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One From the Archive: ‘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: ‘The Cat’ by Colette *****

There is some gorgeous imagery in The Cat, and some absolutely wonderful scenes.  Colette’s writing is stunning, and one gets the feeling that it has been perfectly translated too.  It (probably) goes without saying that my favourite character here was Saha, the cat of the book’s title.  I felt that she had been perfectly captured, and her actions and mannerisms were so realistic.  Colette’s descriptions of Paris, too, are leaving me longing to go back.

The way in which Colette presented male opinions and apprehensions about marriage was incredibly interesting, and so believable, I think.  This element stopped the story being merely a collection of commonplace musings upon matters of the heart, and brought in some thought-provoking scenes.  The psychological aspects which she weaves in are so well executed, and Colette illustrates wonderfully the power which our animals have over us.  All in all, The Cat is a glorious little novella – stunning and rather short, but perfectly written and portrayed.

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One From the Archive: ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ by Claire Fuller ****

Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days was purchased with some of my Christmas book vouchers, and was the eighth entry for my Read My Own Books project.  I chose to purchase the novel for two reasons – firstly, I had heard so many good things about it, and secondly, the initial sentence of the blurb captivated my attention entirely: ‘Peggy is eight years old when her father takes her to live in a cabin in a remote European forest’.  I adore books which feature child narrators or protagonists, who are wrenched from their comfort zones and have to find a way to cope with their new and unfamiliar surroundings.  I was half-expecting a dark, modern fairytale retelling to spiral from the pages.

Our Endless Numbered Days was the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2015, and is also part of the Waterstones book club.  The novel has been so well reviewed.  The Sunday Express call it ‘Bewitching.  A riveting, dark tale, full of wonders, suspense and revelation, light and shadow’, and Esther Freud believes it to be ‘Utterly gripping, hypnotic.  I tore through it’.

Peggy is our first person narrator for the entirety, telling her story from a position of retrospective, a technique which allows her past to feel just as vivid as her present.  Her father, James Hillcoat, is part of the North London Retreaters group, which prepares for imminent disaster, and her mother, Ute, is a world-class pianist: ‘No one ever described Ute as beautiful – they used words like striking, arresting, singular.  But because she was a woman to be reckoned with the men composed themselves’.  Peggy’s parents came together through a turmoil of sorts: ‘For the public and critics, her relationship with James Hillcoat was a scandal.  Ute was at the height of her career and she gave it all up for the love of a seventeen-year-old boy.  They married the next year, as soon as it was legal’.  9780241003947Her father’s best friend, Oliver, is frank about his beliefs, telling him: ‘You know what the trouble is with you, James?  You’re so damn British.  And the rest of you – you’re all living in the dark ages, hiding in your cellars, driving off to the country like you’re going on a fucking Sunday picnic.  You still call yourselves Retreaters; the world’s moving on without you.  You haven’t even figured out that you’re survivalists’.

In 1976, whilst her mother is on a tour of her native Germany, Peggy’s father, under a mysterious cloud of anger, takes her to live in a forest, in a dilapidated structure called ‘die Hutte’, far away from civilisation, and a world away from the life she knows.  James tells her that her mother has died, and that is the reason why they are unable to return to their North London suburb.  The reality of Peggy’s situation really hits home with the position of retrospect which she adopts: ‘I had no idea that this wind-worn woman, creased and bag-eyed, standing outside her barn with her cow on a rope, would be the last person I would meet from the real world for another nine years.  Perhaps if I had known, I would have clung to the folds of her skirt, hooked my fingers over the waistband of her apron and touched my knees around one of her stout legs’.

From the start, Fuller’s writing is quite lovely in places; evidence of her Creative Writing MA, it seems: ‘And I thought that maybe it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  Knowing that the sun had shone, and the piano must have been played, and people had lived and breathed whilst I had been gone, helped steady me’.  The entire work is filled with interesting and intriguing details, which often add a sense of mystery to the whole as the plot unfolds: ‘The summer the photograph was taken, my father recast our cellar as a fallout shelter’ proclaims the first sentence of the second chapter, for instance.

Peggy is a lovely character, whom one cannot help but warm to.  Her childish observations and ways of trying to take life by surprise are endearing: ‘I liked to wake without moving my body to see if I could catch myself in that empty place between sleeping and walking, just as I became conscious of the world and the position of my body’.  She is made to grow up at the age of eight, little shocks coming at pivotal points in her journey to attaining adult levels of understanding: ‘As I followed behind him the diamond of blue canvas [from what used to be their tent] mocked me, the awful knowledge staring me in the face whilst I climbed that we wouldn’t be going home’.

