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Self-Help / Relationships

  • Idea: What’s wrong with just wanting a quietly fulfilling life rather than limitless accomplishment and success? Absolutely nothing, Pierce suggests in this compassionate and thoughtful guidebook. Pierce encourages readers to think differently about their wants and needs rather than buying into platitudes relating to outmoded definitions of achievement.

    Prose: Pierce’s prose is warm, yet authoritative, as she both draws from her professional and personal experiences, and provides intriguing reflections on what it means to be a woman who embraces selfhood over climbing the corporate ladder.

    OriginalityLeaning Out is truly refreshing in its focus on redefining happiness and fulfillment for modern women.

    Character/Execution: Pierce will be strongly relatable to her core readership. Women who have found themselves at odds with societal (and even self-driven) expectations and their true desires, may breathe a sigh of relief that they are not alone.

  • Idea: Keltner, a psychotherapist, takes an intriguingly philosophical approach to mental health and human perception.

    Prose: Check Your Reality features sophisticated, polished prose that echoes the work’s frequent literary and psychological references. If at times overly formal, readers who have an intellectual interest in their personal psychology, will embrace Keltner’s style.

    Originality: Highly original, Check Your Reality combines exploratory content with more concrete tools relating to acknowledging distorted and destructive thinking patterns.

    Character/Execution: Rather than rely exclusively on examples from his practice, Keltner takes an allegorical approach. The result is a more story-driven work that encourages readers to think holistically about their mental well-being and understanding of the world around them.

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    Plot: Christian de la Huerta's Awakening the Soul of Power asks readers to aspire to a unique form of heroism of his own invention: By understanding and exercising control over our egos, he argues, we can liberate ourselves from "self-made prisons of fear and limitation," change our relationship to power, upend our backwards ideas of masculinity, and learn to practice gratitude, trust, vulnerability, and other virtues. De la Huerta's book, the first in a projected trilogy on the topic of contemporary heroism, stands out from other self-improvement titles in its thoroughness, clarity, originality, and its challenges to traditional ideas of success or heroism. Here, heroism is not defined in terms of masculine strength or market success. Instead, it is about healing, soulfulness, and an interest in the collective good. De la Huerta breaks down, in detailed but accessible chapters, novel approaches to thinking about our egos, our relationships to power, and the limitations of misogyny or homophobia. With witty maps, illustrations, and references, he links his coaching to Joseph Campbell's idea of a hero's journey, and to fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings or Avatar; his own anecdotes tend to be illuminating and compelling.

    Prose/Style: De la Huerta's prose is clear, engaging, and sincere, with memorable examples illustrating his ideas and precepts. His "Power Practices" sections at the end of each chapter offer provocative exercises to guide readers' thinking. Sometimes he wanders down rabbit holes without making clear to readers that it would be edifying for them to follow, such as his occasional plot summaries of recent Star Wars movies. Passages of reminiscence or of political opining are written with a welcome passion that makes some other passages feel flat by comparison.

    Originality: While it inevitably shares some ideas with other books in its crowded field, De la Huerta's text bursts with original thinking. The author eschews received wisdom and instead offers unique definitions, precepts, challenges, and hope to his readers. His emphasis on a greater good beyond the self is stirring – a welcome break with the fundamental self-centeredness of much of this genre.

    Character Development/Execution: Well-written, public-spirited, original in its thinking and examples, and progressive in its arguments, this book stands as a welcome addition to any self-improvement library, despite its occasional overreliance on Star Wars plot summaries.

    Blurb: Christian de la Huerta's Awakening the Soul of Power challenges readers to strive to embody a new type of heroism in their lives, a selflessness that begins by targeting the destructive force of the ego. De la Huerta's program is humane and heartening and laid out in clear, practical steps. Here's a work of self-improvement that dares look beyond the self to our impacts on each other, on society, and on our planet. 

  • Idea: Honeycutt, the creator of the Grammar Guy column, offers a charming and enjoyable collection of brief essays that suggest how mastery of grammar can lead to feats of personal achievement.

