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February 2012 Book Reviews:



Stories I Only Tell My Friends: an Autobiography

by Rob Lowe

reviewed by
Brian Mercer



"Oratory should raise your heart rate," Sam Seaborn, Rob Lowe's character on The West Wing, exults. "Oratory should blow the doors off the place." It turns out that Sam Seaborn, White House Deputy Communications Director and top-notch speech writer, and Rob Lowe have something in common: the door-blowing, heart-rate-raising ability to write. 

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: an Autobiography follows the life of Rob Lowe from his early childhood through his time on The West Wing. It is a chronicle of a talented performer in his middle years looking back over his life, from his interest in acting as a child, through his stellar rise to fame, with all the bumps and jolts along the way. Written in present tense, it gives the reader a sense of being perched on Lowe's shoulder, experiencing events as they unfold. At times it reads like an inventory of pop culture in the late-1970s, '80s and '90s. Lowe seems to have been everywhere and seen everything and one gets the impression of a Dickensian character artificially placed in the middle of the action by the author. It is altogether more impressive when you realize that all these remarkable events actually took place. Toward the second half of the book, recounting the end of a trip to Paris in which he has just had an intense relationship with Princess Stephanie of Monaco, even Lowe admits that his life has grown unreal. 

Introspective but not overly so, I found myself gasping and laughing out loud throughout. It is a reminder that even those who rise to meteoric success still face rejection, setbacks and hard times. Lowe's journey is somehow all our journeys: for happiness, success and meaning. Stories I Only Tell My Friends: an Autobiography is a wonderful ride, one that I found sad to come to an end. Whether you are a fledging actor seeking advice, came of age during Lowe's career, or (like me) a huge West Wing fan, you will find something in his book.




Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?

by William Poundstone

reviewed by A.B. Mead



When I was young, there was a brief craze for logic puzzle books. My friends and I read about the three guards and three prisoners crossing the river (they had to do it in multiple trips in various combinations) and the three women in bathing suits:  Two are sad, one is happy. The happy one is crying, the sad ones are smiling (they’re beauty pageant contestants). Logic puzzles are back, but this time as part of the job interview process. Tech companies started asking questions like this of programmers back in the 1960s to see how logical potential employees were. There was a slow trickle-down, and now Google—and other companies hoping to become as successful as Google—famously asks these sorts of questions of everyone interviewing. Even a potential secretary might be asked how many times a day all of a clock’s hands overlap. 

Poundstone goes through several dozen tricky questions (How much would you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?), all the while explaining that this interview technique does very little to help businesses find the right sort of people. If you are hiring a programmer, it seems practical to ask a question about probability as expressed by pizza slices, but, really you’re better off giving applicants a small assignment and seeing how they execute it. But, if you feel you must know the answer, half of the book is devoted to detailed explanations of how you might go about answering them anyway. Some of the questions do have correct answers, and Poundstone spells out the math step-by-step, complete with illustrations and equations. But knowing that there are 119 ridges on the edge of a quarter isn’t the point. You’ll be more impressive to you interviewer verbally working a calculation, even if it’s wrong, starting with an estimate of the size of a quarter and the value of pi. Poundstone suggests that interviewees will do better by “embracing trial and error.” For most of these questions, there truly are no right answers. The interviewers don’t really want to know how many tennis balls you can fit in the conference room. They want to know what steps you would take to come to an answer. 

Even for people who aren’t facing an interview, this book is fun read just to try out some classic and new brain-teasers.




Apocalypse on the Set: Nine Disastrous Film Productions

by Ben Taylor

reviewed by A.B. Mead


Although Taylor says that his book “is not meant to serve as a protracted tabloid exposé,” readers can not help but feel a little of the same insider schadenfreude that comes from seeing the mighty fall as they read about these misadventures. Of course, Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow; nor Vic Morrow, Renee Chen, and Myca Dihn Le, making Twilight Zone:  The Movie deserved to die. The truly tragic events that led to their deaths as depicted here remind us of the sometimes relentless and demanding forces that drive the film business. On the lighter, but twisted, side, we get the story—worthy of a film in and of itself—of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il kidnapping a South Korean actress and her director-husband to make movies for him. The “Dear Leader” considered himself quite the cineaste and was experienced at attempting to change his countrymen’s perceptions of his government though editing and reshooting reality. The resulting film was an anti-Capitalist Godzilla knock-off that can also be read as a subversive critique, with Kim as the monster. Director James Cameron almost drowned during the underwater production of The Abyss (and maybe wished he had when he later needed to perform CPR on a rat when the film's oxygenated water technique didn't go as planned).

Heaven's Gate was just too bloated to succeed; and Fitzcarraldo, a film about dragging a steamboat across a jungle that did exactly that without the use of any miniatures or special effects, was too fool-hearty to succeed. Despite constant bad luck on the set, Apocalypse Now managed to achieve true greatness, while another, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, is a cult classic. Waterworld remains merely a punch-line. Overall, readers are left with a sense that what really cripples a film is the hubris of a director and a studio unwilling or unable to keep him in check. Left to do anything they want, budgets balloon, nearly-perfect takes are repeated endlessly in search of the perfect, and over 300 horses are “interviewed” before the crew finds the right one. A cautionary tale of what can wrong inside the dream factory.




