The Sport of Kings

The Sport of Kings does not have a lick of wimpy writing in it. Instead, it’s the kind of prose that hooks two fingers in your nostrils and drags you through it:

In the fifth month Henry’s terror grows steadily in the womb of his mind. What if the Blood Horse is born of Soured Milk? What if there exists no vestige of divinity at all but only a satyr, that beast of horsetail, cloven hoof, and black pugnacious eye? It’s all her fault — seductress! She was too voluptuous, too hot-blooded and luxuriant. She lay in the undulatory grasses under green, fireworking trees, drunk on the liquor of Nature when the other pricked her lip and butterflied her and split the red carbuncle. See how the ordered marvels have been made vulgar! Now the invasive little goat floats in the tendrils of his sodden horse’s tail; he is swilling her dark wine, strangely robust and grinning, that swarthy little fiend already stroking himself erect, good for nothing and unfit for work, a mother’s trouble and Nature’s excess, the child of the a warmongering Orangutan and a woman, Simia satyrus. The bestiaries will designate him an indolent cline.

That’s just Henry Forge, a horse breeder and scion of an old, wealthy Kentucky family,  thinking about his daughter’s pregnancy. This is an extreme paragraph — all the writing is not quite so florid — but it does give a good sense of the intensity of C. E. Morgan’s prose and the way she  lashes together rich vocabulary and syntax to tell the story and layer and sculpt her themes.

I romped through this novel, initially caught up in the language. It’s about a topic and place — horse breeding/racing in Kentucky — that I know very little about. The book starts with the establishment of the Forge family in Kentucky and the many generations of Forges that gets us to Henry and his only child, Henrietta. Henry defies his ancestors by turning their noble plantation into a world-class horse breeding facility.  His daughter turns his family’s long line of privilege on its white, racist head by hiring a formerly incarcerated black groom (with his own long back story) that she gets up to all kinds of business with in the horse barn.

Splitting each chapter of storytelling are “Interlude” chapters where the writer waxes wild about her themes: race, breeding, genetics, blood lines, primogeniture, in horseflesh and human flesh. It was altogether clear that Morgan was playing with the ideas of breeding horses and breeding humans and how miscegenation and racism factored into both the business and the personal.

Looking at them all raising glasses to her munificent grandfather, her ambitious father — panegyrics for the living and the dead. The bourbon Henrietta was drinking was florid and complex, but she tasted only confusion. She had lain under Allmon just this afternoon, curing with want and wanting his need. She was in love, but maybe she was also hopelessly naive. She blinked. Did she actually think that love offered some kind of escape? There is kingdom, class, order, family, genus, species. You could step out of your heels, walk backward down the hall, recede from their collective gaze, but you could never escape the category of your birth and all the morphological categories which preceded it.

Where Morgan grabbed me with her writing style, she lost me with her storytelling. I don’t want to give too much away, but I found Henrietta’s declared love for her groom utterly ridiculous–lust, yes, love, no. Everything about her character was set up to make such a declaration highly improbable (though maybe the preceding quote suggests such awareness). Also, Allmon, the black groom and her lover, was a complex character that I didn’t think Morgan had a good hold of on many levels — his emotions, ambitions, and motivations. I almost stopped reading at the point where Allmon has an emotional breakdown in the horse barn — it really seemed cheesy to me. I wish her storytelling were on par with her wordsmithing, then this book would have been the humdinger it promised.

Despite my uneasiness with the storytelling, I did read all the way to the end. I loved her language and even enjoyed the themes, heavy-handed as they were at times. Anybody else read this? What did you think of the probability of Henrietta and Allmon’s relationship being true love? Did you think that a certain aspect (ahem…) of Henrietta and Henry’s relationship seemed to be added in as an afterthought?

A short update to say that I was just notified that this is my 100th post. Huzzah!

3/5
personal copy

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Time Reading Program 1964: The Big Sky

I read and reviewed The Big Sky before my obsession with the Time Reading Program editions began. So, this will not be a review of that book (you can read that here), but more a reminder that it is a FANTASTIC book that I highly recommend in whatever edition you choose. But the cover of the TRP edition is a smasher, as you can see above, done by George Salter.

As much as I am enjoying these TRP books, I am enjoying researching the artists that did the covers. After all, it was the covers that drew me to them initially. Sometimes I can find very little on an artist, but George Salter is an exception. He was one of the most influential book cover artists in the twentieth century, and I not only found a website dedicated to him, but also a book, Classic Book Jackets: The Design Legacy of George Salter by Thomas Hansen.

Salter was both a calligrapher and a designer. He started his career in his native Germany and became a highly influential book cover designer there between WWI and WWII. He really made a name for himself with the design of Berlin Alexanderplatz, which Hansen describes as “the most famous book jacket for a work of twentieth-century German fiction.” He also notes that “Never before had a book design achieved such a powerful fusion of word and image. The author [of Berlin Alexanderplatz] supplied extra text specifically for this jacket.”

