Saturday, August 27, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, and The Purloined Letter from Poe: Poetry and Tales. New York: The Library of America, 1984.

(These stories were originally published from 1841-1844.)

I may have mentioned a time or two on this blog that I love Edgar Allan Poe. One of my favorite spots at The University of Virginia is the Edgar Allan Poe room (#13 on the West Range), which is supposedly the dorm room he occupied while a student there. It's glassed off for exhibit, and no one resides in it, except the stuffed raven I love.

I know there are many contemporary critics who love to knock Poe, but I choose to ignore them. I was hooked on him from the moment my sister Forsyth received some over-sized, illustrated "children's classic" version of The Gold-Bug as a gift. I'd received Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, and when I was done with that, despite having loved it, I read Forsyth's book and was horribly jealous (greedy child that I was) that it wasn't mine as well.

All that being said, I've not read everything Poe ever wrote, so I was very happy when the Connecticut mystery book club chose to read three of his stories, two of which I'd read and one of which I'd not. Why it is that of the three C. Auguste Dupin detective stories, I'd read the first,The Murders at the Rue Morgue and the third, The Purloined Letter, but not the second, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, is a mystery in and of itself. Perhaps Dupin would disdain me for chalking it up to bizarre high school and college curricula, coming up with some far more rational explanation, but if I chalk it up to English courses, I can then confidently say it's been about thirty years since I read the two.

That may explain why my brain was quite fuzzy on the details. What I remembered about The Murders in the Rue Morgue was that one of the victims was stuffed up a chimney. That's it, all I seem to have remembered. How I could possibly have forgotten the orangutan ("Ourang-Outang") is completely beyond me, but here's something weird about the way the brain works. I could have sworn that an orangutan features somewhere in a Sherlock Holmes story (I first read Arthur Conan Doyle about the same time I first read Poe). I've reread quite a bit of Sherlock Holmes in the past ten years or so and have yet to encounter an orangutan. Did I completely confuse the two? (Someone in the know, please let me know.)

Then again, the fact that I may have confused Dupin and Holmes leads me to the main point I want to make about these stories, which is that I find, now that I've been reading so many different mystery and detective stories, that the early ones, like those of Poe and Conan Doyle, credited with being the Founding Fathers of the genre, tend to be very matter-of-fact stories meant to highlight the genius of their detectives. Typically, these genius detectives are juxtaposed with earnest, but rather incompetent, policemen. Unlike contemporary authors of the genre who, yes, have genius detectives, but who also might have a setting that features as a character with a psychology almost as complicated as its human characters (Ian Rankin); or whose crime solver's story is so detailed and interesting that the mystery she's solving is almost unimportant (Jacqueline Winspear); or who may be using the genre as a means to express true literary talent (Tana French); here, what's important are the facts, the puzzle presented, and the amazing detective who's smart enough to see what most can't. He spots all the "clews" (when did a "clew" become a "clue"?) no one else has noticed. What the reader most wants to do is to outwit the detective, to pick up on all the clews, and to solve the puzzle just before he does. This reader rarely manages to do so.

I found this matter-of-fact writing style interesting coming from Poe, because I tend to think of his writing as flowery, especially since what I've read most recently of his is his collected poems. Not much poetry is in evidence here, which verifies my claims that Poe was a genius. He could write breath-taking poetry when he so desired, but when plot and puzzle-solving were the important components, he chose to be a little more pedestrian, which is not to say that he was dull or unimaginative, just, well ... prosaic. He may have left behind the flowery language, but he certainly didn't leave behind his own philosophizing, some of which left me with my own, ever-so-flowery response of "huh"? (For a prime example of this, see the beginning of The Murders in the Rue Morgue when Poe presents his theories about the analytical mind.) It's best to read these parts quickly, get through the plot, and then to reread them more slowly for real understanding. It's almost as though reading the story trains the brain to think the way Poe did.

