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Wednesday, 12 September 2012 12:51

As fall nears, let’s clear the clutter

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bookBy early September in these mountains the markers of autumn are very much with us. The cool nights diminish the whirring of air-conditioners; the raucous August chorus of tree frogs and crickets softens its music; a few stray leaves on the lawn remind us to have the furnace inspected or the chimneys cleaned. For many of us, the fall brings a heightened sense of bustle and purpose, quickening our blood and rousing us to ambitions muted by summer’s more languorous pace.

In my own case, one small ambition involves reducing the pile of books for review resting on my desk. Here are some trifles read over the past six weeks: two best-selling thrillers and two books of social commentary.

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Brad Thor’s novels, Blowback and Full Black, part of his best-selling line of books about former Seal Team 6 member Scot Harvath and his battles against enemies of the United States, stand a cut above many thrillers in their use of detail and in Thor’s willingness to caricature public figures. In Full Black, for example, the evil James Standing with his elaborate plans to reduce the United States to a third-world country, is clearly based on George Soros. Harvath, who relentlessly pursues his enemies — the guy has an iron bladder and little need for sleep — is somewhat unusual among action heroes in that he openly and proudly professes his love of country. Harvath is also a relentless critic of government expansion, though readers cannot fail to notice that he has spent his adult life either working for the federal government or for agencies hired by the government. Thor’s novels about Harvath are buttered-popcorn books: tasty, mindlessly consumed, empty of nutrition, easily digested, read in August and forgotten by Thanksgiving.

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Sally Koslow’s Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest (ISBN 978-0-670-02362-2, $25.95) offers insights both humorous and grim into the relationships between parents and older children, the messy effects of the current economy on those relationships, and in particular the way hovering parents — helicopter moms and dads — are spoiling what Koslow calls their adultescents.

Despite its title, Slouching Toward Adulthood isn’t just about the increasing numbers of young people who, having graduated from college, are returning home to live with their parents. Koslow does address that situation — here, writing from both research and from her personal experience, she will elicit nervous laughter from readers with children — but she digs deeper into the idea, now making the rounds, that 28 is the new 19. She points out that the very adults who so carefully guided their children through the college application process, who sometimes daily telephoned or texted their children while they were away at school, who spent so much time, energy and money to give them the right education, are often the source of the problem when it comes to that same young person leaving college with the idea of tackling the world on its own terms. She cites numerous cases of super-parents who are still interfering — helping would be their word — in the lives of “children” now 25, 26, 27 years old.

But Koslow, who is a progressive and not some conservative lamenting the falling away of old values, also takes the adultescents to task. Slouching Toward Adulthood ends by reminding twenty-somethings that choices in life have consequences. To wait until you are in your thirties to choose a career path or to find a helpmate and have children, Koslow warns, can have unintended outcomes unforeseen by the 26-year-old. She gently — perhaps too gently, as is the style of the boomer generation in the matter of passing instructions to their children — reminds young people that indulging whims to skip from job to job, to travel the world for several years, to put off commitments to career and children can lead to major disappoints on down the road.

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Joan Duncan Oliver’s The Meaning of Nice: How Compassion and Civility Can Change Your Life (and the World) (ISBN 978-0-425-24087-8, 2012, $14) examines the meaning and place of “nice” in regard to people in today’s rough-and-tumble culture. After tracing the twisting etymology of nice, which came into English in the 13th century from France as “nyce,” meaning foolish, Oliver sets out to demolish the myth that being nice doesn’t play well in a not-so-nice society. Although she does include a chapter titled “Too Nice For Your Own Good,” the rest of her book is a compilation of data, reports, and personal reminiscences advocating, as her subtitle states, the value of compassion and civility. She examines the character traits we associate with nice people: good manners, some level of compassion for others, a sense of justice and fair play, respect. In chapters on manners, love, the workplace, and digital communications, she makes the case that despite what we read and hear in some of the media, “warmth and friendliness are making inroads” in our world.

Given that we are now entered upon that season in American politics when nice will go missing in action until November, The Meaning of Nice is a timely reminder to the rest of us to step back, listen to our fellow citizens with whom we may disagree, and offer, if not compassion, then at least civility.

(Jeff Minick is a teacher and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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