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 26, 2009

Getting Lucky at Harvard — Ben Mezrich’s Tale of the Founding of Facebook, ‘The Accidental Billionaires’

That red lace bra on the cover is the first red flag

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. By Ben Mezrich. Doubleday, 260 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A new art form may have emerged in this heavy-breathing, sensationalized account of the founding of Facebook: pulp nonfiction. Ben Mezrich warns you up front that he wrote The Accidental Billionaires without interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, who created the first version of the social networking site by hacking into Harvard University computers, downloading students’ photos, and posting them online.

With no access to the prime mover of Facebook, Mezrich tells his tale through techniques such as “re-created dialogue,” scenes set in “likely” settings, and “imagined” descriptions. He also draws heavily on talks with Eduardo Saverin, who helped to bankroll the start-up as a Harvard undergraduate and later successfully sued for the right to be listed as a co-founder of the site. You know all those “disgruntled former employees” you used to read about before a lot of newspapers banned both that clichéd phrase and stories by driven their views? Mezrich doesn’t use those words — and Saverin wasn’t an employee but a partner — but The Accidental Billionaires suggests why the technique has fallen out of favor.

You get a fine sense of the book from a bathroom sex scene that has Saverin undressing a “tall, slender Asian girl” at Harvard who wears a red lace bra under a white shirt. Men, how often have you fantasized about finding yourself in such a situation only to discover to your regret that wearing a red bra under a white shirt is something that women never, ever do? Have you been forced to conclude that for far too many members of the other sex, this particular sartorial blunder makes visible panty line look like chump change? Are you wondering if that “Asian girl” was simply displaying an admirable loyalty to her school by wearing its colors for sex in a bathroom stall and that you haven’t seen it because you haven’t dated enough Harvard undergraduates lately? Or do you think the woman didn’t wear that combination but that someone decided that a red bra would work best on a book cover? Perhaps Mezrich believes people won’t mind his failure to answer questions like these. Or perhaps he thinks, as he writes in another context, “they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.”

Best line: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s business card has a line running across the center that says, “I’m the CEO – Bitch.”

Worst lines: No. 1: “the end was really a foregone conclusion.” No. 2: “the moment itself became historical only in retrospect.” No. 3: “Thankfully, the Phoenix leadership hadn’t traced the fiasco back to Eduardo yet — though even if they did, they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.” No. 4: “Eduardo had spent many evenings in the stacks of Widener – poring through the works of economic theorists such as Adam Smith, John Mills [sic], even Galbraith.” No. 5 “[Lawrence] Summers shook his head. His jowls reverberated with the motion, like fleshy waves swirling in an epidermal storm.” No. 6: “Slowly, Summers leaned forward, and his chubby hand crawled across his desk.” No. 7: “Both had bright red lipstick and too much eyeshadow, but they were damn cute — and they were smiling and pointing right at him.” No. 8: “His hands roamed under her open white shirt, tracing the soft material of her red bra, his fingers lingering over her perky, round breasts, touching the silky texture of her perfect caramel skin. She gasped, her lips closing against the side of his neck, her tongue leaping out, tasting him. His entire body started to quiver, and he rocked forward, pushing her harder against the stall, feeling her writhe into him. His lips found her ear and she gasped again –”  No. 9:At nine a.m. in the morning, in the Eliot dining hall, he had walked right up to the hottest girl he knew – Marsha, blond, buxom, in reality an econ major but she looked like a psychology major.” No. 10: “Maybe feeding the chicken chicken was a mistake; how was he supposed to know what chickens ate? The thing hadn’t come with a manual. Eduardo had gone to a Jewish prep school in Miami. What the hell did Jews know about chickens, other than the fact that they made good soup?”

Editor: Bill Thomas

Published: July 2009

About the author: Mezrich wrote Bringing Down the House, made into the movie 21. He lives in Boston. Kevin Spacey is producing a movie version of The Accidental Billionaires called The Social Network.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

May 21, 2009

Kate Kelly’s ‘Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street’

As a rule, the business of business books is anything but good writing. But the Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt from a new book by one of its reporters, Kate Kelly’s Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street (Portfolio, 256 pp., $26.95), that had sprightlier writing than most in the category. And Tim Rutten quotes a telling paragraph from this hour-by-hour account of the last days of the Bear Stearns investment bank in his Los Angeles Times review:

“Regulators may never know what really happened [to cause Bear Stearns to collapse in 2008]. But one thing is clear: Once confidence in a company falls away on such a grand scale, it can never recover. Bear started that week with more than $18 billion in capital, its largest cash position ever. Three days later, negative headlines, a stock drop, lender reticence and big withdrawals from client accounts had cut those capital levels in half. Eight hours later, it was nearly dead.”

