One-Minute Book Reviews

November 16, 2009

Not by Zweibach Alone – Rhoda Janzen’s Memoir, ‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:13 pm
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A daughter of “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope” goes home

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. Holt, 241 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

A librarian here in New Jersey found recently that books about the Amish now outnumber Amish people.* If the attention this memoir is getting is an indication, Mennonites are the new Amish — a paradox given that Mennonites are, in fact, the old Amish: The Amish tradition arose in the late 17th century as an offshoot of the more liberal Mennonite faith.

Rhoda Janzen is a daughter of “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope” who returned in middle age to the religious community of her youth. She had left it first for “studded black minis, enormous hair, fuchsia lipstick, and preposterously high Manolos” and then for a career as a poet and English professor. But several events drove her back to California, including a serious car accident and a divorce from her husband of 15 years, who left her for a man he met on Gay.com. She describes her sojourn in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a slangy and often amusing report on her experiences in a land of soft two-tiered buns called Zwiebach, served with homemade rhubarb jam. One experience involved the Mennonite equivalent of a pick-up line. Janzen says that a male rocker once approached her in a supermarket parking lot with: “If you’re a single woman of God, I surely wish you’d e-mail me.”

For a self-declared “grammarian,” Janzen shows a oddly shaking command of the nuances of English usage. She uses “shoe-in” for shoo-in, “timber” for timbre and has a weakness for the cute, which shows up when she tries to explain Mennonite views on sex. “Keep your pervy pecker in your pants, mister,” she writes. “Mennonite gals do not put out, no matter how alluring we are in our bonnets and aprons.” Janzen also seems unwilling or unable to reflect deeply on how her strict upbringing might have fed her decision to stay for so long with an emotionally abusive husband. She says she remained in her marriage because her parents never fought during her childhood and getting divorced “was something other people did” — a explanation that isn’t fully persuasive when she had broken by then with many other Mennonite traditions.

But the tone of the book so breezy, you waft though it. And occasionally Janzen lets you see how perceptive she can be when she drops the shtick and describes her life straight up. One such moment occurs when she reconnects with a friend who, though much like her, had stayed within the Mennonite fold and lived a more conventional life within it:

“Here was Eva, who could have made such different choices with her education and career path. Here was I, with my decades of restless travel, my brilliant but tortured ex-husband. And how sad it suddenly seemed to be buffeted by the powerful currents to which we had yielded our lives. So many years had passed. My childhood, my early friendships, my long marriage, all seemed to hang from an invisible thread, like the papery wasps’ nests outside my study window.”

*I couldn’t confirm this, and it may refer to number of copies in print, not titles. There are about 225,000 Amish in the U.S. and more than 170,000 books printed.

Best line: No. 1: Janzen on her mother: “This was a woman who had once departed for Hawaii with a frozen fryer in her suitcase, on the theory that the chicken would be thawed by the time her flight landed in Honolulu.” No. 2: The last lines of the review above.

Worst lines: No. 1: “—she patted her heinie significantly.” No. 2: “Al’s enrollment at St. Veronica’s had not been a shoe-in, but Phil and Hannah had decided that Christian guilt was better than bad math.” No. 3: “ With a pattern of dodgy behavior already established, I was a shoe-in for further scrutiny.” No. 4: “Aaron sang close harmonies in a madrigal group, his rich-timbered baritone blending like butter.” No: 5: “Keep your pervy pecker in your pants, mister. Mennonite gals do not put out, no matter how alluring we are in our bonnets and aprons.” No. 6: “I am woman, hear me pee!” No. 7: “Fresh out of grad school, I agreed to be the faculty adviser to a sorority whose members were commonly referred to as ‘the Campus Hotties’ or ‘the Ones in Deep Doo-Doo for Trashing Four Hotel Rooms Again.”

Furthermore: The Wall Street Journal article “They’re No Bodice-rippers, but Amish Romances Are Hot” has more on the boomlet in books about the Amish. Third Way Café has an answer to: “What’s the difference between Mennonites and Amish?”.

Read an excerpt from Mennonite in a Little Black Dress or find the publisher’s reading group guide.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she will be tweeting this week about topics that will include the National Book Awards to be announced Nov. 18. Comments about those prizes will also be posted on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 10, 2009

‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’ — A Review of Rhoda Janzen’s Memoir Coming Soon

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:37 pm
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In middle age, Rhoda Janzen reconnected with the faith of her childhood after facing setbacks that included a hysterectomy and the news that her husband was leaving her for a man he met on Gay.com. Janzen describes the experience in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, which One-Minute Book Reviews will review soon. In the meantime, you’ll find an excerpt and more on the site for its publisher.  On Nov. 8 I put up a couple of tweets on Twitter (www.twitter.com/janiceharayda) about the use of “shoe-in” for “shoo-in” and “timber” for “timbre” by Janzen, who teaches English at Hope College.

