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I’m not Truman Capote so I’m not going to take as long as he did to write his book In Cold Blood and ponder 7 years over a review. Let’s just get it over with.
In Cold Blood is a faction novel: fiction based on facts. It tells the story of a horrible murder that happened in Holcomb, Kansas, on the night of Friday 13th 1959. Is that where our superstition about Friday 13th originates from? (No, it’s not.) That night, the much loved Clutter family was slaughtered in cold blood by two young man that had met in jail: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The book concentrates on the events leading up to the killing, the quest to find the murderers, their trial(s) and eventually their execution.
I’ve had the book on my shelf ever since I saw the biopic Capote in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an awesome leading role as the author. But I never picked it up for fear of being bored… Because of the movie I already knew what had happened, see. But I’m glad I no longer procrastinated! I buddy read it with the Boekgrrls in November 2009; exactly 50 years after the crime. And it was quite a powerful experience.
Knowing about the case was no problem at all: the events are revealed at the beginning of the story. That’s partly what’s good about the book: although the outcome is public knowledge, it is still interesting to read. Most times… it is a bit slow in some parts as well.
I admire how Capote skips around the actual murder for quite some time; getting us to know Herb Clutter, his wife Bonny, daughter Nancy and son Kenyon. Meeting Dick and Perry ‘warming up’ with some petty crimes. The author guides us through the days preceding and following the massacre, showing us the town and its people, following the detectives that are hunting down the killers. And then finally, the moment of horror.
In Cold Blood is supposed to be the first in a genre that is now well-known: ‘true crime fiction’. Capote was looking for inspiration as a writer when he read a small newspaper article about the case in Holcomb. It took him 5 years of ‘investigating’ and another 2 to finish the book. Its suggests to be factual (presenting letters, reports etc.), so many of the people involved criticized him for not being completely true to the case. Capote himself replied that it was obviously a novel = fiction.
An interesting question is why Capote was so immensely fascinated by this case that he worked on it for so many years. I recall from the movie that the author seemed extremely ‘attracted’ by the perpetrators, especially Perry. And the weird thing is that even I felt sorry for him at times — or even sympathy, no matter that he was such a ruthless killer. On of the strongest scenes in the book is Perry’s confession to KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) officer Albert Dewey.
*** spoiler alert *** The suggestion that Perry Smith would have suffered from schizophrenia is pretty convincing. Unfortunately for him at that time in Kansas state the Durham rule was not yet in practice. This act decrees that “an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act is the product of mental disease or mental defect“. I must say that I’m against the taking of any life, which means I do not approve of the death penalty in any case – not even in a horrible crime like this.
Capote’s childhood friend Harper Lee accompanied him to the Midwest as his research assistent. I recently read her most acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird which she wrote a few years after the Holcomb tragedy. It has nothing to do with this case, but it does deal with legislation and justice, telling the story of a murder courtcase in Alabama. Capote is depicted in the book as the boy Dill. But Lee is never mentioned in Capote’s In Cold Blood.
BTW from the movie Capote I had gotten the impression that the author himself would play a role in his book as well, which he does not…
Perry’s childhood during the Great Depression, his family travelling the country in search of work, also brings to mind John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I had read just before In Cold Blood:
‘Tex John Smith Family picking berries in Oregon. 1933′ Was the caption under a snapshot of four barefooted children wearing overalls and cranky, uniformly fatigued expressions. Berries or stale bread soaked in sweet condensed milk was often all they had to eat. [His sister] Barbara Johnson remembered that once the family had lived for days on rotten bananas, and that, as a result, Perry had got colic; he had screamed all night, while Bobo, as Barbara was called, wept for fear he was dying. [p.177]
Because of some quotes about the role of women, the story also made me think of the October Boekgrrls’ buddy read: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which is set in fifties as well. Since I’m participating in the Women Unbound challenge, I’ll give this topic its own heading.
The role of women
Bonny Clutter was a very troubled housewife (according to this book = according to Capote? The people in the village? Her family?). Bonny herself believed that a pinched nerve was the cause of her problems. But to the contemporary reader it is obvious that she was depressed; which might be postnatal depression as is suggested in the book, but I rather believe her unfulfilling everyday life must have amplified it. In the past she had been living in Wichita for 2 weeks, having her own apartment and a job. Doctor’s orders. And it seemed to help…
[..] but she had liked it too well, so much that it seemed to her unchristian, and the sense of guilt she in consequence developed ultimately outweighed the experiment’s therapeutic value. [p.26]
So she turned into a woman that:
[..] had reduced her voice to a single tone, that of apology, and her personality to a series of gestures blurred by the fear that she might give offence, in some way displease. [p.23]
Then there’s Nancy’s attitude to her father Herb Clutter.
