Reading / listening to two books that are basically the same

cover77864-medium.pngOkay so I realized it would get too expensive to buy both Kindle and audio versions of every book, so, no matter how convenient it is to seamlessly switch between the two experiences, I think I’m gonna have to read / consume two books at a time, one on audio and one on Kindle. Right now I am reading Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman and I am listening to the latest Gone Girl copycat megahit Luckiest Girl Alive. And ‘reading’ (from now on I’m just gonna say that audio listening is the same as reading) these two books has made me realize they’re basically the same. They’re part of that genre of woman-centered crime novels that arose after the success of Gone Girl. I’ve had mixed experiences with these books (as one tends to have with all genres). It’s taken me awhile to figure out which ones are worthwhile and which ones are empty.

As with YA novels, these books tend to be strongest when they’re carried by an immediately distinctive voice. The best of these books, in my opinion, are the ones that’re as smart and observant as the best contemporary YA and chick-lit, while also having a strong suspense element. It’s basically the best of all possible worlds.

And that’s what both of these books do. Girls on Fire is about two girls who become best friends in a tiny Pennsylvania town? And there’s some mystery involving one of the girls and the suicide of a popular kid? So there’s suspense, but mostly it’s about two people becoming best friends and angsting out together.

Luckiest Girl Alive is about a twenty-eight year old woman, an editor at a woman’s magazine, who’s planning her wedding to her banker boyfriend. And she’s kind of awful. She’s totally artificial and status-obsessed. She’s like a Bridget Jones who actually succeeded in achieving all of her resolutions. But here too there’s some mystery involving high school. And I don’t know. I don’t know what makes this book so compelling. I think it’s because it’s so real. There are so many people like this: lost women who are preparing to be married to guys they don’t really like. People who have spent all their lives trying to win a game that they never consciously chose to play. And so often people like that are dismissed, as if they don’t have any interior life, but that’s wrong. They do. You don’t act this way unless you have some deep reservoir of pain. Shallowness isn’t the result of a lack of intelligence or soul; it’s a defense mechanism.

 

Finally saw GONE GIRL. It was alright.

exclusive-gone-girl-teaser-poster.1_FIN_1I mean, it was good. Pretty good. I’d forgotten that Ben Affleck is a tolerably good actor. And he was perfect for this too, with his big-and-slightly-bloated face.

The one major difference between the book and the film was that I feel like Nick (Affleck’s character) came off as way more sympathetic in the film. In the book, I always felt like he was terrible and sort of deserved what he got. But in the film, I was always rooting for him.

Part of this was, I think, because of the cat. In the movie, he’s always picking up this adorable cat and stroking it and feeding it and cuddling with it. And you’re all like, “Well if he loves his cat, then he can’t be all bad!”

The other part was his sister. His sister is a really down-to-earth, sympathetic presence. And the easy rapport that the two characters have really makes him seem pretty human. I mean, if he’s capable of forming a connection to another person, then he can’t be all bad, right?

These are just inherent differences between the two media. In film, we’re able to see the cat. We’re able to see the grace with which he and his sister inhabit the same space. What we’re not able to see are his thoughts. In the book, we got to see his thoughts. And many of those thoughts are pretty ugly.

Anyways, solid film.

[Wrap Up 2013] This year, I learned that I shouldn’t bank on any reading project that involves more than 3 to 7 books.

At least half the people who've read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.
At least half the people who’ve read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.

I’m a big fan of grand reading plans. A few years ago, I read all the Russians. The year after that, I read Proust. And last year I read lots of Victorian literature. At the beginning of the year, I announced that I was going to spend this year reading all of the 19th century classics that I hadn’t already read. And I got a decent start. I read Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables and  Last Chronicle of Barset and then…I tried to read Daniel Deronda. And it was bad. Can’t put my finger on it. Just really boring and poorly structured. I gave up halfway through. And after that I was put off by the Victorian thing. So I kept looking around for a new project.

In the interim, I did do some little little reading projects. Like, I read Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan  and realized that maybe what I needed was more crime novels! So I read Gone Girl and Strangers on a Train and the Talented Mr. Ripley and Murder on the Orient Express and Silence of the Lambs.

But then I was distracted. I signed with my agent and was all, “Hey, shit, I should read some more YA novels, since that’s apparently what I write now!” So I solicited recommendations from the internet, and read some amazing YA, including Flora Segunda, The Forest of Hands And Teeth, Every Day, Eleanor & Park, and The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau Banks.

But then I randomly started reading Mrs Dalloway and was really blown away by it and I decided, “Oh, okay, I’ll read the great works of modernism.” And I read Jacob’s Room and The Good Soldier and Invisible Man and Nightwood and As I Lay Dying and Ulysses (p2, p3and re-read To The LighthouseBut that didn’t continue either! Because my journey through the modernists led me to Buddenbrooks, and then I was like, “Wow, you know what? This is amazing! Maybe I’ll read a bunch of german novels now!” And I decided to be really concrete and systematic this time! I’d spend the whole rest of the calendar year reading German novels.