November 9, 2009

Mitch Albom Gets Religion – A Review of ‘Have a Little Faith’


The author of
Tuesdays with Morrie says he has learned that he is “neither smarter nor better” than other people

Have a Little Faith: A True Story. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 254 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

More than two decades ago, the Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum achieved bestsellerdom with All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a small book that offered twee advice such as, “Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you” and “Flush.” For Mitch Albom the font of wisdom appears to have materialized in what is euphemistically called “midlife.”

In his bestselling Tuesdays With Morrie and the new Have a Little Faith, Albom assumes the posture of an innocent who became a man of the world without having learned the basic lessons that Fulghum seems to have picked up between games of dodgeball. He is not, it appears, a quick study.

Albom said in Tuesdays With Morrie that during his talks with a dying former professor, he learned that “love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.” He writes in his new book that he has learned fresh lessons — about what he calls “faith” — from Albert Lewis, the New Jersey rabbi who presided over his bar mitzvah in 1971, and a pastor to the homeless in Detroit. Lewis told Albom that whenever he looked at a picture of the family he loves, he thought, “This is your immortality.” But if love keeps you alive – at least in others’ hearts – isn’t that what Albom learned from Morrie Schwartz?

No discovery seems too basic for Albom not to cast as a revelation as he and Lewis talk about cosmic and earthly questions: What makes people happy? Why does it mean to be good? How can you cope with tragedy? Albom is amazed when Lewis asks a Hindu health aide about her belief in reincarnation. “How can you – a cleric – be so open-minded?” he asks, as though shocked that the rabbi isn’t a bigot. The news that his old synagogue has extensive files on its history seems to fill him with wonder. “I didn’t know there were files,” he tells the woman who informed him of it. Imagine: A synagogue that keeps good records!

Under the rubric of “faith” Albom writes about religion in such a generalized feel-good way that you’re not sure how his view differs from the God-is-love school of theology or even New Age psychobabble. You wonder if he knows. Albom says he wrote Have a Little Faith “in the hope that all faiths can find something universal in the story,” and it’s full of pseudoprofundities such as, “we all want the same things: comfort, love, and a peaceful heart.” But the view of “immortality” that he seems to advocate – that you find your afterlife in the memories of others – is far more Jewish than Christian (not to mention, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim). Certainly few Christians would disagree that people “live on” in others’ minds. But Christian theology holds that things like “comfort, love and a peaceful heart” are not the ultimate aim. They are the byproducts of a larger goal, which is salvation through Christ.

Albom tries to keep the book from tilting toward his religion by interweaving chapters about his old rabbi with sections on Henry Covington, an ex-drug dealer who began a ministry to the homeless after a spiritual plea bargain: One night when he thought killers were trailing him, he decided that if he survived, he would devote his life to Jesus. But in these sections Albom keeps his distance from theology and focuses on matters such as whether the pastor’s church can keep the lights on, so the spiritual heart of the story lies in Lewis, who set the book in motion by asking his former congregant to give his eulogy.

Like Albom’s recent novel For One More Day, his new book is written at third-grade reading level, according to readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word.* Have a Little Faith is more interesting than that homespun parable in because Lewis is a bit of card – he kept a mock parking sign in his office that said, YOU TAKA MY SPACE / I BREAKA YOUR FACE — and the book has excerpts from his sermons. It also includes the fine eulogy Albom eventually gave for Lewis that may inspire you if you have to give a similar talk. Otherwise, you are well-advised keep in mind something Albom says he learned while writing this book: He is “neither smarter nor better” than others, just luckier.

Best line: The first line of the Twenty-third Psalm, quoted by Lewis in a sermon: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Worst line: No. 1: “January arrived and the calendar changed. It was 2008. Before the year was done, there would be a new U.S. President, an economic earthquake, a sinkhole of confidence, and tens of millions unemployed or without homes. Storm clouds were gathering.” Yes, when January arrives, the calendar usually does change. No. 2: “What do you do when you lose a loved one too quickly? When you have no time to prepare before, suddenly, that soul is gone?
“Ironically, the man who could best answer that question was sitting in front of me.” This is a misuse of “ironically.” Nothing “ironic” is happening here.

About the reading level of this book: To figure the reading level of Have a Little Faith, I entered into a computer the full text of pages 24–25, 124–125, 224–225 and pages 164–165, then ran the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, which shows you the Flesch-Kincaid reading level at the bottom of the stats window. The reading levels for the pages averaged Grade 3. 7 and ranged from a low of Grade 2.8 to a high of Grade 6.5. The passages entered include only words written by Albom, none by Lewis. A comparison of Albom’s level and that of other authors appears here.

