Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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photo: penguin.com.au

I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.

On the outskirts of Kansas is an area called Holcomb, a sleepy town “other Kansans call ‘out there’”, where an unlocked front door is customary and residents consider each other friends rather than neighbors. In mid-November of 1959, members of the particularly well-liked Clutter family; husband and wife Herbert and Bonnie, and teenaged siblings Nancy and Kenyon, have not shown up to church. A highly abnormal occurrence for the devout Methodist family. When two friends of young Nancy visit the River Valley Farm to find out what has happened they find the family car is still parked in the garage. The house is too quiet, on the kitchen floor is Nancy’s overturned purse. At the top of the stairs is the door to Nancy’s room, when her friends open it they find her in bed with the back of her skull ripped through by a bullet. Walking through subsequent rooms, the police quickly discover that the entire Clutter family has been massacred; each killed by a shotgun held inches from their faces.

In Cold Blood was first published in 1966, seven years after the murder of the Clutter family, and although there have been some before it, it is considered the first non-fiction novel. Non-fiction novels depict real people and events while utilizing artistic license to weave facts with fiction. Capote’s use of fictitious conversations and storytelling techniques typically seen in fiction turn this novel into a unique reading experience with palpable, sympathetic characters (good and bad), tension, and exquisite prose from an unbiased narrator. A pillar of the true crime genre, until this day In Cold Blood has only been outsold by one novel, Helter Skelter Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book about the Manson murders.

Capote capitalizes on tension by splitting the novel into four parts: The Last to See Them Alive, Persons Unknown, Answer, and The Corner. Although Holcomb residents are sure the crime has been committed by one of their own, the reader knows the true criminals to be Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, two recently released convicts with numerous prior arrests. The pair have similarly disturbing childhoods and mentality of being jilted by the world, but vastly differing personalities that probably would not have coincided had it not been for the prison walls they were both behind. Hickock is a tall, harsh, smooth talking leader with a skewed face, while half-Indian Smith is stocky, emotional, creative, and superstitious. Capote’s ability to remain mostly unbiased (during interviews with Smith and Hickock it is clear he sees Smith as the more sensitive of the two and portrays him as such) is what drives the novel’s authoritative voice. His impartial writing style ensures that all sides of the story are told, which is why he succeeds in turning seemingly cold blooded murderers into sympathetic characters.

Going into the story readers know the Clutter family has been killed in their rural home. We already know the murderers are caught, tried, and hanged as a result. What the reader learns from this book is why, the fine details behind murder, and through six years of writing and 8000 pages of research, Capote does a wonderful job of delivering. As a result of dubious research, interviews with people who knew both Clutter family and their murderers, Capote writes with certainty and authority, delivering a story that reads like a beautifully written police report. Although readers go in with relative knowledge of the murders, Capote instills even more mystery with details peppered throughout the story, for example, the circumstances that brought the deadly pair to the Clutter household.

As a boy he’d [Hickock] so envied the son of a neighbor who had gone to the Gulf Coast on holiday and returned with a box of shells-so hated him- that he’d stolen the shells and one by one crushed them with a hammer. Envy was constantly with him; the Enemy was anyone who was someone he wanted to be or who had anything he wanted to have.

There are multiple narratives throughout the book connecting accounts of neighboring families and workers that cared for the Clutter farm up until the day of the murders, dovetailed with Smith and Hickock’s travels through Mexico after the murders. While inhabitants of Holcomb and detectives believe the crimes to be perpetrated by calculated crooks, the reader knows Hickock and Smith to be messy and stuck in a cycle of poor choices – a far cry from whom most are expecting. Capote pays special attention to Hickock and Smith’s complex love-hate relationship during and after the murders, and the dependency and strain that weighs heavily on them when funds dwindle and a paper trail of bad checks piles up behind them.

Towards the end of the book a character poses the question; “How can a person as sane as this man seems to be commit an act as crazy as the one he was convicted of?” Studying the psychology and backgrounds of Hickock and Smith as well as others convicted of crimes as heinous as the one they committed, Capote references Dr Joseph Satten’s Murder Without Apparent Motive – A Study in Personality Disorganization and draws the attention of the novel to the trial itself. Up until this point it is easy to get lost in Capote’s writing style and forget the events in the book are real, the trial brings everything back to reality. This moment is where the story soars, leaving the reader feeling emotional and conflicted about the slaying of the Clutter family and all that comes undone following it; Holcomb, the minds of those residing there, and the lives of Hickock and Smith.