All three of these tales are great fun in an "old-fashioned detective story" way, but of the three, although The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is very interesting in having been based on a true event that occurred in New York City and also includes my favorite quote from the three stories:

'And what are we to think,' I asked, 'of the article in Le Soleil?'

'That it is a pity its inditer was not born a parrot -- in which case he would have been the most illustrious parrot of his race. He has merely repeated the individual items of the already published opinion...' (p. 533)

(have you ever read a better example of a wonderfully disdainful detective?), my favorite, which you can probably tell by the number of times I've mentioned it, is The Murders in the Rue Morgue. What I love about it is that it's so absolutely improbable, absurd really. And yet, while reading it, it all makes perfect, logical sense. (In that regard, it reminds me of one of G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories.) That, in my book, is what good detective fiction is all about. Now, enough writing. I've got this whole collection of Poe stories to read and a hurricane supposedly on its way. What better weather for reading Poe than that?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Blog Tour: Pietro Grossi's The Break

Grossi, Pietro. The Break. London: Pushkin Press, 2011. (Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis.)

If, in December 2010, you had told me that I would read a book in 2011 about a pool-obsessed man who laid stone roads for a living and that this book would definitely be on my list of favorites at the end of the year, I probably would have wondered what sort of head injury I was going to suffer in 2011 that so affected my personality and reading habits. Especially since the man doesn't even play the version of billiards that I know. He plays a completely foreign Italian version of the game. Nonetheless, the circumstances, feelings, and, ultimately, life of this man named Dino are anything but foreign.

Pietro Grossi has written a fabulously old-fashioned novel that has a very fresh feel to it. It's short, and he packs a punch, but he does so while giving us endearing characters about whom we care from the get-go. He does so without any 21st-century gimmicks (no alternating between first and third person narrative, no deciding not to use punctuation, no disconnected prose intentionally meant to prove how clever he is, etc.), and the result is, like the beautiful Van Gogh cover (in this instance, yes you can judge a book by its cover. Rarely have I encountered a cover that so effectively illustrates a novel), a masterpiece of literature.

The book begins and ends at the pool table. In between, we get a story so full of meaning and beautiful prose, it's hard to put down. Luckily, if you plan your reading schedule accordingly (which I didn't), you may not have to, as the novel isn't even 250 pages long. There were times when, despite wanting to read it slowly, to let the prose sink in, I found myself reading the way I often do when reading a thriller. I was practically skipping whole sentences to find out what was going to happen. Then I'd go back and reread them, because, really, you don't want to miss a word of what Grossi has to say. It would be like missing strokes of color in that Van Gogh painting.

You see, Dino has led quite an ordinary life up until now, and his only real excitement comes from playing pool with the man Cirillo, who's taught him since he was a boy. Dino doesn't believe in luck or circumstance, really. He believes in the orderliness, the mathematics even, that can be found by spending your evenings at the billiards table. Then, one day, he takes his eye off the ball, and everything he's ever known begins to fall apart. He becomes one of the two men (the other is his co-worker Saeed), so aptly described by Grossi, who,

...looked at each other for a moment in silence, thinking with some part of themselves that they really belonged in another story, but that this one wasn't too bad after all. (p. 153)

How many times do we feel like that in life, feel like asking, "How did this become my story?" So often, despite what you think you can do, that billiard ball really does have a mind of its own. Your hand slips accidentally, or you become caught up in some stranger's odd story, and you suddenly see the ball rolling somewhere you didn't expect.

Dino would tell you that all he was doing was laying stones to make roads, playing billiards, fantasizing about taking trips with his wife he'd never take. Then, one day, he found himself hiding a guy in a truck and driving him to the border, so the guy could escape prosecution. Grossi's genius is that this is what the story becomes, after seeming like it's going to be the story of a pool player's rise to fame and fortune. Then, just when you think it's going to be all about that man's escape at the border and Dino's role in it, it becomes something else, yet again. I was so sure this was going to be the story of a guy who came from nowhere and won or lost big in some huge pool tournament. I couldn't have been more wrong.

