It’s tempting to review this book as a fictional work and discuss characterizations and plot, but Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a rigorous recounting of actual events. It sat on my reading queue for years as I expected a dry list of dates, places, and events. This book is so much more—it has brilliant flow and pacing, the town is vividly described, and it’s deeply emotional. If the story weren’t true, In Cold Blood would be the greatest work of crime fiction I’ve read. Because it reads like a novel, with “characters” and suspense, I have my usual urge to avoid spoilers though I imagine the line is different with a heavily publicized, 53-year-old murder case. I suspect many young readers approach the book as I did with only a little foreknowledge. I knew only that four members of the Clutter family were killed and two men were hanged for their murder. Capote controls the pace of the story so expertly as to provide unbearable suspense and tension; to preserve this, I won’t include the details of the murderers’ capture. read more
This book was required reading for two of my college lit courses: one for modern women authors and other titled “queer theory.” The former because Written on the Body was written by Jeannette Winterson in 1992; the latter because the unnamed narrator is of an undefined sex and gender. The obvious question: how can you write 190 pages in close, first person narration without indicating whether the speaker is male or female? So much in our society carries the understanding of being “for women,” “for men,” it seems unbelievable that a character won’t imply a preferred identity through their choices. In creating this ambiguity, Winterson is careful to never push her narrator too close to conventional ideas of masculinity or femininity. read more
Gary Shteyngart’s satire in Super Sad True Love Story works best in small doses. The segment presented in the June 14, 2010 issue of The New Yorker “Lenny Hearts Eunice” is brilliant. However, the complete novel is a difficult read because the satire is the only redeeming feature; there aren’t intriguing characters or a plot worth mentioning. Once the setting is established, Shteyngart breaks no new ground and struggles to drive the story. In short: A low-confidence “nice guy” channels his intense fear of death into a fixation on youthful Eunice Park. He convinces her to live with him in New York where she responds tepidly to his slavish devotion. If there is a love story here, you need to dig for it. These characters are shallow, narcissistic, and tedious. read more
I’ve gone through a half dozen copies of this book. I keep giving away my copy in a shameless bid to convince the recipient to read the opening story. If they’d like to read further, fine, but I’m not going to stamp my feet and insist. It’s potentially embarrassing to confess ambivalence towards most of a book when that book won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but I’m going to do it anyway. The first story of Interpreter of Maladies, “A Temporary Matter,” is why the collection won. The other stories are merely good enough. Lahiri floats on the brilliance of her first story, but cannot recreate its magic in any of her others. read more
Don’t take Chad Harbach’s debut novel too seriously. It’s a traditional coming-of-age story against a baseball backdrop. (Basic baseball knowledge is enough to see you through: three strikes and you’re out, each team gets three outs an inning, etc.) The story is told from four perspectives, those of: Mike Schwartz, Henry Skrimshander, Guert Affenlight, and Pella Affenlight.
Mike Schwartz is an overly zealous baseball captain who takes the young (and brilliant) shortstop, Henry Skrimshander, under his wing at Westish College. The baseball scenes are written with reverence for the game, but the book is rife with odd spurts of humor to keep it loose. Obsessed with perfection, Henry Skrimshander plays one error free game after another. He follows fictional Aparicio Rodriguez’s zen-like approach to fielding as explained in The Art of Fielding, which he has memorized. Once he meets his goal of tying Aparicio’s record for error-free games, he begins to over-think his throws and no longer responds to the game reflexively. Without his reflexes, his uncanny ability to predict the flight of the ball becomes useless. As Henry’s descent into insecurity and inability deepens, he slides to the back of the story and other characters come to light. read more