Posts Tagged ‘Bright-Sided’

Nightstand (February 2011)

February 22nd, 2011

I feel like I’ve slid comfortably back into my reading groove this month, probably because I’ve given myself permission to ignore the internet and cleaning. So, my house may be filthy and my Google Reader rather stuffed–but my Nightstand is still moving!

Crate of library books

This month, I made it through:

Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry
Picked up while trolling the library for unfamiliar children’s fiction. Not sure exactly what I think of it. I wonder if Anastasia Krupnik, published in 1979, was the origin of brat literature for youngsters? It’s definitely not the “good kids get into scrapes because they forget/ignore the rules/common-sense while chasing a mystery” of the era prior (Think Boxcar children, Trixie Belden, etc.) Anastasia’s parents, a poet and an artist, are indulgently negligent; Anastasia is an only child, a precocious soul, and a brat. Hmmph.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
I finished it only a few days late for that wrap-up post for Carrie’s L.M. Montgomery Reading challenge.

Baby Proof by Emily Giffin
Chick lit of a different sort. She’s got the guy. Finally found someone who agrees with her about not wanting kids. And then he decides he might just want a little one. And she divorces him. She is NOT going to have kids. Decentish on the chick-lit level, a step above Bridget Jones and Shopaholic, but still far from meaningful.

Bright-sided : how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Possibly the first book to ever merit zero stars in my highly subjective rating system. It could have been a good book, if Ehrenreich had kept her socio-political agenda out of it. But I think that’s one hope that I’ve just got to let die. She can’t do it.

Composting by Liz Ball
Yes. I read about composting. I compost in my backyard. I used to have composting worms under my sink. And I catch the humor in discussing a “hot pile” just a little too late to keep me from seriously explaining how the ratio of carbon to nitrogen effects the heat of said piles. I’m glad the Bible study gals (and John) are willing to accept me, quirks and all!

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
You know those books that just suck you in and demand that you keep reading until all hours of the morning? The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is one of those. It’s all about how one choice changed a whole family, rippled out to affect whole communities. It’s a terrific story. This book originally went on my TBR list based on Colloquium’s review.

Warsaw Requiem and London Refrain by Bodie Thoene
My love affair with these books continues. It’s probably a good thing that I’ve forced some balance into my reading diet by giving myself a rubric for checking things out. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’d be reading these and only these until I’m through to the end!

Wasteland by Francesca Lia Block
Easily the weirdest book I’ve ever read. Written in first person stream of consciousness from three different characters perspective, this novel explores a brother and sister who struggle against a growing attraction for one another before, finally, the brother commits suicide. The plot is weird, the writing style is weird, the imagery within is weird. It’s just a weird book. Billed as YA, this is nothing I’ll be recommending to any of my “young adult” (read “teenage”) friends.

18 (at least) Children’s Picture Books author name BA-BASE
Unlike Carrie’s reading challenge, where she skips any books that aren’t at the library when she and her family goes, my challenge means I have to actually read EVERY book in my no-longer-local branch. So I’ve been playing catch up, filling in those missing books I didn’t read during my first pass.

Pile of books I'm in the middle of

With four weeks left on this last trip’s library haul, I’ve got a stack I’m in the middle of…

  • Confessions by St. Augustine
  • The factastic book of 1001 lists by Russell Ash
  • Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton
  • The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister and Phyllis Tickle
  • The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges
  • The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

And a stack in the wings for when I’m done with those!

Still to be read books

Don’t forget to drop by 5 Minutes 4 Books to see what others are reading this month!

What's on Your Nightstand?

Book Review: “Bright-Sided” by Barbara Ehrenreich

February 7th, 2011

Half-full or half-empty?

The perennial question has always puzzled me.

Which one exactly is supposed to mean optimism?

Is it better to have fullness, even if the fullness is not complete–or is it better to know that one does not have complete emptyness?

But however difficult I find it to determine the optimistic choice, it’s not hard to figure out which one is the right choice.

The optimistic choice is the right choice.

Of course.

Or at least, so says our culture–where optimism is considered a virtue and negativity a sin.

But what’s so great about optimism? And is negativity really as bad as it’s made out to be?

Barbara Ehrenreich explores these questions in her Bright-Side: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America.

As is apparent from the title, Ehrenreich is not convinced that positivity is the answer to all life’s ails. In fact, she’s willing to blame positive thinking for any number of societal ills.

Ehrenreich begins her narrative with her own story of being a breast cancer victim who was overwhelmed and put-off by how the breast cancer machine (the activism groups, support groups, online discussion boards, awareness campaigns, etc.) pushed positivity into everything, as though breast cancer were a rite of initiation to be celebrated rather than a disease to be mourned over.

She moves quickly from this personal story to tell the story of self-help industries built around positive thinking: success coaching and prosperity preaching in particular.

According to Ehrenreich, positive thinking as a philosophy was a reaction against the Calvinism of early America–which Ehrenreich describes as “a system of socially imposed depression.” Apparently, “the focus on happiness [was] itself an implicit reproach to Calvinism.” So, thinkers like Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science) and Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (founder of the New Thought movement) reacted to the harsh strictures of their upbringing by pushing for happiness. Enter positive thinking.

The problem with positive thinking, to hear Ehrenreich explain it, is that positive thinking borrowed too much from Calvinism’s work ethic and sense of sin. While Calvinism used work to escape the evils of this world, positive thinking made positivity into the “work” that allows one to escape the “sin” of negativity.

Looking back, I’m kind of amazed that I finished this book. Ehrenreich’s complete and utter lack of understanding of Calvinism, particularly American Puritan Calvinism is laughable. Her portrayal of Puritan America is unjust.

However, her portrayal of the sugary-sweet positivity that has seeped into American churches and corporations is often spot on.

Her critiques of the supposed “science” of happiness are straightforward and worth considering. (The weakness of the correlational studies which “prove” that positive thinking leads to any number of positive health or lifestyle outcomes, the pseudoscientific nature of the “equations” set to describe positivity’s effect, the lack of attention paid to studies which support the null hypothesis, etc.)

In general, I think I agree with Ehrenreich’s conclusion: It is better to see the world as it truly is rather than to see it through rose-tinted glasses of “positivity” (or the dirty lenses of pessimism, for that matter).

What I don’t agree with is, well, everything else Ehrenreich says. In addition to vilifying our Protestant forebearers and criticizing those who seek silver linings in clouds like breast cancer or layoffs, Ehrenrich takes the opportunity to jump on her favorite hobby-horse: poverty. According to Ehrenreich, poverty is the result of positive thinking’s insistence on a free-market economy; but “positive thinkers” put down those in poverty as being there because they just don’t think positively enough. To hear Ehrenreich describe it, it’s a vicious cycle that pretty much destroys everyone–except those evil robber barons in the top x% of the American economy, who trample all over the little people…

Ad nauseum.

Anyway, this could have been a good book. It’s certainly a fascinating topic. But Ehrenreich’s biases make it just another “complain about conservatives and scream that the sky is falling” story.

Just like everything Ehrenreich writes.

Someday, I’m going to wise up and stop hoping that she’ll break out of her ideological narrowness. Until then, I guess I’ll just have to settle with writing rather pessimistic reviews of her books.

Sorry to be a downer.


Rating: 0 stars
Category:Optimism? Journalism? Pseudo-political commentary?
Synopsis:Ehrenreich briefly refutes the cult of positive thinking–and then complains for a good long time about the condition of America and how things are getting worse rather than better and…
Recommendation: Yeah. Not sure I really need to say anything more than I’ve already said. I’m not recommending this one.


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