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The Gregory Peck-a-long: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote *****

It will come as no surprise, I am sure, to say that I have wanted to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences for such a long time, and my longing to do so was even higher after the Capote Readathon which Lizzi and I created last summer.  In Cold Blood is the fifth book upon my Classics Club list, and a fitting final read for my American Literature month. A lot of the information within this stunning piece of non-fiction was included in ‘Capote’, a film which I very much enjoyed.  The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare…  a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.

Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’.  It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children.  Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved.  At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’.  All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.9780141182575

Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”.  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang…  and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’.  Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad…  After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.

As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid.  This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.  At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.  But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.

The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959.  Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters.  Anyone less admired.  Prosperous.  Secure.  But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God.  It makes life seem pointless.  I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’.  The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described.  Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.

The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted.  Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers.  He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole.  In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception.  Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect.  In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.

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One From the Archive: ‘Clock Without Hands’ by Carson McCullers ***

Time constraints mean that another post has to be rescheduled, but this one fits in nicely with mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge.  My thoughts about the wonderful Carson McCullers’ Clock Without Hands were first published in 2013.

I had been meaning to read Clock Without Hands for quite some time before I finally began to.  I kept picking it up and then not getting around to it.  It travelled with me to Menorca in September, where I got distracted by my Kindle and the use of a swimming pool, and it has been in my bag on several occasions since.

I love McCullers’ writing.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of my favourite novels, dripping with beauty and emotion.  Clock Without Hands tells the story of J.T. Malone, a pharmacist living in a small town in Georgia, who is diagnosed with leukaemia.  He is given between a year and fifteen months to live.  From the start, the story which McCullers presents is quite engrossing, and she builds up sympathy for her protagonist immediately.  The racial disparities throughout are exemplified well, particularly towards the end of the novel.  Sadly, it did not feel as thoughtful or as thought-provoking as the other novels of hers which I’ve read to date.  I enjoyed it on the whole, and I felt that the ending was marvellous, but I doubt that it is a book which I will pick up again in a hurry.

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American Literature Month: (One From the Archive) ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut ****

First published September 2013.

I feel, after finishing Slaughterhouse Five, that I should have started reading Vonnegut’s work a long while ago.  For me, the premise of this novel is a wonderful one, and its standing within the canon of American literature made it seem like a good book of Vonnegut’s to begin with. slaughterhouse-5

The storyline in Slaughterhouse Five is an amalgamation of the events in Dresden during the Second World War, the life of protagonist Billy Pilgrim, and the somewhat bizarre customs of another planet, Tralfamadore, on which Pilgrim finds himself during his bouts of time travel.  I liked the way in which the threads of all of these different stories were pulled together through a series of scenes and small vignettes, and the entirety was told in such an engaging manner.

“Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day.  He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941.  He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963…
Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun.  He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.”

Vonnegut is rather clever in Slaughterhouse Five.  The story is both historically grounded and suspended in a sense of non-time.  The structure which the author has used is interesting.  The time periods in question jump all over the place, but it somehow still flows marvellously.  Overall, Slaughterhouse Five is an odd novel in many respects, but it is so very difficult to put down.

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American Literature Month: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote ***** (Classics Club #5)

It will come as no surprise, I am sure, to say that I have wanted to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences for such a long time, and my longing to do so was even higher after the Capote Readathon which Lizzi and I created last summer.  In Cold Blood is the fifth book upon my Classics Club list, and a fitting final read for my American Literature month. A lot of the information within this stunning piece of non-fiction was included in ‘Capote’, a film which I very much enjoyed.  The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare…  a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.

Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’.  It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children.  Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved.  At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’.  All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.9780141182575

Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”.  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang…  and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’.  Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad…  After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.

As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid.  This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.  At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.  But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.

The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959.  Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters.  Anyone less admired.  Prosperous.  Secure.  But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God.  It makes life seem pointless.  I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’.  The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described.  Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.

