Modern Lit: The Guest Room, by Chris Bohjalian

The Guest Room

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After a lifetime of devouring books, I have concluded that most of them are read and easily forgotten, but a few stick with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Chris Bohjalian has the distinction of having written two of the latter. The first is Skeletons at the Feast, about the horrors committed on the populace by Germans and Russians during the last months of WWII. I just finished reading the second yesterday, The Guest Room, which is about the horrors of international human trafficking, and have no doubt that it too will continue to haunt my memory for years to come.

A bachelor party (when did they stop calling them “stags”?) gone terribly wrong is the impetus for the story line, which plays out from the points of view of the host, Richard Chapman, and one of the young “exotic dancers”, Alexandra. They are both powerful characters. It is painful to read Alexandra’s graphic account of her brutal kidnapping and degradation, and the utter hopelessness of her ensuing life, and she is one of the most unforgettable protagonists I have ever encountered. It is less easy to feel sympathy for Richard, the urbane and savvy investment banker with a beautiful wife and child who simply watched his brother’s “party” decline into total debauchery and end in murder. But loss of control characterizes Richard’s situation as well as Alexandra’s, and as he struggles to cope with the many humiliations and complications he will have to suffer,  his deep shame and  his refusal to make excuses reveal him in essence as a good man who drank way too much and failed to put his foot on the brakes when he should have. His wife, Kristin, is also multi-dimensional, refraining from vengefulness despite her sickening sense of revulsion  and disbelief over her husband’s betrayal and the bloody desecration of their home. Melissa, their nine year old daughter, is the child Alexandra never had the chance to be; one of the few smiles provoked during the story came from Melissa’s fear that the men killed in her home were still present as ghosts.

This is a tightly plotted novel written with all the skill I’ve come to expect from Bohjalian’s prose. Surprises abound, and the book ends up at a place I never foresaw for it. It is not easy to read, but it is certainly gripping, and I finished it in a day. But the hopelessless that colors most of the chapters is somewhat mitigated at last.

Now I have to figure out what I want to do to help end human trafficking.

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It’s a Mystery: The Bones of Paris, by Laurie R. King

The Bones of Paris (Harris Stuyvesant, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Laurie King transports her readers to Jazz Age Paris in the second entry in her Harris Stuyvesant series. Harry is still trying to recover from a long defunct romance, so he accepts a request to look into the disappearance of Philippa Crosby, with whom he had a brief fling on the Riviera. Pip, as she’s known, has been skirting the fringes of the Parisian demi-monde , modeling for artists such as Man Ray and hobnobbing with Hemingway and his cronies. The surreal and macabre nature of some of her belongings disturb Harry initially.  But when he traces Pip’s activities to the Theatre du Grand-Guignol, a venue famous for its depraved and violent presentations, his concerns skyrocket.

Stuyvesant is a morose, rather cynical character, and when his lost love, Sarah,  turns up in the company of Man Ray, it throws him; as a result Harry throws himself into the seamy, often secretive midnight bar scene frequented by artists and writers. Interestingly, he’s developed a real attraction to Pip’s flatmate, but his dark mood and careless habits threaten to wreck the relationship before it begins. During the course of his investigation, he finds himself immersed in a subculture that meets in Paris’ infamous catecombs to celebrate the cult of “death pornography”. Harry begins to receive messages meant to encourage him to quit the search, and when he persists, his casual mistress is shot to death on the streets. Harry connects with a city detective who, because of Harry’s former association with J. Edgar Hoover, is willing to work with him, undercover, bien sur. To their horror, many more young women have disappeared.

The appeal of this novel lies in its ambience, the view it provides into the dark underside of the City of Light. The investigation itself is rather slow, with a shot of real suspense saved for the final chapters. It’s fun to encounter the rich and famous, though the only ones portrayed in any depth are Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray. Harry himself, in spite of his self-defeating choices, is likable for his humanity and genuine sense of justice. King’s writing, of course, is good as ever.  Not a “page turner”, but did keep my interest from start to finish.

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It’s a Mystery: The Woman in Cabin Ten, by Ruth Ware

The Woman in Cabin 10

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Locked room mysteries have been popular over the years, and while The Woman in Cabin Ten takes place on a yacht, it follows classic locked room standards. Lo Blackwood is a journalist working for a travel magazine when she’s handed a plum assignment – to sail and report on the maiden voyage of luxury boutique cruise ship Northern Lights. Shortly before she’s due to depart, Lo’s apartment is broken into while she’s sleeping. Lo is no wonder woman. She’s been depressed and anxious for most of her life, and the break in (which is one of the novel’s more effective sequences) terrifies her, which, in fairness, is how most women would react. To pile on additional stress, she has a fight with her boyfriend hours before boarding ship. So when Lo overhears the sounds of a body being thrown overboard on her first night at sea, she reacts in a way that lands her in permanent panic mode.

The rest of the book follows the course of Lo’s attempts to convince the ship’s crew that a murder has taken place. This is a more difficult task than you might think, and the tension ratchets up even higher when she discovers that someone has been tampering with things in her cabin. Lo trusts none of her fellow passengers, and while no one believes her, she does begin to make some progress to eliminating possible suspects. The final third of the story takes place in a pitch black, locked room deep in the ship’s hold, where Lo has been taken prisoner because she now knows too much. Ruth Ware has realistically portrayed the effects of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation in these scenes. At times, the narrative cuts away to news reports about a woman who has disappeared from Northern Lights and is presumed dead. Will all become clear at the end? Will Lo survive?

