Saturday, March 16, 2013

What's Due Back at the Library Today?

Why, these three books! Let's see what I can say about them quickly.

Lawrence Block, Hit Me

The fifth book about hit man Keller comes after a five-year gap from the fourth, Hit and Run (I reviewed that, and the previous book Hit Parade, here), and returns to the style of the first three books: it's a fix-up disguised as a novel.

Hit Me doesn't explain whether or where its five pieces -- "Keller in Dallas," Keller's Homecoming," "Keller at Sea," "Keller's Sideline" and "Keller's Obligation" -- first appeared separately, though I can see that "Dallas" was, and still is, available as a Kindle Single. But they are all, structurally, separate stories, each with a distinct arc, and just shoving them next to each other and counting the chapters sequentially doesn't turn Hit Me into a novel. Luckily, it doesn't need to be a novel: it's an excellent fix-up made up of gripping stories, each one covering one job of Keller's.

At the end of Hit and Run, Keller had seemingly abandoned his old career, after a serious betrayal: he had a new name, a new wife, a new home and legitimate job in New Orleans, and a baby on the way. But, like the rest of us over the years 2008-2012, the economic crisis changed his plans, and sent him back into his old ways. More specifically, his philatelic hobby, and the money he needed to continue it the way he wanted to, gave him an excuse to earn large sums by traveling to other cities, meeting new people, and killing them.

Hit Me is actually more concerned with philately than with murder; Keller kills because that's what he gets paid for -- and he's good at working out ways to do it and get away quietly afterward -- but stamps are what he really cares about, thinks about, and schemes about. And, along the way, Keller becomes another one of Block's vivid portrayals of modern men -- never quite sure what they want, but always as sure as young Elvis Costello that they want it now. So this is a quieter, less showy book than you'd expect from a "novel about a hit man" -- but Block has never been one to write to expectations.

Simon Rich, What in God's Name

Heaven is a business, primarily devoted to the production of Xenon. Humanity was a side project of its distant, lazy, unmotivated CEO -- we know him as God -- but He's gotten tired of the whole thing and wants to destroy all life on earth so he can focus on his new project: a pan-Asian restaurant. But two angels in the Department of Miracles have a plan: if they can just call one shot -- get two New York schlubs who secretly love each other to kiss within a month -- then God will call off the destruction and let humanity live on. Oh, did I mention that the two angels' relationship is amazingly parallel to those two schlubs?

Back in my SFBC days, we had a cluster of books that sold well for years and that we periodically threatened to put together to promote -- the fabled "Blasphemy Flyer," which we never actually did. So we would have been very happy to see What in God's Name; I'm sure I could have sold this very well for many years.

But, looking at it with a less mercenary eye, it's even thinner than most of the books in this category: not as blasphemous or funny as God: The Ultimate Autobiography, smaller and less exciting than Waiting for the Galactic Bus, and definitely not holding a candle to Good Omens. (It's not really comparable to Towing Jehovah, since that one definitely wasn't funny, and Only Begotten Daughter wasn't really about the yucks, either.) It is a short, pleasant, mildly blasphemous afterlife fantasy by an up-and-coming comedy writer -- Rich is the author of two collections of short comedy pieces, including Ant Farm, which I enjoyed, and the novel Elliot Allagash, which has been optioned for a movie -- but not much more than that.

So, if you're looking for a novel you can read in an hour or two about a God whose more than a bit of a putz and two sets of would-be lovers too shy and odd to quite get together without a serious push, this will do just fine. If you're looking for anything more than that, keep looking.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

This one requires much less explanation: you've either heard of it already (and, in that case, probably read it at least once), or haven't. If you're in the latter bucket, immediately put Cold Comfort Farm on your list of books to read -- unless you have a strong aversion to actually funny books or an unnatural attachment to the rural muck and torment of Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and their ilk.

I've vaguely felt like re-reading Cold Comfort Farm for more than a year -- I actually pulled out my copy, just before Hurricane Irene, but didn't get to it before the flood killed it. But The Wife and I rewatched the movie -- which is also excellent, in a very similar way -- a couple of weeks back (though The Wife didn't remember seeing it before, strangely). And so, through the mysteries of Inter-Library Loan, I got a copy of this edition, with the Roz Chast cover and the Lynne Truss introduction, both of which I recommend.

Cold Comfort Farm was Gibbons's first novel, published in 1932, as a takedown of the then very popular "rural novel" (Mary Webb seems to have been the exemplar of this now-forgotten subgenre), and it's as funny, and as endlessly quotable, now as it was then. It's a book about the triumph of thinking and planning over blind tradition and florid emotionalism, so I expect a lot of SFnal people will love it for that. But, most importantly, it's wickedly funny and deeply lovable, a joy to read and a joy to re-read and a joy to remember.

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