The Early Stories of Truman Capote

These previously unpublished stories written in Truman Capote’s youth are instantly recognizable.

early stories truman capote

The Early Stories of Truman Capote contains 14 stories, most previously unpublished, written in Capote’s teens and 20s, and only recently unearthed among his papers in the New York Public Library archives. Presented with a foreword by Hilton Als of the New Yorker, these are short pieces, studies of subjects Capote would continue to favor in the later works for which he is known: sensitive young children, fractious ladies, the poor and the disenfranchised. They are set in the Deep South, in New York City, in swamps and in small towns.

The talents of the author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are evident in this early work. His descriptions are simple but strongly evocative: “curly, wig-like grey hair” and eyes “bright, like bubbles of blue glass.” His characters tend to be laconic but expressive, with interjections speaking as loudly as words. In “Swamp Terror,” a boy chases a convict into the woods and gets a bigger taste of adulthood than he bargained for. In “Louise,” a schoolgirl lets her petty jealousies do irreparable harm. “Traffic West” presents a remarkable collection of characters and events, in experimental form. In other stories, a young boy finds the dog of his dreams in a park, but the dog belongs to another child; and two wives muse on the hypothetical murder of their husbands.

These easy-reading, alternately amusing and haunting stories offer a fresh, new glimpse of Capote’s genius, and simultaneously feel intimately familiar.

This review originally ran in the November 6, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!
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Rating: 7 deaths.

Things That Are by Amy Leach

Warning: raving follows. This is the best book.

THINGS THAT ARE by Amy Leach.Amy Leach’s Things That Are is a collection of essays that address creatures and natural phenomena, philosophy and the stars; they are as fanciful and wondrous and wondering as anything I’ve ever read, delightfully imaginative and fun to read, and illuminating. I learned facts and was made to consider concepts, and the package was unbelievably beautiful.

Amy Leach introduces her reader to beavers that “affably yield not”; music that sweeps you “juggled into its furious torrents, jostled into into its foamy jokes, assuming its sparklyblue or greenweedy or brownmuddy tinges”; peas that grow too tall to support themselves and must “grow madly wending tendrils, to sweep the air for lattices – just as teetery marionettes will grown marionette cords to sweep the air for marionetteers.” I marked many such quotations to share with you for their whimsy, their unique perspective, or their lingual tricks. Sometimes I failed and just noted that the whole essay should be studied and loved, as with “Talent” and “Warbler Delight” and “The Safari” and oh, the essay called “Pea Madness”…

Leach describes peas, which are self-contained until they grow tall enough that they must reach for external support. At this point she describes their tendrils, their reaching: your yearning, she writes, “can horse or unhorse you.” If you yearn for lattice and find one, you have won; if you reach not at all, you will lose; if you reach and find nothing, “your looking apparatus topples you over.” And some of us may have a lattice standing nearby, “installed with you in mind,” that we never find, although we come within an inch. The pathos! She writes that the yearning of peas is extrasensory: they do not know for what they reach; and

lattices are not the only things that are extrasensory. When you cast your small, questioning arms into the opaque universe, you may find a trellis to tether yourself to; or you may find a tree sticky with birdlime; or a snuffling piglet; or a trapeze artist swinging by who takes you for an aerialist and collects you – then alas, unless you have excellent timing and a leotard, you will be a lost cause.

This writing is funny and approaches our known world from a wholly unique angle; and its message is so powerful that I am nearly immobilized.

In “Silly Lilies,” Leach teaches us about gravitropic mutants, who send their shoots into the ground and their roots into the air, “like a demented boat that insists on sailing upside down, draggling underwater its silky sail.” (Yes, she wrote ‘draggling.’ Also ‘circumgallop,’ and ‘vasty,’ which she defines in her Glossary: “Has approximately the same meaning as ‘biggy,’ ‘hugey,’ and ‘giganticky.’ Do not let anyone tell you these words are not words; all words are words.” I think this is part of why she is compared to Lewis Carroll.) To describe lotuses in a windstorm, she evokes an image of slam-dancing hula girls. This is outrageous stuff. “Bluebirds defect, like bubbles and luck.” “Stars, like thoughts, are not inevitable.” I could go on. In “Twinkle Twinkle,” an essay from the section on “Things of Heaven,” she writes: “The incandescent cauliflower-ballerina is made of dust plus deep light; take away either ingredient and you have no celestial vegetables tripping the light fantastic in a laser tutu.” And I promise, in the context of the whole essay, this sentence makes perfect sense. It would take such a long quotation to illuminate to you that I would fear copyright violations; you should just go get a copy of this book yourself, and learn.

With all these playful poetics, I hope I haven’t given you the impression that Leach is only a whacky fun manipulator of language – because she is that, but she is much more than that. These essays examine and interrogate concepts larger than the ones we meet in everyday life. She forces her reader to question, and I have marked several of her passages to come back and continue to reflect upon.

