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BOOK REVIEW

Up close with Jane Pauley, but not too close

Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue, By Jane Pauley, Random House, 288 pp., $25.95

On the cover of her new book, "Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue," Jane Pauley radiates confidence, cheeriness, and graciousness, the hallmarks of her TV news career as host of shows such as "Today" and "Dateline" on NBC for 27 years.

Off camera, though, and in her book, she reveals another Jane Pauley, one who struggled with insecurities about not being an aggressive, top-notch reporter. "I am not one of the great journalists of my time," she writes. "I used to say that my life, meaning my career and its attendant perquisites, was wasted on me -- I thought it was a joke."

And behind the scenes, she battled chronic hives. Steroid treatments for the condition triggered her bipolar disorder, a revelation she made public last summer as she was about to reemerge as a daytime talk-show host.

Pauley on Pauley is a personal, breezy, and yet elegantly insightful read. It gives her fans and readers a behind-the-camera glimpse at the television personality who always seemed so guarded about her private life. In this book, she describes how she is learning to be comfortable in her own skin as she embarks on a new journey, hosting the syndicated, Oprah-esque "Jane Pauley Show."

"My career has taken me so many places, but now I feel I'm going places on my own initiative," she writes. "The cumulative cost of years of guilt and denial would be paid for with my health. . . . But getting sick would be freeing, too, a turning point. I was beginning to learn my own strengths."

While she mentions some of the experiences that helped shape her as a TV journalist, mother of three, and bipolar disorder advocate, Pauley leaves readers wanting more intimate details in and out of the NBC studios. She pulls them close, but not too close.

Pauley begins by talking about the book's title, what she refers to as her own mirror to reflect on herself through words, "an accumulation of moments of clarity in which I finally saw what had been in plain sight all along."

She goes on to detail how she found herself at a psychiatric hospital in New York to understand her rampant mood swings and hives, and how she struggled to get control of her life in recent years. But then she dovetails back into her Midwestern childhood and family, and eventually, onto her career.

A successful high school and college debater, Pauley quickly landed a job as a TV reporter in Indianapolis with a phone call to a local anchorman. He then introduced her to the station's news director, who hired her as a TV reporter after an audition in 1972. That led to anchoring a highly rated newscast in Chicago three years later and then to the most coveted of TV jobs -- cohost of the "Today" show -- by the age of 25.

But Pauley didn't feel that she belonged in the big leagues of TV journalism and didn't understand her meteoric rise in a field that included few women. She took the criticisms she received to heart: TV critics panned her as a lightweight on the tube, "a hood ornament" or having "the IQ of a cantaloupe."

One of the more surprising revelations is Pauley's description of her interviewing style. The night before an interview, she would brush up on notes, study them, and go to sleep. The next day, she would conduct the interview without notes, treating the experience more like a conversation than a series of gotta-ask questions and gotta-get answers.

"I never went for shocking revelations," she writes. "I looked for revelations that illuminated something about life, imagining that my guest learned something new from our conversation that the viewer did, too -- or maybe only I did."

Pauley laces the book with hints of family skeletons, but she doles out these revelations in morsels. She could have delved more into her father's alcoholism and its impact on her. Rather, Pauley focuses more on how she balanced her career and her immediate family -- her husband and their three children.

She also could have detailed more closely the period when the younger and ambitious Deborah Norville joined "Today" and was being groomed for her slot.

In fact, Pauley doesn't come out and say how she really felt about the situation. The harshest comments don't come from her but from a Washington Post writer: "[Bryant] Gumbel seems more comfortable now with Norville than with Pauley, and Norville sometimes has a self-satisfied smirk on her face. Like Eve in 'All About Eve.' "

Reading the book is akin to watching Pauley on TV -- a down-to-earth and pleasant experience.

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