What it is is a real life story, the sort of story that makes your heart ache for the ways in which people misunderstand others, the ways they focus on the wrong sorts of questions, the wrong sets of priorities. Despite all that misunderstanding, the novel provides hope. This hope comes, not so much from what happens, but from the portrayal of the resilience of human beings and their desperate attempts to do what's right and to make meaning of this life. I like to believe in the good of human beings. While so many other contemporary authors seem to be determined to make us see the bad in humans, Grossi helps us to believe in that good.

The hope also comes from realizing we still have authors like Grossi, those who can turn a bunch of typeset pages into a beating heart, full of life and meaning. I'm very grateful to Pushkin Press for publishing such authors, even more grateful that I was asked by them to review this book, and am thrilled that I'm on the blog tour, which means I will soon be interviewing Grossi. Stay tuned for the post in which I try not to sound like a gushing idiot, and he answers my questions.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

One I Promised for a Rainy Day

I first saw this at Ms. Musing's, but it can also be found at some of the other blogs I like to frequent like My Porch and Charlotte's Web. Anyway, I decided to save it for a rainy day, of which we've had something like a grand total of three here in Lancaster County this whole brutal summer. I was beginning to think I was going to have to do it on a non-rainy day, but then I hung up some laundry to dry today and lo and behold! it began to pour, so here you go.

The Sunday Times 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945

The idea for this meme is to note those I've read.

1. Philip Larkin -- not read, but I keep meaning to do so.

2. George Orwell -- read so long ago, for school, and I wasn't into him at the time, so I can't remember a damn thing, except things that have made it into the vernacular.

3. William Golding -- started to, but didn't get very far. Must try again.

4. Ted Hughes -- I've read at him, but never read an entire collection of his.

5. Doris Lessing -- another on the "meaning to read for ages" list. I think I did read something of hers in college, but I don't remember what it was.

6. J. R. R. Tolkien -- had The Hobbit read to me. That counts, right? Even if I wasn't paying a bit of attention.

7. V. S. Naipaul -- yes. Loved him and really ought to read more.

8. Muriel Spark -- yes. I love her, too.

9. Kingsley Amis -- only The Green Man, which I gather is quite different from what he typically writes, but it was great, despite it's "bit too much" ending. I have to admit I've got a bias against him, as he's always struck me as someone who thinks he's superior. Why I pick on him, lord knows, because you could probably say that about a good number of these authors.

10. Angela Carter -- no, but I want to read The Bloody Chamber.

11. C. S. Lewis -- yes. Am I the only person in the world who wasn't in love with the Narnia books when she was a kid? I read them all, faithfully, to see what all the fuss was about and never could.

12. Iris Murdoch -- nope.

13. Salman Rushdie -- nope. And I never planned to do so until I read a recent blog post of Litlove's that was quite convincing. But who am I kidding? I'm sure I never will.

14. Ian Fleming -- oh, how can anyone watch the movies without reading any of the books? (Oh yeah, and I read Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, too, when I was a kid. Of course, that was a movie, too...)

15. Jan Morris -- okay, my ignorance is on bright display: I've never even heard of Jan Morris.

16. Roald Dahl -- of course. How could you be a kid raised in the seventies and not read Dahl? I also love his Tales of the Unexpected for adults.

17. Anthony Burgess -- it's probably terribly old-fashioned of me, but I love him.

18. Mervyn Peake -- no, but I'm playing a game with the copy of The Gormanghast Novels which was still on the shelves at our liquidating Borders last time I checked. I'm convinced no one else in Lancaster County will want it and am waiting to see if it lasts until it goes to 50% off (right now, it's at 30%). If it does, I'll buy it.