And I was pretty good. For a good two months (from mid-August to mid-October), I only read German novels. And this period included some great and thrilling reads like, A Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain, Radetzky March, Beware of Pity, Skylark, The Rider on the White Horse, and Every Man Dies Alone. But after I finished that last novel, I somehow just had no more enthusiasm for German novels. That was the reading initiative that I felt the most bad about. I had some great German novels that I was gonna get to: The Sleepwalkers, The Glass Bead Game, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and The Confusions of Young Torless. But I just didn’t want to do it…

So I started reading protofeminist novels. And I came across some great ones: Heartburn, The Dud Avocado, and Lolly Willowes. And I made a list of all kinds of other ones I was gonna get to next (The Unpossessed, The Old Man And MeAngel, Speedboat, etc…)

But that got derailed because I read and fell in love with The Closing Of The American Mind. And after Bloom took down Nietzsche, I just had to read Beyond Good And EvilAnd then that led to The Social Contract and An Enquiry Concerning Moral Sentiments.

I wanted a more modern look at the meaning of happiness, though, so I also read Flow. And I don’t even remember how that led me to books on communication, like Made To Stick and Influence. But I do remember that the really cold-blooded manipulations described in the last book made me interested in psychopaths, so I read some books on that. But then a Facebook post made me interested in a contemporary novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which made me wonder about other contemporary fictions and…well…I’ve pretty much abandoned all my reading schemas.

I don’t know. I’ve been served well, in the past, by reading projects. But they lack a certain spontaneity. They cause joy when you think about adopting them, because you imagine yourself possessing all this knowledge about and mastery of a certain genre. But when you’re actually doing it, the scheme eventually starts to become a chore. Leaping around naturalistically seems to maximize my happiness.

The only worry is that if I don’t watch myself, I’ll stop reading “difficult” books. But I don’t know how true that is. Certainly The Closing Of The American Mind is not a hugely easy book. I mean, it’s readable…but it’s also a book that’s repulsed me in the past. So we’ll see. Maybe this time next year I’ll be writing about the return of the reading scheme!

Why Gone Girl is super-excellent (despite its somewhat-skippable writing style)

8442457As I mentioned in my last entry, I’ve finished reading Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s recent insane super best-seller. The novel occupies an interesting cultural place: it’s a crime thriller that’s found a substantial readership amongst both sexes. It so often feels like literature (and all pop culture, in general) is very gender-segregated. There are women’s classics and men’s classics; women’s bestsellers and men’s bestsellers. Gone Girl kinda bridges that divide.

There’s something of a war of the sexes element in the novel. For those who don’t know, it has two first-person narrators: a husband and his wife. After the wife goes missing and the husband becomes the chief subject in her presumed murder, a media frenzy ignites in a manner that’s somewhat reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson or Scott Peterson cases.

The plotting of the book is phenomenal. What blew me away right from the beginning is the table of contents. I mean, look at this Table of Contents (I’ve elided some things from it to make it more readable on the web):

 

  • Part One: Boy Loses Girl
    • Nick Dunne: The Day of
    • Amy Elliott: January 8, 2005
    • Nick Dunne: The Day of
  • Part Two: Boy Meets Girl
    • Amy Elliott Dunne: The Day of
    • Nick Dunne: Seven Days Gone
    • Amy Elliott Dunne: The Day of
    • Nick Dunne: Seven Days Gone
    • Amy Elliott Dunne: Five Days Gone
  • Part Three: Boy Gets Girl Back (Or Vice Versa)
    • Nick Dunne: Forty Days Gone
    • Amy Elliott Dunne: The Night of the Return
    • Nick Dunne: The Night of the Return
    • Amy Elliott Dunne: The Night of the Return
    • Nick Dunne: The Night of the Return
    • Amy Elliott Dunne: Five Days after the Return
    • Nick Dunne: Thirty Days after the Return
    • Amy Elliott Dunne: Ten Months, Two Weeks, Six Days after the Return

 

Right away, just from looking at this ToC, you know three things:

  • Amy is not dead (because although her narration begins seven years in the past, it does eventually come up to the present day).
  • She eventually comes back
  • She has some kind of future. Or, at least, ten months after the main action of this book, she is still alive.

This is wonderful! Right in the Table of Contents, Flynn has thrown away some of the most obvious generators of suspense: Did he kill her? Is she alive? Will she survive?

And throughout, the plotting is just superb. Information is revealed at the right time and the revelations are shocking but not absurd. There’s something delightfully playful about the story. It eschews the expected thing and the easy villains. It really kept me reading.

The writing is…interesting. The novel does not have that typical bestseller style, with short sentences and plain language. It’s told by two first-person narrators who both have strong voices. They both jump around in time and hide information from you and narrate things in their own way. There is plenty of figurative language and complex sentence structure and detail.

But…there’s something about the writing that makes the book a bit hard to read. For the first fourth of it or so, I found my eyes skipping over paragraphs and then getting lost (since this is not the kind of book where you can really skip whole paragraphs, since information is buried in the center of paragraphs and doled out at semi-random intervals). There’s just something about the writing that screams out that you shouldn’t be reading all of it. Eventually, the difficulty went away and I no longer had trouble reading it.

