In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

First published in 1965

In Cold Blood is said to be the original non-fiction novel, based on a true crime in a small town called Holcomb, in Kansas, USA, in which a family of four were killed without apparent purpose – hence “in cold blood”. In light of recent political events, it seemed like an apt time to read American book set in the Midwest. I feel that as non-Americans we’re often fed California and New York, the East and the West coasts, but not much of others. The barren landscape of Holcomb seems like to the forgotten part of the US that came to light more recently.

I don’t usually read crime fiction, and I don’t watch crime TV series. But I watch a lot of crime documentaries. I’m not sure why I don’t have interest in crime as work of fiction at all – I just see little point in it, even though some may be inspired by true events. But in documentary format, I can’t get enough of!

I’d consider In Cold Blood as journalistic piece, albeit in a narrative that is close to novel. Other people may argue about the proportion of fiction and non-fiction elements in the book, but I’m on the side of ‘never let truth get in the way of a good story’. I don’t mind reconstruction of personal events and dialogues in between the hard facts.

I’ve always liked Truman Capote. I’ve read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and some of his other short stories. And I’m glad that I liked In Cold Blood too, very much. The beginning was a tad slow, and it took me longer than his other works to get into, but once the murder happens – about 50 pages in, it just flowed.

There are liberal sprinkles of single quotes, marking words, phrases, and sentences that I assume were taken out of the real people’s mouths, such that the book at times seems like a long string of people’s words put together by Capote. He filled in the gaps, and knitted them into a coherent single piece.

It is quite an amazing piece of work. I can only imagine the extraordinary amount of research and energy put into the book. And probably most important of all, the story telling ability of the author. Why this case? There are so many murder cases around, some of which are similar. Because for one reason or another, this was the case that just happened to come to Capote, at the right time. Just like Sarah Koenig with the Adnan case (Serial podcast). It came to her at the right time, and something in it piqued her interest. Thanks to the storytellers, these cases get their stories told, immortalised in some ways, unlike so many others that are buried and forgotten forever except in the memories of the few friends and families. In Cold Blood showed me once again the power of storytelling.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Movie companion: Capote (2005)

I watched Capote starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman soon after finishing In Cold Blood. I’d been meaning to watch it since it came out, but insisted I read In Cold Blood first, because I knew the movie is about Capote researching materials for the book. After reading and watching, I do recommend people to read the book first!

Prior to watching the movie, I didn’t know what Truman Capote was like. I knew he was gay, but that’s about it. It was immediately apparent that he had quite specific mannerism. He was flamboyant in his speech and dressing, portrayed so well by Hoffman. People say that in fact Capote was even more exuberant in real life, and Hoffman had toned down his portrayal. I have not seen other movies portraying Capote, like Infamous (starring Toby Jones), so I can’t compare, but I was impressed by PSH. I always liked him.

The movie showed things that happened in the making of the book, behind the scene. I mentioned the research and energy put into it. It’s even more emphasised in the movie, though in a slightly different way than I expected. Truman Capote inserted himself completely in the case, and was not just an observer. He influenced how certain things went, he had relationships with the inmates, namely Perry Smith and Richard/Dick Hickock, but especially Perry Smith.

I guess in a way it shouldn’t be surprising. After all In Cold Blood humanises the perpetrators. He couldn’t have done it without personal relationships with the guys. But in the movie Capote went steps further. He manipulated them in some ways, to get the story that he needed. It was a very complex relationship. Seems very taxing to say the least. And at the end In Cold Blood was the last book Capote ever finished, and was his last masterpiece. It’s as if it has taken everything that he had.

Another striking point is, in the movie Capote was shown as someone with a big ego, who enjoyed being the centre of attention. But in In Cold Blood, he completely disappeared. There is no ‘I’, ‘I think’, ‘in my opinion’, or any sign of him present. I find this remarkable, the ability to extract yourself completely from your writing, especially now knowing how he was as a person. Something that I am still learning.

