Tuesday, 18 May 2010

In Cold Blood - the killing or the telling?

Written in 1966, In Cold Blood chronicles the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959 and the investigation and subsequent trial of the perpetrators. It is considered to be one of the first 'True Crime' novels and much of the book focuses on the killers, their lives, relationship and imprisonment.

In Cold Blood grabbed me and I zoomed through it. Not because I cared about the killers, or to be honest the tragic Clutters. The reader knows who committed the crime and that they got caught. As I read I wanted to try and comprehend the dynamic behind the killers, how they had come to the point at which they could commit such a horrible act and why? About half way though I actually stopped and thought about what was enthralling me in this book. Would the story eventually sate a need to know every detail and see into the mind of a killer; to comprehend violence and criminality in some neat equation. Why didn't I care more about the family? Or the killers? In Cold Blood was a forerunner for the media speculation that fills nearly every violent case - the call for gory details.

In Cold Blood does an excellent job of witholding the gory details and maintaining interest. The book is beautifully written and I wish more 'true crime' writers would put such effort into their script. In Cold Blood is also an excellent drawing together of testimonies and stories that attempts to enlighten us about the complex relationship between the killers. When the psychologists are finally involved they recite some of the babble heard on today's cop shows and now considered common knowledge. At the time of the trial of course this is a new idea and isn't given much credence - it also doesn't seem quite accurate and I found myself desperate to hear a modern criminal psychologists opinion.

This is Kansas in the 60s and to a modern British reader the capital punishment at the end of the novel seems barbaric - far more to me than the gunning down of a family for no apparent motive - it seems the plethora of violent detective stories and TV has dulled me to that. The inclusion of simple descriptions of rural Kansas and the very real friends and neighbours the Clutters left behind don't pull the heartstrings as much as modern dramatic storytelling might - they are from a bygone era - one that at times seems too innocent and almost oppressive. The book marks the beginning of a change in America. The Clutter's neighbours started locking their doors and the many people who were enthralled by Capote's book, marked the beginning of public fascination with true crime, one that ended in CNN criminal psychologists, teenagers who can quote random facts about common serial killer traits and eventually an ingrained fear of wondering criminals who kill in cold blood. Capote's 'novel' is therefore a book I strongly recommend. There is an innocence and almost pioneering nature to it, one that only stands out when you notice the comparative lack of (modern) sensationalism, lurid photos and psych reports. When the author doesn't have a degree in criminality, the testimonies included seem more genuine and almost as if he is stumbling about trying to make sense of the situation in the same way as everybody else; he is uniquely sharing rather than lecturing on an academic case. And so he provides a true crime book without the usual bitter voyeuristic aftertaste.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Woman in White - Or 'Marian Halcombe - star in hiding'

One night Walter Hartwright meets and helps a strange woman in white, this chance meeting leads to a melodrama of intrigues and investigation: The Woman in White has many of the traits of what would become the 'mystery novel' and is widely recognised as a classic.

Several things are bound to annoy me in the average Victorian novel. You can probably guess them; casual racism, anti-semitism and the eternal misogyny. The Woman in White is short on the racism (although the Italians are a somewhat stereotyped) but it's the portrayal of women is an eye opener. I was unsurprised when the genial Walter Hartwright met the mad Woman in White on a dark lane and acted as a gentleman should, with typical Victorian patrony towards the weaker sex. But I was strangely delighted when several pages later, Marian Halcombe was seductively introduced - for the next chapter Marian continued to delight me with her competence, sensibility, resilience, charm and intelligence. Then Laura Fairlie, Marian's sister was introduced. I was instantly aware this was the heroine, she was so perfect, so winsome, so willowy, so utterly and completely without personality, talent or ability (other than loving everyone just too much) What else could she be? And so it proved.