19. Martin Amis -- no. The poor guy suffers from being associated in my mind with his dad.

20. Anthony Powell -- nope, but plenty of bloggers have convinced me I need to do so.

21. Alan Sillitoe -- who?

22. John LeCarré -- yep, thanks to the CT mystery book club.

23. Penelope Fitzgerald -- nope.

24. Phillipa Pearce -- nope.

25. Barbara Pym -- just seeing her name makes me want to pour a glass of sherry and pick up one of her books.

26. Beryl Bainbridge -- nope.

27. J.G. Ballard -- yet again: no.

28. Alan Garner -- a personal favorite.

29. Alasdar Gray -- nope.

30. John Fowles -- can you believe: no? Neither can I, but there you have it.

31. Derek Wolcott -- tried. Might try again. Might not.

32. Kazuo Ishiguro -- another personal favorite.

33. Anita Brookner -- not until this summer, when I read one book by her, but I will be reading more.

34. A. S. Byatt -- was dying to read her when she came out with Possession, but not dying enough, apparently, because I never did, and I eventually lost all interest.

35. Ian McEwan -- totally overrated, and I can't believe I feel that way and still have read three books by him.

36. Geoffrey Hill -- nope.

37. Hanif Kureishi -- no.

38. Iain Banks -- nope.

39. George Mackay Brown -- nope.

40. A. J. P. Taylor -- nope.

41. Isaiah Berlin -- nope.

42. J. K. Rowling -- how embarrassing that I break all those "nopes" with a "yes" to this one.

43. Philip Pullman -- like him much better than Rowling.

44. Julian Barnes -- I have a reader's crush on the man. Still remember the first time we met: History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. There was no hope for me. I was smitten from the get-go.

45. Colin Thubron -- back to "nope" again.

46. Bruce Chatwin -- should have by now, but I haven't.

47. Alice Oswald -- nope.

48. Benjamin Zephaniah -- who?

49. Rosemary Sutcliff -- finally, another one I've read.

50. Michael Moorcock -- and another one I haven't.

Okay, everyone, please tell me: of those I haven't read, which ones should I? Meanwhile, I can't believe J. K. Rowling made the list. I mean, if she can make it, where's James Herbert?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mistakes the Publishing Industry Has Made in Recent Years

1. Assuming for way too long that e-books wouldn't catch on. Then, assuming that they were like paperbacks, charging way too little for them, instead of thinking of them as something that might eventually replace hardcovers and acting accordingly.

2. Forgetting that they have always catered to a tiny market and trying to expand their market in ridiculous ways. Readers are rarities. Publishers have forgotten about us in their greedy efforts to make more money and have tried, unsuccessfully and at great expense, to do things like create hybrid print and digital books in order to cater to nonreaders. People came up with the damnest ideas: "Let's have web sites associated with our books." This is a better idea with the advent of the tablet, but really, back in 2005, did any reader want to get up from a cozy seat by the fire to have to go boot up the computer and look up something on some book's associated web page? I hate print books that refer me to web sites. Or how about: "Let's let the reader create his or her own ending." If I want to create my own ending, I'll write my own beginning as well, thank you. Finally, there's "Let's create series in which readers get a cliff hanger at the end of a book." Cliff hangers are fine for weekly T.V. shows. They're a horrible idea when one has to wait 2 or 3 years for the next book to be published (and they create shoddy writing, because the pressure is just to get the book out, no matter how badly written it might be).

3. Ignoring the midlist. Do I even need to elaborate here? I'll just say that the publishing industry seems to have adopted the mentality of a fifteen-year-old basketball player who thinks he's going to be the next Michael Jordan without having to practice at all, and he's basing all his potential future wealth on this assumption.

4. Putting "book club guides" in the backs of books that feature the sorts of questions that made life-long readers like me hate English classes when they were in high school. It might come as a shock to publishing consultants (do they ever talk to real readers?), but those of us who love to read enough to have formed a book club in order to discuss books with others who also love to read, are quite capable of coming up with our own -- far better and more insightful -- topics for discussion.