It wasn’t a perfect movie, as there were some discrepancies with the book that bothered me a little. But I still rated it highly.

Mee’s rating: 8/10

 

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

the bell jar
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (US, 1963)

I read the Bell Jar sometime in November and only got the chance to write about it now, so it’s started to get a little fuzzy. I went back to Sydney for 2.5 weeks in the first half of November, then fell into a bad reading slump. So really I have not read much since The Bell Jar – only one “book” of Middlemarch (a slog), and one short story (fantastic!): Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I’ve resigned to the fact that I can only finish Middlemarch next year, as I’m only halfway through the tome, and I may not read much more until the end of the year.

The Bell Jar is the only novel by Sylvia Plath, is said to be a feminist text, and semi-autobiographical. I knew about Plath’s suicide, and I had some idea that the novel would be somewhat about descending into madness – and it is. It reminds me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The book starts in New York City. We meet Esther Greenwood, who won a prestigious internship at a fashion magazine with a selected other young women. She is supposed to be having the time of her life, but she is mainly… depressed. In the second half, she goes back to her home, in a small town somewhere, and things just keep going down hill.

For me there is definitely a recognizable feminist undertone throughout. A sad discovery of the way the world works and there is nothing much you can do about it. You’re so insignificant, a single fish swimming against the current, a rebellious speck. There’s a realization that you’re dealt the bad cards by being born a female.

It’s hard to imagine someone like Plath being married to Ted Hughes, and then having to take care of two children from the marriage. Hughes is a series adulterer (when he was with Plath, and after), and his next wife after Plath also committed suicide! I never read anything by Hughes – and I don’t know if I want to, but really, having 2 wives who killed themselves does not give a good impression on the person’s character, does it? Furthermore, Plath and Hughes’ son also suffered depression and hanged himself. This guy is literally littered with deaths.

While I wasn’t quite blown away by The Bell Jar, I think it gave an interesting insight of the time and place and the mind of a Sylvia Plath. Like a few other authors, I find her life story possibly more interesting than her book. I may read more about her in the future.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” – The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is one of the Guardian’s 100 best novels written in English, amongst plenty of other book lists.

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Runaway Horses – Yukio Mishima

runaway horses

Runaway Horses is the second book in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy. You do have to read the books in order, so there will be spoilers for the first book below (My review of Spring Snow).

The book starts with Honda – Kiyoaki’s friend in the first book, who is now a middle age judge. He meets a young man named Isao, who he finds out later to be Iinuma’s son. Iinuma was Kiyoaki’s tutor, who after his dismissal went to marry the lover from the same Matsugae house. So some old faces from Spring Snow, which I was quite glad about. The prince that Satoko was supposed to be engaged with also makes appearances and plays quite an important role, albeit from the sideline, just like his role in Kiyo and Satoko’s story.

It should be well known from those following or intending to follow the series that the main character dies and is believed to reincarnate in each book, with Honda as the persistent character witnessing the existence and life of his friend and the subsequent lives he was born into. In Runaway Horses, Honda believes that Isao was Kiyoaki reincarnate.

Isao is a patriotic 18-year-old who has problem with the direction Japan goes (the story is set around 1930s). The governmental body is gaining power, reducing the power of the Emperor and the imperial family. There’s reformation of samurai class, which bans the carrying of swords in public. There are many references to real life events – so wiki became my friend (or our friend, since I read this together with my GR Japanese Lit bookclub). I wouldn’t even pretend to understand the many layers of Japan political situation in this period at the end, but I did learn a great deal more since I started. Lots of history to digest.

But don’t worry too much if you don’t know this period well, as I think it doesn’t hinder you from enjoying the story. An idealistic young man wants to do something radical (and illegal) that he thinks is good for the country. That’s something that everyone can recognise, right? But just because this is Japan, there’s a heightened perception of suicide and taking one’s life to preserve one’s honour and purity.

