One-Minute Book Reviews

October 27, 2009

‘Smile or Die’ – Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America’

Taking aim at the “prosperity gospel,” “positive psychology” courses, and teddy bears designed for breast-cancer patients

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. By Barbara Ehrenreich. Holt/Metropolitan, 235 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

When I was a book editor, I often had to reassure freelancers that they had the right to give negative reviews. Critics never apologized for praising books, but they did apologize for panning them – even when they had done so brilliantly.

At first, I thought freelancers were worried that they would get fewer assignments if they wrote unfavorable reviews, because some editors do prefer to publish praise. But many seemed reluctant to criticize books even after I had explained that I didn’t care whether reviews were positive or negative: I cared whether they were fair, honest and well written.

Barbara Ehrenreich suggests a possible explanation for the reluctance in Bright-sided, a spirited broadside against enforced optimism in medicine, psychology, business, religion and other fields. She argues that faith in “positive thinking” has become so ingrained in American society “that ‘positive’ seems to us not only normal but normative – the way you should be.”

Ehrenreich found when she was diagnosed with breast cancer that a cult of optimism pervaded articles and books about the disease that made her feel isolated instead of supported. “No one among the bloggers and book writers seemed to share my sense of outrage over the disease and the available treatments,” she writes in a chapter ironically called “Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer.” “What causes it and why is it so common, especially in industrialized societies? Why don’t we have treatments that distinguish between different forms of breast cancer or between cancer cells and normal dividing cells?”

Instead of finding answers, Ehrenreich kept coming across articles by women who claimed that they owed their survival to a “positive attitude” – even though the death rate from breast cancer has changed little since the 1930s and there is no consistent evidence that staying upbeat extends the life of those who have the disease, though it may have many other benefits. She also found that “positive thinking” can exact a terrible price in self-blame if a cancer defies treatment. As the oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written, the pressure to think positively is “an additional burden to an already devastated patient.”

“Smile or Die” recycles some of the material from Ehrenreich’s award-winning essay, “Welcome to Cancerland,” but is still the strongest chapter in Bright-sided. Other sections of the book describe the wholesale effects of “positive thinking” better than they show their retail cost to ordinary Americans. Ehrenreich argues cogently that the emerging field of “positive psychology” is based heavily on bad or no science. But the same is also true of some older forms of therapy that apply similar principles, as the Robyn Dawes documented in his superb indictment of the betrayal of scientific standards in psychotherapy, House of Cards (Free Press, 1996). So why focus on “positive psychology” when other types of therapy have done more damage, if only because they are more widely used? Ehrenreich describes an unflattering interview with the high priest of “positive psychology,” the psychologist Martin Seligman. But she seems to have talked to no one burned by his teachings – which shouldn’t have been hard to do, given that more than 200 schools and colleges offer courses in his field.

In a chapter called “God Wants You to Be Rich,” Ehrenreich faults the so-called “prosperity gospel” preached by superstar pastors like Joel Osteen, whose churches offer “services that might, in more generous nations, be provided by the secular welfare state,” such as pre- and after-school programs. Certainly those ministries may foster self-blame. (If God wants you to be rich and you’re not, you don’t have enough faith.) But if the churches that promote the “prosperity gospel” are offering low- or no-cost day care that enables parents to seek prosperity by holding jobs, doesn’t that count for something? You sense that such programs are exactly kind of thing that Ehrenreich might love, if only they weren’t endorsed by pastors who wear too much gel in their mullets.

No less important: A blurred line exists between innate optimism – which may be genetic — and the enforced optimism of disciplines like “positive psychology” and the “prosperity gospel.” To what extent are advocates of “positive thinking” creating an attitude and to what extent are tapping or reinforcing one that’s already there? Ehrenreich sidesteps the question. But if optimism is in our genes, it may do little good to argue as she does that we need replace “positive thinking” with a “vigilant realism.” Joseph Hallinan takes a less extensive but more practical approach to the subject in his Why We Make Mistakes (Broadway, 2009), which deals in part with the research on errors based on overconfidence – a trait often indistinguishable from “positive thinking.”

