August 11, 2011


Clark Howard’s Living Large in Lean Times: 250+ Ways to Buy Smarter, Spend Smarter, and Save Money. By Clark Howard, with Mark Meltzer and Theo Thimou. Avery. $18.

Freshman: Tales of 9th Grade Obsessions, Revelations, and Other Nonsense. By Corinne Mucha. Zest Books. $12.99.

     Whether you are an adult or a proto-adult (that is, a teenager), there are books out there designed to show you that you can make your life better, that you can handle everyday stresses more effectively, and – perhaps most important of all – that you are not alone. That is the underlying message of both these books: there are many others like you, and they have learned or can learn to cope with the vicissitudes of daily life, and you can, too. In the case of Clark Howard’s Living Large in Lean Times, it helps to be a big Clark Howard fan in order to get the most benefit from his ideas. The ideas are actually quite sound most of the time, and can help whether or not you know anything about Howard, but everything is presented with a veneer of folksy Howard-isms that will quickly wear thin for people who do not know and love Howard’s radio and cable-TV shows. You have to get through plenty of Howard anecdotes to get the Howard advice: “I recall buying the first computer for my travel agency back in 1982. At the time, I needed specialized software to do travel accounting, plus specific hardware.” “I have always been cheap, which I define as being willing to accept lower quality for a lower price. That’s just me. But sometimes, my cheap tendencies have come back to bite me.” “If you’ve listened to my radio show anytime during the past twenty years, you know that an annuity is a four-letter word in my mind.” Now, celebrity endorsements sell products and certainly sell books and other reading matter; the now-classic example is the Oprah Winfrey magazine that always features her on the cover. So Howard’s fans will consider the ideas in this book pre-endorsed and certain to be valuable. Others may understandably be more skeptical, wondering where the self-aggrandizement ends and the help for readers begins. The good news is that there is plenty of useful information here, whether you know anything about Howard or not; the bad news is that sorting it out from the frequent “me” passages can get irritating. It is worthwhile to try, though. Just a few samples among many of the helpful ideas here: The best discounts at warehouse clubs are specifically coded – at Costco, their prices end in 97, while at Sam’s Club, they end in the number 1 or are marked with a C. When a printer signals that a cartridge is empty, the cartridge generally still has about 60% of its ink left – and you can use that ink by simply removing the cartridge and shaking it, then reinserting it. Buying a store’s in-house brand of organic food can significantly cut the price premium – and a particularly good source for relatively inexpensive organic foods is Wal-Mart. So far, so good; but in some other ways, not so good; and it can be difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. For example, Howard (or one of his coauthors) talks about federal insurance pools that exist in some parts of the country and allow individuals to buy relatively low-cost health insurance: “In order to qualify to buy coverage, you must have been uninsured for at least six months.” Now, this is a huge, huge red flag, forcing people who want to enter these pools to take the risk of going without any insurance whatsoever for half a year. But Howard’s book mentions the issue only in passing and presents no suggested solutions to it. Follow this insurance advice at your peril. Indeed, there is plenty of peril as well as plenty of opportunity for saving money in this book – good, solid advice mixed, apparently rather randomly, with questionable comments and once-over-lightly remarks that may mislead readers or create as many problems as they solve. People familiar with Howard may know enough about his style to decide how many grains of salt to add to the advice here; those who do not know his shows have a significantly greater risk of getting things wrong.

     “Getting things wrong” is a major issue for teenagers, although the “things” are comparatively unimportant by the standards of most adults. But they matter a lot to teens, especially teens starting high school and worrying about how to dress, how to behave in class and between classes, whom to hang out with, what activities to do, and much more. Freshman is a graphic novel that is all about getting things wrong – or the fear of getting them wrong, which for many high-school freshmen amounts to the same thing. Told as the chronicle of the freshman year of a girl named Annie, Corinne Mucha’s book is so close to reality that it almost deserves to be called graphic nonfiction. The characters may be made up, but their thoughts and experiences are clearly drawn from life – so clearly that the target audience of the book is a little hard to define. It would seem to be for young teens who are worried that no one could possibly understand what they are going through in their worries about school and their social life. On that basis, Mucha seems to be showing that she does understand and that many, many other teens have gone through the same things and emerged just fine, as rising high-school sophomores. That is just what happens to Annie, who manages to cope with uninteresting teachers, weird class assignments, the ups and downs of friendship with fellow freshman Katrina and former best friend Beth, an unrequited crush, and a role in a school play that turns out to be a bigger deal than Annie expects. A parallel story involves Annie’s friend and fellow freshman, Richie, who tries to handle charisma advice, the film club, reporting for the school newspaper, and joining a rock band. The two stories intersect from time to time, as when Annie sings with the band and Richie and Annie almost share a kiss during a dance. And that is that: everyday freshman high-school life, exaggerated perhaps slightly from time to time but not exaggerated at all through much of the book. Former high-school freshmen may find parts of the book amusing; teens who have not yet endured this particular rite of passage may deem it more worrisome and find fewer of its events to be what the subtitle calls “nonsense,” even though everything comes out pretty much all right in the end for pretty much everybody.

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