In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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Title: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
Genre: True crime

Rating: 4 / 5

Goodreads

The consummate true crime story. I actually didn’t “choose” to read this one, it was a book club pick, but it had been on my to-read list since high school (while I was reading the book, I cleaned out my Amazon account and saw that I actually put it on my wishlist back in 2003). I think I also may have voted for it in the book club poll.

In Cold Blood is touted as a “nonfiction novel”–probably not the first, but a popularizer of the genre at any rate–a true account of actual murders that took place in Kansas. Capote uses elements of fiction to try to create suspense, withholding certain pieces of information until near the end, and trying to get us inside the heads of different “characters.”

It actually wasn’t as good as I was expecting, I guess due to all the hype. While I was reading it, I was frustrated what what I thought were some “boring” parts–Capote draws out things like the trial without really making it all that personal or interesting, and at times he quotes primary sources for pages. There were moments I felt like a bored Furby. The writing was decent, but after hearing about how Capote pioneered a genre and how this book is considered such a classic, I wasn’t too impressed. Honestly, I didn’t feel much while I was reading it–I didn’t need to know what happened next, and I didn’t really “care” about the story.

But, after I finished it, I found that I couldn’t really stop thinking about it. It’s often the opposite with me–I really want to find out what happens, or I feel pretty invested in some level, and then I finish the book and I don’t think about it very much again. And then I started reading about “the story behind the story,” i.e., Capote’s involvement with the narrative, the townspeople, the killers, and it got way more interesting. I’ve never seen Capote or any of the film adaptations of this book, so reading some of the revelations/rumors concerning it was quite interesting. I especially liked a the chapter of Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood called “The Gay Subtext of In Cold Blood,” which I was able to read thanks to my university library’s database. (Here is a link to a much shorter piece on the same subject.) Not only was it enlightening on the subject raised in the title, but on other issues surrounding the book as well. Other sources wonder if Capote and lead investigator Alvin Dewey had a deal.

I had initially given the book a rating of 3.5 when I finished it, but after letting it sit for a couple of days, I think a 4 more accurately represents how I feel about it now, after reading background information and letting the implications of the book simmer for a bit. The reading experience itself was probably only a 3, and sometimes not even that, but I do think it’s an interesting and worthwhile read.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Title: Prep
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 4 / 5

Goodreads

I’m not sure exactly what drew me to this one, except that I’d been hearing good things about Curtis Sittenfeld & my university library had a copy of this book.

The story is told in the first person by a girl (now a woman, but we’re not sure how far in the future this reminiscing takes place) from a middle class family in South Bend, IN who, to her surprise as much as her family’s, gets into an elite East Coast boarding school–the kind with a long history and many famous and distinguished alumni–on a scholarship.

The book was, in a way, painful to read, since the narrator Lee is herself having a painful time, mostly due to her own anxiety. I kind of thought I was anxious, but then I read this and I was like, yeah, no, never mind, I guess I’m not really. The thing is, Lee sees herself very much as an outsider, and in certain ways, she is. But it’s more in her mind than anything else; because she feels like she doesn’t fit in, she isolates herself, and yet she is judgmental of people who are friendly with her. She dislikes how students are shallow but she does her best to replicate it herself. She constantly worries about being weird or drawing attention to herself; basically she is just super insecure.

But I think it’s quite accurate in a lot of ways. There was a student in my class who reminds me of Lee so much. She was actually pretty petty/snobbish toward me (apparently she told our mutual friends that once the new school year commenced, she would no longer be hanging out with me because I lowered her social status), but I think it all stemmed from insecurity, and reading this book helped me kind of understand her position. Lee, so anxious about others’ perceptions herself, can’t stand people who are both “plain” and comfortable with themselves, as if the only people in the world who should be allowed any sort of confidence or eccentricity need to approach physical perfection. I think a lot of people, and especially teen girls, feel this way. Soon after finishing this book, I was able to attend a talk recently given by Lisa Wade, who wrote American Hookup (she’s also the person behind the Sociological Images blog), and I was strongly reminded of certain parts of this book. Overall, I think it does what it does very well.

Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser

Title: Sweetgirl
Author: Travis Mulhauser
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 3-3.5 / 5

Goodreads

 

I picked this up at the university library because it was small, and I liked the font on the cover. It was a really good contrast to Sport of Kings, because in so many ways this book is its opposite. This book was thematically light whereas that one was thematically dense; this book was tight where that one was sprawling; this one focused narrowly on the story whereas that one focused on…something; this book was a quick 240 pages while that book was a long 560.

Most of the book takes place on a single night, and starts right at the beginning–16-year-old Percy hears that her addict mother is up in the hills at some creep’s drug den; there’s a storm coming in and Percy doesn’t think she’ll survive it. So, she goes to find her and bring her home. But instead of her mother, she finds a neglected baby. This book is fast-paced and you may want to finish it in one sitting; I finished it in two, but it went by so fast. It is pretty gripping. Mulhauser doesn’t really employ any tricks to confuse you or keep you interested, either–it’s all linear, easy to follow, and pretty fun to read despite the subject matter, which is on the dark side of things.

Overall, I would say this maybe isn’t a “deep” book, but it is one hell of a story, well told. It does what it does well. There was a group of girls in my high school who loved reading all those books about people addicted to drugs–the only one I can think of right now is Junk by Melvin Burgess but there are definitely others. Although this one is quite different in many ways, I think they would have loved this one.

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

Title: The Sport of Kings
Author: C.E. Morgan
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3 / 5

Goodreads

 

Well this book was…interesting. I was drawn to it by the cover–I like the style of artwork–and also the publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux. FSG usually publishes pretty high quality books, or at least books that I like. So that combined with the cover made me think this would probably be a good choice.

