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

 

10 Books of Summer Reading Challenge

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Photo: 746 Books

I’m already three books behind in my Goodreads Reading Challenge, where I set a goal of reading 35 books in 2016, but hopefully this challenge will help catch me up. After finding a post over at 746 Books, the blog hosting this summer long challenge, I felt compelled to join in at least to make my growing pile of unread books a little bit smaller.

If you’d like to join in it’s simple; read 10, 15, or 20 books between June 1st and September 5th and let your fellow bloggers know how you’re doing along the way. In keeping with my idea that low expectations=success, I’ve aimed for the lowest amount possible. Even so, being a notoriously slow reader, this may be out of my reach but it’s definitely worth the effort. Here’s the pile I’ll be tackling this summer, click their titles for detailed summaries on Goodreads.

1.Euphoria by Lily King

I just bought a used but good as new copy from my beloved Friends of the Library book sale for $1. Euphoria has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while after seeing it on The Millions list of most anticipated books in 2015. I gave myself a head start and started reading this book yesterday evening. The story is about three young anthropologists in the 1930s, caught in a love triangle. I have yet to get to the parts on illicit love, but so far the book is clever, funny, and well written.

2. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I’m finally ready for the Atwood Experience. The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic, but the topic has never drawn me in. I’m a stickler for great first lines and The Blind Assassin has plenty that demand attention; the first line of the book is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” so I was hooked to find out more. At over 500 pages The Blind Assassin may be the most challenging of the list to get through, but one can dream, right?

3. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

It’s not often that I read books with murder or mystery as a large portion of the plot, but this book has been collecting dust on my shelf for as long as I can remember, and reading this among more cheerful plots balances out my list. This chilling story is Capote’s reconstruction of the real life murder, investigation, and eventual capture, trial, and execution of the killers while conveying great empathy for them. Writing that makes you care about fictional bad characters are great; writing that makes you care about real life murderers are exceptional.

4. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

From the author of acclaimed novel Mr. FoxBoy, Snow, Bird puts a twist on childhood fairy tales. I’ve never read anything of that sort before, but after hearing praise for Oyeyemi’s writing I picked up a discounted copy at Barnes and Nobles. I’m excited to start this one.

5. How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

This book of short stories was given to me during my creative writing class and apparently is a must read for short story lovers and writers alike. Published in 2003, How to Breathe Underwater features nine stories that speak on the endless tragedies of youth. I have been on a short story binge lately so thought this would be a welcome break from all of the long fiction in this list.

6. Rock Springs by Richard Ford

Another short story collection. This is my cheat book, I started reading Rock Springs a while ago but never got around to finishing so want to pick up where I left off. Don’t take my not finishing to mean I did not enjoy the stories; this book is American literature gold.

7. Spheres of Disturbance by Amy Schutzer

Over a year ago after a tour of Red Hen Press, me and a group I was with were given the opportunity to take any book of our choosing – I picked up Spheres of Disturbance but have yet to read it. This book is published under Red Hen Press’ imprint, Artkoi Books, which publishes fiction by lesbian writers.

8. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

After reading Bad Feminist, I was over the moon to find Roxane Gay was writing a memoir. Gay uses her personal struggles with food and body image to explore “our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health.” I especially want to find out how her past, and the traumatic events within it, formed the woman whose work we’re reading today. Unfortunately, Hunger will not be in bookstores until June 14th, but I’ve already pre-ordered my copy – a little nonfiction to break up my reading.

9. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Another book I got overly excited about before realizing it had not been released yet. There is a lot of buzz around this debut novel about two half sisters in eighteenth-century Ghana. Their lives veer off on two very different paths, one sold into slavery while the other marries an Englishman and moves to the Cape Coast. I will be attending the ALOUD Reading series on June 7 where Yaa Ghasi will talk about her book. Here’s hoping I’m able to get my hands on and finish reading the book before then. 

10. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

It has been a while since I’ve indulged myself in some Cormac McCarthy and I think I’m well overdue for my fill. I was tempted to give Blood Meridian another read, but still don’t think I’m ready to stomach decapitations and random removal of entrails. Outer Dark may not be any better since the story follows a woman who bears her brother’s child… but I think I’ll be able to stomach it.

