Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction

The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

Roll up, roll up: it’s time to learn a thing or two about your thinking meat. Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and brain researcher, and he’s taking it upon himself to educate the world on the science of neuroplasticity. And what is…? Well, neuroplasticity is the fun notion that your brain isn’t an immutable lump of hard-wired neurons, but a wonderfully malleable organs that changes and grows and adapts to everything we throw at it, across our entire life span. Presenting his magnum opus: The Brain That Changes Itself.

The cover promises “stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science”, and that might be a bit of an overstatement but Doidge does use case studies to teach us all about the brain’s capabilities. There’s the story of the young woman who was born without half her brain, and yet manages to function almost normally with her existing half doing twice the work. There are parents and children who have cured learning disorders, people with vision impairments who regain some of their sight, and many, many stroke patients that regain functionality beyond even the most optimistic of expectations.

The chapter on phantom limbs, focusing mostly on phantom limb pain, was the most interesting to me. Doidge takes us through the development of mirror boxes, and their applications as treatment for phantom limb pain in amputees – a fucking ingenious idea that has brought so much relief! Doidge also offers up some really interesting insights:

“Pain is [the central nervous system’s] opinion on the organism’s state of health, rather than a mere reflexive response to injury… the brain gathers evidence from many sources before triggering pain… pain is an illusion… a construct of our brain.”

The Brain That Changes Itself (Norman Doidge)

I really learned a lot from The Brain That Changes Itself and it was a really interesting read, but… well, it’s not without its problems.



For starters, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis published a review of The Brain That Changes Itself, and it highlighted a lot of issues with Doidge’s work. It states, quite plainly, that neuroplasticity is basically irrelevant to the study of psychoanalysis, and pokes some serious holes in Doidge’s apparent belief that his psychoanalyst background gives him enough knowledge in the field to hold himself up as a brain expert. Now, I’m comfortable saying that I’m not sure I agree entirely that neuroplasticity is “irrelevant” per se to the practice of psychoanalysis (note: I did complete a Bachelor of Psychology with honours a few years back, so I’ve got some level of insight), but I can still kind-of see their point. The chapter where Doidge focused specifically on psychoanalysis, his bread and butter, got pretty woo-y, and seemed to drift away from the more rigorous scientific approach he took in other parts of the book. As fields of study, psychoanalysis and neuroscience diverge pretty widely; I’m not saying there’s no cross-over, but Doidge does draw some pretty long bows.

Personally, I was more concerned with Doidge’s descriptions of experiments performed of animals in the pursuit of neuroscience. The Brain That Changes Itself features, in nearly every chapter, graphic descriptions of some really horrid experiments that Doidge (ever the “rational scientist”) doesn’t critically examine. In fact, he doesn’t even mention or acknowledge that, say, sewing a monkey’s fingers together might present something of an ethical issue. He does describe – rather dismissively – one PETA intervention in research conducted by one of his interviewees. It’s clear from the way that he writes that he sits firmly on the side of the researcher. It would actually be an interesting exercise, if you’re up for it, to read The Brain That Changes Itself side-by-side with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, to get two different perspectives on this issue.



Just to really hammer home for you how un-woke Doidge is: he uses quite a few ableist terms, which is really jarring given the otherwise supportive and positive tone of the book. He also has a random burst of puritanism, preaching about all the ways in which pornography destroys any chance of having healthy sexual relationships… or something? He really wasn’t too clear on that point. I don’t think Doidge intended any harm, and he maybe didn’t realise he came off sounding like an ableist prude, but that doesn’t excuse him. If he, or his publishers, had made a little more effort to approach sensitivity readers, these issues could have been resolved with one more vigorous edit (unlike his attitude towards animal testing which is, frankly, abhorrent, and clearly deeply ingrained).

