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My Summer Reading List: Hard-Boiled Detectives, Drug Lords, and Other Creeps We Love

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Book coversI’ve been reading a lot of mysteries and crime novels lately. By lately, I mean that aside from a smattering of nonfiction and other things, it’s all I’ve read in 2012. It’s partly research – I’ve got an idea for my own book making itself comfortable in my brain for a while now. But reading one book has led to another and another. I get pulled into the stories and the writer’s particular dirty world.

Mostly though, what makes a mystery more than just a puzzle or riddle to solve is the depth of the characters. A great mystery is a study of human nature. Sure, I want to find out who did it (but not too early on). But what I really want is a trip into the strange (or scarily normal) minds and world of the criminal. The more heinous and unimaginable the crime, the more I need to know about the person who committed it and what made them who they are.

During the winter and spring I was reading mostly the classic hard-boiled detectives. Think Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, noir movies with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Titles like The Long Goodbye, Trouble is My Business, and The Glass Key. You knew who was “right” – but even then, no one was really clean. Not the detective. Not the suspects. Definitely not the perpetrator. And yet, you could sorta, kinda understand why everyone did the things they did.

Villains We Love and Villains We Hate

How does one hate Matt Damon?

Sometimes, you end up secretly (or not so secretly) rooting for the criminal. One of the books I read several months ago was The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s not giving much away to say that Tom Ripley is a sociopath and a killer. But you don’t start out with that side of him. He’s a regular guy – maybe a bit too eager to be liked, maybe a bit odd, maybe a little bit of a liar. And even though he’s clearly “bad”, let’s all admit it, we are kind of hoping he can stay just one step ahead of the police for just a little bit longer.

More recently I finished reading Savages by Don Winslow, followed by its prequel, Kings of Cool. In both the line between “good” and “bad” is more than blurred – it’s nonexistent. Intentionally. Whichever side you’re on is the good side. And the bad side.  Winslow does a great job of making some very bad people seem human, and even sympathetic (Savages more so, in my opinion).

Then I moved on to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. More than any of the others, this one kept me reading past my bedtime. I internally shouted WHAT?! several times, and did it aloud at least once. The writing is brilliant. The story is twisted and sick and kept surprising me. I was writing the reviews in my head already – “Best Mystery Ever!” “Original!” “Twisted and Wonderful!”

And then I got to the last chapter.

I won’t spoil it for whoever hasn’t read it yet but I will say that I felt like I had been betrayed as a reader. I have the ebook version, and when I read the last page I literally went back two chapters and then to the table of contents just to make sure I wasn’t missing pages.

Let me go ahead and say that, as a testament to Flynn’s writing, the rest of the book was so good that I read her other novels anyway: Sharp Objects, which I do think is largely brilliant, despite sort of knowing where it was headed from pretty early on, and Dark Places, which is good but not quite as great as Sharp Objects.

Why do we root for (some) bad guys?

When you read enough murder mysteries, you start to ask yourself this. Around the same time I was thinking about this post, Lindsay Durrenberger wrote “why are we rooting for someone like don draper?” on her blog. Now Don is no serial killer, but he does do a lot of things with women who aren’t his wife that would make him pretty repulsive in real life. Yet we don’t entirely hate him.

Gillian Flynn coversI think it’s because these people are written as complex characters, who either somehow fell into their “badness” through circumstances or bad decisions or accidents, or who had something traumatic happen to them, or have some redeeming qualities outside of their creepiness. We either feel sorry for them or sympathize with them, even as we are looking at their actions with disgust. They aren’t a cartoony caricature of evil. We’re maybe hoping they can redeem themselves, even if we know they won’t. They show us our own flaws, magnified by 1000x. Or they show us something about humanity or our society. It’s not that we don’t want them to get what they deserve. But part of us wants them to learn something, or change somehow, because if someone ‘evil’ can turn things around, then hey, humans can’t be that bad, right?

So in thinking about the ending of Gone Girl, I’m back to this: why does it feel so wrong? It’s hard to say without giving away part of the plot, but I think the author does such a good job of fooling us, that in the end we are demanding some kind of payback for this that never comes.

I’m not someone who demands happy endings from books, or for everything to be tied up neatly into a little package and wrapped up with string. I like things to feel realistic and that’s not always real life. But more than any novel I can remember in recent history, I felt sickened by this ending.

