Sunday, August 30, 2009

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

This book is often defined as the original nonfiction novel on account of the true story, expansive research and outstanding narration on part of Truman Capote. The story is about the brutal murders of Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer, his wife and two children in the town of Holcomb in western Kansas. The killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested and sentenced to death later.
The perpetrators of the crime were never a secret in the book, the reader knows all along that Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are the murderers. What is kept under wraps is the manner in which the executions were carried out. The story is pretty simple, but the real beauty of the novel is in its treatment.
How the book was conceived:
The New York Times On November 16, 1959 published an account of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, a small town in western Kansas. This prompted Truman Capote to travel to Holcomb to investigate the murders. The case became such an obsession for him that he remained in Holcomb for six years until the case was finally closed. He interviewed the people of Holcomb, the investigator from Kansas Beurau of Investigation Al Dewey, and poured over police investigation reports and articles. After Dick and Perry were caught and sentenced, he even interviewed their handlers in prison. The result of all this painstaking work was what was known as the original nonfiction novel - In True Blood.
What strikes you as a reader is the superbly vivid and lively description of Holcomb that Capote gives you, considering the fact that none of this is the authors imagination as in a work of fiction. The accounts of every resident of the town, folksy tidbits from the lives of the Clutter family, accounts of prisoners, and every development in the case confirms to reality.
The novel also was amazing in capturing the mind of the criminal, what drives them to the extreme step of taking a life. Capote devotes extensive time defining the characters of Dick and Perry, as well as the human side of them. He describes Perry as being the more sensitive and guilt-ridden of the two on account of the murders. Unlike Dick, his turning reprobate was more a victim of circumstances and upbringing. He shared a complex relation with his family. He describes the murders as follows:
'Just remember: I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour. If I'd really known them, I guess I'd feel different. I don't think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking targets in a shooting gallery.'

In his own words, he  defined himself as follows in a diary he kept:
'My acquaintances are many, my friends are few; those who really know me fewer still.'

Overall, Truman Capote is a master of describing different emotions: He presents some beautiful images of rural Kansas, they can be identified with by anyone who has grown up in small towns; heartbreak suffered by Dick and Perry's families; and aboveall the horror of the murders.
Some trivia:
  • Truman Capote's assistant for this book was Harper Lee, the Pulitzer prize winning author of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'
  • The novel bought some renown to the Clutter family home and the town of Holcomb. People would visit the town just to experience the Holcomb that Capote had so vividly defined. Here is a link to some pictures I found from the time of the investigation to the present. In Cold Blood: A Legacy, in Photos

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Simple Truth - David Baldacci

The Simple Truth was my first David Baldacci book and I enjoyed it to the core. It had all the elements which one could hope for in a fiction - crime & investigation, suspense, chases & gun battles, compelling family drama, and of course, the law. It's a story revolving around the working of the US Supreme Court.

Rufus Harms is a prisoner who has been unjustly imprisoned in a Virginia millitary prison. He has endured the tough and cruel life of the millitary prison for a crime he did not commit. Micheal Fiske, a clerk (meaning a young lawyer) with the US Supreme Count is murdered when he happens to inquire into the appeal that came to the Supreme Court from Harms. Sara Evans is another Supreme Court clerk who used to work with Micheal and now teams up with his brother John Fiske to solve the mystery of Micheal's murder and also that of another clerk's.

Meanwhile Rufus with the help of his brother Josh escapes from prison and from there onwards the story moves at breakneck speed. There are people out to kill him for the fear of any information being leaked, but Rufus overrules his brother's idea of escaping to South America, instead opting to stay and get his case heard by someone. There is when John and Sara come in. There are several dangerous twists and surprises along the way for John and Sara in thier investigation. There happen to be several secrets in Harms appeal which some very powerful people do not want to be revealed.

Apart from the fast paced action, the book has good detailed information of the working of the Supreme Court. That important issues may appear or disappear due to personal influence, the power that the clerks and the barely-out-of-college lawyers weild; the way the Judges struggle to barter for votes on the cases they are working on; and some very interesting courtroom arguements are very well etched.

Many a time I found myself comparing the author to John Grisham, as they both intersperse thier writing with a liberal dose of legal verbiage, and an arresting story. So if you enjoy reading John Grisham, go for this page turner. It's the bookish equivalent of escapist cinema.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje has a writing style that is unique, poetic and lyrical. The story is set in Italy during the end of World War II. The narration moves back and forth in time, revealing bits and pieces from the lives of the characters.

The first half of the novel makes for some dry reading and the back-and-forth narration leaves one a bit confused. I felt it a bit hard getting into the book, but the book picks up pace from the second half and it is not until the end that everything makes sense.

The story revolves around four characters - Hana is a Canadian nurse who lives in the now-abandoned Villa San Girolamo in Italy. The scars of war are evident in her indifference to life; she has witnessed enough death and grief to become detached. She is very mature for her young age. Caravaggio is an Italian thief and used to be a friend of Hana's father. He was used as a spy by the allied forces during the war. The Germans get to know of him and torture him by cutting off his thumbs. He learns of Hana living in the abandoned Villa and arrives there in search of her.

Kip - Short for Kirpal Singh, an Indian Sikh. He is recruited by the British as a sapper, someone who clears minefields and disposes bombs. Kip stays on in the Villa, and disposes of the bombs in the vicinity of the Villa, which was full of unexploded bombs. He had joined the British army out of loyalty towards them, even though his brother does not trust the West and is strongly anti-British.

The English Patient - He is the title character and arrives under Hana's care at the Villa burnt beyond recognition. All that is known about him is that he is British and was in a plane crash and escaped alive but badly burnt. They just refer to him as 'The English Patient'. He and Kip are good friends and The English Patient's past is revealed later in parts.

Both Caravaggio, who is carrying physical and mental scars due to the war, and The English Patient who is badly burnt, are addicted to morphine, which Hana administers to them. Ondaatje describes four lives, each of them a world on its own, each containing their own fills of love & betrayal, all brought together by the circumstance of the war. The characters and situations are described incredibly well and there are certain passages & conversations which are poetic and one cannot help but appreciate the beauty in the lines.

"...Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise."

Pick this up if you like stories which move at a slow pace and have a leisurely afternoon to spare. It is a beautifully told story, but I must admit it drags at times.

Some trivia about the book:

  • The book won the Booker Prize for fiction and the Canadian Governor General’s award in 1992.
  • The book was adapted into a 1996 movie of the same name. The film was directed by Anthony Minghella and it won 9 Academy Awards.