Laura is such a pathetic Victorian Idyll of womanhood it's painful - she is an asexual useless child, incapable of looking after herself. In fact her childishness is disturbing and perplexing to the modern reader. Whilst Marian Hartwright is just awesome.When faced with an angry husband the drip (Laura) faints, sobs and becomes ill. Meanwhile Marian clambers about on a veranda at midnight, wearing her underwear in torrential rain attempting to overhear two men who can destroy her entire life and everyone she loves in a few words. Marian - what a (Victorian) woman! And that (Victorian) is necessary, for she isn't a modern woman, quite frankly if she had acted a little less properly at several points in the book she would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.

The characters are a strange mix. The romantic protagonists Walter and Laura are really quite bland but everyone else is wonderfully sketched; especially Fosco, Mr Fairlie and Mrs Catherick. The duel of wits between foreigner Fosco and the woman Marian is far more distracting than the cold war between British Gentlemen Glyde and Hartwright. Irratatingly plot points and assumptions are repeated often and discussed too much, I assumed this related to the book being originally published in sections, but perhaps a Victorian audience was less used to picking up on the little details and intentions than modern thriller readers and needed to be pummelled with the importance of every discovery. The scenes are well set and atmospheric and thankfully pages are not set aside for describing how pretty the countryside is. The Woman in White is action packed, exciting and maintained my interest. If you can get your head around the women's real dilemma (No they can't just hit people with the poker, steal the carriage and get divorced) and care for that ridiculous waif Laura and her suitor it carries even more tension.

The Moonstone is the first proper detective novel and The Woman in White is it's forerunner. But most importantly The Woman in White contains Marian. Glorious strong Marian. Possibly the first Victorian heroine I have ever appreciated*. Marian - I love you! If your creator wasn't dead I'd be demanding you get a sequel.

*Jane Eyre is pretty good but putting out flaming beds only looks impressive if you know that every other woman in the building would've fainted. Marian has Laura to continually make her look good

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Bitten again

I'm a Kelley Armstrong fan. Her supernatural books are my easy reading of choice; fast, funny and reasonably exciting. Plus they don't smack of desperate chaste teenage lust like some supernatural books out there. I picked up Frostbitten at an author signing in Manchester. The first I've ever attended. I was mostly facinated by the staff telling me how impressed they were with Kelley's down-to-earth nature. What are these authors normally like? Does Harlan Coben insist on only red smarties?

Frostbitten is a return to Kelley's first (and probably best) protagonist, the werewolf Elena. It's also a return to form, after the 'meh' of Broken. Elena and her wolf pack are doing what they do best; violently dealing with non-pack wolves. I think the improvement is due to the absence of the other supernatural species (witches, necromancers and half-demons) who have filled previous books. The story is purer and wilder without their cosmopolitan influence. Naturally Elena has some emotional turmoil to deal with as well as homicidal mutts, but Elena wouldn't be half as appealling without her issues. Blonde, beautiful, strong, clever, married to the werewolf version of brad Pitt, getting endless amounts of athletic sex, financially secure and blessed with beautiful children with live in baby sitting, she should be very easy to hate. Instead her worries and mistakes make her more accesible.

The book is like a ticklist of fan wishes. The introduction of new werewolves are sketched vaguely enough to wet fan's appetites, Nick finally has something to do other than look suave and Elena is back to silently muttering to herself about not being treated as a threat - but as a lust object (kind of hard when she is the only female of the species). Frostbitten is one of Kelley's best and her style really shines when she writes as Elena. I just wish that half the silly Twilight addled teenagers out there would stop dreaming of being useless Bella and start dreaming of growing their own claws and saving themselves like Elena.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Hats at the museum

I have a passion for obscure museum and there was no possible way I was going to pass up the The Stockport Hat museum. Especially when it's FREE! Well it's free if you don't want a tour of the machines, rather than wandering about yourself. I love hats, people don't wear them enough. So I actually enjoyed the historical hats on display. In paticular the 18th century lilac dandy top hats were truly vile, in every way. I wasn't so sure about all the hats for the kids to try on - my mother's voice was whispering 'nits nits' from the grave, so I passed up on the opportunity.