The spacing of the plot points ensures that the reader’s interest in Peggy’s tale is sustained throughout.  Our Endless Numbered Days put me in mind of Frances Greenslade’s wonderful Shelter and Claire King’s charming The Night Rainbow from the very beginning.  The novel is engaging, and the tension builds quite marvellously.  Fuller’s writing is taut and emotionally charged, and Peggy is a believable narrator who lingers in the mind for a long while after the final page has been read.

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One From the Archive: ‘Wildwood’ (The Wildwood Chronicles: Book One) by Colin Meloy ****

‘Wildwood’ by Colin Meloy

When I find bands or singers I particularly love whose lyrics never fail to astound me (Conor Oberst, Sam Duckworth, Jesse Lacey, Frank Turner and Benjamin Gibbard come to mind, and I could go on), I often find myself wishing that they would turn their literary talents to a book.  What is really cool is that Colin Meloy, lead singer of The Decemberists, has done so.  What is even cooler is that he has turned his Wildwood stories into a trilogy.

I first heard about this novel via a BookTube channel, and when I saw how beautiful the cover was, I had to break my self-imposed book buying ban and purchase myself a copy.  What I found most adorable when I received it was that Meloy has written the book and crafted the storyline, and his partner, Carson Ellis, has illustrated it – and so very beautifully, too.

The story begins with Prue McKeel, a young girl living in Portland, Oregon, taking her baby brother Mac out for the day.  When he is toddling around in a local playground, a murder of crows swoops down and abducts him, taking him deep into the Impassable Forest on the very edge of Portland.  The Impassable Forest is a place where nobody ever ventures, so imagine Prue’s surprise when she sets off to find her brother and is able to cross the enchanted boundary between the city and the trees.

One of her classmates, Curtis, a rather adorable boy in a furry parka, follows her as she makes her way into the forest, and is soon part of the adventure too.  On their quest to retrieve Mac from the clutches of evil, they meet many different characters, and even stumble upon a secluded community in the middle of the forest.

Meloy has plotted Wildwood very cleverly indeed, and despite its length, at no point does it feel sparse or too devoid of an engrossing storyline.  He is an inventive writer, and has crafted the world within Wildwood marvellously.  The story, whilst it contains elements of magical realism – a talking owl who takes tea in a library, for example – has been rendered in such a way that it is eminently believable at times.

Throughout, I caught glimpses of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton, but there was still something incredibly original about it.  The characterisation was polished, and I loved the writing style.  Some fabulous descriptions can be found within its pages.

Prue takes tea with an owl (Illustration by Carson Ellis)

As you can see from this post, Carson Ellis’ illustrations are an absolute delight, and they work wonderfully alongside Meloy’s story.  I love her style, and the way in which she has rendered scenes with such care.  I would happily purchase a book on the strength of her drawings alone.

After finishing Wildwood, I am so intrigued to see what will happen next, and am eagerly anticipating the paperback release of the next book in the series, Under Wildwood.

Suggested playlist, consisting solely of songs by Colin Meloy and The Decemberists:
1. Crane Wife – Parts 1 and 2 – The Decemberists
2. A Cautionary Song – Colin Meloy
3. Rox in the Box – The Decemberists
4. Don’t Carry It All – The Decemberists
5. June Hymn – The Decemberists
6. The Engine Driver – Colin Meloy
7. Down by the Water – The Decemberists

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One From the Archive: ‘The Land of Decoration’ by Grace McCleen ***

First published in April 2012.

The Land of Decoration is Grace McCleen’s debut novel. It has been selected as part of the Waterstone’s 11, which aims to showcase this year’s most promising writers.

The Land of Decoration is told from the first person perspective of ten-year-old Judith McPherson. Her narration is childish at times, infused with buckets of naivety and a wry humour which it seems she has adopted in order to make the situations which unfold around her lose much of their terrifying seriousness. She asks questions of the kind which inquisitive children of her age revel in – what dying is like and how long someone can breathe underwater, for example. Her observations on life work perfectly with the story.

Judith is an extremely creative character who has a fresh way of viewing the world. She is able to see the uses of everything which is discarded by those around her. In Judith’s world, a sweet wrapper can become ‘flowers or a rainbow or… a crown’, and a shoelace found in a puddle finds a new lease of life as a hose, a stream, a python or a creeper.