‘[..] Can’t you make your father understand that?’ No, she could not. ‘Because,’ as she explained it to Susan, ‘whenever I start to say something, he looks at me as though I must not love him. Or as though I love him less. And suddenly I’m tongue-tied; I just want to be his daughter and do as he wishes.‘ [p.19]
I don’t have any intelligent thoughts about this but I do think it says a lot about the way women wore culturally imposed and emotional straitjackets at the time. It seems to have been engraved in our x-chromosomes — and the leftovers sometimes pop-up… Because although it’s 50 years later and I’ve been raised by a feminist mom, I’m embarrassed to say that the feelings described are not completely unfamiliar to me. (Can I get another Honest Scrap Award now, please? ;)
Other thoughts on the book…
I did think the Clutters were a bit too good to be true — except for poor Bonny of course, who was such a troubled, incompetent mother & wife :\
If I had not known the book was based on facts and written relatively short after the real events, I would have sworn to have come upon an anachronism:
[..] Nancy had cleaned up, put all the dishes in the dish-washer, [..] [p.49]
OMG my well-to-do grandparents (or should I say my grandma?) first got a washing machine about a whole decade later! Let alone I would know anyone who had a dish-washer at that time… But hey, I wasn’t born yet either ;)
In Cold Blood has made such an impression that I was reminded of it during several movies I saw shortly after. That happened because of the schizophrenia in the horror movie Bug and the bloody massacre in Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance.
But it doesn’t end here; the bookgroup read will result in a film follow-up real soon! Some Boekgrrls are coming over to watch the 1967 film In Cold Blood with me. It got 8 stars in the Internet Movie Databse so I’m having no worries about being bored because I already know the story ;)
Who doesn’t know this famous picture of a Migrant Mother of the American Dust Bowl? It could be the icon of John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath, which I read in the autumn of 2009; 60 years after its publication date (1939), which was also the year that my mother was born. It came to be my favourite read of 2009 — something I would never have expected!
Set during the Great Depression preceding World War II, the novel focuses on the Joad family, farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry. Because of their hopeless situation they set out for ‘The Promised Land’ of California, along with thousands of other Okies in search of land, jobs and dignity.
Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 — the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield — over the red lands and the grey lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.
66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight. [p.108]
This quote vividly evokes the story of the east to west migration in the US during the Great Depression. The paragraph above is followed by an enumeration of places along the road and it strongly brought to mind the 1946 song that I came to know decades later, thanks to one of the best pop groups of my teenage years, Depeche Mode: Route 66.
The Grapes of Wrath was banned (and even burned) several times. Though I absolutely not agree with it, of course not — the very idea, I can understand see how that happened: there’s a lot of swearing, violence and carnal stuff in it, plus an apostate preacher, Jim Casy. I read the book in Banned Books Week — and what did I think of it?
Well, I had a hard time getting into it. The paperback has a small font on thin pages so it reveals itself to be quite a chunker when you open it for the first time. The spoken language needs a bit of getting used to. But my biggest problem was that the chapters alternate between the (interesting) story of the Joad family and some sort of epic story telling that I couldn’t figure out — and bored me a little at first. Was it the (ex-)preacher preaching? Sort of a ancient Greek choir commenting on events? An omnipresent character? Biblical, mythological? Eventually I decided it must be the oral tradition of history — I could picture the poor travelers meeting around a camp fire at night; neighbours and friends for just a short time.
And then suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways. The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants. [p.259]
But after a while the story really got under my skin. It made a huge impression that still lasts, even after a few months. I believe it is a great truth that the less people own, the more they’re willing to share. That reminds me of a television program in Holland about hospitality ;)
The attitude of Western Americans was often repulsive.
Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and so miserable… They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas. [p.203]
It almost made me swear out loud.
But of course, those people were scared too…
I copied whole pages in my notebook because I wanted to remember them. Better buy a copy of my own eh? Since this one was a Random Act of Bookcrossing Kindness, sent to me by boekenxnl. I’ll pass it along as soon as I’ve finished writing this review!
