Greece (gee, when I’m down on my luck I can barely afford a tasty gyro from Apollo Café on Brady Street) and men can’t help but be drawn to her. Most of Dating Tips for the Unemployed is devoted to Smyles’ endless cycle of boyfriends that for the most part are never fully fleshed out to be compelling or interesting. Even the sex is a total snooze fest. I’ve written grocery lists that were more erotic.

I think for the most part, Smyles is self-absorbed but not exactly self-aware, a trait that wears pretty thin after someone gets past the age of 25. She tries to come across as quirky and different, but is just another flavorless manic pixie dream girl like a piece of chewed Juicy Fruit gum that’s been on your bed post for a couple of days.

And no I’m not being a jealous hater. She’s very fortunate to have supportive parents and yes, she is quite attractive. I can figure out why men are drawn to her. But after a while, she’s just another boring #privilgedwhitewoman, nothing new under the sun. She’s more Elizabeth Gilbert than Dorothy Parker.

In the end, Smyles book was one I should have ignored and left on the library shelf. If I want to read about a young woman dealing with being out of work and out of money, I’ll re-read The Broke Diaries by Angela Nissel. And when it comes to a woman and her collection of paramours, you can’t go wrong with Pamela Des Barres’ I’m With the Band.

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The Broke Diaries: The Completely True and Hilarious Misadventures of a Good Girl Gone Broke by Angela Nissel

broke diariesI wrote this book review a while ago for an ancient blog and even submitted it to an old editor of mine. It didn’t get published for some reason so I decided to dust it off, polish it up a a bit and publish it here. Enjoy!

Once upon a time I made a solid, dependable middle class income. I could easily pay my bills, rent, and other assorted necessary amenities.  I could also afford luxuries like monthly massages, nights on the town, concert tickets, and fashionable additions to my closet.

Well, those days are over. Like a lot of other fine Americans our economic downturn seriously kicked me in the butt. I gave up the luxuries and at times I spent sleepless nights wondering how I would pay my rent, food bill and keep the lights on. I could easily cry over stumbling so low, but sometimes I need to laugh. And so would Angela Nissel in her book The Broke Diaries: The Completely True and Hilarious Misadventures of a Good Girl Gone Broke.

The Broke Diaries began as an on-line web diary Nissel kept as a student majoring in medical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. This was in the 1990s when the Internet meant dialing up AOL and blog sounded like the noise you made when you vomited. Nissel wrote down her thoughts about being broke as a way to entertain herself (and learn how to create websites). Little did she know she’d strike a chord with her readers. Some of them even offered to send her money. However, Nissel had her pride and refused to take a cent.

The Broke Diaries commences at the beginning of Nissel’s senior year. She’s making it on student loans and the laughable pay from a federal work-study job. Whereas the rich Ivy League students she studied with used “summer” as a verb, Nissel had to stretch her minuscule dollars to pay for text books and assorted living expenses.

Nissel’s stories are a laugh out loud riot, and will ring true to anyone who has tried to make Ramen Noodles into a feast. Speaking of Ramen Noodles, Nissel was so broke that she didn’t have the 35 cents to pay for a packet of every student’s favorite flavored noodles. She only had 33 cents. Sadly, the bastard behind the counter wouldn’t cover her for the extra two cents and told Nissel to never step foot into his store again.

Nissel recalls going on many bad dates just to get a meal, including with one pitiful prospect she calls “Turdboy.” She joins one her friends at the funeral of a person she never met because of the free food. She writes about arguing with the phone company over an astronomical phone bill, and the time she used her cat bowl to mix cake batter because she didn’t have enough clean bowls. She discusses the merits of big box bookstores where one can hunker in and read a book just like at the library, but without the homeless people. But she also laments the lack of quality at free entertainment events. Her description of a poetry reading is so hilarious it’s pretty much worth the price of the book.

Of course, being broke means dealing with things you’d rather not deal with like the neighborhood check cashing place. If you are using a check cashing place instead of a bank you are truly in the land of the broke. And when you’re broke, you can’t get out of town on an airplane or even Amtrak. No, the broke mode of public transportation is the Greyhound bus. In one chapter, Nissel describes a nightmare bus ride where her seat mate nearly sits on her lap and the bus driver asks the passengers directions to their destination.

However, Nissel also proves that being broke calls for some savvy survival skills like when she poses as a college professor to get free text books (complete with study aids) or the time she uses her feminine wiles to convince a utility worker to keep her power on. And I’m sure Nissel is not the only person who signed up for a credit card just so she could score a goody bag filled with toiletries.

Nissel’s writing is clever and wickedly funny but never is she self-pitying or sentimental in her prose. And though The Broke Diaries was published in 2001 it’s timelier than ever. When you’re working a low paying McJob, and re-discovering Aldi’s and dollar stores, The Broke Diaries is the perfect stimulus package for the funny bone.