Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a supermodel dies of an apparent suicide, one-legged Afghan veteran Cormoran Strike is hired to uncover the truth.

The death of Lula Landry was tabloid fodder for months, but Strike soon discovers that her life was as complicated as her death. Her adopted brother, John Bristow, is determined to know the truth about his sister's seeming suicide.

Landry is the necessary victim void at the plot's center, and Rowling does a good job of making her seem appealing and her death regrettable. I found the solution to the mystery a letdown (and a bit unbelievable), but it's not a book you read for the plot alone. Instead, get into it for interesting characters and the great setting of contemporary London.

Strike's history as the son of a supergroupie and a rock star puts him in an interesting position as he interviews London's glitterati - he is not exactly the in crowd, but neither is he a complete outsider, and each character's reactions to his life story is a kind of litmus test. His relationship with the treacherous Charlotte will surely produce interesting surprises in the future, and I can hardly wait for the next installment.

I also liked the incredibly awkward meet-cute with his Temporary Solution secretary, Robin Ellacott. Robin finds herself at odds with her new fiance because of her fascination with Strike's work, but cannot help be drawn from the dullness of temp work into Strike's colorful world.

Robert Galbraith was once as anonymous as Richard Bachman, but both both "men" were destined to die the same death: Galbraith was outed as the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling (and Bachman, who "died" in the 1980s, was revealed to be Stephen King). After trying The Cuckoo's Calling, I'm on board to read Rowling's other adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, which came out to mixed reviews.

For an off-the-wall suggestion, I'm going to throw out this one: The Beautiful Fall by Alicia Drake, which gives a real-life glimpse into the tumultuous and self-obsessed world of fashion design, following the rivalry of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld in 1970s Paris. Some of the interview scenes with Lula Landry's friends reminded me of the outrageous behavior Drake depicts.


"He knew more about the death of Lula Landry than he had ever meant or wanted to know; the same would be true of virtually any sentient being in Britain. Bombarded with the story, you grew interested against your will, and before you knew it, you were so well informed, so opinionated about the facts of the case, you would have been unfit to sit on a jury." - 25

"It was difficult for him to decide whether she was sincere, or performing her own character; her beauty got in the way, like a thick cobweb through which it was difficult to see her clearly." - 319

Friday, February 14, 2014

Top of the Morning

Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TVTop of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV by Brian Stelter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chronicling a tumultuous year in the history of morning television, a journalist goes behind the scenes to tell the real story behind Ann Curry's firing and the ratings wars.

In morning television, there is the juggernaut, Today, and then there is everyone else. For eight hundred and fifty straight weeks, Today was number one, raking in the advertising revenue. And then comes Ann Curry. Part one of Top of the Morning is the story of the Curry debacle at Today, part two recounts the woes and triumphs of Good Morning America, Today's chief rival, which took advantage of the crisis to aim for the coveted number one spot.

Stelter is not flattering to Curry, often calling her "strange" and "awkward" and painting Matt Lauer as her reasonable but bemused coanchor. Their chemistry was off from day one, and it was Curry who took the blame rather than the seasoned (male) anchor or any other aspect of the show (though he's received new heat after the debacle of her firing). Following on the heels of Lauer's warm relationship with Meredith Vieria, the contrast was obvious, and painfully awkward to witness. Once Lauer renewed his already lucrative contract for even more than his usual $20 million dollar-a-year paycheck, Curry's fate was sealed. And she didn't go quietly.

I don't quite buy Stelter's read on the situation, which casts Curry as the petulant bumbler and Lauer as the seasoned pro (Stetler was unable to interview Lauer for the book, and had other restrictions placed on what he wrote in exchange for behind-the-scenes access). Stetler does, to his credit, mention how often a female co-anchor bears the blame for failing ratings, only to be replaced by a newer model (Joan Lunden to Lisa McRee in 1997). Morning shows are created mostly by men for a mostly female audience, and that leads to conflicts.

Let's compare the coanchors Lauer had chemistry with to the one he didn't take to. You may draw your own conclusions:

Top of the Morning reads like a juicy gossip column. Packed with colorful writing (albeit, with sometimes overheated metaphors), Stelter maintains the breathless tone of someone keenly interested in the 'who hates who' backstories, even mentioning his own presence at a few of the important gatherings. He tracks the meanness and squabbles, the pettiness of men and women in charge of programs worth millions of dollars. They take their morning TV very seriously.

