Thoughts on Gone Girl

You guys know how I can’t resist reading the uber-popular books just to see what all the fuss is about? (Twilight thoughts here and a 50 Shades discussion here. Plus check out my whole not quite book review category tag for my thoughts on even more books.) Well, I just finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl last week. I knew a few pages in that it was worth blogging about.

Gone Girl by Gillian FlynnThis is a very difficult book to discuss without giving away spoilers, but I HATE spoilers. I definitely won’t give away anything big, and I will do my best to keep details vague while still being useful, but if you know Gone Girl is one you want to read, you might want to bookmark this post for after you finish just in case. Let’s dig in, shall we?

What It Is

Well the obvious answer is that it’s a really, really popular novel that’s been made into a movie. The answer that interests me is that it’s also one of the best examples of upmarket fiction I’ve come across in quite a while. From literary fiction, it borrows the unreliable narrator (two of them!), intentionally unlikable characters (many of them!), and a somewhat unchronological story/unconventional frame style (alternating between Nick’s POV and Amy’s diary). But despite these things, it shares distinct traits with commercial fiction. The plot is fast-paced with high tension, the genre is predominantly mystery, and the prose, though high quality and intellectual, is stylistically easy to read. Put them together and what have you got? Bippity-boppity-upmarket.

A Matter of Taste

So right off the bat, I’ll tell you what I thought. I loved it! As I was reading it, I thought it might end up going on my favorites list. By the time I got to the ending I decided it didn’t quite swing that, but I did give it five solid stars on Goodreads. Let’s break it down a little more.

My Likes

The main thing that strikes me is that this novel is incredibly brave. I love brave books and I admire the brave authors who write them. I will absolutely read more work by Gillian Flynn in the future.

The thing about discussing Twilight or 50 Shades is that the (to my mind) more interesting topics are somewhat obscured by the outcry over the quality of their prose. Writers especially want the most popular books to be the most well-written books, and that often just doesn’t happen. But with Gone Girl, the prose is solid. It isn’t stellar in a pretty or breathtaking way; there’s really nothing flowery here (though I did look up a few new vocabulary words). It’s simply good – not boring, but not flashy – and acutely well-tuned to the “voices” of its protagonists. Writers can quit their whining about all the “crap” that gets published; this one is truly high quality.

What a trip! This book thrusts you into the heads of its extremely disturbed and disturbing main characters – and they struck me as painfully realistic. You do not like them, no, and you aren’t supposed to. It’s uncomfortable. They’re despicable. I sometimes felt a little sick reading them because, honestly, I think those world views are so authentically accurate to real people. But damn if they aren’t compelling. I couldn’t have put the book down if I tried.

Speaking of which, this books reads like lightning. I don’t see how you could be bored! It’s not all plot, true, but the characters and the details of their lives are so richly rendered that I can’t imagine being bored by it. Not to mention the mystery pulls you along at a great pace.

It kept me guessing, and I’m a notorious twist-guesser. (I don’t mean to, but I always accidentally realize what’s going to happen.) I did think of the twist as one of the options, but I wasn’t sure it was the real answer until it was fully revealed.

And finally, it kept me thinking even after I finished. Even the most disgusting characters had some really great points about certain things, and even the most outlandish plot twists brought up some legitimate food for thought.

Some Dislikes

There were very few things in this novel that didn’t work for me, but I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about the ending. It didn’t make me as mad as it did many readers, and I think I disliked it for a different reason. For me it wasn’t about justice, but because the believability factor went way down. For the first three quarters of the novel I was willing to suspend disbelief, but by the end that had slipped. And… yeah, that’s pretty much it for my own dislikes.

I’ve seen several reviewers comment on the prevalence of profanity, which, honestly, I can’t understand. Admittedly, I love profanity, but even if I didn’t I think I’d still see it as justified in this context. It isn’t author interference; it felt like the right “voice” for these narrators. But if that’s something you can’t make an exception for, this isn’t the book for you.

Another complaint I saw in reviews was the economic status and race of the protagonists. I just… what? People said things along the lines of “I can’t make myself care about the problems of rich white people.” Wow. First of all, I don’t really think we’re supposed to be “rooting for” these characters in that way anyway. Second of all, I have to say that I find that reaction just as off-putting as if someone said the opposite. But hey, everyone has a right to their opinion. Personally, race and wealth aren’t reasons for me to read or not read about any characters, pretty much ever.

