One-Minute Book Reviews

March 16, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,’ a Memoir

Filed under: Memoirs,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:16 am
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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press, 160 pp., $25), by S.L. Wisenberg

What it is: A feminist breast-cancer diary that grew out of Wisenberg’s blog, Cancer Bitch.

Why I’m reading it: Sandi Wisenberg deals briefly with the Susan G. Komen breast-cancer research foundation, which recently outraged feminists and others by revoking its funding for Planned Parenthood, a decision it reversed.

Quote from the book: “My accountant asked if cancer changed me. I suppose, slightly. I know more about cancer.”

Publication date: March 2009

Read an excerpt from The Adventures of Cancer Bitch: Some material in the memoir appeared in different form on the Cancer Bitch blog, including part of this post about Wisenberg’s bone pain after a Taxol infusion.

Furthermore: Wisenberg co-directs the M.A./M.F.A in Creative Writing program at Northwestern University .

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

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 26, 2009

Tomorrow — ‘Smile or Die,’ a Review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Bright-sided’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:00 pm
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Why do Americans see silver linings that don’t exist? Tomorrow: a review Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestselling Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which takes aim at the “positive psychology” movement, the “prosperty gospel” of superstar pastors like Joel Osteen, the cult of optimism in breast-cancer treatment, and more.

November 5, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – A Blog on Cancer That Begins Where Books Leave Off

Filed under: Blogging News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 pm
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Even the best books on cancer often have a built-in liability. It typically takes at least a year to write a book and another nine months or so for the finished manuscript to appear in print. The result? Good books may not reflect the latest research, a liability for anyone trying to make complex decisions about treatment.

So tonight I’d like to go off message and recommend a new blog on cancer by two good reporters — one a caregiver and the other a patient – both on staff at the Record in northern New Jersey. Leslie Brody has been helping her husband cope with pancreatic cancer since his diagnosis in 2006. My friend Lindy Washburn is a health-care writer for the Record who had surgery and radiation for breast cancer in 2007. Washburn is a two-time winner of the New Jersey Press Association Journalist of the Year Award and a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, who has also won the Investigative Reporters and Editors gold medal and was part of a team that won first-ever Grantham Prize for environmental reporting.

Brody and Washburn wrote a moving and series of articles about their experiences www.northjersey.com/specialreports/livingwithcancer.html. And it led to their Living With Cancer blog www.njmg.typepad.com/cancerblog/, which combines personal stories with up-to-date reporting and links to other good sources of information on cancer.

There are good blogs on cancer and good blogs by newspaper reporters, but Living With Cancer is both. If cancer has touched your life, this site is worth visiting.

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

September 18, 2008

Maybe You Don’t Need That Colonoscopy or Those Statins — A Noted Doctor Challenges the Medical Establishment – ‘Let My Polyps Go’

Angioplasties and stents are "good ideas that proved bad."

“Dr. Hadler sees no evidence that mild high blood pressure or mildly elevated blood sugar pose much of a risk to longevity — certainly not enough to warrant the aggressive drug treatment often offered for them. The same goes for … the modest elevations in serum cholesterol that, these days, spell a statin drug for life for many healthy people.”

Self-help books that urge you to micromanage every health risk have become disease unto themselves. So it was cheering to see the New York Times giving serious attention to a new book by a noted physician who still believes that less medicine can be more.

Abigail Zuger, an internist and frequent contributor to Times, recently reviewed Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America (Univesity of North Carolina Press, 376 pp., $28), by Nortin M. Hadler, “a rheumatologist and professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina who is a longtime debunker of much the establishment holds dear.” Zuger wrote:

“Dr. Hadler may not actually keep a skull on his desk, but he might as well. We are all going to die, he reminds us. Holding every dire illness at bay forever is simply not an option. The real goal is to reach a venerable age — say 85 — more or less intact.”

Zuger adds that Hadler believes the way to achieve that goal is to ignore much of the conventional advice:

“Reviewing the data behind many of the widely endorsed medical truths of our day, he concludes that most come up too short on benefit and too high on risk to justify widespread credence.

“Dr. Hadler sees no evidence that mild high blood pressure or mildly elevated blood sugar pose much of a risk to longevity — certainly not enough to warrant the aggressive drug treatment often offered for them. The same goes for the extra 20 pounds that make you overweight but not obese, and the modest elevations in serum cholesterol that, these days, spell a statin drug for life for many healthy people.

“He deplores the careful attention we pay to the state of our coronary arteries. Angioplasties, stents, coronary artery bypass grafts — all these procedures, he writes, ‘should be consigned to the annals of good ideas that proved bad.’

“As for the screening that purportedly keeps us safe from cancer, mammography and the blood test for prostate cancer are, in his view, blunt cudgels that can harm as much as help. Nor does he want any part of routine colonoscopies: ‘Let my polyps go.’”

Zuger compared Worried Sick with a new guide by Nancy Snyderman, a surgeon and the chief medical editor of NBC News, who — as anyone who has watched her televised reports may know — is ever-ready to parrot the medical establishment’s prescriptive-flavor-of-the-week. And though Zuger doesn’t come down on the side of either approach, her review is lively, open-minded, and worth reading www.nytimes.com/2008/06/24/health/24book.html?ref=science.

To read more about Hadler and Worried Sick, click here uncpress.unc.edu/browse/book_detail?title_id=1545. Hadler’s book and individual chapters from it are available in e-book or downloadable formats through the Caravan Project www.caravanbooks.org/.

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

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