Overall Bright-sided is much more theoretical than Nickled and Dimed, for which Ehrenreich took a series of low-wage jobs to show how corporations exploit blue-collar workers, or her more recent Bait and Switch. But it makes a needed assault on an idea that too often goes unchallenged in America: that “positive thinking” is always a good thing. Ehrenreich is right that a deep and unacknowledged anxiety often underlies efforts to block out unpleasant thoughts. “Positive thinking” requires a continual effort to deflect “negative” ideas, she notes, and it can be exhausting. “The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or controlling their thoughts,” she writes. “Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity.”

Best line: Ehrenreich notes that breast cancer has given rise to a highly commercialized industry of products for patients, including “infantilizing” teddy bears: “Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.”

Worst line: “All the motivators and gurus of positivity agree that it is a mistake to watch the news.” How does Ehrenreich know? Has she talked to them all? In my experience the self-styled motivators, with a few exceptions including Rhonda Byrne (The Secret), urge people to limit – not eliminate – exposure to bad news.

Editor: Sara Bershtel

Published: October 2009

Read an excerpt (the first pages) from Bright-sided or listen to an audio excerpt.

Furthermore: For more on optimism and illness, see the post “‘The Tyranny of Positive Thinking’ and Cancer Patients — A Physician-Author Says That It’s Not Always Best to Tell People to ‘Be Optimistic’.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 14, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — What Exit Are These Books From? — New Jersey on the 2009 National Book Awards Shortlist

What exit are these books from? At least three of the 20 National Book Awards finalists announced today or 15 percent have strong New Jersey ties. Lark & Termite (fiction) comes from Jayne Anne Phillips, director of the young Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Rutgers/Newark. Princeton University Press published Adrienne Mayor’s The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates: Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (nonfiction). And Lips Touch: Three Times comes from the Scholastic Books imprint of Arthur A. Levine, who lives in New Jersey. Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor at Rutgers/Newark, won the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction for The Hemingses of Monticello.

www.janiceharayda.com

Complete List of 2009 National Book Award Finalists for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature

Here is the complete list of finalists for the 2009 National Book Awards. You can learn more about the books and authors on the shortlist by visiting on the site for the prizes:

FICTION

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

NONFICTION

David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)

POETRY

Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon: Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Keith Waldrop: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE

Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Small, Stitches (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen, HarperCollins)

October 13, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – National Book Awards Finalists to Be Announced Tomorrow

Just a reminder: The shortlist for the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced at noon Eastern Time tomorrow. The list will consist of five finalists in each of four categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature – and should be posted by early afternoon on the site for the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation, and on www.twitter.com/nationalbook.

The winners will be announced on Nov. 18, well before those for the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Critics Circle Awards, both of which will be handed out in 2010. Some finalists for the young people’s literature award may also be considered for American Library Association’s Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, which will be given out in January. Only Americans are eligible for the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, and Newbery Medal, but authors of any nationality may win NBCC awards.

I haven’t read enough of the candidates predict who might turn up on tomorrow’s list. But two of the 2009 books that I read are as strong as many past National Book Awards finalists — Aleksandar Hemon’s short story collection, Love and Obstacles, and Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on list. And Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs – which I hope to review soon – seems to have gained the kind of unstoppable momentum that, rightly or wrongly, often precedes major awards.

Jacqueline Woodson’s novel for ages 12 and under, Peace, Locomotion – which I’ll review Saturday, Oct. 17 or Oct. 24 — isn’t as strong in its category as Hemon’s and Gooch’s books are in theirs. But it’s a sequel to Locomotion, which was a National Book Awards finalist. And Woodson also made the shortlist for Hush. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see her among the finalists, either.

Whom would you like to see win in November?

