Saturday, July 16, 2011

"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote

Published: 1965
Read: 2011
Genre: Non-fiction novel or true crime novel
Rating: 5
List: 1,001
Review: Goodreads, A Guy's Moleskin Notebook

With this brilliantly written novel, Capote created a new genre: the non-fiction novel and/or the true crime novel.  It was initially published in four installments in the New Yorker and then in novel form in 1965.  Rather than writing a book full of facts about a horrific crime in a sleepy Midwestern town, Capote used these facts to create a spell-binding story.  Once started, I had a hard time putting the book down.  

The book is divided into four parts called I) The Last to See them Alive, II) Persons Unknown, III)  Answer and IV)  The Corner.  Within the parts are sections separated by white space, no chapters.

Capote and Harper Lee (author of To Kill A Mockingbird) went to Holcomb, KS, scene of the gruesome murders to conduct interviews.  He followed the story through the trial/sentencing and was able to interview the murderers while incarcerated.   There are two movies that depict this time in Capote's life, Capote and Infamous.  Both are in my Netflix queue.

Quotes to remember and why:

Rather than just listing items that accompany a guitar and 12-guage shotgun in the back seat of the car, Capote adds a literary flair:
A flashlight, a fishing knife, a pair of leather gloves, and a hunting vest fully packed with shells contributed further atmosphere to this curious still life.
If Dick's face truly looked like this, what a piece of descriptive writing:
...his face, which seemed composed of mismatching parts.  It was as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center.
Even a cat is worthy of a well-constructed sentence:
Pete, a tiger-shaped tom weighing fifteen pounds, is a well-known character around Garden City, famous for his pugnacity, which was the cause of his current hospitalization; a battle lost to a boxer dog had left him with wounds necessitating both stitches and antibiotics.

This reminds me of Josh's glasses that are still in his room....
Upstairs in Kenyon;s room, on a shelf above his bed, the lenses of the dead boy's spectacles gleamed with reflected light.

When locals were getting on Dewey for not solving the crime at Hartman's cafe, Mrs. Hartman rebukes them with these three simple words which says it all.
Hush your meanness.
Dewey had worked on four simple murder cases before this one. I like how clear and concise this sentence is:
Prior to the Clutter mystery, the four cases cited were the sum of Dewey's experience with murder, and measured against the case confronting him, were squalls preceding a hurricane.
How Perry looked at the trial in a borrowed shirt and jeans cuffed at the bottom:
..he looked as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field.
Death, grief and suicide are prominent themes so I wrote a post on Josh's blog.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell

Published: 1855
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 5
Review Goodreads

Last year I watched an excellent adaptation by BBC, on the recommendation of my daughter.  Since then, I bought the Works of Elizabeth Gaskell on my Nook for a whopping $4.  I started to read this novel and found the highlighting and note-taking feature so cumbersome, I had to buy the paperback.  Now I can dog-ear, write in the margins and underline to my heart's content.   I have come to the conclusion that an e-reader is not necessarily my cup of tea unless I have a sudden urge to download and read a Debbie Macomber book in one night.

Gaskell was a wife and mother before becoming an author.  Her first book, Mary Barton (1848) made her an instant celebrity.  North and South was first published in the familiar installment mode in Dicken's Household Words between September 1854 and January 1855.  She became a lifelong friend of Charlotte Bronte and wrote a biography at the request of C.B's father.   Apparently North and South is of a similar theme to Bronte's book, Shirley (1849).

I loved the book: the prose, characters, setting, description and dialogue.  To me, it was Pride and Prejudice meets North and South.

Margaret Hale is our heroine and lives in an idyllic town in the south of England called Helstone.  Her father, a clergyman decides to leave the Church of England and take up a position as a tutor in Milton (northern England) much to the chagrin of his wife.  The family is uprooted and the difference in surroundings and lifestyle are like night and day.  Milton is a manufacturing town and one of Mr. Hale's pupils is a factory owner, John Thornton.

Through an omniscient narrator that goes inside the minds of both main characters, Margaret and John, we see the differences between these two parts of England - almost as if they were different countries.  The North vs South themes in the book:  apprentice vs. student, pragmatic vs. philosopher, man vs. gentleman, manufacturing vs. agriculture.  The other themes have to do with the manufacturing industry itself:  Master vs. hand, management vs. labor, owner vs. union.

Both Margaret and John have pride in their way of doing things and are prejudiced against the other, hence the similarity to Austen's book which was published over 40 years earlier, in 1813. In fact, chapter 11 is titled "First Impression" which was the original title of P&P.

The basic romance plot line of Margaret Hale and John Thornton remind me of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Austen's P&P and interestingly enough, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.