Published: September 2009

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 1, 2009

Mitch Albom Gets Religion — A Review of ‘Have a Little Faith’ Coming Soon

Filed under: Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:35 pm
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Mitch Albom gets religion in Have a Little Faith, a memoir of his encounters with his childhood rabbi in New Jersey and a pastor he met as an adult in Detroit. Albom was a finalist in the annual Delete Key Awards competition for bad writing in books for his novel For One More Day, written at a third-grade reading level according to the readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. Is his new book better? A review of Have a Little Faith will appear this week on One-Minute Book Reviews. You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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 12, 2009

A Review of Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ – The Copycat Cover Isn’t The Only Thing It Has in Common With ‘The Secret’

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:09 am
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Spoiler Warning! Please stop here if you don’t want to read about the ending of this novel or to hear more about the “massive sex organ” mentioned in yesterday’s post.

The Lost Symbol: A Novel. By Dan Brown. Doubleday, 509 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

Were the publishers of The Lost Symbol so worried about its sales that they tried to steal some of the thunder of The Secret, the bestselling nonfiction book of 2007? The covers of both books show lit-from-behind crimson wax seals against a background that looks like parchment with cryptic markings. And the similarities don’t end there.

Dan Brown’s first novel since The Da Vinci Code is the book we might get if Rhonda Byrne turned to fiction, a mishmash of New Age mysticism and scientific half-truths. Both The Lost Symbol and The Secret hinge on the idea that ancient secrets can transform the lives of people who are enlightened enough to hear them. Byrne calls her “secret” the “law of attraction,” the theory that your thoughts can manipulate physical reality: diseases, lottery tickets, your bank account. She quotes the “personal empowerment advocate” Lisa Nichols: “When you think of the things you want, and you focus on them with all of your intention, then the law of attraction will give you exactly what you want, every time.”

Brown doesn’t mention the “law of attraction” in The Lost Symbol but draws on noetic theory — which he calls noetic “science” — a realm of metaphysics that deals with forms of consciousness typically ignored by mainstream science. And the characters in the novel often sound like Byrne. The plot involves efforts by Harvard professor Robert Langdon to find the wealthy Peter Solomon, a kidnapped Washington, D.C., Mason who speaks of “secrets that transcend your wildest imagination.”

But no one sounds more like Byrne than Peter’s sister, Katherine, who plays Lois Lane to Langdon’s Clark Kent. Brown says that Katherine’s research had proved “that ‘focused thought’ could affect literally anything” — the growth rate of plants, the direction in which fish swam. “Katherine had created beautifully symmetrical ice crystals by sending loving thoughts to a glass of water as it froze.” Katherine agrees. “I have witnessed people transform cancer cells into healthy cells simply by thinking about them,” she says. And: “Our brains, if used correctly, can call forth powers that are quite literally superhuman.” Langdon realizes as he listens to Katherine: “Human thought can literally transform the world.”

All of this has at least one problem that The Secret does: The writing might make you think warmly of Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins and all other writers who, bad as they were, at least didn’t italicize every passage written in the free indirect style.  Brown says of the man who has kidnapped Peter Solomon and chopped off his hand:

“His hips and abdomen were the archways of mystical power. Hanging beneath the archway [sic], his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.”

Let’s leave aside that the first sentence in that passage says there were two “archways” and second says that there was one. Let’s also ignore that unless the man had no scrotum, more than one sex organ was hanging beneath his “archways of mystical power.” And let’s overlook that this passage is as purple as – well, do you need to be told? Apart from all of it, the mention of that “heavy shaft” is one of those “gratuitous” sexual details that actually is gratuitous instead of just offensive to some tastes: The size of that “massive sex organ” has nothing to do with the plot. The man never uses for its intended purposes, and if it had once been his “source of carnal pleasure,” it would also have been his “source of carnal pleasure” if it had been smaller.

The Secret has writing that, in its own way, is as bad. But The Lost Symbol has another problem that relates to its function as a potboiler. Thrillers often begin slowly and gain speed as the bodies pile up. The Lost Symbol has the opposite problem: It starts briskly but loses momentum and crawls through its last third. The slowdown occurs in part because Brown has the literary equivalent of a stutter: He can’t stop repeating himself. It also occurs because he’s cross-purposes with himself: He can’t decide whether he’s writing a thriller, a lecture, a homily, a defense of Freemasonry, or a tourist brochure.

