One-Minute Book Reviews

November 27, 2009

Not Written in Lipstick – Sarah Dunn’s Novel ‘Secrets to Happiness’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:45 am
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A search-and-rescue mission for single New Yorkers and their dogs

Secrets to Happiness: A Novel. By Sarah Dunn. Little, Brown, 277 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Sarah Dunn is that rarity among comic novelists — a moralist in the best sense of the word. She doesn’t preach or lecture. But her heroines have a solid moral core left over from the strict Christian upbringing they have rejected. They struggle to do the right thing even as friends are cheating on their partners or trolling for casual sex on LukesPlace, a site similar to Craigslist in Secrets to Happiness. If Dunn’s heroines fall for faithless men, it isn’t because these women are vapid or silly – it’s because they are confused. They don’t know how to reconcile their early lessons with those of the age of Sex and the City, when their peers deal with moral questions by handing them off to psychiatrists or blocking them out with drugs from a pharmacy in St. Kitts.

“It never ceased to amaze Holly, how therapists managed to spin things,” Dunn writes of her main character. After years in Manhattan, Holly suspected that psychotherapy aimed to make it possible for people “to do whatever they wanted to do, with whomever they wanted to do it, when and where and however they felt like it, while reaping no negative emotional consequences whatsoever.”

That passage alone might lift Secrets to Happiness above most novels about single New Yorkers, in which few plot devices are more clichéd than an emotionally gimpy heroine’s visit to a therapist whose banalities help her find love. But the book has much more going for it than that. This is a novel about the related questions: What is the cost of being emotionally abandoned? And when do you give up the fantasy that you can rescue a relationship?

Holly Frick thinks she still loves a husband who has left her when, in her mid-30s, she faces other swiftly arriving changes: She adopts a dog with brain cancer, becomes involved with a 22-year-old man, and learns that her married best friend is having an affair. She must also persuade her gay script-writing partner to do his share of the work for an afternoon TV show now that her masochistically titled novel, Hello, Mr. Heartache, is tanking at bookstores. Part of the suspense comes from whether Holly will stick with her canine and human companions or will abandon them as her husband has abandoned her.

Dunn doesn’t develop this plot quite as well as she did that of her first novel, The Big Love, which has no relation to the HBO series. Much of the charm of that book came from the quirky first-person narration of its heroine, a Philadelphia magazine writer. Dunn uses shifting third-person viewpoints in her new novel, and though she handles them well, the device leaves the book softer at its center. Holly is its emotional and moral anchor, and the omniscient narration dilutes her impact.

So the pleasure of reading Secrets to Happiness comes less from its plot than from Dunn’s sophisticated wit, social commentary, and sharp eye for how single people of both sexes rationalize their actions. The novel abounds with lines that are amusing or perceptive or both. One involves the its Craigslist-surrogate: “The thing Leonard liked about LukesPlace was that you didn’t have to be altogether on your game and yet you could still have sex with perfect strangers.” When a man asks Holly if she wrote “chick lit,” she responds, “I wrote the entire thing in lipstick, actually.” No one should confuse Secrets to Happiness with a book that might as well be sold at cosmetics counters.

Best line: “Betsy Silverstein was only half Jewish, but with Betsy, half was plenty.”

Worst line: “She pressed on like a trooper.” The word is “trouper.”

Recommended if … you’ve wonder, “Where are the novels about single women that aren’t mainly about shoes?” (though The Big Love offers a better introduction to Dunn’s work).

Published: March 2009

About the author: Dunn has written for Murphy Brown and other television shows. A post about The Big Love appeared on this site on Feb. 14, 2007.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 30, 2009

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

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“Happiness is above all a combination of harmony and the absence of sorrow.”
From Yoritomo-Tashi’s Common Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved. and

June 30, 2008

‘The Paradox of Choice’ – Can Having Too Many Choices Make You Unhappy? — Quote of the Day (Barry Schwartz via Jim Sollisch)

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:34 am
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Does having too many choices make us less happy? Jim Sollisch had an interesting comment on Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (HarperPerennial, 2005) in an op-ed page piece in the Wall Street Journal