Judith really captures the affection of the reader as the story progresses. She builds up ‘the Land of Decoration’ of the novel’s title on her bedroom floor ‘from things no one else wanted’ and states rather sadly that ‘it has taken most of my life to make’. In her Land of Decoration, Judith is trying to create her idea of a perfect world where ‘there won’t be any unbelievers or any war or any famine or any suffering… and those who have died will come back to life and those that are living will never die at all’. Her ultimate goal is incredibly poignant; that in the new world she has created, she will be able to see her mother who died when she was just a baby. She begins to believe herself to be a worker of miracles when, after covering the Land of Decoration in a blanket of snow, she wakes to a white world outside her window. Soon afterwards, she begins to converse with God about the choices she makes throughout the novel.

The reader feels such empathy for Judith from the outset, particularly when the darker elements of the story come into focus. Despite being bullied at school, having no friends to speak of and a relatively strained relationship with her father which has resulted in rather a lonely childhood, she has an undying belief in the power of faith. God is a large part of the young girl’s life and she and her devout father read the Bible together every day without fail and attend meetings with other ‘Brothers’ and ‘Sisters’.

Judith’s father, factory worker John, is a character quite unlike her own. He provides very few answers to the questions she asks and reads incessantly to her from the Bible in order to ‘save’ her life. The reader feels relatively distanced from him for the majority of the novel. We do not know what motivates him or what he thinks about, as we see what Judith sees and nothing else. As a result of this, the details included in the numerous character descriptions throughout are refreshing. Some of the best examples are ‘he’s not much taller than me but wears little boots with heels’, ‘hair the colour of blackbirds’, ‘a mouth like a slit [which]… stretches like a concertina when she talks’, and Judith’s unusual description of herself: ‘I am ten, and four foot four, and… most of the time I am just the right temperature’.

The novel is set against the turbulent backdrop of factory strikes and irreconcilable change, elements of which Judith is unable to grasp. Seeing the portrayal of such situations through her child’s eyes works incredibly well.

McCleen has woven a sense of magic and wonder into the novel from the outset. Intriguing and sensuous lines, such as ‘I made a sea from a mirror, reflecting the sky and the boats and the birds’ and ‘I made houses from a matchbox and a bird’s nest and a pea pod and a shell’ can be found throughout.

The novel is almost a biblical parody. It opens with the line ‘In the beginning there was an empty room, a little bit of space, a little bit of light, a little bit of time’, a definite echo of the beginning of the Bible. Although the biblical elements add an interesting twist to the novel, they do feel a little overdone on a couple of occasions. The story would have worked just as well if some of the numerous religious references, Bible quotes or church scenes had been omitted. The way in which Judith and God converse also seems to drain some of the perfectly crafted magic from the book, which is a shame.

The chapters in The Land of Decoration are all relatively short but are very well defined. Some of them have very matter-of-fact titles, ranging from ‘Why I Will Not Live Very Long’ to ‘How to Make a Man’. Others are almost stylistically whimsical – ‘Snowflakes and Mustard Seeds’ and ‘Dust and Stars’ – and others delightfully childish and reminiscent of primary school writing tasks – ‘The Best Day of My Life’. The writing itself is stunning in places, particularly with regard to the descriptions given. The strength of the narrative voice which McCleen has created far surpasses the majority of the dialogue throughout, which seems a little stolid and mundane at times.

In The Land of Decoration, McCleen has created a believable and absorbing story and a realistic narrative voice. The novel is quirky and different, even original at times. It is an incredibly promising debut and as a formative novel charting a young girl’s growing up, it works very well.

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One From the Archive: ‘Jane of Lantern Hill’ by L.M. Montgomery ****

Canadian author L.M. Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill is another new addition to the expanding range of children’s books upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  The novel was first published in 1937, and is set in both Toronto and on Prince Edward Island, where the author herself lived.  Montgomery is best known for her series featuring Anne Shirley, which begins with the classic novel Anne of Green Gables. 9780349004440

In Jane of Lantern Hill, one of Montgomery’s standalone novels, Jane Stuart and her mother have lived in a ‘gloomy old mansion’ in Toronto for as long as she can remember: ‘Gay Street, so Jane always thought, did not live up to its name.  It was, she felt certain, the most melancholy street in Toronto… though, to be sure, she had not seen a great many of the Toronto streets in her circumscribed comings and goings of eleven years’.  Their lives are ‘ruled by her overbearing grandmother’ Mrs Kennedy, who shows distaste about everything which her granddaughter says and does.  This causes Jane to harbour feelings about her grandmother which she feels rather guilty about: ‘There were times Jane was afraid she did hate grandmother, which was dreadful, because grandmother was feeding and clothing and educating her.  Jane knew she ought to love grandmother, but it seemed a very hard thing to do’.

