One-Minute Book Reviews

July 26, 2009

Why Is New Jersey So Crooked? Two Views — From a Book and the WSJ

Wonder why some residents of New Jersey weren’t surprised when law-enforcement authorities arrested dozens of people Thursday in a political corruption and money-laundering probe that involved rabbis, mayors and a defendant said to have stuffed $97,000 in cash in a box of Apple Jacks? Read Jon Blackwell’s Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels (Rutgers University Press, 2007). This lively book looks back on sordid events  in Garden State history from the 1804 Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel in Weekhawken to the 2002 murder conviction of the philandering Cherry Hill rabbi Fred Neulander. Blackwell argues that crime thrives in New Jersey because, with 566 municipalities, the state has “many nooks and crannies where bribery can flourish.” That’s true as far as it goes, but former Star-Ledger reporter Brad Parks offers a fuller explanation in his  “Poison Ivy in the Garden State” in the July 25–26 Wall Street Journal. A review of Notorious New Jersey appeared on October 20, 2008.

July 21, 2009

The Dangers of Botox, Restylane, Liposuction and More — Alex Kuczynski’s ‘Beauty Junkies’ Looks at the Risk of Trying to One-Up Mother Nature

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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This review was first posted in January 2008. I am on a short semi-vacation.

Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery. By Alex Kuczynski. Doubleday, 290 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A radio station in Detroit had a contest called “New Year, New Rear” that gave the winner $15,000 worth of liposuction. A film executive’s wife in Bel Air had her genitals surgically altered through labiaplasty. An Irish woman died in Manhattan after a face-lift by doctor who sought publicity by giving interviews to Elle and Cosmopolitan.

How did we get to a point that all of this seems almost normal? What are the social, emotional, and medical costs of the cosmetic surgery boom? Alex Kuczynski gives fearless and persuasive answers in Beauty Junkies, a skillful blend of reporting, social commentary, and advice to people who are thinking of going under the knife.

You can argue with Kuczynski’s thesis that “looks are the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics.” You can argue with some of her conclusions, which reflect life in New York and Los Angeles better than in the Heartland (though the coasts are bellwethers for the rest of the country). And you can argue with advice such as: “Distrust doctors who are too tan.” If you’re having surgery, wouldn’t you prefer a rested doctor to one with a hospital pallor induced partly by too little sleep?

But Beauty Junkies is so well-written and — researched that it may stand for years as the definite book of reporting on its subject. Nearly every page has an “Oh, my God” moment. A study found that “overweight job applicants are judged more harshly than ex-felons or applicants with a history of mental illness”? Oh, my God. An urgent care center in Malibu gives Botox shots because wrinkles are now considered an “emergency”? Oh, my God. Kuczynski’s upper lip swelled up to “the size of a large yam” after a Restylane shot and took five days to return to normal? Oh, my God.

A writer for the New York Times, Kuczynski shows a particularly admirable willingness to expose the conflicts of interest that abound in the portrayal of cosmetic surgery in “women’s magazines, men’s health magazines, and some city magazines,” the first line of information for many Americans about new procedures. The unpleasant truths include that writers and editors often get free surgery in exchange for writing “something wonderful about it.” One physician who has appeared in these magazines is “one of the most-sued doctors in the country, with a jaw-dropping record of 33 settled malpractice suits since 1995.”

The Devil Wears Prada startled many people with its fictionalized portrayal of all the editorial freeloading at women’s magazines, the fashion-and-beauty industry equivalent of a permanent Iran-Contra affair with regular arms-for-hostage negotiations. Beauty Junkies is much scarcier, because it’s true.

Best line: “In a city like New York, people like to talk about their addictive personalities, as if having an addictive personality were a mark of achievement.”

Worst line:The New York Times does not allow reporters to receive anything from any news source for free – no free face-lifts, no free shoes, not even a bottle of champagne at Christmas that costs more than $25.” So the editors of the New York Times Book Review pay for the hundreds of books they get every week? Or at least reimburse publishers for any that cost more than $25?