“Barry Schwartz, a social scientist at Swarthmore, makes the case in his book The Paradox of Choice that that unlimited choice produces genuine suffering. The more choices we have to make, the less certainty we seem to have. When we have 285 kinds of cookies to choose from in the grocery store, how can we be sure we’ve picked the right one? And that’s just cookies. When faced with seemingly unlimited choices that have significant consequences like which stocks to invest in, which career to pursue or even which person to marry, many people become what Professor Schwartz calls ‘maximizers’: people who relentlessly search for the best option. These people spend a great deal of time and energy on choices that will never satisfy them.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 11, 2007

Wendy Swallow’s Memoirs of Divorce and Remarriage

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:10 am
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A writer and mother of two sons conquers some of her fears of life in the single lane

Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce. By Wendy Swallow. Hyperion/Theia, 293 pp., $29.95.

The Triumph of Love Over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. By Wendy Swallow Hyperion/Theia, 304 pp. $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

You could easily conclude from Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir of life after divorce, Eat, Pray, Love, that the best way to recuperate from a failed marriage is to run off Bali and have so much sex with your island lover that you get a bladder infection. Perhaps for Gilbert it was.

But who speaks for the newly single women who struggle to come up with $5.99 for a Christmas tree for their children? One answer is: Wendy Swallow, a former reporter for the Washington Post, who has written perhaps the best memoir of the decade about the collapse of a marriage.

Breaking Apart is a beautifully written account of social, emotional and professional effects of divorce on a mother of two boys, then ages 3 and 5, who was so frightened of going public with her separation that “it took me months to build up the courage to tell my parents.” A typically poignant moment occurs when Swallow picks her younger son up after his first overnight stay with his father and he is so amazed to see her that he cries, “You came back!” Swallow also writes with scathing candor about dating after divorce, including her experiences with older men – in their late 50s or early 60s – who had raised families and now wanted to have fun:

“With many of these men I felt as if I could have been just about anybody, as long as I was attractive and witty, because it was never about me. I often felt like a prop in a play – their play. I was perfect for them, they said, without ever asking if they were perfect for me.”

The sequel to Breaking Apart is a disappointment. Swallow’s second marriage involved unexpected problems – for her and for her new stepfamily – and her premature memoir of it has much less clarity and authority than her first book. Remarriage, she says, “destabilized” her sense of herself. It also destabilized her writing. Instead of offering the consistently original thought of Breaking Apart, she pads The Triumph of Love Over Experience with research and quotes from the sort of experts who appear regularly in pop psychological books and articles. Some of what she says is interesting:

“In first marriages, sociologists have found, happiness flows the parents to the kids. If the parents are happy, the children tend to be happy. But in remarriage, it’s the other way around: Happiness flows from the kids to parents … Unhappy children are, in fact, the biggest risk factor in whether a stepfamily makes it or not.”

But this kind of material is available elesewhere. And often The Triumph of Love Over Experience simply regurgitates therapeutic clichés, such as that “the key to sanity is letting go of those things you can’t control and focusing on those you can.” That may be true. But if you search for “control what you can control,” Google returns more than a half-billion pages. So while Breaking Apart transcends the subject of divorce, The Triumph of Love Over Experience has a much narrower appeal. At the end of the book, Swallow still seems to be wrestling with so many problems that she leaves you wondering if that word “triumph” in the title wasn’t intended, in part, ironically.

Best line: The first line of Breaking Apart: “As a fantasy, divorce has a lot to recommend it.”

Worst Line: In The Triumph of Love Over Experience, Swallow buys so heavily into the jargon of pop psychology that instead of admitting that things are a pretty much of a mess, she keeps using cloying euphemisms like: It was “challenging,” “it was a challenge,” and “that would be a challenge.”

Editor: Leigh Haber

Published: April 2001 (Breaking Apart), June 2004 (The Triumph of Love Over Experience).


Furthermore: The new The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce (Warner, $24.99), edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand, deals with some of the same topics as Swallow’s books. This collection of original essays about make-or-break moments in marriages contains work by female authors who include Terry McMillan, Joyce Maynard and Martha McPhee.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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