1965 Club: Hotel by Arthur Hailey

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I had to read Hotel on my kindle, because while it may have been an international bestseller once, our library no longer carries it. Nor does our local Barnes and Noble, or Indie book shop. It is such a fun read, not only because it “catches the reader by the lapels and holds him through its last crowded page” (the Chicago Tribune) but because it reminds me of life in the sixties. When wake-up calls were made by real people at the front desk, when keys were real metal objects connected to a plastic tag with your room number, and when call girls’ phone numbers were written on the front pages of the Gideon Bibles. (Who knew?)

All the inner workings of St. Gregory, a fictional hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans, are laid out for us in intricate detail. From the frat party gone wrong, to the fact that Warren Trent may have to sell his hotel to Curtis O’Keefe due to lacking money for the mortgage, we feel the tension suffered by the employees and guests alike.

There is the Duke and Duchess of Croydon who have a hit-and-run to hide, employing the help of the hotel’s devious investigator, Oligivie. There is Peter McDermott falling in love with Trent’s secretary, Catherine. There is a thief, nicknamed Keycase, who obtains keys through tricky means and comes into people’s rooms at night to lift their valuables. And there are age old issues besides, involving things like unions and racial tensions.

This is a book that brings me back to an era I vaguely remember, while showing us that the “more things change, the more they stay the same.” It was a wonderful choice for the 1965 Club; it would be a wonderful choice for your reading pleasure alone.

(Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting this reading event.)

The Reckoning by John Grisham

When I pick up a Grisham novel, I don’t expect fully one third of it to be a history lesson about the horrors the Japanese committed in Word War II. But halfway through this novel, when I was sufficiently intrigued as to why Peter Banning shot Reverend Dexter Bell in his church office and admitted to doing so without once saying why, I had to keep reading.

Unfortunately, I was suddenly thrust into the atrocities of war in Japan, and the Philippines, which went on relentlessly. It was a gruesome part of the book, portraying events so horrible it seemed unlikely that Lieutenant Peter Banning could have possibly lived through them.

But, of course he does, so that the last third of the book can reveal the reason he had to murder Dexter Bell, a reason I am unwilling to relate as it spoils the entire reason for reading this book. Suffice it to say the reason rests mightily on misunderstanding and regret.

At times I wondered if I was reading a book by Grisham at all. Other than the quite wonderfully written parts of the legal trial, the courtroom, the questioning, the motives of the lawyers, I felt the rest of the novel to be contrived. It didn’t ring true of what I know his writing to be, and for this, many people have praised The Reckoning. However, for me A Time to Kill will always be his best work.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (“History is a merciless judge.”)

What a dreadfully boring book. If it had not been for the choice of my Book Club, and the responsibility I felt toward contributing to the discussion, I would not have finished it. As it was, each page was nearly tortuous to read, the writing as stilted as if I had been reading an encylopedia. Where was the passion? Where was the life within these characters? Absent, except for within my own imagination.

Certainly I am one of the few who feels this way, as Killers of The Flower Moon has been both a bestseller and a National Book Award Finalist. It’s possible I was disgruntled in part because of my intense passion for translated literature. But, I found the story slow to evolve and the characters largely devoid of life. However, it is does fit in perfectly with today’s recurring theme of the terrible white man, and all he has done to abuse others not of his race.

Grann tells the story of the Reign of Terror, in which Ernest Burkhart (following the orders of his uncle, William K. Hale) took away everything from his Osage wife’s family: her mother, sisters, brother-in-law, and trust were all sacrificed in his desire for the headrights (which the Osage had) to the oil fields in Oklahoma on which they lived.

In conjunction with the tale of the Osage murders, Grann relates tales of the judicial system in the 1920s and the subsequent birth of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. As my mother said, “It is hard to believe that the FBI is relatively new,” or that finger printing was not a common practice before the 1930s.

This book tells a heartbreaking tale of the horrible mistreatment of the Osage in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. But, in my opinion, their story was inelegantly told.

Madeleine L’Engle: The Kairos Novels, Review and Give-away

This beautiful set comes in a slipcover …

containing the Wrinkle in Time Quartets and The Polly O’Keefe Quartets.

I have long collected Madeleine L’Engle’s books, and so I have a rather haphazard set, all in different editions. Above are two from the Wrinkle in Time Quartet…

and here are two of the Polly O’Keefe Quartet. But, how lovely it is to have a two-volume set, with each volume containing all four of each series.

