Review: ‘Me’ by Elton John

Me by Elton John

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elton John is a mensch.

Elton might disagree with this description. A mensch, after all, is an honorable person, a “person of integrity and honor,” according to the dictionary. Elton — as self-described in his memoir, “Me” — has a terrible temper, abused drugs and people, ducked out on engagements, and generally was not a nice person for many years.

Nevertheless, a mensch is what he is.

If you measure a mensch by the degree to which they honestly examine their life and learn from their mistakes, then Sir Elton John, the onetime Reginald Dwight, has earned his menschian spurs many times over. In “Me” he addresses his faults and failures with brutal, if empathetic, ownership. His lyric-writing partner Bernie Taupin once wrote that “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” but Elton puts the lie to that statement. He’s sorry, over and over again, and it doesn’t seem to be hard at all, but freeing.

Not to mention hilarious. There’s a hell of a lot more to “Me” than being sorry for taking too many drugs and locking himself in his house for extended periods of times. This may be one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I probably laughed at something on every page.

On his wedding to Renate Blauel: “The reception was at the Sebel and was every bit as inconspicuous and understated as you might expect. White rose had been flown in from New Zealand … There was lobster and quail and loin of venison. As was also traditional, [manager] John Reid later punched someone.”

On meeting Mae West with some gay buddies: “To my delight, she swanned in with a lascivious smile and the words, ‘Ah, my favorite sight — a room full of men,’ which, given that the men present were me, John Reid and Tony King, suggested she was in for an evening of disappointment.”

On meeting his husband, David Furnish: “I asked what he was doing that evening, when I just happened to be in London. I behaved as if this was a remarkable coincidence, but frankly, if David had been in Botswana, I suspect I would have happened to be there that evening too: ‘The Kalahari Desert? What a stroke of luck! I’ve got a meeting there tomorrow morning!’ “

He has hundreds of stories like this, and he writes about them so deadpan casually that you can’t help but like the guy, even when he’s overindulging. Which, frankly, is often. After all, he’s been a rock star for 50 (!) years, and he lived the life, even when he was trying to resist it.

I think it’s because, beneath it all, he’s still an enthusiastic fan who may still see himself as the lonely, virginal Reg Dwight. He genuinely loves music — he has a famously large record collection — and nothing makes him happier than discovering the latest band or paying tribute to a hero. (When he’s describing his late-in-life collaboration with Leon Russell, an early role model, you get the feeling he’s still pinching himself.) He’s starstruck even after he becomes friends with John Lennon or Elizabeth Taylor or Bob Dylan. He takes his charity work seriously — he’s proud of the impact of the Elton John AIDS Foundation — but not himself. And even if he’s pleased with how many of his songs became classics, he notes more than once that he can write a melody for Taupin’s lyrics in 15 minutes, so even that talent doesn’t overly impress him.

“Me” has its moments of gloom, particularly when Elton’s in rehab, and it’s hard not to sympathize when his overbearing mother enters the scene. (She even managed to disrupt his wedding to Furnish.) And he zips through the making of classic albums such as “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” something that fans — and who isn’t an Elton John fan of some degree? — would probably want more of.

Still, for the most part, Elton is a wonderful and cheerful storyteller. He made me wish that “Me” were twice its length, like a sturdy double album. On the other hand, a man who’s always been attuned to the power of singles knows that greatest-hits collections have their own power. “Me” is a pretty great collection.

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Review: ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book made me angry. Oh, it’s written well; heavy-handed, but well. And maybe I wouldn’t be so angry if it hadn’t been preceded by rapturous reviews and blurbs. (I should have suspected something when I saw one of the blurbs was from Jodi Picoult, master of the two-dimensional. Ng is better than that, but just.)

But, really? This book was up there on best-of lists and awards shortlists? This Lifetime movie of a book? (Sorry. Hulu movie.)