Recommended if ... you’ve ever looked in the mirror and wondered if there could be any harm in smoothing out a few of those crow’s feet with a little Botox.

Editor: Stacy Creamer

Published: October 2006 (first edition), January 2008 (Broadway Books paperback edition).

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 8, 2009

Daniel McGinn’s ‘House Lust’ – Why Americans Crave Remote-Controlled Toilets, Supersized Homes and Gossip About How Much Stars Paid for Their Digs

A Newsweek correspondent wonders so many people are dissatisfied with their homes

House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes. By Daniel McGinn. Doubleday, 272 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

In California a licensed marriage and family therapist specializes in treating “renovation anxiety and distress,” the trauma of giving a house a face-lift. On the evidence of the lively House Lust, it will take more than counseling – or the Great Recession – to cure Americans of their tendency to covet better homes.

Why do so many people lust after mud rooms, brushed-nickel toilet-paper holders, or countertops made from Giallo Ornamental Granite, imported from Brazil? The forebears of today’s house-hunters may have wanted simply to keep up with the Joneses and their carport or Danish modern sofa.

But Newsweek correspondent Daniel McGinn argues that the psychology of homeownership has become more complex. Drawing on the theories of Cornell economist Robert Frank and others, he suggests that residential upgrades often involve what he calls the “I’ve earned it” hypothesis: Some people have less desire to impress their neighbors than to impress themselves (or, as McGinn writes diplomatically, to “comfort” or “treat” themselves).  Americans are more likely than their grandparents to spend fortunes on spaces few others may ever see:

“Today a top-of-the-line master bath might include a multiple-head steam shower, a $5,000 remote-controlled toilet and a jetted [tub] with nearly as much horsepower as a riding lawnmower,” McGinn writes in House Lust. “Few people in our lives will ever catch a glimpse of these improvements, but we still covet them. Why? Because we’ve earned it.”

An entire book about theories like these might have been as dry as plaster dust. But McGinn enlivens his arguments with colorful and at times witty reporting on an array of related fads: timesharing, “staycations,” television shows like Flip This House, “Do-It-Herself” workshops for women at Home Depot, and the Web site Zilllow that lets you look up the value of homes owned by friends and relatives. McGinn also visits Braden Keil, who writes the “Gimme Shelter” gossip column for the New York Post, and learns that Keil believes that three things make for great real-estate item: a top-drawer celebrity, a record-breaking price paid for a property, or a home with an interesting history, such an apartment where a spectacular murder occurred. “In this worldview,” McGinn writers, “the perfect ‘Gimme Shelter’ item might carry the headline: ‘Britney Spears Drops $200 Mill on Kennedy Compound.”

Best line: No. 1: “In 1950, the average American home measured just 983 square feet. … But over time, the average has crept steadily upward – and by 2005, according to Census data, the average newly-built U.S. home measured 2,434 square feet. … When it comes to American homes, the only thing that’s decreased in recent years is the size of the plot of land on which they’re built and the size of the families who live inside.” No. 2 (quoted in the post that preceded this one): Some new homes are so big that “visitors might require MapQuest to navigate their way from room to room.”

Worst line: “When historians look back on the first years of 21st century American life, the housing boom will be a secondary story, a distant background note to 9/11 and the War on Terror.” Or so it appeared in the pre-crash summer of 2007, when McGinn finished writing House Lust.

Recommendation? The provocative questions and engaging writing style of House Lust might appeal to many book clubs, but the reading group guide on the author’s site is one of the worst I’ve seen. Only three out of its 21 questions mention House Lust. And most are pointless: They in no way enrich your understanding of the book and might have occurred to you whether or not you’d read it. Sample: “If you had a chance to pitch a new show idea to HGTV, what would it be?” How does this help you understand the book? What’s odd is that irrelevant questions like these are usually intended to distract you from the poor quality of a book, but House Lust is good,  so they’re self-defeating.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: January 2008

About the author: McGinn is a national correspondent for Newsweek who lives near Boston.

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

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