The Brain That Changes Itself ends pretty abruptly; there’s no real conclusion or anything, which I found super-weird. Doidge offers a couple of appendices that are basically longer, broader chapters – talking about culture and the internet and whatnot, in the context of neuroplasticity – then he dives straight into his acknowledgements and notes. It’s an especially odd choice given how linear the book is. This is not the type of non-fiction book that you can just flick through, reading chapters that interest you willy-nilly. Doidge tackles some pretty hefty neuroscience, and he does so by building upon each previous story and delineating relationships between concepts and experiments. If you try to jump in mid-way through, you’re going to have a hard time (and you’re going to miss a lot). So, why wouldn’t Doidge make a point of concluding properly? Bringing all the pieces together and cementing them in the reader’s mind? It seems a really odd choice.


Anyway, in the end, even with all its issues, The Brain That Changes Itself is still chockers with interesting information, and I guarantee you’ll learn something. It’s not as witty and folksy as Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, but it’s not as much of a mind-fuck as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. If you’re interested in how your thinking meat works, you’ll get a lot out of it, but I’d recommend strongly against having it be your only source of information in this field – it’s flawed in many respects, and the best way to compensate for that is to fill the gaps with other books that do it better.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Brain That Changes Itself:

  • “Starts out strong, then trips into a bizarrely puritanical neofreudian rathole, then clambers out. An informative and inspiring book overall, but, uh, wow.” – nIMNqcJz
  • “GOOD BOOK” – John Hoover
  • “My husband grabbed this as soon as it arrived so I’m waiting to read it.” – cook hobbyist
  • “Exciting book, very well written and great news for us older folks.” – Robert C. Rand
  • “The first half is helpful but then…………” – Warren Overpack
  • “To much usless info” – Anthony Izzo


The White Mouse – Nancy Wake

I’ve been obsessed with the story of Nancy Wake ever since a friend told me about her a couple of years ago. She was one of the most highly decorated women of WWII, and the stories of her exploits in resisting the Gestapo are legendary. That’s why I added this book in particular to The List. Peter FitzSimons wrote a far more popular biography (which I would also like to read some day), but I really wanted to hear the story of this incredible woman in her own words. The White Mouse wasn’t hugely popular upon release, and it didn’t have a massive print-run, so I thought I had sweet fuck-all chance of finding it in a secondhand bookstore. I always checked the biography section just in case, never expecting much… until one day I ducked into my local while I was waiting for a bus, and there it was! To this day, I can’t believe my luck.

OK, it turns out that Nancy Wake was actually born in New Zealand, even though we claim her as an Aussie (we will claim any decent Kiwi as our own without blinking an eye, it never ceases to amaze). In The White Mouse, she only gives us a page or two about her early life, though; she speeds right ahead to the ascendancy of Hitler and the beginning of WWII. She was living in Marseilles with her French husband at the time, and she found increasingly inventive ways to help the French efforts resisting the Germans, helping sneak refugees out of France when the Occupation began. She went on to become a leading figure in the Resistance, using her “native cunning and beauty” to overcome the suspicions of German guards and get through checkpoints. Yep, she literally flirted her way through the war, all the while killing German soldiers with her bare hands. That’s girl power, folks.

The Special Operations Executive training reports say that she was “a very good and fast shot”, noted for “put[ting] men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character”. She also won a lot of drinking contests. By 1943, there was a 5-million franc price on her head. The Gestapo took to calling her “the White Mouse”, referring to her ability to elude capture – thus, the book title.


Her story is incredible, but the editing is shithouse, which is a real shame. There’s more than a few typos, and a lot of repetition; I quickly lost track of the number of times she described something as “extraordinary”. Little things like that could have been easily (and quickly!) fixed, and that would have made for a much more engaging read. We can hardly fault Wake herself for that; she was a bad-ass assassin spy, not a writer. And the level of detail she manages to recall is unbelievable – she must have kept really meticulous journals.

“For weeks now I had been subjected to more than my fair share of drama. I had been forced to flee from home, separated from my beloved husband and my darling [dog] Picon, made six fruitless journeys to the Pyrenees, been thrown in prison and kicked around, jumped out of a moving train, been fired at by a machine gun, sprinted to the top of a mountain, lost my jewellery, walked for five nights, been starved for eight days, and infected with scabies. There was no way I was going to let the little matter of a password deter me…. I crossed the road, went up to the front door and knocked. A man opened it and immediately I said, ‘I am Nancy Fiocca, you are in charge of our guides, I work for O’Leary, so do you, I want to go to Spain, I’ve had enough trouble getting here so don’t give me any crap.’”

