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

Difficult MenDifficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, by Brett Martin
The Penguin Press
292 pages
Audio narrated by Keith Szarabajka
10 hours, 18 minutes

Whether it’s intentional or not, the very first sentence of Difficult Men delivers an immediate jolt to the heart – that kind of bittersweet realization that happens when you hear an ironic reference to someone who is dead.

“One cold winter’s evening in January 2002, Tony Soprano went missing and a small part of the universe ground to a halt.” (Prologue, pg. 1)

Mr. Martin is writing about James Gandolfini’s abrupt departure from the set of HBO’s Emmy-awarding drama The Sopranos, but the irony is a bit eerie – for Tony Soprano is missing and has been, most sadly so, since Mr. Gandolfini’s untimely death in June 2013. (Difficult Men was written while he was still alive and published mere days after his passing.)

The Sopranos was one of my favorite shows – not just on HBO, but of all time. Six Feet Under, Rescue Me, and Mad Men are also on that list and Mr. Martin examines all of them to some varying degrees in his book. These shows were different than their predecessors in many ways. They were groundbreaking for television. They “dramatically stretched television’s narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition.” (from the book jacket)

While a major part of that had to do with the male protagonists  - Tony Soprano, Tommy Gavin, Don Draper, et al were some of the most memorable characters of an era – it had much to do with the writers, directors, and producers of the very shows themselves. The “show runner”  really ran the show in more ways than one; all of his personal baggage and therapy fodder was imprinted on the show like an epitaph.

What’s absolutely fascinating is that this isn’t the case with one show.

It’s all of them.

That’s especially true with David Chase of The Sopranos, and sometimes it can be hard to tell where Tony Soprano’s life begins and David Chase’s biography ends. That’s intentional on writer Brett Martin’s part, I think; one of the main premises of Difficult Men is that the creators of these shows were as deeply flawed and nuanced as the characters they brought into our living rooms every week. Some of this is also due in part to the writers and show runners having cut their teeth on some of the same shows. For example, it’s well known that Matthew Weiner worked on The Sopranos before Mad Men. This is a small circle and as the subtitle promises, Brett Martin gets behind the scenes and brings his reader the inside scoop on the backstories, the dramas that we viewers didn’t see, the conflicts in the writing room, and much more.

Difficult Men is a very entertaining book; however, there is one caveat. If you’re not a fan of The Sopranos, you’ll want to consider skipping this one. To a lesser degree, that’s true about The Wire, too. I haven’t seen a single episode of The Wire, but since I was listening to this on audio, I just fast-forwarded through those parts (and chapters). That would be difficult to do regarding The Sopranos‘ references because Difficult Men focuses so heavily on that show. It’s not just a chapter or two, as is the case with The Wire and Breaking Bad, another show that gets a decent amount of play in the book; it’s that The Sopranos‘ influence is woven throughout. Again, this didn’t bother me – but if you’ve never watched the show or didn’t like it, this won’t be the book for you.

I listened to Difficult Men on audio and thought it worked well in that format. It kept my attention and Keith Szarabajka’s narration is excellent.

4 stars out of 5

The Sunday Salon: Dispatches from the Back Deck

The Sunday Salon


I can’t think of too many places I’d rather be writing this Sunday’s salon than my current location: my lounge chair situated on our back deck. These are the days that make the bullshit of the -13 degree temperatures with the -30 wind chills that we dealt with during this winter worth it.

There’s nothing better than that first time venturing back out onto the deck after such a winter. It’s glorious.

OK, yeah, sure … I admit that there are other more exotic places in the world, but right now on this almost 80-degree perfect weather Sunday with an occasional gust of a breeze and my daffodils in bloom and Don Draper back in my living room this evening and my kids getting along, this corner of southwestern Pennsylvania is as pretty close to heaven today as you can get.

It’s not, of course. Just several miles east of here, the Murraysville community is reeling from this week’s events at Franklin Regional High School where a 16 year old student stabbed more than 20 people. It has shaken many of us in the Pittsburgh area; we know none of us are isolated from this sort of thing and this week brought that reality and the powerless feelings ever so closer to home, once again.

