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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Science News: Baby Chimps Ace IQ Tests

For 21 years, I worked as a school psychologist in a Connecticut public school district. Among my many duties was administering intelligence tests as part of the process for identifying learning problems. Over the years, I  completed more than a thousand assessments for kids from preschool to grade 12. I retired (early) nearly 5 years ago, but still follow advances in the field, so this morning, I read this article with interest. I’ve never been one to feel threatened by the theory of evolution or the proposition that humans evolved from the lesser primates.

A new University of Portsmouth  study,  published in the latest issue of Developmental Psychobiology, found that a group of 9 month old chimpanzees, raised with “responsive care”,  performed better on a standard test of infant cognitive development than did a group of human counterparts. “Responsive care involved daily four-hour-long mom sessions, where the humans would play with the infant chimps, encouraging their motor development and communication skills while helping them to meet new challenges with curiosity instead of distress.” In other words, they were nurtured emotionally as well as physically, and received encouragement and teaching, much as a good human parent interacts with her baby.

Why are these findings important? The researchers emphasize the critical impact of  environment, nurturance, and encouragement on human development. The study also demonstrates that animals are deserving of respect and protection rather than exploitation.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

-Mahatma Ghandi

“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”

– Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher

link to article