Review: “The Guest Room” by Chris Bohjalian

In New York Times’ best seller Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel,Β Richard Chapman is, much to his reluctance, throwing his little brother a bachelor party. He expects a keg, some guac and the inevitable stripper to infiltrate the brick and mortar haven that is the suburban home he shares with his wife and their nine-year-old daughter. What he doesn’t expect, is to be drug head first into a world of gangsters and sex trafficking.

When the novel opens, readers immediately know that Bohjalian isn’t going to waste any time setting up the story –he dives right into the heavy, nitty gritty action that makes the story so riveting.

From the first pages, Bohjalian has readers tinkering from the end of their seats as he explores how brief moral lapses and bouts of violence can have astronomical effects on normal lives. In this well-paced novel, Bohjalian opens readers’ eyes to the horrors that are present and possible in our own back yards. He shows that human trafficking is not just “something that happens in Bangkok.”

Sex trafficking is not a pretty topic. In fact, the subjects of Bohjalian’s novels rarely are. In a recent interview with The San Diego Tribune, Bohjalian says “All of my books are about what I dread the most…So The Guest Room is just one more of those things I worry about.”Β Yet somehow, he tells his stories in a way that no matter how horrific or difficult to swallow, we keep turning the pages, hungry for more, hoping for a happy ending.

Bohjalian may not deliver on the happy ending, but he does give the story a satisfying ending. He tells the story that is there to tell, not concerned with easing our minds with neatly tied up and resolved conflicts. His stories are deeply rooted in reality which makes them simultaneously terrifying and just so good.

The Guest Room

Part of the beauty of Bohjalian’s story telling is that he doesn’t skimp out on the minor details, like a tub of Barbies collecting dust in the corner of a nine-year-0ld girl’s room. He gives everything in his stories meaning, nothing is there by accident or to fill up space.

It has been said that characters make a story. Without good characters, books would hardly be worth reading. Bohjalian takes that idea to the next level. Even his minor characters who show up but for a scene are clearly well thought out and planned. They are people with their own stories, not just supporting roles for this story.

He narrates from a few different perspectives, and all have a distinct voice.

Alexandra’s, one of the strippers from the party’s, back story is intricately interwoven with present events and gives readers more perspective. He includes even the details we would prefer to gloss over, showing how carefully he researched his topic. Yet the prose comes out effortless. A mark of a true master.

As an avid reader of Bohjalian’s work, I am always blown away by his ability to get into the head of characters so vastly different from himself such as Alexandra. In this novel, he does that twice when he explores how Melissa, Chapman’s daughter, copes with the events that occurred at her home while she was away. Her innocence shines through, yet we can see it being slowly whittled away as she learns more about the reality of the situation she has found herself in.

While the book speaks to the greater issue of human trafficking, what Bohjalian has done here is create a thrilling, modern story that will change the way we talk about marriage and sexuality. At its core, it’s about the frailty of marriage and some remarkable, strong young women.

The Guest Room is a novel that will surely keep readers furiously flipping pages all night. Bohjalian again proves himself to be a fearless master of his craft.

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Review: “Room” by Emma Donoghue

Imagine the world is 11 x 11 foot square. You have four walls, a door that you aren’t allowed to open. You have your ma, a man you call Old Nick brings you food and everything we all know to be true, you only watch on TV.

Most days are the same, with little variation. You sleep in Bed, climb on Table, play PE on the track on the floor. Nothing else exists, until it does.

room

I’d been hearing a lot about this book due to the movie coming out late last year. I finally got my hands on a copy and was instantly hooked. The plot is fairly straight forward: a woman is kidnapped, impregnated and left to raise her son in the a fore mentioned 11 x 11 Room. However, the story is told from the perspective of “Ma”‘s five-year-old son Jack.

For me, this narration choice was a game changer. Instead of being brought into this cold, dungeon-like space, we are brought into Jack’s home, the only home he’s ever known. He’s naive, but curious and readers are able to see the effect of the world being built in such a specific way on his growing mind.

Although the plot points in this story are horrific, there is still a sense of innocence present. Having Jack narrate it completely change the tone of the entire book. At first, you almost don’t know to be afraid. At first, when Ma begins explaining things, you are second guessing what she is saying, too. There is a sense of something coming, but you realize right along side Jack that you are already in it. That he doesn’t call everything “Table” or “Chair” with capital T and C because he’s a child learning the names of things. He is led to believe that they are the only Table and Chair that exist, that “Outside” is another world and outside the unopenable door lies outer space.

