Fact or fiction – Capote in cold blood

The greatest question of the evening was that of credulity regarding Truman Capote’s assignation of “non-fiction novel” to his renowned book, and our October selection, In Cold Blood.

This detail alone sustained considerable debate. From the opening essay and for the first 45 minutes, stakes were claimed, evidence was marshaled, witnesses took the stand, harrumphs were harrumphed. Contemporary critics were cited who disputed the accuracy of Capote’s account.

Capote’s own testimony that he took no notes and used no audio recordings in the reporting of long, private, detailed conversations strains belief. The book contains no footnotes or citations. He claims to remember 95% of what was related to him by the perpetrators of the central crime in the book, and a host of other interviewees. Was Capote a savant, did he have photographic memory? or was he full of shit? We will never know.

For the viewer who has not read the book, Capote tells the story of the murder of the Clutter family in the farming community of Holcomb in western Kansas by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the search for the killers, their capture, trial and execution. It is considered the book that birthed the true crime novel genre.

Another matter of debate was whether Truman was more sympathetic toward Perry than Hickock. It was agreed that he humanized both characters. If film adaptations of the writing of the book have any basis, perhaps in research, then it he may indeed have favored Perry somewhat, and may have supplied some money and influence against the men receiving the death penalty, which was ultimately carried out.

Although the family background of both of the killers was given in detail, Perry’s psychology seemed to get more focus. One of our group pointed out Perry’s dissociative behavior the night of the killings: at one point he walked out of the house, thought to run, but soon went back in just to see how it would play out.

One interesting question came up: would either of the men committed the crimes if they had been alone, and all agreed they would not have. There was a classic macho persona between them, with Hickock the brains and Smith the brawn, or at least the one with a bent toward violence and murder.

As the evening closed, we fell to the question of the ethics of the death penalty, the specifics of Kansas law in 1959, and the justice or injustice of the hanging execution the men eventually received. Opinions were divided.

The book for December is Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.


William Golding’s Beelzebub

In September our book was William Golding’s iconic Lord of the Flies. Iconic, but not classic, so said some at our table. Which is not to say it’s themes are not timeless. The book’s merit of the word “classic” however seems to be up for debate.

But I’m getting off too early into the weeds. LOTF was early acknowledged to be a book full of symbolism, stopping short of becoming all-out allegory.

Symbols that required analysis include the conch, the beast, the realm of the adults, the beachfront area, the sea, the pig’s head, the dead parachuter, Piggy’s glasses, Piggy himself, Ralph, Simon, and Jack.

A basic high school familiarity with the book says that it is a portrait or microcosm of humanity where the rule of law is removed. Golding suggests that we are all children who have the propensity to return to savagery if we were in a similar situation as the children.

What generated debate was the question of how the presence of various influences might mitigate our decline into abject barbarism. Would not adults be more industrious and organized if stranded on a desert island? How did mankind arise from a primitive state to the current level of civilization anyway (read Guns, Germs, and Steel for a substantial answer to that question)? Isn’t there more to human flourishing than the rule of law, namely, the common grace of God?

Another observation was the inescapable religious symbolism throughout, probably attributable to Golding’s education as a classicist and his British cultural identity most likely steeped in Church of England, Judeo-Christian mores and metanarratives. The island, clearly, is the realm of mankind. The realm of the adults, in this writer’s estimation, is something like the realm of the divine — the source of order, law, judgement, and indirectly all of the civilizing influences those institutions bring.

The boys’ descent into savagery, resulting in the murder of two already and moments away from the murder of Ralph, stopped in its tracks by the appearance of the adult officer (uniformed, civilized, and bearing a sidearm). The return of “the adults” to “rescue” them was the prime longing at the start, but steadily faded from view until even noble Ralph seemed to be forgetting their purpose in keeping the fire lit.

