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.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Title: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 4 / 5

Goodreads

 

After finishing Rules of Civility, I kind of had a hard time finding the next book that I was sufficiently drawn to. There were actually two I wanted to read next, but neither library in town had them so I put in my interlibrary loan request, but those can take a while. I figured this one, which had been on my radar for a while and was surfacing around the internet lately, would be a good one to read since it’s so short–less than 200 pages, and in the hardback copy from my library, it’s quite a pretty small format book with relatively large text. I didn’t realize until after I’d read some of it that the author is the same one who wrote How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which is a book I liked.

I didn’t like this one quite as much, but I do feel like it was trying to “say” more. Like How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which was told in the second person, this one played with unusual conceit in the narration: it is pretty much a first person narrator, but it’s written as if it’s a story told orally to an American in Pakistan whose identity we basically know nothing about it. The effect this creates is a sort of stream-of-consciousness quality as the narrator–a Pakistani man–relates the story of how he moved to the US when he was 18 to attend Princeton before quickly becoming disillusioned with his finance-sector job and ultimately wound up back in Pakistan.

Despite “fundamentalist” featuring in the title, and the crescent & moon symbol of Islam, this book doesn’t really seem to be about religion. Throughout the narrator’s story, he seems to be quite a tepid Muslim, rather than a fundamentalist one, as almost no mention is made of his faith at all, and indeed the title is a reference to his financial firm’s emphasis on the “fundamentals.”

It’s an interesting and thought-provoking story with a solid open ending. I also liked the ambiguity of the narrator–was he unreliable? Or not? I can see why, despite being 10 years old, it’s making the rounds in lots of recent book lists. Some of it seems written for the current moment: “I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back… What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me–a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty?”

If you’re interested in it, I would give it a shot–after all, it’s so short that I read it in an afternoon.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Title: The Shadow of the Wind
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Genre: Fiction / historical fiction

Rating: did not finish

Goodreads

I got this book for Christmas, and when I wanted to start reading aloud to Peter again after a somewhat lengthy break due to last semester, this was the obvious choice. We started on it late in 2016, so it was not part of the “books I’m drawn to” challenge.

As much as I wanted to like it and as much as it seemed promising in some ways, and we both liked it in the beginning, we decided to throw the towel in due to the tiring sexism of the author.

First, some good things: The writing is, as many others have noted, rich and descriptive. This could be a positive or a negative depending on your personal tastes, of course, but for the most part, I think it worked well for the novel and it did help evoke Barcelona and give a sense of the mood. I also liked the somewhat slow pacing, which seemed to be building toward a good mystery. I liked that it seemed like an intricate story.

But in the end (well, at about the 1/3 mark), the sexism was just too pervasive and too pointless. Peter kept interjecting, “Are you highlighting this? You need to highlight this for your review!!” It was just really in  your face. I was surprised that so many people gave it such high ratings and rave reviews considering this aspect of the book, so I googled it; a few other reviewers agree that it was sexist, but there’s also quite a few people who say it’s not sexist because of “the time and place” it depicts. But that’s not really a valid argument or how that kind of thing works. It wasn’t that the book depicted sexism or a sexist time period, it was that the author (writing in 2001) decided to portray women in a sexist and misogynist way. It’s perfectly possible to write about the sexism of the times without reproducing it yourself. This book was not commenting on or highlighting sexism of the time in a self-aware way; women characters in the book were empty shells, and they were only referenced through their sex appeal or lack thereof. They weren’t agents in their own life. Just to make my point some more, here is a list books that not only depict a time period prior to the time period of this book but were actually written before the time period this book depicts; they are all less sexist in their portrayal of women than this book is: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Rebecca  by Daphne DuMaurier, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Persuasion  by Jane Austen, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy… and the list goes on. Many of these books do have sexist portrayals, and some of them are more self-aware about it than others (for example, Dracula used sexist stereotypes in telling its story but they didn’t rise to the level of misogyny that this book sometimes does, whereas I feel The Scarlet Letter definitely contained sexism but was actually more of a critique on it). Nevertheless, they were all less offensive on the gender front than this book.

Anyway, the word I used to describe the sexism here was “tiring,” and that’s why we decided to stop. I encounter sexism in many books I read and can often still enjoy a book that contains it. But with this book, we could hardly get through a single short chapter without unnecessary evaluations of women’s breasts (while men’s physical features do get described, it’s not with the same tone), or silly and vacuous women that are just there for male characters to use, easily outsmart or bend to their will, fantasize about, etc.

I can see how some people would enjoy this book, but the misogyny wore both Peter and me down after a while. I just read this review aloud to Peter before publishing it, and he said, “Can you use the word saturated in there? And the word skeevy?” …As in, this book is saturated with skeevy sexism. ;D