Book World

Self-Help Advice: Some to Use, Some to Lose

By Susan Adams
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 4, 2007

The best self-help books offer considered, useful solutions to life's problems, presented in an accessible, entertaining format. They tap into a need in the zeitgeist for inner meaning, for purpose, for love. But this is precarious territory. The line between obvious pablum and truly helpful instruction can blur. Literary pitfalls lie at every turn. The tone has to be just right: supportive rather than scolding, helpful instead of patronizing. Let's examine a few, shall we?

Sandra Magsamen's Living Artfully: Create the Life You Imagine (Free Press, $25) comes precariously close to the trite and the obvious. Exhorting readers to find joy and inspiration in life's mundane details, she advocates small acts of kindness, such as helping an elderly neighbor to the bus stop or setting a fresh bouquet of flowers in a common area at the office.

Sprinkled throughout are pages of bulleted ideas, including lists for the special people in your life, for special occasions and for holidays. For Easter, she suggests, have kids hunt for bottles of bubbles instead of eggs, and then "have them fill the air with magic as they find each one."

Every few pages she serves up an encouraging aphorism in big, handwritten script. A sample: "We each leave our mark on the world every moment of every day through the choices we make and the actions we take."

It would seem churlish to deride Magsamen's plea for more creativity and kindness. But any reader with critical faculties intact will have a tough time stomaching such lines as "by celebrating yourself, you are valuing and nurturing the unique gifts that make you special."

Those allergic to the pat and the mushy best steer clear of this feel-good volume.

The Grown-Up Girl's Guide to Style: A Maintenance Bible for Fashion, Beauty and More . . . (Regan, $34.95) is for the middle-aged woman who realizes her look may not suit her stage in life. This is a straightforward how-to handbook, full of sassy, direct advice, humorously presented don'ts and glossy photos. The author, veteran TV lifestyle and fashion reporter Christine Schwab, helpfully uses herself as an example of someone who has racked up her share of fashion violations.

Schwab's message: Act and dress your age, cover bulges and blemishes, and take the best possible care of your aging assets. With plenty of detail and a dash of comedy, Schwab lays out exactly how this is done. To be sure, the author could have condensed her message. But then readers wouldn't get to ogle photos of Mary Tyler Moore's cleavage mistake or Phylicia Rashad's fabulous earrings.

And here's a tip most middle-aged women probably have never considered: Don't wear leather. Though it can make you feel young and hip, Schwab advises, worn by the face, leather is cold and hard. "We look so much better with delicious fabrics by our faces and on our bodies," she writes.

You Didn't Hear It From Us: Two Bartenders Serve Women the Truth About Men, Making an Impression, and Getting What You Want (Atria, $19.95) purports to give women the inside scoop on picking up nice guys in bars. Authors Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas have spent a combined 15 years in the cocktail business as co-owners of a boite called Employees Only in Manhattan. They've kept their ears to the barstool and claim to have absorbed the most salient aspects of male-female interaction.

Some of the advice is sound and common-sensical: Smile a lot, don't feel like you have to fill the void with empty conversation, remember that most single people feel awkward when they walk into a bar alone.

Unfortunately, this thin tome doesn't go much beyond what everyone already knows. Want to figure out what kind of man a guy is by the drink he orders? If it's champagne, "he's out to impress or he's celebrating something." Beer? "He's a regular guy not out to get hammered." Who thinks this is news?

A few recipes are included, but how that helps a woman land a nice guy is not made clear. This book is harmless enough, but it fails to deliver on its promise to reveal hidden truths that will help women get what they want.

Keep It Together: 200+ Tips, Tricks, Lists, and Solutions for Everyday Life by Kirsten Lagatree (Random House Reference, $16.95) is a kind of "Hints From Heloise" writ large. In 414 pages, Lagatree, the author of such how-to titles as "Feng Shui at Work," tackles topics as varied as car repair and repotting plants.

Her attempt to condense every piece of advice anyone will ever need into one paperback volume may seem admirable, but Lagatree's efforts suffer from covering too much territory with too little detail. Who doesn't know that thank-you notes should be written in a timely manner? That you should lock your door when staying in a hotel?

Lagatree includes a promising section on hailing cabs in Tokyo, Paris, London and Moscow. Alas, all we learn is that Tokyo cabbies are unlikely to speak English; in Paris, a taxi stand is a good idea; London cabbies know their way around; and in Moscow, you should collect your luggage before paying the fare. In other words, use common sense -- decent advice, but not the kind you need from self-help books.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company