The first sentence of that paragraph, Rutten rightly notes, is chilling: “Regulators may never know what really happened.” He adds:

“ … this was a situation so threatening to the fabric and substance of global finance that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would subsequently insist that, absent government intervention to essentially force the deal with JPMorgan, Bear would have gone into bankruptcy, causing a ‘chaotic unwinding’ of investments in all the American markets.

“Yet regulators may never know what really happened.

“That’s the intolerable fact of public policy on which this whole mess turns, along with all the pain it set rippling through the nation’s human economy, the one where ordinary people struggle to pay the deceptive mortgages that backed all those derivatives and where women and men who’ve lost jobs as a consequence of this calamity now scratch to find new livings.

“There are timeless human failings to ponder anew in Kelly’s artful narrative journalism — ego, hubris, venality and folly, the whole sad crew. They, unfortunately, will always be with us, consequences of our fallen nature. What we need not tolerate is a federal regulatory structure that is blind to the operations of those who wheel and deal at the very center of the global economy and federal officials who are so uncertain of their aims and prerogatives that they fumble in the face of crisis.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 30, 2009

The ‘Common Sense’ of Shogun Yoritomo-Tashi — A Japanese Warrior’s Wisdom for the Modern World of Business

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:14 am
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“Happiness is above all a combination of harmony and the absence of sorrow.”
From Yoritomo-Tashi’s Common Sense

Not long ago I stumbled on an out-of-print edition of Common Sense: How to Exercise It (Funk & Wagnalls, 1916), written by the Japanese shogun Yoritomo-Tashi and translated by Mme. Léon J. Berthelot de la Boileverie. I hadn’t heard of the book, intended to help people succeed in business. But common sense has been scarce enough on Wall Street that I read it to see if a 12th-century warrior knew something Lehman Brothers didn’t.

The book (or maybe just the translation) is abstruse enough that it’s hard to say. By modern standards, some of its advice lacks the quality it encourages people to cultivate. “Persons who have no common sense are the only ones to revolt against the laws of the country where they live,” Yoritomo-Tashi says. “The wise man will recognize that they have been enacted to protect him and that to be opposed to their observance would be acting as an enemy to oneself.” So much for the Boston Tea Party and the civil-rights movement.

But I liked Yoritomo-Tashi’s definition of happiness — “a combination of harmony and the absence of sorrow” (which, unlike so much psychobabble, allows that happiness can be affected by external factors). And his book makes a couple of other good points:

“Superstition is the enemy of common sense, for … it is the product of a personal impression, associating two ideas absolutely unconnected.”

Sentimentality works against common sense when it involves “mental exaggeration” that “transforms true pity into a false sensibility, the exaggeration of which deteriorates the true value of things.”

Critics often deplore books – such as Mitch Albom’s novels – that are sentimental, and Common Sense suggests why they dislike they quality: Sentimentality tends to overvalue certain feelings and, in that way, to devalue others that are more important.

You can download Common Sense for free on the Project Gutenberg site .

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and www.janiceharayda.com

February 10, 2009

The True Story of an Unemployed Manager’s Brutal Search for a Job: G. J. Meyer’s ‘Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:48 am
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Riches-to-rags stories are the morality tales of recessions, and G. J. “Jerry” Meyer’s is one of the best. Excerpted in Harper’s and hailed by Studs Terkel as “astonishing” on its first publication in 1995, Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America (Franklin Square Press, 245 pp., $21.95) is one of the most honest memoirs of our time about the pain inflicted on decent white-collar Americans who lose their jobs in a brutal market.

Meyer is a former vice-president of the McDonnell Douglas aircraft company who during a bruising job search came to see executive recruitment as a form of Kabuki theater, which requires actors to play roles based on myths. The process had little room for job-seekers who told truths that clashed with corporate folk wisdom. So Executive Blues is more than a diary of Meyer’s harrowing quest for work. It is the story of his effort to retain integrity in an age that routinely asks the unemployed to lie: about how much they want a job, what they can do for a company, and whether they are consummate “team players” or creative iconoclasts.

Like Aristotle, Meyer believes “how we’re supposed to live our lives is the biggest question of all.” And one of the many virtues of his memoir is that it reflects a struggle to keep his life from becoming a subsidiary of his work, or lack of work. Meyer doesn’t give advice to job-seekers – let alone flog them with bulleted lists – but offers a quietly powerful reminder that all of us are more than what we used to do.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda.