Have you read In Cold Blood? What did you think of it? Is it on your TBR list? Do you enjoy reading about sympathetic bad characters? Let me know in the comments!

*Book two out of 10 Books of Summer

Review: Euphoria by Lily King

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credit: bookcritic.org

It is a bit of a dance we three are in. But there is a better balance when B is here, too. Fen’s demanding, rigid, determined nature weighs heavily on one side of the scale and Bankson’s and my more pliant & adjustable natures on the other, equaling things out… Maybe it’s just we’re both a little in love with Andrew Bankson.

In 1930s New Guinea a young British anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, is on the brink of suicide. Frustrated with several unproductive years of field work studying the Kiona people, a tribe that unceremoniously throws twin newborns in a river out of superstitious ideals, he is overcome with loneliness and dissatisfaction – until he meets famous anthropologist Nell Stone and her husband Fen, a team stagnant in their own research. Although the desire to study the same region, lands, and people should turn them to rivals, the three larger than life egos are revitalized by each other’s company and enter a passionate love triangle filled with intellectual stimulation and dispute, sexual tension, friendship, and learning.

Lily King’s Euphoria is loosely based on the controversial and respected American culture anthropologist, Margaret Mead (Nell Stone), and her time researching along the Sepik River with husband Reo Fortune (Fen) and Gregory Bateson (Andrew Bankson). King tackles the expectation of factual information involved when writing a story about a prominent figure in history, with exceptional clarity. Like an anthropologist, King studies real events and people to understand the full scope and complexity in the story, and from this knowledge produces a confident and well-researched book. While Euphoria is inspired by real events and people, it is not a retelling or historical fiction. Instead, the novel takes creative liberties resulting in a wonderfully original piece that blurs genres between fiction and nonfiction.

When we first meet Nell she is half blind and weak with malaria, but still curious to take notes and ask questions about everything around her, at the disdain of her husband Fen. He prefers living as a member of the tribe, seldom taking notes and often with a plan of his own. The success of Nell’s previous fieldwork had overshadowed Fen’s career and their marriage. When the couple meet Andrew they take his company as a welcome break from each other, he acts as a buffer between the two and provides a fresh set of ears to bounce ideas off of, and after several years alone, Andrew gladly falls into this role in Nell and Fen’s relationship. Learning Nell Fen’s researching ideas and practices allows Andrew to find renewed interest in his own work and reach a point Nell describes as ‘euphoria’. She means it to be more than intense happiness, for Nell, euphoria is the feeling that comes specifically after months of confusion; meeting a new tribe, trying to assimilate to and learn their culture, documenting without your biases’. Euphoria comes with a sudden breakthrough and acceptance, granted to an anthropologist when they come to understand the subject in which they are studying.

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credit: monoskop.com From left to right: Bateson, Mead, and Fortune. 1933, Sydney.

When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?

Told through Bankson’s first person narrative and Nell’s fieldnotes, the story’s attention to detail adds a layer of authenticity despite King’s mostly liberal stance in making events in the book not correlate with Mead’s biography. King pulls us through the peaks and pits of Nell, Fen, and Andrew’s excursions and subsequent love triangle while providing technical content on their research, making for an immersive read on occurrences in anthropology during the early 1930s. And although the specifics of Mead’s life may not line up with this story, Euphoria will certainly make you wonder what really went on in her mind during this time of her life, and want to learn more about her.

*one of 10 books of summer

 

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

everythinginevertoldyouLydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

If you have heard anything about Celeste Ng’s (that’s pronounces “ing” her twitter and website will have you know!) debut novel Everything I Never Told You this first line is probably it. It’s plastered all over synopsis’ and reviews because Creative Writing 101 tells us the first line of a story is what will attract (or distract) a reader. Seeing Celeste Ng obviously had a good understanding of this I knew I was in for a good time. I picked up a copy from my mum’s bookshelf and quickly read a few paragraphs before pocketing it. My mum now supervises my visits to her study, with good reason.