    Prose: Honeycutt invites readers in through his amusing, sometimes trite, appealingly self-depreciating style of writing.

    Originality: Wholly unique and great fun, Good Grammar Is the Life of the Party presents a typically less-than sexy topic in a manner that’s entertaining, quirky, and informative.

    Character/Execution: This book covers the principals of good grammar through amusing anecdotes, lessons, and silly examples, proving that grammar need not be stuffy—and that it is possible to be a grammarian without being one of ‘Those People.’

  • Post-Traumatic Growth

    by BRENDA T UNGERLAND

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: Brenda Ungerland's Post-Tramuatic Growth stands out from the pack as a sober, thorough guide to the process of rebuilding a life after the experience of trauma. The author lays out seven stages of what she calls a "blueprint for transformational change"; inspired by Elisabeth Kubler Ross's stages of grieving, Ungerland's guide to recovering after trauma is frank about the onerousness of breaking down, breaking through, and breaking debilitative habits, but also hopeful, making persuasive promises like "Unraveling actually is very good news." Ungerland offers challenges and exercises crafted to help readers currently at any stage of her process take stock, face truths, and ask themselves tough questions. She draws on neuroscience, psychology, and various mindfulness techniques and illustrates her stages with narratives from real-life case studies and many well-selected excerpts from the work of poets like Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Marge Piercy, and more.

    Prose/Style: Ungerland's interest in poetry will not surprise readers, as her prose is rich, emotive, tender, and somewhat complex. The sentences here often run long, but the author is a strong enough writer to keep meaning and emphasis clear even over multiple clauses and lines. That said, Ungerland is more clear when laying out the broad sweep of her transformative stages than when breaking down actual steps people can take, which at times she renders vaguely. She quotes writing worth quoting, and she's clear when summarizing principles of science and philosophy. Her tone is encouraging and highly rational; when discussing, say, the plasticity of our neural connections, she avoids the common tendency of many authors of self-help books to over-promise readers about the level of control they can exercises over their own brains. The case studies she has assembled to illustrate her transformative stages are independently interesting, but at times they take over the book.

    Originality: While Ungerland draws deeply from earlier works, as the helpful index indicates, she has assembled her research in the unique and helpful form of her seven stages, and she guides readers through it with fresh insights and persuasive power.

    Character Development/Execution: Ungerland's original stages are a welcome contribution to the literature of trauma recovery, and she explains the process to readers with compassion and honesty. The case studies at times go on for more pages than readers are likely to prefer, though.

  • Ask: How to Relate to Anyone

    by Daniel R. Solin

    Rating: 8.25

    Idea: Solin pens a clear, prescriptive nonfiction book focused on how asking the right questions and listening to the answers can lead to better problem solving. 

    Prose: The writing is abundantly clear and filled with warmth. 

    Originality:  The author's suggestion that success and happiness have much to do with how we listen to, communicate with, and validate others, is at once intuitive and entirely novel. Solin's approach to self-improvement is wise, compassionate, and necessary, while many of the suggestions made (sometimes high self-confidence can be a detriment), are enlightening.

    Character/Execution: Through its unique approach and welcoming tone, Solin will readily connect with readers--effectively practicing what he preaches. While the work presents an intriguing framing concept and actionable tools for readers, it may benefit from updated references and sources in order to make it more contemporary and immediate.

    Blurb: This engaging book is an encouraging, enthusiastic guide to gaining admiration, business--and happiness--by not just asking questions, but asking the right questions. 

  • Plot: Burton's The Secret to Everything: How to Live More and Suffer Less quite promisingly pairs up disciplined philosophical inquiry with practical self-help advice, drawing "7 Tips for Being More in the Moment" and "5 Ways to Explore Your Darker Side" from the work of Kant, Hume, Sartre,  Cicero, and Camus rather than from inspiration mainstays like Norman Vincent Peale. The title's promise that the book will divulge one singular secret that will improve readers' lives makes for a strong hook, and the author, a philosopher himself, memorably teases that idea in the introduction. He asks readers to work out for themselves, as they read, what the "secret" tying all his chapters together actually is, and only in the book's conclusion, "The Secret to Everything," does he lay it out himself. While it's clever to demand and reward reader engagement that way, the risk is that this leaves readers to identify why the individual chapters cover the subjects that they choose or how a chapter focused on Dionysian orgies connects to the next, which covers self-deception.

