One-Minute Book Reviews

February 12, 2007

Diana Loevy’s ‘The Book Club Companion’: The Guacamole Also Rises

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,How to,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:51 pm

Books compete with Zorro costumes and a recipe for Bitsy Farnsworth’s Mystery Mocha Cake in this guide for reading groups. Guess what loses?

The Book Club Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Reading Group Experience. By Diana Loevy. Berkley, 335 pp., $ 14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Looking for a way to revitalize your reading group? How about having members read Isabel Allende’s Zorro and dress up in black capes and masks?

Yes, it could lead to swordfights over the guacamole and bad Antonio Banderas imitations. But ideas like this abound The Book Club Companion, a loopy guide for reading groups that reads at times like the result of a collaboration between Martha Stewart and the author of No Bad Dogs. Unwilling to let books rise or fall on their literary merits, Diana Loevy rolls out recipes, etiquette rules, pet-care tips, decorating ideas, and fashion advice for book club members. If your group is too sedate for Zorro outfits, she also offers reading lists with descriptions of books that might have been written by their publicists.

Loevy lays out her theme early on when she says that, if you’re in a reading group, “Each book is a winner.” She shuns even the mildest criticism of books and authors. Elizabeth Berg, whose latest novel is written at a fourth-grade level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word? “Book clubs love this prolific author,” Loevy says. Terry McMillan, who’s devolved into Danielle Steel with a sense of humor? “Everyone has a favorite McMillan,” Loevy says, presumably including those who haven’t read her. It’s an almost comical understatement to say that this gushing clashes with a complaint you hear frequently from book group members: You’re lucky if you love one in every five or six books and can finish most of the selections.

The opinions that Loevy expresses – for example, about the main ideas of a book – are often clueless. She does not appear to understand the difference between a topic, such as “faith” or “folk art,” and a theme. And you sometimes wonder if she has read a book or just watched the movie. Loevy describes Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a “party girl.” And while that’s true of the film, it’s a serious misrepresentation of Truman Capote’s novella, in which Holly is a call girl.

Loevy turns into a martinet when she writes about extras such as refreshments, decorations, and pet control. It is simply “too easy” to serve sushi when you’re reading Memoirs of a Geisha, she admonishes: “Concentrate on the unique dishes described in the novel such as the snack umeboshi ochazuke (rice and sour plums soaked in tea).” Consider “Diana Kennedy’s Guacamole” and “Bitsy Farnsworth’s Mystery Mocha Cake” for other events. As for pet control, Loevy devotes more than four pages to this essential topic and stops just short of suggesting that you shoot Fido with tranquilizing darts before your book group meets at your place.

All of this might be just amusing if there weren’t something sad about Loevy’s pandering. The Book Club Companion leaves the impression that the tiniest bit of criticism of a book would put off reading group members and that they never read just for the joy of it but need the ancillary pleasures of related recipes or floral centerpieces. Loevy sounds almost apologetic about her suggestion that you read Moby-Dick. “Don’t you be rolling your eyes,” she says, because this novel is “brimming with meaning.” And if you have trouble selling your group on such books, you might “sweeten the deal”: “If you know it will be a challenging book, offer to make something everyone will like. It’s funny how the maniacal laughter ceases after a slice of your famous chocolate raspberry torte.’ You could also promise to make your club cocktail. “You mean,” Loevy asks, “you don’t have one?”

Best line: Eight reading lists give the titles of books that clubs might have read in the decades from the 1920s through the 1990s. The 1920s list alone has such gems as Main Street, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and All Quiet on the Western Front.

Worst line: Loevy’s advice on how to persuade your group to read Flaubert: “Selling Madame Bovary to the club: A selection of the Wisteria Lane Book Club, at least one desperate housewife found it ‘inspirational.’” Now there’s an unbeatable endorsement for you. It’s ungrammatical, too.

