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Self-help

'Hail to the cheap' and other words to live by

Email|Print| Text size + By Caroline Leavitt
December 16, 2007

A Million Bucks by Thirty: How to Overcome a Crap Job, Stingy Parents, and a Useless Degree to Become a Millionaire Before (or After) Turning Thirty
By Alan CoreyBallantine, 240 pp., paperback, $13.95

How to Be a Middle-Aged Babe
By Marilyn Suzanne Miller
Scribner, 176 pp., $25

Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up - A Woefully Incomplete Guide
By Bob Harris
Three Rivers, 224 pp., paperback, $11.95

Want to get your message across and make people feel better at the same time? Try a little service with a smile. Case in point: three self-help books that are outrageously funny.

Come on, who doesn't want more money? "A Million Bucks by Thirty," by Alan Corey, is no ordinary get-rich-quick tome. Corey comes out of college with no skills, determined to be a millionaire by 30. He starts out with $10,000, and he admits he is "one of the biggest cheapskates on the planet," which also helps him pinch those pennies. The book has a running tally of what he spends (or rather, what he refuses to spend). Yes, the casual prose has one too many "dudes" peppered in it, but he's likable, and some of his ideas, though not new, do make sense. Pay in cash, even in coins, so as to avoid credit card fees and debt; save every extra dime and then invest it; and of course buy up real estate.

But Corey's "hail to the cheap" persona isn't for everyone, unless everyone wants to make money going on "Jerry Springer" as a guest with made-up issues. Too, as Corey thickens his wallet, he thins his life (one girlfriend breaks up with him because he's too stingy to go to a movie, showing her a spreadsheet explaining why the money would be better invested). His chapter-by-chapter tabulations of how he became a millionaire are a lot of fun, and though I wouldn't really want to hang out with Corey, the one thing he does is make you believe it's possible to have more money than you ever thought, simply by being more aware of it and cutting a corner or six.

"How to Be a Middle-Aged Babe," by former "Saturday Night Live" writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller, is self-help at its most deceptive. At first glance, it seems to be nothing more than a take-off on self-help books, but its silly wit serves a deeper purpose. Miller aims to show midlife women how an obsession with aging won't get you anywhere and how you might as well laugh about it. While there are nuggets of good advice (she urges you to lose toxic friends, and she provides a great reading list), most of the book is simply hilarious. Miller mocks dieting tips by showing photographs of delectable desserts with innovative appetite suppressants: demons and monsters leaping out at you. She uses stills from old movies and advertisements to poke fun at our predilection for staying young, no matter the cost to our psyches or pocketbooks. But Miller flirts with the larger question: Do you really want to keep struggling to be a babe when you could be a fully fledged human being? The book is decidedly raunchy, undeniably funny, and it does indeed make you feel good about middle age, even as it puts up a Teflon shield against the advice that would say otherwise.

We live in a chaotic world, and with an important election coming up, it's even more crucial to understand the issues. Here to help is "Who Hates Whom," by Bob Harris, an intriguingly informative handbook to help you learn the facts and figures, and even be able to tell the difference between Hutu and Tutsi, Sunni and Shi'a, and more.

"Who Hates Whom" is a handy guide to 35 recent or ongoing wars, with 50 maps, photographs, and illustrations. Harris has been on "Jeopardy" 13 times, and though he claims no real expertise, his brief histories of the conflicts are revelatory - and wryly funny about some very serious subjects. Harris bullets the important points at the beginning of each chapter for quick reference. His maps underscore the lunatic politics, such as a Greek tourist map that has replaced Turkey with open sea. You'll be educated about the blood-diamond terrain of Africa and the Congolese civil wars, which have caused 3.8 million deaths in six years.

Want to know how to start a war in 10 easy steps? Instill fear, create an enemy, and insist that everyone believe the way you do, Harris asserts. But before you condemn anyone, understand desperation, too. In North Korea, where the per capita income is 3 bucks a day and the army gets fed first, is it any wonder why people would clamor to join and fight? Harris's sly wit and infectious curiosity make understanding world chaos fascinating reading. You'll learn where "Mein Kampf" is a bestseller, and why North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, once kidnapped a film director and his actress wife. And just to err on the side of hope for the future, Harris points out that tiny Costa Rica not only has no army, but one of its presidents won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the end, it's not really important if you're rich or a babe, but it's crucial to know who might light yet another fuse in the global powder keg. In this case, it's not self-help knowledge, but world-help knowledge - witty, horrific, and necessary - that is power.

Caroline Leavitt is the author of eight novels, including "Girls in Trouble." She can be reached at carolineleavitt.com.

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