One-Minute Book Reviews

March 7, 2011

Why Was Dr. Spock’s ‘Baby and Child Care’ So Influential?

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:36 am
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Dr. Spock has yielded a lot of ground to a new generation to child-rearing experts like the American pediatrician Bill Sears and the British psychologist Penelope Leach. But it’s hard to overstate the influence of his Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care on parents of baby boomers. First published in 1946, Spock’s guide helped to introduce to America the theories of Sigmund Freud, including that “infantile experiences” and “repressed sexual desires” led to unhappiness in adulthood.

Steve Gillon writes in Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America (Free Press, 2004):

“Thanks to Benjamin Spock, Boomers – often called ‘Spock babies’ – had Freud mixed with their baby formula. ‘Benjamin Spock probably did more than any single individual to disseminate the theory of Sigmund Freud in America,’ observed the psychiatrist and Freudian critic E. Fuller Torrey. Spock, whose The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) served as the bible for Boomer parents, had attended the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in the 1930s and was determined to bring Freud and his ideas to a mass audience. Spock rejected his own upbringing, which emphasized strict feeding schedules and unchanging routines, and insisted that parents respond to the needs and schedules of their children. ‘Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do,’ he reassured worried new parents. His ideas reflected the optimism of the age, reinforcing that personality was malleable only if parents developed the right skills. Along with practical advice about colic, toilet training, and temper tantrums, Spock offered parents sugar-coated doses of Freudian psychology. Since he believed that most adult problems began in childhood, Spock instructed parents about the concepts of ‘sibling rivalry’ and used Freud’s Oedipus complex to explain the behavior of 6-year-olds.”

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.

September 21, 2009

‘Why We Make Mistakes’ – A Provocative Look at the Causes of Human Error, or Why There’s a 1-in-5 Chance That a Doctor Will Misdiagnose Your Final Illness

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:17 am
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If you drink while studying for a test, hope the exam will be held in a bar

Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average. By Joseph T. Hallinan. Broadway, 283 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A few days before Halloween in a small town in Delaware, a 42-year-old woman hanged herself from a tree across from a moderately busy road. Her body dangled about 15 feet above the ground and could easily be seen from passing cars, but no one called the police for more than 12 hours.

“They thought it was a Halloween decoration,” the mayor’s wife said as a crowd gathered at the scene in 2005.

Joseph Hallinan uses the tragedy to make a point: Context affects our perceptions of events more than we imagine. Its importance helps to explain why we often can’t quite place somebody we’ve run into: Is he a barista at the local Starbucks? A volunteer at the library? It’s easier to recall who a person is when you know where he belongs. And context involves more than time and place, Hallinan says in Why We Make Mistakes, a fascinating survey the causes of human error. One study found that people who learned while slightly drunk remembered better if they were tested while tipsy.

Hallinan focuses on cognitive or perceptual errors that affect behavior, or factors such as change blindness (an inability to notice shifts in what we see) and overconfidence (a trait that shows up more in men than women and influences the mistakes of each sex). But he writes at times about behavior that affects perceptions, such as not getting enough sleep. And this dilutes slightly the focus of his book, which draws on research in psychology, economics, and other fields. Why deal with fatigue but not with such physical conditions as chronic pain or stress that can also cause errors?

A larger issue is whom the “we” in the title of the book refers to. Hallinan seems to draw mainly on the work of American researchers, and this raises questions when he deals with a topic such as overconfidence. He makes a strong case that “we” are overconfident. But that’s what Europeans have said for decades about Americans, and it makes you wonder if his conclusions would have differed if he’d drawn on more studies of, say, Scots or Hungarians. You don’t know whether this is a book about why people make mistakes or about why Americans make mistakes.

Even so, Why We Make Mistakes is as sobering – and potentially helpful — as it is lively. If you can’t decide whether to get a second opinion about a recommended medical treatment, here’s a fact that could help you make up your mind: Studies of autopsies have shown that “doctors seriously misdiagnose fatal illnesses about 20 percent of the time.”

Best line: No. 1: “Memory, it turns out, is often more of a reconstruction than a reproduction.” No. 2: “Wrong-site surgery continues to afflict untold numbers of patients each year. … One recent survey, for instance, asked hand surgeons about operating on the wrong place; 20 percent of them revealed that they had operated on the wrong site at least once in their careers.”

Worst line: “On the kinds of sophisticated tasks that economists are most interested in, like trading in markets or choosing among gambles, the overwhelming finding it that increased incentives to do not change average behavior substantially. Generally, what incentives do is prolong deliberation or attention to a problem. People who are offered them will work harder on a given problem … though they will not necessarily work any smarter.” This passage seems self-contradictory and an oversimplification of the effect of incentives. If people work harder on a problem, isn’t that a change in their “average behavior”?

Recommendation? Why We Make Mistakes may appeal to fans of the books of Malcolm Gladwell, though there’s some overlap of information with them.

Published: February 2009

Editor: Kris Puopolo

About the author: Hallinan is a Pulitzer Prize–winner and former Wall Street Journal reporter. He lives in Chicago.

One-Minute Book Reviews posts short reviews by Janice Harayda, former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. The site is also the home of the “Backscratching in Our Time” series that calls attention to authors who praise each other’s books. The next installment in the series will appear Friday.

