Feb 09

“Solutions and Other Problems” by Allie Brosh

Solutions and Other Problems includes humorous stories from Allie Brosh’s childhood; the adventures of her very bad animals; merciless dissection of her own character flaws; incisive essays on grief, loneliness, and powerlessness; as well as reflections on the absurdity of modern life. Publisher of Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

A frequent point being made about comic artist Allie Brosh‘s follow-up to her last best-selling book, Hyperbole and a Half, is that it took seven years—for her fans, seven agonizingly long years during which she’d unexplainedly withdrawn from the internet. As it happens, Brosh was going through some things, including a major health scare, her divorce, and the suicide of her younger sister.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened featured her usual openness regarding her emotional struggles. Amy GoldschlagerKirkus Reviews:

…(H)er vivid depiction of her struggle with depression is extraordinarily frank, describing a deadening descent into apathy, the frustration engendered by torrents of unhelpful advice and a bout of hysterical laughter inspired by discovering a piece of dried-up corn underneath her refrigerator. It was very important to Brosh to communicate what being clinically depressed really feels like. ‘I was really pushing myself,’ she says. ‘I had a two-part motivation: to shine a light on the serious thing that’s really scary and bring out the more absurd aspects of it.’ Her intention was to ‘walk the line between levity and respect for the subject,’ she says. ‘I wanted to make it easier to talk about.’

Solutions and Other Problems (2020) is described as “a new collection of comedic, autobiographical, and illustrated essays.” As Publishers Weekly states, “Brosh’s spidery and demented digital portraits, a visual expression of fun-house mirror anxiety, fits her material perfectly.”

Selected quotes are representative of her style and attitude:

For the sake of trust building, the third chapter will follow the second. But then we will jump directly to chapter five, do you understand? No chapter four. Why? Because sometimes things don’t go like they should.

When you can explain things to people who are willing to listen to you explain them, it is extremely difficult to resist fully and brutally explaining them. It feels good to explain them—like maybe you’re getting somewhere. Like maybe, if you can just…really explain them, the experiences will realize you’re catching on and stop bothering you.

I don’t believe in karma, but I believe there are things that can happen that very specifically force you to understand what an asshole you were.

The title? She tells Susanna Schrobsdorff, Time, “So, you know that thing where you have a problem, and in trying to solve the problem you generate a brand new type of problem? It’s sort of about that. How the solutions themselves become the next generation of problems. Because no solution is perfect.”

Additional quotes from her Time interview:

I think self-improvement itself is a good thing, but sometimes the message gets a little muddled. Like, it sort of feels like self-help books are designed more to sell books than to offer practical help. There’s not a lot of realism in there. A realistic self-help book wouldnt sound like “Easily banish your anxiety with these simple tricks!” It would sound like “Moderately improve your anxiety over a span of many years by continuously choosing to do the hard thing instead of the easy thing, and there’s no real end point—you have to keep going indefinitely if you want to keep improving.” And I think that really holds self-help back—the promise of easy results.

Sometimes I feel scared to be vulnerable, but I don’t think I’ve ever regretted it. I think it’s good to be vulnerable; it shows people that it’s safe to be vulnerable too. And, for the most part, I think people appreciate that. Actually, one of the comments I have saved in my special folder is somebody who said, “Thank you for going first.” I’ve probably read that one a hundred times. It helps me remember that I don’t need to feel scared.

As always, there’s the caveat that different people experience depression slightly differently, and what works for one person might not work for the next, but for me what has been most helpful is when somebody shows a willingness to understand, and also a willingness to just quietly be there if that’s what I need. Sometimes it feels good to talk about it; sometimes it’s too overwhelming, and it feels helpful when somebody lets me know that it’s O.K. to not feel O.K. right away.

Mar 18

“How to Be Fine”: Which Self-Help Books Help?

If we ever needed such advice it’s now. Co-hosts of the By the Book podcast Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer are now the co-authors of How to Be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books.

Do self-help books really help? The authors try a whole bunch out and draw conclusions on topics such as diet, meditation, and even going to therapy.

The publisher of How to Be Fine explains that Jolenta and Kristen were on different ends of the spectrum when it came to believing in self-help books. While the former was more hopeful about them, the latter was skeptical. “They embraced their differences of opinion, hoping they’d be good for laughs and downloads. But in the years since launching the By the Book, they’ve come to realize their show is about much more than humor. In fact, reading and following each book’s advice has actually changed and improved their lives.”

