Truman Capote

Conversations with Capote – Laurence Grobel, 1985
In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences – Truman Capote, 1965

Jonathan played a Capote type in a play this summer (Southern Fried Murder), so I dug up my Conversations with Capote, which I remembered enjoying for its snarkiness (the same way I enjoy Lord Gnome’s Literary Companion). I did read the whole thing but am promptly getting rid of it. Capote comes across as a really miserable man, nasty because he’s unhappy and unhappy because he’s nasty. His huge ego and his vicious put-downs both seem to come from bottomless insecurity–or maybe it’s just because he’s stoned out of his gourd all the time. Sad, sad, sad.

However, I’d never read In Cold Blood, widely considered a masterpiece. Capote certainly writes clearly and well, and I can see that it was a groundbreaking work at the time (it’s been described as “the first non-fiction novel”). But some works of art, important because they were seminal, can be unremarkable divorced from their context, and that’s how In Cold Blood struck me. To its credit, the book doesn’t have the prurience that often taints true crime, and it’s well-structured. But a masterpiece? Where’s the sense of larger context, the transcendence that can imbue a story of this scope? It didn’t make me think or feel as much as the great non-fiction writers of today do in a brief essay. Sorry, Truman!

The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor – Ken Silverstein, 2004

David Hahn was a bright kid, fascinated with chemistry, who fell in love with the romance of radioactivity. Unaided and unguided, he recreated the 20th century’s discoveries and mistakes, handling the dangerous substances he got his hands on with the cavalier approach of his heroes, the Curies. The Curies, of course, didn’t know any better; David chose not to take the risks seriously–but he was a teenager, after all. Silverstein tells the story exactly right, letting events unspool with the perfect amount of background, context, and suspense. He uses a book which fascinated David, The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (1960), as a lens to examine the hubris of mid-20th century technology. David raised himself as a throwback to the era when we thought pills could substitute for food and the only problem with nuclear energy was how cheap it would be. The saddest aspect is the many adults who failed David by not recognizing or encouraging his special gifts–especially his father, an engineer who saw David’s chemistry experiments as “a breakdown in discipline” and instead pressured him to become an Eagle Scout. As a result, David’s incredible resourcefulness and persistence were devoted to acquiring–legally or illegally–quantities of antique clocks, smoke detectors, and lantern mantles so he could extract enough thorium and americium to build a working reactor. A mind-boggling and wonderful read.

Second Opinions: Stories of Intuition and Choice in the Changing World of Medicine – Jerome Groopman, 2000

The medical mystery/doctor’s experiences genre is a favorite of mine. This exemplar comes from one of the New Yorker‘s stable of medical professionals who also write extremely well (where do they find them, I wonder? did Berton Rouche start a special school?) The most striking story is from the prologue: Groopman’s own experience of insisting on surgery so his lower-back problem could be “fixed” quickly. Refusing to listen to doctors who advised rest and “tincture of time,” he shopped around until he found surgeons to operate. As a result, the poor guy to this day has severe physical limitations (the reason he was so impatient originally was because he was in training for the Boston Marathon, so I can identify, but now he can’t run at all…) but also a refreshing humility about medicine and doctors. A number of the stories reflect on the advantages that wealth, connections, and education bestow on people who question their “first opinion” treatments. Like Atul Gawande’s Complications (although not quite as brilliantly), Second Opinions vividly shows that while skilled and intuitive physicians can do remarkable things, as a species we’re still holding a guttering candle in the darkness.

Woodswoman III – Anne LaBastille, 1997

I forgot to say in my previous Anne LaBastille post that I’m re-reading these books because a library patron requested them through interlibrary loan, so I’m piggy-backing on his requests (except for book #1, which I own). I’d never even heard of book #3 until I looked up LaBastille’s works for the patron. It’s self-published, and this copy is signed (I guess she sells most copies of her more recent books directly, according to a chapter in this one about her publishing and book-selling ventures entitled “An Ol’ Book Peddler.”) Black Bear Lake is getting more crowded, technology has taken over more of her life, and this time around, though there is a new dog, there’s no new romance. Life is harder, as LaBastille shows by sharing details of her frazzled freelancing business, health concerns, and, sadly, harassment for her outspoken environmental views. Two chapters entitled “Anatomy of an Eco-Catastrophe” tell of increasing conflict at Black Bear Lake between the “small boaters” like Anne and “big boaters” who want to roar around on the lake with huge motors that threaten the peace of the lake and bother the loons. The book ends before a final resolution (the town was possibly going to hold more hearings about new regulations)–I hope the small boaters won…. According to this article in a Cornell alumni magazine, Woodswoman IIII (*) came out in 2003, so I’ll try to track that down for my patron and myself.