Despite Salter’s success in Germany, he lost his job due to Hitler’s rise in power and antisemitic policies. He was among the first wave of artist refugees who fled to the U.S. Luckily, he had contacts and was able to begin working again rather quickly. And from there, Salter began to make his mark on American book jacket illustration. He worked for many publishers (Simon & Shuster, Afred A. Knopf,  Modern Library) and designed covers for many important books and writers: John Hersey, Ayn Rand, Graham Greene, Steinbeck, Isak Dinesan, E.M. Forester, Gore Vidal, Thomas Mann, more.

Classic Book Covers contains a couple hundred images of Salter’s book covers. The TRP Big Sky does not appear in its pages, but it is included at the back in a comprehensive list of Salter’s design work. The book also notes that Salter sometimes reused earlier designs. I think he did this for The Big Sky because I found noticed a very similar design on the cover of Early Joys by Konstantin Fedin. I like the TRP version better.

Flipping through Classic Book Covers, I recognized a book that I have on my shelf, The Portable Greek Reader. I found this at a thrift store, drawn by the cover, but didn’t buy it immediately because I thought myself silly to buy a book just for the cover (clearly I have gotten over it). I couldn’t get it out of my mind and drove back the next day and nabbed it for a mere 25¢. I only wish I’d also snagged the Thomas Mann book next to it, also illustrated by Salter. You can see it below, along with a few other jackets that I especially admire.

Pulitzer 2011: A Visit from the Good Squad

I’m going to find this book tough to review because — dare I confess? — I really couldn’t follow parts of it. It starts off with a great scene — Sasha’s on another bad first date and heads into the women’s room for some recharging. She spies a green wallet sticking out of a bag, while its owner is busy in the stall. Sasha’s a kleptomaniac, and she’s been working with a therapist to understand why stealing gives her such a rush of pleasure. But the opportunity the unattended wallet presents to give her a rush of relief from her boring date is just too perfect a chance to pass by.  So she nabs it. This first chapter nabbed me, too, even if I did have to wonder — who the hell leaves their bag outside the stall while using a public bathroom? Continue reading

Time Reading Program 1965: The Member of the Wedding

Cover art by Leo & Diane Dillon

This slim novel by Carson McCullers is a wonder — nuanced, sensitive, sad, and sometimes funny. Published in 1948, it tells the story of a lonely twelve-year-old girl, Frankie Addams, at the end of one summer in a small southern town. From the beginning sentences, McCullers announces her major theme:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had always been an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.

This summer, Frankie has grown tall and gangly, “almost a big freak,” and she spends hot, monotonous days mostly hanging around the kitchen table with the family cook, Berenice, and her six-year-old cousin, John Henry. Her older brother, an army soldier who’s been living in Alaska, has returned with his bride to get married. Frankie will attend the wedding with her father, and as the book begins, it is this upcoming event that spurs the action of the story. Continue reading

Time Reading Program 1962: The Ox-Bow Incident

It’s been quite a long time since I read and reviewed one of my Time Reading Program books. But this September, I read The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. In fact, it was the only book I finished in September — which says a lot about how hectic life’s been for me of late.  Walter Van Tilburg Clark published The Ox-Bow Incident in 1940, and Time, Inc. reprinted it in 1962.

Two cowboys return to town in the spring after spending months isolated on a winter range. They are thirsting for drink and interaction with more people than each other. In the saloon, they learn that one or two locals have been the victims of cattle rustlers and tensions are running high. Soon a young man enters the bar and excitedly announces that the rustlers have struck again, but this time, they killed a man, too. The sheriff is out of town, but that suits many of the locals well; they’d rather take the matter into their own hands by tracking down the rustlers and hanging them. Continue reading

19 Books of Summer + Middlemarch Round-Up

I did pretty well on the 20 books of summer challenge — better than I expected. Before September 3 rolled around I had finished 14 books. This number includes the last three books of Middlemarch and concludes it. Huzzah! That’s a pretty good run for me, especially considering how busy my summer was.

But September has proved to be busier yet. I’ve not even finished a single book this month. But in the spirit of finishing this up and moving on, I am going to mini-review the last three books I read as part of the challenge and say a few words about Middlemarch. And be done.

  The Marquise of O— by Heinrich von Kleist

In this strange novella, published in 1808, the virtuous,  respectable, and widowed Countess of O— finds herself unaccountably pregnant with her fourth child. Certainly the Marquise is aware of how babies are made, but she cannot recall the circumstances that have brought about her condition, and it puts her honor in serious question with her family. So she places an ad in the newspaper asking for the father of her child to present himself to her. The story is a bit more complicated that I am describing, but even a close reading left me puzzled. Most analyses infer rape by a Russian Count seeking her hand in marriage, but there is a strange scene with the Marquise sitting on her father’s lap kissing him deeply that was disturbing and suspect. It’s a short and interesting read, but I guarantee you will be going back to try to figure out what you missed. Let me know if you find it. 4/5 Continue reading

Two Best Westerns (and I don’t mean motels)

I don’t think it’s really fair to call Death Comes for the Archbishop a Western, but it is set in the west — in New Mexico in the nineteenth century — and it evokes the landscape, air, and light of that western state so well that I’ll take the liberty.

The ride back to Santa Fe was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still,–and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

Continue reading