Friday, February 26, 2016

Tears, Fears, and Cheers

This week's question—"What's the last book that made you cry? Laugh out loud? Quiver with fear?"—prompted some immediate responses from me, though I had to alter (of course) that word book just slightly in the process of answering. 


As I discussed at some length at SleuthSayers, my other group blog, I'm a big fan of author-illustrator Arnold Lobel's work, including the Frog and Toad books, Uncle Elephant, Owl at Home, Small Pig, and others—and several of these have become favorites as well for my son Dash. While he zeroes in on the silliness at the heart of the stories, what often hits me hard is a different kind of heart: the emotional intensity in some of the plot twists, in some of those simple gestures of grace that punctuate the stories. Toad struggling to tell his own stories for his sick friend Toad—until he's sick himself and the positions reverse. Frog recounting a youthful journey to find spring just around the corner, and then Frog and Toad turning a corner themselves. Toad's frantic fears when Frog runs late for Christmas dinner, and a simple gift that wraps the story up tight.... And (switching books) don't get me started on the counting that Uncle Elephant does on his train rides with his nephew. At least I'm not alone in the way these moments leave me with a tightening behind the eyes and a tugging at my tear ducts. As someone commented on a friend's Facebook page after he shared my post there: "Uncle Elephant and Owl at Home have the capacity to reduce me to blubbering mush."

In terms of more adult fare, I recently led a discussion about Louise Penny's A Rule Against Murder for a course I'm teaching at George Mason University—and here too, throughout the book, several scenes and passages struck me as very poignant, tear-jerking even. While my wife once cried after watching five minutes of the finale of a TV series she'd never watched a single episode of, I'll admit I sometimes think of myself as a hard-hearted. So what is it that does the trick for me, whether in children's books like Frog and Toad or in novels that aren't purposefully intended to be tear-jerkers? Basically those moments of some depth and rawness of emotion, obliquely presented but with hints of real vulnerability, presented in contrast to small acts of generosity and selflessness. For me, that's a combination that can't be resisted.


It's not often that I encounter books or stories that leave me truly frightened—though even reading a review of Sue Klebold's recently released memoir A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy brought back some pretty intense memories of Dave Cullen's brilliant Columbine several years ago, a book which left me with fears and anxieties that have proven deep, pervasive, and unshakeable. (And having a son myself now has only intensified some of those emotions.) Given that qualification, however, several scenes in a novel I read recently did leave me with a sense of creepiness and unease: Ripley Under Water, the final book in Patricia Highsmith's five-novel Ripliad (which I finished as part of last year's New Year's Resolutions). It wasn't the violence in that book (or really any of those books) that affected me, though Highsmith's coldness does work its unsettling charms in such scenes; instead, it was the simple conversations over cocktails between Tom Ripley and his new neighbors, David and Janice Pritchard, that left me edgy and uncomfortable. Those chats always seemed to have some menace coursing beneath them—with sudden, unexpected twists, giddy accusations and defenses, and always, always an escalating politeness that made it all the more unbearable. Do I really need to say it? Highly recommended.


The question of what made me "laugh out loud" was the toughest one here. I generally read more toward the darker end of the crime fiction spectrum, and while there are many very funny writers I admire in the mystery field, from Edmund Crispin to Sarah Caudwell to Donna Andrews, I haven't read any of their works in the last two months. And yet I did remember laughing—and out loud!—at something just a few days ago. It took me a little while to recall what it was, and here's why: It wasn't a book at all or even a published story but an assignment from one of the students in that course I mentioned above. Sarah Wheeler, an MFA student at Mason, turned in a pastiche (really a parody) of Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind" that really hit the nail on the head. Here's a short excerpt that she agreed to let me share: 
She walked in, the wind blowing at her long, red hair. I could tell she was trouble by the way she moved, confident, legs up to here, and the way she looked at me from under her eyelashes, all shy-like, and the way Taylor Swift’s "I Knew You Were Trouble" bled through the headphones she wore around her slender neck, and the way her tight shirt was emblazoned with the word TROUBLE in rhinestones, with an arrow pointing up from between her pert breasts to her own distant yet intriguing face. These are the kinds of subtle clues you pick up on when you’ve been at the game as long as I have. 
I said to her, “I have one rule. Don’t fall in love with me.” 
She said, “Mister, I’m a strong woman. But I ain’t that strong.”
That's just a sample, of course, but throughout, as Wheeler updated some of Chandler's approach and his tropes to the present-day, she revealed a sharp understanding of his work while at the same time letting imitation tumble into exaggeration and then absurdity—delightfully so, in my opinion. 

SmokeLong Quarterly: Scott Onak's "The Final Problem"

While I can't pass along all of Wheeler's story, I do have another one to recommend—one that also works its magic somewhere in that area between pastiche and parody, between exaggeration and appreciation. Earlier this week, SmokeLong Quarterly published Scott Onak's "The Final Problem," a story which I selected from blind submissions during my week guest editing for the journal back in January. As I wrote in my comments about the story, "I always admire fiction that can both play with and build intelligently on the forms and the elements of genre fiction, particularly when it’s my own chosen genre of crime fiction. This story does just that—in a piece that can be read as a parody but that also comments on and illuminates some of the deeper issues and concerns at the core of the classic detective story." I flat-out love this story—and love too the illustration by Jessica Gawinski that was commissioned to accompany it and that I'm reproducing here. Please do check out the full story at SmokeLong's website.

News On A More Personal Front.... 

And finally, some quick news of my own. Just before my last post here a couple of weeks ago, I learned that "Rearview Mirror," the first story in my novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise, had been selected by Elizabeth George and Otto Penzler for the forthcoming Best American Mystery Stories anthology—really a dream come true in so many ways. And then this week I learned that another story I was associated with has also been selected for the anthology: Tom Franklin's terrific "Christians," which was published in a collection I edited last year, Murder Under the Oaks, the 2015 Bouchercon anthology. I'm doubly thrilled by all this great good fortune—or even triply (trebly? thrilled three times over?) on the heels of On the Road with Del & Louise having been named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best First Novel. My concern has always been that this ungainly hybrid thing I produced would succeed neither as a cohesive novel nor as independent stories, so the good fortune here has been much welcome. Thanks too, in this regard, to Paula Gail Benson for interviewing me and Georgia Ruth Wilson at The Stiletto Gang about this news—and a final cheers to all the other friends and fellow writers whose stories have also been selected, including Matt Bell, Bruce Robert Coffin, Robert Lopresti, and Todd Robinson and who knows who I missed. Can't wait to see who else shows up there!


Paul D. Marks said...

I thought I put this up already, but it doesn't seem to have taken. So if it's here twice, twice the congrats.

Congratulations on all you many successes, Art! I'm very happy for you!


Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paul!

Jim Collins said...

Art, I too find several of Louise Penny's novels quite poignant. I just received and finished an ARC of Lawrence Levy's Brooklyn on Fire, his second mystery featuring Mary Handley. It's set in the 1890s and somewhat like Victoria Thompson's series, although with a lighter touch. I found myself actually laughing at a couple of points, which isn't all that common, especially with historicals.


Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Jim--and yes, "poignant" is just the right word, I think. Thanks for the recommendation of Levy's book too! I read less historical than contemporary, so always appreciate recommendations in that direction!