I am smitten, you see. I found both the writing and the content perfectly formed and singular. Oh, and there are illustrations. I enjoyed the illustrator’s story of The Evolution of the Cover, and then, of course, this interview with Leach herself. And as my final bid to make you buy this book, listen to this lovely piece of work, in which Leach reads her essay “God” to a bluegrass accompaniment.

Best book of 2015, obviously.

Rating: 10 fireflakes.

Red Dirt Women: At Home on the Oklahoma Plains by Susan Kates

The reasons so many pioneer women did not desert Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl days are the same reasons Kates was able to find an unlikely peace there, and cannot be succinctly rationalized or explained–except perhaps in this collection of sensitive, thoughtful, grounded musings.

red dirt women

Red Dirt Women is a collection of essays examining the Oklahoma plains and its people, particularly its women, by a transplant who has found home there. Susan Kates is an Ohio native, and professor at the University of Oklahoma. As she relates in these stories, her transition to a dusty otherworld was not always smooth, but over time the Oklahoma landscape and population opened up to her. One message of her collection as a whole is that this place and people are richer than the stereotypes of bonnets and cowboy hats suggest. Kates’s essays vary slightly in their form, but run toward profiles of people and culture. The women she describes include barrel racers, a Vietnamese jeweler, a hippie preschool teacher, gamblers, a birdwatcher, and roller derby players. A brief foreword by Rilla Askew recommends the journey Kates portrays within.

This is just a stub: my full review of Red Dirt Women was published in the fall issue of Concho River Review. You can subscribe or purchase a single issue by clicking that link. Or, don’t hesitate to run out to find a copy of the book itself: I recommend it.

Rating: 8 Queens.

“The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier

I came to “The Birds” by the following convoluted path: I encountered the movie Psycho in two books at once (Body Toxic and Memento Mori), and made a note that I wanted to see it. I realized I’d not seen any Hitchcock, in fact, and he so famous! (You know I’m underexposed to movies.) I looked up Hitchcock and his long list of films, and noted a few that I’d like to see (and realized I have seen one, Strangers on a Train). The Birds made my list; so I thought I’d read it, first. I got my full-text version here (with only a few typos).

"The Birds" was first published in the 1952 collection The Apple Tree. Wiki image

“The Birds” was first published in the 1952 collection The Apple Tree. Wiki image

It’s been a while since I read Rebecca, but I felt like du Maurier’s tone here was more simply and straightforwardly narrative, like there was less sense of foreboding. Nat works part-time at a farm on the English coast, and receives a pension for a wartime disability. (Which war? I’m going with the First World War.) He and his wife and two small children live just nearby. They live a simple life which is simply described; although, the very first sentence does offer a note of warning.

On December third, the wind changed overnight and it was winter.

It is on that night that the birds first attack and, well, the story grows from there.

Nat’s family is isolated and ill-prepared for an unexpected but extraordinarily powerful enemy (and in this way, actually, parallels the zombie apocalypse story concept that’s so popular just now). Their world immediately shrinks to a very small area that they hope to secure against foes so numerous as to be irresistible, and this I think is what makes it terrifying – that, and the possibility that they are alone in the larger world as well. It is stark, sudden, and total; the situation beyond Nat’s line of sight is unknown to him, and his final fate is unknown to us, which is quite unsettling. I found it effective as a short story, and so austere. Also short: and that is the challenge for the movie, which I can only guess expands generously upon this story. I look forward to it. And acknowledge du Maurier’s skill, as ever.

Rating: 7 wrens.

Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir by Susanne Antonetta

Body Toxic is a striking book, both in the story it has to tell and in the manner in which it’s told. I am impressed, and challenged. It’s complicated.

body toxicSusanne Antonetta grew up in New Jersey, in the Pine Barrens region, a bogland unique in several senses: culturally isolated, and environmentally contaminated on a shocking, unimaginable scale. She and other members of her family have suffered from a list of medical complaints: asthma, endometriosis, a double uterus, growths on the liver, allergies, tumors and cysts, sterility, seizures, manic depression, various cancers; an extremely rare quadruple pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. The families she is descended from include Italian immigrants and those from Barbados, who nevertheless self-identify as English. Both sides of her family exhibit a predilection for silence, non-communication or the glossing over of undesirable details. The legacies Antonetta has inherited, then, are many and complex: cultural (in terms of countries of origin, and the culture of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and immediate family cultures), environmental and medical (oh, the prodigious and horrifying list), and psychological (mental illness and perspective on the world). Oh, and Susanne Antonetta is not her real name, but an “alter ego”: “I’ve used five or six different pseudonyms in my life. The name I’m using now is not my name but the name of a recovered female relative, a lost woman, and as a recovered woman she’s just a skeleton that must be fleshed out by the same process of fantasizing and filling in that I resist.” Indeed, identity – multiple identities, our attempts to define ourselves and others’ attempts to define us – is another theme throughout.