The appearance of the officer, given an Anglican worldview, looks strikingly like Judgement Day, when the bloody savagery of humans is suddenly dispelled by the vision, and remorse for his crimes are now the obvious matter to be dealt with.

The symbol of the pig’s head, which for Simon becomes the Beast incarnate, is another pagan/Satanic, idolatrous image, suited to primitive totemistic religion.

Much more could be said about LOTF and about Golding himself, and about the place of the book in the western canon. All agreed that the book was important and valuable, and we were glad to have a chance as adults to reread it.

Here’s a nice map of the island I found.

O’Brien eludes in Cacchiato

Tim O’Brien’s 1978 novel Going After Cacchiato was our August book.

Never before in our group has a single novel spawned so many theories about its interpretation as Cacchiato. We unanimously attribute this to O’Brien’s skill as a writer, and he accordingly has the full admiration and gratitude of the Austin Athenaeum.

The present narrative of the book takes place as Paul Berlin is sitting in a watchtower reflecting on the past. One theory is that the central narrative of the book is that Paul Berlin cannot come to grips with his participation in the murder of Lt. Sidney Martin. The Cacchiato story was real. But the subject of debate was Who was Cacchiato and what happened to him?

Next, the theory was proposed that Berlin killed Cacchiato accidentally, and only ch.1 is true account. Another theory is that there never was a Cacchiato. Many agreed with this theory: the Cacchiato story was a fantasy, a point supported by the fact that the book is full of uncertainty about what’s real and what isn’t.

Another theory was proposed that the book is a story about the moral dilemmas of war. Berlin is wrestling with this and trying to find a place between the oaths he has taken and following orders that conflict with his oaths. Will Berlin live up to his moral responsibility? And what is his responsibility in the conflict between murder vs. saving others?

The scene at the round table is key: the vietnamese girl on one side and Berlin on the other. (Some considered this scene “telling” not “showing” and that is should have been left out, well, one in particular.)

O’Brien was a sergeant in the 198th Infantry Brigade in the US Army, serving in Vietnam and winning the Purple Heart. Consequently, many of his writings have dealt with the Vietnam War, a subject about which he speaks from experience. All of O’Brien’s Vietnam works that our group have read have the mark of authenticity.

In comparison to other war books we have read lately (Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead and All Quiet on the Western Front), there was a majority who felt this book was the most immediate and the most fascinating to read.

One regret we has is that O’Brien lives in San Marcos and, we learned too late, is known to be seen in Austin. How we wish he could have been at our meeting!


Orhan Pamuk may be a lesser known author in the United States, but this Turkish Nobel Prize winning novelist deserves a wider audience. We found great enjoyment and learned much about the nation and people of Turkey by reading Pamuk’s most well-known novel, Snow.

In his opening essay, Benjamin pointed out two important themes. The first was, obviously, snow. Throughout the book the quiet, beautiful snow seems to speak to the main character, Ka, about God, and is itself a character. It is snow that has closed all roads in and out of the little town of Kars creating an isolated area where a localized military coup can take place without the knowledge or interference of state forces in Ankara. The snow binds everyone to Kars, but also bind everyone together

Another theme is happiness. Ka is on a quest to find it in a relationship with Ipek through which he hopes to bring her with her to his exiled home in Frankfurt. This, he believes, would bring the greatest happiness imaginable to his life. Sadly it was never to be, although they came close.

We discussed the duality of the Turkish people as portrayed in the book, that they seem to want to be a western, secular state and to be religious at the same time. Even those who represent one or the other interest betray the influence of the other side. The debate over whether women can/should/must wear head coverings is sometimes cast as a matter of western freedom of expression while simultaneously being a symbol of (among other things) female submission in Islam. In Turkey though the two sides (western and Islamic) hate each other, they cannot live without each other. They are indivisible as part of the Turkish identity.