And it wasn’t a bad one. It’s a book that is somewhat epic in scope, in that it tries to be informed by many generations of the past. Set in Kentucky in the late part of last century and the early part of this one, there are three main characters whose stories intertwine. One of them is really into breeding thoroughbred racing horses, and the horse racing culture is used as a backdrop and extended metaphor. I was really into it at first, and there are definitely things to recommend it. I was gearing up to love it. I just felt like, part way through, maybe around the 60 or 70 percent mark, it lost its way or something. I don’t know if it quite knows what it was trying to be. In reviews written by people who loved it, one of the things often mentioned is that it is “sweeping” or “complex.” And I guess it is–it is ambitious. It tries to cover so much–family (family pride and family dysfunction, family myth and family…well, you’ll see if you read it), the United States’ racial legacy (slavery, servants, mass incarceration, opportunity, lack of understanding), ambition, class, choice, etc., etc., etc. I like thematically rich novels. But this one felt like it wasn’t quite doing any of them justice.

Another problem I had with it is that while, yes, it was thematically rich, the characters were just kind of…there. The book, at almost 600 pages, aimed to be deep with meaning but was not deep with characters, which is really such a shame, since I love character studies and think your characters are generally the best way to make your point–not lengthy passages on evolution or interludes on pregnancy, which are well-written, yes, and interesting, but ultimately came off as kind of lazy. Just a few too many digressions combined with not enough characterization.

[SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS, the next paragraph contains some pretty big spoilers]

The lack of character character development was true for all the characters, but was especially apparent with the only main female character, Henrietta, whose death is a catalyst for her racist, sexist, incestuous father to have an “awakening” or whatever. Um…great? Henrietta, I hardly knew ye. I feel like the author did a disservice with her storyline, and then suddenly her death was like this awesomesauce thing or something. She dies and now her horrible abusive father gets some redemption arc where he’s not as racist anymore. Just kinda icky. I can see how it would happen in real life, and I know people find meaning out of others’ deaths and that death and grief have the power to change our minds or make us see things in a new light. It’s just that these people don’t feel like real people, and when you use one of your cardboard characters to make a point like this, it’s just…I couldn’t done without it. With Allmon, the main black character, we get the best told story, but he still didn’t feel like someone with real personality or motivations; he felt wooden to me. We never really get inside the characters’ minds. Even when things are written from their perspective and in their mind, it’s fleeting and with a lack of real understanding or depth. I didn’t understand Henrietta–why didn’t she leave? How did she feel? How did she cope? She’s described as “cold” about five dozen times in the book, but what does that really mean? What is underneath that? What is her experience? I understand that not leaving because you feel trapped in an abusive situation is a common component of abuse, but we never are shown what that means to her. We never hear her thoughts on the matter. I just didn’t “get” her. I didn’t understand Henry either–yeah, he’s rich and racist, but like…? Is that all? It seemed like there should have been more there. I thought I understood Allmon, but in the end, it turns out I didn’t. Any actions that authors want their characters to take or not take is fine if I can see why, but I couldn’t really this time. The book is entirely about emotions in some ways, but paradoxically I couldn’t really get a read on any of the characters’ emotions most of the time. It was frustrating.

[SPOILERS continue in the next paragraph]

And then there’s the fact that Morgan, as a white woman, chose to write about the racial, class, and carceal suffering of a black man. I actually thought most if it was done well, though it is pretty heavy-handed. But then with that ending, it just gave a different feel to everything about Allmon’s storyline. It kind of felt like she was using the racial suffering of a group besides her own to make a “Great American Novel” but then forced that suffering onto the next (fictional) generation…for what purpose? To make a point about history? I found the scenario extremely unlikely. It was just one more thing in the book that kept it from feeling true or like the characters were real people.

[Okay no more spoilers]

The writing. Some of it is indeed beautiful. Some of it is quite florid. Some of my favorite writers have have been accused of purple prose, but really, this book contains some passages of the most aubergine hue I have ever read. Maybe it was bending so far on itself that it became literary again? I’m not sure, but I do know that, as beautiful and interesting as some passages were, and there were many I highlighted, there were just as many if not more that made me roll my eyes.

I just felt like this book was too ambitious. Instead of characters, it has themes, like the characters are just placeholders for ideas. Which can be interesting, but I didn’t feel like it was well done. It tried to be too many things and in the end it was kind of…unsatisfying. I love complex books with flawed characters, especially ones that deal with big topics. So if I had to point to one thing that turned me from excited and intrigued in this book to slightly disappointed, it would be the lack of inner life from all the characters in it. We see things happen to the characters but we don’t understand the characters’ inner world. I guess that is partly Morgan’s point–we’re buffeted about by history and belong to a particular moment that determines so much about us and our life course–what choices do we really have in the face of systems that were here long before us? Does our inner world matter or are our choices circumscribed? As someone who has studied up on sociology for the better part of a decade, I appreciate the point. It’s a question of history and biography, straight out of Mills’s sociological imagination. But while this book covered the “what” of people’s stories, by delving into “what happened to them,” often as the result of social forces, it didn’t really cover the “how” as well–it didn’t explore the meaning people gave to events or how they experienced things. And that lack of insight made the whole book seem like it was not hanging together so well. It gave so much power to history that it took away people’s agency, or at least didn’t let us see it, which I think was a pretty big flaw.

Still, it was interesting and thought-provoking and, I think, a more worthwhile read than many books out there. I would consider reading something else by Morgan, maybe even her first book, which I hear is kind of the opposite of this one in its scope. I think I might enjoy reading essays about this book more than I enjoyed the book itself.