Though Lo comes across as an unreliable narrative at times, and an emotional mess nearly all the time, you have to credit her with dogged perseverance, even though she fears, rightly enough, that her life is in danger. She also deserves credit for not allowing her psychological problems to destroy her integrity. Is she “likeable”? Many readers say not. To me, that doesn’t matter, because her story was compelling, and I dare say there are very many people out there who must deal with similar sorts of emotional issues.

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Paranormal Fiction: Blythewood, by Carol Goodman

Blythewood (Blythewood, #1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carol Goodman’s novels generally take place at in educational settings near bodies of water, where female protagonists must face mysterious circumstances fraught with danger. Blythewood is no exception, but this time around, the book is aimed at a young adult audience. Intriguingly, the story’s catalyst takes place during the horrific fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where Avaline Hall has sought employment after her mother’s early death. Amidst the terror, Avaline escapes death through the actions of a pair of strange males, one a beautiful winged creature and the other a malevolent man in an Inverness cape. Little wonder that she lands in a psychiatric ward, until her estranged grandmother takes her under wing. Suddenly, Avaline finds herself a student at the elite school, Blythewood on the Hudson, following in the footsteps of her mother, who although she was expelled, is something of a folk heroine. Reminiscent of the Harry Potter series, no?

Avaline’s experiences at Blythewood open her eyes to the paranormal world of magic, fairies, and evil that coexists within the forests that surround the campus. As she struggles to fit into the snooty student body, Avaline encounters both the caped man and the winged boy again, making new friends, falling in love, and discovering special powers that she never suspected she possessed. Most of all, she wants to learn why her mother left school in disgrace, and who her father is. The adolescent angst is true to the genre, but the story was well written, full of quirky characters, and compelling enough to hold my interest. Not sure, however, whether or not I’ll check out Ravenswood, the sequel.

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It’s a Mystery: The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault

The Broken Teaglass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Any author who can stimulate a reader’s interest in reading about her main characters reading the dictionary is pretty darned good, and that’s exactly what Emily Arsenault has accomplished in her debut novel, The Broken Teaglass. The narrator is a new college grad, Billy Webb, who is perplexed about where a philosophy major might find his place in the world. He grows even more perplexed when he finds himself accepting a job as editorial assistant at an iconic dictionary publishing house, which is quiet as a tomb. For folks who work with words, the staff is remarkably reclusive and laconic, but Billy manages to befriend another young assistant, Mona Minot. A large part of their work involves finding new words and defining new uses of old words, which requires much research in the company’s library of ten million word “citations”. In the process, they happen upon a series of “cits” written by a Dolores Beekmim, which when read together appear to form a confession to a nebulous yet disturbing crime. Under Mona’s prodding, Billy joins her in a painstaking search to discover who wrote the cits and committed what seems to have been murder, without tipping off their colleagues, who, after all, may have been involved in the crime.

As a mystery, the book is not particularly suspenseful, but along the way, the two protagonists reveal much about themselves, twining a coming of age thread into the mix. Essentially, all the characters are intelligent but socially inept versions of, well, nerds, partly due to the exacting and dry nature of their work as lexicographers. There are some scenes featuring Billy’s hippy neighbors, but their role in the story never becomes important. As much fun as following the mystery plot is learning about the nuts and bolts of dictionary writing – who gets to decide if new words are “real” and which of them should be included in upcoming revisions. The Broken Teaglass might not be your cup of tea if you’re looking for action and adventure, but for readers like me who love words, it makes for quirky and fascinating reading.

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Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at Smithsonian.com about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

It’s a Mystery: The Evening Spider by Emily Arsenault

The Evening Spider

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One house, two women, two centuries. The Evening Spider opens with a traumatic experience for new mom Abby. She and her husband have recently moved into an antique house with their 5 month old daughter, Lucy. Like many new mothers, Abby feels like the proverbial fish out of water in her new role; having taken leave from teaching history, she finds herself home alone with the baby much of the time. One evening, troubled by some anomalies she’s noticed in Lucy’s room – its noisy, squeaky door that requires muscle to open, and an eerie shushing sound coming over the baby monitor each night- Abby spies a spider on the ceiling, and when she turns her back to kill it, Lucy takes a tumbles onto the floor. She develops a vivid round bruise on her face, one that her mother can’t explain to herself or to her husband. To calm herself, Abby begins researching the history of her new home and discovers a diary penned by one of its previous inhabitants.

Spool back to 1885: Frances Barnett, a would-be biologist feeling stifled by her new role as housewife and mother, experiences a profound sense of disquiet that causes her to question her ability to bond with her child. Her husband, Matthew, though not overtly critical, dismisses Frances’s scientific interests and seems to find her wanting as wife and mother. When Matthew takes on a sensational murder case, Frances becomes obsessed with its details, especially the forensic ones, to the extent that her sanity comes into question.

Part Gaslight-style mystery and part haunted house tale, The Evening Spider traces the struggles of these two women to come to terms with the commonplace but very daunting changes in their lives. Of the two stories, Frances’s is the more compelling, and depictions of the psychiatric practices of the time are quite chilling. Equally chilling, however, are Abby’s fears that she is being haunted by Frances, which are played out in a subtle yet convincing manner. Most intriguing are the ways in which each woman will discover the source of her trauma. Frances’s tale comes to a reasonably satisfying resolution, considering the times in which she lived. Abby’s is less conclusive, and I’m still trying to decide how things will turn out for her. What is most interesting is the way the author has depicted the truly awesome adjustments that all new mothers must make, particularly the emotional ones.

Recommended for readers who enjoy a mystery with a heavy infusion of the gothic and the psychological. Just don’t expect that all the ends will be neatly tied.

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