Another interesting observation about the book was the number of stories within the story. Some examples include Necip’s science fiction (p. 114 in the Everyman edition), Blue’s story of father and son on the battlefield (p. 87), the play titled My Fatherland or My Headscarf (p. 157), the story of the Poison Investigation (p. 220). There was also the story of Teslime’s suicide, and Ka’s dream of walking between two high walls.

As mentioned, beyond the great enjoyment of the story, we all felt we had moved a little bit closer to understanding the middle eastern mind, at least the Turkish part of it. And we are glad to extend our reach outside of the canon of western, English books to include this translation of a great Turkish novel.

The Lash of Faulkner’s Birch

IThe Sound and the Fury Faulkner’s most difficult book? It certainly has the reputation of being a merciless novel, almost deliberately obscure for the first 75 pages or so especially, and then only moderately elusive after that.

Recall, the book is divided into four sections, the first and main story being told by Benji, the 33-year old retarded younger brother. His is “sound and fury signifying nothing,” “a tale told by an idiot.” But only Benji can tell the story: mother is sick, Quentin is dead, Caddy is run off with another man, and Jason is a “Bascomb”.

The confusion of time is a key component in the book. The four stories are told out of order. Benji’s especially is nearly impenetrable; he has no concept of time. Quentin’s watch has no hands.

The contemporaneous or “present day” portion of the book takes place during Passion Week and the scene in the church on Easter is the climax of the story. 

Dilsey is prescient, the black prophetess; “I’ve seen the first and I’ve seen the lst of the Compsons.” The story is of the destruction of a prosperous, white family in the south. The black family knows what’s going on. “They endured,” says the narrator. The Compsons did not. It was observed in our group that Dilsey was the main character of the book.

This summary is itself confused, as much because of the difficulty of the book as by the tardiness of this report. We read this book for November’s meeting. But as usual, a complexity and punishing demands of Faulkner’s prose yielded somewhat to several hours of our collective deliberations. And by the end of our meeting even those first-timers who found the book a herculean effort to read came away loving the story, professing its genius and its insight into the human condition.

Life on Mars (and also death)

martianchroniclesThe Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury.

It is perhaps a testimony to the enduring nature of Ray Bradbury’s books that the first question we grappled with at the meeting for this book was What genre is it? “Science fiction” just doesn’t seem to fit very comfortably.

Although much (most) science fiction tells stories that reach well beyond the first level of the narrative into matters of contemporary political, social, or technological significance, The Martian Chronicles seems less about the science or the fiction than ordinary SciFi. The setting of most of the action (Mars) was not essential to the story. It was simply a location of sufficient distance and isolation from the current events on Earth to allow particular bradburypsychologies to develop among the human settlers. It could easily been a story of frontiersmen in the early 1800’s.

In fact, the observation was made that the book could be an allegory of westward expansion, a claim somewhat anticlimactic given the subject matter, but salient nonetheless.

Some favorite moments in this collection of vignettes were the story about the last man left on Mars who seeks and pursues the last woman in another city, how he travels, finds her, discovers she is fat and intolerably annoying, and chooses rather to be alone; paranoid ex-soldier who kills several aliens before they can explain to him that they are giving him their land; the Edgar Allen Poe redux in which the steward of a mansion gruesomely kills the government bureaucrats coming to confiscate his property.

We observed the change in attitudes between Bradbury’s day and ours, when human settlers on Mars returned to Earth en masse to fight when word of nuclear war reaches them. We decided that we are much more cynical and unpatriotic, and would not return.

Finally, we concluded that the book is not about realistically exploring the human soul or presenting a plausible technological enterprise. It is more about mood and quirk factor, and light commentary on the foibles of silly humans bumbling about a new place. It is about a fun read with poignant observations and stimulating the imagination. It is about all the enjoyable things that literature can be about (humor, imagination, human experience, human nature, possibilities, ideas) without sermonizing.

The book got good reviews all around as being an enjoyable read.