I mean, it’s so … prim. So suburbs, bad; freedom, good. So predictable, and except for one section, unrevealing. The first rule of good writing is show, don’t tell; “Little Fires Everywhere” tells, and tells, and tells. I mean, I’ve been to Shaker Heights, its setting, a few times. I didn’t recognize the place, despite Ng’s almost Rand McNally-like lists of landmarks. Because she had one point to make about it and she did so with a sledgehammer.

Short version of the story: Single-mother artist Mia and her daughter Pearl move to Shaker Heights c. 1998. (You can tell because of the Clinton references and the occasional omniscient “Years later, they would …” crap. But honestly, the book could have been set yesterday with no loss.) House they rent is owned by the Richardsons. Dad’s a lawyer, Mom’s a lawyer’s wife/sometime community reporter, they have four kids who all attend Shaker Heights High School. The youngest, Izzy, is trouble. We never find out why. She was just born on the wrong side of the maternity ward, I guess.

The other three are WASP-y kids (and though I’m sure there are plenty of WASPs in Shaker, my knowledge of the place is pretty much as Cleveland’s most notable Jewish suburb). All become entangled with artist and daughter. The oldest, Trip, dates artist’s daughter, to the chagrin (sorry, Ohio joke) of younger brother Moody. (Yes, he’s really named Moody.) Older daughter, Lexie, ends up (spoiler!) pregnant by boyfriend and has abortion, turns to artist for comfort because Mom just doesn’t understand. Izzy befriends artist. Lawyer dad and stick-up-her-ass mom also get entangled as they take side of friends who want to adopt Chinese baby left at firehouse by mother, who then wants baby back. Chinese mother is friends with artist, who has her own baby story, except she kept hers. Yes, it’s her daughter. They’ve essentially been running since daughter’s birth. In her late brother’s 1980 VW Rabbit, I add.

(Which is one of the many unbelievable bits in the book — not only did they use the Rabbit as a homeless shelter between their frequent stops, it still runs after 18 years! Let me tell ya, the Rabbit was no Beetle.)

Anyway, all these characters are essentially straw people for Ng to make her points about complex artists good, WASPy suburban families bad. And maybe, in her mind, they are. But as I said, there’s a rule about good writing: Show, don’t tell. And Ng tells us — a LOT — about how lawyer mom has a stick up her ass, and single-mom artist is really cool and with-it and makes expensive avant-garde abused photographs. I never got a sense of any character’s interior. I’ve gotten more depth from Bret Easton Ellis brand names.

There was one section of the book, however, which showed what Ng could have done when she wasn’t sneering at her perfect Shaker family. In a flashback, she follows Mia into her own teen and college years when she considered becoming a surrogate for a wealthy couple in New York. Suddenly the blacks and whites of Shaker turned to rich grays, and little details about Mia’s life seemed indicative, not gratuitous. (Well, there’s a professor who’s a little too good to be true, but I went with it.) When the flashback ended, however, we were right back to mocking the suburbanites.

Ng is a capable writer. Her metaphors are overdone, and she can be a little too pleased with herself, but I kept reading despite it all (and probably would have even if it wasn’t a selection for my book club). But I was surprised that an author who asked us to show so much empathy for Mia had so little for her other characters.

I’ve read plenty of stories poking at the suburbs. John Cheever’s tales of empty Connecticut businessmen are brilliant; John Updike can leave me cold (he’s also a little too pleased with himself at times) but the man managed to make Rabbit Angstrom worth reading about.

Ng’s work doesn’t cut it. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to, but given the laudatory reviews, I would have thought she was more than just a slightly more eloquent Jodi Picoult. The ending, in particular, stretched credulity past the breaking point.

I don’t believe in burning books (heavens, no) and I certainly wouldn’t take a match to “Little Fires Everywhere.” But it does make me mourn for the trees that were turned into its paper.

P.S. Next time you’re in the Shaker area, stop by Corky & Lenny’s deli. They make an excellent pastrami, and they’ll give you a lot more to chew on than you get from “Little Fires Everywhere.”

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