  • Boy and girl notice one another (Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth at the dance, Mr. Thornton and Margaret at her Milton home, Rhett and Scarlett at the Wilkes' barbecue).
  • Boy is attracted to the girl first and professes his love.
  • Girl rejects boy.
  • Boy saves girl.
  • Girl sees the positive attributes in boy.
  • Some misunderstandings which drive me as the reader, crazy.
  • Girl ends up loving boy. 

I look forward to reading other novels by both Gaskell and Bronte.
  • Mary Barton (1848)
  • Shirley by C.Bronte (1849)
  • Cranford (1853)
  • Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857)
  • Wives and Daughters (1866)
It is a bit surprising how much I am enjoying 19th century British literature. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Mentor: A Memoir" by Tom Grimes

Published: 2010
Read: 2011
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 3
Reviews: Goodreads

My reading journey has led me to the world of memoirs.  I remember seeing this book last year and made a mental note.  During a Border's closing sale a few months ago, it was purchased and added to the ever growing TBR pile.   I picked it up before going on a 2-day business trip last week, thinking it would be a perfect airport-airplane read while providing some food for thought - a good choice.  

This poignant memoir is about the impact of a mentor, Frank Conroy, director of the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop on a fledgling writer, Tom Grimes.  It also offers a glimpse into a writer's life and if accurate, it is a lonely, difficult, anxiety ridden, insecure life.  Why would anyone want to do this?  I ask the same question when reading articles about people who want to run a marathon in every continent or about a 51 year old man who recently biked from California to the East Coast in 11 days - why??  I guess it is a calling or maybe a better description - an obsession.

Meaningful quotes below:

Grimes' reasons for writing:
Writing was my center of gravity.  If I quit, I'd implode.
It's my way of controlling my world and my emotions.  I focus on sentences.  For several hours a day, nothing else matters.  I live inside language.  And while I'm often frustrated by writing's difficulty, I am also at peace.
Writing is a necessity.  I exist on sentences.  I forget my sense of failure.  I forget time. I forget that I'm aging.  I forget that one day I'll die.  Revising sentences is an act of hope, and connecting to the reader is the only leap of faith I'll ever take. 
I never want to die and when I'm writing a novel I believe I never will.  
I can relate to some of Grimes' feelings.  About how writing is a centering activity and a way to work through intense feelings.  I've had to rely on writing to survive our personal earthquake, the suicide of our beloved 17-year old son.  In the aftermath, during the wee hours of the night, words flowed from pen to paper.  Into my journal, then onto Josh's blog.  Then onto this reading blog.  And over 2 year later, I have not stopped.  I try to be as true and uncensored as possible - about what I am feeling and thinking.  It has been a lifesaver.

Difficulty of a writer's life:
The ground a writer stands on is no firmer than water.
I've chosen a profession and life that promises to humble me.
The six months I'd spent hunched over my desk in a small cold room near an ice-glazed storm window had ended.  I felt as if I'd ascended from the ocean's frigid, black floor, broken the water's surface and taken a deep breath.  A world did exist apart from the intensity of making sentences and the anxiety of scratching my way toward an ending.
Interesting thought about the connection between writer and reader, as imparted to Tom by Frank.
A reader must feel the continual, but unobtrusive pressure of the writer's soul behind every sentence.

Very good example of "show, don't tell".  Grimes is in the locker room of a pro baseball team, for research purposes. In my book, I underlined the adjectives and circled the verbs. 
First they pulled long, white socks above their knees and secured them with navy blue stirrups.  Next, they hoisted jock straps over their hips, stepped into spandex shorts and then reached inside them to snugly place a hard rubber cup over their testicles.  They tugged short-sleeved Mets T-shirts over their heads, slipped into immaculate white, blue and orange pinstriped uniforms, and then knotted the laces of their polished black cleats. 

Tom's very graphic, intense description of his sister's attempted suicide.  Horrible.  She tried to disembowel herself with a carving knife.  This didn't work so she plugged in an electric carving knife and slit her left wrist.  The noise woke up her husband and two young children.  When the boys saw her covered in blood, "she seemed to be wearing a horror mask. The boys began tearing at their hair, trying to rip it from their skulls.  As he dialed 911, they ran into the dining room and circled it's table, shrieking."

When Tom was diagnosed as clinically insane - his haunting, descriptive metaphor:
I felt like an eggshell that had been dyed with vivid colors, then pinpricked and drained.  It may appear solid, but beneath its decorative surface it's hollow and nearly weightless.
Read Frank Conroy's critically acclaimed memoir, published in 1967: Stop-Time