The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted.  Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers.  He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole.  In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception.  Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect.  In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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American Literature Month: ‘Young Hearts Crying’ by Richard Yates **** (Classics Club #68)

As is probably evident by now, I very much admire Richard Yates’ work.  Young Hearts Crying, published in 1984, is his penultimate novel, published eight years before his death.  The New Statesman describes his work as follows: ‘Bad couples, sad, sour marriages, young hopes corroded by suburban life’.

Here, Yates presents not just a married couple or a family to us, but a whole community; we are given a feel for how intrinsically individuals fit into a particular place or setting.  The protagonists of the piece, regardless, are a young married couple named Michael and Lucy Davenport.  The pair are very much in love at the beginning of the novel, yet cracks soon begin to appear within their marriage.  When Young Hearts Crying begins, Michael is a new Harvard graduate, who wants desperately to become a poet.  Rather than live upon Lucy’s sizeable trust fund, he is determined to make a living by himself; when he gets a job which he is not entirely satisfied with in New York, his friends and acquaintances begin to syphon off, doing bigger and better things.

As protagonists, Michael and Lucy are both well built.  Whilst Michael is not at all likeable (I would go as far to say that he is actually moderately awful in most of his thoughts and behaviour), Lucy is; the balance struck between the pair, augmented by their small daughter Laura, is pitch perfect.  One of Yates’ definite strengths here is the way in which he encompasses secondary characters from all walks of life, from the privileged to the poverty-stricken.  Young Hearts Crying is not overly heavy in its plot, and whilst one is able to guess what is going to happen as the story moves forward without any great effort, these elements do not make it any less compelling.

I always say this of Yates, but he is an incredibly aware and perceptive author.  Young Hearts Crying is so well written, and whilst it is not his strongest novel, it is a great, striking and relatively easy read nonetheless.

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American Literature Month: One From the Archive – ‘Tigers in Red Weather’ by Liza Klaussmann ****

Tigers in Red Weather begins on the east coast of America in September 1945, just after the end of the Second World War.  Cousins Nick and Helena have grown up spending a long spring of summers at Tiger House, the family’s estate on Martha’s Vineyard, a place which both women hold fondly in their memories.  

At the outset of the novel, we meet Nick and Helena, ‘wearing their slips and drinking gin neat out of old jelly jars’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Helena is about to get married for the second time and is on the cusp of moving to Hollywood, a decision which she views with some optimism: ‘At least this way I won’t turn into an old maid, mad as a hatter and warts on my nose’.  Simultaneously, Nick is travelling to meet her husband Hughes in St. Augustine, Florida.  The couple make their home here in a rented pre-fab, ‘just like all the others surrounding it’.  From the start, several small fissures reveal themselves in the relationship between the couple, and it is clear that calling them ‘happily married’ would be rather far from the truth.  Despite the cousins growing up together, their adult lives veer off in entirely different directions, living at opposite ends of the country and losing the regular contact with each other which they both heavily rely upon.

The second part of the novel begins in 1959 and lays focus upon Nick’s daughter Daisy, who believes her mother to be a ‘bit crazy’.  She and Nick are travelling to Tiger House to spend the summer with Helena and her son Ed.  Here, dawning understandings are realised by many of the characters.  When Daisy sees her mother and aunt on the porch of Tiger House, for example, she becomes ‘mesmerized.  It was as if her mother and aunt had been snatched away by goblins and replaced with fairies of some sort.  They looked so beautiful to her, and so different…  They could have said anything, and she would have loved them’.

We as readers learn a lot about the characters as the narrative progresses, from details about their pasts to their thoughts and feelings regarding a whole host of varied subjects.  Each character is given a plausible past and their relationships with one another have been crafted both sympathetically and skilfully.  The novel is strong in social history, and the inclusion of music and films throughout really historically grounds the novel.  A clever touch is the way in which we are able to see the technological progressions of such things as both time and the book go on.

Ed and Daisy’s discovery of a dead body in a seemingly abandoned shack in the woods soon shrouds the entire family, whose lives are already fraught with troubles and secrets.  Tigers in Red Weather becomes, in part – if rather a small part – a murder mystery story, but it is so much more than that.  It is an elaborate study of several characters, a rich social history which spans rather a wide chronological scale.