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 8, 2009

The Good News About Herta Müller’s Nobel Prize in Literature

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 am
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I haven’t read Herta Müller, a Romanian-born German who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature today. But the good news about the Swedish Academy’s announcement is that the award didn’t go to Bob Dylan (the 25-1 favorite a few days ago with bettors at the London odds-making firm of Ladbrokes). Writers, no need — yet — to start taking electric guitar lessons to boost your chances of winning the world’s most prestigious literary honor.

More comments on Müller and links to information about her work appear in yesterday’s posts.

July 9, 2008

Julia Glass and Jonathan Lethem Are Reading ‘Netherland’ This Summer – What Are You Reading? Join the Conversation at One-Minute Book Reviews’s Online Club

Filed under: News,Ruthless Book Club — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:09 am
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Julia Glass and Jonathan Lethem are reading Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland. Or so they said in a Wall Street Journal article that also listed the summer reading of John Irving, Geraldine Brooks, Philippa Gregory, Oscar Hijuelos, Joyce Carol Oates and others www.wsj.com/article/SB121332522673370767.html.

What’s in your beach bag? If you’d like to talk about a great book or warn people away from a clinker, join the conversation at a new online book club by clicking here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/01/. A review of and reading group guide to Netherland appeared on this site in separate posts on June 24 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 3, 2008

Was George M. Cohan Really ‘Born on the Fourth of July’? Read a Biographer’s Answer and Listen to ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy’ Here

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,

A Yankee Doodle do or die;

A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’s,

Born on the Fourth of July.

– From George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” (also known as “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”)

George M. Cohan claimed that he, like the Yankee Doodle Boy of his famous song, was born on the Fourth of July in 1878. But it true? In a poorly sourced article on Cohan, Wikipedia says that the composer was born on July 3, 1878. Other sources disagree with the online encyclopedia.

Biographer John McCabe says this in George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Doubleday, 1973):

“George Michael Cohan was almost certainly born on July 4, 1878, at 536 Wickenden Street, on Corkie Hill, in Providence, Rhode Island. Until Ward Morehouse discovered the Cohan baptismal certificate which carries a July 3 birthdate, there had never been any doubt that the real live nephew of his Uncle Sam was born on any day other than the Fourth. The baptismal certificate hardly settles the matter. As was not unusual at the time, the birth was not recorded in the civic registry in Providence. There is, however, circumstantial evidence writ large that the July 3 on the baptismal certificate is a clerical error. Cohan’s birthday was always celebrated on the Fourth of July by his parents, Jeremiah (‘Jere’ or ‘Jerry’) and Helen (‘Nellie’) Cohan, and this many years before that date began to have profitable connotations for the Yankee Doodle Dandy. The utter probity of these two remarkable people who early taught their son that a man’s word was his impregnable bond is the strongest proof that Cohan was indeed born on the Fourth.”

Among the other evidence cited by McCabe is that Cohan’s father wrote in his diary on July 3, 1882: “Got a little present for Georgie’s birthday tomorrow.” McCabe adds: “The very casualness of the entry in a book intended for his eyes alone bespeaks its integrity.”

To hear a 1905 audio recording of “Yankee Doodle Boy” sung by tenor Billy Murray, including verses rarely heard today, click on the following link (where you will hear the lines at the top of this post about 40 seconds into the song): www.firstworldwar.com/audio/Billy%20Murray%20-%20Yankee%20Doodle%20Boy.mp3. Cohan wrote “Yankee Doodle Boy” for the 1904 Broadway musical, Little Johnny Jones.

You can also hear Cohan’s “Over There” for free in three recordings on the site www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm site, including a English-French version by Enrico Caruso. To listen to the Caruso or another “Over There,” you will have to make another click on the site to select which version you want to hear.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 7, 2008

Burned by a Beach Book? Nominate the Author for a Delete Key Award for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

Filed under: Delete Key Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:08 pm
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Last summer I considered doing a special beach books edition of the Delete Key Awards, which this site hands out every March to authors who aren’t using their delete keys enough. I decided that I wasn’t masochistic enough. But I may revisit the idea this year, and if you’d like to nominate a candidate, you can do it by leaving a comment on any post or by sending an e-mail message to the address on the “Contact” page. What beach books have burned you this summer?

