Thursday, 15 March 2012

Short non-review today...


For the sake of A Century of Books, I must record that I have read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) - but I have no desire to write about it.  I hated reading it.  The writing was good.  But it is a horrible book, about a horrible murder committed by horrible people.  People will, I daresay, suggest that I am shying away from 'real life', but unpleasant actions are no more real than pleasant ones.  The usual, indeed, is rather more real than unusual.  There is a greater amount of reality in the Provincial Lady books than within the pages of In Cold Blood.  I cannot understand why anybody wants to read crime books, let alone true crime books: one half of the world does not understand the pleasures of the other.  Reading In Cold Blood could never be a pleasure for me, and the amount of displeasure it caused me wholly obscured any admiration I should feel towards Capote for his writing ability or his experimentation with genre.  I wish I had never read it.

Any books for which you feel like this?


60 comments:

  1. I recently finished reading Who Stole the Funny? by Robby Benson, based on his vast experience as a sitcom director (after years as an actor), and especially directing six episodes of "Friends." He truly knows that world, and while some reviewers claim that the characters are exaggerated, I wouldn't be surprised if some are exactly like that in Hollywood today. However, while it is funny in parts, it's an entirely unpleasant read and you will feel very uncomfortable during certain moments. I liked Benson's writing, but I never want to read it again.

    The same goes for Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk. I felt so greasy while reading that one.

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    1. I hadn't heard of Who Stole The Funny? - I have to admit, the Friends connection does intrigue me, but perhaps I should still steer clear!

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  2. I love crime novels(or rather, murder mysteries)but I find it hard to enjoy true crime. Just the fact that someone really had to go through what I'm reading about, it even feels wrong to enjoy the reading experience, knowing that it's based on someone's suffering. Not to say that no-one should read them, but it really puts a dampener on my enjoyment of the books. So I sympathise!

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    1. What I found most horrible in this book was when he relayed the victims begging for mercy etc. - just vile. I'm too squeamish to read crime fiction of the modern type, but I do love Agatha Christie et al - because it's so sanitised.

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  3. Simon,

    I know exactly what you mean. I don't like reading those sorts of books. Why anyone wants to read about horrific, gruesome murders for fun and relaxation is beyond my understanding.

    For me a good example is The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. A horrible book purely because of the terrible subject matter.

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    1. I'm so glad I'm not the only one!

      Although I did quite like Suspicions of Mr. Whicher - excluding the descriptions of the body etc., all of which I skipped. After that, it's much more about detection - which did interest me.

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  4. Although I have read Capote stories I have liked ICB I did not like. To this day I think it is overrated and utterly uninteresting. I don't blame you for not reviewing this one.

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    1. I thought everyone would disagree with me, so nice to have other people saying the same thing! I just couldn't face writing it up properly...

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  5. I sometimes enjoy true crime books when they aren't overly gory - for example, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher falls into that category (I believe), but it's filled with fascinating details about Victorian life and sensation stories. I really enjoyed that book.

    Oh, hmm, I just noticed that someone made a comment above me expressing exactly the opposite thoughts! Sorry, Chris (and possibly Simon?)! I thought TSoMW had enough interesting historical and cultural points, and was written well enough - almost like a sensation novel itself - that it balanced out the bad parts. Or maybe I'm just more callous than I thought...

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    1. I think I'm with you on Suspicions of Mr. W! I skipped certain chunks, but mostly it was ok.

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  6. I don't read true crime, but I did find this book fascinating. Though I must say, there were a couple scenes where I thought I might be physically ill. It was no more graphic than many of the books I've read, but it was still very disturbing.

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    1. It was definitely the disturbing angles, rather than gore, which make me dislike this book so much. And the fact that neither of the older sisters appeared to be involved - it's such an invasion into their grief.

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  7. I feel that way about representations of rape. They make me feel like I'm going to be sick, and I don't think I need to see/read about someone's suffering to sympathize with rape victims.

    I really like what you wrote about how unpleasant actions are no more real than unpleasant actions. This belief sometimes interferes with my enjoyment of Henry James texts (sometimes I like them, sometimes I don't). It occasionally seems he goes to great lengths to have the characters end up miserable and alone, because he feels this is more realistic. Happiness isn't just a fiction. Good things do happen in the world!