Consider reading instead: Noel Perrin’s A Reader’s Delight or John Carey’s Pure Pleasure. A review of Carey’s book is archived in the “Essays and Reviews” category on this site.

Caveat lector: Loevy developed the reading groups program for Bookspan, part of the Bertelsmann conglomerate, which owns the publishers of many of the books she praises. The publisher of The Book Club Companion, Berkley, is an imprint of the Penguin Group, which published many of the other titles that she recommends.

Editor: Ginjer Buchanan

Published: August 2006

Furthermore: Critic Janet Maslin explored other aspects of the obtuseness of this guide in an entertaining review of this book in the New York Times on Sept. 4, 2006.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Jan Harayda does not accept books, catalogs, press releases, or related materials from editors, publishers, agents or authors whose books may be reviewed on the site.


February 8, 2007

Dr. Phil Admits, ‘I May Not Be the Sharpest Pencil in the Box’ … Why Didn’t Somebody Tell Oprah?

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,How to,Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:22 am

The talk-show psychologist urges women to settle for “Mr. 80 Percent”

Love Smart: Find the One You Want – Fix the One You Got. By Dr Phil McGraw. Free Press, 283 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Help me, please, with the math in Dr. Phil McGraw’s relationship guide for women. First the talk-show host says that to attract a worthy man, you need to feel confident enough to take your “fair share of time in most conversations – 50 percent in a twosome, 33 percent in a threesome, and so forth.” Then he says that when you’re dating: “Self-disclosure should be used only 25 percent of the time. The other 75 percent should be listening.” So which is it? Should you be talking 50 percent of the time or 25 percent?

I have no idea, because McGraw doesn’t say how he got those figures, and his book is full of mush like this. Love Smart is one of those self-help guides that has LOTS OF LARGE TYPE BECAUSE OTHERWISE YOU MIGHT BE TOO DUMB TO GET THE POINT. It also has exclamation points! More than two dozen in the first seven pages! That doesn’t count the one in the first paragraph of the acknowledgments! But I’ll say this for McGraw: He is equally patronizing to women and men. He reduces them both 1950s stereotypes given a 21st century gloss with advice on Internet dating and quotes from celebrities like Dave Barry and Rita Rudner.

Much of his advice retools the kind of messages Bridget Jones got from her mother. First, stop being so picky. Of course, McGraw doesn’t use that word. He urges you to settle for “Mr. 80 Percent.” Then forget what you may have heard from other experts about how there are more differences between any one man and woman than between the sexes as a whole.

“I’ve got news for you: Men and women are different,” McGraw says. A lot of men have a “caveman” mentality that requires a “bag’em, tag’em, bring’em home” approach. This method includes more of the kind of advice your mother – or maybe grandmother – gave you. McGraw doesn’t come right out and say you should “save yourself for your husband.” But he does suggest you hold sex “in reserve” until a man has made “the ultimate commitment”: “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to McGraw that, in the age of a female Speaker of the House, some women might not appreciate being compared to cows.

The most bizarre section of Love Smart consists of its list of the “top 31 places” to meet men. No. 1 and 2 on the list are “your church or temple” and “batting cages.” You might meet men at those batting cages. But the U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that the typical American churchgoer is a 50-year old married female. So what are the criteria here? Sheer numbers of the other sex? Or compatibility with your values? The list makes no more sense than most of the other material in Love Smart. Earlier in the book, McGraw begins an account of a disagreement with his wife by saying, “Now I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box …” Why didn’t somebody tell Oprah.”
Best line: The comedian Rita Rudner says, “To attract men I wear a perfume called New Car Interior.” Love Smart also has some zingers that women have used to insult men, such as, “He has delusions of adequacy.”

Worst line: McGraw never uses one cliché when he can use three or four, as in: “Now it seems time to step up and close the deal, get ‘the fish in the boat,’ walk down the aisle, tie the knot … you want to get to the next level.”