Are any of you participating in 20 Books of Summer? What do you think of the books in my list? Are there any that you’ve read and did/didn’t enjoy? Any books that I should just cross of my list?

Summer Reading Picks: A Very Mixed Bowl

Lately I have found editing to be both a gratifying and intolerably tedious activity. I have been editing a short story for two days now – the first edit turning into a rewrite and the second carrying on a story I thought I had ended, and although I love the characters growing within what I think is a reasonably good plot, a short is called a short because it is short. I need to work on this.

While taking a break from editing/rewriting I decided to compile a list of summer and beach reading from books I already own. When asked what your favorite summer read is you might not mention titles filled with mental illness, death, and ritual killings, but I have my reasons!

 

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, George Armado

During a trip to Brazil last August I discovered a love for international storytelling through hearing about a literary festival in Paraty and the thousands of south American authors who would be in attendance, I did not get to go but it sparked the bug to read some on my own. Being exposed to their sing song way of speaking and learning to talk to my husband’s grandma by listening to Brazilian music, I found that every song on the radio naturally sounded like poetry – I wanted to hear their stories. Although Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is considered a romance between Syria born Nacib Saad and his new cook Gabriela, we are immediately thrown into Colonel Mendonça shooting his wife and the man he finds her in bed with, an example of how things are dealt with in this small town in the 1920s. Yes, Nacib and Gabriela fall in love, but they are faced with obstacles almost immediately when the society they reside in refuses to accept them together, changing them and their relationship completely.

 

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

A group of friends and lovers travel from Paris to Spain to see the bull fights with alcohol, nightlife and debauchery thrown in for good measure in this portrayal of the post-World War I generation. Jake Barnes falls in love with drinker and divorcee Lady Brett Ashley almost immediately upon introduction, but she refuses to commit to a relationship with him because of the expectation that comes with it – sex. Brett is admired by multiple men and this soon leads to drunken fist fights and dark humor. After parting ways, Jake and Brett meet later in Paris; Jake is accompanied by his friend Robert Cohn (another admirer of Brett) and Brett, now married, is with her husband Mike Campbell. The four agree to go to Spain together and, of course, events go poorly. Although The Sun Also Rises reads like a light beach book, Ernest Hemingway uses character’s action and a great plot to show the aimlessness of life for the lost generation.

 

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

I ordered this from Amazon about a month ago and it is next in my classic reading pile, it sounds like the perfect summer read, like The Devil Wears Prada but with a girl who isn’t perfectly cliche. Esther Greenwood starts a summer internship at a New York magazine but despite her move to the big city and starting a position many women strive for- she is is unsatisfied, scared, depressed. Her mother forces her to see a slew of unprofessional psychiatrists that prescribe electric shock therapy, and Esther refuses to go back. The story follows Esther through tales of her internship, the people she meets, half attempts at suicide and then one real attempt, and unravel fears and feelings Sylvia Plath suffered through in her real life as a writer and person with depression.

 Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

The copy I own of this book is nine years old and has “From mummy, happy reading” written on the first page, I think Things Fall Apart was the first piece of real literature I read outside of school and enjoyed. Set in Nigeria, reading this book reminds me of the summers I spent there as a child. Cornrows dirtied with dust, big cheesy grins with cousins. The rich culture and detail Chinua Achebe paints transports you to that world, one of tribes and tradition that begin to creep into western assimilation and the tragic irony that follows. The story focuses is on an Igbo man named Okwonko. Shamed by an absent father, he strives to be respected by everyone in the village by simulating extreme masculinity, working hard, gaining wealth, and an overabundance of wives and children. He and his family take in a young boy named Ikemefuna, who is given to the village as a peace settlement after his father kills an Umuofia woman. Okwonko raises the boy they take to each other like father and son, but when the Oracle of Umuofia claims Ikemefuna must be killed Okwonko’s decision to appear strong and deal the killing blow to Ikemefuna sends him and his family into a downward spiral.

I think I will have to give this story a reread, I am getting the same chills I did when I first read it.

Have you read any of these or are you planning to?