Volume 1 contains A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters.

Volume 2 contains the Polly O’Keefe Quartet, which consists of The Arm of the Starfish, Dragons in the Waters, A House Like a Lotus, and An Acceptable Time.

The Kairos Novels are edited by Leonard S. Marcus and published by the Library of America.

Few works loom as large in the history of young adult literature as Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 Newbery Award-winning classic, A Wrinkle in Time. A truly revolutionary book blending realism and fantasy, science and religion, it was the first great crossover classic, appealing to children, teens, and adults, and setting the template for books such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Now, in time for L’Engle’s centenary on November 29, 2018, Library of America brings readers MADELEINE L’ENGLE: The Kairos Novels, a deluxe two-volume set gathering Wrinkle and all seven of its sequels for the first time; an eight book sequence L’Engle collectively called the “Kairos Novels,” named for the Greek word for cosmically critical moments of time.

Edited by Leonard S. Marcus, one of the world’s leading writers on children’s books and the people who create them, this authoritative edition presents A Wrinkle in Time in a newly corrected text based on research in L’Engle’s archives and includes an appendix with four never-before-seen deleted passages.

Two of Madeleine L’Engle’s books changed my life. One was A Wrinkle in Time, the other was The Love Letters. They both taught me things about love I had never really understood before. I treasure rereading these classic books, most beloved by me.

And, I have the opportunity to give a set away (U. S. only, please). If you are interested in being considered for the give-away, please leave a comment below. I will select a name a week from today (on October 9).

Needful Things by Stephen King (R.I.P. XIII)

“The world is full of needy people who don’t understand that everything, everything, is for sale…if you’re willing to pay the price.” (p. 82)

Isn’t that just what the Enemy would do? Trick you into believing that what you want is what you have to have? Trick you into paying anything for your obsession? Trick you into thinking that what you thought was worth everything, was really worth nothing? King’s plot is brilliant, for it shows how we are often taunted with promised pleasure almost too powerful to resist.

Eleven year old Brian Rusk has bought a Stanley Koufax 1956 baseball card from the shop, Needful Things. He can’t stop looking at it, checking it, taking one last peek to see that it is still there. “He recognized that it had become kind of an obsession with him, but recognition did not put a stop to it.” Because obsessions are not that easy to get rid of.

Ask Danforth “Buster” Keeton, who is addicted to gambling and buys a tin race track which magically reveals the winning horse. Or, Hugh Priest who is addicted to alcohol and buys a fox tail which reminds him of the joy of his youth, or even timid Nettie Cobb, who simply cannot let the Carnival glass lampshade out of her sight. Each person in Castle Rock feels that the thing they have purchased at Needful Things is now the one thing they cannot live without; surely this thing, they hope, is the answer to their yearning.

I am captivated by the way that King has portrayed addiction in this novel:

It was a pit with greasy sides, a snare with hidden teeth, a loaded gun with the safety removed. (p. 210)

He had discovered another large fact about possessions and the peculiar psychological state they induce: the more one has to go through because of something one owns, the more one wants to keep that thing. (p. 261)

But, the people of Castle Rock, Maine, are holding nothing but empty promises. Brian’s brother, Sean, can’t understand why Brian is so attached to a faded, dog-eared card bearing the name Sonny Koberg. And no one can understand why Hugh Priest gently and lovingly strokes a mangy, dirty piece of fur which was once a lustrous fox tail. Deputy Norris Ridgewick’s beloved Bazun fishing rod is nothing but a splintery bamboo pole.

For the people have all been deceived, by their own desires to be sure. But, also by Leland Guant, owner of Needful Things, who sells them what they desire with soothing words (“Because the devil’s voice is sweet to hear”), a compelling gaze, and a promise to play a little prank, a harmful little trick.

The “little tricks” build to such grotesque consequences that soon the town begins to self destruct. Castle Rock’s inhabitants are in the grip of their obsessions, and they will let nothing come in between the thing and their illusion of happiness.