Consider reading instead: The Boomers’ Guide to Online Dating, by Judsen Culbreth, former editor-in-chief of Working Mother. Despite its title, this book isn’t just for boomers but for women over 35. And it has smart advice on dating in general that never patronizes women as McGraw does. A review is archived in the “How to” category on this site. You can also find a review by using the Search box to look for the title.

Editor: Dominick Anfuso

Published: December 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 7, 2007

Dr. Phil’s ‘Delusions of Adequacy’

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:30 pm

Coming Friday on One-Minute Book Reviews …

Women! Find out what Valentine’s Day advice Dr. Phil has for you in a review of his Love Smart tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews!

Men! Find out what Dr. Phil thinks women can do about your well-known “caveman mentality”! Start grunting right NOW to PUT YOURSELF IN THE MOOD FOR THIS ONE!

Both sexes! Sorry about the exclamation points! I got carried away because Dr. Phil has more than two dozen in his first seven pages! Not counting the one in the first paragraph of his Acknowledgments!

You’re going to love this review if you can never get enough of those great old sayings like, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?”! Women, that’s on page 249 if you can’t wait … or think it’s never too soon to hear a relationship expert implying that you’re a cow!

You’ve GOT to BOOKMARK this site if you don’t want to miss this! And pass the link on to friends who have “issues” with Dr. Phil, too!

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 22, 2007

June Casagrande Minds Your Language

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:11 am

A grammar columnist tries to compete with authors of better books such as Woe Is I

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite. Penguin, 199 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

June Casagrande is a snob about how unsnobbish she is. She says early in Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies that “the problem with language today is that the people writing the rules are such blowhards that not even they themselves can deny it.” Then she spends much of the book listing her own rules, which often make no more sense than those she dislikes. She insists, for example, that the short form of “until” is “till” not “’til.” Why? Just “check your dictionary,” she says. Why follow dictionaries on this one and not on issues on which she disagrees with some of them? And aren’t some dictionaries more trustworthy than others? “’Til,” she says, “just happens to be wrong.”

A larger problem with this book that good writing is about much more than grammar. And from her title onward, Casagrande trades on humor that is often snide, clichéd, or sophomoric. “Meanies come in many forms, not just human,” she writes of grammar snobs. “They can be not only animal, but also mineral. In rare cases, they can even be vegetable, but we’ll talk about William Safire later.” What’s the point of such a personal attack on the New York Times columnist? The tone of Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies resembles that of a high school student who feels superior to but wants desperately to join the popular kids – a group that in this case includes Lynne Truss, author of the popular Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

One of the few well-known grammar authorities Casagrande does not attack is Patricia T. O’Conner, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of Woe Is I (reviewed on this blog on Dec. 30, 2006, and archived in the “How to” category), the best grammar book for students or people who have forgotten what they learned in the eighth grande. Casagrade may have spared Woe Is I because it comes from one of her publisher’s imprints. Or maybe she just realizes that it’s a much better book.

Best line: Casagrande makes some good points about frequently confused words such as “disburse” and “disperse.” She quotes a line from The Da Vinci Code: “His Holiness can disperse monies however he sees fit.” This sentence, she says, suggests that the fictional pope was “hurling fistfuls of euros from a hole in his Plexiglas popemobile.”

Worst line: Many of the worst lines are pointless jabs at other grammarians, such as the attack Safire. Others are sophomoric : “I had one college professor who was a bona fide jerkwad. It took me a while to realize that he was a bona fide jerkwad on account of the fact that I was a bona fide kiss-up.”

