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Dave Wood's Book Report, March 12, 2008

Here we are in the shadow of the Oscars and here I am with two books about the movie industry that you may want to peruse.

First is "Not the Girl Next Door," by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster, $26). This one's about actress Joan Crawford.

No, no! It's not another "Mommie Dearest," the book about Crawford written by her ungrateful daughter. This one is written by Charlotte Chandler, Crawford's grateful biographer.

In this admiring biography, Crawford does nothing wrong. Even her ex-husbands admire and respect here.

The book is larded with quotes by the Great Lady herself and there's nary a bad word about Crawford, nee Lucille Lesueur, the actress we've all learned to despise since the appearance of "Mommie Dearest," which was even made into a movie starring Cybill Sheperd, dripping with venom.

This is not to say this new hagiography is all bad. Chandler, who has written a shelf full of adoring screen biographies, has worked hard to explain the milieu in which Crawford found herself once she got to Hollywood.

Her take on marriages to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Philip Terry and especially Franchot Tone are fascinating.

When she ends up on the board of Pepsi-Cola, run by her last husband, that's a fun chapter, too.

Perhaps most amazing is Chandler's summaries of ALL the movies Crawford made, from the silents to later extravaganzas like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

And also lots of photos printed on glossy paper.

So it's worth a read if you've got a handy dose of insulin by your nightstand.

I was hoping that "Oscar Season," by Mary McNamara (Simon & Schuster, $24) would be a non-fiction expose of Oscar Night because author McNamara, a reporter for the L.A. Times, has reported for years on the inner workings of Hollywood.

But no. This one's a novel, McNamara's first, and it's about murder and mayhem during Oscar Season at the fictitious Pinnacle Hotel, one of L.A.'s finest, where stars and agents and spin doctors swirl around in anticipation of the Big Event.

The heroine is Juliette Greyson, Pinnacle's public relations director, a fixer who smoothes over problems real and imagined of the stars who bed there. She's beautiful, talented, very quick with a verbal thrust and heartbroken because her husband, a screenwriter has left her for a bimbo.

But that's not Juliette's biggest problem during Oscar season. It's the murders of big names that keep occurring at the Pinnacle. Juliette smells a rat and that's how the plot turns.

The characters are all impossibly beautiful and witty and remind this reader of the last such book he read. That would be Harold Robbins' "The Carpetbaggers."

McNamara's main characters are all fictitious as in the Robbins novel, but come close to real stars we know about.

Sprinkled among these fictional creations are real names of stars we read about all the time. (When Russell Crowe checks in, Gregory the catty reservations head hopes he won't throw a TV set through the window as he did during his last stay.)

So if that's your cup of tea, take a sip.

For the rest of us, McNamara's inside knowledge of how Hollywood works

Pops up all the time in her description of how nominees are chose, whether it be for "adoration, allegiance, pity, goodwill, gratitude and a desire to back a winner."

Let's get serious. When President Richard Nixon appointed Minnesotan Harry Blackmun to the Supreme Court in 1970 everyone thought he would do little more than fortify an already conservative leaning court.

Were they in for a surprise! The former Mayo Clinic counsel blossomed in Washington and stood up for our nation's outsiders and underclass, with his Roe vs. Wade triumph as his crowning touch.

We shouldn't have been surprised at Blackmun's interest in the outsiders, according to author Tinsley Yarbrough in "Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice" (Oxford University Press, $35).

Turns out in this fascinating biography that Blackmun inherited an inferiority complex and a melancholic nature from his mother and it colored his attitudes toward the poor from his poor childhood in St. Paul's Dayton's all the way to corridors of power in Washington. It's an American success story that I heartily recommend.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.