If you know a little bit about Mishima, you’d know that he committed suicide not long after he finished writing this tetralogy. In a way it’s hard to read Isao without having Mishima at the back of your mind. I’m thinking among the 4 characters in the 4 books, Isao is probably the closest to Mishima himself in terms of ideals and personality. The subsequent characters in the series will be younger and younger, as the timeline is bound by Honda’s age, so I’m very interested to know Mishima’s take on them.

Similar to my experience with Spring Snow, I found the beginning to be slow. There’s a whole chapter early in the book, that is sort of a book within a book – a propaganda pamphlet that Isao gets his idealistic inspiration from. In a way it was a bit boring to read, but it really set the stage of what is to come. And just like Spring Snow, I found Runaway Horses to be a satisfactory and worthwhile reading at the end. I definitely intend to continue to read the third and forth book.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih

season of migration to the north
Sudan, first published in 1966, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies

Season of Migration to the North is a post-colonial book by Tayeb Salih, a Sudanese writer. The book is first published in Arabic in 1966, and translated to English in 1969. My edition is the NYRB classics with introduction by Laila Lalami (who’s born and raised in Morocco) and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies.

Sudan became independent from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956, and these two countries comes up again and again in the book – becoming almost as an important setting as Sudan itself.

And as Sudan is located just south of Egypt, Nile River also makes a good deal of appearances
And as Sudan is located just south of Egypt, Nile River also makes a good deal of appearances

We can sense the post-colonialism theme from the beginning as we meet the narrator who just comes back to Sudan after an extended period of studying in Europe. The narrator is never named, and at the end of the book, I’m not even sure if he is a reliable one. Through his eyes, we learn the story of an enigmatic man in the village called Mustafa Sa’eed. Just like the Narrator, Mustafa has also studied and lived in England for a period of time. The difference is that, while for the Narrator his experience abroad doesn’t seem to have much effect on him, Mustafa’s adventures have gone to the extreme, which includes several women and the demise of them.

The book is rich and multi-layered, and would definitely trigger a lot of discussions if you read it in a book group (luckily I did). But on the flip side, there are a couple of very violent scenes, including psychotic behaviors, and I’m not sure what is the purpose of them. I wonder whether the shock factor is a big part of what made the book as well known as it is. Especially that it came out from Sudan – a Muslim country. Though perhaps it indicates a contrast between Islam of the 60s with the Islam of now? On that note, I like how Islam works more like a backdrop in the book rather than center stage, and how the author didn’t feel the need to always explain for Western audience. (There are times when this would be useful in other books of course, but it’s also refreshing to find varying style.)

When a book comes with the so-called Introduction I always leave it for last, as I’m a bit paranoid about spoilers. In this case with Laila Lalami’s introduction it was the right choice (again!) as she goes to summarise everything that happens in the book. But it’s a great “introduction” and I recommend it if you have that edition. Lalami had the advantage as she read the text in the original language Arabic and English, and was able to compare them. Not many Arabic books get to be so successfully translated. I thought the translation by Denys Johnson-Davies was amazing, and Lalami thought highly also of the collaboration between Sayih and Johnson-Davis to translate the book.

She noted that Season of Migration isn’t the first book in which a writer of color has decided to “write back” to the empire, but it is unique in that it is written in the author’s native language, rather than the colonial one. “Indeed Salih stands out among African writers of his generation for his insistence on continuing to use Arabic in spite of having lived the majority of his life outside of Sudan. ‘It’s a matter of principle,’ he once told an interviewer.” This really contrasts with the opinion of Wole Soyinka.

Interesting aspect to highlight, considering many books, if not all, that I’ve been reading by African writers in recent years have used the colonial language (just to mention a few: Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka – English, Kamel Daoud – French). 

Season left me with conflicting reactions, but it is short, it’s readable, it’s a classic from a region whose literature isn’t available widely in English, so I think it’s worth reading.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 

tayeb salih
Tayeb Salih (1929-2009)

 

Slouching Towards Betlehem by Joan Didion

betlehem

Slouching Towards Betlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion that were written between 1961 to 1968, the collection itself published in 1968. I heard the name Joan Didion thrown a lot, and this is my first time reading her book. I chose this, first because of this Great Courses, secondly because I happened to see it at a secondhand bookshop — an Oxfam in York (a pretty odd place to find it actually).

