The Stories You Tell

When my mom was a teenager, she decided she wanted to play in the high school orchestra. She went to the music director and asked if she could join. He said, “What do you play?” She, bright and chipper, replied, “What do you need?” He paused, looked at her, and told her they needed a bass player. “Amazing!” she said. “That’s exactly what I play!” The man showed her the school’s string bass and said she could take it home to practice. He also told her the names of the strings, pointing to each one as he did. I’m thinking he probably did not entirely buy her story. As the school year wore on, it got harder and harder to get anything out of that bass. Soon she was sawing like mad and making no sound at all. Finally another bass player (a real one) took pity on her and explained that you have to apply rosin to the bow hair every time you play, so there’s some friction on the strings. After that semester she left the bass behind and returned to the piano (on which she was actually pretty decent). But she could always say this: for a season, she played string bass. At about the same time my mother’s bass career was flourishing, my father, a recent immigrant from war-torn Europe, was drafted into the U.S. Army. (This was long before the two met; he was quite a few years older than she.) Not too keen on joining the infantry and being sent to the front lines, he managed to wangle a position in the Army...

No Secrets

One day, when I was very young, I was upstairs playing in my room when I heard my mother’s car drive off. She was heading out on a shopping trip. I ran downstairs and shouted out for her to Wait up! but she was already gone. I burst into tears. My father heard me wailing and came downstairs. But no matter what he said or what he did, he could not console me. I stood at the door and cried and cried and cried. It is one of my earliest memories, and the first time I recall feeling such utter anguish. Not because I’d been left behind. Because I couldn’t tell him why I was so distraught. It was mid-April, coming up on my father’s birthday. On this particular shopping trip, my mother was going to buy him a present. I’d planned to go with her to help pick it out. (I later learned that she had no idea I’d meant to come along.) And now here I was, sitting in a puddle of misery, my father trying to make it better, me not able to tell him what was wrong. Of course I could have told him, and he would have told me everything was okay, and it would have been. But in my toddler mind, all I knew was that birthdays were a secret, and if I said anything it would spoil the surprise. Up until that moment, I imagine everything about my little world had been completely transparent. Suddenly, it wasn’t. It was my first experience of feeling something and thinking I couldn’t tell anyone what it was....

Channeling Chandler

As I wrote last week, I love to read great mysteries, in part for the language. One of my favorites is Raymond Chandler, author of the iconic Philip Marlowe novels. Raymond Chandler isn’t just influential. To writers, he’s a god. Every modern antihero, from Harry Callahan to Travis Bickle to John McClane to Jack Reacher, has a bunch of Chandler DNA in there. In the periodic table of modern American fiction, if Hemingway and Steinbeck are oxygen and hydrogen, Chandler is carbon. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is the original, essential, complicated, hard-boiled, self-reflective, world-wise and world-weary, underpaid and brokenhearted private eye. In The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and the other Chandler classics, Marlowe’s noir world is peopled with dangerous dames, hard-nosed cops, and wretched villains, and woven together with a poetry stitched of snappy dialogue and florid metaphors. When Marlowe is about to leave his office to pursue a case, he doesn’t say, “Time to go to work,” or, “So I split,” or even, “I knew what had to be done.” He says: “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” One of his novels opens with Marlowe sitting in his office on a summer morning, his attention focused on a fly buzzing around his desk. “I had been stalking the bluebottle fly for five minutes, waiting for him to sit down. He didn’t want to sit down. He just wanted to do wing-overs...

Hide and Seek

A confession: I love to read mysteries. In fact, of all the books I read, on average one a week, a good 70 percent are mysteries or thriller-mysteries. One reason, of course, is the writing itself. In the pages of Raymond Chandler, or Kate Atkinson, or Tana French, you find some truly great prose; it’s like a master class in how to shape thought in words. Good mysteries offer magnificent examples of the story-telling craft. Of how to build rich, believable characters, from Benjamin Black’s gruffly unhappy Dr. Quirke, to Harry Bingham’s achingly empathetic Fiona Griffiths, to Lee Child’s iconic Reacher. But there’s something more to it. There’s something magnetically, irresistibly engaging about mystery itself, about the process of watching something so artfully concealed that it lies completely hidden, then become revealed. To be a good mystery, the thing revealed at the end has to fulfill two demands: it must be a) a genuine surprise, something you truly didn’t see coming, and b) inevitable—something that, once you see it, you say, “Of course!” Even among the 30 percent of books I read that are not labeled “mysteries,” there often exist elements of puzzle and enigma that color the whole thing. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning WWII novel, has several mysteries at its heart. So does Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson’s award-winning novel (and my #1 favorite of all time). The Alchemist, another of my favorites (and a lot of other people’s, too), is not even slightly a mystery. It’s a parable, an adventure, a coming-of-age story, and there are certifiably no murders involved....

Notes to a Younger Self

When I was nineteen I went to Yale. Before you get too impressed, I should clarify. When I say “went to Yale,” I mean, I took a bus to New Haven, walked to the Yale campus, located the freshman women’s dorm — where my girlfriend, who unlike me was an actual matriculated student there — and moved in. For the next few months I could be observed skulking about the campus with my cello, scoping out empty rooms where I could practice for an hour or two. (My mother dubbed me “the Yale ghoul.”) This arrangement worked out quite well, until the dean sat down with me for a friendly chat, during which he pointed out the unavoidable facts of my circumstances — namely that I was a) not a freshman, b) not a woman, and c) not enrolled at Yale — and suggested I might consider seeking residence elsewhere. Which I promptly did. I found an apartment eight or ten blocks away, out behind a little hair salon in a distinctly dicey neighborhood. I moved in on a Friday. That weekend there were two stabbings and a shooting right across the street. Ah, youth. They say “youth is wasted on the young,” but I’m not sure that anyone but the young could survive it. It still amazes me that I did so, and relatively intact, given that there were so many choices made and actions taken in my twenties and thirties that in retrospect seem … how shall I say this gently? Monumentally unwise. This is a perspective that Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (played by Morgan Freeman) faces...