January 5, 2009

What’s Wrong With All Those Exclamation Points!!! In Books or E-Mail!!! (Quote of the Day / ‘Send: The Essential Guide to E-Mail for Home and Office’)

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:13 pm
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At the end of February, I’ll announce the finalists for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. And if tradition holds, some will read like a screenplay called Attack of the Killer Exclamation Points.

What’s wrong with overloading a book with exclamation points besides that it looks — well, dippy? David Shipley and Will Schwalbe respond indirectly in Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Home and Office (Knopf, 247, $19.95).

They note that in e-mail the exclamation point has found new life as a surrogate emoticon:

“The traditional rules allow for an exclamation point only after an actual exclamation – ‘My Goodness!’ or ‘Good Grief!’ Few abide by this any more.

“Exclamation points can instantly infuse electronic communication with human warmth. ‘Thanks!!!!’ is friendlier than ‘Thanks.’ And ‘Hooray!!!!!’ is more celebratory than ‘Hooray.’ Because e-mail is without affect, it has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be. If you try saying ‘Thanks’ or ‘Congratulations’ in the flattest voice you can muster, you’ll notice it sounds sarcastic. Without an exclamation point, these may read the same way on the screen.”

The catch is that while exclamation points are an “effective way to combat e-mail’s essential lack of tone,” the authors say, they’re also lazy: The better your choice of words, “the less need you will have for this form of shorthand.”

That comment suggests why a blizzard of exclamation points hurts books more than e-mail: We know our electronic correspondents don’t always have the time to refine every word. Authors do have the time. And unlike e-mail, books have tone, the psychological cast or shading of their words. If the tone is well-controlled, a book may succeed even if other aspects of it fail. Authors who substitute exclamation points for the right words are defaulting on a vital task: control of tone helps to set the mood much else in a book.

Have you read a 2008 book by an author who abused exclamation points or another punctuation mark? If so, you can nominate the book for a Delete Key Awards by leaving a comment.

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

October 16, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Three Books That Bombed at Bookstores – ‘Thirteen Moons’ and Other ‘Legendary Flops’

Most books don’t earn back their advances, but some go deeper into the tank than others. Boris Kachka listed three notorious flops in a recent survey of the state of the publishing industry for New York: Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games (HarperCollins, 2007), Charlies Frazier’s Thirteen Moons (Random House, 2008) and James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning (HarperCollins. Kachka suggests why these novels bombed at
nymag.com/news/media/50279/index7.html.

Thirteen Moons earned an honorable mention in the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/02 for reasons suggested by its review www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/17/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 23, 2008

Editors Protest Plans to Kill LA Times Sunday Book Review Section — Read Their Letter About Why This Hurts the City and Others

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:42 pm
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The Los Angeles Times plans to kill its Sunday Book Review section and fold any surviving reviews into the paper’s Sunday Calendar section, Editor & Publisher and other publications have reported. Four former editors of the section have released a letter explaining how they believe the decision will hurt the city and others, which you can read here www.laobserved.com/archive/2008/07/book_editors_protest_cuts.php. This letter is one of many such laments for the demise of book review sections that have appeared recently, but it is unusually blunt, intelligent and authoritative.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 20, 2008

How Gross Is Your Tap Water? ‘Bottlemania’ Has an Answer

Filed under: News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:07 pm
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Kaitlin Bell says that Elizabeth Royte’s new Bottlemania (Bloomsbury, 242 pp., $24.99), an indictment of the bottled-water industry, does more than fault some of the major players in the field, including Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé: “It also provides some devastating revelations about the quality of America’s public water supply. In stomach-churning detail, Ms. Royte describes how arsenic, rocket fuel, antidepressants, birth-defect–inducing herbicides and even potentially carcinogenic byproducts of the disinfection process all make it into municipal water supplies.” Read her full review in the May 18 New York Observer here:
www.observer.com/2008/raise-glass-eau-de-bloomberg.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 7, 2008

How to Talk With Successful People – A Tip From Barbara Walters’s Other Book

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:20 pm
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I haven’t seen Barbara Walters’s new memoir, Audition. But when I was starting out in journalism and looking for ideas on how to get hard-shelled sources to open up, I read her self-help book, How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything. Walters offered this tip on talking with all the intimidatingly successful people you meet at parties or elsewhere: Ask them to tell you about their first job. I’ve taken that advice many times, and it usually works. The more successful people are, the more they seem to love to talk about their modest beginnings — as though the contrast between the past and present might make their achievements appear all the more impressive.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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