Editor: David Cashion

Furthermore: Casagrande writes the weekly column “A Word, Please” for several community news supplements to the Los Angeles Times. Unlike Woe Is I and other books on language, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies lacks an index. So it’s often harder to find information there than in other volumes, especially if you want an answer to a specific question instead of broad guidance. If you’re looking for a good grammar book, visit Patricia O’Conner’s site

Published: March 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 18, 2007

Jane Yolen: Advice to Writers From a Nebula- and Caldecott-Winner

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:04 am

One of America’s most versatile authors says that it’s not writing but a focus on publication that makes writers miserable

Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft. By Jane Yolen. Writer’s Digest, 202 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Like Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Yolen is one of those writers who seems to be continually outpacing her reviewers. She has written or edited nearly 300 books of fantasy, science fiction, and folklore, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, and she has won literary honors that include Nebula and World Fantasy awards. But she may be best known for Owl Moon, which received the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished picture book for children.

Now Yolen has written a guide for writers in the spirit of Anne Lamott’s popular Bird by Bird. Take Joy blends lively reminiscences with down-to-earth advice on topics such as coping with rejection, creating memorable beginnings and endings, and writing in your own voice. An especially strong chapter deals with how to structure a plot. There could hardly be a more basic or important topic for writers of fiction. Yet the question of how to develop a plot is, remarkably, ignored or slighted by most writing guides. And Yolen’s advice is as simple as it is sound. Make sure there’s “always something going on,” she says, then gives 15 pages of specifics on how to do that.

The last pages of Take Joy take on a valedictory tone as Yolen writes about entering her final decades: “Aging is oppositional,” she says. “The soul reaches for higher things as the rest of the body succumbs to gravity.” But she ends hopefully: “If I had another life to live, I’d run for high office. Or learn to paint. Or take acting lessons … But I chose writing early, as well as poetry and music. Enough for this lifetime, enough to take me into the winter with plenty to do.” Her admirers can only be grateful that she decided to let others have the Senate seats and Helen Mirren take home the Golden Globe awards.

Best line: “I contend that it is not the writing that makes writers miserable. It is the emphasis on publication.”

Worst line: Yolen urges writers to avoid taking rejection letters personally and instead to learn to live with them. So far, so good. She adds: “Even hang them up in your room as I did with one from John Ciardi, who was poetry editor at The Saturday Review. Thankfully, he sent it after a few of my poems had already been taken for publication elsewhere, or I might have considered taking up horse training as an occupation.” Ciardi wasn’t “thankful” when he sent that rejection letter.

Published: 2006 Jane Yolen has an outstanding Web site that is beautifully designed, informative, and comprehensive, with pages for writers, teachers, and children. Her site includes more than 200 links to others and a journal in which she explores the connections between her life and work.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 8, 2007

A Guide to Managing Employees From Hell

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:41 pm

What to do when the people who work for you don’t work out as expected

A Survival Guide to Managing Employees From Hell: Handling Idiots, Whiners, Slackers and Other Workplace Demons. By Gini Graham Scott. Amacom/American Management Association, 230 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, Computerworld magazine ran an article about high-tech mavericks, including a female programmer who sometimes came to work in a Girl Scout uniform or cheerleading outfit. That’s one definition of “an employee from hell.”

As any manager knows, there are plenty of others. The slowpoke who’s been working on the same project since the Clinton administration. The friend of the boss who’s incompetent but too well connected to fire. The complainer who gripes every day about how far the parking lot is from the office.

Books that deal with situations like these typically have one of several problems. They may come from celebrities who dole out common sense and act as though they’ve decoded the Rosetta Stone. They may patronize you with lots of CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points!!! Or they may peddle one-size-fits-all advice that’s too general to help with the complex and varied problems that managers have to solve.

The American Management Association seems to have recognized all of this and has come out with a book that aims to avoid such problems. Gini Graham Scott’s A Survival Guide to Managing Employees From Hell is a no-nonsense paperback that devotes a section to each of more than two dozen types of workplace saboteurs, including “the prima donna,” “the impossible intern,” and “the negative Nelly or Ned.” Each chapter provides a one- or two-page anonymous case study of a different kind of difficult employee. Then it lists possible ways of handling the situation, tells what the manager did, and gives tips on dealing with similar people.