And the final complaint I saw repeated was how unlikable the main characters are. I can’t argue with that, but it didn’t make the book unenjoyable for me. Some readers want to root for a character; others want to be challenged by them. I like both, so I was able to go with it on this one.

Sexism

Here’s the big debate I’ve been seeing: is this book misogynistic? Scores of people are saying it is, but I completely disagree. Is Nick misogynistic? No doubt. But I believe that he’s supposed to be. And Amy is supposed to be misandrous and misogynistic (so, basically, a misanthrope). Here’s the really important part: having misogynistic and/or sexist characters does not make the author misogynistic and/or sexist. In this case, I would argue the opposite. I read Gone Girl as a fantastically feminist work.

Let’s put it this way: If this were a book written by a man about a despicable male character, would interviewers be asking him, “Why do you hate men so much?” Would readers accuse him of looking down on men? I don’t think so. Male authors are afforded the benefit of the doubt. They’re given the license to write horribly twisted characters of their own gender and not be accused of believing that’s how all men are. In my opinion, it’s high time female authors are afforded that same license.

Amy Dunne doesn’t paint women in a good light. That’s inarguable. But I don’t believe that feminism is a PR campaign. Women are human, and humans come in all shades of good and evil. Demanding authors to only portray female characters as likable and wholesome does more damage than good. Those aren’t women; they’re blowup dolls. They’re cardboard cutouts there for the male characters to do interesting things in the vicinity of. Given my choice between reading about a Mary-Sue and an Amy Dunne, I’ll take Amy Dunne any day. [Note: For my thoughts on “strong female characters” check out this old post!]

This, by the way, is one reason I call Gone Girl a very brave book. I have so much respect for Gillian Flynn for unapologetically writing what she wants to write — and doing a damn good job of it.

Who Should Read It

Writers, to start. I think all writers should read this book, even if they don’t end up liking it. What a fantastic opportunity to study an accomplished author’s choices and take notes. What works for you and what doesn’t? And more importantly, why? Can you use that? Why do you think this novel in particular has been so successful? Can you use that?

As to non-writer readers, not everyone will want this one. I think it comes down to why do you read? If you read for entertainment and/or to make yourself think, Gone Girl is a yes. If you read for light pleasure and/or to uplift and reinforce morals, Gone Girl is a no. If you like tidy endings and clean messages, skip it. If you like books that push the limits and raise questions, it might be worth looking into. And of course, if you only enjoy reading characters you can root for, this one definitely isn’t for you. But if you like to take a dip into darkness, Gone Girl is the best book I’ve read in a while.

Have you read Gone Girl yet? What did you think? (No spoilers, please! If you want to discuss specifics, please do it in a way that won’t ruin others’ enjoyment. I.e. say “post-twist” instead of stating what the twist is, etc.) And if you haven’t read it yet, do you think you’ll add it to your list?

Posted in Books | Tagged | 38 Comments

Bookish Gift Ideas for Your Valentine

So you love someone who reads. Congratulations! Sounds like you’ve bagged a good one. ;) Valentine’s Day is coming up fast: Saturday, February 14th. With less than two weeks to go, now is the time to order gifts online and/or make plans for shopping. Being a book lover myself, I decided to gather up a list of gifts I’d love and share them with you for inspiration. I’ve tried to pick a good variety of price points, from free to extravagant, so hopefully there’s something in here for everyone! And if you’re a reader too? There’s absolutely no shame in emailing this post to your valentine. Hint, hint.

Annie's Valentine Bookshelf

It’s the Thought That Counts

gifts for free or nearly so

♥ A poem you wrote. Honestly, there’s nothing sweeter! If you’re ambitious, you can try writing a sonnet, the classic form for love poems. If that’s too much of a challenge, free verse is just as thoughtful and much easier for first-timers.

♥ Read a poem or story aloud. If you’re not much of a poet, you can always borrow from one of the greats! Hunt down a love poem or a romantic story that you like and give your significant other a private reading.

♥ A homemade valentine with a literary love quote. Not one for reading aloud? You can always hand-make a card (it really is better this way) and feature a sweet quote from an author or poet your S.O. loves.