(*) In the first version of this post, I added “sic” and wondered why she didn’t use IV originally, but Jonathan (who kindly reads these entries for typos, bad grammar, infelicity, lack of clarity, and factual/logical errors–thank you j-hay!) told me he’d heard that superstitious Romans preferred IIII because they didn’t like to use the first letters of Jupiter’s name. In attempting to confirm that I found this facinating page.

Anne LaBastille

Woodswoman (1976) and Beyond Black Bear Lake (1987)

As a teenager I fantasized about being Woodswoman–I was going to have a pickup truck and a German Shepherd named Wolfgang, and go live in the woods in a self-built cabin. LaBastille’s first memoir of living solo and spartan in the Adirondacks gives enough detail to make the romance believable and enough magic to make the practicalities enchanting. It’s still an enthralling read, although part of that is the nostalgia factor–the book is a little more disjointed than I remembered, and I’m not quite as infatuated with Anne-as-person as I was back then–but these are minor quibbles. The abundance of photos is a plus, and a rarity this early (they’re studded throughout the text, too, not bunched in that annoying center section you have to keep flipping back and forth to reference). I owned and re-read Woodswoman many times. I must have read Beyond Black Bear Lake at some point, because its description of acid rain killing Adirondack lakes has stuck with me (I thought it was in Woodswoman, but in that book Black Bear Lake is still pristine, and ecological concerns are distant). Same with the need to put dye packets in septic tanks to make sure they’re not contaminating the lake. In this follow-up, LaBastille builds “Thoreau II” to get even further away from civilization, so it’s got the same satisfactory construction narrative as the first book. There’s also a new romance and a new dog–it really is Woodswoman mark II. I may not think quite as much of LaBastille’s writing style as I once did, but I still deeply admire her and her lifestyle. These are classics of outdoors literature.

Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading – Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, 2005

My co-worker and friend Mary Beth told me about this book, and we’re planning on starting a parent-child book group at the library, inspired by the Goldstones. They describe starting such a book group in Connecticut, and detail their method for analyzing books: “books are like puzzles–the author’s ideas are hidden, and it is up to all of us to figure them out.” They started with Mr. Popper’s Penguins–hence the title–and then moved on to many other classics. (Personally I found MPP quite dull when I read it as an adult, so maybe I should re-read it!)

Their approach entails a number of steps. One of the first is to find the protagonist and antagonist of the story by analyzing the characters (they use the Greek meanings, where the protagonist is the one who advances the action (not necessarily the “hero”) and the antagonist is the one who seeks to hold back the action (not necessarily the villain)). Then they ask one to identify their version of the “climax” of the story, when the struggle between the protagonist and antagonist reaches a peak (usually not near the end, but rather 2/3 of the way through). The primary goal is to get to the point where you can determine what the book “is really about.” The final step is to evaluate how well the author succeeded. Mary Beth and I both read primarily for story, so it’s been interesting for us to analyze books together using this system. The Goldbergs are very sure of themselves; while they acknowledge that there can be multiple interpretations, they give very convincing reasons for choosing the protagonist/antagonist/message of each book they analyze, which MB and I found rather intimidating. For example, they conclude that The Call of the Wild is about the relationship between bosses and workers (Buck’s owners, good and bad, effectively oppress Buck by making him go against his nature).

Deconstructing Penguins was a very exciting book to read–I couldn’t put it down and read it in one sitting despite having other things I needed to do! Unfortunately, the authors’ judgement disappointed me greatly in the appendix, where they gratuituously dismiss Harry Potter as just a “good read” as opposed to one that lends itself to critical analysis–this after promoting Edward Eager’s Half-Magic as one of their deep, significant books. I love Eager and I think Half-Magic is a wonderful book, but Rowling has way more going on thematically than Eager and E. Nesbit (Eager’s primary inspiration) put together!