Who knows where felt comes from? I do! Who knows what invention started the slow decrease in the British tradition of hat wearing? I do! Wonderful museum - look what I learned. And I loved all the machinery - seeing how the felt become a gnome cap and then finally a top hat. The staff were really friendly, the interactive displays were fun and if you are interested in hat factory related family history, there is a lovely study room. Also the cafe is cheap and has the added bonus of being a charitable organisation. When I grow up I'm going to be a milliner, but for the moment I'm just going to wear more hats.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Drown the jelly babies!

The ringbearer had been making comments about another chocolatey cake, so I decided to adulterate the Sacher Torte. But what with? My efforts with gummi bears have ultimately been failures, so I decided to move onto the humanoid version-Jelly Babies. The ring bearer believed the Jelly Babies should be placed on top of the chocolate topping. I was forced to draw a line - I have no interest in decorating cakes with sweeties, I want to experiment with sweets as integral ingredients. The only reason I made a gingerbread aircraft carrier was because of the foolishness of the ship-shape, not because I deem decorating with sweets to be in anyway equivalent to baking with them. No-siree, I have standards. That said placing the JBs under the chocolate instead of the usual apricot jam filling seemed a fair sweet-involvement. So here we have it, my report on the jelly-babied Sacher torte.

1. Melt the chocolate in the bain marie. Steal several finger fulls
2. Laugh gleefully as you use the magimix to make (almost) instant breadcrumbs
3. Mix together breadcrumbs, sugar, egg yolks and then ladle in the molten chocolate
4. Prepare for the tricky bit. Fold in the beaten egg whites, stressing with every flollop of the spoon whether you have gone too far or not accounted for the collateral mixing that will occur during transfer to the baking tin.
5. Bake
6. Lovingly arrange jelly babies on top of the cooked tort. Try very hard to not place like coloured JBs together and fail. Ignore urge to check the mathematical reason for this on the internet.
7. Melt more chocolate. Steal yet more fingerfulls
8. Drown the jelly babies in chocolate. Mutter witchy chants to yourself as the little jelly babies disappear. Erroneously leave far too much chocolate in the middle.
9. Leave in the fridge

Personally I don't believe jelly babies go with dark chocolate. Strangely the green ones tasted better than any other flavour (a chocolate lime connection perhaps). I think perhaps the bitter aftertaste was the feeling that I had betrayed my initial mission towards sweetie integration. This was merely Jelly Baby insertion. The ringbearer had other ideas. He believes that the 'Jelly Babies enhanced the flavour of the cake, much like a cherry. Although some colours were better than others, especially black and red Jelly Babies', he has made no comment about the metaphysical requirements of experimental sweetie baking. He was however happy that a recent baked ham didn't come with optional sherbet lemons.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Forgettably nameless

A Nameless Witch by A.Lee Martinez
After the horror of trawling through 600 pages of pretentious Norwegian post-modernism I was delighted to read this book that the ringbearer bought for me at Powell's City of Books. In short a witch with the terrible curse of being beautiful and ageless goes on a quest with her broom, a white knight and her familiar a duck named Newt. The part where I wrote 'a duck named Newt' should give you a hint as to where this book is pitched. Firmly into the fantasy comedy genre that Terry Pratchett presides over.

Its an easy read that rolls nicely along. The world building isn't oppressive and nor thankfully is the humour. (There are just too many Pratchett wannabes out there who feel that every sentence should be crammed with cleverness and include a witty comment). This book however has little original to add to the comedy fantasy genre. The situation isn't unique, nor is the author's voice or the characters (although Newt is fun). The author doesn't take the opportunity to add any depth to the gentle mockery he applies to the fantasy genre and it leaves the book toothless. The plot is very basic and only just holds the book together. However the book has some nice touches that made me smile, like Penelope the broom sweeping the road and the heroines efforts to be 'witchly'.