If you are even vaguely familiar with television, you'll recognize many of the names Stelter bandies about. I enjoyed hearing the gossip, though I confess to having to look up about half of the current and former morning show anchors mentioned. (The often-mentioned conflict between serious journalists and sensationalist fluff is one that makes me chuckle - to me, most broadcast news seems like highly compressed fluff anyway.) You won't learn a lot about the way morning shows function, or have to sit through the mysteries of Nielson ratings, but you will understand the backstory behind this infamous video:

Want more behind-the-scenes? Try The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & the Network Battle for the Night by Bill Carter, or Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller.


"In the TV world, as you may know, 'to do something' often means 'to fire someone.'" - 4

"A genuine meanness seemed to color the staff's attitude toward their troubled colleague [Ann Curry], something that looked from certain angleslike the giddiness brought on by a sense of doom. One staff member, offended by the behavior, said 'a lot of time in the control room was spent making fun of Ann's outfit choices or just generally messing with her.' On one memorable morning, Curry wore a bright-yellow dress that spawned snarky comparisons to Big Bird." - 80

"When TV critics and anonymous sources blamed a lack of 'chemistry' for Curry's bad year with Lauer, she heard a euphemism for something else. Several friends recalled her saying, 'Chemistry, in television history, generally means the man does not want to work with the woman.' They said she added, 'It's an excuse generally used by men in positions of power to say 'The woman doesn't work.' Historical examples abound: Connie Chung and Dan Rather; Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner. Chemistry, Curry argued, is when both people want to play catch - when somebody isn't interested in playing catch, that's when there isn't chemistry. She, at least in her own mind, came to work every day with her glove on and her throwing arm all warmed up." - 249

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Big Girl Panties

Big Girl PantiesBig Girl Panties by Stephanie Evanovich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Holly Brennan meets physical trainer Logan Montgomery on a plane trip, the overweight widow sees a change to regain her life - and result of their workouts will be not only sweat but steam.

First off, let's not mix up author Stephanie Evanovich with her aunt, Janet Evanovich, as I did! This is Stephanie E's first novel.

At the core of Big Girl Panties is a fun fantasy - fat girl wins over studly prince, but the rest is nothing special. The sex scenes and some of the descriptions are awkward ('strong manly hands,' lol), and the rest lacks fizz. The heroine's revenge for a small slight is odd and embarrassing, and the hero at times comes off like a shallow jerk.

I'm not sure the  novel adds much to the discussion of our society's intense disdain for overweight people, but I did find the hero's self-awareness about his own prejudices interesting. The heroine does have to lose a lot of weight to finally gain his attention (and let's just gloss over the ethics of a trainer boning a client), but her backstory is unique and interesting. I wish that her troubled family was more in the picture, because it would have added some needed depth and drama to the story.

That's not all bad. (I know, it sounds bad. But it's not.) For a plane trip or a day on the beach, you could do much worse. Enjoy this book for the fluff it is, but don't expect a whole lot more.

For a funny, action-packed romance with flawed main characters, try Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, which starts with One for the Money. Another classic of the chick lit genre is Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, which also stars a female protagonist who finds love in spite of being on the heavy side. You might also try Stephanie Evanovich's upcoming novel The Sweet Spot if you found yourself enjoying her work and want to see this new author developing her voice.

Monday, February 10, 2014

I Don't Know

I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't)I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance by Leah Hager Cohen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Drawing on the insights of science and literature, this essay explores the power of admitting ignorance - and why it is so difficult to do so.

It's a short book, barely 72 pages long, and packed with the titles of other books to explore if you're fascinated by the topic of ignorance and the limits of human knowledge. There are intense social pressures to appear knowledgeable - pressures that even small children feel, though a failure to admit ignorance often spreads more darkness than light.

With anecdotes ranging from "The Emperor's New Clothes" to the recordings of a downed plane's little black box, Cohen illustrates the dangers of pretending to know when you don't. She brings together numerous sources in an interesting way, and it is clear that, with the recent insights of modern neuroscience and psychology, we seem to be getting a picture of exactly how little we know.

You should flip through Cohen's book with pen in hand to write down titles. But one she doesn't mention, Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein, is another short book that looks at the subject from the perspective of a scientist. Opposing Cohen's willingness to admit ignorance is the clever book-length essay How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard, which makes the argument that a little knowledge can go a long way. Finally, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, explores our endless human tendency toward self-justification.


