It seems that over the years I’ve gained a bit of a reputation. I’d like to say that it’s totally undeserved, or at the very least that it’s greatly exaggerated, but the pure fact of the matter is that the rumors are true. I’m every bit as bad as they say…if I recommend a book to you, it’s probably gonna make you cry.
Lest you be too shocked, let me explain that I read plenty of other kinds of books. I’m a huge fan of comedic fantasy, I like the odd mystery, and I’m a sucker for food writing and popular science. And certainly, I know folks who like these things too, and I pass them along accordingly, typically with great success and smiles all around. But the books that really get around, the ones that seem to be universally acclaimed and enjoyed? They’re almost always crying books.
Lest we be confused by terms, let me explain here the kind of crying I mean. We’re not talking about a slight lump in the throat, nor a single tear that might roll softly down your cheek at a touching moment. We’re talking about an ugly cry, the sort of sobbing that’s embarrassing and inappropriate in public. The fantastic Forever YA blog has coined a term for these sorts of stories – DNRIP: Do Not Read In Public. For a frame of reference without having to read an entire novel, here’s a story from The Moth (you listen to The Moth, right? Remind me to do a post on all of the podcasts you should be listening to soon) that gives a pretty good example of what I mean. Go listen to it, but don’t make the same mistake that I did and do so on the MBTA. You’ve been warned.
Okay, so, why are these stories, the ones that are particularly tragic, so popular, not only with me, but universally? Are we all gluttons for punishment? I do think there’s something to be said for the catharsis of this sort of sadness, a way of releasing all of the smaller sadnesses that build up in our lives but which aren’t really worth having a good cry over. My life is a remarkably happy and untroubled one, after all. I have a job and food and a roof over my head. I have the great good fortune of some of the best friends and family a person could ask for, and as supportive and loving a partner as one could hope. Frankly, I don’t have a lot to cry about. But we all have little frustrations and disappointments that accumulate over the course of time, and I think the release that fiction gives us helps to keep them from reaching toxic levels.
As to why other people tend to like them as much as I do, a big part of it is probably related to the fact that while a sense of humor or enjoyment of a mystery seems to be very specific from person to person, we seem to have a more universal list of situations that we deem to be tragic. War, sickness, loss – unless you’re a total robot, these will probably affect you at least a little. Tolstoy seems to have gotten it wrong – we’re all unhappy in the same way, but what makes us happy is a mystery, at times.
So now that I’ve come clean about my predilections, and made some assumptions about all of yours, here are three books that I think you need to have a heart of stone not to be moved by. If you’ve read them, tell me what you think in the comments. If you haven’t, what are your favorite books to weep to?
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Gorgeous, haunting, and so so intense. Taylor is a boarding school student with a complicated family. Through a series of war games with the townies and cadets, she learns who she really is – and how her personal history intersects with that of the school and the town. As an adult you’ll probably uncover the central mysteries before Taylor does, but it works because the tension is in waiting for her to figure it out. (A bonus, for me: Taylor has asthma, and the symptoms described are some of the most accurate I’ve ever read.)
It Made Me Cry: In front of Bob. I couldn’t put it down, and so was rudely reading instead of interacting with him. I paid for it when a sudden realization about Taylor’s relationship with Jonah Griggs, the leader of the cadets, comes about halfway through the book.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
This book is a great read, but it’s also gorgeously illustrated by Jim Kay, which imparts an incredible atmosphere to the story of Conor, a young boy who lives in England with his sick mother. Conor is haunted by a nightmare that he doesn’t want to talk about. He’s also haunted by a very real monster, who comes to him each night to tell him stories and in turn to demand his own truth.
It Made Me Cry: In front of my sister Kelly. I was finishing it up as I waited for her in Davis Square, and she came up the stairs just as Conor finally shares his truth and I completely lost it. I’m not kidding about the DNRIP warning, folks.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rivka Brunt
June Elbus is close to her uncle Finn. Maybe closer to him than anyone else in the world, including her parents and sister. But when Finn dies suddenly of an illness she’s never heard of, June begins to realize that she doesn’t know anyone in her family as well as she thought.
It Made Me Cry: Frequently. In front of everyone, I guess. The story is set in the 80’s, at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. There’s a lot to smile about in here, too, but this is the sort of story that will stay with you.