E. M. Forster was ahead of his time

passage-to-indiaThe book for September was E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

But wait! Before you click away from this blog post, you need to know that this English writer was a man ahead of his time. As evidenced by our book, Forster was advocating a form of civil rights and condemning racism, imperialism, and exploitation of England’s subjugated races decades before any of us were even born, much less speaking out against social inequality ourselves. Our book is an early exposure of particularly British sins in their treatment of the Indian state over which they ruled. Champions of racial equality today should associate Forster’s name with those who broke from the majority in the early 20th century to become advocates of social justice.

Those who have read the book (or at least seen the 1984 film adaptation) will remember the central conflict in which Doctor Aziz agrees to take the young Adela Quested and the elderly Mrs. Moore on a tour of the Marabar caves. In an enigmatic turn, Miss Quested, momentarily alone in one cave, imagines herself to have been molested by Dr. Aziz, who at the time was musing to himself outside the caves. Adela flees the cave and gets a ride back to the English dwellings, and later accuses Aziz of the barbaric attack.

A trial ensues during which tensions between British and Indian natives seeth to a boiling point. On the stand, after weeks of build up and imprisonment of Dr. Aziz (on nothing but Adela’s testimony), Adela admits to her own shame that Dr. Aziz is innocent. But it doesn’t matter. forster1British are convinced that her exoneration of Aziz is due to mental frailty and that Aziz is guilty even without Adela’s testimony. The Indian people are enraged at the injustice and ill-treatment by their subjugators and riots ensue. History tells us that it would not be too many more years until the expulsion of the British Raj and independence of India and Pakistan.

Mention was made of Forster’s skill in setting up the action and fallout at the Marabar Cave. Events led naturally to the set up of a dangerous situation for Aziz. Contrary to all propriety, he and Adela are left alone to explore the caves through a series of unplanned miscues: a missed train, the headache Mrs. Moore suffered following the strange ringing of echoes in the first cave they entered. Adele’s fiance’, Ronny Heaslop, the magistrate in the local province, is especially confounded by the event which works to the worsening of the situation for Aziz.

We noted the irony in the decline of Mrs. Moore who, after the incident at the caves and the ear-ringing echoes, becomes depressed and deeply cynical about life. Though she is seen as the friend of the Indian people and champion of their cause, a goddess whose name is chanted with fervor, she leaves the country before the trial and dies on the voyage home.

The most poignant observation of the evening was to note the ways in which the racial bias and malice between the British and Indians so closely parallels racial tension in the United States. Our history is fraught with stories in which a black man is falsely accused and lynched upon even the suspicion of offense toward a white woman. The automatic suspicion of guilt, the malicious treatment by white law enforcement, the cursory deliberation of juries and judges is all too familiar in the United States. A sympathetic reading of A Passage to India would be good medicine to a many in our country with racial bias—a chance to recognize his own offenses dressed in the guise of other peoples and lands.

forster2Finally, it was interesting to note the friendly toleration between Muslims and Hindus living in the same proximity with each other at the period of the book. It was a poignant aspect to the reader who is aware of the coming murderous conflict to ensue between the two groups 40 years later, another subtle message from the author about the fickleness of human nature.

Moby Dick delights all, some whine about length

melvilleNot infrequently we nominate a book that has everyone at the table rubbing their palms together and giggling like Christmas morning. Moby Dick was such a book, although some did not wear their big boy pants to Athenaeum and complained about the length.

Nathan gave the opening sermon, er, essay in that open-throated hand-extended admonitory we have come to enjoy, summoning the bleak and impaling gravitas of the sermon on Jonah attended by Ishmael before embarking on his voyage.

After not very many minutes, diverting early to ribald matters as this august body is want to do, we fell to debating the impossibly droll subject of whether Melville intended to suggest a homosexual motif, that seafaring cliche’, in the scene in which Ishmael and Queequeg shared a bed, or in the hand-touching scene in which all shipmates were joined in the joyous, manual pulverizing of the waxy viscera known as spermaceti retrieved from the head cavity of the harpooned and dissected Sperm Whale.