As they attempt a great escape, you see Jack’s curiosity grow until Ma cannot contain it anymore. Donoghue writes some of the most beautiful, heart wrenching lines, “But is Room still there when we aren’t in it?” She perfectly captures the child like attachment to familiarity. I think she is one of few authors who can successfully enter the mind of a child and tell a convincing story from that stand point.

This narration allows her to create some interesting metaphors about Ma’s psychological state. She is able to show how resilient, even if quite reliant, Jack is and how broken Ma is while staying true to her narrator.

In some ways, there are things left to be desired when it comes to Ma’s personal growth and suffering in the story. However, I think it was genius to show how something like this appears to a child. I can only imagine Donoghue’s challenge with being able to include some of the more troubling details yet in a way a child would understand. She tackles this feat with grace.

Donoghue challenges what it means to be a mother and displays what lengths a mother will go to to keep her children safe among such horrors. She uses dialogue to explain to us some of which Jack cannot. One of my favorite lines that truly shows Ma’s love for her son is “You don’t think I would have given Jack a different color of play doh every day if I could have?”

Utterly gripping, Donoghue takes readers captive much like Jack and Ma with her well-crafted tale. The difference is, you won’t want to escape.

Book Review: “Not That Kind of Girl” by Lena Dunham

I have to say that I am loving the influx of celebrity humor memoirs into the literary world as of late. Or at least I am enjoying their growing popularity. Most recently, I picked up a copy of “Not That Kind of Girl” by Lena Dunham from the local library (yes, those still exist. Go to yours, guaranteed you will find some gems).

not that kind of girl

Prior to reading this book, I was mostly unfamiliar with Dunham. I haven’t watched “Girls.” I don’t watch her interviews. I hadn’t read any of her stories in The New Yorker. I had read a few articles about her, but that was it. For me, reading this book was getting a peek into this woman’s mind and another humorous memoir to hopefully make me feel better about my life, as these books often do.

After reading this, I must ask, Lena, will you marry me? I know I already have a husband and all, but you are incredible.

This book, like many others in its genre, was raw and honest. Dunham didn’t hold anything back. In fact, she was just bold enough to slightly terrify me from the beginning.

The book is divided into sections based on topic: Love and Sex, Body, Friendship, Work and Big Picture. Yes, she opens with the sex section. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to what section I was reading so by the end of the third essay, I was feeling quite uncomfortable.

“Is this entire book just her sexual history laid out on the page?” I thought.

Then of course I went back and looked at the section title and realized her opening with this section was quite genius. She let’s you know what you are getting yourself into from the get go. She lays it all out there on the table, all the gory details the movies like to edit out about sex. She tells how she navigated the first few awkward hook ups and perfectly documents her relationships, all messy mistakes and all.

You can’t help but giggle and smile and somehow find a way to relate her tales to your own escapades.

The rest of the book is equally as honest. There are lengthier essays that hit on heavier topics, with the perfect touch of sarcastic, dry humor. There are essays that are no more than lists. There are essays that you have to wonder if she made up.

The best part about this is that she isn’tΒ tryingΒ to be funny. She just is. She is just honest enough to make you laugh –slightly out of discomfort. She says what we are all trying to say. I found myself nodding a lot as I read this. As well as laughing out loud –maybe don’t read this book in public.

Some of her essays made me feel less alone. In “‘Diet’ is a four letter word: how to remain 10 lbs overweight only eating healthy food” she perfectly lays out early obsessions with food and documenting what you eat. Without coming out and saying it, she points out how ridiculous the notion of eating half a grape for breakfast is. How ridiculous our obsession with body image is.

I think, in fact, that the best parts of this book are the parts that are left unsaid.

The cute illustrations throughout are a plus, too.

There were passages that felt like reading out of one of my old journals. There were passages that talked about things I had never experienced yet still felt like I could relate to because she painted a perfect picture of it.

There were passages that made me feel less crazy, such as “Hello Mother, Hello Father: greetings from Fernwood Cove Camp for Girls.” She talks about how the stories we hear sometimes get blended and blurred into our own memories. Something that sounds so crazy to say out loud, but she somehow found a way to explain it and let me know I’m not alone.

Furthermore, I loved the work section where she was brutally honest without naming names. She shows that being honest and speaking your truth doesn’t mean that you have to destroy someone else. Stories often have the same amount of impact whether we know who they are about or not. Although, Lena, I can’t wait until you’re 80. What can I say, I’m curious for you to name those names!

Overall, this book is like eating a piece of chocolate cake. It begs to be devoured at once yet you want to savor it and take small, dainty bites. You distract yourself taking a picture of it, scrolling through Instagram in between bites, ponder the idea of saving a bite for your friend but ultimately eat it before they get back from the bathroom.

It’s just that good.