Some of the advice has appeared in many other guides for managers (“set clear boundaries”). And the book doesn’t always avoid repackaging conventional business wisdom. But A Survival Guide to Managing Employees from Hell is much more useful and less sugar-coated than such recent books as The Power of Nice. An implicit theme is that the chocolates-and-compliments approach doesn’t always work. Sometimes you just have to fire those employees from hell, and this book suggests when it’s time to take away their pitchforks.

Best line: “Many bad employees would create problems in any situation or workplace. But sometimes what makes for a difficult employee in one working culture – such as a loner in a highly social, team-player environment – may make for a highly productive and valuable employee in another setting.”

Worst line (tie): “Consider possible options and outcomes.” And “Decide on the best option by weighing positives and negatives …” These are examples of the common sense dressed up in the stilted business jargon that the book mostly avoids.

Publication: January 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 30, 2006

The Best Grammar Book for Students (And Parents Who Are Checking the Homework Assignments)

Filed under: Children's Books,How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:14 pm

Patricia T. O’Conner makes it fun to learn the rules that – not which – your child needs to know

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. By Patricia T. O’Conner. Riverhead, 256 pp., $14, paperback. Ages 13–adult.

By Janice Harayda

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail note from a parent who had a grammar question. His English teachers had told him that when two parts of a sentence are joined by and or but, you should always separate them with a comma. His teenage son’s teachers said his teachers were wrong. Who was right? Answer: the son’s teachers. You use a comma to separate two parts of a sentence when both have a subject and verb. You don’t use a comma when they don’t. I gave my friend this example of two correctly punctuated sentences:

I went to the store, and I bought some bread.
I went to the store and bought some bread.

If you and your child are wrestling with questions like these, you need Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I, the best grammar book for students (and their parents). Woe Is I has all the hallmarks of an ideal grammar book for modern families. It’s comprehensive enough to answer any question you might have. It’s authoritative without handing down archaic rules that no longer make sense. It has an index and chapter titles that make it easy to find the answers you need, whether you wonder when to use that and which or whether it’s ever all right to use alright (no). And O’Conner has a conversational — but not sloppy – writing style that makes her book fun to use. A chapter on commas, for example, is called “Comma Sutra.”

Woe is I also has things that most grammar books don’t. One is a chapter on clichés that lists nearly 100 overworked words or phrases and what’s wrong with each. Some of my favorites lines from it:

“Bone of contention. This expression is getting osteoporosis.
Generation gap. An even worse cliché, Generation X, is already geriatric.
It goes without saying. Then don’t say it.
“Team player. When your boss says you should be more of a team player, that means she wants you to take on more of her work.
To the manner born. If you’re going to use a cliché, respect it. This Shakespearean phrase (it comes from Hamlet) means ‘accustomed to’ or ‘familiar with’ a manner of living. It is not ‘to the manor born’ and has nothing to do with manor houses

O’Conner is too permissive for my tastes on some issues, such as whether you can use since to mean because and who instead of whom. But she offers so much good advice not just on grammar but on writing in general that I put Woe Is I on the required reading list for a college journalism class I taught recently. If you think your child could never enjoy grammar, listen to what one student said about after reading the first chapter I assigned: “I love this book! It’s the funniest textbook I’ve had to read.”

Best line: “English is a glorious invention, one that gives us endless possibilities for expressing ourselves. Grammar is there to help, to clear up ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings.”

Worst line: O’Conner says it’s fine to use since to mean “because.” But she admits that this could cause problems in a phrase such as, “Since we spoke, I’ve had second thoughts”: “In that case, since could mean either ‘from the time that’ or ‘because,’ so it’s better to be more precise.” Similar problems could occur in a lot of other situations. So why not stick to the rule that calls for using since only to indicate a time period (such as, “since Thursday”)?

Recommended if … you could use help with your grammar, English, or writing.

