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Negotiating the present, recalling the past

Don’t Get Scrooged: How to Thrive in a World Full of Obnoxious, Incompetent, Arrogant, and Downright Mean-Spirited People
By Richard Carlson
HarperSanFrancisco, 176 pp., $16.95

Death by PowerPoint: A Modern Office Survival Guide
By Michael Flocker
Da Capo, 219 pp., paperback, $12.95

Was She Pretty?
By Leanne Shapton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 208 pp., $20

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
By Bill Bryson
Broadway, 270 pp., illustrated, $25

If you've been braving the crowds recently trying to get that all-important (if problematic) Nintendo Wii for your son, you understand the demands of modern life. In "Don't Get Scrooged," Richard Carlson offers us ways to deal with our extra-pressured existences, in the mall and outside it. Although the title indicates that this is a holiday self-helper, that is simply packaging. There's good advice to be had inside.

A best-selling author, Carlson details his how-to-deal strategies: You either turn the other cheek or rise to the challenge. With a friend who's driving him crazy, he decides confrontation is worth it. "It occurred to me that I had never told my friend that his nonstop chatter bugged me, that I liked natural silences and lulls, and that I thought these were even a testament to closeness," Carlson writes. "I did not want to hurt his feelings by telling him, essentially, to shut up once in a while, but if I didn't I knew I would soon stop wanting to be around him." So Carlson bites the bullet. He confronts his friend, kindly. And the friendship doesn't just survive, it prospers.

Sometimes, however, confrontation is simply not worth it. When that "scrooge" insists on muscling ahead of you in line, Carlson suggests going Zen and letting your anger dissipate. Which is often much easier said than done.

Still, despite our best intentions, we often blow our tops. And the worst place to do that is at work. Thus Michael Flocker's "Death by PowerPoint: A Modern Office Survival Guide." Looking for a stocking stuffer for your favorite office drone? Try this. You'll find it shelved under humor/self-help/how to find yourself a brand-new job. Flocker has corporate life down to a mad science. According to him, "Nothing pleases a corporate employer more than an increasingly expanding employee with their self-esteem on the downswing. You think those Krispy Kreme donuts in the kitchen are an act of generosity on the part of your employer? They are not. They are part of an evil plot to accommodate your most base instincts while simultaneously producing a sugar high and undermining your confidence. Think about it. Are glazed donuts really the reward you were looking for?" Flocker tells you how to ditch that temptation, and slim down while getting ahead and making the best of your dull, drab job. Unfortunately, this is a book that feels rushed out, one that could have used some close editing, though there are plenty of funny set pieces.

Speaking of stocking stuffers, you might try "Was She Pretty?," by Leanne Shapton. This is a book of drawings with bookended enigmatic descriptions. The theme is jealousy, and it's quite a hip little tome. Next to a line drawing of a kitchen stove and cabinet, there's this quote: "Kim's ex-boyfriend Wade kept his love letters in a kitchen drawer. Kim was always tempted, but never opened the drawer. She would stare at it while she cooked." There are oddly poignant moments in these pages, for jealousy is a universal condition. Still, as a baby boomer, I'm no Kim. I wouldn't waste time staring at that drawer. I'd have those letters out on day one, the tea kettle going, the envelopes steamed, their contents read and carefully replaced. I'm sorry, but angst? Baby, that is just such a 21st-century thing.

In an earlier century, we lived on a planet where daily life was wonderfully predictable. We called this planet childhood. Bill Bryson's own was long ago in a place truly far, far away; Des Moines, Iowa, circa 1955. His memoir, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," offers a pitch-perfect, nostalgic, and tenderly ironic description of his youth .

Bryson's Des Moines is a place where optimism rules, yet underneath it there is an ever-present, gnawing anxiety. A booming economy, stabilized by an underpinning of rampant paranoia, produced wonders aplenty.

During the '50s, television went from being a luxury to a necessity. TV dinners were mass-produced like Fords and served on folding tray tables. The American diet was transformed: "By the end of the decade the American consumer could choose from nearly one hundred brands of ice cream, five hundred types of breakfast cereals, and nearly as many makes of coffee. At the same time, the nation's food factories pumped their products full of delicious dyes and preservatives to heighten and sustain their appeal. "

In grade school, civil defense drills took place once a month. Bryson, always a skeptic, questioned their effectiveness . His dad agreed, Des Moines being a little too close to Strategic Air Command headquarters. Bryson writes, "We in Des Moines would be up to our keisters in fallout within ninety minutes if the wind was blowing to the east, my father told me. 'You'd be dead before bedtime,' he added brightly. 'We all would.' " Bryson's take on this advice is smart, and completely in tune with all that makes this book worth reading. He realizes that "nuclear drills were pointless. Life was too short and we'd all be dead anyway. " Wise. Somewhat innocent. This is a marvelous book.

Naomi Rand is the author of "It's Raining Men."

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