The novel is split into five separate sections, each of which follows a different character.  The majority of the novel uses the third person omniscient perspective and only the final section is told from the point of view of one of the characters.  The book is not a chronological one and some of these narratives do jump around a little in time, a technique which becomes a little confusing at times, but this is really the only drawback of the novel.  The conversations which Klaussmann has crafted between her characters work wonderfully.

Throughout, Klaussmann’s descriptions are often original: a train which ‘smelled like bleach and excitement’ – and sometimes rather lovely: ‘The oak tree in the backyard cut pieces from the moon’.  The entire novel is incredibly well written.

Tigers in Red Weather is rather an absorbing and incredibly intriguing read from the outset, and it is certainly a masterful debut.  It is an exceedingly well planned and well thought out novel, and Klaussmann has really done justice both to her characters and to the story which she has constructed.

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American Literature Month: ‘Songs of Willow Frost’ by Jamie Ford ****

Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost is the most contemporary novel which I decided to read as part of my American Literature Month.  I had originally intended to begin my reading of Ford’s work with Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, but after finding this as part of a ‘3 for £5’ deal in The Works just after Christmas, I thought I would give it a go instead.  The novel has been incredibly well reviewed; Helen Simonson, author of the marvellously entertaining Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, very much enjoyed it, and other critics have deemed it ‘dazzling’, ‘spellbinding’, ‘enchanting’ and ‘unforgettable’.

Published in 2013 and beginning in 1934, Songs of Willow Frost tells the story of William Eng, a young Chinese boy who resides at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle.  Whilst on an annual jaunt to the cinema to celebrate the given birthday of all of the boys who reside there, William is confronted by an image of an actress named Willow Frost, and is immediately convinced that she is his mother.  ‘The story of Willow Frost’, Ford tells us, ‘is far more complicated than any Hollywood fantasy’.  His mother, contrary to what he believes, is not dead; rather, she was placed into a ‘funny farm’ when he was small: ‘The lonely years had been easier to endure when he’d imagined his mother dead.  He hurt and he grieved, but that sorrow was less heartbreaking than the thought of his ah-ma alive and well, leaving him behind like a stray dog’.

The day on which we are introduced to our young protagonist is his twelfth birthday.  This is ‘a marvellous age’, he is told by Mother Angelini, ‘the precipice of adult responsibility’.  The room which William, the only Chinese boy in the orphanage, has to call home is perfectly evoked at the outset: ‘He kept his eyes closed as he listened to the bare feet of children, shuffling nervously on the cold wooden floor.  He heard the popping and billowing of sheets pulled back, like trade winds filling a canvas sail.  And so he ducked, on the favoring currents of his imagination, as he always did, to someplace else – anywhere but the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where the sisters inspected the linens every morning and began whipping the bed-wetters’.

Throughout, William’s own naivety and innocent ignorance of certain things is very touching indeed.  When the orphans are taken to the cinema, for example, he is made to sit in the ‘colored’ balcony, to which he has the following reaction: ‘Am I colored? William wondered.  And if so, what color am I?’  The social history of the period has been well evoked, and Ford encompasses such issues as the Great Depression and consequent spread of poverty; the state benefits in existence for orphans and the disabled; prohibition and its effects; and widespread racial prejudices.  Tired of the boundaries – both within the orphanage and society as a whole – which so tightly constrain him, William breaks free, setting out with his friend, a conscientious and caring blind girl named Charlotte, to find Willow Frost.

Songs of Willow Frost is both captivating and compelling, and holds a lot of interest from the very beginning.  Along with William’s story, we learn about Willow Frost’s past, and the mistakes which she is so determined not to repeat.  The writing within is sensual, and the third person perspective which Ford has chosen to use works wonderfully; it is not at all detached, as it can so often be, and the characters are followed in a manner which seems almost sensitive.  Songs of Willow Frost is at once literary in its style, and very easy to read.  The Chinese culture, along with all of its complexities, has been well exemplified.  The novel is reminiscent of Amy Tan’s work, in terms of the characterisation and the bridges both built and burnt between two such vastly different cultures.  There is much of interest within Songs of Willow Frost, and it is certainly a novel which I will be recommending.

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