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 27, 2008

Why Read the Classics? (Quote of the Day / Michael Dirda)

Why is it important to read the classics? Michael Dirda, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism as a staff critic for the Washington Post, responds in his Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books (Norton, 2005):

“People sometimes ask teachers or critics, ‘Which books should I read to become educated?’ The short answer is either ‘As many as you can’ or ‘A small handful that you study to pieces.’ But a better question might be this one: ‘Which books should I read first?’

“The answer to that is ‘The great patterning works of world literature and culture, the poems and stories that have shaped civilization.’

“Without a knowledge of the Greek myths, the Bible, ancient history, the world’s folktales and fairy tales, one can never fully understand the visual arts, most opera, and half the literature of later ages. Homer tells us about Ulysses in The Odyssey; then Dante, Tennyson, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty add to, enrich, and subvert that story in great works of their own. The classics are important not because they are old but because they are always being renewed.”

Michael Dirda’s most recent book is Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, 2007).

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 24, 2008

Thomas Craughwell’s ‘Great Books for Every Book Lover’

Filed under: Classics,Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am
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Recommendations in 70 categories, including “All-Star Sports,” “Great Novellas” and “Sci-Fi Classics”

Great Books for Every Book Lover: 2002 Great Reading Suggestions for the Discriminating Bibliophile. By Thomas Craughwell. Workman/Black Dog & Leventhal, 784 pp. , varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

More than a decade ago, Thomas Craughwell created the popular Book Lover’s Page-a-Day calendars that recommend a book for each day of the year. After they became a hit, he gathered more than 2000 of their suggestions into Great Books for Every Book Lover, and the result has several advantages over many similar guides for readers.

Craughwell recommends books in 70 categories, such as “All-Star Sports Books,” “Great Novellas,” “Notable Biographies,” “Sci-Fi Classics” and “For Young Readers.” This breadth alone would set his book apart from the many guides that focus mainstream fiction and nonfiction keyed to the tastes to women’s book clubs. Great Books for Every Book Lover also indexes all books by title and author, which makes it easy to use.

The capsule descriptions of books vary in quality and accuracy. A chapter on “A Masterpiece You Might Have Missed” lists Elizabeth Berg’s Talk Before Sleep, which doesn’t belong there, along with The Woman Warrior, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, which do. First published in 1998, the book includes no titles from the past decade and, like most guides, tends to overpraise bestsellers. It’s also old enough that you may have to track it down online, though Workman has a nominal policy of keeping all of its titles in print.

Still, how many guides include, as this one does, a chapter on erotica? Then there’s the “Exercise & Fitness” chapter. Bet your library’s list of suggested titles for reading groups doesn’t include The Complete Book of Butt and Legs.

Best line: At his best, Craughwell can sum up rich and complex books in a few strokes. Here is his description of Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (from the “Spiritual Classics” chapter): “In 1941, Merton was a brilliant young professor at Columbia University. Yet his career, even his love life, left him restless and dissatisfied. To the horror of his colleagues and friends, Merton gave it all up and entered the silent, contemplative world of Gethsemani Abbey. In this profoundly eloquent book, he explains why he did it.” Other examples may appear later this week.

Worst line: On Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums: “Some people say Kerouac is damn near a mystic in this road novel that mixes Zen Buddhism with the wild prose and wild parties.” Yes, and that’s why some people say the Beat Generation was more of a lifestyle trend than a literary movement. You could also argue with more than a few of Craughwell’s choices. Why pick Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day June 6, 1944 as the D-Day book instead of Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day? Ambrose’s book has more recent research but nowhere near the emotional power and narrative drive of Ryan’s.

Published: January 1998

Furthermore: Craughwell also wrote Every Eye Beholds You: A World Anthology of Prayer. He lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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