    When I took a James module as an undergrad, it was discussed that he himself admitted to this fault. That in hindsight he forced his fictional couples to stay apart (he named one in particular), even when he didn't see a real impediment to a happy marriage.

    Obviously, I'm not saying every book needs to have a happy ending or a pervading atmosphere of sunshine and daisies. But I have a hard time embracing authors who consistently consign their characters to utterly miserable existences in the name of 'realism.'

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    1. There does seem to be a belief that unhappiness is more 'literary' than happiness - I think it's actually much more difficult to write about happiness than unhappiness.

      Do have a look at Mama Hen's wonderful quotation from LM Montgomery!

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  8. It's strange, I know I've felt this way before but my strongest memories are of my reactions - I've completely forgotten which books provoked them. I am slightly impressed with the efficiency of my mind in blocking those particular titles. I discovered quite early on that crime fiction and non-fiction holds no appeal for me (after a couple of disturbing, haunting experiences) and am now happy to stay far, far away from it. I don't mind reading about unpleasant things (I do love my history books, after all, not to mention quite violent fantasy and sci-fi novels) but some writers seem to want to shock and horrify their readers more than they want to tell a story. And that I am not okay with.

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    1. I wish I had your mind, for blocking unpleasant reads! I absolutely agree about writers who just want to shock - what, really, is the point?

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  9. I don't generally mind true crime, as I find the psychology of it fascinating, but I do much prefer pleasantry. As Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote (in Emily of New Moon),
    "Don't be led away by those howls about realism. Remember - pine woods are just as real as pigsties and a darn sight pleasanter to be in."

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    1. Oh that is such a gem of a quotation! Thanks so much for sharing it - I'm going to be using that one time and again...

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  10. I really like In Cold Blood and think it's the fullest achievement in an otherwise frustrating literary career. He never really finished another book after it: for a gripping account of Capote (and some eyebrow-raising insights into the writing of In Cold Blood), George Plimpton's oral biography is just fantastic.

    The wider issue of subject matter is an interesting one. I've never felt much connection between what a book is about and how much I like it, though I may be in a minority on that one. I avoid violence in films, and don't actively seek it out in literature, but I suppose everything depends on context.

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    1. In general, I don't mind what the subject matter is - unless it is disturbing in the way ICB was.

      And I am intrigued as to what an oral biography could be...?!

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    2. It's a biography told entirely in the words of people who knew Capote, e.g. "Harper Lee: I knew Truman at..." Makes for a very interesting read. (Simon Garfield's excellent book The Nation's Favourite, about Radio 1, is another example.)

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    3. Ah! In my head, I was thinking it would be some sort of audiobook... EM Delafield wrote an oral biography of the Brontes, in that case!

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  11. I totally agree with your review.

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  12. I guess I'm a slight contradiction here. I enjoy crime novels, but I've no interest in "True Crime" whatsoever and have never read it. As I read good detective novels by the likes of Ian Rankin or Peter Robinson, what I'm enjoying is the construction or deconstruction of event details - in essence the unravelling of the puzzle. I don't think overly about the nature of the crime descriptions and to be honest in my experience they tend not to be over-done.
    When I see the True Crime section in a bookshop I avoid it. While I can see Mama Hen's point about the psychology of crime, the books being "pushed" often seem to me more focused of the glorification of crime and violence.
    I've not read In Cold Blood, and will almost certainly avoid it. The book which is most in the category of "Wish I'd Never Read It" for me is William Burroughs "Naked Lunch". The most unpleasant book I've ever read. It felt to me like Burroughs had simply one purpose - to shock, disgust and horrify the reader. In my case he succeeded if that really was his intention. And even though I've read some rubbish in my time I always label this the worst book I've ever read and I can't imagine anything will ever take its place.

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    1. I do like the puzzle aspect, but I find it in Golden Age detective novels - no gore necessary, and very little of the sadism which seems to be the driving force of modern crime (although I say this as someone who doesn't read it, so what do I know?!)

      Naked Lunch is very much off my maybe-list now...