♥ A reading day. Sometimes what we really want is time. If your lover loves to read, what better than the gift of time? Find a day where you can eliminate all barriers/distractions – take the kids out of the house with you, do the laundry ahead of time, etc. – and leave your sweetie the whole day to lounge about and read.

Small to Medium Gifts

your typical price range for thoughtful presents

♥ A set of magnetic poetry. What reader doesn’t like to dabble at writing? There’s no less intimidating way to get in on the fun than magnetic poetry! Not to mention they’re great for leaving each other love notes on the fridge. Buy sets anywhere and (almost) everywhere, prices ranging from about $2-$30.

♥ Novel teas. Is your sweetie a tea drinker? There’s nothing like curling up with a good buck and a warm mug. How cute are these novel-themed tea pouches? $25 and up.

 Book-themed chocolates. If tea is just a little too wholesome, there’s always this super cute chocolate book set. Yum. $19.99.

♥ Bookish Etsy gifts. If you’re not already familiar with Etsy, you should check it out. It’s an online marketplace where individual artists sell their hand-crafted items. I’ve linked to the “book lovers gifts” category, which has everything from jewelry to framed prints for your wall. Prices vary by item.

♥ A book-scented candle. If your sugar is anything like me, he or she is obsessed with the smell of old books. In step: book-scented candles. $16.

♥ An author-themed candle. Take book-scented one step further, and you get these clever “author-themed” scents. $8-$21.

♥ Shirts, totes, and posters from Litographs. I *love* this store! I have a Litograph t-shirt of Wuthering Heights, and it’s so cool. It’s printed with tiny rows of text from the actual book, shaped to form an image from a distance. Definitely check this one out. $24-$34.

♥ Literary scarves. Too many t-shirts already? How about these cute scarves? $42.

For the Practical Lover

great un-mushy gifts that won’t make your S.O. roll their eyes

Some significant others just don’t like that romantic stuff. No problem. Show them you care without going over the top by giving them bookish gifts they’ll actually use!

♥ Bookshelves. We never have enough. Bonus points if you assemble or install them!

♥ Bookends. Again – never enough. Bonus points if you get a design your S.O. will love.

♥ Bookmarks. I’m sensing a theme here. Cute bookmarks are so easy to find, and so handy to have around.

♥ A book stand. I love my book stand! It’s great for cookbooks, textbooks, or large hardbacks that I want to prop up so I can read while eating or writing, etc. Styles vary, this one is only $6.

♥ A book weight. I’m absolutely obsessed with mine. I use it to hold open paperbacks while I’m eating so I can read during lunch. Indispensable. $8.95.

♥ A thumb book holder. How nifty is this little guy? Any avid reader knows how your hand eventually cramps during marathon sessions. Problem solved! $5.23.

A headlamp with a red filter option. Book lights are okay, but once you’ve owned a head lamp you’ll likely never buy a regular flashlight (or book light) again. They’re way more convenient because they’re hands-free, they don’t get in the way of turning pages, and the red filter is plenty bright enough to read by, but diffuse enough to not keep you awake on those late nights when your bedmate wants to keep reading. $29.95.

Books Themselves

don’t forget the books!

Books are the endless gift resource. You can get your S.O. any book you know he/she has their eye on, but here are some suggestions a bit above the ordinary.

♥ Boxed sets. Boxed sets are cool because they look nice and they insure you get matching versions of a series.

♥ Signed and/or limited editions of their favorite book(s).

♥ Coffee table books. Not only are these fun to read, but they’re beautiful to leave out on display!

♥ Bookstore gift cards. Never fails!

♥ Periodical subscriptions. If your S.O. likes short stories and poems more than novels, they would probably love a subscription to a literary magazine. Some popular ones are The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Granta, and Tin House.

♥ A book of poems. Just a touch more romantic than a ‘typical’ book. Bonus points if it’s romantic or erotic.

♥ A personalized romance novel. Wowza! Will you guys believe me when I tell you I had this idea a year and a half ago? (It’s true!) Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Fill in your partner’s name, physical appearance, etc., and have a personalized romance novel made just for them! $19.95-$39.95.