Heddy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Heddy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

by Richard Rhodes

reviewed by A.B. Mead



In the 1940s Heddy Lamarr was one of Hollywood's biggest stars and George Antheil was a former avant-garde musician turned film score composer. In this compact book, Rhodes tells the twin stories of their lives and how they came to develop a process that they hoped would help the Allies win World War II. Antheil had a life-long interest in inventions, and he had made his reputation with the Ballet Mecanique, a complicated piece in which he had tried, but failed, to synchronize sixteen player pianos. Lamar had knowledge of Nazi technologies gleaned from dinner conversations at the home of her ex-husband, an Austrian arms dealer. When the two met, they soon decided to join forces. The latest model of the Philco radio, the Mystery Control, which used fixed-frequencies on a remote control to change radio stations, inspired Lamarr’s idea for a remote-controlled torpedo. Lamarr thought that changing a weapon's direction could work like changing radio frequencies. The problem was that these signals could be jammed. Lamarr conceived that jamming would be impossible if both the sender and the receiver would change signals simultaneously, “hopping together randomly from frequency to frequency.” This technology we now call “spread spectrum” or “frequency hopping.” The U.S. Navy refused it at the time, but it has since become the basis of Wi-Fi and cellphone communication. Rhodes gives us an unexpected and charming story.



The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best-Kept Secret

by Kent Hartman

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



Los Angeles-based rock bands of the 1960s and early '70s had a secret weapon, the Wrecking Crew. So-called because the Big Band and jazz musicians who had backed the likes of Frank Sinatra thought that upstart rock was “wrecking” music, these unheralded session musicians were the ones who really played the instruments on the million-selling albums by The Crystals, the Beach Boys, and many others. The faces on the record albums might be the ones touring, but they weren't necessarily the craftsmen behind such hits as "Be My Baby,” “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena),” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The handfuls of men (and one woman) profiled here were well paid for their work. Record producers when necessary brought them in. Often together, but sometimes separately, they might play for the entirety of a song, or just for a particularly tricky bit that a regular band member couldn't lick. This book centers on the point where rock became the dominant form of pop music and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound—his attempt at “little symphonies for the kids”—drove everything to be bigger and more-polished. Brian Wilson knew that his fellow Beach Boys weren't up to the “arsenal of sounds he had floating around in his head” and sought out the Crew. On the other hand, Mike Nesmith wanted The Monkees to be a real band, and he fought against the use of the Crew members hired by the TV show’s producers (an ill-conceived notion, considering that the band's drummer, Mickey Dolenz couldn't actually play). Eventually 1970s “authenticity” and the need to be “real” shut down most of the Crew. Singer-songwriters and self-contained bands like Chicago and the Eagles became the norm behind the scenes as well as in front.





The Jaguar

by T. Jefferson Parker

by Jon Land



If there’s a better writer out there working today than T. Jefferson Parker, I haven’t read him (or her) and Parker’s latest Charlie Hood tale The Jaguar shows why right from the start.  That’s when the wife of our old friend, and now Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy Bradley Jones, is kidnapped by the head of a murderous Mexican drug cartel. 

We’ve practically watched Bradley grow up, flirting with both sides of the law, since L.A. Outlaws, and his ambiguous talents are on fine display here along with those of his would-be mentor, the typically somber Hood whose moral compass for sorting through life’s morass is as sharp as ever.  But the real hypnotic allure of The Jaguar lies in the quirky appeal of Benjamin Armenta, the kidnapper who wants Bradley’s songwriter wife Erin to pen a kind of life ballad for him.  A tribute-slash-testimonial that will live on forever.  Oh, and he also wants a million dollars to secure her release. 

Along with the brilliant Don Winslow and James Lee Burke, Parker has risen to the top of the writing heap when it comes to style.  His scenes burst off the page with color and verve.  Parker never disappoints and with the bracingly brilliant The Jaguar he takes his formidable talents to yet new heights. 



All Men of Genius

by Lev AC Rosen

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Rosen's mashup of Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare in a steampunk Victorian London gives us a lot to see and enjoy. Taking elements from The Importance of Being Earnest and the structure of Twelfth Night, we get the story of Violet Adams, a young lady desperate to attend Illyria College. In Shakespeare, Illyria is the lush, romantic land where a young lady named Viola finds herself shipwrecked. Here, it’s an all-male academy of science. So, in the best tradition of both writers, Violet disguises herself as her brother Ashton, and, thanks to her own mechanical genius, is admitted. She's soon hip-deep in perpetual motion machines and bronze. Unfortunately, she also draws the attention of the Cecily, ward of Duke Earnest, Illyria's headmaster. Heavy with clockwork automatons and massive “analytical engines” that run on punch cards, the book is also filled with references to muffins and “dandies.” Rosen’s intricate world-building and mix of literary references lifts this novel above the standard goggles-and-dirigible fare that’s labeled “steampunk.” Illyria is staffed with professors named Bracknell, Prism, and Bunbury, but readers shouldn't expect them to be direct analogs of the characters in Wilde's play. Like any alternate universe, sometimes situations remain the same, and sometimes they are flipped. Fans of gender-bending themes will have a field day with the book's twistiness regarding emotions, societal roles, and expectations.



