Sunday, October 22, 2017

Chris Bohjalian, THE GUEST ROOM

This is certainly a disturbing book. The premise: a wealthy man, husband/father of a daughter, in Bronxville, NYC (a bedroom community for Manhattan; much of the action takes place very close to where I used to live) agrees to throw his younger brother a bachelor party, including two strippers. Except they're sex slaves, and one kills the two Russian handlers who are there at the party. Told in alternating chapters, third-person POV Richard and first-person Alexandria (one of the women), it's a compelling social comment about the white slave trade and how its violence can intrude so quickly (because it's just not that far away, even in Bronxville). The plot moves quickly from point to point. My difficulty was that there was not much (if any) character development arc; people remained largely unchanged, with the exception, perhaps, of his daughter who has her eyes opened to a horrible reality of our world.

Monday, October 16, 2017


I adored this book, stayed up until all hours, two nights in a row, reading it, and would put it in my top 5 for the year. Narrated in the first person by Katey Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants, reflecting back on her time in 1938 New York City, when she had one foot in the world of the absurdly wealthy and the other in the world of working-class girls with brains. How can you not love a book that has this on its first page: "In the 1950s, America had picked up the globe by the heels and shaken the change from its pockets. Europe had become a poor cousin--all crests and no tablesettings. ... True, the Communists were out there, somewhere, but with Joe McCarthy in the grave and no one on the Moon, for the time being the Russians just skulked across the pages of spy novels." It has references to Prufrock, Great Expectations, A Room with a View (among others ... but really, three of my favorite works of English literature EVER). Clever, evocative, beautifully written. I've already ordered his next, A Gentleman in Moscow.

Sunday, October 15, 2017


I found this book both compelling and eye-opening. I knew nothing of Paul Farmer (M.D., Harvard), contagious diseases specialist; nor about the politics and misguided US intervention in Haiti, where he began his work in one of the poorest areas; nor about the politics of medicine and pharmaceuticals and the WHO and UN; nor about how diseases evolve resistance to first-line antibiotics. Tracy Kidder (the author) writes himself into the book as a "ordinary person" asking questions that "ordinary people" would ask, particularly along the lines of, With so much poverty and disease, and so much working against you, how do you keep on? Farmer emerges as something between a brilliant renegade and a humble saint; I found myself admiring his perseverance and sheer capacity for work. (There is a long catalog of his publications at the end.) My gripes are small: sometimes the reported dialogs between Kidder and Farmer feel circuitous and just puzzling, even after a couple of rereadings; and sometimes the episodes seem a bit too "pat." But all in all, an important and informative book.