"Over time, he lamented, we lose our openness. [Ashley] Montagu attributed this in part to conventional schooling, which he blamed for squashing a love of knowledge. 'School, instead of being a magic casement which opens on unending vistas of excitement, has become a restrictive, linear, one-dimensional, only too often narrowing, experience and to many a dead loss.' By the time formal education stops, around early adulthood for most people, 'it is as though they believed that they had learned all they needed to know,' he wrote. 'At this time they begin to grow a shell around this pitiful store of knowledge and wisdom; from then on they vigorously resist all attempts to pierce that shell with anything new.' Montagu called this process psychoschlerosis, the hardening of the mind, and cited it as the reason most adults 'draw back from the unfamiliar, perhaps because they are reluctant to reveal ignorance.'" - 19

"That our intuition could lead us astray is troubling in direct proportion to the degree of trust we place in it. The solution would seem to be: Don't be overly trusting. Mix in a healthy dose of skepticism. But suppose we don't have a say in the matter? Suppose we're hardwired to trust - to believe in - our instincts, regardless of whether they're right? Suddenly the problem of not knowing becomes a lot more complicated." - 29

Friday, February 7, 2014

Books Read in January

The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood - Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood takes a nuanced look at pre-revolutionary shifts in American culture, family structure, politics, religion, education, and economics.

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett - A strange new plot is afoot in Ankh-Morpork's Assassin's Guild: one that threatens to draw the Watch and Captain Sam Vimes - on the eve of his retirement - into the path of a deadly new weapon.

The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood - On a visit to London, the mystery surrounding the wolf-children of Ashton Place deepens when their young governess, Penelope Lumley, receives warnings of danger at every turn.

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman - Going out for milk turns into an adventure of epic proportions for one boy's father.

Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds - When misunderstood predators lacking self-confidence meet weekly, strange things are sure to happen.

The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller - When fisherman Asher escapes to the big city to make his fortune, the brash young man little suspects that he is destined to be the center of earth-shattering events that may destroy his homeland.

The Hoarder in You by Dr. Robin Zasio - Dr. Robin Zasio, known for her work on A&E's Hoarders, reveals the keys to uncluttering your mind and life, exposing the truth about anxiety, compulsion, and hoarding tendencies.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter - In the final days of World War II, the 'Monuments Men' scoured Europe to preserve the most important art and buildings in Europe - priceless masterworks Hitler ordered destroyed if the Reich fell.

The Awakened Mage by Karen Miller - With his entire family dead, magic-less Prince Gar must assume his role as weather worker of Lur, unaware of the coming storm and the man destined to stop it: his best friend, the lowly fisherman Asher.

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani - When best friends Sophie and Agatha are kidnapped and forced onto opposite sides of a School dedicated to churning out fairy tale villains and heroes, they must stick together to find a way out - or face their true destinies alone.

Reflections by Diana Wynne Jones - A collection of essays and speeches by a renowned children's author illuminates not only her body of work but also the captivating magic of literature.

I Don't Know by Leah Hager Cohen - Drawing on the insights of science and literature, this essay explores the power of admitting ignorance - and why it is so difficult to do so.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Reflections: On the Magic of WritingReflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of essays and speeches by a renowned children's author illuminates not only her body of work but also the captivating magic of literature.

We live in an age of literary plenty, where some of the most exciting books out there are written for young readers. Anyone who has been paying attention knows how much I admire Diana Wynne Jones. She is the heir to C.S. Lewis and the forerunner of J.K. Rowling without being quite like either author (though apparently she didn't care much for Rowling).

I love books of essays, and this one was a special treat because of Jones's insights into not only her own stories but the universal way stories make themselves felt in the minds of readers. She imparts her deeply informed sense of storytelling, developed from a lifetime of reading the great myths and fairy tales.

There are many small repetitions here because it's a body of work formed over many years and it is clear that her mind returned to the same themes continually. One interesting story that gets repeated is her mother's suppression of a chapter from The Wind in the Willows called "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." The rationale behind her mother's prohibition could easily serve as a lesson to would-be parental censors on the power adults can exercise over children, as well as the power children have to overthrow such directives in their own lives.