But, after I finished the book, I started to think that maybe the problem was that the details that the book chooses to include often seem kind of extraneous. They don’t really advance the plot or reveal much about the character. Like, take this paragraph from literally moments before the narrator discovers that his house is in shambles and his wife is missing.

Quiet. The complex was always disturbingly quiet. As I neared our home, conscious of the noise of the car engine, I could see the cat was definitely on the steps. Still on the steps, twenty minutes after Carl’s call. This was strange. Amy loved the cat, the cat was declawed, the cat was never let outside, never ever, because the cat, Bleecker, was sweet but extremely stupid, and despite the LoJack tracking device pelleted somewhere in his fat furry rolls, Amy knew she’d never see the cat again if he ever got out. The cat would waddle straight into the Mississippi River – deedle-de-dum – and float all the way to the Gulf of Mexico into the maw of a hungry bull shark.

The paragraph is not overtly bad, it’s just pointless. Bleecker barely appears in the rest of the novel. The characters almost never think about him. Furthermore, although we now “know” that Amy is the type of person who loves and cossets her cat, we never really get the sense that this is true. Like, nothing in the book discredits this, but nothing supports it, either. The cat is just sort of tossed in here for the hell of it.

And that’s not really how novels should be written.

It’s also weird because I’m reading Flynn’s second novel right now (Gone Girl is her third), and this novel doesn’t have this issue at all. The writing is sharp and the details are well-chosen.

I think the issue I have with Gone Girls’ writing is directly related to the complexity of its characterization. Basically, in this novel, Nothing Is As It Seems. And in order to support the mystery, each character needs to be described in ways that support two separate portraits. It has to be possible for Nick to seem both like a roguish schmo and a cold-hearted wife-beater. And the novel has difficulty threading these lines. With two first-person narrators like this, there’s just not enough ambiguity. I mean, everything almost hangs together. You can almost see how it’s possible for someone to see either version of Nick and Amy…but sometimes the strain shows through.

Basically, in order for this story to work, the characters have to be complex in an incredibly multi-faceted and contradictory way. And I can believe that they are that complex, because I want the story to work. But the story never quite succeeds in showing us what that complexity would look like. We never quite get a sense of what Nick and Amy do and say and talk about when they’re not, you know, enmeshed in a bizarre murder plot.

But whatever, it’s an incredibly ambitious and thought-provoking novel and it’s really fun to read. I highly recommend it.

I really enjoy knowing approximately how long it’s going to take me to read a book

self-measure-titleI only read one book at a time. But, since I’m in graduate school, I need to read a book a week as part of my readings’ course. Thus, I now need to time exactly when I’m going to finish my books. This has resulted in a huge leap forward in my ability to assess how long it’s going to take me to read any given book.

Basically, the lynchpin of this system is the Kindle. Anyone who has used one knows that the Kindle doesn’t use page numbers to mark your location in book: it uses location numbers. For instance, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (the [amazing] book I just completed) is around 7000 locations long. Now, there’s no hard and fast rule for what a location actually means. Really, it measures the length of the encoding that underlies your text. Thus, even if you have two texts that’re of the same length (in terms of a wordcount), the text with more encoding (italics, bolding, lists, tables, fonts, etc.) will have more locations than the one with less encoding. However, a general rule of thumb is that 1000 locations = about 22,000 words. For instance, Gone Girl has 7000ish locations and is about 150,000 words.

As I noted years ago, I used to read about 15,000 words an hour. Now, that was an actual reading speed: it included bathroom breaks, checking my email, fidgeting, making a snack, staring into space, etc. It also tended to include 10-15 minutes of going outside and smoking. Since quitting smoking, I’ve observed that I’m usually able to read 1000 or so locations (20k or so words) in an hour. If the novel is a very fast-paced thrillerish novel (i.e. one that has a lot of skimmable prose), that can sometimes be more like 1300-1400 locations in an hour (it’s possible that some of this is due to fast-paced books catching my interest and resulting in fewer distractions per hour)

Thus, I knew, even before I began it, that Gone Girl was going to take me at least 7 hours to read (it actually took more like 5.75 hours, since this was one of those books that you can read fast). Next, I’m going to read George Saunders’ Tenth Of December: Stories for a Monday book club discussion. Since it’s about 3000 kindle locations, I know I’m going to have to devote about three hours to it tomorrow. I don’t know what I’ll read after that, actually (although I am feeling an urge to return to either return to J.M. Coetzee or to read one of Gillian Flynn’s earlier novels), but I know that I need to finish it by Wednesday night (when I have to read the text for our Thursday class—it’s short, so this should take no more than an hour). Generally speaking, I can’t expect more than two hours of reading time on a weekday, so I need to make sure that I don’t select anything longer than 100,000 words. It’s all a very orderly system.

The result of this calculation is that I feel less afraid to take on long books. Even if book is about 300,000 words, I know that only represents 15 hours (or about a week and a half) of effort.