Rapid-Fire Thoughts: 2018 Read Harder Challenge Update

A stack of books leaning to the right

The Book Riot Read Harder Challenge continues. Since my last reading challenge update, I’ve finished:

#2: A book of true crime

book cover for in cold blood by truman capote

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I came to this title cold (pun unintended but appreciated). The most I knew about the book was that (1) it dealt with a murder of some kind and (2) it’s indisputably Capote’s magnum opus.

Capote begins by tracing the final days of the Clutter family, but I got the sense that the book wasn’t concerned so much with who the Clutters were as it was with what they represented. The Clutters, in death if not in life, came to embody the stability, security, and trust that their murders ripped from the community of Holcomb; Capote’s careful tracing of the crime’s aftermath strikes me as an attempt to probe what else, beyond the simple fact of brutal and unexpected death, constituted the void that the Clutters left behind.

And then, of course, there’s the other question: what kind of people would do such a thing, i.e., murder a family of strangers in cold blood? I knew nothing of the speculation about Capote’s relationship with the perpetrators, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith; I only learned about those theories while entering a new entry for the book in my Goodreads library. Whether he was friends (or more) with the two is irrelevant, I think; either way, Capote’s depiction of the two comes out a sharply observed, uncompromising dive into these murderers’ psyches and the fraught dynamic between them. Ultimately, it didn’t strike me as a sympathetic portrait; pitying, maybe, in some parts, but even then, Hickock and Smith’s grotesque histories—and their equally twisted responses to those histories—coalesce into a firm, if quiet, indictment.

#3: A classic of genre fiction

book cover for mysterious affair at styles by agatha christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Boswell, the Watson, the sidekick or companion—whatever you call the role, the detective’s trusty number two plays an indispensable role in the typical mystery novel. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, Dr. John H. Watson is the reader-surrogate: the regular guy (compared to Holmes; Dr. Watson isn’t without remarkable talents) who puzzles over the unfolding mystery alongside us; the figure who brings in the story’s “human” element to complement the cold, stark brilliance of Holmes; and so on.

So what do you do when the story’s designated Boswell is utterly unlikable?

I never read (or even knew of) the Hercule Poirot books growing up, so my sense of the mystery novel is shaped almost exclusively by the Holmes canon. Going into The Mysterious Affair at Styles, then, I couldn’t help viewing the story through Conan Doyle-tinted glasses. The story itself struck me as having some similarities to Hound of the Baskervilles, both in tone and in the surface details (Hastings off to visit someone in the country, a mystery arising, the detective factoring into the resolution somewhat unexpectedly, etc.). So I couldn’t help comparing Watson’s conduct in that story with Captain Hastings’.

Suffice it to say that Captain Hastings doesn’t fare very well in the comparison. He’s a much coarser character than Watson, and though both have their moments of feeling (wrongly) arrogant about their opinions on the case at hand, Hastings’ petulance and smugness come bundled with a mean streak that makes him nowhere near as endearing as Watson.

My opinion on Hastings aside, there’s something else that makes him a less desirable reader-surrogate than Dr. Watson: Captain Hastings is far less integral to the mystery than Watson was. He feels distinctly more like a sidekick to Poirot than a companion, and that means the reader gets stuck alongside him in the periphery. Hastings, rather than facilitating a reader’s entry into the narrative, becomes an impediment that feels better off discarded.

(Poirot himself, I don’t have much of an opinion about, at least not yet. I like him, but I feel like I need a couple more titles to get a better sense of him—and to have my mind changed about Hastings, I hope.)

#19: A book of genre fiction in translation

book cover for the three-body problem by cixin liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

I’d been meaning to read this book for years, and having finally read it—I’m underwhelmed. Not by much! The book had an impressive, enthralling start. It’s just that the payoff, and the second half of the book in general, delivered less than what the first half led me to expect. The tight, suspenseful events and intriguing world-building of the first half spiral out into a messier tangle of loose threads and nondescript settings (one big exception aside) later on; the hook loses momentum in the telling.

Maybe the delay between hearing about the book and actually reading it exacerbated the problem; I might have built the novel up too much in my head. Reading various gushing reviews in the intervening months probably didn’t help either.

I’m not sure what I can say without spoiling the novel, so I’ll refrain from talking plot. What I will say, though, is that this book is hard sci-fi: it’s unafraid to incorporate so many theoretical physics concepts into its narrative engine. But it never feels overwhelming.

I’m also inclined to disagree with Liu’s somewhat triumphalist take on science. Liu holds STEM above all other fields, and theoretical science above all STEM pursuits: thematically in the novel itself, and then explicitly in the author’s afterword. Even if my humanities degree didn’t make me feel obligated to object, I still would. Science delivers many wonderful insights, but I wouldn’t say it’s objectively above any other pursuit humanity’s undertaken. Still, Liu’s perspective does make for an intriguing yarn, precisely because it’s based on a belief that’s strange to me.

The novel leaves the door wide open for the sequel, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the series pans out.

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