Jane is a rather lonely child, who has been told that her father is dead.  She has also been taught to hate him, despite having no memories of him.  She has only one friend to speak of – Josephine Turner, or Jody, who lives in the boarding house next door.  One April morning, however, she receives an invitation from her father to spend her summer with him on Prince Edward Island.  This single piece of paper drastically changes her life forever: ‘It was only three minutes since Jane had brought the letter in, and in those three minutes the world had turned upside down.  Jane felt as if a gulf had opened between her and all humankind’.  Despite her foreboding, however, Jane has a lovely time with her father, learning that life is there to be enjoyed and not stifled.

From the start, Jane is a darling character, who has such a vivid imagination and such lovely ideas.  She believes that Gay Street should really be filled with ‘gay, friendly houses… with trees that waved hands at you and windows that winked at you in the twilights’.  She is a spirited and rather strong protagonist, who does not allow anyone to chastise her without trying to stick up for herself as the book goes on.

The volume’s beautiful cover has been drawn by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, and its artwork suits the book perfectly.  Jane of Lantern Hill is a charming, quaint and well-written story from one of Canada’s most beloved authors.  It is sure to delight children and adults alike, and is a perfect read for long summer days.

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And Other Stories: ‘Babylon Revisited and Other Stories’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald ****

Fitzgerald is one of my favourite authors, and it will come as no surprise to many, I’m sure, that I will happily seize upon any of his works.  This one was purchased on Books Are My Bag day last year, when I found it in the wonderful Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge, and had a wonderful excuse in which to buy it.  ‘Babylon Revisited’, the title story in this collection, is ‘considered one of Fitzgerald’s finest and most poignant pieces of short fiction’.  The beautiful Alma Classics edition which I read includes ‘a unique selection of other tales from the final period of the author’s career’, and is comprised of fifteen stories in all.

‘Babylon Revisited’ – first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931 – incorporates many echoes and elements of Fitzgerald’s own life, and is at once fascinating and sad to read.  It is set in 1930, in the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the midst of the Great Depression.  ‘Reformed alcoholic’ Charlie Wells is the protagonist of the piece.  The main thread of the story comes when he returns to Paris ‘to convince his in-laws to give him back the daughter he was forced to abandon’.  His daughter, Honoria, has been living with his sister-in-law and her family in a ‘warm and comfortably American’ apartment for a considerable time, and his wife has ‘escaped to a grave in Vermont’.  Charlie is, in all essence, a changed man; he astounds old friends whom he meets in the city with the very fact that he is sober: ‘They liked him because he was functioning, because he was serious; they wanted to see him because he was stronger than they were now, because they wanted to draw a certain sustenance from his strength’.

We as readers get the same sense of deja vu as Charlie does on revisiting the Parisian hotel in which he spent so much time; careful descriptions abound to create a vivid picture in the mind’s eye: ‘He was not really disappointed to find Paris was so empty.  But the stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous.  It was not an American bar any more – he felt polite in it, and not as if he owned it…  Passing through the corridor, he heard only a single, bored voice in the once clamorous women’s room.  When he turned into the bar he travelled the twenty feet of green carpet with his eyes fixed straight ahead by old habit; and then, with his foot firmly on the rail, he turned and surveyed the room, encountering only a single pair of eyes that fluttered up from a newspaper in the corner’.  Throughout, Fitzgerald’s descriptions are sumptuous, and I was struck by the way in which he uses colour: ‘Outside, the fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs shone smokily through the tranquil rain…  The Place de la Concorde moved by in pink majesty’.

As with Fitzgerald’s other work, Babylon Revisited and Other Stories is filled to the brim with splendid characterisation, gorgeous scenes, well-built emotion, and an ultimate air of believability.  Fitzgerald is so perceptive of his characters, whether young or old.  Honoria in ‘Babylon Revisited’, for example, is captured perfectly with just a few deft turns of phrase: ‘He waited in the dark street until she appeared, all warm and glowing, in the window above and kissed her fingers out into the night’.  Each and every one of the tales in this collection is perfectly plotted, and they are stunning in their own right.

A wealth of differing plots and settings have been used throughout; we have natural disasters, growing up, and poverty and its effects to name but three.  Fitzgerald also demonstrates how heavily engrained into society racism was.  Fitzgerald is a master of the short story form; one of his ultimate strengths lies in the way in which he succinctly weaves both a present and a past for each of his characters.  In this manner, it feels more often than not as though we as readers have been the companion of his protagonists throughout an entire novel, and not just a few pages of a story.

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