My first mistake was that I read this on my way to New York, having connected Didion and New York in my head, only to find that the essays were not about New York at all, but about California — which is a completely different beast.

The collection is divided into 3 sections: Life Styles in the Golden Land, Personals, and Seven Places of the Mind. I somewhat liked the very first essay titled Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, about a woman who’s accused of murdering a husband in a burning car, wrapped in the theme of losing your dream.

But after that it just kept going down hill for me. I experienced the same frustration that I had reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint: there are way too many American culture references that went over my head. And it’s not just any American culture, it’s American culture in the 1960s, and even Californian culture in the 1960s. Some authors write for the world as their audience, but with Didion you can tell she wrote only for her fellow Americans, and familiarity with the culture and the setting was assumed, taken for granted. I am definitely not the target audience of these essays.

The title story Slouching Towards Betlehem is something to do with the decline of San Fransisco. Lots of drugs references, so again, not for me. I was really hoping that I could relate more with the Personals section, but it didn’t really happen either. Was it her writing? – I wondered.

It was somewhat redeemed by the very last essay: Goodbye to All That. In many ways, this is the essay and the Didion I was expecting when I started reading the book on my flight to New York. It’s about young Didion trying to survive in New York, and after a few years, finally decided to leave it all.

“Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Fransisco, but because I’m talking about myself I am talking here about New York.” 

“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”

“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.”

(The wiki mentioned that as of 2005 Didion came back to live in New York to this day. Does it mean she’s become the “very rich”? :)

“I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite the same way again.”

But at the end…

“There is no possible, no adequate answer to that, and so we give certain stock answers, the answers everyone gives. I talk about how difficult it would be for us to ‘afford’ to live in New York right now, about how much ‘space’ we need. All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more.”

I could relate with this. Her New York is my London. I too thought I would stay a year, and ended up staying five years, and counting. I too fell in Love with London at the first sight, like none of the other cities that came before it. And I always think that I won’t be able to afford to stay in London forever, nobody does, except for the very rich of course. I haven’t got to that point yet, but maybe someday.

Mee’s rating: 3/5 – An uneven collection of essays for me, so I can only give it average rating.

didion

In his course Prof Grant L. Voth compared Didion a lot with Truman Capote. I somehow never thought Didion and Capote as contemporaries — Capote seemed older and his books are more often considered classics. Perhaps because he died a while ago while Didion is still alive? For that reason I’m counting this for my Classics project as I have already put In Cold Blood on the list. It will be interesting to compare their literary journalism style when I get to Capote.

Silence by Shusaku Endo

silence
Love this new Picador Classic cover of Silence

Silence is a historical novel by Shusaku Endo, a Catholic Japanese, making his perspective unique in the country that primarily practice Shinto and Buddhism.

There’s historical note at the beginning of the book, giving the frame of the story: Christianity was first introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier and his colleagues in 1549. For the next 60 years, Christianity spread, finding favour in the Japanese court. By 1600 there were an estimated 300,000 Christian converts in Japan, though there started to be some oppositions. Between 1614-1640 it is estimated 5000-6000 Christians were killed by the authority who wanted to destroy Christian influence in Japan. The use of torture was introduced in an attempt to force Christians to apostatize – to renounce their faith. In 1632, the Catholic world was shocked by the news that Father Christovao Ferreira – the Portuguese leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan – had apostatized. By 1643, when Silence in set, Christianity only survived in underground communities and was ruthlessly suppressed.

So that’s a crash course of how Christianity entered Japan. It’s a crucial framing, and absolutely necessary to read, so don’t skip it! While Xavier and Ferreira are real historical people, Silence’s protagonist is Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a fictional character (though possibly based on composite of real life characters too). Rodrigues is a former student of Ferreira, who could not believe that his respectable teacher has apostatized. So apart from missionary duties, his personal interest is to find out what really happens to Ferreira.