Now, on a side note: I was wondering who made the cover of this 1970 Penguin Modern Classic edition. I couldn’t find it in the book details, nor anywhere on the web. What I coincidence that I went to an exhibition on Edward Hopper and his contemporaries in the Rotterdam Kunsthal, where I came face to face with a painting by Ben Shahn (1898-1969) that immediately reminded me of the cover image! Because of the style, and of its subject: Social Realism (or social-documentary). The exhibition note explained that the artist used to make a photo first, which he later developed into a graphic work.
I figured it would be very appropriate to use a work of art by Shahn as a book cover for The Grapes of Wrath, because during the Great Depression he traveled and documented the American south alongside photographers like (among others) Dorothea Lange, who made the picture of a Migrant Mother that you saw at the beginning of this post. What a great discovery to make!
You can guess how proud I was of myself — until I accidentally found out that the blurb on the back mentioned that “it is a detail of a poster by”… Ben Shahn. DÔH. Well, I would like to say in my own defense that I usually never read the back cover because I want to know as little as possible about a book in advance. And in the end I just forgot. But yes, I admit I must be the dumbest person in the whole wide universe. Still, it’s fun to have figured it out all by myself ;)
Except for Hopper’s painting Railroad Sunset the rest of the exhibition actually was a bit of a disappointment. An Edward Hopper expo is no Hopper expo when his most famous painting Nighthawks isn’t there. But of course that picture doesn’t belong to the Whitney Museum of American Art, the institution that put the show together with works out of its own collection.
Back to The Grapes of Wrath. A minor point of critique is that the women in the story are horribly subdue. The following quote doesn’t show that for a 100%, but it made me go BWAAAGH ;)
Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great if their men were whole. [p.7]
But I guess some ‘male dominance’ was normal in those times (& that place) and so Steinbeck is being realistic. But then he talks about Jule, who’s partly Native American:
Tom and Willie and Jule the half-breed sat on the edge of the dance floor and swung their feet. [p.327]
Each time Jule makes an appearance this ‘half-breed’ fact is mentioned. That irritated me — and I got the feeling it wasn’t because Steinbeck happened to be such a great observer, but maybe because that was how he approached Amerindians himself. Or am I terribly wrong??
Thirdly, the poor migrants were at times too good to be true. But these things aside: I am SO glad that I have read this classic!
Btw if you’re interested: I stumbled upon a (really) short article about one of the daughters of the Migrant Mother…
What a horrible book.
Erm… Let’s make my mind up!
I was pretty curious about the life of Okichi Saito, concubine of Townsend Harris, the first American Consul to Japan in 1856. ‘Tojin Okichi‘ (‘tojin’ being the mistress of a foreigner) didn’t want to be his courtisane but the feudal system made her because it would provide better negotiation opportunities for the Japanese. It ruined her life – and of those around her. No, I am not giving anything away by saying that because it is common knowledge (early in the book) and even so, the author herself… No, I’ll get to that later ;)
At first I just got annoyed by the awful translation. To make some of my Dutch readers cringe, I would like to present 3 short sentences (I couldn’t choose!). Non-Dutch readers will just have to accept that these quotes are really terrible ;)
Alleen door zichzelf zo te kastijden kon ze de pijn lenigen van een uitstoting die ze de rest van haar leven zou voelen. [p.47]
Het was een pand tussen een vriendelijke rij nameko-huizen, zo typisch voor Shimoda en zag uit op het drukke puin. [p.55]
Dan drukte zich de hel opdringende omgeving van haar noodlijdende kapperszaak haar op de werkelijkheid van wat er van haar geworden was en haar gezicht betrok. [p.68]
Hey, reading these translations I think I just discovered who is really behind the Google translator! LOL
More and more I got the feeling I wouldn’t have liked the original either. The book is full of Okichi’s thoughts and feelings, almost more than anything else. I guess (and hope) author Rei Kimura studied a lot of Egodocuments in the Okichi Museum in Shimoda (there are no endnotes so I can’t be sure) but I still think she has filled in too much of what she can’t know. At one time she even lets the protagonist mourn that her friend Naoko was born in the wrong place and time for her ambitions. Of course it would be great if the author made us think that, but Okichi could not have known how much times would change, especially for women.