So, yeah, as you can tell, Wake had a really matter-of-fact voice, and she talks really nonchalantly about the most terrifying of circumstances. Her affect doesn’t change between describing a dinner party and a major Resistance operation. I get the feeling she was much like that in real life as well.

Unfortunately, after the war, she didn’t exactly get a happily-ever-after. Her first husband, Henri Fiocca, had stayed behind in France after she was forced to flee, and he was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo when he refused to give them her location. Wake, however, was unaware of her husband’s death until after the war ended. Her dog survived, and the story of their reunion in peace-time was one of the most heart-warming anecdotes I have ever heard.

She was also denied a medal by the Australian government for over five decades (shame!), on the grounds that she was “not fighting in any of the Australian services” during the war (double shame!). Indeed, from what I can tell, the Australian government treated her like shit in all other regards as well. When her second husband died in 1997, she was deemed ineligible for any pensions or benefits, and she had no children or family to support her. She ended up having to sell her war medals to support herself in her advancing years. Even so, she hardly seemed bitter; she said “There was no point in keeping them [the medals], I’ll probably go to Hell and they’d melt anyway”. She died in 2011, aged 98, of a chest infection.


Reading The White Mouse, I had to examine my own biases really closely. Why was I so enamoured with Nancy Wake, I kept asking myself, when I was so repulsed by Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper”? In the end, I think it came down to the fact that Nancy seemed far more grounded in reality, and far more self-aware. While she (self-admittedly) “loathed” the Gestapo, she came across as someone who had quite natural biases and constantly re-evaluated the evidence at hand. She watched the Nazis sack a city that she had lived in and loved for most of her life, first hand. Kyle, on the other hand, came across as someone who had been brainwashed into hating brown people and loving guns, and had never thought to question it.

Nancy Wake’s autobiography isn’t a romantic narrative, so if you’ve come here looking for a non-fiction version of The Book Thief or All The Light We Cannot See, you can move right along. The White Mouse is not a work of art, it’s not going to win any literary awards, but it’s deeply – unavoidably! – charming. It’s a story of incredible bravery and hardship, told without any sentimentality or self-effacing bullshit. Imagine if you got your no-nonsense grandma drunk, and found out she’d spent most of her life killing enemy combatants and doing courier runs for an underground resistance movement: that’s what reading The White Mouse is like. I fail to understand our collective obsession with fictionalised WWII narratives when there are books and stories like this out there (and they go out of print due to low sales). I can’t recommend The White Mouse on its artistic merit, but I think that you should read it anyway, and pay your respects to this incredible woman who probably could have won the war single-handedly if she’d needed to.

A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking


Earlier this year, the world lost renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking. The guy had more accolades and letters after his name than you could poke a stick at, but he also had a slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease. It slowed him down not at all, and he survived well past even the most optimistic prognosis. Over the course of his long life, he developed gravitational singularity theorems, predicted that black holes emit radiation (what we now call Hawking radiation, after him), set out a theory of cosmology unifying general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, and worked at (or ran!) basically every respected scientific institution on the planet. It’s all very impressive, and yet what he is perhaps best known for in the public consciousness is his book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang Theory to Black Holes.

In 1983, Hawking went to his buddy at the Cambridge University Press, and put forward a whacky idea: he wanted to publish a popular science book, covering the most complex theories of physics in the scientific world. In the first draft, he used a stack of mathematical equations to illustrate his points, and this is when Hawking’s publisher gave him some world-changing advice: the publisher said that for every equation in the book, the readership would be cut in half (figuring, quite rightly, that people in airport bookshops would be put off by long strings of numbers). Hawking took the advice on board, went away and removed every single equation from the book, bar one (I bet you can guess which 😉 E=MC2). All of the concepts are illustrated instead with diagrams and other drawings, which is no mean feat. And, what do you know, the strategy worked! The book sold over 10 million copies in the first twenty years; according to the foreword in this edition, the most recent estimates suggest that there had been one copy sold for every 750 people on the planet.

