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For some reason when the weather turns cold, I end up doing a lot of reading. The appeal of good books shouldn’t be dependent on the ambient temperature outside, but for some reason in my world, it is.
Sports impacts that a lot, and usually in the fall, football occupies a lot of my attention. When done, the dreary months of January through April become perfect times to catch up on my reading because you can’t really do much outside, and the sports I do watch – mainly the Washington Capitals – are not dependent on 100 percent of your focus.
In hockey, for some reason, the rules of broadcasting were established long ago that when a goal is scored, the announcers must scream as loud as they can, an air horn must add to the noise, and this explosion of sound easily alerts you something good has happened. You stop, hit the 30-second rewind on the DVR, watch, then return to your book.
This year, reading season has come early thanks to the woefully inept efforts of the Washington Redskins. Part of the fun of football is not only watching them and hoping they do something positive to affect their place in the standings, it’s also pulling for other teams in the division to lose, creating the opportunity for an entire Sunday of viewing.
After the first two weeks of September, it was apparent my Sundays would be free the rest of the season.
So I’m back to my routine of reading. If you are a reader, the most common question you ask (and are asked) is if you’ve read anything good lately. That’s always a bit of a trick question because there are a lot of good books. What I’m looking for is great. And if you ask someone for a book recommendation, you have to expect at some point that person is going to ask “did you like the book?”
Answering no to that person ranks right up there with telling someone their baby is ugly or they have no taste. So you tread lightly, and if someone really liked a book and you didn’t, you just turn to the tried and true tradition of looking them in the eye and flat out lying. They’ll never know.
I am a bit of reading snob, so I start looking for books on the New York Times best-seller list. I have found this is not necessarily a way to discover great books, but odds are they will at least be good. The longer it’s on the list, the better it tends to be, although that’s not always true. I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch many years ago because of this and spent the last half of the book wondering “will this ever end?”
As such, the three books I read this week were obtained due to that criteria: John Grisham’s The Guardian; Me, Elton John’s autobiography, and Ronan Farrow’s book which has been in the news frequently, Catch and Kill.
Grisham books are always enjoyable to me, but I have a lifelong friend who is an author, and she rolls her eyes at me when I mention his books. She seems to regard all of the authors who churn out books on a very regular basis – Grisham, James Patterson, Clive Cussler, etc. – as the fast food options of the literary world, and she’s probably right.
But, as I tell her, a bacon Whopper with cheese and a side of onion rings can be one of life’s simple pleasures too.
She occasionally recommends books to me, which I always read (she WILL ask how I liked the book) and there is no gray area. They are either very good or in a category I like to call “why did I read THAT?” Her recommendations also never truly describe what you’re about to encounter. One time she recommended John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. What’s it about, I ask.
“It’s about about a gay man in Ireland,” she replies.
“Not exactly the topic I got up this morning hoping to read more about,” was my response.
But I read it and it wasn’t just a good book. It was a great book, prompting me to text her “we need to work on your selling skills.”
If you like Grisham’s books, you will like The Guardian. It is much better than his previous book, The Reckoning, where it seemed to me he had a good idea, got tired halfway through the book, then treaded water the last 200 pages before slapping an ending on it. This book, which is based on a real organization that helps overturn convictions of those in prison who were wrongfully accused, is one of those easy reads you start right after dinner, than a few minutes later look up and realize it is 2 AM.
I went the non-fiction route with the second book for more personal reasons. I grew up a piano player in a home with a very difficult mother, which is exactly the same as Reggie Dwight, who would take the names of two of his band mates at an early age, string them together and become Elton John. Let’s see, I thought, just how bad he had it.
He wins, by the way.
The book is predictable as many rock stars tell the story of young man becomes rock star, takes a lot of drugs, experiences every kind of debauchery imaginable, gets taken advantage of by his manager, then settles down to a somewhat normal life in his older years. But unlike that dreadful biopic of a movie that I thought placed too much emphasis on John being gay and abusing drugs, the book puts all that into a much broader context.
My biggest problem with the movie was it didn’t really talk about the music that much. This does go into much more detail of the magic he and Bernie Taupin made, and Elton tells the story in a funny and self-deprecating way that is delightful. If you weren’t an Elton John fan and saw the movie, I’m not sure you’d like him.
When you finish this book, you walk away with the feeling of “he’s a pretty good guy.”
Ronan Farrow’s book was the surprise for me. I knew of his pursuit of the Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer scandals and was expecting the book to be about his investigation into all that. It is, but it’s really three stories overlayed on top of each other. One is about the investigation, and as a former journalist, I came away with a lot of respect for Ronan. He put in the shoe leather and had to fight numerous forces – including his own employer NBC – to advance the story. Without that effort, the entire story never comes to light.
But then there is the story of those forces that were trying to stop him. At times I had to remind myself the story was non-fiction. Between private investigators, smear campaigns, rogue lawyers, intelligence agencies, etc., it read like a murder mystery. I can’t imagine pursuing this and not being scared to death. And he was.
The third layer was Ronan himself. This isn’t just a reporter digging around Hollywood. This is the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, two members of the club. He’s not just name-dropping when he speaks of celebrities he’s talking to. He grew up in that world.
It’s easily the best of the three and perhaps the best one I’ve read this year. It’s a great story and Ronan is an excellent writer who uses some of the same self-deprecating humor Elton John did in his book. It was a good and interesting read.
So if you’re so inclined, all three are good, but Ronan Farrow’s is the best. And if you know of a great book, pass it on…