A highly readable history.




A comprehensive, humorous, and insightful history of man’s sycophantic behavior.

Time editor Stengel (January Sun, 1990) directs his account to the “perfect, gentle reader” (i.e., you and me) and declares that he has an “emotional gratuity” for reviewers. That’s a point or two in his favor, of course. While he takes the subject seriously, his underlying tone is often facetious, and he is aware of the vulnerability of most of us to the victimless crime of brownnosing. In fact, that is his whole point. Stengel’s study is structured as a recap of human history, paying particular attention to the power struggles that provoke flattery. He begins with a prehistoric study of the fur-smoothing, flattening (thus flattering) rituals of our social-climbing simian forebears. Stengel deems much religious ritual to be a form of bribery or flattery, while ancient idolatrous art is defined as court propaganda or spin. By New Testament times, Stengel sees Christ’s golden rule as a utilitarian invitation for the kind of mutual socialization that supports flattery. Aristophanes becomes Stengel’s early critic of demagoguery and its accompanying abuse of flattery, but the highly stratified Roman society of late antiquity only elevates this toadyism (and Stengel reproduces Plutarch’s guide for spotting apple-polishers). Well past classical times, the author follows flattery’s major role in the sparring between sexes as well as the social classes. He then makes an elaborate case for the 12th-century troubadours as the true founders of the Romantic sweet-talk that still dominates our culture. Castiglione, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Lord Chesterfield, and Shakespeare’s Iago are among the thinkers considered in pre-modern times. As Stengel moves on to the nonaristocratic New World (“flattery in America was seen as unmanly”), we are introduced to self-reliant men like Emerson who declare independence and immunity from puffery. Nevertheless, Andrew Carnegie made friends and influenced people with flattery. Stengel even describes the Friar’s Roast as an ironic form of flattery.

A highly readable history.

Pub Date: June 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-684-85491-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2000

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Dramatic, immersive, and wanting—much like desire itself.


Based on eight years of reporting and thousands of hours of interaction, a journalist chronicles the inner worlds of three women’s erotic desires.

In her dramatic debut about “what longing in America looks like,” Taddeo, who has contributed to Esquire, Elle, and other publications, follows the sex lives of three American women. On the surface, each woman’s story could be a soap opera. There’s Maggie, a teenager engaged in a secret relationship with her high school teacher; Lina, a housewife consumed by a torrid affair with an old flame; and Sloane, a wealthy restaurateur encouraged by her husband to sleep with other people while he watches. Instead of sensationalizing, the author illuminates Maggie’s, Lina’s, and Sloane’s erotic experiences in the context of their human complexities and personal histories, revealing deeper wounds and emotional yearnings. Lina’s infidelity was driven by a decade of her husband’s romantic and sexual refusal despite marriage counseling and Lina's pleading. Sloane’s Fifty Shades of Grey–like lifestyle seems far less exotic when readers learn that she has felt pressured to perform for her husband's pleasure. Taddeo’s coverage is at its most nuanced when she chronicles Maggie’s decision to go to the authorities a few years after her traumatic tryst. Recounting the subsequent trial against Maggie’s abuser, the author honors the triumph of Maggie’s courageous vulnerability as well as the devastating ramifications of her community’s disbelief. Unfortunately, this book on “female desire” conspicuously omits any meaningful discussion of social identities beyond gender and class; only in the epilogue does Taddeo mention race and its impacts on women's experiences with sex and longing. Such oversight brings a palpable white gaze to the narrative. Compounded by the author’s occasionally lackluster prose, the book’s flaws compete with its meaningful contribution to #MeToo–era reporting.

Dramatic, immersive, and wanting—much like desire itself.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4516-4229-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Avid Reader Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

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However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.


Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative which retrieves her first sixteen years from "the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood."

Her story is told in scenes, ineluctably moving scenes, from the time when she and her brother were sent by her fancy living parents to Stamps, Arkansas, and a grandmother who had the local Store. Displaced they were and "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." But alternating with all the pain and terror (her rape at the age of eight when in St. Louis With her mother) and humiliation (a brief spell in the kitchen of a white woman who refused to remember her name) and fear (of a lynching—and the time they buried afflicted Uncle Willie under a blanket of vegetables) as well as all the unanswered and unanswerable questions, there are affirmative memories and moments: her charming brother Bailey; her own "unshakable God"; a revival meeting in a tent; her 8th grade graduation; and at the end, when she's sixteen, the birth of a baby. Times When as she says "It seemed that the peace of a day's ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect."

However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1969

ISBN: 0375507892

Page Count: 235

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1969

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