The first edition of A Brief History of Time was published on April Fool’s Day in 1988. It’s kind of hard-science-for-the-everyman – it covers cosmology (the study of the universe) from all angles, including the structure, origin, and development of the universe, and how it’s all going to end up. So, that’s some tall order! It all starts with the Big Bang, and this is where I got my first interesting insight from Hawking. He contended that we shouldn’t really bother trying to work out what there was before the Big Bang, because during that period the universe was so small and dense that all of the laws of science as we understand them now completely broke down – so, anything that happened before that point could not possibly affect what we observe today. Cool, eh? It all comes back to his central thesis:

“The eventual goal of science is to provide a single theory that describes the whole universe.”

See, science has two major theories that kind-of explain most stuff on their own. The theory of relativity explains all the big stuff (galaxies, planets, gravity, etc.), while quantum mechanics explains all the teeny-tiny stuff (atoms, electrons, elements, etc.). The problem is… well, they don’t quite match up. We can’t apply the theory of relativity on a small scale, and quantum mechanics doesn’t work on a large scale. Uh-oh! Hawking was totally across it, though, and his life’s work was in service of furthering the search for a single unifying theory that could bring the two together.

The 1996 edition of the book – the one that I read, pictured above – and its subsequent editions also discuss the possibility of time travel, mostly in relation to wormholes. It sounds real cool, but it’s pretty tough to wrap your head around. Hawking does a great job of providing a straightforward no-nonsense explanation of the basics, but damn, it would have been great if he gave a few more tangible examples, or a metaphor or two, now and then. I found myself really missing Bill Bryson’s conversational folksy style in A Short History of Nearly Everything (my full review here). A Brief History of Time is a very dry read in comparison, and if you’re not scientifically minded you’ll probably find yourself needing to re-read some paragraphs a few times to make sure you fully comprehend what he’s on about. He does start using more metaphors and stuff as the concepts get more complex (thank goodness!), but by then it’s a little late in the game.

There is a very helpful glossary in the back of the book… but, like I found with Moby Dick, there are no notes or indications in the text itself as to which words are defined for you. This is particularly unhelpful in non-fiction books like A Brief History of Time that rely so heavily on technical terms. Why do publishers do this?!

I must admit, there was a lot more God ChatTM than I was expecting. Hawking referred back to religion at least once every chapter or two, discussing whether it was possible that the Big Bang was the result of divine intervention and so forth. I understand that he must have copped questions in that vein all his life, but I was still a bit disappointed by it. Surely scientific endeavour is about more than just… well, figuring out whether there’s a big guy upstairs.

(And, speaking of disappointment, I also noticed that in his Acknowledgments section, all of Hawking’s “secretaries” were women, while all of his “assistants” in research were men. I know it seems like a small thing and I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but I would have hoped that one of the most brilliant minds of a generation would have been a little more cognisant of how he valued the work of both genders. Just saying!)


On the other hand, I was pretty impressed with the final chapters: Hawking was all about not only finding a unified theory of everything, but also making it accessible. He dedicated himself to finding a theory that could be easily explained to everyone (even dummies like me!), and he was highly critical of elitism in hard science. I think elitism of all kinds stinks, so I’m super glad Hawking through his considerable weight behind dismantling it in his academic circles (step one: publish the most widely read popular science book of all time, check!).

If it all sounds like a bit much for you, never fear: in 2005, Hawking collaborated with Leonard Mlodinow to produce A Briefer History of Time, an abridged version of the original book with some updated content. That’s probably a good place to start if you’re really at sea with all this cosmology business. I wouldn’t bother with the movie, though – the 1991 release A Brief History of Time is actually a documentary film about Hawking that just happens to share the title with the book, rather than an adaptation of the book itself.