5. Speaking of consultants: cutting staff and paying authors less money in order to hire consultants who come up with brilliant ideas for "branding" the company. Books aren't soda or cars or jeans. Readers don't find one brand and stick with it. The authors are the brands. Have you ever heard anyone ask, "Did you read the latest from Random House?" Of course not. And ask your average reader who publishes his or her favorite author. My guess is the reader quite likely won't know. Forget branding the company. Pay the authors to stick around. And keep the editors they love to work with, so there's the possibility they might stick around even when other publishers offer them more money.

6. Hiring CEOs from other industries who aren't biblioholics. What happened to the days of publishing CEOs who could read, write, and run publishing companies? Those are the people who know a little something about their market, and knowing your market is more than half the battle when it comes to staying alive.

7. Worrying more about profit than giving your audience what it wants. I want a good book to read. I want it to be well-written. I want evidence that it's been edited and proofread. In other words, I don't want to read some unoriginal, newest fad based on someone else's odd, once-in-a-lifetime success (wizards! vampires! wizards in love with vampires!) that some unknown author has rushed off in six months. I don't want a book that is chock full of awkward, run-on sentences and typos, just because you, Mr. Publisher, have decided to cut your staff and have shipped all production functions overseas. You know what that sort of book does? It leads me to buy used books, written back when plots were original, and copyeditors and proofreaders were people you, (again) Mr. Publisher, might actually have known, people who possibly even had on-site, full-time jobs inside your building. Losing sales from the likes of me hurts profits, too, you know.

Anyone want to add some more mistakes to the list? I'd be happy to hear them. Meanwhile, I'm heading back to continue reading Pushkin Press's wonderful book The Break, which has an original plot and not a single typo so far (despite being a translation). Thank God for small, independent presses!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Visit

This past weekend, we were honored with a visit from Zoë's Mom (ZM) and Zoë. They arrived late Thursday, after getting stuck in traffic (of course. Is it at all possible to go from Fairfield County, CT to Lancaster County, PA without getting stuck in traffic?). Getting stuck in traffic would become a bit of a theme for the weekend, but it really didn't matter, because we had such great company while sitting in a car, moving a mere few inches at a time.

The minute they arrived, it was instant love between Zoë and Clare the dachshund. In fact, I'm pretty sure Zoë would've been perfectly content just to spend the whole weekend doing nothing but playing with Clare. For Clare, I think it was a bit more like those older cousins you used to visit when you were a kid. You loved them, couldn't wait to see them, but you were also a little bit in awe of them and afraid (though you would never admit it), because they were so much bigger than you. It was wonderful for Clare's "mom" and "dad" to have someone around who never tired of playing with her and giving her all the attention she wants so badly.

ZM and I share a mutual love of ice cream, so I had decided that when she next came to visit, we'd go to Franklin Fountain in Philadelphia, an old fashioned soda fountain I'd read about in The New York Times last month. I'm too young to remember the days of such soda fountains, and I've always felt cheated that they've been replaced by fast food franchises (not that ZM and I haven't been known to go in search of the nearest DQ). I like the idea of homemade sodas, ice cream sundaes, and egg creams (although I've never had one of those) served to me by a soda jerk while I'm perched up on a diner-type bar stool. It always makes me think of It's a Wonderful Life, although I always imagine I'm actually in New York City, not small town America, when I visit one. ZM is the kind of friend who didn't think it was at all absurd that we drive to Philly on Friday specifically to visit Franklin Fountain. Zoë, of course, came along for the ride. (Poor Bob was left at home to work, although he did sneak off for a little bit to the Board Game Association's convention, which is held in Lancaster every summer.)

Of course, we did more than just go to the soda fountain (for instance, you know, even though it's tempting, you can't really have nothing but ice cream for lunch, so we stopped off for a slice of pizza first), but I have to tell you it didn't disappoint. It was exactly as I'd imagined: bottles of every sort of soda flavor imaginable, old-fashioned candy and gum for sale, all kinds of ice cream concoctions, and a small bar with bar stools. The wait staff even dresses in outfits straight out of the 1940s.

