Sunday, February 1, 2015

Listening to a Story

Life is busy at the moment. Working two jobs, moving house, trying to keep up with my writing obligations while my computer chooses to crash and burn -- all have conspired to make me give up one of the things I love most in this world. A good book. But then, I realized that life was providing me an answer.

Number One Job is crazy at the moment. I am in the middle of an extensive training program that takes place in a classroom 108 miles away from where I am sitting right now. That means that, on several days a week, I have been driving 216 miles on top of sitting and trying to absorb a lot of new information. My brain was on overload as I spent those two/two and a half hours each way driving. Then, inspiration struck. I could listen to something other than the radio.

I started with the podcast that everyone is talking about -- Serial. Sarah Koenig, a producer for This American Life, spent a year investigating the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore. Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed who was only seventeen at the time, was arrested and convicted of the crime. He is currently serving a life sentence, despite his unceasing claims of innocence.

Over the course of twelve episodes, ranging from half an hour to an hour, Koenig lays out the case and, in effect, re-investigates it. As a lawyer and as someone who loves a good mystery, I was enthralled. Koenig managed to get quite a few people who had been involved fifteen years ago to go on the record. She found tapes of police interviews and of the trials themselves. She spent months retracing the steps that the detectives and the various lawyers had taken to arrive at the conclusion they did.

All of which, of course, leads to The Big Question. Is Syed innocent or guilty? This is why the podcast is worth a listen. There is evidence of his guilt and evidence of his innocence. Koenig lays it all out for us, but doesn’t steer us towards an answer. What do I think? I am not completely convinced he is innocent. I am, however, completely convinced that there was enough reasonable doubt that he should never have been convicted.

The largest sponsor of the podcast is Audible.com. This Amazon run site is where one goes to download books and have them read aloud. As I finished the podcast and was wondering what I was going to do next, I headed over to the site and jumped on it. It’s not particularly cheap, but for those five hours a day in the car, it was worth it to me.

The first book I listened to was The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Told from the point of view of three women, the story becomes more fascinating as it unfolds. Each of these women is hugely damaged and each is a completely unreliable narrator. I found myself rolling my eyes and saying things like, “what are you doing?” -- a sure sign I am completely absorbed in a tale.

The twist at the end was astonishing. I got there about ten pages before the narrators did and I gasped out loud. Unfortunately, this is where the book fell down. Once the truth is known, once we (and the narrators) understand what has truly happened, the story is over. Hawkins spent far too long wrapping up the end. It felt as though she needed to explain the choices she, as the author, had made to such a degree that her reader couldn’t help but agree with her.

Don’t misunderstand me. I walked into my (new) house with ten chapters to go (they are very short). A brusque hello to my roommates and I sprawled across my bed to hear how it all ended. But, I came away from the story mildly disappointed in what had been promising to be an exceptional novel.

Currently, I am two thirds of the way through Her by Harriet Lane. It is similar to the earlier book in that the same story is told by two women, again each unreliable. We learn from the first that Nina has some ancient grudge against Emma that is compelling her to insinuate herself into Emma’s life. While I am enjoying it, the writing is overdone. Lane never met an adjective she didn’t like and, more than once, I have wondered how many of us in our daily lives would truly describe things the way these women do.

I don’t yet know what the twist is. I’ll get back to you.

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