More from Kirkus Reviews:

In this book, the authors approximate the breezily chatty voice of their podcast, and they break it down into thematic sections: ’13 Things That Worked,’ ‘8 Things That Didn’t Work,’ and ‘8 Things We Wish More Books Recommended.’ The workable tasks included learning to declutter (Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) and preparing for death (The Art of Dying Well). Among the books that didn’t work were dieting books and works stressing the need for forgiveness, such as The Four Agreements.

(Click on these links for previous posts about The Art of Dying Well and The Four Agreements.)

According to Publishers Weekly, the 13 helpful bits included “positive self-talk, making concrete and direct apologies, finding time for emotional recharge, and actively preparing for death.” Among the eight improvements they wish they’d seen were “recognizing the power and beauty of one’s body and being willing to enter therapy or use medication.”

In particular, Greenberg is a big proponent of therapy, as evidenced by this recent Tweet excerpt: I talk about how much I love therapy so often that my own therapist has told me to talk about it less on social media! (Sorry girl, still clearly working on these boundary issues…)

Kate Manne, author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny: “I’ve long been a huge fan of Jolenta and Kristen podcast By the Book, a sharp, hilarious, and intersectional feminist take on a feminine-coded genre that’s often dismissed out of hand: self-help books. Now, we all get to enjoy their wisdom, wit, and discernment distilled into this fabulous book-length exploration of what they learned from living by the rules of fifty self-help books. If you too want to be fine, read this book!”

Jan 29

Eckhart Tolle: “The Power of Now”

Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Eckhart Tolle

The research behind Marianne Power‘s new book Help Me! One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life involved applying 12 different self-help books to her own life over the course of a year. Reportedly, her favorite of the bunch was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

From Power’s NPR interview:

…Tolle says that when we see people walking down the street talking to themselves, we think they’re a bit mad, but actually we’re all doing that to ourselves all the time, we all have this voice in our head that’s narrating what’s happening, and it’s quite often very critical, it’s beating yourself up for something you’ve done in the past, or it’s worrying about what’s going to happen in the future, and as a result, you miss the only thing that is ever real, according to Eckhart Tolle, and that’s now. Right now, this second. And in the book, he asks, in any given moment, to ask yourself, ‘do I have a problem, right now, right here?’ And the answer is almost always no. So I found that book very helpful.

The following are other quotables I’ve selected from The Power of Now:

All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.

What a caterpillar calls the end of the world we call a butterfly.

Once you have identified with some form of negativity, you do not want to let it go, and on a deeply unconscious level, you do not want positive change. It would threaten your identity as a depressed, angry or hard-done by person. You will then ignore, deny or sabotage the positive in your life. This is a common phenomenon. 
It is also insane.

The light is too painful for someone who wants to remain in darkness.

Any action is often better than no action, especially if you have been stuck in an unhappy situation for a long time. If it is a mistake, at least you learn something, in which case it’s no longer a mistake. If you remain stuck, you learn nothing.

I have lived with several Zen masters — all of them cats.

To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.

Where there is anger there is always pain underneath.

Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.

Feb 05

“Swearing Is Good”: Plus Other Books

Do you believe swearing is good? Below are three recent and popular self-help books that either use swearing to make their points or support this belief.

I. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (2016), by Mark Manson.

Jennifer Haupt, Psychology Today, lists eight things many of us may care too much about, per Manson:

  1. Impressing other people
  2. Being right all the time
  3. Being “successful”
  4. Being pleasant and polite
  5. Being happy
  6. Feeling good all the time
  7. Being “perfect”
  8. Feeling secure and certain

How can you change this, i.e., not give a f**k? Manson presented this book excerpt in a blog post :




Kirkus Reviews:

Popular blogger Manson…criticizes self-help books for their fundamentally flawed approach of telling readers they’re special, assuring them that they can surpass—but, notably, not solve—problems, and encouraging them to embrace their exceptionalism. The author sternly disagrees…Throughout, the author continually slaps readers sharply across the face, using blunt, funny, and deceptively offhand language when expanding on his key principle…This book, full of counterintuitive suggestions that often make great sense, is a pleasure to read and worthy of rereading.