It was nearly impossible to choose what to order. The banana split sounded good, but like a bit too much. They had specialties with such names as the "volcano" that were tantalizing. I really ought to try an egg cream sometime, but this just didn't seem like the time. I was also tempted by milkshakes and the root beer float. Finally, though, I did what I typically do: after browsing through it all, I ordered a plain old hot fudge sundae. It was superb. I haven't had hot fudge like that in I don't know how long, the sort of deep, dark, chocolate-y hot fudge people seem to have forgotten how to make, whose purpose is to enhance the sugary sweetness of the vanilla ice cream, not to make it more sugary. And you could taste the vanilla beans in the ice cream. On our way out, we decided we had to sample some of the sodas, so we bought one grape and one strawberry to share. They were good, but by then, we were really too full to enjoy them.

After all that decadence, it was on to shopping. ZM and I had had a superb shopping trip about a year and a half ago with Ms. Musings, and we decided to go back to Rittenhouse Square where the three of us had been to look around in Lucky Jeans and whatever else struck our fancy. In typical ZM and Emily fashion, we had a cab take us to Lucky Jeans (after realizing the trolly, which Zoë had really wanted to do would take way too long), only to miss it and to go wandering up the street after the driver let us off, unable to find it (turns out, we'd driven right by it, and he'd dropped us off about two doors up from it). Never mind, it gave us the excuse to go into Barnes and Noble, where Zoë got some teen magazines that kept her occupied while we did things like tried on jeans and shoes (yes, of course, shoes. And, yes, I did buy a pair). Then it was time to head home for the community picnic (and to sit in traffic trying to do so).

My town has a community-wide picnic every summer, and I was so glad ZM and Zoë chose to come the weekend of this big event. The town provides barbecue chicken and corn, and everyone brings side dishes and desserts, enough to feed an army (which is a good thing, because, you know, we hadn't eaten enough all day). The night ends with a huge fireworks display, and the Amish all turn out for the big event, so I thought it would be a fun thing for out-of-town visitors. We introduced Zoë to some of our young friends from church, and they became instant friends, deserting us all to go do things like bug the balloon man and scramble for candy in the candy scramble. Eventually, it got dark, and we all got a little worried when the three kids didn't come back, even more worried when each of them seemed to straggle back alone (we'd thought they were all together). Zoë was the last one to be found, but we did eventually find her, and all was well for the fireworks display.

On Saturday, we headed off to Lititz, the home of Wilbur Chocolates. Wilbur chocolate is better than Hershey's, and they have a wonderful, huge candy store, a must visit if you like candy and ever find yourself in Lancaster County. Lititz is also home to the only independent bookstore in Lancaster County, so Lititz is a dream town for ZM and me, who both like to read while eating candy. You visit Aaron's Books first to buy your book; then go buy yourself some candy at Wilbur; and then go home and read (and get fat eating candy) all afternoon. Inbetween the bookstore and Wilbur, we had to stop and get some lunch. This is where I exhibited how fantastically coordinated I am by dumping my lunch all over the booth and floor before I'd even had one bite. Luckily, they gave me another one at no charge. After Wilbur, we headed home, and sat in traffic, yet again.

Bob and I had a party to attend Saturday afternoon, so we left ZM and Zoë who went off to get pedicures and good things to eat at Kitchen Kettle. We were all happily exhausted by the evening, so we just ordered dinner in and had a lazy evening talking (well, ZM and I did. Bob is always prepping for Sunday morning on Saturday evenings, and Zoë was either reading or playing with Clare most of the time). We hit the hay a little earlier than we had on Thursday and Friday.

Sunday morning, it was the Sunday morning rush for church. ZM and Zoë had decided to attend with us (not something we require of our house guests), and it was nice to have the company. Bob did his best to embarrass them by announcing their presence, but the highlight of the morning was, after the service when Bob took off his robe, and Zoë and one of her new-found friends decided to zip themselves up in it. Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of that (but I'm happy to have gotten the one above of Zoë reading to Clare. They were reading The Totally Lame Vampire). All too soon (as always), it was time for them to leave. But they had a little better luck with the traffic on the way home.

