In Cold Blood

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If there was ever a staple in the true crime genre, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood would be it. Well deserved, too. This book was in a college town’s Goodwill, which was lucky not just for it’s $1.99 price tag but also for the pages of notes and highlights I found while I read. My mother saw me pick out the book and nearly shuddered, “I don’t know why’d you want to read that. It’s scary.”

Her reaction made it more enticing. It was one of the few books I’ve bought on a bargain hunt that I immediately started reading when I got home. And is it any wonder? It’s tense, literary, undoubtedly spellbinding as advertised on the cover. After I finished, I wondered how Capote accomplished so much. All based in fact, but how much is true? Plus, the interesting part of this story is not really why did two strangers senselessly murder a family “in cold blood” — but actually what made the writer investigate this story? How did it change him afterward? 

In One Sentence: Two young criminals murder a family for no reason in a quiet Kansas town.

Favorite Line: “At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them — four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterward the townspeople,theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again — those somber explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.” — p. 5

Review: From beginning to end, the details and prose of this piece are on point. Capote set the bar high with the idea of the non-fiction novel. Sure, there are the ever-present questions of credibility of scene and place but the story behind the creation of this book says enough as to Capote’s dedication to showing as complete an image as possible. (He spent years taking notes and doing interviews alongside writer-friend Harper Lee. Then again — he may have also been set on writing the masterpiece of his life.) Perhaps dramatic, perhaps clouded by his own biases, but it’s important nonetheless. The climax is in the full description of the gory details as opposed to the mystery behind the murderer as in the whodunit narrative. The reader knows how it’s going to end immediately. It’s still interesting and there’s more I want to find out. In an odd way, the only “truth” that is completely left out is the writer. Capote made himself a part of this case when he investigated the murder and got to know the culprits, Perry and Dick. Yet, he’s absent. There are long conversations and monologues taken from different people involved, but not a word on who they were talking to. I’m not sure it’s a problem, but it’s an interesting decision for a non-fiction writer trying to remain objective (and ultimately created it’s own mythology around the place of the writer as depicted in the film version, Capote.) Anyway, unless you are morally opposed to reading about violence, stop what you are doing and read this book.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: No one in Holcomb, Kansas spoke to Truman Capote.

The Influence of Short-Story Technique:

Truman Capote got his start writing short stories and credits the medium for allowing him to learn the art of control over story-telling. I loved this idea he explored in a Paris Review interview:

CAPOTE: … Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.

INTERVIEWER: Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?

CAPOTE: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4867/the-art-of-fiction-no-17-truman-capote

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Garden of Shadows

GardenofShadows

I was never really into Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, or any series associated with the modern revival of smut fiction. But, dangit, I do enjoy some V.C. Andrews. Even though the characters are melodramatic and the plot nonsensical, I’m turning the page.  What does that say about story? Whether you’re reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a pitch — the most important response you can feel as an audience member is to lean forward, ears perked, wondering what happens next. 

I found V.C. Andrews’s Garden of Shadows in a discount library bin somewhere in Orange County. I used spare change from the bottom of my purse. I had already read three of the Dollanger series (first book being the infamous Flowers in the Attic) and knew with this novel there would be at least some guarantee of that infectious can’t-put-it-down-even-though-I’m-ashamed-to-be-seen-reading-it feeling

In One Sentence: A gloomy family in a gloomy mansion foreshadow the future incestuous genetic dispositions to the Foxworth ancestry. 

Favorite Line: “Chapter 15: The Blackest of Days. — ‘Mama, I’ve become a woman!'” -p.207

Review: This book is addicting, up until it becomes very clear the downfall of all prequels. I already know what is going to happen. There may also be some consequences to the fact that part of this book is actually ghostwritten by Andrew Neiderman after V.C. Andrews’s death. The novel focuses on the evil grandmother from Flowers in the Attic‘s perspective as she tries to raise a family despite her evil, cheating, lying, scumbag husband. The biggest frustration was rooting for a narrator who in the end you can’t root for! There were so many ridiculous turns that were even a bit out there for an Andrews series (incest, I can handle. But avalanches?!) I wanted the narrator, Olivia, to rise up and realize her own power over her husband but alas. The prequel serves to explain the progression of Olivia into the villain she is in the first book but I wanted her to fight against her own fate more. It could have been more tragic, more powerful, maybe less like a V.C. Andrews book… Ugh. I did this to myself.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: people didn’t constantly WANT to be miserable. 