    Prose/Style: Burton's prose is polished, stylish, inviting, and clear, even as he examines fallacies, phenomenology, or existential anxiety. He boils complex ideas down to their essences, and he's adept at guiding readers to challenging conclusions. He shrewdly balances philosophical inquiry and how-to-live advice. He's so committed to concision that at times his chapters could benefit from more prefatory material, especially connecting the ideas of one chapter to another.

    Originality: No other work of inspirational or self-help literature contains the sentence "Let me paint you a picture of a Dionysian orgy." If another somehow did, it's difficult to imagine its author justifying its inclusion so adeptly, or then challenging readers to acknowledge and embrace what Carl Jung called our "shadow". Burton's advice and conclusions are original even when drawn from the best-known writing of the world's most famous thinkers; he advocates for idleness, phenomenology, and not being bound by the ego with persuasive power.

    Character Development/Execution: Much of Burton's thinking and advice here is memorably presented, convincingly argued, and legitimately challenging. That said, the choice to task the readers with identifying the book's throughline themselves diminishes the book's effectiveness. Rather than witness the rollout of a coherent philosophy from chapter to chapter, readers must labor to determine why individual subjects get covered and why others don't. Even after reaching the book's conclusion, and its unveiling of Burton's overarching secret, readers may well wonder why the chapter titled "How to Win" deals exclusively with the phenomenon of feeling insulted, or why so little of the book touches on interpersonal relationships, conceptions of monetary or workplace success, or other key elements of books with similar titles.

  • Plot: Impassioned and provocative, Alex Neumann's Harness the Power of the Invincible Mind at first resembles many other self-improvement books, especially those in the robust subgenre dedicated to achieving success. Neumann includes many inspiring thumbnail biographies of high-achieving individuals who faced rejection in their lives, and he asks readers questions like "Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter?" in chapters with titles like "Stop Whining. Start Thriving" and "Obstacles into Opportunities." But rather than promise, as other authors do, to guide readers to the achievement of material success, Neumann daringly questions what success means in the first place. Fascinatingly, he challenges readers to see through the "fallacy" of money-minded success and free themselves from society's mind-traps while he still offers the kind of inspiring shorthand life stories of figures like Oprah Winfrey, Susan Boyle, and J.K. Rowling common to more conventional books in his genre.

    Prose/Style: Neumann's prose, for the most part, is direct and encouraging. He shrewdly builds and arranges paragraphs to develop questions and challenge reader assumptions, and he understands the value of offering examples and re-stating his most essential ideas in multiple ways. Neumann's meanings are mostly clear throughout the book, even as the prose at times is awkward or imprecise.

    Originality: It's an inspired and original idea to marshal all the techniques of the business self-improvement book in order to argue that the idea of "market success" is dangerous and limiting.

    Character Development: Neumann's bold book is at its strongest when the author balances the traditional techniques of business self-help with his own challenging ideas and inventions. But the book could be more user-friendly – the long chapters aren't always clearly organized or differentiated, and the table of contents offers little guide to where specific material might be categorized. Neumann is adept at linking parables and mini-biographies to his arguments, but one technique he has not borrowed from self-improvement literature is the adoption of the bearing of a salesman. He presents the material, but he doesn't always sell it -- or make it easy to find.

  • How Love Wins

    by Doug Carnine

    Rating: 7.00

    Idea: A book about nurturing kindness and positive habits in oneself is a welcome change. The text is focused on how to heal within and without, and how to prioritize developing healthy, rich relationships with others.

    Prose/Style: The writing is clear and concise, without too many flourishes but not sparse either. The book is generally pleasant to read, the text flows well, and ideas are organized and easily comprehensible.

