Review: Keller’s Fedora, Difficult Men, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and others

So here’s the deal: I’m slacking on my book reviews. Not that I haven’t been reading (or listening) to lots of books – in fact, I’m one book ahead where I need to be to complete my 70 book Goodreads challenge.

But I’ve bean bad about doing weekly reviews of individual books so I’m giving myself a break and allowing for Short Book Reviews of an assembled grouping. Without further ado, then, here’s the latest batch of books. 

Keller's Fedora
Keller’s Fedora by Lawrence Block

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit I haven’t been keeping up with my favorite hit man. For instance, I didn’t know he’d acquired a wife and daughter since the last time I’d checked in (but to be fair, he didn’t know I’d acquired the same, so I guess that was fair). Anyway, it was with great delight, I read that Lawrence Block had written a new Keller novella and would be releasing it on its own.

When it came out, I jumped on it and while I don’t find myself with much spare time for pleasure reading these days, I figured this was a short read so why not.

I was not disappointed! Block has a very distinctive style for each of his series characters (Matt Scudder, Evan Tanner and Bernie Rhodenbarr are also in this pantheon) and felt good to get back to Keller, the proverbial hit man with a heart of gold. Now, to be fair, while his heart may be gold, his trigger finger is like ice. Like a Mountie, he always gets his man (or woman or child or whomever his target may be). Only this time, there are complications, brought about by trying to find a rhyme for “El Paso” (You just have to trust me on this – it works). In the end, though, Keller makes it work with a ploy worthy of the great Martin Ehrengraff (another of Block’s morally compromised well of characters).

As a last note, I should point out that part of the fun in reading Block is he lets nothing go to waste and will often fill narrative dead time with obscure facts and tidbits of information (the number of pounds of beans produced per capita in the 1930s for example) which will allow you a definite competitive edge at pub quiz. Even in this relatively short novella, he keeps doing the trivia master’s good works – this time with a (kindle) page full of historical information about the coastal area of my adoptive country, Lithuania. It’s always nice to get a shout out but now I have even more reason to recommend this piece to nearby friends and neighbors.

Pippi Longstocking
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I’ve said before, one of the things I like about audiobooks is I get to catch up on classics I may have missed. As part of that, I’m also reading/listening to kids books in (early) preparation for Monki’s listening pleasure. While I’ve long joked about someday my kid being able to handle “real” books from the get go (and I did just purchase an early edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from Jonathan Kearns for her), now that the reality is here, I understand she’ll need to read some more kid friendly books to whet her reading appetite.

With that in mind, I listened to Astrid Lindgren’s Swedish classic, Pippi Longstocking. Now, sure, I’d seen the film when I was a kid and even knew about the play (Rainbow Co. did it a long time ago) but had never read the original source material. Now I’ve rectified that. And it’s good. It’s not great for adults, not in the sense that adults should be able to read kids books and get just as much, albeit different, enjoyment from them, but good in an empowerment of little girls kind of way. All of the chapters are individual stories, never building on and rarely referencing each other. There’s not a lot of character development, either. Honestly, it’s just a collection of adventures where the main character gets into trouble, mostly due to her lack of education and not understanding how the system works.

I have a feeling this is the kind of book which sparks a lot of after a bedtime story session life discussions. And I’m kinda okay with that.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many years ago, when Christopher Judge and I had a production company together, we met with executives at Marvel about doing a TV show. Now, this is back when Marvel was a non-starter, way before the MCU as it is today, and the executive we talked to was incredibly dismissive of the idea of writers actually writing about characters. As I recall, the conversation was about possibly doing a Ghost Rider series and the comment was something like “we can’t afford more than one transformation during an episode so you’ll have to be okay with more character stuff.” Needless to say, the project never got off the ground and Chris and I went our separate ways, but reading Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men reminded me of that long ago meeting.