There’s just a small voice in the back of my head that keeps wondering… Before Butterfly in the Wind was printed, it was published digitally and nominated for the E-book Awards of the Frankfurter Buchmesse :\
But I also didn’t like how the story got ‘thrown together’. Way before the middle of the book the reader already knows how it will end. And then has to read about it again and again… First Kimura tells us what is going to happen next, then she decribes it in detail – only to look back on it again in the following pages. I got REALLY tired of it! I assumed I would still like to read her book about Aum Shinrikyo, the religious group that carried out the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subways in 1995. That also seemed like an interesting topic. But now that I have finished Butterfly in the Wind… PLEASE don’t make me?!
I can’t recommend this book to anyone: it left me feeling completely miserable. Yes, Okichi Saito has had a very sad life. But this horrible book and translation don’t do her much credit.
Having said that, I would like to tell you why it has been interesting reading Butterfly in the Wind at this moment. Before the Americans entered Japan in 1856 and Townsend Harris ‘negotiated’ the Treaty of Peace and Commerce, a.k.a. Harris Treaty, the Dutch were the only foreigners allowed to trade with (and live in) Japan for more than two centuries, starting in 1609. So this year we are celebrating 400 years of exchange between Japan and Holland! There’s even a special coin: Japan Fiver (valid currency worth 5 euros) — and I’ve got it ;) I will hang on to it for a while and then find an appropriate event to spend it.
This weekend I will be visiting From here to Tokyo, an exhibition where the authentic 1609 trade permit from Shôgun Ieyasu Tokugawa on display; the document allowing the Dutch East India Company (VOC) monopoly of trade. I am looking forward to that more now that I have read Butterfly in the Wind! It brings Japanese history closer to today.
There’s also an online exhibition on this topic in Het Geheugen van Nederland; texts are in Dutch but you might just look at the many ancient pictures!
I have thought about getting rid of Butterfly in the Wind, but I think I will keep the book because of its photographs — and to look up places to visit when we may be planning a trip to Japan in the future… But first I am going to do some more ‘virtual’ traveling through books. I am not finishing the Japanese Literature Challenge with a disappointing read like this! Just wait and see :)
Voordat ik toe ben aan de dagfavoriet, even een tussenstopje in mijn vervolgblog met besprekingen van het afgelopen Parool Oscarweekend. Wat me opvalt is namelijk dat we dit jaar 3 films zagen die het predicaat ‘waargebeurd’ kunnen krijgen. Dat was geen bewuste keuze ;)
Waltz with Bashir is een ‘geanimeerde documentaire‘ over (jonge) Israëlische soldaten in de Libanon-oorlog — of ‘Beirut’, zoals ik het me uit mijn jeugd herinner. Changeling gaat over een ontvoeringszaak (en bijbehorend politiegestuntel) die in de jaren twintig van de vorige eeuw werkelijk in Los Angelos heeft plaatsgevonden. En Frost / Nixon handelt over de grote bekentenis van Nixon, die hem indertijd in David Frost’s tv-programma ‘ontglipte’ (?). Sommigen beweren ook nog dat The Wrestler voor Mickey Rourke is geschreven en als het ware over hemzelf gaat, maar die tel ik toch niet mee.
In mijn lijstje van vorig jaar (2008) ontdek ik geen echte trends — wie dat wel doet mag het zeggen — maar in 2006, mijn ‘eerste keer’ Paroolweekend, bleken ook veel waargebeurde verhalen op ons programma te staan. En politiek drama, maar die trend geldt niet speciaal voor mij: aan de Oscar nominaties te zien was Amerika dat jaar opeens erg geïnteresseerd in politiek getinte cinema.
Welke films zagen we in 2006 op de Parooldag?
- Good Night, and Good Luck. van George Clooney >> waargebeurd & politiek
Een prachtige zwartwitfilm met talking heads over tv-presentator Edgar R. Murrow die in zijn programma als een van de weinige media-figuren de strijd aandurfde tegen de valse beschuldigingen van de anti-communistische senator McCarthy. Roken in beeld mocht en zag er nog sophisticated uit ook ;)
- Sophie Scholl – die letzten Tage van Marc Rothemund >> waargebeurd & politiek
Interessant. Meer weet ik er 3 jaar na dato niet meer over te zeggen ;)
- Munich van Steven Spielberg >> waargebeurd & politiek
Deze meer dan tweeëneenhalf uur durende film was echt veeeeeel te lang naar mijn zin. Wel indrukwekkend hoe een brave Israëlische huisvader kan veranderen in een moordmachine — en nooit meer dezelfde zal zijn. Dat stemt tot nadenken.
