Real Simple

Swear to God. Some years back, Real Simple ran a comparative chart on major religions, seeming to suggest that the Simple reader should gauge the relative merits of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and--what's that other one?--the same way she judges laundry detergents or nail polishes.

I'm not big on organized religion, but I was flabbergasted by such a, well, simpleminded approach to a complex subject. Still, at least I don't remember a match-the-celebrity-with-her-faith section, with Madonna-as-Esther annoyingly hogging the Jewish column.

Real Simple is, in fact, free of celebrity content, one of the biggest factors in today's dumbed-down magazines. But, with its focus on service copy, the pub can be just as trivial. The April issue spends four whole pages on a topic that's furrowed the brows of sages from Aristotle to Lucy Ricardo: how to remember your loved ones' birthdays.

Still, I find something comforting about such minutiae and lack of social relevance, especially since the mag doesn't seem likely to repeat its experiment in pick-a-religion. I don't read it regularly, but when I check out its pages, I know I'll find something useful or interesting. For example, this month, the amateur singer in me appreciated hearing about a software product that functions as a virtual singing coach. And I'll definitely use the tips on how to spot a healthy plant, and maybe the advice in the roundup on new lamps.

RS does a workmanlike job within the narrow world of women's service; its pieces are all well-written and graphically appealing. And when it comes to fashion, the pub takes a refreshingly original, Consumer Reports-like approach, focusing on how specific items of clothing flatter the body (in the April issue, cropped pants for the likes of curvy, long-torsoed, etc., women). I've never seen another mag do anything like that month after month.

RS shows no such originality with other service staples. Yet, especially with health and diet pieces, one doesn't have to reinvent the wheel every time. Readers often seek motivation and insight rather than new facts, so a rehash of standard advice with a fresh twist can be enough. RS accomplishes this trick in April with a diet piece, "The Secrets of Thin People," as well as a take on housework, "Clean By the Clock," which breaks down cleaning jobs into manageable segments.

Still, in this issue, I was bored by articles on water (sure, drinking it is still good for you); preparing dinner for friends; how to get more energy; new haircuts; dealing with meddling in-laws--all of which recycled standard advice I've read before.

RS  usually veers away from its service ethos with a monthly essay and a human interest piece. I've read some good essays in its pages, but April's didn't grab me, either through its style (a little long and draggy) or topic (how the death of the writer's sister--a death whose cause he was irritatingly vague about-- led him to rethink having children).  But I loved the feature profiling, in a warm yet relatively unsappy tone, a choir that serenades the terminally ill.

I was also happy to see Managing Editor Kristin van Orgtrop, in a thoughtful note, acknowledge one of the true masters of service copy: Peg Bracken, author of the endearingly titled I Hate To Housekeep Book and I Hate To Cook Book.  If van Orgtrop holds up Bracken's funny and helpful style as an aspirational example for RS's writers and editors, the mag has nothing to worry about.

After all, RS readers are often women who, as Bracken writes in her cookbook, have "learned, through hard experience, that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking."

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