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The Gift Giving Handbook For the Inept Man
by Timothy B. Schnabel
(Shanem Publishing, 206 pages, $12.95)

Love may be grand, but shopping for that love is hell. Buying gifts for my fiancée is literally a painful, retching experience, with occasional chest pains thrown in. I pick up and discard hundreds of items, spend hours searching for the gift without peer -- the Platonic Gift for The Ages -- and then, of course, I just go ahead and buy the Pixies CD or the new Candace Bushnell novel I first looked at. Which, it turns out, is what she wanted in the first place.

So it seemed like manna from heaven when a review copy of Timothy B. Schnabel's The Gift Giving Handbook for the Inept Man arrived at my apartment on the eve of my fiancée's birthday. Rarely, I thought, has book been so aptly matched with reader.

Alas, 200 pages later I had not been transformed from an "inept man" into good gift-giving guy, but it was fun to find someone more harried and paranoid than myself. The Gift Giving Handbook won't help you with gift ideas unless you are a Unabomber-esque I-fertilize-my-own-garden-and-never-come-out-of-the-woods social misfit, but it will boost your self-esteem.

I don't know Schnabel's romantic history, but if his book is any indication, it couldn't have been pretty. Some chapter titles: "It's the Thought That Counts: Yeah, Right!," "Gifts That Make You Look Stupid," and "Pitfalls, Booby Traps, and Landmines." The last opens by explaining, "We must carefully maneuver around the booby traps these so-called loving women create for us." (One wrong move and...)

At one point, Schnabel asks, "How many men buy gifts for their wives and girlfriends and hear phrases like, 'Why did you think I would like this?' or 'Who were you thinking of when you bought this?' or, my favorite, 'This is great. Did you keep the receipt?'"

I've got news for you, Tim: Nobody hears that. Who are you dating, Medusa? The girl from Play Misty for Me? Most women receive even misguided gifts with some degree of warmth and appreciation, but it sounds like Schnabel's significant other pulls out a rolled up newspaper and rubs his nose in it when he's off target.

"It does not matter that your intentions were good," he writes. "It does not matter that you are a loving, caring human being who would rather die than hurt her feelings. It does not even matter that she asked you for it. Your timing was off and that is all she needs to make your life a living hell for the next few hours."

Then again, Schnabel does seem to be particularly horrendous gift-giver. For example, one wonders what kind of gift faux pas he's made himself when writing about what constitutes an "inappropriate" gift: "It could be anything," he writes. "A personal hygiene item, cleaning supplies, a toilet seat..." I've looked at many potentially stupid gifts in my time, but I never, ever thought to myself, "I don't know what could possibly say I love you better than a toilet seat. Oh, but wait, I haven't been down the Tampax aisle yet."

Schnabel also encourages men to buy women adventures to exotic locales. He provides a checklist for your sweetie to mark the places she would most like to visit -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are all provided as potential "adventures," which I suppose is technically accurate. But if my girlfriend wanted to go to Liberia for her birthday, I'd get her a plane ticket, a phone card, a life insurance policy, and a couple of disposable cameras. And of course I'd give her a good-bye kiss at the airport..

"Even if she hates the entire experience," Schnabel writes, "she will get a kick out of embarrassing you by telling the story over and over to your friends." Just think of how many hilarious stories you've heard that begin with, "So I walk into this mosque in Kabul, and the Imam says to me, 'Hey infidel, is your refrigerator running?'"

As a gift guru, Schnabel is a glutton for punishment. The last 50 pages of the book consist of more checklists of gifts ideas. Consider the following sampling: classes at clown school; an Ultrasonic bug and rodent repeller; a submersible bag; acids (?!); medieval catapult; fart machine; animal heads; a suit of armor; a life-size chess set; night vision goggles; an escape chain ladder; gas mask (see "fart machine" above); animal traps; and anti-snoring strips. Gun locks appear no fewer than three times.

Still wondering how this guy gets himself in trouble? Try this on for size. In the "Gifts During Tragedies" chapter, Schnabel says that the perfect boyfriend would handle his girlfriend breaking her leg on a ski trip by buying her a bottle of wine, a long a backscratcher, and a book entitled, Skiing Basics for Simpletons.

"She may feign anger," he writes, but she will "also get mileage out of it for years as she tells the story of your unsympathetic attitude over and over to her friends." The Gift Giving Handbook for the Inept Man might be better christened, How to Test the Love and Patience of Your Significant Other. Granted, sending the love of your life to clown school is a novel idea, but that doesn't make it a good one.

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