In the book, Martin chronicles what he calls the “Third Golden Age” of television, marked by the premiere of The Sopranos and, ostensibly, still going on. The reason I thought about the meeting was that one of the attributes Martin gives to this Golden Age is the idea of character depth approaching a novel-like intensity. Starting with Tony Soprano, Martin also traces the evolution of the TV patriarch along with the parallel evolution of the (almost entirely male) writer/producers who were responsible for bringing these Difficult Men to life (although, to be fair, the title could refer to either the character or the creator or, most probably, both.

It’s a great read, and at times insightful, except for me, a writer, a lot of it felt like preaching to the choir. When that executive at Marvel said we’d have to focus on character, my initial response was “duh, what else would we focus on?” But evidently, that’s the mark of a prose writer and not a screen one. As someone who writes prose, I always have an unlimited budget for special effects so it’s not that big a deal to use them in service of the story. When something is readily available to you (like your folks give you a beer with dinner so you never have to worry about sneaking a bottle) you only use it when necessary. Therefore, the story, by necessity, becomes more about the transformation of the inner character and not the outward changing from guy to flaming skeleton.

In much the same ways, these creators were taking a page from novels and giving us storytelling and linguistic pyrotechnics much more profound than any on-screen special effects. So as Martin is describing the revolutionary shows hitting our TV screens, I was saying to myself, they were just catching up to where good literature has always been. At the same time, they also pioneered the short season model, where a story could be structured around a close-ended 8,10 or 13 episodes (chapters) suitable for binge watching as they create one cohesive narrative, or what I’m going to call, the noTVel.

So, a good book, full of minutia and details worthy of the time, even if the overarching theme seems to be something anyone with a degree in literature could have told you about years ago.

Farmer in the Sky
Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my ongoing quest to read all the Heinlein juveniles I’ve neglected, here’s the latest. Farmer in the Sky is the tale of Bill, a 17-year-old Eagle Scout who decides to emigrate to Ganymede. Now, it’s not quite that simple, it never really is, is it, and there are a number of obstacles and interruptions as Bill and family (dad, step mom and step sister) try to adjust to what is basically a frontier lifestyle on one of the moons of an outer planet.

It’s not a bad book, but certainly not one of my favorites. One of the things which got to me was the rampant sexism. I know this book was published in 1950 (after being serialized in Boy’s Life, the Boy Scout Magazine, earlier in the year) but when the step mom abandons her sick daughter because “a wife’s place is with her husband.” rubs me the wrong way. Even in 1950, in a book written for adolescent boys, this strikes me as a bad message to send.

That aside, though, the story is fun and full of adventure, but Bill vacillates between wanting to leave and wanting to stay so much you have no idea what’s going to happen in the end – and it seems to come from nowhere in terms of character development. Overall, I’m glad I read it, but probably won’t be revisiting it any time soon.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another in my continuing quest to catch up on the classics, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a short, quick book. The story is fairly straight forward – pods come down to Earth and replicate the humans of a small city near San Francisco. Miles Bennell is our hero, the guy who sees what’s going down and does his level best to a) figure it out and b) prevent it from happening to him. Additionally, there’s major secondary character called “Jack” who is a writer (a bit of self-insertion maybe?).

As the book progresses, and the pods continue their relentless destruction, Finney makes some assertions about what it means to be human, what the cost of the assimilation really is and how fighting it at all costs is the only reasonable option. What it’s not is the obvious “communist” metaphor the first film is accused of being. In fact, there’s a coda on the book, an interview with the son of the original film’s adaptor/director, about how he never purposefully created that metaphor, but that it was read into the finished film because of the time period. Later adaptations replaced the communist metaphor with others about the book’s dangers of blind assimilation message (there’s actually a really good essay about it by Kelley Crowley in The Fantastic Made Visible).

The only things which really bothered me was the ultimate defeat of the pods (not really a spoiler – a 1955 novel is going to have at least an upbeat ending if not absolutely positive). Not the way it was done in general, that was fine, but what happens with their final disposition and the way they were finally eliminated from Earth just didn’t seem plausible given what we’d learned about them earlier.

What I will say though, is that I’m really liking Jack Finny. About 6 months ago I read Time and Again and really enjoyed it, too. There will certainly be more of Finney on my “to read” list.

View all my reviews

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