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December 07, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

Women's Burnout: How to Spot It, How to Reverse It and How to Prevent It, Herbert J. Freudenberger and Gail North (Penguin: $6.95). When talking with patients, medical doctors usually emphasize prescription over description. Most psychologists, in contrast, do just the opposite, predicating their work on the assumption that understanding is the key to recovery. Sometimes, though, descriptive psychology is only a first step, as this 1985 book illustrates. The authors of "Women's Burnout" excel at "spotting" the problem, but fail to detail "how to reverse it and how to prevent it." The book's "Checklist for Burnout Prevention and Recovery," for instance, doesn't suggest practical plans for recovery. Instead, the authors forward helpful, though vague tips ("learn to pace yourself") and threadbare admonitions ("diminish worry and anxiety"). Practical suggestions about how to avoid burnout are especially important because one is inclined to wonder whether the symptoms the authors describe--from "the compulsion to prove" and "intensity" to "having expectations" and "thriving on pressure"--are avoidable at all in a culture with a work ethic as ingrained as ours. This book is more interesting for what it says about women than what it says about burnout. The authors fail to illustrate the gender-specific dimensions of burnout, but they do sensitively document, through case studies, how women's tendency to be "more nurturing than men" can lead to "feelings of emotional deprivation" when men fail to reciprocate and how parents continue to instill more confidence in men: "Men aren't trained that they have to make it," the authors write, "they're trained that they will."

Rain in the Distance, Suzanne Falkiner (Penguin: $5.95). At the beginning of this novel, the narrator, a young, economically privileged woman from Australia, sits alone in a run-down hotel in Buenos Aires, complaining about having to write under 25-watt light bulbs. She makes no effort to improve her situation in the pages that follow, only becoming more isolated, lost in "an empty life of routines and motions." Her search search for something "to fill the days, somewhere to be" only leads her to affirm the importance of "establishing a country of my own." But this gloom is not without purpose, for the narrator's insights are as courageous as her actions are cowardly. She confronts the roots of her isolation--from a governess who told her "no one loves you" to aloof, enigmatic parents--as well as the inevitability of her decay.

Before She Met Me, Julian Barnes (McGraw-Hill: $4.95). Graham may have just divorced his wife to marry Ann, and Ann may be sleeping with Graham's best friend, but upheaval is invisible throughout most of this novel, camouflaged by the characters' congeniality and repartee. Even the author's warnings pass by us: The book begins with an excerpt from a study about man's animal nature ("When the psychiatrist bids the patient to lie on the couch, he is asking him to stretch out alongside a horse and a crocodile"), and then continues to present dark and subtle omens about the dangers of unrealistic expectations ("It would be a holiday," Graham thinks of his new marriage, "a long, unending holiday") and divorce ("once bitten, twice bitten," friends tell Graham). Consequently, we're taken by surprise toward the end of the novel, when Ann discovers that Graham has been keeping a secret, detailed record of her life. Still, Graham's metamorphosis is not inconsistent with his character; Julian Barnes presents it, rather, as inevitable once the locus of pleasure moves from "the small space in the middle of (Graham's) head" to the edge of his skin. Where once he was suave and unhappy, now he's vibrant and possessive. Ann, in contrast, remains detached, undisturbed even when she sees Graham's wedding ring during their first meeting. But Ann pays a price for her distance--not through joining Graham in his final paroxysm of rage, but through a day to day awareness of "the comic disparity between intentions and results."

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