While homosexuality is nothing new, and while homosexual references have been included (normally in veiled form) in literature centuries before Melville, such history notwithstanding, it is the privilege of this writer to record his own and a minority of other members’ opinion that, far from the bromide suggestion that actual gay sex acts were a leisure time activity among the shipmates (as mariner lore tells us must happen when any two men find themselves on a boat together), it was a common literary device in which men are placed in an awkward proximity to each other for a humorous effect rather than to plant in the reader’s mind the unsavory information that maritime buggery was prevalent among the berths of the Pequod. Now on to the story.

What sort of literature is Moby Dick? Suggestions include: a travelog, technical study of the whaling industry, a praise song to the glory and virtue of whaling. All agreed that the book is allegorical at some level; Melville himself alludes to the many symbols operating in the life and experiences of the whaler.

The name of the clever commenter who suggested that the Pequod is equivalent to America’s drive to industrialism is now forgotten. But the dictum that man is a money-making animal was useful for the observation that the whaler’s wanton utilization, commodification, and ultimately destruction of life and creation is a parody of the contemporaneous explosion of the fires of industry.

Starbuck: the upstanding family man, working faithfully for the company, is the foil to Ahab, the crazed, homicidal, suicidal prodigal whose vengeance and blood thirst knows no limit. What a poignant moment when the two men’s gazes lock and find for a moment a connection as Ahab sees Starbuck as a real man, sees his family, his humanity. The encounter only adds to the mystery of Ahab’s psychology.beale-1a

Is Ahab all of us? Humans pursuing a course they know is damned? Observation was made by John that the name Pequod seems uncannily close to the Old Testament word “pekod” or “judgment” from the book of Jeremiah. But rarely content with one dimension, Melville’s ship was also the name of an Indian tribe destroyed in the 1600’s.

Moby Dick defies nailing down. There is no key to explain the book, no easy symbolic code. Allegorical it would seem, but allegory of what? The associations and connections are such a web of complexity that can be interpreted in any way with at least some success. Is it about religion? American industrialism? money? the whaling trade? man vs nature? human nature? Is the Great White Whale God and Ahab modern mankind who would eliminate him as an unwanted relic of an ancient world? Who can say.

It cannot be about the ‘glory of whaling’ because on one hand he talks about the honor of the trade, while on the other he describes the horrific scenes of hunting and processing the slaughtered beast. Someone said, Melville serves it up with both hands.

Ahab is the man of reason and the man driven by passions, contrary to reason. There just seems to be no end to the dimensions of this book.

I add as a conclusion my thoughts that Ahab’s quest, with many men in his train, is punctuated, especially toward the end, with a note of the inevitability of fate and the mockery of opportunities of repentance for one whose destiny is sealed. Recall that Ishmael is a Presbyterian, a Calvinist. As the ship’s last days pass before the final encounter, nature gives them respite of warmth and clear skies, brushing away their fury and offering them an opportunity to abandon the damned quest. Everyone feels the beneficent breezes of sanity restored momentarily. Other passing ships urge them to retreat, offer opportunity to join a reasonable mission. It is as if all creation for a time set the past behind and summoned the men to rejoin the community of divine favor. Yet the Pequod’s fate is confoundingly set. Was the offer of repentance real or a dream? Was human responsibility operative or the immutable decree of heaven? The old theological paradox is as impenetrable in Moby Dick as it ever was.

The book was unanimously praised. Nevertheless, some trolls among us spoke the equivalent of Emperor Joseph II saying to Mozart that his symphony had too many notes and that he should just cut a few. We reply as Mozart did (at least in the movie): which notes did you have in mind? 

Next book: A Passage to India

Pearl Buck says much in few words

Pearl_BuckIn one of the biggest unexpected discoveries of Athenaeum’s history, Pearl Buck’s 1932 Pulitzer winner found generally enthusiastic and appreciative reception. The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy and was influential in her winning of the Nobel Prize for literature.