    Originality: Many books in this genre are focused on concrete changes one can make in their material life, or measurable achievements. This one is about introspection and working on one’s life from the inside out, thereby making it feel more original.

    Character Development/Execution: Short passages tell the stories of individuals touched by the principles in the book, and each is characterized well and fleshed out even in short appearances.

    Blurb: While creating enduring relationships and seeking happiness and fulfillment can seem daunting, this book breaks down the ways one can nurture positive relationships in life and prioritize kindness and mindful action. 

  • Idea: Adamo takes a unique approach to self-help through a narrative that focuses on an individual's struggles following the demise of a dysfunctional and abusive relationship.

    Prose: Reading more like a novel than a work of nonfiction, From Love Trauma to Fearless Love is genuine in tone and at times lyrical. An over-reliance on exposition and a somewhat heavy-handed tone can be at odds with the work's more organic storytelling approach.

    Originality: While the topic of escaping abuse, breaking destructive patterns, and tapping into personal resilience is often explored in the realm of self-help, the author's choice to present this work as a story is a unique one--albeit, one that may make its categorization a challenge.

    Character/Execution: Elena's vulnerability is vividly conveyed, though much of her development serves as a response to her circumstances and those individuals who have harmed her. Though the strength she finds through dancing tango is impactful, the true essence of the character is left under-examined.

  • A TREATISE OF MORALITY

    by AMIR JOY

    Rating: 5.75

    Plot: Amir Joy's A Treatise of Morality surveys philosophical discussions and understandings of morality, from ancient civilizations to Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke, to contemporaries like Sam Harris. Joy also investigates essential theories of morality, such as The Theory of Value Contents and Structure and the evolving-toward-morality argument laid out in Michael Shermer's book The Moral Arc as well as various biological and neurological findings. Bookending this opinionated examination of the field, Joy considers, in the opening and closing chapters, morality through the lens of current issues, such as COVID-19, the internment of Muslims by the Chinese government, and civil unrest over systemic racism in the United States. From this consideration of present-day issues and the history of the philosophy of morality, Joy draws his own conclusion, calling for greater understanding of each other and less judgment.

    Prose/Style: Joy's erratic word choice, uncertain punctuation, and tendency toward scathing snark make his treatise a difficult read. These qualities reduce not just the book's persuasive power but its line-to-line clarity. When discussing contemporary issues, Joy routinely derides those who think differently than him as "foolish" and "arrogant", assertions he makes before attempting to persuade readers with reason that he's right. His points of argument in these cases often are unclear due to his erratic word choice. It's difficult to evaluate the merits of the author's arguments when the text itself is so often unclear. The prose improves somewhat when Joy turns to discussing the history of morality, but there, too, the prose often lets down the ideas as unclear or uncertain word choices make many long sentences impossible to parse.

    Originality: Joy's conclusions are unique and interesting, and his tour through the great thinkers' thoughts on morality is highly original and full of surprises.

    Character Development/Execution: While Joy's ideas and arguments might be fascinating, the uncertain prose and difficult-to-follow arguments greatly diminish the book's effectiveness.

  • Explore yourself with 100+ Keys

    by Veera Surampudi

    Rating: 5.50

    Plot: Explore yourself with 100+ Keys collects dozens of the author's original precepts, arrived at over a lifetime. Each is printed as a pithy quote, presented over an image of a mountaintop. Brief, memorable, incisive quotations have long been a cornerstone of inspirational literature, and the author has fresh insights to share.

    Prose/Style: The precepts printed here have not been thoroughly edited for clarity and grammar, and many are difficult to comprehend. This is also typical for many of "Explore Yourself"’s sayings -- the text on the page too often stands as a barrier to the wisdom the author has in mind. It's unclear what lesson a reader should take from these statements. These precepts often have missing word errors, verb agreement errors and other required proofreading fixes.

    Originality: The author's precepts are original, and the ones that communicate clearly offer helpful, uncommon, sometimes challenging advice.

    Character Development/Execution: At its best, Explore Yourself offers wisdom that demands and rewards contemplation. Much of the book, though, is too garbled and uncertain in its phrasing to communicate.

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