Caveat reader: This review was based on the hardcover edition. Woe Is I is a book for adults that is also appropriate for students in the eighth grade and above. It may appeal to some sixth- and seventh-graders who read well.

Published: 2003 (Riverhead hardcover), 2004 (Riverhead paperback).

FYI: A former member of the staff of The New York Times Book Review, O’Conner answers grammar questions on her Web site She also appears on National Public Radio as a language expert.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 29, 2006

Your Management Sucks: No, This Book Does

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:58 pm

Looking for a manager to emulate? How about Donald Rumsfeld?

Your Management Sucks: Why You Have to Declare War on Yourself … and Your Business. By Mark Stevens. Crown Business, 302 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Business books are among the cesspools of the publishing industry. For every Liar’s Poker or Barbarians at the Gate, there are countless volumes that take sewerage disposal to new depths.

The latest deposit in the cesspool comes from Mark Stevens, the CEO of a “global marketing firm” and author of the earlier – what, you haven’t heard of it? – Your Marketing Sucks. Stevens argues that managers must “declare war” on themselves and their companies to survive in a cutthroat marketplace. And early on he gives an example of a leader who embodies his philosophy — the chief architect of the war that has killed nearly 3,000 members of the U.S. military in Iraq. As secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld shook up the Pentagon, so that “cliques of generals learned the hard way (for Rumsfeld and for them, because these conflicts are always bloody) that the secretary was driving through their barricades.”

The tin ear Stevens shows here – for language and human suffering – doesn’t go away in chapters on developing your “killer app” and unleashing “your Manhattan Project.” He assaults you with so many clichés, you begin to think that the Guinness world-records people should add a category for him. One stupefying passage deals with what happens when companies focus on small goals instead of big ones:

“I think of it as the shooting-fish-in-barrel syndrome … When a business grows beyond initial projections, once it appears to defy gravity and build a powerful momentum, managers can become intoxicated by this magic-carpet ride and believe that from that moment on the future is golden. Guaranteed. A sure thing. And that’s when they put the plane on autopilot and a hard landing looms in the not-so-distant future.”

Stevens believes that “weak managers” tell people they can spend time “with their kids every night.” But research has shown that employees in their 20s and 30s care far more about such issues than their parents did, and options such as flextime help to retain high performers. If Stevens is aware of the studies, he gives no indication of it, and such omissions make his book read a times as though it emerged from a time capsule buried in the heyday of some of the people he holds up as models – Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, Carl Icahn, Estée Lauder, George Patton, and Harry Truman. Your Management Sucks might be a battle cry, but it’s a call to the kind of war that Donald Rumsfeld scripted, and is becoming more unpopular every day.

Best Line: “When I say, ‘Your management sucks,’ I’m talking to myself as well.” You said it, not me.

Worst Line (Tie): Winner No. 1: “Forget the horse that looks like a camel because the committee created it. We’ve heard that too many times.” Then why is it in this book? Winner No. 2: “To hell with what clients expect to hear. To tell with what they want to hear. Shock them with intelligence! With epiphanies! With the element of surprise!” Better still, shock them by saying something that makes sense! Instead of inanities like, “Shock them … with the element of surprise!”

Published: May 2006

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 15, 2006

Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: A Guide to Raising Children With Good Character

A wise and compassionate guide to raising children who have good character, not just good personalities or high “self-esteem”

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. By Wendy Mogel. Penguin/Compass, 300 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Are you a Jewish parent trying to solve the “December dilemma,” which Wendy Mogel describes as “resisting the allure of Christmas without building Hanukkah up into a high-stature holiday it was never meant to be”? Are you a parent of another faith who wishes your children would express more gratitude for what they have and fewer complaints about what they don’t have this month?

If so, you can walk into almost any bookstore and find good books about how to tone down the materialism of the season. Wendy Mogel deals instead with the broader issue that often lies behind the concerns about holiday excesses: How can you raise children who have their priorities straight? In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she gives wise and compassionate answers to the question: How can you help your children develop good character and not just good personalities or high “self-esteem”?