V.C. Andrews, What We Can Learn:

It took seven years of writing–some nine novels and nearly twenty short stories–before [V.C. Andrews’s] first sale. “I wasn’t persistent about sending my manuscripts out. If they were rejected once, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a complete failure,’ and I would put them away and begin a new one. Momentarily, I would think that I wasn’t going to write anymore, but then I would go right back to the typewriter and do it again.

“I just kept right on going. Every time I heard from an editor–and I did hear from them, not just receive form rejections–they would say, ‘If you get gutsy, you’ll be sold. You’re not gutsy enough.’ And I really didn’t know what they meant, to get on the gut level, so I began to think about it. I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’m writing around all of the difficult things that my mother would disapprove of.’ So once I brushed her off my shoulder and got gutsy enough, I sold. I decided that I would have to be embarrassed and write these things. That’s how simple it was. Now I don’t feel embarrassed at all.”

The reason for her success, Andrews says, is simple: “I think I tell a whopping good story. And I don’t drift away from it a great deal into descriptive material. I wanted my new book to be published in hardcover, and my editor said that if I wrote in a more boring style, I would go into hardcover. When I read, if a book doesn’t hold my interest about what’s going to happen next, I put it down and don’t finish it. So I’m not going to let anybody put one of my books down and not finish it. My stuff is a very fast read.

Read the whole article: Face of Fear, 1985

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Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade

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This was my first dive into Vonnegut. There was another time, the year after college, when I sat outside of a library with a coworker handing out flyers and he read me a passage from another Vonnegut novel but I don’t think that counts because I can’t remember what it was or what was said except for the fact that it touched him deeply (the coworker, and probably Vonnegut too). I found a tattered 1960s edition of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five at a Goodwill. The yellow Goodwill sticker priced it at $2.99; inside from another thrift store was scribbled $3.00. Not much of a cut down if you ask me.

I wasn’t sure what it was about. Of course, I had heard of it, but it seemed to be a book you see more often on a reading list with no summary of plot, simply a detail of its notoriety in literary history. But, I’ve read it now, and all I can say is I understand why there is a whole school of writers studying Vonnegut.

In One Sentence: A writer tells the story of the Dresden Bombings through a man who has become unstuck in time after an alien abduction.

Favorite Line: “He did not think of himself as a writer for the simple reason that the world had never allowed him to think of himself in this way.” – p.150

Review: I didn’t expect to get as sucked in as I did. Such an interesting humor and perspective on people and the world. It begins with a writer, perhaps Vonnegut or maybe an unnamed Narrator, telling his friends about the book he is writing on Dresden. Then, we dive into the main story — Billy Armstrong’s story — as he travels through his own timeline full of war, death, and love after an alien abduction. The strange thing is is that this is not a science fiction story, not really. More precisely, it’s a story about telling stories as the reader feels Vonnegut circumnavigating the retelling of his own Dresden experience. And everyone who cares about reading or writing should pick this up.

This describes perfectly my feelings on this book:

nothinghurt

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: there were no survivors after the plane crash.

Actual Favorite Line: “She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away.” – p. 152

 

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The Kiss

TheKiss

Sometimes I find memoirs more captivating than fiction. It’s not just a matter of truth is stranger than fiction, it also has a lot to do with voice. It’s my favorite part of writing — and reading! — to get a new perspective from a unique voice. Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss stood out to me on the Goodwill shelves because it was 1) a first hand account of a consensual incestuous relationship that didn’t involve Mackenzie Phillips and 2) a paperback book selling for $5.99?! Isn’t that a little steep, Goodwill?

I bought it. I read it. And even now that it’s over, I’m fascinated at the writer’s ability to find her voice and not be afraid of the consequences.