And that is the complexity of this book, that so much is going on. The story is itself obviously gripping, and brimming with evocative and provocative anecdote. Indeed, Antonetta tells us, “I wrote a piece about the miscarriage and an editor sent it back, calling it ‘raw.’ He suggested I lose the death or the multiple pregnancy, or both… The poem of this body is a bad poem, trite.” The enormous irony, of course, being that she can’t “lose” the death or the multiple pregnancy, or countless other maladies, complaints. All this material aside, though, Body Toxic shines entirely for another reason too: the writing is bold and nuanced, presses and pulls back, reflecting a little the manic depression (or, these days, bipolar disorder) that also waxes and wanes throughout Antonetta’s story. It is, of course, poetic: the author is an acclaimed poet as well, under the name Suzanne Paola.

There are so many threads. Business and government disposed of chemical and radiation waste in Antonetta’s childhood beaches and bogs, through a combination of ignorant, unethical and criminal irresponsibility. (Thus Rachel Carson is named by comparison.) Antonetta’s extended family makes a series of decisions about how to live in this environment, in which they were underinformed but also trusting, stubborn, or willfully ignored the signs. (They mostly still won’t talk about the negative effects.) The family incubates a sexist tradition, favoring the eldest, male grandchild, repeatedly reminding Antonetta explicitly and implicitly of her “place.” She explores her identity as woman: “I spent a lot of my eleventh and twelfth years pining for my menstruation to begin. I can’t remember why”; and later in her inability to reproduce, and what this means for the family at large. (When her family visits relatives back in the Italian community of her father’s origin, his cousin tells him, “You have big children, but I have grandchildren.” There is an implied failure there, which Antonetta ascribes to environmental poisoning, but the family seems to ascribe to Antonetta herself.) There is the fallibility of memory, a theme so common to memoir but one I never tire of, because it – like memory – is different in each interpretation: each memoirist has something new to say. In this case, Antonetta did a lot of drugs, presumably compounding the muddiness of some of her early memories; luckily she was an avid journaler, which allows her to interrogate those documents, artifacts of a young woman she barely knows, itself an interesting and fruitful technique. And then there are all those identities. I love the idea of her father constantly referencing “my daughter” when speaking to her: she finally lets his declarations about that daughter stand, having realized that her father’s daughter is a different person from herself.

I could keep going. This was the challenge and the allure of this book, and the reason I will not quickly forget it: many threads, many layers, told in an ever-evolving voice, ebbing and flowing. The meandering structure made me work to pull it all together, but it was worth it.

I am taking a writing class from the author (under another name, that of the poet, Suzanne Paola) in the coming months, which is why I came to this book in the first place, and now I am both more excited than ever, and intimidated. I recommend Body Toxic for a reading experience to get lost in; for a richly fertile field of topics for discussion with family, book clubs, community groups; for the study of craft; and for the story it (quite disturbingly) tells about the New Jersey Pine Barrens, immigrant experiences, and one woman’s outlandish life.

Rating: 8 newspaper clippings.

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant

An occasionally bumbling Brit moves into the Mississippi Delta and delivers a romping survey of the surroundings.

dispatches from pluto

Richard Grant (Crazy River) is “a misfit Englishman with a U.S. passport and a taste for remote places,” a writer and professional peripatetic when he encounters an old plantation home in the Mississippi Delta. Later he will ask, “What sort of idiot goes on a picnic and ends up buying a house?” He then explains.

In Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, Richard moves, with his girlfriend, from New York City to a spot even the locals find remote. They struggle with home improvements, an enormous vegetable garden and the moral problem they encounter in hunting for their meat. After some hilarious hiccups along the way, they take pleasure in living in large part off the land. Perhaps more challenging are questions of culture: the liberal newcomers are sensitive to their conservative religious neighbors, who are surely suspicious in turn. But from the beginning they manage to bond like family.

Grant narrates the next year with reflection and humor, from electoral politics and absurd local news to learning how to hunt and party like a Deltan. The myriad forms and intensities of racism and racial tension develop into a theme, as Grant pursues diverse friends and acquaintances. But he finds beauty as well as complexity, and concludes, “I had done the thing that modern life conspires against. I had fully inhabited the present without distraction.” Dispatches from Pluto offers a lovely, appreciative and entertaining tour of the strange and rich Mississippi Delta.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the October 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 armadillos.

guest review: “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky” by Norman Maclean, from Tassava

Tassava is back: earlier this week we heard from him about “A River Runs Through It.” Today, the final story in Maclean’s earth-shaking collection of three.

More Maclean…

Friday night – after stopping several times to put off the ending as long as possible – I finally finished Norman Maclean’s “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” the third story in the collection that my friend Julia bestowed on me a couple weeks ago.

Bill Bell Heads Back Out by R. Williams

Bill Bell Heads Back Out, by R. Williams

He says this story is “shorter than but at least as good as” the title piece, “A River Runs Through It,” which sort of blows my mind – tell us more, Tassava!! Maybe I should go back for a reread, because I remember liking the other two stories but feeling that the longer one was superior. Also, I’m curious to hear what didn’t work for you about “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim,'” which I remember thinking well of – perhaps even over this one! – for its detailed descriptions of the logging lifestyle and the conflict with Jim. I’d like to better understand. And I can’t wait to hear about still more Maclean to come!


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