Brown gives you hundreds of pages about codes, ciphers, symbols, cryptograms, pictographs, and New Age arcana that you expect ultimately to snap into place like the solid colors on the faces of a Rubik’s cube. But the ending washes out. The Lost Symbol doesn’t build toward an ingenious final twist – as good thrillers typically do – but to a message you might hear from a football player pointing toward the sky in the moments after his team won the Super Bowl. On the next-to-last page, Brown writes, “Nothing is hidden that will not be made known; nothing is secret that will not come to light.” Rhonda Byrne couldn’t have said it better.

Best line: “’Google’ is not a synonym for ‘research.’”

Worst line: See the Sept. 24 post “Dan Brown’s 5 Worst Lines From ‘The Lost Symbol” and the Oct. 6 post on “The Dan Brown Chuckle Meter”. A few more worst lines: No. 1: “His hips and abdomen were the archways of mystical power. Hanging beneath the archway [sic], his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft of flesh had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.” No. 2: “Wearing only a silken loincloth wrapped around his buttocks and neutered sex organ, Mal’akh began his preparations.” No. 3: “Twelve are the signs of the zodiac. Twelve are the hours of the day.” No. 4: “According to Nola’s spec sheet, the UH-60 had a chassis-mounted, laser-sighted, six-gigahertz magnetron with a fifty-dB-gain horn that yielded a ten-gigawatt pulse.”

Editor: Jason Kaufman

Published: September 15, 2009

Furthermore: You may also want to read the Sept. 29 post, “Is The Lost Symbol ‘Offensive’ to Christianity?”

About the author: Brown’s other Robert Langdon novels are Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code.

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

September 29, 2009

Is ‘The Lost Symbol’ Is ‘Offensive’ to Christianity?

Crosses and other religious symbols help to drive the plot of The Lost Symbol. Are the images used in an offensive way? Philip Hensher writes in a review of The Lost Symbol in the Spectator:

“The plot, naturally, is all to do with the concealment of wisdom within sacred texts, and as it unfolds, it becomes first moronic and then somewhat offensive. Moronic, because it seems to believe that wisdom and knowledge are things which are acquired by placing a bit of gold on top of a bit of stone, and then wiping off some wax. Brown’s heroes remind me of Hardy’s Jude, who thought that you could understand Greek if you cracked a simple code in the dons’ safekeeping:

“Don’t you see? These [Biblical phrases] are code words, Robert. ‘Temple’ is code for body. ‘Heaven’ is code for mind. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is your spine. And ‘Manna’ is this rare brain secretion.

“Not just moronic, but offensive, because the whole historical point of Christianity was that it celebrated its rites entirely openly, unlike any other religion to that point. The huge enlightenment to come, trailed by Brown, doesn’t convince, because he can’t really imagine what it would be, apart from some previously secret beliefs being made generally available. What that would mean, apart from people saying ‘With my temple, I thee worship’ at wedding ceremonies, Brown cannot limn.

“This is taking a bit of fluff all too seriously, but tales of conspiracy are worrying when they become as massively popular as Brown’s stories have done. God knows how many of his readers think there might be some truth in any of this. But even if there were none, it is depressing to see the point to which the bestseller as a form has sunk. Vintage have recently reissued all of Nevil Shute, and to read a hugely popular book of 50 years ago next to The Lost Symbol is to witness a painful decline in quality and sheer class. A novelist like Brown would never risk an extended set-piece like the motor race in On the Beach, or the details of capital investment in A Town Called Alice. Or, come to that, the thrillingly extended card game in the first part of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker. These are novels which, though aiming at popularity, respected their readers and were possessed of a decent level of craft. Nowadays, we are reduced in our thrill-seeking endeavours to listening to Dan Brown, whose idea of giving a reader a good time is droning:

“Franklin Square is located in the northwest quadrant of downtown Washington, bordered by K and Thirteenth streets. It is home to many historic buildings.”

July 9, 2009

Joke of the Day — More Literary Wit From ‘Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind’

Ann B. Ross writes in her comic novel Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind (HarperPerennial, 273 pp., $13.95, paperback):

“I knew that most of the church members would take whatever position Pastor Ledbetter did. A congregation wasn’t called a flock for nothing.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 26, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist #5 – Jodi Picoult’s ‘Change of Heart’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 pm
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Delete Key Awards Finalist #5 comes from Jodi Picoult’s novel Change of Heart (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 447 pp., $26.95):

“Not that Jesus wasn’t a really cool guy – great teacher, excellent speaker, yadda yadda yadda. But … Son of God? Where’s the proof?”

and

“You don’t think it’s possible that Mr. Smythe was … well … resurrected?”

Not that Picoult isn’t a really popular novelist – great sales, a “terrific writer” in Stephen King’s view. But with dorky lines like these (and a plot to go with them), where’s the proof? Didn’t that “yadda yadda yadda” start to sound old before Seinfeld went off the air?

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

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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