ORDINARY GRACE

AN EXAMINATION OF THE ROOTS OF COMPASSION, ALTRUISM AND EMPATHY, AND THE ORDINARY INDIVIDUALS WHO HELP OTHERS IN EXTRAORDINARY WAYS

A heartening inquiry into why ordinary folks routinely go the second mile for others, by clinical psychologist Brehony (Awakening at Midlife: Realizing Your Potential for Growth and Change, 1996). What causes altruism in some people? Is it nature or nurture? The author makes a strong case for nature here, drawing from research on newborns and primates to argue for an innate, biologically based compassion. Such instincts are either reinforced or quelled by life experiences, though Brehony says that in some people, even truly horrifying childhood traumas only intensify the impulse to be kind to others. The quiet strength of this book lies in its storytelling, as Brehony draws upon field research, follows up on media stories, or even employs members of her own family to demonstrate that people can and do carry out tremendously empathic actions every day. We meet a New Jersey couple who have adopted four HIV-positive Romanian orphans, and a doctor who sacrifices all of his free time to procuring computers so that terminally ill children can communicate with one another in cyberspace. Brehony devotes a whole chapter to organ donation, describing incidents with both deceased and living donors (in two instances, people felt moved to donate a kidney to a casual friend). Another chapter explores how a couple who lost their child to a degenerative illness raised tens of thousands of dollars to design and build a “wheelchair-friendly” playground where all kids can play together, regardless of physical ability. Brehony writes that those who exhibit this kind of “ordinary grace” classically show an optimism about the fundamental goodness of humanity (“Anyone would do what I did”), as well as a conviction that they are the ones who have been blessed by the giving. A restorative tonic, more than mere chicken soup for the soul—because it may well inspire readers to go out and do something good for somebody.

Pub Date: March 8, 1999

ISBN: 1-57322-108-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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