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    2. Don't even *think* of reading Mr. Burroughs, it'll put you off your tea for months :)

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  13. I hated In Cold Blood, and one of my first MA students did it for her research paper, so i had a year of the damn thing. Cold, manipulative, distant, morbid and disturbing interest in feelings of victims during torture, killings, etc. It's a vile experience reading it. Not sure it did much to reveal hidden truths about America's execution lawseither, even if TC meant it to be. Says a great deal about TC, and not very much about anyone else.
    Kate @ www.reallylikethisbook.com

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    1. Oh, Kate! How awful. I do think it's bizarre that it's a set text in many American high schools.

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  14. Patricia Cornwell is banned from the Honey Pot book shelves (and I rarely ban books - other than the obvious!) after I 'tasted' a few and realised that she had tipped over that fine dividing line between realism and salaciousness - nay, 'evil for the sake of it'. She was taking sickening delight in the sordid stuff - it shrieked from the pages. No. I won't have them in the place!
    There IS such evil in the world, but there's no need to roll in it.

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    1. I have never read her, and now definitely won't! Just no need for this sort of thing.

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  15. I read one of the Jo Nesbo novels because there was a chance to meet the translator and I'm studying literary translation. I asked him how he dealt with the nasty bits but they hadn't bothered him. I don't think I could translate such a book.

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    1. Gosh, as a translator you very definitely wouldn't be able to skip over sections... I'd hate the idea of dwelling on certain bits, trying to find the right word for translation etc... *shudder*

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  16. When I was younger I read In Cold Blood and thought it was well written and interesting b/c I just could not imagine anyone going through something like that. Growing up in the USA I was desensitized to gun crime, guns were everywhere as I lived in farming hunting community. As I have grown older I have enjoyed some fictional crime but now only read MIchael Connelly when he comes out with a new book and noone else as I am tired of the formulaic writing. Now I am retired it scares me to read these things as I feel more vulnerable as a person that it could happen to and don't see the sense in scaring myself. Too many other gentler, interesting books. Maybe that is why I love the Penguins and other types of writing I have not read much before moreso. Living now in Australia changed that as well b/c they don't have the guns like the USA does.

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    1. That's really interesting, Pam. Reading it in a country without the levels of gun crime and gun ownership of the US, the actual crime did feel very foreign.

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  17. Blimey Simon, that is quite a reaction. I am the polar opposite to you I found this book fascinating, whilst incredibly confronting, and the nature of what happened being so awful only made the book hit the issue home all the harder for me. Plus Capote's writing is impeccable in this book. Though I have to say his obsession with the killers was one that I found highly disturbing.

    I think its one of the best journalistic pieces of non fiction, with a real narrative drive, that has been written yet.

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    1. Haha! I can serve up strong opinions sometimes ;)

      I'm glad you valued reading this - horses for courses, and all that. People kept saying, at book group, that Capote's writing was wonderful. I have to admit, I couldn't really see it - I certainly didn't think it was *bad* writing, I just barely noticed it in terms of quality. I don't think I'm very good at evaluating writing style in non-fiction.

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  18. Brilliant book, part of my Best Non-Fiction list. Do I want to read it again? Nope.

    I've no interest in true crime, but ICB goes a bit further, a bit deeper, doesn't it? It get under your skin.

    I had the same reaction you did with The Grapes of Wrath and because of it I've been avoiding the likes of Cormac McCarthy. Fiction usually has the power to disturb me more than non-fiction, just like a movie vs. a documentary.

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    1. With Wuthering Heights, I thought it was brilliant yet never want to read it again. In Cold Blood... I didn't think was brilliant(!)

      I am intrigued by fiction disturbing you more than non-fiction... I will have to mull that over...!

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  19. Thanks for your honesty Simon, and I agree with all your thoughts.

    I find the content of most contemporary novels preys on my mind and haunts me, so I can't read them. Apart from books by Alexander McCall Smith which inspire and amuse. Clearly I'm not made of rigorous stuff.

    Christ I had nightmares after only skim reading Suspicions of Mr Wicher.

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    1. Definitely not one for you, Merenia! I know my post wasn't the scholarly response, but that's what I like about blogging - I *can* just be honest!

      I am much, much worse with films, though. I couldn't watch a horror if my life depended on it.