In One Sentence: Young woman develops a sexual relationship with her once absent father.

Favorite Line: “‘You know,’ [my mother] says, pointing, ‘this isn’t about you. It’s about me.’… She means the love my father possesses, the trembling hands and hot eyes. All of what  she has notices and is frightened by. So inappropriate, so immoderate. So abnormal to love me so completely: that’s what I hear her say. What I hear is that not only does my mother not love or admire me, but she will find a way to reinterpret my father’s love to make it all her own.” – p. 98

Review: Harrison takes on the task of telling us all about the skeletons in her closet and she succeeds not only in delivering a masterful writing style, but also feeling totally authentic. Overall, a strong, compelling voice. It jumps around slightly through time but keeps a consistent emotional arc that works wells to drive the reader forward. And, it’s a quick read. Besides the strangeness of the subject matter, the way prose is broken into short vignettes somehow makes it hard to put down. There is one hiccup about the story that would be more of a critical note in fiction, but in memoir really has no way to change. You get the feeling that Harrison had some agency to change the situation sooner than she actually did. Then again, since so much of writing memoir is about the power of hindsight, I got the feeling she realized that as well once she got the words to paper.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Harrison’s parents had never divorced. Seriously.

Artwork that Stole the Title:

Or maybe Harrison stole the title. Matches the theme of the story, depending on how or if you interpret art.

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The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

 

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The Giver

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Sometimes I need a book for a specific purpose and I’m forced to splurge. After college, I got a job tutoring writing for middle school students. I came up with prompts teaching techniques of literature analysis and went seeking a book that would hopefully inspire ideas and get them excited about the project. Okay, honesty moment? I bought Lois Lowry’s The Giver for five dollars at my favorite used book store “Book Off”. I used it a little in my tutoring, but ended up switching to The Hunger Games.

Even though The Giver has a slower buildup and payoff for a dystopian fable, I didn’t regret the purchase. I hadn’t read it myself. In sixth grade, my teacher read it to me but looking back this is absolutely the wrong book to read aloud. The transitions between past and present bleed into each other, and if you’re only half-listening it can get rather confusing. Luckily, rediscovering the young adult novel in my twenties gave me a new opportunity to appreciate the message of the story. Plus, catch up before the new movie comes out! (We’ll get to that later…)

In One Sentence: In a “perfect” new world, a young boy is assigned to become the new host for all of society’s memories.

Favorite Line: “I liked the feeling of love,” [Jonas] confessed… “Of course,’ he added quickly, ‘I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.'” – p. 126

Review: Looking at dystopia through the eyes of a twelve year old is interesting because that time of your life is all about the transition from accepting the world as it is and questioning it. This book has a clear message on the importance of memory, that it is something to be treasured, but takes a different turn when it can only be harnessed by one person. Most of the book is just defining the rules of this world and the underbelly that the main character Jonas discovers to be less than perfect. Because it’s a complete new society, and a lot of the work is in integrating the reader into the world, I found the characters very awkward with each other. BUT as Jonas gained more wisdom, he became less awkward — less formal — more confident in lying. It’s an unlikely future, but begs the reader to think about ‘what if?’ The ending isn’t totally satisfying, but I recommend it as a Bucket List classic. Then, you can switch to Hunger Games.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Jonas’s father decided not to nurse baby Gabriel at home.

Coming to Theaters:

Thoughts:

1. Why is most of this movie in color?!

2. Jeff Bridges. Phew.

3. Did they just show a possible ending?

4. Prediction: the rules of the world will be like the book, but they’ll add lots more conflict.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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I’d like to introduce a new tenet into bargain book hunting — the borrowed book. No, not from a library. Borrowed books from friends, relatives, or even colleagues are great finds not only for the added recommendation of a book, but also for the excitement of being able to talk with someone about a book after you finish it (well, if you finish it.) Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was lent to me by my aunt and shared with others in my family.

The best books to borrow — or on the other hand, to lend — are those that invite discussion on complicated issues. Skloot’s nonfiction book is at once a biography, mystery, and exploration of many ethical questions surrounding scientific research and ownership. Is science truly an endeavor to better mankind or has it become too profit driven? I’m not sure. Maybe both.