Written in the style reminiscent of old Bible stories or parables, or perhaps affecting a Chinese storytelling mode invented for western readers, The Good Earth tells the life of Wang Lung, a man who goes from a young poor farmer to an old wealthy city man with all the trappings that go along with it.

She does not judge her protagonist for his misjudgments, compromises, his vanity, his treatment of his wife, or his later quest for peace and quiet. She just tells what happened. Given the fabled style and the knowledge that Buck herself was the child of missionaries in China, one may expect something of a morality tale. But instead she tells the events in concise, unaffected prose, letting the reader think about what it means.

Jordan’s nomination was given introduction by his cogent essay in which he pointed out that the Chinese culture was portrayed by Buck as universal and timeless, yet realistic. The land is a character all its own in the book, and it is a source of salvation. His criticism was that Buck seemed captive to a romantic notion of the final goodness of land, an idea with real merit but possibly overplayed in the story. Nevertheless it is an ideal shared by farmers for millennia on every continent, from the banks of the Nile, to the Promised Land of Israel, from vineyards of Tuscany to the fruited American plain.

goodearthEveryone admitted their love for O-Lan, Wang Lung’s boxy, globe-faced bride who bore him sons and daughters, yea, bore in isolation, without a cry, and then returned to the work in the fields before the day was over. Matt went to far as to suggest that the book is really about O-Lan, so prominent was her role. She is always noble in her own moral structure. She is the strong one in the family, and Wang Lung weeps at her death, unable to process the loss of her. She is always practical (she picks up the pork strip that Wang Lung throws in the dirt and washes it off), and his guilt is usually about how he’s treated her.

Finally, status and position seem to be the things to concern characters the most after their bellies are filled and the land is free of famine and pestilence. When Wang Lung takes Lotus as a concubine (followed later by Pear Blossom), O-Lan’s anguish is not over his sexual preference for Lotus’s youth, but for the loss of her status. “I bore you sons,” she protests, “I bore you sons!”

Along the same lines, Wang Lung’s grasping for status is seen in the classic conflict between the country bumpkin and the city slicker; we look on knowingly at his new haircut, his fancy new clothes, his new habit of regular bathing.

This book does not submit to easy analysis or dismissal. It treats many complex subjects at a deep level. Some in the group said that the book failed to reach them, and that is fair enough. Others, myself included, were touched by the book, and I recognized uncanny familiar feelings and attitudes experienced by the characters.

The vote for August was tied in the vote and the runoff, and it came down to a coin toss. The coin was lost in the dark for some seconds and was eventually discovered in Randy’s seat, head’s up. The coin decided in favor of Moby Dick, a book that we are reading for the second time, the first time being near the time of the founding of Athenaeum.

Next meeting: In The First Circle.

The Count of Monte Cristo in comments

Now is your chance! Your chance to contribute to the Austin Athenaeum CMCblog. The May 2016 book was Dumas’ perennial serialized favorite, The Count of Monte Cristo.

I cannot find my notes for CMC and so this will be the first ever Athenaeum blog post where the real meat of the discussion is to be found in the comments section.  As I recall, although the book was generally enjoyable, it took a lot of heat from our discriminating literary group.

Nevertheless, scroll on down, sharpen your pen (or tongue, or whatever), and post your recollections of CMC in the comments section!

Come on. Don’t be shy. We need some record of the evening. Remember how we compared it to David Copperfield? Remember that sense of realizing that you had spent an entire month reading what was essentially a young boy’s adventure story? 1100 pages or something for Pete’s sake! You could have been reading Alasdair MacIntyre or Alvin Plantinga, but instead you were following Messer Dantes on his overweening quest for revenge.

Now it’s your turn to say what you thought. So get started.

PS. Book for June: The Good Earth – Pearl Buck. Book for July, In The First Circle, by Solzhenitsyn