Overall, I’d say that A Brief History of Time will be great for you if you’re after an introduction to all the fundamentals of hard science and cosmology, and you’re determined enough (slash clever enough) to persist through some rather dry writing. If you’d rather have a laugh with a light read, and you’re not taking the subject too seriously, maybe check out A Short History of Nearly Everything instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Brief History of Time:

  • “This is a great book and fun read for cannbis smokers. Every paragraph had me pausing and in deep thought. I am now reading Brian Green’s Fabric of the Cosmos and I’m glad I read this book 1st.” – J. Swanke
  • “Not enough info. I was expecting” – sandnella
  • “Interesting text, it follows my thoughts concerning the Big Bag Theory and infinity.” – Gary Gardner
  • “Time is too brief to read this book.” – Henryu Porter
  • “Wow very tough read. You need to be a rocket scientist to understand it.” – Joe Plotnick
  • “His work is all bogus aimed at puzzling people with false pictorial work, wrong concepts. There is no black hole with a conical shape. This work is a big gossip.” – Honorable Sir.

 

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson


I remember reading Bill Bryson’s Down Under as a tween, and while my brain has written over most of the actual content, I do remember howling with laughter. I figured I could do with a bit of a giggle after The Divine Comedy, so I went with A Short History Of Nearly Everything as my next undertaking from The List.

I wasn’t sure where to find A Short History Of Nearly Everything when I was trawling through my favourite secondhand bookstore. Would it be under History? Science? Reference? Ultimately, I found it buried in the miscellaneous no-mans-land shelf, just below “Philosophy”, which seemed fitting. I thanked my lucky stars that it was a paperback – this book is a monster, and I’ve seen a few hardcover copies that could be used for deadlifts.

One of my favourite things about secondhand books is the inscriptions you find in the front. This one reads: “July ’04 – Dear Rodger, The best present I could find for the Man who knows (nearly) everything! Thanks for your time, encouragement… and straight talking. Good luck with everything and I will see you soon! Lyn x”. Shout out to straight-talking Rodger, wherever he is. I hope he finished the book and (now knowing everything) no longer needs it.

On with the review: A Short History Of Nearly Everything does exactly what it says on the label. It serves as a crash-course introduction to most areas of scientific inquiry, covering off everything from the Big Bang to evolution to quantum mechanics. It sounds like it should be a snooze-fest, I know, but it’s written in a folksy, conversational style that most of the general public will find easily accessible. Proof in the pudding: it was one of the best-selling pop-science books of 2005.

Its big selling point is, of course, that it is Science for the Everyman – but don’t be fooled! There’s some shit in here that will fuck with your thinking meat. I thought I’d burn through it really quickly, given Bryson’s famously-readable voice, but I found I had to go back and re-read a lot of passages a few times over in order to truly wrap my head around their meaning. It’s hard to comprehend, for instance, the true size of the solar system (it turns out those diagrams in your textbooks at school were a lie). Fortunately, Bryson breaks up the hard parts with gossipy tid-bits about the history of science: who slept with whom, who hated whom, who stole ideas and passed them off as their own. He also manages to work in a few laughs.

“Our tolerance for plutonium is zero: there is no level at which it is not going to make you want to lie down.”

More than anything, Bryson makes it abundantly clear how little we actually know – even about things that we think we know. Fascinating stuff!


Haters on the internet have pointed out some factual errors and inaccuracies (of course), but in large part these are solely due to new discoveries made, or reclassifications, since publication. A Short History Of Nearly Everything is over a decade old, for fuck’s sake – I think we can forgive Bryson for saying that Pluto is a planet.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything is perfect for anyone who finds themselves in need of fun facts that can be delivered smugly, over a water cooler or knock-off beers. I will definitely read it again, just for fun, and so it gets the coveted status of Recommended here at Keeping Up With The Penguins.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Short History Of Nearly Everything:

