In Cold Blood

Monday, September 17, 2018

In Cold Blood
Truman Capote, 1966

Read Harder Challenge 2018 - A book of true crime

Premise: The true story of a multiple murder and its aftermath.

True crime might be enjoying a recent popularity boost, but Capote’s classic is still one of the pinnacles of the genre.

For this challenge, first I tried to read a more recent book, but I gave up under the weight of a well-researched but interminable narrative. This book, on the other hand, is tightly narrated and carefully structured to maintain emotional tension.

Some responses to this “nonfiction novel” claim that not every bit of dialogue and nuance of character is truthful, but the research is clear to the reader without ever being overt. The various threads - the lives of the victims, the feelings of those left behind, and the psychology and history of the murderers - are skillfully interwoven to build a story with the kind of fully realized texture that is rare for any type of writing (fiction or non) to achieve.

Much like the other things I’ve read by Capote, the writing paints complex, caring pictures of every type of person. The book does an excellent job of providing context and understanding for the killers without excusing or glamourising anything about them.

It’s a tragedy on every side, and a compelling picture of intersecting lives.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Diamond Age

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
Neal Stephenson, 1995

Hugo winner - 1996
Premise: In a world where people are bound together only by their philosophies and their nanotech, men try to control the future and girls raise themselves with the help of a special book.

This isn't the worst Hugo-winning book I've read. That honor still belongs to Stand on Zanzibar. But this is one that I would not have finished reading if it weren't for this project.

The beginning is very promising. Nanotech designer Hackworth is in an interesting position, faced with the puzzle of how to teach children raised in a wealthy coddled society to be innovators and leaders. His solution is The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a "book" which operates as a highly advanced interactive teacher, using classical fairy tale tropes to encourage learning and independence.

One copy of this book, smuggled into existence by Hackworth, intended for his own daughter, falls into the hands of Nell. Nell's life, dodging her mother's violent boyfriends and scrabbling for subsistence with her street-tough brother, is the opposite of the girls the Primer was meant for, but that only means that she can take greater advantage of it.

So far, so intriguing, right? But it's just.... so......... long.............. It eventually includes every "neat" idea about computers and distributed networks and sex cults and interactive VR and Confucian ideals and neo-Victorian culture that the author could come up with. Most of these ideas are at least somewhat interesting, but it never comes together.

By the end, I just wanted it to be over. There was so much off-screen character development and change that it felt like a different book. I didn't care what happened to any of the characters, none of the plots I was interested in paid off, and the climax was just a mess of characters I no longer recognized doing things I didn't care about.

This was my least favorite book by Stephenson back when I'd only read this, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Zodiac. I really tried to give it a fair shake on re-read, but I think I like it even less now than I did back then. Interesting ideas just don't work for me without compelling characters any more.

1 Star - Didn't Like It, Almost DNF

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles

Monday, September 3, 2018

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles
Mark Russell, Mike Feehan, et al., 2018

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: In the 1950s, anthropomorphic animals and humans alike struggle with McCarthyism, censorship, and homophobia. One flamboyant pink-furred playwright is caught between all three. Collects Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1-6 and the backup story from Suicide Squad/Banana Splits Special #1.

I'm only passingly familiar with most of the Hanna-Barbera characters from this era, but I think this reimagining does some fascinating things by extrapolating out from basic character traits. The core is, of course, taking the extravagant and theatrical mannerisms of Snagglepuss and making him a closeted Southern playwright working in the style of Tennessee Williams. The whole piece has the heightened language and high melodrama that I associate with Williams' work, in fact.

The story is serious and dark, reflecting the paranoia and hatred of the time as well as reflecting into today's culture. Snagglepuss is persecuted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and although his success protects him a little, it protects others not at all. He struggles with the balance between cowardice and pragmatism. Between convictions about the purpose of art and the reality that crossing certain lines means you don't get to make art at all.

The art is lovely, and the realism and detail match the writing well. I couldn't quite get over the no-pants thing, though. It was just so weird! Animals live like humans, look very humanoid, have sex with humans, but don't wear pants.

I appreciated that the collection includes a few pages in the back that explain which elements are taken directly from history and which are adapted or adjusted to fit the story. For example, having the Stonewall Inn exist in the 50's the same way it did in the 60's is a blow to historical accuracy, although I understand why the choice was made for narrative impact.

I didn't love everything about this story - I think the emotional beats and climactic speeches land well, but some of the exposition meanders in the middle issues. Overall, though, it's a strong, fascinating piece.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book