Category Archives: mysteries

How reading short stories is reminding me to live more reflectively and intentionally.

I recently read a novel that could be described as a collection of somewhat interwoven short stories called Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell. I was drawn to this book because it seeks to explore the moment’s that shape women’s identity as women.  In hindsight, I wish I had read it slowly, as there wasn’t an overall character arc for each character, but a few snapshots of their lives.

This summer I read Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy and fell in love with his rich, poetic style of prose.  While on a walk through the West Village I found a collection of his short stories called The Secret Lives of People in Love and began making my way through them.  What I’ve learned, though, is that for me, short stories for me are best read slowly and sporadically.  If I read them as a novel, I don’t take the time to stop and think about what the author is trying to say in each one or mull over the small details that speak into human existence.

One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is that I am more grounded as a person when I’m letting my reading wash over my mind and impact the way I’m looking at the world.  I read through the first 13 of Van Booy’s 19 stories so quickly that my brain didn’t have time to consider the weight of lines like: “Without memory, he thought, man would be invincible.” One of the reason’s I bought Schappell’s book was because I wanted to think about how the female identity is formed–especially as I am teaching girls at such a critical developmental stage and stocking my library with books that they will be reading and thinking about.

This is not to say that all of my reading is deep and reflective.  The other book I’m in the middle of is The Snowman, a thriller by Jo Nesbo, which has been a distractive force and an escape from life this week.  Sometimes I need reading for that just as much as the kind that makes me stop and look at life differently.  But, for now it is time to slow down.  It is time to breathe deeply and reflect, especially in the midst of the devastation of my city and surrounding ones post-hurricane.  The roots that my reading deepens can then be taken out into the world, to be on the look out for small moments of poetry and to develop an eye that is sensitive to the human story happening all around me.

My ongoing struggle between the ideal and the real.

 I read Tana French’s first novel, In The Woods, this summer and was impressed with French’s ability to raise some serious questions about humanity in her mystery novels.  Someone in my building conveniently left her second novel up for grabs by our mailboxes, so I recently followed up with The Likeness.  

The story follows Detective Cassie Maddox as she goes undercover investigating a murder of a woman who looks nearly exactly like her, and was using the identity of a person she and her boss made up for a previous undercover operation, Lexie Madison. She lived with 4 of her best friends, all getting their PhDs in literature, in a house that one of them had inherited outside of Dublin.  The police squad decides to tell the roommates that Lexie survived the attack and will be going home.  Maddox’s job is to get to know the roommates in order to narrow down a suspect.

Life at the Whitethorn House, as it is called, seemed to be picturesque.  With no television, the friends spent their evenings reading, playing cards or working on the house itself.  The girls prepared breakfast each day while the boys cooked dinner every night.  Their rhythms felt old fashioned, and it was in that simplicity that they seemed to come alive that such an existence possible. Daniel, who inherited the house and gave the other 4 ownership in it described it as: “colors were so beautiful they hurt, life became almost unimaginably sweet and almost unimaginably frightening.  It’s so fragile, you know…everything was so beautiful and precarious, it took my breath away.”

Literature, like any other art form, is able to capture moments of ultimate beauty–and when I am standing in front of an impressionist painting or listening to any slow song with a pedal steel or rereading one of my favorite books I am carried away into the belief that the moment’s perfection can last.

But it doesn’t. And it can’t. And that hurts me.

The crux of the mystery in this story lies in the fact that the illusion was shattered, and it was this passage that I couldn’t stop thinking about: “The idea was flawed, of course… innately and fatally flawed.  It depended on two of the human race’s greatest myths: the possibility of permanence, and the simplicity of human nature.  Both of which are all well and good in literature, but the purest fantasy outside the covers of a book.  Our story should have stopped that night with the cold cocoa, the night we moved in: and they all lived happily ever after, the end.” 

But all good readers know that a story without tension is boring and happily-ever-after stories aren’t as satisfying as one would think because they don’t feel authentic.

I live between the ideal and real, and feel its tension deeply: it is impossible for me to walk without being firmly grounded in what I know is real, and yet my soul would wither if I couldn’t hope in the beautiful.  I suppose it is the reciprocal emotions that create the human experience.  To solely chase perfection in this world is ultimately a destructive pursuit.  Likewise, to live strapped to reality is utterly unromantic and unappealing.

So, with grace, the struggle goes on.

Reconciling the past and present.

This summer marks the seventh year that I’ve lived in New York City.  When people ask me where I’m from, I’ve found that I have a variety of answers.  When I was abroad last summer, I said I was from New York.  While in the city, I typically say I’m originally, originally from Long Island, partly because it’s so close and partly because it’s where I was born, where all my extended family roots and my parents’ pasts lie.  I follow that up with the fact that I’m really midwestern, having spent every year of school in southwest Ohio.  Basically, there is never a straight answer and I don’t feel fully like myself without mentioning all these aspects of my past. There is a part of me that will always be from Long Island, from Centerville, Ohio and from New York, and I’ve realized that I feel most like myself when I account for all of these parts.

Reconciling the past and present and learning how to sift through the layers is one of the biggest conflicts of In the Woods by Tana French. One of the settings of the book is the woods of Knocknaree, a tiny suburb outside of Dubin, Ireland.  In the beginning of the story, a 12 year old girl is found murdered in the woods and the main character Detective Rob Ryan is called in for the investigation. The twist is that Ryan, unbeknownst to anyone but his partner, grew up in Knocknaree and was the sole survivor of a crime that left his 2 best friends missing. He was found covered in blood and without a single memory of what happened.  He has spent the rest of his life essentially forgetting until this case began.  The novel is not only the mystery of the girl who was killed, but also of Ryan’s past and his psychological state as he is forced to face all he has left behind. 

Beyond being the site of two horrific crimes, the Knocknaree woods is also in the middle of another conflict: it is the site of an archaeological dig, which is forced to rush because construction for a highway is slated to begin.  French does an impressive job making this story about more than just solving a crime.  The woods becomes symbolic in its vastness, it’s darkness and its   The reader, like Detective Ryan, is left wondering should one dig through the past, carefully trying to make sense of it and put the pieces together in a meaningful way or pave over it, moving into the future leaving it all locked underneath cement?

The ending, unlike most episodes of The Closer, Law and Order and CSI: NY, is not quite as neat as I have grown accustomed to in my television dabbling or in the pulpy mystery reads I consumed in middle school.  I think French’s literary merit in this book is the psychological depth of Detective Ryan and her skill at depicting it within the genre.  He is complex and heartbreakingly human in the decisions that he makes throughout the case as simultaneously faces the past and tries to hide it from others and hide from it himself. I walked away from this book wondering about how he will choose to move forward with all the layers of his past, rather than the satisfaction of figuring out the puzzle.