Mogel bases her responses on Jewish teachings and her work as a psychologist and leader of workships for parents, and her advice is so refreshing that her book has won deserved acclaim not just from Jewish leaders but from secular critics and publications such as the Episcopal Schools Review. Mogel rightly argues that many parents are so eager to avoid the mistakes of their own elders that they have given away the store: “In their eagerness to do right by their children, parents not only overindulge them materially, but also spoil them emotionally.” They prize their children’s feelings so highly that they fail to instill in them an adequate sense of gratitude and of their responsibilities to others, including their parents, teachers, and community.

How can parents undo the damage? Mogel offers a step-by-step guide in which she is unafraid to use words like “should.” She is rarely less direct than she is in a comment in her section on the importance of manners: “When taking food and eating it in the presence of a parent, friend, or sibling, your child should always make an automatic habit of offering either to share or to get some for the other person. ‘I’m getting myself a glass of orange juice. Would you like one too?’ ‘Would you like some of these chips?’” And if you think you couldn’t get your children to do this, this book may change your mind.

For years Mogel has worked in the Los Angeles area and counseled some of the country’s most demanding parents and privileged children. She knows the pressures that high-octane families face and takes a good-humored and down-to-earth approach to them. (Her advice on instilling respect includes a section called “Curing Sitcom Mouth.”) Because her book has become so popular, you can also find it in most bookstores. If you’re looking for a last-minute Hanukkah present for thoughtful parents, your search has ended.

Best line: “An especially troubling aspect of modern child-rearing is the way parents fetishize their children’s achievements and feelings and neglect to help them develop a sense of duty toward others.”

Worst line: The cover of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee shows a girl and boy wearing fully loaded backpacks that fall to their hips. These backpacks do not appear to meet the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics: “The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the student’s body weight.” The AAP suggests a rolling backback for students with a heavy load, which these two are obviously have. The photo shouldn’t necessarily be held against Mogel because authors may not have the final say in — or even be consulted about — what goes on the covers of their books.

Editor: Jane Rosenman

Recommended if … you’re looking for an antidote to parenting guides with an “anything goes” attitude toward children’s behavior.

Published: September 2001

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 13, 2006

Who’s Nicer? Nancy Reagan or the Authors of The Power of Nice? Judge for Yourself

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:01 pm

The people who gave us the Aflac duck play fast-and-loose with facts in a phoned-in book about how they got ahead by being — or so they say — “nice”

The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World With Kindness. By Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. Foreword by Jay Leno. Doubleday/Currency, 127 pp., $17.95.

By Janice Harayda

For more than three decades, Dr. John Gottman has been studying why marriages succeed or fail, and one his most surprising findings is, as he puts it, “A marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife.” Those words come from his Web site,where he adds that a man has “a shaky marriage” if, for example, his wife says, “My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready,” and he replies, “My plans are set, and I’m not changing them.”

Why does it matter that it’s the man who can “accept influence” and not the woman? “A husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice-versa) is crucial because research shows women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men, and a true partnership only occurs when a husband can do so as well,” Gottman says.

This is far from obscure research. Gottman has been quoted widely in the media, and I found his words with one click by doing a Google search for “Gottman + influence.” So we may assume that Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval either know little about the research they say supports their ideas or intentionally misrepresented it in The Power of Nice. Here’s how they describe Gottman’s views: “For example, say you call your husband to tell him you have to work late (as we confess to doing on too many occasions) and your husband says that he’s upset because you’ve worked late every night this week and he was looking forward to having dinner with you. You could just snap at him and say, ‘Well, do you think I want to spend the evening scrutinizing invoices?’ Or you could be a bit nicer and say, ‘Sorry, sweetie, but these invoices are due tomorrow.’” Kaplan Thaler and Koval have not only changed the sexes but show the woman doing exactly what Gottman says not to do – refusing to yield – though they go on to allow that she might “consider” her husband’s view.