Everything I Never Told You is about the Lees, a mixed Chinese and Caucasian family living in Ohio in the 1970s. When sixteen year old Lydia Lee disappears and is found drowned a day later, her parents Marilyn and James, older brother Nath, and younger sister Hannah go through the motions as an investigation starts and the events leading up to Lydia’s death are picked through with a fine tooth comb, forcing them to question how well they really knew Lydia. It’s not long before we find that Lydia was an integral part of the family which, without her, starts to fall apart at the seams like a cheap dress coat. The plot goes back and forth in time, through Marilyn and James’ early relationship and marriage, Lydia’s dealings with her school mates and few friends, all revealing secrets long the way. Perspective is switched from one family member to another which adds a closeness to each of their stories, including Lydia. At first this reads like a mystery or thriller but as the story unravels a majority of the focus falls firmly on each family member’s memory of Lydia and what they believe were the events leading to her death, rather than how she died or who is responsible.

As the title suggests, this novel focuses on things left unsaid and the repercussions that linger because of it, which was the main reason I was pulled through the book. I was curious who would find out about someone else’s dirty business, curious who would be left in the dark, curious about what was being left unsaid to us readers. Celeste Ng puts together poetic sentences and knows how to paint a scene with her words, making this book an easy and enjoyable read for me for the most part. But, there is a lot of hand holding through plot assumed too difficult for readers to figure out for themselves, which is unnecessary since those moments were very predictable. There were times I knew I was supposed to think Oh, no way! but would just think Knew it. and want to move on to the next juicy thing happening. This book is very “juicy”. Lots of drama and chaos on the surface, but little meat or real substance when in the thick of it. 

Everything I Never Told You pushed me to ask myself some questions: 1. Can a character be too unlikeable? Yes. 2. When is a character too unlikeable? When I stop caring what happens to him/her. I could not stand Marilyn and James, prime examples of parents who project their fears and shortcomings onto their children (if you’ve seen Trophy Kids on Netflix, ‘nough said). While Lydia is alive they neglect their two other children, Hannah and Nath. Marilyn seems to forget Hannah even exists as she sets the dinner table for four instead of five, and can usually be found helping Lydia with homework or in a daze thinking about her lost dreams of becoming a ‘woman doctor’. A dream long gone after marriage and three kids. When Lydia dies her parents go from neglectful, selfish, and oblivious to emotionally and physically abusing to their two remaining children.

When is a character too unlikeable? When they have literally no redeeming features. The kids are pretty shitty people too, but through no fault of their own.

Relationships and family dynamics are exaggerated to the point that whenever Marilyn talks to Lydia it is always about getting good grades and becoming a doctor. James only sits Lydia down to remind her how great it is to have friends, even boyfriends, and be popular. I know what Celeste Ng is trying to drive home, but it is overstated and at every opportunity. With Marilyn being Caucasian and James being Chinese American in 1970s Ohio race is discussed endlessly throughout the book. A nice perspective to write on, but again was exaggerated at every opportunity. James is self conscious about being one of few Asian people in Ohio. His teaching assistant (also Chinese, go figure) is surprised to see a family photo with him and his gasp white wife (and actually says this). Lydia is James’ favorite child because she looks the whitest.

And there is no way to make that sentence sound any less ridiculous.

James would love to take a wet wash rag to his skin and magically wash away his Asianess and cannot stand the sight of Nath because he’s a spitting image of him in complexion, appearance, and timid personality. He often yells at or hits Nath whenever a little too much of his younger self shows through Nath’s actions or speech.

His not getting a promotion is because he is not white. He has no friends because he is not white. He feels like an outcast in his own family because he is not white.

This is the point their relationships and dialogue became uninteresting and unbelievable and I stopped wondering what happened to Lydia since she was better off dead anyway.

I have never read a story where I ended feeling so conflicted about the framework and the author’s writing. Although I closed the book feeling slightly pleased by the ending I knew I was supposed to be weighed down by the revelations that came to light, but they were lost on me since I had stopped caring. I kept on reading for Celeste Ng’s fluid style and beautiful sentences. And the juicy bits.

What books have you read that left you feeling conflicted? Do you enjoy reading about unlikable characters? When do you think an author can make their character too obnoxious?

Review: An Imperfect Fight From a Bad Feminist

badfeministI started reading the Bad Feminist essays on a whim, trying to fluff up my reading with more literature by women after watching one inspired Chimamanda Adichie interview after another. My bookshelves lack of good female authors is a sad situation. Bad Feminist was eagerly thrust down my throat by book lovers and young women who felt they had found the promise land- the bible to being a feminist, albeit an imperfect one.

