By Art Taylor
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.
TearsAs 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."
FearsIt'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.
CheersThe 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.