Big Gifts

for the ambitious lover

♥ A reading nook. This is a gift of labor (and money (and space)). Maybe your loved one wants a designated place to go read. Could you spare a certain area of the house? If so, choose a little nook — whether by a bright window or in a cozy corner — and deck it out with an ultra-comfy chair, recliner, or chaise lounge, a reading lamp, a side table, and a bookshelf nearby. Finish it off with a warm, soft throw and this will be a gift your S.O. never forgets!

♥ An e-reader. Expensive, yes, but oh so useful! It’s an entire library in one device. Prices vary depending on the brand and version you buy, but generally go for around $50-$500.

♥ A romantic getaway in New York. Want to really go all out? How about a romantic book-themed vacation to Manhattan? The Library Hotel offers rooms themed like the Dewey Decimal system. Rates vary by stay dates and lengths, but rooms seem to run from about $250-$450 a night.

♥ Other bookish trips could involve visiting the museums and/or family homes of authors your S.O. loves. Obviously, this could become as extravagant as you want! Paris, anyone?

There we have it; my favorite gift ideas for your book-loving valentine. Whether you decide to shower your S.O. with extravagance or simply give from the heart, I’m sure they’ll love your thoughtful bookish gift. I hope you all have a happy, romantic, and word-filled Valentine’s Day!

Posted in Books | Tagged | 14 Comments

Thoughts on IT by Stephen King, What it Takes to Enjoy Horror, and Why I Write It

I recently finished the beast of a novel It by Stephen King. (Most people know it as ‘that one about the scary clown.’) Finding a book that will scare me again is sort of a white whale for me. I love being scared. Horror movies often scare me because they have the advantage of jump-frights and suspenseful music, etc. Books are at a disadvantage in the fear department, because if it begins to scare you, you can just put it down until you’re in a different mood. (Few people will pause a movie and finish it days later.) The fear has to be utterly insidious to stick with you from reading session to session, and there’s no such thing as a startle when you’re reading words on a page. (BOO doesn’t work; I’ve tried that one.)

It’s interesting to me that so many people assume I’m hard to scare. They think that because I’m a horror writer I must be tough as nails. The little-known secret? I’m quite easily scared. That’s why I write horror; I know and understand the emotion fear. How can I expect to scare readers if I can’t scare myself? Don’t believe this myth you hear that horror authors write about such things because we’re messed up in the head. That may be true for a few authors; I don’t know. But in my experience, horror writers are the nicest, mildest people you’ll meet. For one thing, we regularly exorcise our demons. It’s a very healthy thing. But also, we don’t write what we write because we’re disturbed ourselves; we write what we write because we’re afraid of how disturbed people (and the world) can be. By and large, we aren’t hardened cynics; we’re observant sensitives.

Don't forget to exercise your demons!

Don’t forget to exercise your demons!

All of that to explain: I’m easily scared, and I love it. I’m not a ‘scaredy cat’ though; I seek out what frightens me. It’s a form of both thrill and conquer. And because I know that headspace so well, I’m good at putting others there. So why do I write horror? One answer out of many is that I’m good at it, and writing what I’m best at is super fun. Few emotions are as vivid and visceral as fear; creating that for readers is seriously empowering.

I can get most of my scares from movies. As I mentioned, movies have the advantage, but since I love books so much, I doubly like it when a book can get under my skin. It’s why I’m a horror reader! That said, although there are many horror books I love, very few have successfully scared me. Fun little creeps? Sure. But body-reacting level of fear is hard to come by. Poe’s short stories when I was a kid did it. The Shining and ‘Salem’s Lot as a teen. And as an adult, House of Leaves (in a different way). Others have come close but ultimately failed to smoke that particular cigar.

Now we’ve circled back around to It. It, as an adult reading it for the first time, scared me. Like really, under-my-skin scared me. I have nightmares all the time (of my own making), but this was the first time a book has given me nightmares since I was a kid. I had a full-on, wake-me-up-scary nightmare about the monster from It. You guys, it was awesome. This is exactly why I love Stephen King.

