Book Reviews

When you are in the self-help section of the bookstore or library, do you ever feel confused or overwhelmed by all the choices on display? Here are reviews of some outstanding self-help books. These are among the best in their subject areas.

You can click on the book titles in the list below to read a review of each book.

Click on the thumbnail image of each book to take you to where you can order the book at a discount price (of course, you can also go to your local bookseller or library.)

(All reviews by Michael Abrahams, LCSW-C, unless otherwise noted.)

Caution: if you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else tell your therapist, counselor, or physician immediately. If you don’t have one, call your local mental health department or the nearest hospital.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World By Cal Newport

Deep Work By Cal Newport(Review by Nancy Ebbert, LCPC)

Deep Work faces up to the challenge of creating the time and conditions for routine, successful, in-depth work while living in an era of increasing temptations to easy distractions. During the time it took to write these few lines I also hoped onto to double-check the title of the book and answered a text from my husband. It’s easy to do this, so why not? That is the first part of Newport’s challenge: the ability to quickly master complex new subjects and produce at high levels are keys to success in the information economy. When we are constantly connected to email, messaging, social media, etc., when are we ever allowed to do the complex work that leads to success? How do we build the skills that let us focus and learn and produce? Newport explores the many reasons we avoid or justify not doing deep work. Then the cost: what we pay attention to plays a large role in determining our perception of our quality of life. Do you want to decide this for yourself or let the Internet decide for you?

The remainder of the book is a set of best practices for designing your deep work life. Newport refers to the work of a number of thought leaders in this area (saving me from reading their books!) and reports his own experiences and (mostly) successes. He focuses on styles of deep work, prioritizing, techniques, scheduling and in particular, limiting exposure to online media. Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and has a pattern of writing a book at major transition points in his career: he wrote this one when he started a tenure track job in order to make himself as productive as possible and still have a personal life. His optimistic approach is that deep work is a skill we can learn and schedule.

Parent-Teen Breakthrough: The Relationship Approach by Mira Kirshenbaum and Charles Foster, Ph.D.

Parent-Teen Breakthrough: The Relationship ApproachThe single best book for parents on relating with teenagers. Essentially, their message is: you can’t control your teenager, but you can influence him/her – if you have a solid relationship. The book is specific about how to repair and improve the relationship with your teen, what you can expect to achieve as a parent of a teenager, and how to handle conflicts and disagreements with your teen. This book probably won’t appeal to parents who believe they should have the kind of control of, and obedience from, their teenagers that they (may have) had from their younger children. And it’s not always applicable when an adolescent is seriously emotionally disturbed, addicted, or dangerously out of control. But for the household with the normally difficult teenager, this is a very valuable book.

The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, Ph.D.

The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, Ph.D.There are many useful books on handling discipline problems with children. This is the best single book for parents with a” difficult” child – a child who is easily frustrated, inflexible, and who loses self-control and has temper tantrums long after the “terrible two”s are past. Greene explains, clearly and comprehensively, the different factors that contribute to inflexible-explosive behavior. More importantly, he shows parents how to understand and respond to a child’s explosive behavior in a constructive way. Following the methods in this book, parents can help their child develop the skills needed for controlling behavior, while also keeping the family atmosphere supportive and the child’s home and school life more successful and enjoyable.

Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene K. Brown and Marc Brown

Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene K. Brown and Marc BrownIf you need to explain divorce to a young child (3-8), this 32 page picture book will help with the job. Clear, direct text and entertaining illustrations make it the best I’ve seen for this situation. This book offers a low-risk way for either you or your child to raise the topic when tensions run high at home – you (or the child) can just say, “Let’s read the Dinosaurs Divorce book” and let the conversation evolve from there.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen CoveyOne of the best “all-around” self-help manuals. It’s worthwhile for practically anyone, but probably most helpful for people who feel they are drifting, floundering, or otherwise not meeting their personal or career goals. Covey shows how to use your core values to build solid habits of character that, in turn, bring personal and business success. Covey went on to develop a series of “Seven Habits” books, tapes, seminars, appointment calendars, etc. They may all be o.k., but this book – which spent more than 200 weeks on the best-seller list – is where he made his name.

The 9 Ways of Working by Michael Goldberg

The 9 Ways of Working by Michael GoldbergThis book uses the “Enneagram” – a personality typing system based on ancient philosophical traditions – to understand the different ways in which people of differing personality types think about and handle issues at work. The book teaches you to recognize both your own “type” and the “types” of others you work with, and then how to handle colleagues, bosses and subordinates based on your and their “type”-based styles of behavior-on-the-job. The Enneagram has no formal standing as a theory in scientific psychology, but nonetheless seems to have “a piece of the truth.” Many people have found this book remarkably useful in it’s application to interpersonal problems in the workplace.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman, Ph.D.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman, Ph.D.Gottman, one of the leading researchers of marriage, uses this book to present the for-the-general-public version of the same material he teaches therapists and counselors in professional seminars. He discusses what specific behaviors make marriages succeed, what makes them fail, and what couples can do to make their own marriage more satisfying. Lots of exercises and self-assessment tools. Many marriage manuals have useful advice; this one is probably the most grounded in research, and – if you do the work – the most valuable.

Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing

Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of HealingA map and guide through the experience of loss, from the masculine perspective. Golden, a grief specialist, takes as his particular focus the ways in which men live through and resolve loss. Since men are less likely than women to verbalize their emotions, much of our common-sense knowledge about “grief work” is based in approaches more naturally familiar to the feminine. Golden’s book is a valuable tool for a man struggling with loss or grief – or for people who care about him and want to support him.

