Book Review: “To Be Perfectly Honest” by Phil Callaway


Title: To Be Perfectly Honest: One Man’s Year of Living (Almost) Truthfully Could Change Your Life. No Lie.
Author: Phil Callaway
Pages: Paperback, 291 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59052-917-1
Publisher: WaterBrook Multnomah Press*

I’ve been putting off writing this review because I couldn’t get myself to finish reading the book. I also knew that even if I could finish it I wouldn’t have much good to say about it and I didn’t want to have a negative book review appear at the top of my blog instead of something I actually cared about. Like ponytail holders.

There. I said it.

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Tandem hyuk-hyuk-hyuks for the Blue Suit who can’t bear to read alone

This book is about a writer– presumably of Barcalounger arm rest humor and Christian Dudes Golfing Or Something (no doubt printed in totally unjustifiable hardcover)– whose editor… or publisher… (I don’t care enough to double check) gave him the only very marginally interesting idea of telling nothing but the truth for a year and then writing about his experiences.

The writer, whose name I have to keep looking up, agreed and set out to write this book, the title of which I also have to keep looking up. He tells his friends he’s writing this book, he makes a big deal about how he thinks they’re going to take advantage of his honesty vows, they don’t take advantage of his honesty vows, all while he pens one-liner after one-liner revealing an annoying habit of mistaking “humor” for “integrity” for 161 pages.

After that I don’t really know what happens. That’s where I stopped reading.

The author, Phil, sounds nice enough, but… Aw geez. I d’unno. A few of his anecdotes were relatable in a very general, “I’ve got an uncle like you” sort of way. But the constant joking thing is– it just gets old fast, both in real life and on the page.

Unless you’re Dave Barry. Have you read The Taming of the Screw?! Oh man! I laughed so hard at that book!

Or Haven Kimmel. She’s pretty consistently funny without being annoying too.

So what is it about this guy?  About this book? For a reader who tends to appreciate humorous memoirs, why am I har-har’ed out with this one?

I think it might be because he set the book up as this brave foray into honesty, and then he spent most of his time joking about praying down hellfire on people. I get it that that’s not what he really wants. He’s just joking. Again. But when there’s so little actual substance to a book he says is about something he claims is potentially life changing (see title), then I expect him to deliver something beyond goofballness, incessant punch-lining, and weak bon mots. It may’ve worked for you in your other books, buddy, but here you’ve failed to deliver on what the book is supposed to be about by masking sincerity with silliness.

On rare occasions he does actually lay things bare with some surprisingly open, candid moments. Moments that made me think “Yes! He’s finally going to give me something good! Something real! Something I’ll be able to relate to!”

Wrong wrong wrong.

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"We can release it in hardcover! Or in paperback! Or on the sides of these grocery bags!"

Those moments were short, few, and very far between. The author himself may have said it best after speaking with his editor/publisher/Piggly Wiggly bagger: “I still wasn’t sold on the idea [of writing about being honest for a year], but I couldn’t stop thinking that I would love to read such a book. If someone else wrote it.” (p.3)

You and me both, Phil. You and me both.

I feel kind of bad writing how much I disliked this book. I’ve got this vision in my head of this guy Googling reviews of his work and coming across this one and getting really bummed out over it even though I’m just some stranger with a laptop and precious little in common with what is presumably the book’s target demographic (upper-middle class middle aged Christian white guys).

It’s not a terrible book. Really, Mr. Callaway. A couple of parts- I probably should’ve marked them so I could find them again- even made me laugh out loud. It just wasn’t very, ah… good?

If you receive this book as a gift, at least page through it. Who knows? Maybe it’s just not for me. But I sure wouldn’t recommend spending any money on it. Especially not when you could be spending it on A Girl Named Zippy instead.

*I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review. I don’t owe it to them to like, or not like, this book. The opinions in this blog are mine and mine alone.

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ETA 12/6/11: I was so close to the end of the book when I stopped reading it I figured I might as well finish it. I hate leaving loose ends on my Goodreads account.) For the record the author still doesn’t seem to understand that “honesty” and “not lying” and “telling the truth” are not interchangeable with “cracking jokes about suggesting suicide to nursing home employees” and the like. The book remained unfunny, at times even callously so. Before I’d have given this book 2 out of 5 stars because I liked the guy’s wife. After finishing the book I would barely give it 1.

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7 comments

  1. After reading this review I have suspended writing my own book indefinitely. I can;t risk a review like this so it is better not to write it at all. I jest. Thanks for the warning I have a paltry book budget as it is so I can’t blow my literature coin on a stinker.

  2. What a perfectly brutally honest review. Is that irony?

    My memoir will be titled “I’m Scared to Use the Word ‘Ironic’ Because I’m Always Worried Someone Will Accuse Me of Using It Incorrectly.”

  3. I think more people should be worried about using the word “irony” correctly.

    Ruth, I read your review because I like you. Not really interested in reading the book. I think you accomplished your task of reviewer.

  4. This is a great review, even if for a not-so-great book. I love hearing what it was that rubbed a reviewer wrong, and not just “I hated this book.” And the Piggly Wiggly bagger put me in tears. ;)

  5. He doesn’t really have a right to be upset if he reads your review. After all, you were just being honest.

    *rimshot*

  6. i went and looked at the book at amazon. he doesn’t seem to be taking the whole thing very seriously or coupling it with kindness or unity of the spirit: speaking to the fact he is a middle aged white chrisitan guy. i think he was just going for ‘i wrote a book,’ and that julie/julia was 1 year of recipes, kind of similiar and recent. maybe he’s hoping for a movie? pretty sure God wants us to be truthful all the time not just 1 year out of our life, but mostly, i think the big command was to love each other, he seemed to miss that one. maybe that will be 2012?

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