- A History of Violence van David Cronenberg (pas op voor spoilers in de link!)
Cronenberg is altijd goed. Een credo dat ook lijkt te gelden voor acteur Viggo Mortensen ;) A History of Violence is een heftige film waar flink over moest worden nagepraat.
- Syriana van Stephen Gaghan >> politiek
Tagline: “Everything is complicated” .. oeps verkeerde quote: “Everything is connected” ;) We zagen deze film als laatste en konden hem na de vermoeiende dag echt absoluut niet meer volgen…
Fascinerend om te ontdekken dat er ook nog inhoudelijker overeenkomsten zijn: de ‘val’ van politici dankzij de media (Good Night, and Good Luck. vs. Frost / Nixon) en de impact van Israëls ehm.. ‘buitenlandpolitiek’ op haar burgers (Munich vs. Waltz with Bashir). Zo leer je nog eens wat over jezelf ;)
Toen Christine Collins op een zaterdagavond in 1928 thuiskwam van werk, bleek haar 9-jarige zoon Walter te zijn verdwenen. Vijf maanden later werd hij gevonden en onder grote mediabelangstelling terugbezorgd. Helaas, volgens zijn moeder was het Walter niet. Maar waag het niet de Los Angeles Police Department tegen te spreken! Vooral niet als je vrouw bent en het nog de jaren 20 zijn… :\
Dit keer geen still uit de film omdat een beeld dat voor mijn mening representatief is, niet was te vinden. Nu ‘krijgen’ jullie van mij de historische foto van Walter Collins. Want dit verhaal kan zo terecht op RTL4: het is ‘waargebeurd’.
Changeling eindigde op de laatste plaats in mijn ranglijstje van de Oscardag. Ik vond hem wel aardig, maar meer niet. Hij is bijvoorbeeld te lang. Niet saai hoor, maar hij had wel korter gemogen. Belangrijker is dat Angelina Jolie (die voor haar rol notabene een Oscarnominatie in de wacht sleepte), me niet overtuigde als moeder: ik had het gevoel dat Walter niet haar kind was, maar van een ander. Ja ik wéét dat de film erover gaat dat mams denkt een koekoeksjong in de schoot geworpen te hebben gekregen, maar ik bedoel dus de oorspronkelijke Walter, haar echte zoon! Walter I vs. Walter II, zeg maar ;) Wat mij betreft is het dus terecht dat Jolie de prijs niet kreeg.
Ik heb ook kritiek op de nominatie voor art direction. Bij aanvang en tijdens de aftiteling — ik schreef al eerder dat die bij een film hoort — zie je een zwartwit straatbeeld. Hoewel de auto’s op de voorgrond rijden, is het beeld verderop duidelijk gefixeerd. En er zijn wat foutjes in de scène waarin Christine een krantenartikel getoond krijgt. Op de foto is de hereniging met haar zoon te zien: samen poseren ze voor de fotografen. Maar waar is de begeleidster van ‘Walter II’ gebleven die erachter stond? Bestond Photoshop al in 1928? ;)
De andere fout zit in de montage. Degene die ‘mams’ de foto toont (ik blijf met opzet een beetje vaag om geen verhaallijnen te verklappen), pakt tot 2x toe hetzelfde dossier met krantenknipsels. Allemaal niet onoverkomelijk hoor, maar ik ben er niet rouwig om dat Changeling geen Academy Awards heeft ontvangen. En ik heb ook nog wat geleerd… Ik hoef niet meer naar films van Clint Eastwood. Ik ging namelijk met dezelfde verwachtingen naar Mystic River en werd toen ook teleurgesteld. Flags of Our Fathers en Letters from Iwo Jima worden dus per direct van mijn wensenlijstje geschrapt!
A dream come true: my second Postcrossing postcard came from Japan! I didn’t even know I could receive another one until some more of the cards I’ve sent are registered. I sent a ‘thank you’ to Japan in return. And it’s going well because I have also received a Florida Sunset from the US. All my cards can be found on a special Flickr page for Gnoe’s Postcrossing!