Would you say that these authors were being nice to Gottman? Or to you if you had spent $17.95 for a book about succeed in business without resorting to techniques like – well, misrepresenting people’s research?

How you answer will no doubt affect how you see The Power of Nice. Is your view, “Hey, everybody makes mistakes, even women who run an ad agency with nearly $1 billion a year in billings! And, besides, they gave us the Aflac duck! I love that duck! Af-LAC!” And do you think that everybody needs to be reminded now and then of all those things your mother told you like “call your grandmother, for goodness’ sake – she’s dying to hear from you!” even in a book that is supposed to be about kindness in business?

If so, you may well like The Power of Nice, because it has lots more tips like “call your grandmother” in little boxes called “Nice Cubes.” It also has many stories about celebrities who got ahead by being “nice,” although the authors have fairly bizarre ideas about who fits this category. For example, there’s Donald Trump. And there’s Bill Clinton, who qualifies because “he shook everybody’s hand on the ship” while sailing to England to begin his studies at Oxford. So lying to your wife and the American people – and getting impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice – don’t count if you shake enough hands?

Books that tell you things you know can work in several ways. They can support a familiar idea with such good writing and research that they make the concept seem fresh. This is what Malcolm Gladwell does in Blink, which offers in part a new way of looking at the cliché, “trust your instincts.” Books that rehash what you know can also work if their authors serve up their ideas with a lack of pretension. This is what Robert Fulghum does in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Fulghum doesn’t presume to tell you how to “conquer” the world with his simple precepts such as, “Warm milk and cookies are good for you.” He just tells what he has learned. (His title isn’t All You Really Need to Know …) Finally, such books can work if we know enough about their authors to take for granted that they are experts on their subject. Most of us don’t need to be sold on the idea that Jack Welch knows about Winning, the title of his latest book (written with his wife, Suzy Welch).

But we do need to be sold on the idea that Kaplan Thaler and Koval owe their success, as they say, to being “nice.” And on this count the trouble starts on the cover of The Power of Nice. No, not with that black-and-yellow half smiley-face, but with the lack of a credit for their writer, Sara Eckel, whom they don’t mention until their acknowledgements. Kaplan Thaler and Koval argue that in order to succeed, people must be willing to “share the credit” with those who helped them. Agreed. And one way authors “share the credit” is by listing the names of writers who have helped them on their cover and title page, connected to theirs with a “with” or “and.” Celebrities who have done this include Muhammad Ali, Marlon Brando, Chris Evert, Aretha Franklin, Larry King, Colin Powell, Dan Rather, Cal Ripken Jr., Norman Schwarzkopf, Sam Walton, and Jack Welch, to name just a sampling of those I found in a few minutes at a public library. Some of the people who have credited their writers their on the cover of their books wouldn’t make anybody’s list of “The Ten Nicest Celebrities I Know” including Nancy Reagan, Mike Wallace, and Donald Trump (who praises The Power of Nice on its dust jacket – now there’s a recommendation for you). Kaplan Thaler and Koval may well be nicer people than Nancy Reagan. But it makes you think, doesn’t it?

Best line: The authors quote a freelance graphic designer who bribed people who didn’t pay their bills on time with offers of baked goods: “I would send out reminders of past-due invoices with the enticement that if paid by a specific date, I would reward the client with fresh baked cookies, brownies, cake – whatever they wanted. And it worked.” This idea is either wacko or brilliant, I don’t know which.

Worst line: “It’s no coincidence that ‘Thou shalt not lie’ is one of the Ten Commandments.” As comedians used to say, “Vas you dere, Chollie?”

Recommended if … you haven’t called your grandmother lately and think it would be worth it to pay $17.95 to have a permanent reminder to do so.

Editor: Roger Scholl

Published: September 2006

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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