Monday, August 01, 2011

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. New York: Vintage, 1993 (1965).

When I was a kid, I somehow managed to confuse and equate Al Capone with Truman Capote (I guess those two last names were similar enough to a child listening in on adult conversation that I never distinguished them). It was years before I discovered that Capote was an author, but by then, the connection in my mind was so strong, I couldn't shake the notion that In Cold Blood was some sort of story about the mob. It makes perfect sense, right? If Truman Capote wasn't Al Capone, then he must have been writing about him.

I, basically, had completely forgotten this case of mistaken identities on my part until I began to read In Cold Blood. When I was in my teens and twenties, I was a frequent visitor to the 364 (true crime) shelves of the libraries I frequented. I always avoided In Cold Blood, because of those mob associations I had with it. Even, once I was working in a library and one of my colleagues told me he was finally reading this classic (if something that was barely 25 years old at the time can be considered a "classic"), and how good it was, I avoided it. I still didn't know much about Capote, and the copy our library owned was old, had no dust jacket, and no cover copy. I couldn't imagine such an "old" book possibly being as exciting as all the new true crime my friends and I passed around, extolling to each other the virtues and scare factors of each new discovery. Funny. I barely remember a single one of those books (except that one Joe McGinnis wrote about the D&D freak who killed his stepfather).

Fast forward 20 years. I've long since seen Tru (great one-man play based on the end of Capote's life); have realized Capote wrote another very famous work, Breakfast at Tiffany's; and have read a number of articles about him, which inspired me to buy some of his works, including In Cold Blood. The movie Capote, which I haven't seen, was a huge hit not too long ago and brought attention to him again. It would be impossible not to know who he is and what In Cold Blood is about, unless you are a complete nonreader or someone who avoids all reviews. Still, I haven't actually read the book.

Litlove suggested we read it together this summer, and we decided to read it in July. That's when I found myself asking the question, "How come I never read this book before?" and was reminded, as though some hypnotist had dredged it up from the depths of my brain, why: I spent the early part of my life thinking it was about something completely different. It's too bad, because the book was so right up my twenty-something alley, you could have found it lying dead there, bullet hole through its head, empty liquor bottle by its side, and I'm quite sure I would have remembered it better than all the others I read.

One night, in November 1959, the community of Holcomb, KS was rocked by the brutal murders of four members of the wholesome Clutter family. With the exception of the fact that Bonnie, the poor wife and mother, suffered from debilitating mental illness that kept her in bed most of the time, they were an "All-American Family," respected and beloved by the members of their community. The father Herb was an ambitious, ethical, disciplined, but, apparently, very likable man whose farm was extremely successful and profitable. Two older daughters had moved out and begun fruitful lives of their own. Nancy, the daughter who, at age 16, still lived at home, was every parent's dream: smart, organized, hard-working, pretty, and the sort who loved her father so much she didn't want to do anything to disappoint him (even to the point of agreeing not to spend so much time with the boy she'd been in love with for four years). The son Kenyon, at age fifteen, was also a very hard worker and what many described as a genius.

If this were fiction, especially in the hands of someone like Ross Macdonald, we would soon have discovered that not all was what it seemed in the Clutter household, that there was a very good reason (well, if there's ever really a "good" reason for murder) these four victims were found bound and shot to death in their home. Perhaps Herb would've proved to be a child-molester involved in some sort of shady dealings. Maybe one of the older sisters, someone who never felt loved by her father, had married a man who didn't love her and who had his sights set on inheriting the family fortune. There might even have been a little sibling incest and some jealous spurned lover. But not here. The family really was pure and innocent (at least, according to Capote's assessment, and why argue with that? He spent six years researching and writing the book). Even the mother's mental illness was far from the "kill-your-family-and-then-shoot-yourself" sort.

