Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book review: "The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness"

In Paula Poundstone's new book, her pain is our gain.

Poundstone, a standup comic who often appears on NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," finds her humor in the absurdities of everyday life. Large parts of her standup shows are improvised conversations with audience members.

This isn't a type of humor that easily translates to book form, but Poundstone has cleverly chosen a gimmick that offers a forum for her digression-heavy observations.

She's also chosen a mouthful of a title. "The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness" does not roll of the tongue easily

In the book, Poundstone sets off a on a fitful search for something that will make her happy. There's a lot that's not right in Poundstone's life -- trouble with her kids, trouble paying the bills, no sex -- so she willing to try some "experiments" to find the secret to happiness.

"Where could it be? Is it deceptively simple? Is it on a bumper sticker?," she wonders. "Does it melt at a certain temperature? Can you buy it? Must you suffer for it before or after? It had better not be one of those rip-off answers as in 'The Wizard of Oz': 'You always had the power.' If Glinda knew that, she should have said so earlier. The Good Witch of the North had a cruel streak."

To find happiness, she tries dancing lessons, renting a Lamborghini, spending a whole day watching movies with her kids, getting a professional to organize her house, taking tae kwon do classes, and attending meditation classes. Among other things.

Some of these do bring her some happiness, at least temporarily,  but that's not what's important. What is important -- for humor purposes -- is that things don't go smoothly. Each episode gives Poundstone plenty of opportunity to wander off topic, admit her shortcomings and point out the ridiculousness around her. Plenty of laughs follow. 

At one point, Poundstone discovers a class on interpersonal communication -- that is taught online.

"We are in big fucking trouble."

Maybe she doesn't really want to find happiness, she admits.

"I have often feared that if I were ever really happy I wouldn't get a parking space for a long time." 

Poundstone revels in self-deprecating humor. It's funny to see her stumbling around as a parent, or trying to learn how to operate a computer. Still, there's an undercurrent of real sadness in this book.

She lost a home she owned, she says, and now rents. She has serious issues with two of her three children. She's shunned by other parents at her kids' school. Her underwear has holes in it. She doesn't have sex; she doesn't like it. Her house is a mess of debris and cat fur -- she has 14 cats -- and much of her daily focus is on emptying litter boxes.

Sure, maybe she exaggerates. But I'm not so sure. Maybe being famous like Paula Poundstone isn't a ticket to happiness. But you'll be happy you read this book.


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