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  • Jessica Ritchie

Happy Birthday, Truman Capote!

If you’re a book lover, you’ve inevitably heard that hypothetical, getting to know you question. “If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only have one book, what would it be?”

My answer is always the same. “I can’t possibly narrow it down to one. I could maybe give you a top ten. But only if we count the entire Harry Potter series as one book, and the collected works of Truman Capote as another.”

My fascination with Truman Capote started in high school, when my senior English class read In Cold Blood. Our teacher passed out our copies and assigned the first three chapters. She said “Do not read ahead,” several times. I went home that afternoon and finished the entire book before dinner; the story sucked me in and I was powerless to put it down. I needed to know what happened at the Clutter house. I also needed to know how the author could immerse himself so deeply in evil, then turn around and present the story so flawlessly. I got in trouble for reading ahead and spent the next few weeks rereading the nightly assignments and taking detailed notes, so I could participate in class discussions without giving anything away.

In Cold Blood is still one of my favorite books and it certainly deserves all of the praise and attention it’s received. By all accounts, Truman Capote never fully recovered from the emotional stress of researching and writing the story. And when you read it, you understand why. The story behind the book is as interesting as the book itself. But it’s always bothered me that his other works, while just as brilliant, aren’t as celebrated. So, in honor of his birthday, here are a few reading suggestions that aren’t In Cold Blood.

1. Breakfast at Tiffany’s: I thought this one was obvious, but it’s been brought to my attention that some people don’t know Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a book. This makes me sad, because Holly Golightly is one of my favorite fictional characters. Book Holly, that is. Movie Holly was ruined by rewrites. Audrey Hepburn did a fantastic job with the script she was given, but the movie ending is awful and goes against everything Book Holly believes in, nonsense though it may be.

2. Miriam: I feel like I should give a disclaimer on this one because after you read it, you may have a lifelong fear of big-eyed, blonde little girls. Mrs. H. T. Miller, whose first name is also Miriam, encounters tiny Miriam at a movie theater; a week later, the little girl mysteriously shows up at her apartment and starts making strange, intrusive demands. She moves in the next day, complete with a creepy Miriam doll, because dolls make everything just a little more unsettling. Mrs. Miller’s bird reacts strangely to the little girl and the neighbors can’t see her. The terror in this story is subtle and effective. Is Miriam a ghost? A figment of Mrs. Miller’s aging imagination? An orphan with serious boundary issues? Where did she come from and why won’t she go away? We’ll never know for sure.

3. My Side of the Matter: This short story, in my opinion, is Truman Capote’s funniest work. It’s told from the first-person point of view of a sixteen-year-old Southern newlywed and recounts the day he and his pregnant wife’s spinster aunts tried to kill each other. It was, of course, everyone’s fault but his own. The narrator’s account is unreliable and obviously biased, which just adds to the humor. This is Capote at his snarkiest best. And if you’ve spent much time in the South, the characters will likely remind you of people you know.

4. Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote: This collection was compiled and edited by Gerald Clarke, who also wrote Capote: A Biography. Both books are excellent, but the collection of letters is my favorite. They begin in Capote’s teenage years and end a few years prior to his death; addressees include family members, business associates, friends, rivals, and lovers. This collection gives insight into who Capote was as a person, what he valued, and how he felt about the world around him.

Norman Mailer once said, “Truman Capote is the most perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm.” I wholeheartedly agree with the assessment. Some of Capote’s works are dark, some are funny, and others are fueled by way too much introspection. But every word on every page is the exact word that should be there, and that’s an accomplishment few others can claim.

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