“Perhaps all the really special things I sell aren’t what they appear to be. Perhaps they are actually gray things with one remarkable property—the ability to take the shapes of those things which haunt the dreams of men and women.” He paused, then added thoughtfully, “Perhaps they are dreams themselves.” (p. 370)

The Enemy and all his empty promises are portrayed so cleverly in this novel by Stephen King, who shows us in thinly veiled hints just who Leland Gaunt may be:

“Needful Things is a poison place and Mr. Gaunt is a poison man. Only he’s really not a man, Sean. He’s not a man at all. Swear to me you’ll never buy any of the poison things Mr. Gaunt sells.” (p. 553)

I was riveted to this book, almost as much as The Stand, because I am fascinated by the way King writes, pulling me immediately into the story, and into the era I knew when I was growing up. I also like the battles between good and evil, most of which I find are not entirely fictionalized, but very real indeed.

There’s a warning in this book, told several times over. Even if Stephen King knows it, which I suspect he does, he didn’t write it as plainly as this:

Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. Jonah 2:8 (NIV)

R.I.P. VIII: The Books

Behold four of the books I have for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XIII. Always I will miss the input of Carl, who began the challenge long ago when I myself was beginning blogging; may I hazard a guess of 2006? Be that as it may, here we are thirteen years later. Feeling autumnal. Willing to ‘frighten’ ourselves with spirits and ghosts and eerie stories.

The Laybrinth of Spirits is the latest in the quartet which makes up the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is, frankly, just as involved and filled with characters as The Shadow of The Wind, a book in which I had to list all the characters on the inside back cover. But, there is an air of mystery, and an aura of the power of books, which melts my heart.

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel by Alyssa Palombo is a retelling and continuation of The Legend of Sleepy Hallow told through the perspective of Ichabod Crane’s forbidden love. It will be published October 2, 2019.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell was first published last October, the paperback came out in March. It is described as, “An extraordinary, memorable, and truly haunting book.” –JoJo Moyes, #1 New York Times bestselling author and, “A perfect read for a winter night…An intriguing, nuanced, and genuinely eerie slice of Victorian gothic.” –The Guardian

The Hanging at Picnic Rock by Joan Lindsay is a 50th anniversary edition of a book which has been called, “A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.” Apparently, three girls go off climbing after their picnic, into the shadows of a volcanic outcropping, and never return.

And you? Have you any autumnal reading planned for this fall? For the R.I.P. XIII? (Sign up, if you haven’t already, by clicking here.)

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list) “You have to fight people or you end up with nothing.”

“I used to feel sorry for you bitches,” Jones said. “But if you want to be a parent, you don’t end up in prison. Plain and simple. Plain and simple.”

Life used to be just that straightforward to me. “You live the life you choose,” I thought.

To some extent, I still think that. I want to believe that we control our lives: work hard, have a home; take care of your body, don’t get sick. But the older I get, the more I realize that point of view is very simplistic.

Rachel Kushner shows us, in The Mars Room, how hard it is to be brought up with a dysfunctional mother in the poorest parts of San Francisco. How a childhood of zero chances can more often than not turn into an adult life with the same.

Her heroine, Romy Hall, has been a stripper in a club called the Mars Room. She leaves her son, Jackson, with her mother and tries to strike a balance between entertaining the men enough that they will pay her, but not so much that they stalk her. As one, in particular, does. Relentlessly following her even to another state when she tries to relocate to get away from him.

The way that she describes her childhood is sorrowful, heartbreaking stuff; it’s a life of sneaking into movie theaters, getting drunk on weeknights, fighting for a place in the world because no one’s going to make one for you.

Life in prison is not any better.

Romy is there with a minimum of two life sentences, along with other achingly drawn characters such as Conan, a transvestite, and Sammy Fernandez, who has a network of friends from being incarcerated several times before. We can see what a hopeless place of despair the women’s prison, Stanville, is. Even though these few form a family of sorts, there is no home for them. No comforts, no promise for the future, no hope.

The only thing that gives Romy the least bit of comfort is that her son has a chance for a good life. It is not too late for him, at least.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list)

Calvin Wrobel is a boundary technician for the Air Force in Colorado. His job is to “look for weaknesses in the system, update firewalls, investigate possible security breaches.”

His friend Ted appears on his door on evening, having left Chicago because his girlfriend, Sabrina, is missing. And then a videotape is sent to a news agency depicting her gruesome murder.

How strange it is, to me, to be reading of horrific events in our recent history (from 9-11, to shootings in schools, to the violence we encounter every day on the news) in a comic book form. Yes, I know it’s a graphic novel. I know the subject matter can be serious even when it’s drawn with cartoon characters who have bland expressions. But, the overall effect for me is a little bit like Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

What?