My kids have been talking about the stabbings a little bit. It has come up in their classrooms and in conversations with their friends. As somewhat of a distraction from that and other things, we went to the movies earlier this morning and caught a 10:45 am. matinee of “The Muppet Movie: Most Wanted.” We’re big Muppet fans in this house and although the sequel was, as even The Muppets themselves admit, not as good as the first movie, there were enough fun moments to make it worthwhile. There’s a great very brief-don’t-blink-or-else-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Josh Groban, which I loved and the song “I’m Number One” will speak to anyone who has been in the position to someone who gets all the credit for your hard work.

Mrs. PoeIn bookish news, I’ve been feeling somewhat behind in … well, everything. I have a bunch of reviews and posts that I want to get written, and I can’t remember when I last sat down with a book for a long chunk of time. Next to me here on the deck is my current read, Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, so I’m hoping to make some more headway with that this afternoon.

GoneSomething I did read – and finish this week was Colum McCann’s new short story “Gone,” which is now available as a Kindle Single.  I will, as you know, read anything that Colum McCann writes; he could write the Yellow Pages and I would devour it. (With this, I made the mistake of starting it at lunchtime and I didn’t have enough time to finish it; don’t be like me and do that.) When a child with special needs goes missing, McCann gets to the heart of parental guilt, anguish, and self-blame.

I’m also reading Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens with my son as part of a school project (and listening to the audio book in the car, to try and stay ahead of the game). That deserves a whole separate post, which I’m hoping to get to soon. 

Year of the SnakeAs I mentioned in my previous post, my friend Melissa Luznicky Garrett published her 7th novel yesterday. Year of the Snake is the third book of hers that I’ve had the honor of editing. On the back cover, I give this endorsement:

“In Year of the Snake, Amelia embarks on a year-long journey of self-discovery and, in the process, learns what it’s like to truly fall in love. In her seventh novel, author Melissa Luznicky Garrett proves her own growing versatility as a writer. With madcap plot twists and delightful surprises,Year of the Snake wraps the reader tightly around Amelia, Mason and Desmond and keeps one guessing about who will be Amelia’s ultimate choice. A light romantic read, it’s impossible not to look more closely at our own lives to discover what stories are inside us that are just waiting to be written.” 

Now I’m off to spend some time with Mrs. Poe and perhaps a glass of wine. Here’s to good books, and to spring finally being in bloom. (At least for today, until it becomes 45 degrees again later this week.)

Such is spring in Pittsburgh.

Daffodils in bloom 2014



celebrating the launch of year of the snake

Year of the Snake

I’m so in love with this book cover and it’s not just because I had a part in bringing this romance to life. Today, my friend Melissa Luznicky Garrett launches her 7th novel, Year of the Snake which is now available for the Kindle at $2.99 on Amazon and also in paperback.

Plucked from the slush pile, 19 year old Amelia Harkins rises instantly to fame and the top of The New York Times Best Sellers list. Dropping out of college to pursue a full-time writing career, Amelia spends the next 17 years as America’s reigning Queen of Romance, fulfilling her fans’ every desire as she pens one steamy novel after another. But when Amelia suddenly realizes she’s outgrown her muse and fictional other half, a buxom blonde named Hillary Hart, she begins to question her own identity.

This is the third book of Melissa’s that I’ve edited, and I love working with her. The professionalism and dedication that she brings to every single one of her books shatters the stereotypes of self-published authors.

Melissa invests a great deal into her work – from the time she spends writing each day (combined with a demanding homeschooling schedule) to paying for professional editing AND professional formatting AND professional cover design. All of this totals hundreds of dollars – easily. I admire that she does all that, every single time, and I think it shows.