Many of these essays were originally published on Roxane’s blog with overwhelming response from followers and hashtaggers, this is where she started calling herself a “bad feminist”. The term started off as tongue in cheek but took on new meaning to define the people that have a passion for feminism but can not overcome the inexplicable urge to bop their heads to songs like the Ying Yang Twins Salt Shaker. Songs with lyrics like Bitch you gotta shake it till your camel hurt, that we all know are terribly degrading to women but are also so damn catchy.

Roxane Gay claims she is a bad feminist because she is human therefore flawed and messy, completely unfit to be put on the proverbial pedestal people with the biggest platforms and the loudest, most provocative voice” are forced onto only to be knocked off when they displease the media masses. Though it can be argued that this is the position she occupies now despite her arguments to avoid it. But before becoming the Queen of Bad Feminists, in her teens and twenties Roxane disavowed feminism

because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such. When I was called a feminist, during those days, my first thought was, But I willingly give blow jobs.

And then Roxane Gay became my favorite writer. For a moment, she was going to take these long repeated issues and breathe new farcical life into them.

These essays do more than muse about the life of a feminist with questionable taste in music and a knack for acquiring enemies at competitive scrabble tournaments, the topics span race, gender, sexuality, entertainment, and politics. I enjoyed light hearted chapters like “How To Be Friends With Another Woman” that takes a look at the myths and truths of women’s friendships. Roxane voices her opinions on America’s love affair with slave movies (The Help, Django, 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, et cetera) and Tyler Perry, our permissive attitudes towards athletes who abuse women with such consistency you would think that was the sport they are paid millions to play, the involuntary outing of gay men and women and why we think we have the right to know, and of course, Chris Brown and the bevy of women who fall over themselves in the hopes that maybe, if the world is kind, they can spend a moment in his company – even if that moment is little more than a thorough beating.

Bad Feminist also dives into feminism as a whole, analyzing intersectionality and emphasizing that, shockingly, feminism should benefit more than middle or upper class white heterosexual women, but has failed in doing so. Non white, working class, homosexual and transgender women are often omitted from mainstream feminism and issues that are most advocated for do not represent their needs. In an essay entitled “Girls, Girls, Girls” Roxane focuses on the “diversity” we see in recently successful shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls, which is apparently set in a mythical New York sans black and Puerto Rican people. And Orange Is The New Black which only features minorities as a side plot, a clown act, to Piper’s world. This, Roxane Gay enthuses, “is a fine example of someone writing what she knows and the painful limitations of doing so”, an already underrepresented audience is not being reached.

I liked these essays mostly for the voice they undertook, funny and honest, and although most of what I read was hardly new information, it is clear how Roxane’s life experiences have formed her opinions. But in all her positive attempts to bring about change, Roxane’s carving out a place for feminism to have flaws that conflict with mainstream feminism is reflected in annoying contradictions in her writing.

She urges artists to write beyond what they know but cannot fathom a white writer and director being behind The Help or how Skinny, a story about obesity, could possibly be written by Diana Spechler, a skinny and attractive woman. About Caitlin Moran’s memoir, How To Be A Women, Roxane loses all sense of humor and writes

[Moran] blithely writes, “All women love babies — just like all women love Manolo Blahnik shoes and George Clooney. Even the ones who wear nothing but sneakers, or are lesbians, and really hate shoes, and George Clooney.” Again, this is funny, but it is also untrue, and to try to generalize about women for the sake of humor dismisses the diversity of women and what we love.

She misses the joke. Roxane Gay bunches women together in similar jokes to advance her writing yet finds it immoral when another writer does the same. She deems shows like Law and Order: SVU irresponsible and unnecessary, using rape as a plot line, but soon after we find out she has watched every episode religiously. How bad is a bad feminist? After a while a bad feminist does not sound like a feminist at all.

One moment in particular bothered me to my core, it was an opportunity for Roxane Gay to “practice what she preached” and give her essays real solidity- propelling them from bloggy YES GIRL! essays to palpable, real actions, but she did not. In her essay “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” Roxane talks bluntly about the lackadaisical ways in which rape is approached in this era where “rape culture” is a term. She calls on literature to use appropriate language to convey the ramifications of rape rather than using language to “buffer our sensibilities from the brutality of rape, from the extraordinary nature of the crime.”

