Wednesday, January 13, 2016

REVIEW: GRATITUDE



Many readers (of which I am one) remember with vivid clarity the first time they read a book written by Oliver Sacks. My first was The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. I remember how the cases almost leapt off the page, effortlessly transporting me to another place and time. I also remember being left with an impression of his insatiably curiosity and absolute reverence for life. But what I remember and appreciated most was Sacks’ talent for making the complex and impenetrable approachable, even simple.

For those readers who have come to expect this quality in Sacks’ writing, Gratitude does not disappoint. It is a summary of one man’s life work, yet its sentiment is universal. Although there are only four essays in this trim volume, each is picturesque, profound and without one extraneous word. The essays currently comprise Sacks’ definitive words on living his own life, the contribution of his generation, and an articulation of the intense gratitude he feels to have been a sentient being on this beautiful planet. Savor this book, read it several times, and then give it to someone you like.


- Carolyn Pletsch

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

REVIEW: THE GUEST ROOM



Last summer, I became engrossed with reruns of Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model, Cycle 7. I found myself rooting for Anastasija Bogatirjova, whose quirky and extroverted personality amused me the most. However, as I read about Anastasija, I discovered that her journey was not easy. A company recruiting models persuaded Anastasija to move to Milan and model for them. However, a problem with her travel documents prevented Anastasija from travelling there. The police later informed her that it was actually fortunate that she did not go, since the man that approached Anastasija was a trafficker looking to trick women into prostitution.

This chilling revelation set an eerie backdrop for my reading of Chris Bohjalian’s The Guest Room. This captivating new novel traces the messy aftermath of a bachelor party gone wrong in an otherwise sleepy Tudor neighborhood in suburban New York. The consequences are life-changing for all those involved. However, unlike Bogatirjova, who narrowly escaped traffickers, the young women hired for the party live the nightmarish reality of enslavement to the sex trade.

The Guest Room centres on Richard Chapman, an upstanding working father whose younger brother Philip is getting married. Richard grudgingly hosts Philip’s bachelor party at his family home. The party grows far more out of hand than expected, with drunkenness en masse and the “strippers” turning out to be potentially underage prostitutes. Even worse, the two women hired for the party are in fact imprisoned sex slaves from overseas, who decided that night to kill their captors and escape. In the aftermath, Richard’s home turns into a crime scene and those close to him are irrevocably changed by the events of that one night. Richard’s strength of character is rare but believable as he endures the humiliating scrutiny of those around him. Bohjalian’s intricate network of minor characters, some of whom only appear for a few pages, explore the community’s reactions. Despite their brief appearances, their curiosity and judgements are equally as human and conflicted as those of the protagonists.

Far from a formulaic thriller, Bohjalian’s The Guest House is in fact a philosophical and probing exploration of topics ranging from the sex trade, life in Eastern Europe, and the delicate thread that holds a marriage together. The novel alternates between the characters Richard and Alexandra, whose lives become intricately linked. Richard’s succumbs to Alexandra’s charms at the bachelor party, yet withstands temptation. However, the lingering question of whether he did or did not participate in the party’s rampant sex haunts his wife Kristen and their young daughter Melissa. Despite the focus on Richard and his family’s struggle through their crisis, the true hero of the story to me is Alexandra. Through Alexandra’s entirely different yet parallel trajectory, we learn about her childhood in Armenia as a na├»ve girl who dreams of becoming a ballerina. However, through a string of family deaths, she is left alone and unprotected. Promised a life of glamour, she is instead tricked into the violent and unpredictable world of sex slavery.

However, despite the novel’s initial exploration of familial and marital problems of a typical American family, the most haunting and shocking impressions of The Guest House for me are its candid unveiling of the issues of trafficking and forced prostitution. Bohjalian calls attention to the grim realities of victims who have no voice and often stay imprisoned and abused, with their passports and freedom taken away. It is a grim reality in places such as Armenia, Russia, Dubai, and right even under our noses in North America. After reading The Guest House, I felt angered and disgusted by such bitter truths about trafficking that still occurs today worldwide.

Bohjalian’s complex and multilayered impressions of his achingly human characters certainly leave the reader much to think about, putting into perspective the entitlement of the North American upper middle class compared to those suffering from daily realities of modern slavery. It is refreshing but sobering to encounter a literary work that not only thrills and entertains, but opens our eyes to the terrors in the world around us that are more horrifying than any imagined storyline. Hopefully, through novels such as Bohjalian’s The Guest House, we can gain a greater awareness of the world’s issues as well as become motivated to seek ways to improve the lives of those around us.

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical vocalist. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages fluently (with a few in progress). After obtaining degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, it became clear that music would win out. Follow @MikeZFan or visit mikezfan.com for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.