To be honest I'd recommend this to an adolescent, who needs something easy and enjoyable to ease them into reading. Or alternately someone who is suffering from Wergeland exhaustion. A nameless witch isn't unique, but it's fun and (very) easy on the brain.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Not very seduced

The Seducer by Jan Kjaerstad (English translation)

I ordered this book many months ago in order to take some Norwegian literature with me on a cruise in the Arctic. Sadly the book arrived late and I have been struggling my way through it for nearly 6 months. Essentially the plot is thus: Norwegian TV documentary producer Jonas Wergeland comes home to find his wife murdered. As he responds to this event we hear about the many disjointed events from his past. Circling around, the plot is non-linear; each chapter covers a different stage in Jonas' life and they gently reflect on each other. It's a nice motif and would be fantastic if it didn't last 600 pages.

And Kjaerstad needs 600 pages to even touch on Wergeland's life and his accomplishments. Of Jonas's many achievements he invents the Fosbury flop before Fosbury, he creates peace in the Middle East by moving a small stone, he saves an African country from a school debating podium and scares off a polar bear with his penis. I'm not joking about the last one. Jonas was so unrelentingly marvellous that it set my teeth. To add insult to injury Kjaerstad hammered home just how brilliant Jonas was, how unique and completely at odds with Norwegian conservatism with a frequency usually reserved for 13 year old's writing fanfiction that includes themselves. Jonas Wergeland never has to try to seduce any woman; they just throw themselves at him (they all go on top too). In fact by sleeping with these all incredibly talented women (politicians, lobbyists, composers, artists) Jonas, by some freaky sex-talent-hoover picks up some of their talents, such as fishing or mathematical comprehension. Jonas you see has a 'magic penis', I won't go into the details- something to do with the angle apparently but it's in line with a family fascination , his Aunt Laura's main artistic outlet is keeping a diary of sketches of all the penises she has 'encountered'. The worst that can be said of Jonas is that he isn't well read - managing to get straight As and hoodwink the entire Norwegian educational establishment, politicians, artists and leaders with just 20 quotes written in a little red book. But that's it. The book isn't meant to be a satire on how the untalented can become great ( like Forrest Gump), Jonas is just as fantastic as he seems and he gets everything that he deserves.

Pretentious doesn't quite cover the nature of 'The Seducer'. I'm fine with an intense barrage of references to scientists, quantum mechanics, Shakespeare and even Norwegian writers such as Hamsun and Ibsen. But there was plenty in the deluge I didn't recognise, I only got through several pages of a student baiting a teacher, which was already boring me (I get, he's clever and arrogant) by asking my brother in law what dialectic materialism was. I would like to assume all this is just to remind the reader how unworldly and untravelled they are compared to the Sydney Opera House Organ playing, Communist China visiting, Cruise ship collision surviving Jonas Wergeland. But no, I fear the author is just too enamoured with his talent to trim it. Jonas is made famous (not for all the other incredible feats) but for his famous documentary series, which is is just so orgasmic that people watch it like Brits would watch the royal wedding. It isn't hard to spot that Wergeland's incredible, life affirming (yes really, 'life affirming') documentaries are meant to mimic the book itself. But true to form Kjaerstad felt the need to defend them (and by very obvious extension) himself by filling the final chapters of the book with a televised debate about them.

I enjoyed learning about Norway and it's recent past and the change in small communities as Norwegian oil money flowed in. I also enjoyed hearing about how Norwegians began to alter their world outlook and their role in Europe. The book made me feel that I genuinely had a better picture of Norway and it's interests (even abroad Jonas finds connections to Norway). The Norwegian interest in winter sports, schools, languages and the sea really rang true for me and I wish I had read the book lying on the sun deck on last year's Arctic cruise. But that is why the book is perfect for a very long holiday with a lot of spare time, because the book drags under the weight of it's pretensions and masturbatory enamour with it's protagonist.