Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

168642Blurb:

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.

Review:

“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.”

How can two opposite things both be true? How can someone be a killer but not—never—be worthy of being killed himself? How can the world treat you poorly but in doing so not give you the right to treat it poorly?

The answer to these hows? A set of arbitrary human laws that we have tried to bend around the unarbitrary universe.

Murder, as a subject of debate, doesn’t seem particularly sticky. And yet we have hundreds of thousands of pages of judicial literature devoted to its consequences and hundreds of thousands of pages of fiction and non-fiction literature dedicated to its perpetrators, its victims, its sufferers, and its enforcers. The rule humans have developed for murder is as simple as the one recorded in the Bible a few millennia ago, “Thou shalt not kill,” and yet…we kill. And yet, we struggle to understand why.

The murder here is both as unfathomable and fathomable as they all are. Two greedy men stomped on by the world decide to rob a prosperous Kansas farm family for money. Failing to find a massive safe full of cash, they abandon the enterprise but still decide to brutally murder the four family members.

In Cold Blood is widely considered the exemplary work of the True Crime genre. Never before has a family’s doom been quite so picturesque. It is the most fantastic of murders, more atavistic than the “original” murder of Abel by Cain. The dead family is the family, more good, wholesome, and kind than it should be possible to be. And the killers are the killers, not entirely psychopathic but not entirely rational. They’re straight-up thugs, beat-up and blackhearted, motivated by a special blend of vindictiveness and simple desire.

What makes it even more fantastic is its hyper-realness. Verisimilitude cannot substitute for newspaper clippings, wet pools of blood, and the itch of a real rope around a real man’s neck. This all happened, Capote reminds us with every tragic detail. A family met death while the family in the neighboring farmhouse slept through the night. You can google “Perry Smith” and stare into his drooping eyes, just as the Clutter family might have stared into those eyes, tied up, desperate, wondering but probably more so knowing that they’d be the last thing they’d see. Likewise you can google “Nancy Clutter” and see her brilliantly coiffed hair paired with a genuine smile.

While the Clutters were killed, so were the perpetrators, just later and in a different way. And looking at all their faces—their real faces—it’s easy to forget those human laws and it’s hard to say whom you pity more.

4 stars out of 5

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Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

186074Blurb:

Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet’s hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.

Review:

In the strangest corners lurk the most surprising discoveries. Who knew I’d find a veritable nominee for most insufferable literary character of all time in a 2007 fantasy novel? Take these three examples, words spoken by Kvothe, a magician wunderkind:

Here, talking to a professor, he compares himself to his classmates:

Master Kilvin, I am better. I learn faster. I work harder. My hands are more nimble. My mind is more curious. However, I also expect you know this for yourself without my telling you.

Here, talking to his love-interest, he tries to woo by dripping condescension:

”If someone found a loden-stone made of brass would it be like other brass?”

“Maybe it would be like copper and zinc,” I said. “That’s what brass is made of.”

Word of advice, love interest, run to the freaking hills.

And again, what a loveable scamp Kvothe is, condescending once more to the girl he wants desperately to impress:

“But if one of us jumped off a roof, we’d get hurt because we’re heavier. It makes sense that bigger things fall even harder.”

She was right, of course. She was talking about the square-cube ratio, though she didn’t know what to call it.

A wonderful neologism has emerged in the past few years: “mansplaining,” i.e., when a man condescends, often unconsciously, to a woman because a concept is just too difficult or too important for her to wrap her pretty mind around. Kvothe is a mansplainer supreme, to be sure, but his condescension is not gender-choosy: he will be insufferable to anyone, though for him it’s not being insufferable, he’s just being Kvothe; sorry he happens to know everything!

I liked this book in spite of its protagonist. For fantasy fare, it serves up all the staples with gusto: minstrel songs, magical school, dragons, mysterious villains, warring nobles, journeys by foot or by horse, drinking ale in inns…you know, the regular. This is the first book in a planned three-part series, and in classic fantasy style, it discusses the protagonist’s quest.

Nothing excites me more than the word quest. Those five letters promise so much epicness, so many trials and so many tribulations, so much work in pursuit of an ideal ending. In short, a quest promises a story. The story presented here deserves the term quest. It spans centuries and inspires legends. However: is it really a quest if everything comes easy to the quester? If nothing is worked for—or maybe the quester must work a little bit, but his work is guaranteed to work out for him? Kvothe has no weaknesses. Sure the book discusses his poverty and his youth as barriers to success but poverty and youth aren’t true weaknesses! These are circumstances, not qualities. A weakness is arrogance. A weakness is stubbornness. A weakness is rudeness and condescension. Kvothe embodies all these weaknesses, and yet, the book acknowledges them as pluses, not character flaws.