Are the judges just showing they can be advant garde? Or, is this work truly worthy of a literature prize? I feel like the boy in The Emporer’s New Clothes, the only one willing to declare the truth. “He’s naked!” becomes “It’s a cartoon!” for me.

And yet, the more I read, the more I could acknowledge the impact of this graphic novel. I do not think it should receive the Man Booker Prize, especially when compared with the astonishing writing of Donal Ryan and Michael Ondaatje. But, there is no denying that Nick Drnaso takes on contemporary America, the way that social media distorts truth, and the very real pain resulting from rampant murder in an extremely powerful way.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews “Trouble is the beginning of disaster.”

While I have been wasting my time with “thrillers” like The House Swap, and Something In The Water, extraordinary spy novels have been lying in wait for me to pick them up.

Red Sparrow is such a novel. Not since Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, or Trevanian’s Shibumi, have I been so entranced by actions of espionage. Especially since it concerns Russia, a country toward which I have held a certain fascination for most of my life.

“I started out by following orders, trying to develop him, just as he was developing me,” she said, physically shaking. “It was a race to see who would recruit the other first.” She still resisted, she was still hanging on to the lip of the cliff. This was an evasion, not an admission. (P. 315)

Dominika wanted to be a ballet dancer. She was thwarted from fulfilling her dream not because of inability, but because another jealous dancer had Dominka’s foot deliberately crushed, leaving her unable to pursue dance. When her father suddenly dies, her uncle manipulates her into joining the Service, and then sending her to Sparrow School where the students are taught how to involve men and women in “intimately compromising” tactics.

She is sent to Helsinki to pursue Nathaniel Nash, a spy for the CIA, who in turn is told to find what he can from Dominika. In a spider web of deceit and atrocities carried out by the Russian government, the two fall in love, yet Dominika returns to Moscow where she endures unbelievably horrific methods of interrogation as she is suspected of knowing more than she allows.

A myriad of characters play off of each other, from Putin to his marionettes, to members of the CIA and those willing to collude with them, which makes for a fascinating read of espionage under terribly dangerous conditions. The moles and the agents turn and deceive, disclosing facts where they can, but hiding many others in the hopes they will not be discovered.

I found this a breathless read, and already have the next book in the trilogy (Palace of Treason) lying in wait.

Clock Dance by Ann Tyler

Later, crossing the upstairs hall with a basket of laundry, Willa glanced into Cheryl’s room to see what they were up to. Patty stood facing her, both arms extended from her sides, with Laurie and Cheryl directly behind her. All that showed of Laurie and Cheryl were their own arms, extended too so that Patty seemed to possess six arms, all six moving in stiff, stop-and-start arcs in time to the clicking sounds that Willa could hear now punctuating the music. “It’s a clock dance!” Cheryl shouted, briefly peeking out from the tail end. “Can you tell?” ( P. 207)

If Willa were to invent a clock dance, it wouldn’t look like the one the three little girls had shown her. No, hers would feature a woman racing across the stage from left to right, all the while madly whirling so that the audience saw only a spinning blur of color before she vanished into the wings, pouf! Just like that. Gone. (P. 274)

How I love Ann Tyler’s novels. Her characters are quirky and lovable; they make me want to jump into their lives and have dinner together. They seem to embody all the joy and sorrow that living entails. Somehow, her heroines are gentle and fierce at the same time.

So it is with Willa, whom we meet as an elementary age schoolgirl, taking care of her sister as her mother is completely undependable. Their mother is an emotional maelstrom, coming and going at her own whim, but never fully exhausting their father’s patience.

We follow Willa to college, to her marriage to Dexter, to the birth of their two sons. And then the second half of the novel is dedicated to Willa in her sixties. She has flown to the aid of her youngest’s sons ex-girlfriend, who had been shot and needs care. The neighbor found Willa’s number written on the wall above the phone, and so Willa goes to care for Denise, and more particularly, Denise’s daughter, Cheryl.

They form a bond unlike any Willa has had since her father or Dexter. Her sons don’t seem to love her. Her mother didn’t show love to her. Her sister doesn’t love her. They don’t need her, or give back to her. But, Cheryl needs her. While Willa stays, caring for Cheryl and her mother, we see that relationships can be formed more closely with people who aren’t related to us, than those who are. We see that Willa saves Cheryl, but Cheryl saves Willa, too.

Clock Dance is a beautiful novel, as only Ann Tyler can write, and I loved it.