We might be fine with “very bad things” happening and even a bad ending for the “good” side. But we still have to feel like the world in general makes some sort of sense, even if that sense is that things aren’t right. The end of Gone Girl made me feel like the world is psychotic, or at the very least, seriously, seriously disturbed. Maybe that was her point, but it didn’t ring true.

Suck Spectacularly!

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illuminated manuscript

photo by John Benson

Every so often, I will decide to sign up for something that I have no business doing. Sometimes it’s something practical, like design & typography classes. Sometimes it’s a whim, like the fashion construction class I took at Parson’s before Project Runway made sewing cool or bhangra dance class at my old gym.  Sometimes it’s a little odd, like the Illumination class I took at the School of Visual Arts once. Illumination as in, medieval manuscripts and gold leaf and making glue from garlic (my husband will verify this as true). And then there are those times that I will sign up for something even though I so completely and utterly suck at it that I know I’m going to be embarrassed every time I go to class, such as the beginner swimming lessons I signed up for as an adult. After completing the sessions, I’m still not confident I won’t drown but I can now put my head underwater. It’s a start.

Some people might say I am all over the map and indecisive. I like to say I contain multitudes and am simply interested in a lot of different things.

Tennis Lessons

maria sharapova

No one will ever confuse me for Maria Sharapova. Photo by Mark Howard

After writing my last post I got to thinking about item number two in my list of things that made my weekend awesome:

I went to the park to hit the tennis ball against the wall, and I didn’t suck quite as spectacularly as usual.

A few summers ago I took beginner tennis lessons because they were being offered for really cheap. We can safely file this experience under the I so completely and utterly suck at it that I know I’m going to be embarrassed every time I go to class category.

Now when I say I’m bad at tennis – I don’t mean it in an Oh I’m just being modest but I can hit the ball back and forth a bit. I mean bad.  I couldn’t hit the ball over the net bad. Or if I did hit it, it’d go flying way off court bad.

But you know what? So were the other two people in our class. We were all on the same level. We cheered each other when we did something right, and sympathized if one of us didn’t get something. We collectively refused to be embarrassed by complete and constant failures.

Funny things happen when you stop being embarrassed about doing something badly

You put yourself into it, because you start to think, Hey, I really suck at this, but so what? You realize it doesn’t matter, and no one cares how good or bad you are. You have fun. You loosen up and try harder. You stop hitting the ball half-heartedly and follow through. (My instructor used to yell at me over and over: Follow through! Follow through! and I still hear his voice when I practice hitting the ball against a wall.)

Because you’re putting everything into it, the ball occasionally starts going where it’s supposed to go. You don’t quite suck as much.

I won’t say we all figured it out by end of the seven week class. Because we didn’t. When the other girl in the class asked our instructor if he taught other levels, he told us that yes, he did, but we could all benefit from taking the beginner class again. Ouch.

I’m not sure I did much else with that tennis racket for a while. But last summer, I started occasionally going to the local park and hitting the ball against the wall they have for that purpose. Most of the time I’d have to go running after the ball because I hit it over the wall or way into left or right field. No matter how many times I practiced, I never seemed to get any better. “You don’t have any follow-through,” my husband told me.

I kept trying, partially because I still hold out hope that one day I can actually play against someone and not spend the entire match running after a ball, and partially because I can be pretty stubborn.

Mostly, though, I keep trying because, ability notwithstanding, I actually enjoy it. A lot. I like hitting the ball against the wall by myself. I don’t mind chasing after it. I don’t even care if I don’t get better. (Ok, you got me, I might care a teeny, tiny bit, but it’s not the reason I play). The last few times I’ve practiced, I haven’t had to chase the ball quite as much. I follow-through more often than I don’t now.

dancing fools

I don’t know why he’s got a pipe in his mouth, either. Photo by Stephanie H.

Have you ever been to a wedding, and there’s this one guy on the floor who’s really really bad at dancing and he knows it but he doesn’t care? People loosen up around him. They have fun. He’s having fun. Certainly, he’s having a lot more fun than the guy who refuses to get up from the dinner table all night because “I can’t dance.”  Which one would you rather be?