I won’t give you any spoilers, but since It has been out so long. I’ll tell a tad more than I might for a new release. The famous clown of this story, Pennywise, isn’t actually a clown. He appears as a clown sometimes, but he’s more than that; he’s a shape-changing monster that takes the form of whatever his victim’s fear is. (Thus the ‘It’ and not just ‘Pennywise.’) So if one kid is afraid of werewolves, It becomes a werewolf. If another is afraid of homeless people, It becomes an aggressive hobo. And that brings me to the crux of my post today. What does it really take to enjoy good horror?

My answer is simple: Imagination! There’s a reason why kids get scared so much more than adults do; their imaginations are still stuck in the “on” position. Fear is based primarily in the unknown, the potential for something – anything. That is imagination’s breeding ground. Luckily for me, I’ve chosen a life that keeps my imagination going nearly 24/7. I’ve built a career out of letting my mind wander the unknowns, the what-ifs, the could-bes. So when a really good book or movie asks a scary question, my mind is more than willing to get to work coming up with the scary answer.

There is one more component, though. To really enjoy good horror, you have to let down your defenses. Anything “scary” seems stupid if you laugh at it before you let it sink in. To get a good scare, you have to banish the ego. Drop the defense mechanisms and be willing to feel small and embarrassed. Every once in a while a work will come along that smashes through defenses and scares even those who don’t want to be scared. (Those are cool and fascinating works.) But for most of us, for the rest of the time, we have to allow ourselves be scared. We have to sink into the questions and unknowns rather than racing to plug them with safe answers. Honestly, it’s the most fun way to enjoy horror.

And even beyond fun; you can learn a lot about yourself if you allow fear in instead of running from it. It is primarily negative, yes, but it’s one of the dominant emotions of the human experience. The best way to overcome negative things is to acknowledge them and learn. Fear isn’t going anywhere. It has a lot to teach us. Do you really want to block it out?

That’s my food for thought for today. As a side note, I had some problems with It. Some really big problems, actually, but that’s the joy of my Not Quite Book Reviews: I’m not giving a balanced review; I’m just ruminating on books I liked. In It’s case, I gave it five glowing stars because it’s the first book that’s truly scared me in years – and that’s nothing to sniff at.

Do you want to be scared as well? Whether for fun or for thought, I’d suggest any of Stephen King’s finest. My favorites so far have been The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, It, and Pet Sematary. If you sit down with a will to be scared, a willingness to let down your defenses and banish your ego, and a killer imagination, you won’t be disappointed.

When’s the last time a book scared you? I’m always looking for new recommendations!

Posted in Horror | Tagged | 66 Comments

Introducing Ask Annie

Hey guys! Just a quick announcement. On Saturday, at the end of my latest Twitter post for Writer Unboxed, I introduced a new feature we’ll be trying out: Ask Annie. (That’s me!)

My column will still be every other month, it will still be on Writer Unboxed, and it will still be about Twitter for writers. The difference is that instead of having one topic of my choosing that I discuss in depth, I’ll be fielding a few questions from interested parties each time. So — you guessed it — I’m looking for questions!

To make submitting to Ask Annie easier, I’ve created this form. The only required fields are the question itself and a statement as to whether or not you want it to be attributed to you. In other words, there’s a completely anonymous option in this form; I won’t even see who it’s from unless you want me to. But if you would like your question attributed to you, there are optional fields for your name, Twitter handle, and website. In that case, if I choose your question to answer in the column, everyone will see that it was your question (which is nice exposure).

I’m really excited about this new feature, and I’m so grateful to Therese Walsh for being flexible and continuing to include me in the amazing Writer Unboxed team. Not to mention the logo her super-talented kiddo whipped up for us! Seriously, I’m a smitten kitten; check out the graphic at the top of the Ask Annie page.

I have a feeling this will be a great new direction for the column. If you’re a writer on Twitter (or considering joining), I encourage you to check out all of my past posts for etiquette tips, best practices, how-tos, and more. And if you’re already a reader, be sure to stop by my latest post: “The 10 Most Generic Tweets of All Time.” It’s great fun, and as always at Writer Unboxed, there’s pure gold in the comments. :)

And finally, send me your questions!! I can’t wait to read and answer them over at Writer Unboxed. (My first Ask Annie post will be March 14th, but there’s no deadline for these since it’ll be an ongoing feature.) I hope you all have a great week,

Annie

[Note: comments are closed here, but feel free to comment on my WU post!]

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