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Originally published March 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 14, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Book review

Three women's perspectives from bedroom to boardroom

It's a veritable literary trifecta. Three Seattle writers have just joined the chick-lit self-help ranks by facing down these crucial life-challenges...

Special to The Seattle Times

It's a veritable literary trifecta. Three Seattle writers have just joined the chick-lit self-help ranks by facing down these crucial life-challenges: embarking on the coolest possible career; escaping an excruciatingly boring job without starving; sorting out a really rocky sex life.

The career guides are genuinely useful, so it would be smart to keep reading until you get to that part of this article. Human nature being what it is, though, let's cut right to the sex book ... or rather the anti-sex book. "I'd Rather Eat Chocolate: How I Came to Love My Low Libido," is commendably honest and often embarrassingly awkward, a duality appropriate to the subject of sex, if you stop and think about it. One thing is for certain: Joan Sewell should hand over every penny of her royalties to her husband, who will forever be known as the Guy Married to the Woman Who Doesn't Want to Do It.

Sewell, an able and often entertaining writer, set out to challenge a double standard that she says defines women as troubled, inadequate or frigid if they don't want sex as often as a man. Of course, she's right, like nearly any other double standard one encounters, this one is piffle.

But instead of confronting the wrong-headed notion that one can set standards of "normal" or "equal" for something as snowflake-like as human sexuality, Sewell enters a sort of sexual Stockholm Syndrome in which she buys into the oppressor's viewpoint. She argues that women, with their lower levels of testosterone and other physical-social differences, are simply not as sexually hungry as men.

Well, that's true except when it isn't.

She's on sturdier ground when she throws open her own bedroom door and describes the exhausting round of experiments she and husband Kip tried in an effort to accommodate his interest in sex, and her lack thereof.

Fast-forwarding through the role playing, adult toys and dirty talking, we find our hardworking couple emerging with a sort of sexual contract, which spells out what they will and won't do, when they will and won't do it, and what rights of appeal the unsatisfied or over-pursued spouse might have.

"I'd Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido"

by Joan Sewell

Broadway Books; $19.95

"In Their Shoes: Extraordinary Women Describe Their Amazing Careers"

by Deborah Reber

Simon Pulse, $12.99

"The Anti 9 to 5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube"

by Michelle Goodman

Seal Press, $14.95

You know that how-to manual that came with the toaster oven? It's like that, only you're the toast and the electricity is only on twice a month.

Sewell is right — and it can't be said too many times, brave — to articulately challenge societal views that define a woman's worth by her sexuality: "The culture had turned, and there was no way to push the tide back. The sexperts, the pro-family traditionalists, the feminists and the skin peddlers of the media were all on the same side now, hoping to tug my sexuality in a more lustful direction to sell these products, save my marriage or make their point."

She is also right to suggest that eating chocolate is often superior to any other verb.

This book will be a welcome reprieve for readers who feel like freaks because they don't fit some pattern of sexual desires or frequency held up to them as normal by women's magazines, cranky partners, talk shows and "Sex and the City" reruns. Some couples will also find inspiration in the highly orchestrated arrangement described as the ultimate solution to very different sexual preferences.

Yet for all her thought-provoking self-revelation, Sewell missed the chance to use her talents to emphasize the upside of inevitable and complex differences between intimate partners, and to acknowledge the unpredictable moments of joy that result.

Shifting gears

Now, to paraphrase the writer Erica Jong, too much watching of other people's sexual activities is enough to make you swear off it forever, so let's move on to career guides, shall we?

In a time when the shelves of the Career section in any bookstore are overflowing, these two will still be standouts. They have a common strength: both motivate a reader to ponder what sort of job it will take to make her bound out of bed in the morning. (Or at least stop pulling the covers over her head and resetting the alarm.) Deborah Reber does the heavy lifting that few young job-seekers have the ability to do; Michelle Goodman delivers an honest, informed look at the perils and pluses of a freelance life.

"In Their Shoes: Extraordinary Women Describe Their Amazing Careers" by Reber is aimed at a teen/young-adult reader. She profiles a few dozen women, from Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl to California Sen. Barbara Boxer to Sara Lynch, a nanny. Each career is described in a snappy graphic format covering responsibilities, educational backgrounds, salaries, stress levels, typical daily schedules and related occupations. In the end, she's touched on more than 200 jobs.

Reber, a former children's television writer, packs a ton of even-handed and useful info into a small space. Despite its youthful target audience (for whom Reber also wisely describes what each woman wears to work) "In Their Shoes" will appeal to some older women as well, especially those pondering career changes.

Michelle Goodman's "The Anti 9 to 5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube," is a must-read for anyone who daydreams about smashing the time clock and feeding her soul. Goodman, who escaped her own cubicle hell 15 years ago knows of what she speaks:

"My first year as a newbie freelancer, I spent half the day freelancing, the other half doing God knows what, and many an evening canceling social plans so I could cram to make the next morning's deadline."

When her procrastinating forced her to proofread an 800-page self-help book over two sleepless days in order to make a deadline, Goodman wised up.

"Honestly, it doesn't take long to realize the more soap-opera marathons and three-hour lunches with unemployed friends you indulge in, the less rent money you have."

Goodman interviews other women who have found satisfaction outside the cubicle, and the end result is a realistic, yet still inspiring handbook.

One final thought about this trio of Seattle-authored books. Should all three interest you, you might buy them together. That way you can hide the sex book under the other two at the cash register.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a freelance writer based in Portland.

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