Tried & Tested: Life on the Shelf

Are you resolved to improve your life? Well, perhaps one of the myriad of self-help books will help your quest
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The Independent Culture
Feeling stressed? Low in self-esteem? Bowed down by illness or lack of career success? It's your own fault, according to the self-help gurus we consulted in our search for a life-changing tome for the New Year. You could and should do better: it's simply a matter of following programmes of self-affirmation, positive thinking, diet and alternative therapies as prescribed in our representative selection of self-help books.

THE PANEL

Our team of testers were consultant psychologist Craig Newnes, chartered psychologist Donald Hudd, merchant banker and self-confessed "self-help- book Junkie" Sian Oram, Jungian analyst Holly Irvine and myself, sometime plunderer of such texts for women's magazine articles.

THE TEST

Taking into consideration each book's potential effectiveness as a life- changer, its store of information and readability, we were consistent in our individual assessments and have to report - aside from our winning book - a literary trail of half-baked theories, authorial arrogance and hilariously bad prose. Although Craig Newnes added: "Someone, somewhere, will get something from some of these books"

*'You Can Heal Your Life'

Louise L Hay, Eden Grove Editions pounds 8.99

"Absurd and dangerous," was Donald Hudd's view of this bestselling programme. Like many self-appointed gurus in this field, the author derives a simple lesson from her own experiences. Having recovered from cancer, she now believes "We create every so-called illness in our body." As Craig Newnes says, "Some of my counsellors are happy to recommend the Hay book, even though her list of body-healing thoughts takes some swallowing. I have clients who have abdominal cramps because they rightly suspect their husbands might beat them up. Hay's thought-solution for such fears? `I trust the process of life. I am safe."' Sian Oram confirmed she found the affirmations prescribed "irritating beyond belief - and it's only half a book, because the back end is all lists and appendices." But the lists - detailing health problems, their probable causes and the "new thought pattern" which will cure them - provided the most entertainment. Galling though it may be to read that your bunions are from "Lack of joy in meeting the experiences of life," it's astonishing how apposite the diagnoses seem to be for other people. Your colleague's stiff neck, for example, signifies "Refusal to see other sides of a question. Stubbornness, inflexibility." Quite.

**'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus'

John Gray, Harper Collins pounds 8.99

Having ascertained that there are differences in communication style, emotional needs and behaviour between men and women, Gray has invented the titular analogy and proceeds to extend it ad nauseum to situations in which those differences lead to misunderstandings. Its problem for British readers is that the psycho-babble masquerading as conversational case studies, sounds as though the interlocutors come from outer space, or at least the frames of a Biff cartoon. To be fair, many of Holly Irvine's friends admitted to recognising the gender traits portrayed, "but they all hated the book. It's so patronising." Craig Newnes noted that it "falls into the modern trap of assuming that a relationship should be for each other rather than, say, to raise a family or take on the world, and it also seems heterosexist."

**'The Which? Guide to Managing Stress'

Mark Greener, pounds 9.99

Despite its title, Greener's book is a workmanlike and comprehensive guide to stress and stress-related disorders. It is not really a guide to managing stress, as Holly Irvine complained. Significantly, the author is a pharmacologist by training and, as Craig Newnes remarked drily, the guide "includes a conservative chapter on mental illness which won't upset any drug companies (or their profits)." Full of statistics and renditions of personal tragedies, it reads like a news report, and Sian Oram said "It was so boring I couldn't bring myself to read it." Donald Hudd recognised that this book makes "a useful introduction to stress, but it oversimplifies and fails to help the reader identify specific causes."

*****'Dorothy Rowe's Guide to Life'

Harper Collins pounds 7.99

Though not unanimous, the choice of Dorothy Rowe's book as the winner in our selection, reflected the panel's approval of her original thinking, clear prose and genuine wisdom. Though called a Guide to Life, it benefits by not being a self-help book as such; it is a brave philosophical treatise which offers readers a new way of looking at the world and includes a bibliography of the author's other books as further comfort. Sian Oram resented this self-publicity, but Craig Newnes insisted that "She is the only writer here who connects with a sense of distress." Taking responsibility for ourselves is crucial to a more fulfilling existence, but Rowe also takes account of external factors such as unemployment, loss, and death - facts of life which will never be swept away by standing in front of the mirror and repeating the now seminal affirmation, "Every day in every way I grow better and better."