II. Unf*ck Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and into Your Life (2017), by Gary John Bishop.

From the publisher’s blurb:

Are you tired of feeling fu*ked up? If you are, Gary John Bishop has the answer. In this straightforward handbook, he gives you the tools and advice you need to demolish the slag weighing you down and become the truly unfu*ked version of yourself. ‘Wake up to the miracle you are,’ he directs. ‘Here’s what you’ve forgotten: You’re a fu*king miracle of being.’

The following seven assertions serve as Bishop’s focus:

I am willing.
I am wired to win.
I got this.
I embrace the uncertainty.
I am not my thoughts; I am what I do.
I am relentless.
I expect nothing and accept everything.

“Remember, everything is solve-able,” states Bishop, “and if you can’t see a solution, it only means you haven’t worked it out yet.”

III. Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language (2018), by Emma Byrne 

On her website Emma Byrne refers to herself as “the Sweary Scientist.” So, her Swearing Is Good for You could be viewed as “the sweary book.”

“Byrne’s book is just the latest evidence that we’re moving toward a more cursing-positive culture,” reports Danielle Friedman, The Cut. “Over the past few years, a growing body of pro-swearing research has suggested cursing can be linked to everything from intelligence to authenticity to a greater ability to withstand pain.”

Kirkus Reviews: Swearing Is Good for You “is divided into seven parts covering neuroscience, pain, a special look at Tourette’s syndrome (though she admits that most afflicted with the disease don’t swear), the workplace, primates, gender, and swearing in other languages.”

It’s not, however, about swearing with abandon; rather, while swearing can serve certain purposes in limited quantities, it can also harm. About the latter, for instance, reviewer Andrew Anthony, The Guardian, states, “In terms of disputes, swearing can just as often be a trigger as a defuser. As Byrne goes on to note: ‘In order to swear you need an understanding of the psychology of others…to be able to anticipate how your words are likely to make someone feel’.”

Jul 20

“How to Be Miserable”: Reverse Psychology

If you realize that if you want to feel worse, you could be completely inactive, get no exercise, eat nonnutritious food, or compare yourself negatively to others, you can then go, well, wait a minute, maybe I could do the opposite of that and that would be helpful. Author Randy Paterson, explaining the premise of How to Be Miserable 

Just reading self-help books won’t make you happy, you may have noticed. As presented in Randy Paterson‘s tongue-in-cheek How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, ignoring or rebelling against commonly prescribed advice won’t help either.

Obviously some reverse psychology is his aim. The four main parts of How to Be Miserable involve Adopting a Miserable Lifestyle, How to Think Like an Unhappy Person, Hell is Other People, and Living a Life Without Meaning.

Giving a listen to his podcast (The Art of Manliness) on this topic revealed the following key points:

  • We stay miserable by “fixing” things only in the short-term, using remedies that are not helpful, e.g., overeating when you’d really feel better eating more healthily.
  • Some of the lifestyle habits we commonly perpetuate are poor eating, lack of exercise, maximizing our screen time, and minimizing our social life.
  • Our non-workable goals are VAPID: V for vague, A for amorphous, P for pie-in-the-sky, I for irrelevant, D for delayed.
  • The more accepting we are of so-called negative emotions, the less they affect us.
  • Misery often leads to social isolation. On the other hand, socializing can lead to misery when we do such things as compare ourselves unfavorably to others and fail to set appropriate boundaries.
  • One question to ask ourselves that can lead to positive change: What would you do if you were already good enough?

The following are some quotes by Paterson from interviews with David Marchese, Science of Us (the first two) and Gayle MacDonald, Globe and Mail:

If we can accept distressing feelings for what they are — part of the normal flow of human emotion —then, paradoxically, we will be less distressed. Our distress comes not from experiencing those emotions, but from our reaction to them as being unacceptable or abnormal.

It’s beginning to look like exercise is probably the most powerful antidepressant we’ve got.

Part of the problem is expectations. We have told people they can be almost unfailingly happy. And their expectation is that they will attain it. But the human mind is not aimed at 100-per-cent happiness all of the time. If you expect to be able to leap eight feet, and you can only leap five, you’re going to be constantly disappointed. Sadness, anxiety, disappointment are all normal parts of life. So striving for happiness is like trying to reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, to use an overused cliché.

In the past, we knew and understood that life is difficult. That grief is inevitable. That disappointment is part of life. We seem to have been engaging in societal denial of this essential reality. Formerly, we may have simply thought: “Today I’m sad.” Now we tend to think something has to be fundamentally the matter. Perhaps I have a disease? God, what’s wrong with me? Whereas, often the simple answer is: You have a life.