Tonight I read through Year of the Snake again to try and find a non-spoiler-ish quote to share, to no avail. So, I’ll just leave you with this, which happens to be my endorsement that appears on the back cover:

In Year of the Snake, Amelia embarks on a year-long journey of self-discovery and, in the process, learns what it’s like to truly fall in love. In her seventh novel, author Melissa Luznicky Garrett proves her own growing versatility as a writer. With madcap plot twists and delightful surprises,Year of the Snake wraps the reader tightly around Amelia, Mason and Desmond and keeps one guessing about who will be Amelia’s ultimate choice. A light romantic read, it’s impossible not to look more closely at our own lives to discover what stories are inside us that are just waiting to be written.

I hope you consider giving Year of the Snake - and any of Melissa’s other novels – a chance.

Melissa, congratulations on #7 and as always, thank you for trusting me with your words.

Year of the Snake - front and back


Daffodil in rainAfter the longest winter ever, our daffodils bloomed Thursday afternoon.


These were taken this morning and something about the rain on the newly emerging daffodils somehow seemed fitting in the aftermath of the stabbings at Franklin Regional High School here in the Pittsburgh area. We don’t know anyone at Franklin Regional, but given its proximity to us (it’s about 40 minutes, give or take), seeing that bright splash of yellow during the last two days was definitely needed.

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” ~ Albert Camus, “The Stranger”

Daffodils emerging

The Sunday Salon: This is the Story of How I’m Trying to Read Everything Ann Patchett Has Written Before Tomorrow Night

The Sunday Salon

My big weekend plans were to do my own Readathon, of sorts, and to read All The Things Ann Patchett Has Ever Written.

You see, Ann’s speaking tomorrow evening at Pittsburgh’s Arts and Lectures’ Literary Evenings Monday Night Lecture Series, and like the ticket I bought for Colum McCann, I bought this one a year ago, too. My thinking was that surely I would read something of Ms. Patchett’s in that timeframe, just as I had great hopes of reading everything by Colum McCann before his Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures appearance.

(I realized I read part of Truth and Beauty about six years ago, but didn’t finish it. I can’t remember why; I wasn’t blogging then.)

Anyway, I’m thinking I’ll start with This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, since I have this out from the library now (along with Run), and I imagine much of her talk will touch on the essay topics.

So that was my intention this weekend, but I really wound up being a bit of a slug – not just with reading but with everything. I stayed up way too late on Friday night (as in, 2:15 in the morning late) to finish my submission for my writing group to critique on Tuesday evening and I’ve been paying for it all weekend. At 45 years old, it takes a few days to recover from that kind of debauchery.

I’m keeping this short because I really do want to read some Ann Patchett this evening. Hope you’re having a good weekend (and a more productive one than mine).  

Book Review: Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, by Beth Kephart

Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla ResolventDr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, by Beth Kephart
illustrated by William Sulit
New City Community Press
190 pages

If  her fans were asked to name her most memorable books, perhaps Beth Kephart’s Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent wouldn’t be among the first to come to mind. That’s because this is what I consider to be a quiet book. One similar in nature to its main character William (who we first met in Beth Kephart’s Dangerous Neighbors) and one certainly akin to its humble author.

William, age 14, has a knack for finding lost things, particularly animals gone astray. It’s a talent that eventually enables him to make a small windfall. But it doesn’t overcome for the tragedies that his family has suffered  - his brother murdered, his father imprisoned – and the early lessons learned that sometimes what’s lost can’t always be found and what’s broken can’t always be easily repaired. (“Everything that’s broken is William Quinn’s to fix.” pg. 4)

This historical fiction novel puts the reader back in 1870s Philadelphia, a time when people believed in the power of potions to cure their ails. (The sarsaparilla resolvent, in this case, is an elixir, hope in a bottle.) It was a time when people believed in giving young people chances as apprentices and took them under their wings with helpful advice about how things – machinery, the world – worked. 