Intriguingly for literary nerds like me, Jones relates her experiences of two of her Oxford lecturers: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien lovers will be fascinated by her insightful discussion of his storytelling abilities ("The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings").

Jones also recounts, with some heat, the ingrained sexism she faced as a female writer: "Actually my Pig of the Year Award went to the male reviewer of Fire and Hemlock. I quote it here in full: 'This is a girl's book and I don't see why I should try to understand it.' End review." (In "A Whirlwind Tour of Australia".)

For those interested in reading other short essays on the work of children's literature, Katherine Paterson's A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children is a good next step. Paterson is an author whose works are miles away from Jones's, but whose conclusions about literature are often the same. Both make a great addition to any collection of books about writing.


"It does seem that a fantasy, working out in its own terms, stretching you beyond the normal concerns of your own life, gains you a peculiar charge of energy which inexplicably enriches you. At least, this is my ideal of a fantasy, and I am always trying to write it." - "The Children in the Wood"

"Anyway, to get back to the Real Book engraved in the minds of head teachers. It is written by a man for adults. It contains only facts, or narrative purporting to be facts. It should appeal to few people. It should not be amusing. And it should contain a message, or at least a serious discussion of current problems, set out in such a way that it can be extracted for teaching purposes." - "A Whirlwind Tour of Australia"

"A good book should be another place, beyond ordinary life and quite different from it, made with care and containing marvels. But though it is beyond everyday life, it if by no means unconnected with it. [...] Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving them, or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful." - "A Whirlwind Tour of Australia"

"We had a long shelf of books that tried to teach you something under the disguise of a story, and we labeled that shelf GODDY BOOKS." - "Inventing the Middle Ages"

Monday, February 3, 2014

The School for Good and Evil

The School for Good and Evil (The School for Good and Evil, #1)The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When best friends Sophie and Agatha are kidnapped and forced onto opposite sides of a School dedicated to churning out fairy tale villains and heroes, they must stick together to find a way out - or face their true destinies alone.

Beautiful Sophie hates the thought of being ordinary, and is determined to find her way into the fairy tales so she can marry her own handsome prince. In spite of her ceaseless vanity and self-absorption, she manages to befriend the ugly and lonely Agatha.

Soon the unlikely best friends are kidnapped and forced to participate in the bizarre world of the School for Good and Evil, where the mission is to create pure paragons of Good and Evil who will then be remembered in fairy tales.

Except someone makes a mistake: beautiful Sophie is dropped into the Evil side and misfit Agatha placed in the candy-pink side of Good.

While Sophie is forced to study Uglification and Henchmen Training with the Evil, Agatha learns that Good princesses whistle up forest animals, do their hair, and wait for princes to come to the rescue. Impatient with frippery, Agatha only wants to return home with her friend. Pink-loving Sophie, however, longs to switch sides so she can rule the Good - in spite of occasionally showing an unprincesslike aptitude for her Evil lessons.

It's a complex and unexpected book (sometimes overly action-packed) where the line between Good and Evil remains in sight but grows increasingly blurred. The friendship between the two girls is compelling as each struggles with her own goals; sometimes in concert with her counterpart, mostly in opposition.

Sophie's lack of introspection sometimes makes her frustratingly dense, but she is entertaining as an unwitting villainess-in-training. (She's cut along the lines of Galinda the Good in the musical Wicked, and there are other interesting parallels to that story.) Agatha, on the other hand, sees her situation more clearly and is a sympathetic heroine struggling to do Good in spite of loneliness and an inclination to Evil.

Soman Chainani knows his fairy tales, and he gets at the complications of human nature that go beyond simple Good and Evil. It's an entertaining story, as smart as fractured fairy tales books should be. Fans of Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making will find much to enjoy here. There are flashes of humor, too, that recall The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy. Fans of traditional fairy tales who are interested in the deeper morality should also read George MacDonald's classic The Lost Princess. And don't forget Chainani's upcoming sequel: A World Without Princes!


"Evil thought it had corrupted Good, and Good thought it had enlightened Evil, but it didn't matter." - 270

" 'I was angry!' Sophie cried. 'I didn't mean any - I didn't want to hurt him! I don't want to hurt anyone! I'm not a villain!'
'You see, it doesn't matter what we are, Sophie.'
Lady Lesso leaned so close she just had to whisper.
'It's what we do.' " - 286