***'Sex for Dummies'

Dr Ruth, IDG pounds 15.99

"Full of information, straight talk and generalisations disguised as wisdom, I would use Dr Ruth's book as a kind of encyclopaedia of sex, but, irony of ironies, don't find it stimulating in the least," said Craig Newnes, summing up this hefty paperback by New York's most famous Jewish grandmother and agony aunt. It has jolly icons in the margin denoting which tips are "hot stuff", but as a list of surprising and sexy things to do with your partner includes tos- sing onion rings over his member, you can imagine how many of those tips are really practical. "Not exactly The Joy of Sex for the Nineties, is it?" wrote a perplexed (and disappointed) Holly Irvine, while Donald Hudd thought that "Teenagers might find it useful to take them beyond the missionary position." There is certainly plenty of covert moralising about monogamy and safer sex, which will please parents, but Sian Oram protested that too much space was devoted to irrelevancies like "how to prepare for a romantic trip", while only three lines were dedicated to subjects of interest to younger readers, like masturbation.

*'Born to Succeed'

Colin Turner, Element Books pounds 4.99

This book was Sian Oram's overall favourite, since she found it "clear and concise, well-structured and learned" - a view utterly at variance with those of the rest of the panel. Though its stated aim is to assist the reader in the "continuous accomplishment of planned objectives," Born to Succeed is no better than a get-rich-quick campaign comprising what Donald Hudd described as "a mish-mash of goal setting, self-affirmation, conditioning and success stories." Its author is an ex-property developer whose business failures are cited as examples of courage in adversity, and his sample goals list includes "double your earnings, open a restaurant, buy a Bentley, join a health club, take part in the Olympics" - all ambitions which most of Craig Newnes' clients would, he says, find "extraordinary". "It's all rather tragically and puritanically positive," was Newnes' assessment. For those readers who prefer to concentrate on reality, however, there are useful tips. Supposing your goal involved making 10 phone calls; each time you make a call, Turner suggests you should move a paper clip from the left side of your desk to the right. When you have moved 10, you can reward yourself with a cup of coffee. Alternatively, if you find yourself engaged in this sort of mind-numbing fatuousness, you could consider slashing your wrists now before things get any worse.

*'Simple Abundance'

Sarah Ban Breathnach, Bantam Press pounds 12.99

It must be a not unwelcome irony for Ms Ban Breathnach, a former writer of reference works on Victorian domestic traditions, that the fame and fortune she alleges to despise in the introduction to her latest book has become hers through its publication. Simple Abundance is, in the words of Donald Hudd, "a soggy and sentimental collection of homilies, one for each day of the year, which comprise a guide to personal authenticity based on gathering and using the simple things of life." A handsome hardback, carrying a banner proclaiming that over a million copies have been sold in the US alone, this Day Book of Comfort and Joy may seem at first to be the antithesis of the more acquisitive, thrusting, success-obsessed works we have featured here, but further reading reveals that "Joyful simplicities for June" include "hanging a hammock" or calling for Allison Kyle Leopold's Victorian cupboard catalogue and then ordering a vintage table-top accessory. Advice for the newly unemployed extends to pouring yourself a glass of wine and also looking at the sunset. Dismissed by Craig Newnes as "appallingly twee", "Simple Abundance" is, he says, "a self-help book only to the extent Country Living is a directory of self- help paraphernalia."

`MindStore, the Ultimate Mental Fitness Programme'

Jack Black, Thorsons pounds 6.99

Quickly spotted by our experts as a peddler of positive thinking and other second-hand recipes for success derived entirely from earlier thinkers such as Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill, Jack Black, billed as "Britain's foremost motivational speaker", is an ex-social worker who runs lucrative motivational workshops for corporate executives. The book turns out to be a summary of his workshop techniques, peppered with name-dropping anecdotes and banal exhortations to write down your goals ("A man or woman without goals is rotting away"). Suspiciously, most of the people he admires seem to be golfers or salesmen. Craig Newnes felt the book "might suit business types who want a world of mental masturbation and success at any cost." Holly Irvine urges potential converts to bear in mind that "here is a man whose idea of creative visualisation is to picture an imaginary screen enveloping him to the tune of Thunderbirds, sealing him off from all negativity." To save you pounds 6.99, this is how to think positive a la Black: instead of saying "problem", say "challenge"; for "I forget" say "I will remember shortly"; and for "It's freezing", try uttering "It could be warmer". !

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