  • “too technical for my 95 year old mother” – SQ
  • “To be Terse; Good!” – Samoa Tech
  • “Not a huge fan of books. You’ve got to make it interesting to get me to read it. And even though I recently purchase a terrific new two-pack of 2.0 readers right here on Amazon for dirt cheap, I still can’t read this tiny little type. This book tries to jam pack very large quantities of words into a few pounds of paper. It’s unreadable.
    I am an author and despite my dislike of books in general, I bought this to see what the bestselling authors were up to. I was very disappointed. It’s like going to a restaurant where they care nothing about quality as long as you feel fat.
    Keep writing Bill! Or hiring people to do it for you! Keep jamming words into best selling books! People seem to love them, and I think they sometimes feel smart just knowing someone might see the book hanging around in their living room.
    I WOULD recommend, on the other hand, a good Oliver Stone documentary. If you want to learn things.” – Mark Urso
  • “This is probably a great book but I am not smart enough t read it. Seriously Im not trying to be funny…….. and Im suppose dto be kinda smart.” – michael s wolf

 

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Wild – Cheryl Strayed

I’d been looking forward to reading Wild for a while, especially since listening to Cheryl Strayed’s appearance on Liz Gilbert’s podcast. After all the Wuthering Heights drama and the Catcher in the Rye moodiness, I was well set for a slightly more optimistic memoir about losing and finding oneself in trying times.

Wild was published in 2012. It follows Strayed’s 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, which she undertook after the traumatic death of her young mother in the mid-90s. I knew all of that going in. What I didn’t know was how young Strayed was herself when all of this went down. I’d been picturing her as a late-30s suburban mother with a mortgage on a three-bedroomed house in the ‘burbs, abandoning it all to find herself. In reality, she was a mid-20s recent divorcee with a heroin habit and a pretty transient life, subsisting on the few dollars she could scrape together from waitressing jobs, and that’s where the story begins.

Strayed sets out on this grueling trek almost entirely unprepared; she had essentially no prior hiking experience, figuring – like we all do, I think – that hiking = walking, and what’s so hard about that? There are two stories that weave together across the memoir: her mother’s death (and we get all of the weren’t-we-so-poor-and-dysfunctional-but-we-loved-each-other-so-much backstory, gratis), and the at-times comical dire realities of a haphazard hike through the wilderness.





Strayed devotes a lot of air time to the heaviness of her pack and the weight that she’s carrying, which is a clumsy metaphor but it’s somehow forgivable. As I was reading, I noted that, as a novel, this story would be annoying and trite and cliché. Strayed’s story derives all of its value from being an actual lived experience. She is brutally honest, in every sense, relaying her self-awareness in a way that I deeply admire.

I must say, though, I wasn’t sold on the “beauty” of the wilderness in Wild – I’m not a country girl at all, and those descriptive passages sounded like my own personal hell. I’d much rather hike 1,100 miles in a concrete jungle CBD any day (and, indeed, I often do, when a water pipe bursts on Pitt Street and the bus timetable is fucked).





I was fully prepared to cry reading Wild, but I didn’t. It was good – it didn’t change me as a person, but it enjoyed reading it. It made me think a lot about survival and determination. Getting by. Sometimes you’re under-prepared and things go wrong (you lose a hiking boot, you find yourself with just two pennies to your name, you run into a bear), but you cop onto yourself and you keep going anyway. For a time, it became a sort of mantra for me: “if Cheryl Strayed can hike a million miles in too-small boots that are giving her blisters, then I can walk home in the rain”. Having a dream isn’t enough, after all: you have to actually do the thing.

There was a film adaptation released in 2014, which I’d love to see – not because I think it make a great movie, necessarily, but more because I’m curious as to how a book about a mostly-solo hike, driven entirely by internal monologue, could be adapted for the big screen.

Tl;dr? Wild is Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor. I would recommended it to mid-20s fuck-ups like me, who don’t mind clumsy metaphors.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wild:

  • “I haven’t actually read it – the one star is for Amazon charging 9.99 for Kindle (paperless) and 8.35 for paper – basically incentivizing cutting down trees to read their books. Bad form Jeff, very bad form” – R1952
  • “… the author seems to be the typical liberal feminist – no recognition of the greatness of God, everything should be handed to her, everything is centered around her and her feelings. Especially her feeling – feelings to her are the most important aspect of her life. Bottom line – do not waste your time reading this book unless you are a flaming liberal. Than you will probably love it.” – Seventh Son
  • “I did not appreciate the use of the f- word. Especially in a prayer.” – Janice Wester

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I must say, this is one of my favourite tl;dr summaries here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. If that kind of thing that tickles your fancy, check out my full list of the best KUWTP tl;dr summaries here.