The concept of apostatizing is a key point in this story. It is what makes you a true Christian. The Japanese authorities would often make light of it, saying that it’s not a big deal, that it’s just a formality, it doesn’t have to mean that you truly change on the inside, if you just step on this fumie and spit on it, it would make it easier for all of us, and we’d let you free right away.

But of course it is not that simple for the Christians. Either you keep to your principle or you don’t. There’s no two ways about it. It’s like there’s a line on the ground, and once you cross it there’s no turning back.

However, there’s one character who always apostatized when he was forced to, as he was weak – he admitted it himself. He would trample on the fumie, be freed, have deep regrets, wail for forgiveness, but apostatize when caught again and threatened with torture. Repeated over and over again. His struggles are interesting. It is pondered throughout the book, that it just happens that they live in the period of persecution. If they all lived in time of peace, people who apostatized may prosper as leaders of the church. How true is this? I imagine 99% of Christians today would apostatize in a blink of an eye with the first threat of torture.

Because religion is so central to the story, it’d be hard to talk about it without giving away your own beliefs to give it a bit of background about where you stand and how you may take the book. I was raised a Catholic, went to both Catholic and Protestant schools (at different times), but I’m now an agnostic. And because of that, I could sympathize with the struggles of Rodrigues, but all the way wondered why anyone needs to suffer and to die for an idea. So much pain, and for what? It was all so futile, so many lives wasted.

There are quite a few discussions between the characters in the book about this too. About Catholicism, Christianity, and why people felt the need to penetrate Japan with these ideas, a faraway country where people have a completely different belief system, i.e. the Japanese largely believe in polytheism – in spirits that live in all kinds of elements on earth, while Christianity is of course a monotheism – believes in a singular all powerful God.

Subtle differences between Catholicism and Protestant were another issue, which made an already volatile situation in Japan even more confusing, as the Catholics, who were the Portuguese and the Spanish, and the Protestant, who were the Dutch and the English, had their own problems with each other. One party would often dissuade the Japanese converts to listen to the other party. Poor the Japanese. As if there isn’t already a lot to take to learn about foreign Deus (God), and now there’s a different kind of foreign teaching that is true and not true. Sigh.

One aspect that I could see help the adoption of the faith by the Japanese is the class system of the society and how hierarchical it was. It must’ve been refreshing to learn a new teaching where everybody is supposedly equal and loved. True enough, majority of the converts were peasants.

I was acutely aware that the original period happened in 1600s, that the book was published in 1960s, and that I was reading this in 2015. Society is changing all the time, religions are evolving, and you probably read it differently now than if you read it at the time the book was out. And I believe it will be read very differently too half a century later. By then religion would probably be as condemned as racism or colonialism. But I digress.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – I loved reading it as a historical novel as it tells the story of the period and setting that I would never have learnt otherwise. But it may have a bigger impact on me if I read it a few years ago when I was on the brink of leaving religions forever. As of now I’ve been on the other side, the faith struggles could seem a bit.. silly. I love the ending, it is realistic, true to history, and doesn’t make this an evangelical novel – the direction I was worried it’d go into at certain points of the book.

Endo_Shusaku
Endo Shusaku

The Movie

Apt timing for me. As soon as I finished the book, I saw news about the upcoming movie adaptation by Martin Scorsese. I heard about the film being picked up a while ago, but wasn’t sure if they really went ahead with it or not – sometimes movie projects just peter out. But with these recent images, seems like we’ll be seeing it soon at the cinema.

liam-neeson-silence-image
Liam Neeson as Ferreira

Source: http://www.empireonline.com/movies/ne…

silence film
Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues

Source: http://www.ew.com/article/2015/05/04/…

(Adam Driver as Garppe)

Silence is my second entry for Japanese Literature Challenge 9 (I read Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima a couple of months ago) and it’s also a good selection for #diversedecember.

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