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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.

Moby Dick Illustrations! + a giveaway

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Moby Dick Illustrations! + a giveaway

Happy birthday to Herman Melville, best known as the author of Moby Dick, today! I have a really special post and giveaway in honor of his birthday. 

Ever been reading something, and you could picture the scene? Ever had the urge to make doodles and sketches in the margins? Well, illustrator Matt Kish went one step further. He took the entirety of Moby Dick, and created a drawing for each page (and there are 552 of them!) to create Moby Dick in Pictures, which is coming out this fall.

I love the idea, and I love the results. Here’s the page one illustration:

Call me Ishmael.Everything about this is awesome. The entire concept of taking a classic and creating an illustration for every page, the range of styles across the illustrations I’ve seen so far, the graffiti/tag style of this particular image, and the fact that the illustrator is posting random previews of the illustrations on their Twitter account before the book comes out (see it here: MobyDickInPics). No, I am not affiliated with the author or publisher in anyway – and am not getting paid to write this.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, I was really taken by this project. I asked Matt a few questions about it, and here’s what he said.

What made you decide to do this project?
In the late summer of 2009, I was feeling really creatively restless. I knew I wanted to be making something but I didn’t know what. I had no real direction. I knew about Zak Smith’s project illustrating every page of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and something about that gargantuan ambition and brutal discipline really appealed to me. Really, almost subconsciously, the idea to do something similar for Moby-Dick leapt into my head, which makes sense since it has been one of my favorite stories since I was a child. The project dovetailed nicely with everything that was going on for me then…restlessness, the desire to challenge myself, and the sense of accomplishment I knew I would have when I finished illustrating what would essentially be my own version of the novel. I decided to do one illustration per page, per day, until I was done with the entire thing and was able to more or less keep to that.

Does Moby Dick have a special meaning for you?
Not a single, specific meaning, but many. What continues to fascinate me is the richness of the novel, and how, no matter when I read it, I seem to see and learn and enjoy new facets and new ideas. The novel is a brilliant mosaic, deeply layered and endlessly complex. I am certainly no scholar, but I truly believe it is a novel that encompasses almost everything, and it remains surprisingly modern and timeless despite the challenging language. Just about everything anyone would need to know about life is somewhere in that book. Of that, I am convinced.

How long did it take you to illustrate the whole book?
This one is easy! I started on August 9, 2009 and finished on January 29, 2011. So that was 552 illustrations plus about 20 alternates and a handful of other unrelated art projects in 543 days. Sometimes I still can’t believe I actually did it.


I really like projects that are not only wonderful in their own right, but inspire me to do something cool too. What book would you illustrate if you could? What would your first page look like? Why not do it?

And now, the best part of today’s post! Because Matt is a such a nice guy, he offered to create an original ink & acrylic illustration for me to give away on this blog. This is it, though it looks even better in person (believe me, I was tempted to keep it for myself!) Want it? Read on for how you can win it.

The White Whale, ink & acrylic on found paper (an old TV repair diagram) 7.25" by 10.75"

To enter the contest:  comment here or on our Facebook page with what book YOU would illustrate if you could and I’ll pick my favorite as the winner. Deadline is August 15th.

Moby Dick in Pictures is due in October from Tin House Books. You can preorder it now from Amazon.