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In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

My next Keeping Up With The Penguins undertaking was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published in 1966 – the first “novelistic true crime book”… probably.

No one could ever accuse Capote of not putting in the hours: he spent six years researching and interviewing and generally sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, taking literally 8,000 pages of notes (what a masochist!), before finally sitting down to write In Cold Blood. Yeah, it’s one of the highest-selling true crime books in the history of publishing, and yeah, it’s bloody brilliant – but still! What an overachiever…

(His hard work didn’t exactly pay off as far as he was concerned. Despite an absolute avalanche of critical acclaim, Capote was hugely bummed that it never won a Pulitzer. He was desperate to top his buddy Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird. Male egos, I tell ya!)

So, here’s the deal: Capote reads a tiny little piece in The New Yorker about a well-liked Kansas family getting merked in this weirdly motiveless and clueless crime. He figures that’s a good enough basis on which to pack up and ship off to a country town you’ve never heard of – dragging Harper Lee with him, no less! – and figure out what the fuck went down.

He sets the story up in a really eerie way, with super-intimate descriptions of the lives of both the victims and the perps. You learn everything about their love lives and their pets and their phobias and how often they change their underpants. The story’s not a “whodunit” per se, in the sense that you know who dun it right from the beginning – he weaves the stories of the killers and the victims together, and tells them side-by-side. You also kinda figure that the bad guys must get caught eventually (because it says so on the back of the book). I guess it’s more a “whydunit” (I call the trademark on that): why this family? How did they become the targets? What did the killers get out of it? Was it worth six lives?

You’d think the arrest would be the climax, but that also happens early, only two-thirds of the way through. You get to watch the bad guys suffer through the prisoner’s dilemma, and finally divulge all the gory details of their crime (tl;dr summary: they rocked up expecting to find a safe with ten grand inside, got pissed off when they couldn’t find it, argued about whether to rape the daughter, then neutralised all the witnesses by blowing their faces off with a shotgun, and all told they scored about forty bucks for their trouble). Capote follows their imprisonment, their trial, their endless appeals and – ultimately – their executions.

You’ll really get out what you put in with In Cold Blood. It can be read as a conservative defence of capital punishment (taking the bad guys’ eyes, just like Jesus would do), or as a scathing leftie indictment of the U.S. incarceration system (every single criminal character is a recidivist of some sort, having left jail only to return a short time later). In that regard, it’s really artfully done. Unsurprisingly, though, you do kinda have to take off your journalistic-integrity hat. It doesn’t read anything like a non-fiction book: it reads as a novel. So, inevitably, there are endless questions as to its veracity, and I don’t think there can be any doubt that Capote was pretty liberal with the ol’ creative license.

I would wholeheartedly recommend In Cold Blood (as long as you’re not a kill-joy that takes things too seriously and gets mad when Capote takes some liberties with the truth). I’ll definitely read it again. Chilling, but fascinating!

My favourite Amazon reviews of In Cold Blood:

  • “It was a cold dud.” – Old Crow
  • “If you’ve already read it, you know how good it is. If you haven’t, I hate you for still getting to read it for the first time.” – Clint Pross
  • “Despite the fact that I bought this on the recommendation of a stupid jerk who acted like I hung the moon until one day he suddenly broke up with me the day after I’d been awake all night in the ER with a sick kid… OVER THE PHONE, NO LESS… WTF?!… it’s a really good book. You can’t blame Capote that there are terrible humans in the world, even if he did write about them really well. Maybe my boyfriend recommending a book about a gruesome family execution should have tipped me off. I dunno. You live, you learn. But yeah, good book.” – Jess

Why do we read true crime? I wrote about the booklover’s fascination with the chilling reality of grisly murders like this one here.

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