Final Gifts: Understanding the special awareness, needs and communications of the dying. by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Helley

Final Gifts: Understanding the special awareness, needs and communications of the dying. by Maggie Callanan and Patricia HelleyTwo hospice nurses wrote this book for people who are living with, or caring for someone who is dying. They discuss what dying is like for the person who is dying, and what that person needs from family and loved ones, in order to die peacefully and with completion. When a loved one is dying, the experience takes those closest to him or her right to the edge. This book helps the reader go there and better assist the dying person.

After The Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful by Janis Abrahams Spring, Ph.D.

After The Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful by Janis Abrahams Spring, Ph.DA guide to the issues raised by extramarital affairs: the choices to be made, the reactions people have, and the emotional tasks an individual or couple needs to take on if they are to rebuild their marriage . People – both the unfaithful spouse and the hurt, betrayed partner – are typically highly distressed, isolated, and in crisis when an affair becomes revealed within a marriage. This is a reassuring, calming book which provides some insights into how affairs come to occur, and what can be done to rebuild a relationship.

Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right for You. by Loren Pope

Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right for You. by Loren PopeThe best single book on selecting a college. I don’t do college counseling, but I sure see a lot of teenagers and families who need help in thinking about college. This experienced college admissions advisor covers it all: what to look for in a college, how to finance it and how to get accepted. Includes interesting thumbnail sketches of hundreds of good colleges – many of which you’ve never heard of. Unlike many college guides, this one is interesting and easy to read.

The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis

The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura DavisChild sexual abuse is unpleasant to think about. If you don’t need this book, you won’t want to read it. But if you are a sex abuse survivor, this classic is an excellent resource. It has lots of personal narratives, useful writing exercises, and sensible advice. It can’t replace a trained therapist – and many readers will need one – but the book gives the reader plenty of valuable food for thought to ponder on her own.

Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mira Kirshenbaum

Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mira KirshenbaumDescribed as “a step-by-step guide to help you decide whether to stay in or get out of your relationship”, this book does as good a job as can be done. People often get stuck in painful indecision about their long-term relationship or marriage. They’re not happy….but how happy should they be? What are realistic expectations and what is settling for too little? Will I be happier with my decision if I leave – or if I stay? No book (and no therapist, for that matter) can really answer these questions for an individual. But this book can help you decide for yourself. Kirshenbaum examines the important criteria, and sets out guidelines about what will work best for most people. Most clients of mine who have read this book have found it this book helpful in resolving ambivalence – either to stay in a good enough relationship, or to prepare to leave one that needs to be left behind.

Getting Things Done By David Allen

Getting Things Done By David AllenAre you disorganized? Are you always falling behind on projects? Do you often forget to do things you’ve committed to get done? Getting Things Done is filled with suggestions and solutions for being more organized and productive. Even if you just adopt a fraction of the author’s ideas, you’ll notice the improvement, and feel more secure about meeting your responsibilities in life. Some people find that reading this book with a family member or friend helps them in figuring out which of the suggestions and organizing tools are most useful for their particular situation.

Living Like You Mean It By Ron Frederick

Living Like You Mean It By Ron FrederickFor many people who come for counseling or therapy, experiencing emotions can be difficult. Sometimes people don’t even know that they are having emotions; other times a person will have emotions that seem inappropriate or unlikely for a given situation. The book’s author gives an example, from his own life, of graduating from his doctoral program with tears and sadness instead of joy. We may find that we don’t recognize our emotions because we have trained ourselves to not feel certain feelings. This may have been a useful strategy in a difficult childhood, but it’s counterproductive for most adults. Emotions give us important information that helps us make good decisions in our lives. Much of the work of psychotherapy, for many people, consists of learning to recognize, tolerate, and actually feel the emotions that we have warded off. Ron Frederick has put this learning in an accessible format in this book, which can be used to help you become more comfortable with emotion whether you’re presently in therapy or not.

Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger

Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason and Randi KregerAre you living with – or in a relationship with – someone who is “driving you crazy” with their impulsive behavior, rages, threats, manipulation, clinging/neediness, and other erratic or dangerous behaviors? That person – be they a spouse or a friend, a parent or an adult child – may have Borderline Personality Disorder. If you are in a relationship with a person who has Borderline Personality Disorder, this is the book you need. The authors will help you determine if your friend (spouse, parent, child, etc. ), has Borderline personality disorder. The book also gives valuable advice for how to manage your own behavior, so you can reduce the stress of living with someone with BPD.

Growing Beyond Survival: A self-help toolkit for managing traumatic stress by Elizabeth G. Vermilyea

Growing Beyond Survival: A self-help toolkit for managing traumatic stress by Elizabeth G. VermilyeaDo you have episodes of absolutely overwhelming anxiety, where you cannot settle yourself down? Do you think that your anxiety episodes have anything to do with a prior traumatic experience that you lived through? (An example would be, a person abused as a child becomes very anxious and disorganized after seeing a parent yell at a child in a grocery store). The author writes, “Some (not all) people who are exposed to traumatic events develop coping styles that, although useful at the time of the trauma, become problematic in the long run”. Her book is a clear and step-by-step guide with tools and practices for emotional self-regulation. and has been very helpful for people who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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