Through the essays there is a lingering, Roxane hints to being gang raped early on by mentioning she had “an incident with some boys in the woods” and eventually reaches the moment where she writes about it. This moment comes directly after “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” essay, so I assumed she would do what she said she would like other writers to do. She did not.

She describes a bike ride with a boy she thought was her boyfriend that takes them to a dirty cabin in the woods. I cringed as I knew what was going to happen next. To her surprise his friends were there when they arrived at the cabin, all “popular” and “handsome”. She asked her not-boyfriend to leave but he would not let her, they pushed her down and took off her clothes. Then Roxane summaries,

They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger.

I read this three times over to see if I had missed something. Besides describing the scenery at the time she essentially summed up the event in three short sentences. What were the repercussions? What does “as bad as you might expect” even mean? Can that be considered appropriate language to describe the violence behind rape? Roxane scolds writers for not using the right words to demonstrate the violence of rape, yet describes her own as “as bad as you might expect”. Uh huh…

If I could describe Bad Feminist in one or two sentences I would say it is a discussion piece, one woman’s take on feminism that does not necessarily need to be Essential Feminist Lit. It is an attempt to make a change, but sometimes does not follow through with the risks it calls for others to take.

When I read the book I adored it, why would I not when the meaning behind it is aimed at something so positive? But stepping back and looking at it as a critic there are some obvious flaws with it, but I guess that is what we should expect from someone who calls herself a bad feminist.

Mid-July TBR List: The Overhyped, Marvelous Murakami, and Short Stories

My July reading list has only managed to come together in mid July. Thank you numerous unwarranted trips to the bookstore! Thank you Amazon.com and your lure of infinite books and fast delivery at my fingertips! Because of this I have been finicky over a now large selection of unread books to choose from, starting one until another arrives and I think No, I have to start this one now. But I have finally narrowed it down to three that will fill out the rest of this month.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

I have crawled out from under my rock and left the comfort of hibernation to read The Fault in Our Stars, as hyped as it is. I saw a trailer for the film before hearing about the book and it completely deterred me from wanting any part of it’s YA form. Nor with it’s plot, or with it’s sickly characters and sudden teenage love. But Hollywood has the ability to take a great book and market it to sell regardless of whether it reflects the story accurately. These are usually a re-imagining rather than a strict recreation.

When Hazel’s terminal tumor relents thanks to a medical miracle, she is bought a few more years of life. While at a Cancer Kid Support Group she meets Augustus Waters, a brilliant boy who allows her to see a new side of life, being in love.

I hope the book deals with Hazel’s real feelings about her diagnosis and knowing she is going to die as equally, if not more than, it talks about the Augustus and Hazel’s relationship. I don’t want it to be like The Lovely Bones, where a much greater issue lies within the story but all boils down to Susie wanting to have sex with her crush. I want it to deal with Hazel’s mortality and not have the power of love cure everything. I can not deny the book has something that has everyone raving, and my guess is the plot is great.

I also bought Paper Towns for good measure, but I will save that for next month.

Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami

There is a weird level of excitement within me considering I have never read any of Murakami’s work, but I am positive I will enjoy it. His stories are well written and often take the strange of fantasy and science fiction, which are all wonderful in my mind. After reading a few passages across his books I decided to first dip my toes into Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. The synopsis is painfully vague, only revealing that amoung a gang of oddball happenings – deranged scientists, unicorn skulls, and Bob Dylan (?) – a man falls into the underworld of contemporary Tokyo, uniting tragedy and comedy.

Murakami’s labeling as a controversial fiction writer and my urge to read international literature more will be soothed by this read!

The Brink, Austin Bunn

I picked up this book for two reasons:

1. Sometimes, I judge books by their covers.

2. I like short stories and enjoy seeing how other writers deal with this form of story telling.

Flipping through to find a passage at random I read of one character being “pleasantly retarded” after too much drink. I put it into my basket because I had read enough. This is Austin Bunn’s book debut and the stories within explore what happens at “the end” (I spot a theme) and beyond that. The stories span a wide range of plots; In “How To Win an Unwinnable War”a summer class on nuclear war somehow leads to the destruction of a family. Videogamers fall in love in the virtual world in “Griefer”. Despite the diversity of these stories all the characters go through changes in their lives and deal with solitude, which I find interesting because right now I am writing a short that deals with this. Something tells me this will be a fun read.