Catch Me

by Lisa Gardner

reviewed by Jon Land



It started two years ago, with the murder of my best friend, Randi Menke, in Providence. 

So opens chapter one of Lisa Gardner’s latest masterpiece of urban terror, Catch Me.  Actually, that line is preceded by a brief poem-like stanza that sets the stage for this twist-laden tale that brings Detective D. D. Warren front and center once more. 

This time out Warren, just back from maternity leave, finds herself inexplicably linked to hard-charging 9-1-1 dispatcher Charlene “Charlie” Grant who has a unique story indeed to tell, specifically to prevent her own murder twenty years in the making.  Science fiction aficionados as well as haters should immediately vanquish thoughts of anything even remotely approaching Phillip K. Dick.  Charlie’s plight is instead grounded in a gruesome reality and it is left to Warren to solve her murder in advance by tracking down a villain who clearly graduated with honors from the murder school founded by Thomas Harris, Harlan Coben, and James Patterson at his best. 

To say any more would risk betraying one too many secrets in what is unquestionably the most original and entertaining thriller of the year.  The wondrous relationship that builds between Charlie and Warren aside, this is Gardner at her absolute best, making Catch Me as unique as it is absolutely impossible to put down. 



Young Adult



Little Women and Me

by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Given the assignment to write an essay on how you would change one thing in a book that you love, high school freshman Emily March selects Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. (Spoilers for a 140-year-old novel ahead) Not only is there the death of Beth, but also the unsatisfactory solution to the Jo-Amy-Laurie love triangle has bothered readers since the book was first published. As she starts to re-read the novel, Emily finds herself somehow transported into the world of the book, where she becomes the fifth March sister, joining Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Fans of Alcott's novel will get a lot more out of this than readers who come in cold, but Emily explains enough of the situations so that anyone interested in what, for the latter would be just a time-travel novel set in the 1860s, can keep up. Emily instantly realizes her situation and sets out to make the best of it. Although we get Emily's very 21st-century point of view, she plays her role straight. She knows better than to try to introduce any revolutionary cultural concepts into a world where women can't even vote (though the words wack and dude slip into the vocabulary of those around her, and she popularizes the ponytail). Instead, Emily concentrates on trying to prevent Beth's death  . . . and getting Laurie for herself. He turns out to be “a hottie.” As Emily notes, the novel she's living in is rather episodic—or, as she prefers “random”—and this book follows the original story fairly closely. The end, however, does features some truly surprising twists, which will satisfy everyone, as well as explaining several other things that have always seemed odd about Alcott's novel.



Drowning Instinct

by Ilsa J. Bick

reviewed by Scott Pearson



Drowning Instinct is an unflinchingly honest story that pushes the boundaries of young adult fiction. Bick brings together a small group of parents, high school kids, and teachers—each of them damaged in their own ways—and follows the consequences of their behavior into dark and uncomfortable places. 

Sixteen-year-old Jenna Lord has a lot on her mind. Her mother is an alcoholic; her father has a violent temper. Her brother Matt has shipped off to Iraq. Years before Jenna was nearly killed in a house fire, leaving her with other mental and physical scars. The stress of her family has driven Jenna to self-harm in the form of cutting, which eventually puts her in a psych ward. But now Jenna is out of the ward, trying to control her cutting, and starting at a new school. She’s hoping for a fresh start, but gets more than she bargained for as she develops feelings for Mitch Anderson, one of her new teachers, and runs afoul of Danielle, who’s on the school’s cross-country team, coached by Anderson. 

People are not completely honest with each other, and as their current choices and past actions collide, Jenna’s life careens in unexpected directions. Multiple layers, in shades of gray, intertwine and build to a complicated and dramatic conclusion. Certain edgy and graphic elements of the story may give parents pause, but older teenagers are not isolated from these or similar situations in real life. A hint of mystery, true-to-life characters, and Bick’s attention to emotional details make for an absorbing, if tragic, story. Recommended for adults and late teens alike.



Friends with Boys

by Faith Erin Hicks

reviewed by Neal Swain



Maggie's life is changing-- fast. Her mother has left; her father is now chief of police; her brothers have no time for her even when they aren't fighting each other; and her first day at high school is the first time she's been in a public school.  

Oh, and she's being followed by a ghost. 

Faith Erin Hicks' graphic novel Friends with Boys is aimed at young adults but the story is so appealing it can engage a wider audience. As Maggie adapts to public school, she befriends a brother and sister and unexpectedly ends up in the periphery of a conflict between school cliques. However, Friends with Boys is not the standard nerds vs. jocks fare.Hicks handles Maggie's story with both nuance and some optimistic realism: nothing returns exactly to the way things were before, but Maggie adapts and finds strong friendships to support her. The storytelling is charming and so is the illustration-- zippy with bold splashes of black and white. 



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