Talk about six degrees of separation. These family members were truly victims of less than six degrees of separation. Herb just so happened to have briefly employed a man who happened to meet one of the killers in prison. That killer had befriended the other killer. Believing, based on the testimony of the man who'd worked for Herb and who remained incarcerated, that the Clutter family had a safe full of cash, the two (Dick Hickock and Perry Smith), once out on parole, went in deadly pursuit of that safe and its contents. Capote gives us details of the murder, details of the killers' lives on the run, details of the investigation, and details of the trial and execution of the two men.

Here's what truly surprised me about the book: it terrified me. Me. The one who's read all kinds of true crime accounts. The one who reads and writes ghost stories for fun. The one who's been constantly disappointed by horror movie after horror movie. I didn't even realize I was afraid. The terror sort of sneaked up on me. It wasn't until it was getting close to 10 p.m., and I was engrossed in the book, and Clare the dachshund, who rarely ever barks at anything, suddenly started barking frantically at our back door, that I realized my heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest. Needless to say, I was not too keen on walking the dog before bed that night.

At first, I credited my terror to Capote's writing ability. His attention to detail is remarkable and enviable (floor boards creak, coyotes howl, tumbleweeds scuttle). But, since he alternates between telling us what's going on in Holcomb and what the two murderers are up to, I soon dismissed his writing as the major factor. If you want to terrify me, that's not the way to do it. I need complete mystery and surprise, people lurking in corners when others don't know they're there, bad guys we don't know. Introducing me to the murderers and making them human doesn't typically do it.

I think, ultimately, what got me were two things: one was the setting. I live in a small farming community that sounds quite similar to Holcomb. The other was the whole six degrees of separation factor. It's what got me when I read Thomas Harris's Red Dragon -- how easily a family can be randomly targeted by some lunatic or lunatics. If it was that easy in 1959, with no computers, no Internet, no Facebook, think how incredibly easy it is today. If someone really wants to find and kill you, he or she can, and there's not much you can do about it.

It's ironic, really, that I always skipped over this one when browsing the 364 shelves, not only because I was always looking for something this scary, but also because its biggest claim to fame is that it was a pioneering work of the true crime genre. To be a fan of the genre and not to read it is like being a mystery fan and never reading Poe or Conan-Doyle. The copy I have classifies it as nonfiction/literature. Yet, I've also seen it described as the "original nonfiction novel." It seems Capote liked to mix and match genres. The only other works I've read of his are the "fictionalized memoirs" -- short stories that revolve around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays of his youth.

It's been a number of years since I read those holiday memoirs, and although I remember being impressed by them, I don't remember that much about the writing style. Now that I've read In Cold Blood, I'd say that Capote was much more of a nonfiction writer than a novelist. Although the work's been praised for its novelistic approach to the topic, and yes, I did find novelistic aspects, I'd never mistake him for, say, Patricia Highsmith. He's far more matter-of-fact. No matter how sympathetic all the critics claim he made his characters (and, yes, we do learn the whole sad life stories of the two murderers), I never really felt I was getting much more than the facts. He tried to get us inside their heads, wanted us to explore the psychology, but he didn't really succeed. For instance, he certainly made me think quite a lot about what happens when a highly sensitive child like Perry is exposed to brutal abuse time and again in his childhood, but his dots were connected by very faint, broken lines. He gave us a whole town full of people rocked by the murders, hinted at their terror, their sudden mistrust of each other, but he didn't go far enough with it to illuminate it in any original way.

What he did do was provide me with a riveting news story. I would eagerly have been buying each edition of a daily newspaper with articles written by him that followed the case. In fact, he provided the sort of detailed reporting that seems to be long gone from journalism -- less sensational than today, despite the fact that the story was far more sensational than much of what's reported these days.

Am I going to race out and tell everyone I know to read this book? Highly unlikely. Am I extremely glad I read it? Yes. For someone who writes ghost stories and wants to tap into human fears and abnormalities, it's a must read. Will I ever read more Capote in the future? Absolutely. I'm dying to know if his novels have less of a "reporter-ly" feel to them. (And now I'm off to read what Litlove had to say. You should go there, too, if you haven't already.)