All I Did Was Ask by Terry Gross (2004, Hyperion)
There’s an adage in show business that insists a performer should always leave the audience wanting more. If that saying holds merit, Terry Gross is a fantastic performer.
The book is a selection of interviews from among the thousands Gross has conducted in her position as host of NPR’s Fresh Air. The interviews chosen tend to be particularly noteworthy because they focus on aspects of the celebrity which are rarely discussed publicly and which add depth to their personalities.
The book contains more than three dozen interviews, of people ranging from Nicolas Cage to Mickey Spillane to Eric Clapton. The issue I had with the book is that all of the interviews were excerpted for what Gross found to be the most engaging bits. The result is interviews which range from 13 to only 6 pages, and the shorter interviews invariably leave the reader feeling cheated.
It’s still a fascinating set of windows into the lives of successful people. It’s merely a rare example of one which would have been better served by increasing its page count rather than paring it.
The Hellfire Club by Jake Tapper (2018, Little, Brown)
My first impression of this book was one of deep distrust. I’ve read thrillers by news reporters before, and reading Those Who Trespass by Bill O’Reilly is the sort of unpleasant experience which will leave you crying in a corner questioning your life choices. (Rule of thumb for any thriller writers: don’t have only one plausible villain and then have the bulk of the book consist of the uber-heroic, gossamer-veiled analog for the author protagonist spend the entire book trying to figure out who the villain is.)
But this isn’t about my rightful loathing for the pile of excrement that is Those Who Trespass. The Hellfire Club is actually a good book, a political thriller set in 1950’s Washington D.C.
The book benefits greatly from Tapper’s experience in Washington and his knowledge of the town’s history. The book is populated by the faces who were present in that time period, and many events in the book happened as they are described. He does fall into a common trap in that regard, which is to modify events to fit his narrative. This is always dangerous, because people incorrectly glean information about history from historical novels; particularly in cases like these, where the information dump is dense, it’s a disservice to the reader to include anything known to be false outside of the novel characters and whatever mysterious plots they might be attempting to foil.
That said, Tapper covers this failing by including, at the end of the book, a detailed set of explanatory paragraphs discussing exactly where he deviated from reality. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s far better than what is typically offered.
The characters themselves are realistic, and if the dialogue gets a bit jarring at time it’s forgivable in the exact way the dialogue in a Buckley book is forgiven; one simply assumes that conversational flows work slightly differently in the circles in which the characters travel.
The main thrust of the book isn’t the dialogue, anyway; it’s the mixture of idealism and corruption which marry for any person who finds themselves working in Washington. Tapper, having worked there, has undoubtedly seen this effect dozens of times, and he puts his experience to good use here.
The reader is left with a story of conspiracy and political maneuvering which is likely to raise questions about just how plausible some modern conspiracy theory is… and that is a sign of the author’s success. It’s a solid book, and it will undoubtedly bring some extra smiles to the faces of those who are familiar with the politics of the 1950s.