In One Sentence: Writer seeks to discover the true story behind the first immortal HeLa cells.

Favorite Line: “I don’t know what they did,” Deborah said, “but it all sound like Jurassic Park to me.” – p. 238

Review: It’s books like these that make you realize how important writers are. Rebecca Skloot tells the story not only of Henrietta Lacks as a poor black woman in the 1950s getting her cells reproduced and sold without her knowledge, but also follows the story of the cells themselves as they become involved in the development of vaccines, cancer research, and more. I’ll be honest, science is not my favorite topic but somehow Skloot is able to take advantage of narrative structure and pacing to deliver the tension that has really come about with the Lacks family as well as the contamination of cells in the science community. Truly well balanced prose. I also loved the point of view of this story. Unlike Capote’s infamous In Cold Blood, Skloot places herself in the story. She shared what inspired her to pursue these questions and included her struggles to gain the trust of the Lacks family. The writing really got me thinking about my own beliefs related to scientific research and how those ideas change constantly. I recommend this book mostly because I need more people to talk about it with!

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: The Lacks family never responded to the author’s calls.

“Borrowing” from Rebecca Skloot: On her website, there’s a page devoted to “What Rebecca’s Reading.” I explored and found very interesting science articles in the similar vein of exploring things otherwise less often explored. Topics include why doctors don’t die like the rest of us, experiments gone wrong, the ethos of Twitter/ Facebook, and takes on meta-nonfiction. Check it out:

http://rebeccaskloot.com/about/what-rebeccas-reading/

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Love Story

lovestory

Before Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook, there was Erich Segal’s Love Story: the tragic story about Oliver and Jenny. Tragic because Jenny dies. That’s not a spoiler. It’s the first line of the novel – What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl that died?” It’s almost comical how simple the story is. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. She dies. The end. BUT THE PEOPLE LOVED IT. You’ll never find this book as a major discussion point in any English class, but does its own simplicity have something valuable to say about story-telling?

I found a 1970s copy of the book at Goodwill for two dollars. The funny thing is the original price from 1977 was still printed on the front – $1.75. I guess not everything at Goodwill is a good deal. I hadn’t seen the film and though the story wasn’t very exciting for my tastes, the novel seemed like a quick read. Plus, the story of how Love Story came to be is quite interesting from a writing perspective. Erich Segal wrote the screenplay first. In hoping to market the film, Paramount wanted a novel to be released before the film. Maybe this is a lesson for all screenwriters today. Once you finish the original screenplay, create a backup novel version. I mean, what’s the last film you saw that wasn’t based on something else?

In One Sentence: It’s a love story.

Favorite Line: “She closed her book softly, put it down, then placed her hands on the sides of my neck. ‘Oliver — wouldja please.’ It all happened at once. Everything.” pg. 34

Review: The novel reminds me of Twilight. I liked it more than Twilight, it’s a better love story than Twilight, but it has the same literary lore of being a bit too sentimental and plot-less. I had a screenwriting professor who when her students bemoaned the success of the vampire series, she made us reevaluate the discussion. She said, “You don’t have to like it, but you have to understand it.” This seems to me to be the same strategy of how to approach Love Story. Even though I knew the ending, it was a page-turner. Even though the prose is short and to the point, lacking description and quite honestly written like a screenplay, it’s effective. There’s no fluff, besides perhaps what happens in the scenes. I read this over two days, and I enjoyed the pacing, but was left dissatisfied with the ending. Why was this book and film so successful? Because when we read it, we could relate to that feeling of loving someone so completely you can accept them for who they are. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” is a terrible relationship lesson on the surface, but what it really means is that we can make mistakes and be ourselves and the point isn’t to never make mistakes, but to grow up through them and with each other. I recommend this book, not as a great work of literary genius or even much structural merit, but it won’t take up much time. Plus, even if you don’t like it, it’s important to ask yourself by the end – why did others?

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Jenny and Oliver had never gotten coffee.

Let’s jam instead: I was going to mention the sequel Oliver’s Story, but this seemed like a more important find.

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