In this exceptionally-researched novel targeted toward the tween/young adult audience, Beth Kephart captures not only the sights and sounds of Philadelphia during this industrial age, but also the language of the time. One of her many talents as a writer is her consistent ability – in every book she writes – to put her reader in the scene alongside her characters. (That is also why it isn’t necessary to have a familiarity with Philadelphia when reading a Beth Kephart book, but is also the same reason that doing so is an absolute treat for this Philadelphia native.) In Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, William Sulit’s illustrations add to that experience nicely while lending the book an appropriately somber tone. 

History comes alive in this book. As do reminders about the things – family, home, friendship, truth – that matter most in life. 


The Sunday Salon: Books I’m Reading … and Movies I’m Watching Being Filmed

The Sunday Salon

Time and Place: 8:33 p.m. (getting this one in late) // our family room

Eating and Drinking: Nothing right now; however, I just had three Glutino chocolate chip cookies as dessert. You can’t even tell they are gluten-free. I love them.

Watching: The Husband has the Dodgers vs. Padres game on TV. After this winter, it’s certainly nice to have baseball back.  Late this afternoon, The Husband and I caught up on the past three weeks of “Dallas” on TNT. We are “Dallas” fans from back in the ’80s (my family watched it every week) and we’re loving this new series.

Reading:  Mrs. Poe

I’m only 29 pages into Mrs. Poe, but I am really enjoying this one. It’s a historical fiction novel set in 1845 when Edgar Allan Poe meets Frances Osgood, a struggling poet and children’s author. There’s an attraction between the two, which is somewhat scandalous – and problematic – because Poe happens to be married and his wife is very ill with tuberculosis. She suspects an affair, and befriends Frances.

Creative Nonfiction - Issue 50

I’ve also been reading my way through the Fall 2013/Winter 2014 edition of “Creative Nonfiction,” a publication that has been around for almost 20 years. This also happens to be the literary journal’s 50th issue.  Even though “Creative Nonfiction” has been publishing for nearly two decades, I’m a fairly new reader (the library has a subscription) because I’ve been trying to read more creative nonfiction and learning more about the craft. “Creative Nonfiction” gets bonus points with me because home base for the magazine is right here in Pittsburgh and its founder, Lee Gutkind, is a local guy.

Listening To:

Difficult Men

This week I finished the audio book of Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, by Brett Martin. Even now, “The Sopranos” remains one of my favorite shows, which is a good thing because Difficult Men talks a lot about the character of Tony Soprano and the making of the HBO show. (If you’ve never watched “The Sopranos” or you’re not a fan, this book probably isn’t for you.)  Mr. Martin also spends a lot of time on “The Wire,” a show I’ve never seen; as a result, I skipped over those parts.

(More on “Breaking Bad” in a minute.)

The Girl Factory

Currently, I’m listening to The Girl Factory, a memoir by Karen Dietrich about growing up in Connellsville, PA, a working-class factory town located 57 miles south of Pittsburgh. Connellsville is the type of place where nothing bad happens – until the March 1985 mass shooting at the Anchor Glass factory in town and where Ms. Dietrich’s parents both work. Her mother, who seems to have undiagnosed (as of chapter 12) obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, seems to become even more emotionally fragile as a result (understandably so).

Making:  The movie “Fathers and Daughters” is filming in Pittsburgh and last week they were on location near where I work. It was all rather exciting. Amanda Seyfried and Aaron Paul star in the movie, and I needed my coworkers to tell me who he was (he’s from “Breaking Bad”) … and to point him out to me when he was, y’know, just hanging out.

Aaron Paul

And here’s one of someone taking a photo of Amanda Seyfried and a fan.

Amanda Seyfried

Promoting: One of the reasons I haven’t been reading or blogging as much over the past few weeks is because I’ve been editing a novel! (Not mine.) I was delighted when Melissa Luznicky Garrett asked if I would edit her seventh book, a romance novel titled Year of the Snake. Working with Melissa is always a pleasure and I find her books to be fun reads.  This one has an anticipated publication date in mid-late April.

Let me also take this opportunity to remind my readers that freelance editing is something I enjoy and I would welcome the opportunity to work with you on your book.  If that’s of interest, you can get in touch with me here.

Hope you had a great weekend!