Two books remain, so we shall see if Kvothe’s weaknesses are exposed for what they really are. But I doubt it, mostly because of Patrick Rothfuss’ interesting narrative choice: aside from a few brief intermissions, Kvothe is telling the story. He is in charge of what is presented and how he is depicted. I’ll be back for book two eventually to see if he learns (and it should be easy for him with that big enormous brain of his!) that refusing to accept any personal flaws makes someone perhaps the most flawed individual he can possibly be.

 

3.5ish stars out of 5?

Review: The Fever by Megan Abbott

18656036Blurb:

The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie’s best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.

As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town’s fragile idea of security.

A chilling story about guilt, family secrets and the lethal power of desire,The Fever affirms Megan Abbot’s reputation as “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation.”

Review:

The thing about red herrings is that they have to be believable. A red herring is plainly not a red herring if it doesn’t inspire you to believe something false while distracting you from the truth.

The Fever is one giant trail of failed red herrings. Teenage girls are falling sick in a small town and the entire book hums along trying to find out why. We are presented with two main options: either the HPV vaccine has led to unanticipated side effects (an awful red herring because um, it’s a real-life vaccine with real-life evidence showing its safety and efficacy–Abbott would have been better off creating a fake vaccine) or the toxic algae coating an off-limits local lake has infected the girls (again, an awful red herring because um, what? it should at least be sensical.)

There is too much jumping from character to character, a tactic that mainly serves to bamboozle and frustrate as you wait for a viable reason for the teenage girl plague. I gave up 52% through because Abbott and the characters were still languishing among the protozoan lake viruses and dangerous yet FDA-approved vaccine reasons, even though these options were ridiculous from the get-go.

I read someone’s spoilers and the final solution is believable but nothing earth-shattering, certainly not incredible enough to justify countless meandering chapters lamely asking and never properly trying to answer “What could possibly be causing this disease???”

All in all, a big disappointment.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

15701217Blurb:

Nora Eldridge, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and tidy neighbour always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Then into her classroom walks a new pupil, Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale. He and his parents–dashing Skandar, a half-Muslim Professor of Ethical History born in Beirut, and Sirena, an effortlessly glamorous Italian artist–have come to America for Skandar to teach at Harvard.

But one afternoon, Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies who punch, push and call him a “terrorist,” and Nora is quickly drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family. Soon she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora’s happiness explodes her boundaries–until Sirena’s own ambition leads to a shattering betrayal.

Written with intimacy and piercing emotion, this urgently dispatched story of obsession and artistic fulfillment explores the thrill–and the devastating cost–of giving in to one’s passions. The Woman Upstairs is a masterly story of America today, of being a woman and of the exhilarations of love.

Review:

So apparently Nora Eldridge, the washed-up 37-year-old schoolteacher-cum-wannabe-artist protagonist of The Woman Upstairs, is unlikeable? So say the many reviewers before me. But reducing her character (or to be frank, any person, fictional or non) to that single word—un.like.a.ble—is wrong. For a plethora of reasons of which two ring out more strongly than the rest: 1. “unlikeable” says more about the reader than the character 2. it malignantly suggests that being unlikeable is abad thing, which implicitly suggests that being likeable is a goodthing, more than a good thing, a very necessary thing, a zenith, self-actualization, state-of-being kind of thing.

This is not ideal. Because as Messud shows us eruditely but still approachably, the striving to be likeable leads to a generation of “women upstairs,” women who will serve you dinner with a smile, go to and from work with due diligence, deny themselves what they want for the sake of others, until finally, maybe at the brink of death, perhaps in a garden of wilted flowers that had of course been dutifully watered yet died nevertheless, they realize their losses in the pursuit of being “likeable,” a quality who is sisters with “deferential” and “diffident” and, worst, “average.”

So for me, hallelujah that Nora Eldridge is unlikeable. Good for her. A more apt and commendable term to describe her ishungry, maybe even rapacious. Many might take it for a stretch, but Nora reminded me of Eleanor, the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s horror novel The Haunting of Hill House. Eleanor has forsaken herself for others for thirty long years and eventually goes mad because of it. Spurred on by the arrival of the bewitching Shahid family, Nora will become mad too, but of the furious rather than crazy variety.

Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup
of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone
else you will never see your cup of stars again.

That quotation is from The Haunting of Hill House but it could just as well be words from Nora’s mouth at the end of The Woman Upstairs when she gets hungry enough, angry enough, to burst downstairs and tell the world what she wants, cup of stars included. Messud complicates the tableau with tangents into art, family, children. Are women simply deformed children—infantalized into desiring certain things, but lacking the sangfroid, gall, or simple means to attain them? This is a hate-story dressed up as a love-story. For all the sonnets and platitudes dedicated to love’s treasures, it is hate that truly awakens and quickens the mind. Nora’s hatred may make her “unlikeable” to certain readers, but thank goodness for it! Hatred, not love, not desire, definitely not longing, is what finally pushes her to live.

4 out of 5 stars