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BOOK REVIEW : Some Difficult Reading in Difficult Times : LIVES WITHOUT BALANCE: When You're Giving Everything You've Got and Still Not Getting What You Hoped For, by Steven Carter and Julia Sokol, Villard, $20; 250 pages


This is a terrible book about a potentially interesting subject.

It addresses itself to high rollers who thought they would do well in the 1980s, but ended up feeling blue in the '90s, with more credit-card debt than savings and, possibly, without a job.

It is significant that depression, or even recession, are words that don't turn up here. With a lead time of six months to a year in book publishing, it's possible that somebody in this process--the authors or the editors--thought the economy might come suddenly to life. But, of course, this hasn't happened.

"Lives Without Balance" is a self-help book about downsizing in the '90s--when you've overspent physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially.

This volume attempts a plan for getting your life in order, and it does this with the ultimate help of sermons, quizzes, epigraphs, epigrams, homely sayings and all-around good advice. This is very little here that is original; there is much that is amusing.

If this does not sound particularly specific, that blame must be laid at the collective feet of the authors.

It is the authors' position that "we" were sold a bill of goods in the '80s.

We were told that our economy would always go up; that Horatio Alger stories were true and real; that self-help seminars like est promised us we would get rich; that taking risks on stocks was wise; that real estate investments always paid off; that our credit-card use was "limitless"; that there were yuppies; that women "could have it all"; that "professions" paid well; that we were masters of our fate.

In a book of 250 pages, the above concerns are touched on in the first 72. The writers here aren't exactly into in-depth treatment of their subject.

What was that subject again? The subject was: We're working too hard at jobs we don't like. We're not getting paid and we're badly in debt. We ignore our physical, emotional, spiritual concerns, as well as our spouses, parents, children and friends--all in the name of leveraged buyouts.

We're a mess, because people have given us the wrong information, but we can "change," if we want to, by taking many of the quizzes that the authors have made up for us here.

I scored pretty high in these quizzes. And I got to thinking: The authors take up so many pages of this book with quizzes that maybe they ought to have the opportunity to take one themselves.

Score on a basis of one to 10, with 10 being best:

1. Do you think you're having enough fun in your life?

2. Do you ever worry that--even though you follow the trends, writing volumes like "What Smart Women Know," "What Really Happens in Bed," and "Men Who Can't Love"--you haven't yet had what is called a "breakthrough" book?

3. Do you feel that no matter how hard you worked, no matter how much you gave, you weren't getting what you hoped for and you couldn't understand what went wrong?

4. Have you ever written a 12-page magazine piece and experienced the desire to expand it into a book?

5. Have you ever followed through on this by repeating a theme sentence, with slight variations, as much as a dozen times in any book-length piece?

6. Have you ever read magazine pieces--or written them--and then believed what you read or wrote? Do you believe in yuppies? Have you seen one? Have you eaten a quiet breakfast with one? Alternately, can you be sure they don't exist? Do you live your life by journalistic catch phrases?

7. Do you often try to make your readers feel guilty about doing ordinary things such as eating breakfast or watching TV?

8. Do you sometimes make up quotes from people who might or might not exist, like "Walter, a New York doctor," or "Michael, a 31-year-old newspaper journalist," or do you just think that further documentation in a nonfiction work is useless? Are you guilty of forgetting or ignoring last names?

9. Does it bother you that, although you write about important social change, it appears that you have no academic or business credentials?

10. Do you try to piggyback your work on other popular concerns of the day, particularly addiction, co-dependence, John Bradshaw's concept of shame and numerous 12-step programs?

11. Do you structure your questions to disorient the reader, so as to flummox his or her mind with queries such as: "Do you fully understand the demands of motherhood?" "Do you need to change your sheets?" and "Do you experience such waves of real estate envy that you ultimately feel ashamed?"

Remember, authors: There is no right or wrong in a test like this. Or then again, maybe there is.

Maybe it's wrong to expect dollars from any reader for stuff like this, in these hard times.

Next: Constance Casey reviews "Elton John" by Phillip Norman (Harmony Crown).

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