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

September 11, 2009

Did Sept. 11 Make Us Fat? How the Attacks Affected the Weight-Loss Business

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:22 am
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Joseph Hallinan explores a brightly painted carousel of reasons for human error in his fascinating Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (Broadway, 283 pp., $24.95). He concludes that time – among other factors – affects our decisions, no matter how much of it we have. He writes:

“After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, time horizons for many people in the United States shortened. People, especially those in big cities like New York, increasingly adopted a ‘live for the day’ attitude. Activities with long-term benefits, like diet and exercise, were out; treating oneself well in the here and now was in. One result: the diet chain Jenny Craig reported ‘a huge wave of cancellations.’”

September 3, 2009

What If You Had an Autistic Disorder and Didn’t Know It? Tim Page’s Memoir of Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, ‘Parallel Play’

Filed under: Memoirs,News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:40 pm
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Tim Page is a friend, and I’m in the acknowledgments of his acclaimed biography of the novelist Dawn Powell, which – you will not be surprised to hear – I love. So I can’t review his new Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s (Doubleday, 196 pp., $26). But Janet Maslin writes in today’s New York Times that this “improbably lovely memoir” shows in “fascinatingly precise detail and often to pricelessly funny effect” what it’s like to have his autistic disorder and not know it. And nothing in her review conflicts with what I know about Tim, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his music criticism for the Washington Post before he decamped to academia. The Times has also posted an excerpt from Parallel Play, a book that is an expanded version of material that appeared in The New Yorker.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 15, 2009

Telling Kids ‘You’re Special’ Fosters Narcissism, Not Self-Esteem, Prof Says

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:02 am
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You know all those parenting manuals that say that you can build children’s self-esteem by piling on praise like, “You’re special”? And how a lot of schools apply the advice by assigning essays on topics like, “I’m special because …” If U.S. News & World Report is right, some people might want to ask for refunds from the boards of education that have used tax dollars to pay for such projects. Telling kids “You’re special” fosters narcissism, not self esteem, Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State and the author of Generation Me (Free Press, 2007), says in the magazine. U.S. News also says that you’re squandering your praise if you keeping telling the kids, “Good job!” If the magazine is right on that one, many parents deserve additional refunds from the publishers of the waves of books on child-rearing that have been promoting that phrase for years.

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

February 26, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist #2 – Jeanne Safer’s ‘Death Benefits’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:51 pm
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Delete Key Awards finalist #2 comes from Jeanne Safer’s Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life — For the Better (Basic Books, 226 pp., $25);

The first line in the book:
“The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.”

Unless, of course, you’re fortunate enough to get an incurable disease, to lose your house in a foreclosure sale or to have invested all your life savings with Bernie Madoff. This sentence was the most crass and tasteless I read in a 2008 book. Denis Leary is at least trying to be funny. Safer is serious.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 4, 2009

The Book That Started the Backlash Against Self-Esteem as a Cure-All for Children’s Woes – William Damon’s ‘Greater Expectations’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:08 am
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Greater Expectations was one of the three or four best books about children that I reviewed in my 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and it’s the one I’ve recommended most often to parents. This trailblazing indictment of many popular educational theories was among the earliest to expose the myth that raising children’s self-esteem leads to higher achievement in school and elsewhere.

The arguments in Greater Expectations: Nurturing the Moral Child (Free Press, 304 pp., $20.95) are powerful in their own right. They have all the more force because they come from one of the nation’s most distinguished educators: William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence at Stanford University and editor-in-chief of the latest edition of The Handbook of Child Psychology.

Damon maintains that something has gone badly wrong in “the passing of essential standards between the generations.” Children at all levels of society grow up in an unwholesome atmosphere that goes beyond drugs, violence and similar woes: It involves a focus on the self and a devaluation of spirituality and faith. Damon blames part of this on influential childrearing experts such as David Elkind and Penelope Leach, whose approaches may encourage adults to infantilize children on the pretext of protecting them.

One of the Damon’s main contributions is that he documents painstakingly the lack of a connection between high self-esteem and high-achievement. Researchers have tried many times to link the two but “have not even provided convincing correlational data,” let alone causal links. Quite the opposite: High-self esteem doesn’t lead to high achievement but high achievement may increase self-esteem. Developing either, Damon says, is a slow process:

“There are no easy shortcuts to this. The child cannot be quickly inoculated with self-confidence through facile phrases such as ‘I’m great’ or ‘I’m terrific.’”

If there’s no evidence that self-esteem fosters academic success, why have school systems thrown so much money at programs that claim to build it? Damon deals with that, too. And his reasoning no doubt has helped to fuel the recent and overdue backlash against the self-esteem frenzy, so that many psychologists now urge adults to focus on giving children sincere and thoughtful praise, not cheerleading for trivial efforts. Some parents may see the new moderation as too late, given how much money schools have squandered on programs of no proven value. If so, it’s only the common sense that has arrived belatedly. First published in 1995, Greater Expectations was – and, in some ways, still is – ahead of its time.

This is the third of the daily posts this week about some of my favorite books. Monday’s post dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title and Tuesday’s with Middlemarch.

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

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