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  20. Have to say that I had the same reaction when I read a Val McDermott crime novel. I'd been to see her at a literary festival & she seemed so *nice* & I'd never read any of her books, so I did.....never again!!

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    1. And you love your horrible crime novels! I think you'd probably be fine with this, Alison...

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  21. I had the same reaction to In Cold Blood! & the other true crime book I read. & the first few chapters of the other true crime book I started accidentally (thought it was more about the justice system than actual crimes). Ugh.

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    1. I really do seem to have struck a chord with this one! Curiously, there was a very brief stage when I was about nine when I decided that true crime was very interesting. Then again, I also loved Point Horror shortly after that, and I wouldn't be able to read it now.

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  22. I am old enough so that the first time I read In Cold Blood was when it was serialized in the New Yorker. The amazing thing about this book is not the subject but the fact that Capote took real events and wrote about them as though it were a novel. I may be wrong but I think this was a first and that is what made the book so riveting and of lasting value beyond the caliber of Capote's writing in general.

    Robin in Houston

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    1. I believe he was the first to do it in English - I read somewhere about a Frenchman who wrote something in a similar vein. But I could admire the idea in a very vague way - in theory, but not in practice.

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  23. Not read it yet, although I have long meant to... I tend to find books like this fascinating and thought-provoking, however gory and grim they are. I don't go out of my way to read this fare though. The stuff of nightmares for me are proper nasty horror books full of demons and stuff - I've given up reading them.

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    1. Gosh, I certainly have never even started reading that sort of book, Annabel!

      In Cold Blood might well work for you...

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  24. I agree that ICB does get under one’s skin, sometimes uncomfortably so. I have no plans to read it again, but I found it to be a compelling story, all the more so because it was true. And it may seem odd to some, but sometimes I like to be scared, whether by crime, dystopian fiction or horror.

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    1. I hate being scared by things, but I do love being moved - films which make me cry I LOVE. But here I felt simply distressed and disturbed, rather than touched.

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  25. Wow. Such a strong response! I read this book when I took a subject in 'new journalism' (when I did my postgrad degree in journalism) and found it an absolutely compelling read. But then these kinds of books about the dark side of human nature appeal to me. Why? Because I'm intrigued as to why people do bad things to other people. I am very fortunate to have had a happy childhood and a life untouched by serious problems/disease/trauma etc. and so I find reading these kinds of dark books help me to understand others that have not been so fortunate. By contrast I find books about nice things/happy events so dull and uninspiring.

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    1. How different we are! I don't want to give the impression that I only like books which are cheery and saccharine, it's just when they are the opposite, I can't cope. I love elements of darkness - but only to the extent that authors like Muriel Spark use it.

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  26. I see that Kim has already said pretty much was I was going to say, right down to having read this for a course in new journalism :) And like Kim, I often like dark books because they give me insight into aspects of life that I've been lucky enough to have never experienced first-hand.

    However, that said, I don't think dark books are more "real" or better than lighter ones. Lighter stories can be much harder to get right.

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    1. I did learn from My Life in Books that several people love this dark stuff! But I think you're right - the difference is recognising that it's not more *real*, per se. Horses for courses..!

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  27. Simon, I just have to say there was a late-at-night typing error in my earlier comment - in the last line it should have said Chris, not Christ. (I was responding to his thoughts on Mr Wicher.) I don't do blasphemy, and I have to get it off my chest.

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    1. Ah! I thought it was a little out of character :) Thanks for clearing it up, Merenia!

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  28. When I read In True Blood, my jaw dropped in horror at much of what I read. It's one of those books that I am glad I read it, but would never do so again.

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  29. Yup, this book chilled me to the core and put me off true crime for good. Which is perhaps a mark of Capote's genius, but an unpleasant result nonetheless.

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  30. Wow, just read the review and the comments.Poor old Truman - he's not too popular here. I read In Cold Blood very recently and loved it. I found Capote's fascination with the killers, particularly Smith, fascinating in itself. Really it is just a vehicle for Capote to play out his own obsessions.
    I find living in the real world far more disturbing than reading books like this.
    On another note writers like Defoe novelized fact many years before Capote using his skills as a journalist in books like A Journal of the Plague Year..

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