Review 1301: The Paragon Hotel

Cover for The Paragon HotelAlice “Nobody” James is on the run from the Mafia with two bullets in her at the beginning of The Paragon Hotel. She is obviously in distress when her train arrives in Portland, Oregon, so Max, the African-American railway porter, takes her to the Paragon Hotel. The hotel is the only one in Portland for respectable Negroes in the 1920’s, when this novel is set. In fact, it is illegal for them to even live or work in Portland.

Alice is grateful for the help, and soon after recovering gets to know some of the residents and employees of the hotel. In particular, she is drawn to Blossom Fontaine, a chanteuse who reminds her of a friend she had in New York. When Alice finds that the occupants of the hotel are worried about the Ku Klux Klan, newly arrived in Portland, she decides to help them with her skills in investigation—for she was a spy for Mr. Salvatici, a man known as the Spider, back in Little Italy.

As Alice and her new friends prepare to battle bigotry, a little boy disappears. The novel follows the search for the boy while flashing back to explain how Alice ended up being wounded by her own friend, Nicolo Benemati.

link to NetgalleyI have been a fan of Lyndsay Faye for a long time, but I did not find this novel as compelling as her others. I wasn’t interested at all in the Mafia story. I was more interested in the Portland story, but somehow the characters didn’t ring true to me, particularly Alice herself. Faye seems to have written this novel to explore Portland’s long racist history, which I found interesting, but it gets off track onto other issues.

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Day 1201: In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills

Cover for In the Shadow of 10,000 HillsRachel Shepherd has recently lost the child she was expecting. Her husband, Mick, expects her to grieve for a month and then get over it, but she cannot. She thinks a lot about her father, Henry Shepherd, who disappeared from her life when she was seven. Her mother has also recently died, and in her things, Rachel finds a newspaper clipping of a young African-American girl in church during a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., the photo taken by her father as a young man.

Rachel figures this photo must have been important to her father and decides to try to find her father through this girl, now presumably an older woman. However, the woman does not answer her emails.

That woman is Lillian Carlson, who now lives in Rwanda. Henry had been living with her until two years ago, when he also disappeared from there. She does not feel that she can tell Rachel anything helpful, which is why she hasn’t responded.

Lillian provides a home for children orphaned during the Rwandan genocide. Tucker, an American doctor, has a room in her house, where he also keeps Rose, his adopted Rwandan daughter. Tucker decides it could be good for both Lillian and Rachel if they met, so he invites Rachel to come in Lillian’s name.

The core of this novel is devoted to the events of the Rwandan genocide and their continuing ramifications, during the time this novel is set (2000), for Lillian and her household. In particular, Nadine, a girl taken in by Lillian and Henry, was the witness of a horrific event.

I didn’t really engage with this novel, but I’m not sure why. I do know of one thing that particularly irked me, and that was the sections from Henry’s point of view. First, although they show his thoughts, they are written more in a speaking style, a style no one would use in thinking. For example, a rough such recollection (not a direct quote) of one thought was something like Gee, what does a guy have to do . . . . You see what I mean, utterly unconvincing.

And in general there is the type of person Henry is. For most of the novel, he just sort of lets fate push him around, and when he takes an action, he refuses to deal with its ramifications. He most often doesn’t take responsibility. Since a great deal of this novel revolves around the results of his actions, I found this infuriating.

link to NetgalleyFinally, I think the characters in general are too prone to be one-sided. Take, for example, Mick. He gives Rachel a deadline for grieving for her child. He has to spend every holiday with his parents. He won’t compromise. He’s not bad, really, but it’s clear from the beginning that he and Rachel will split, so he shows no qualities that would make her want to stay. These are characters serving the plot rather than ones who are convincingly complex.

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Day 1004: Half-Blood Blues

Cover for Half-Blood BluesIn 1939 Paris after the German occupation, Sid Griffiths and the members of the Hot Time Swinger’s American Band have just finished cutting a record when Hiero Falk, German but black, is picked up by the Gestapo and never seen again. In 1992, Falk, now considered a jazz legend on the basis of that one recording of the “Half-Blood Blues,” is being honored with the opening of a documentary in Berlin. Sid quit playing years ago, but Chip Jones, another member of the band, talks him into attending.

Chip has been Sid’s frenemy since childhood. He’s a great musician, but he’s also a liar. When he and Sid get up at the opening to talk about Hiero, Chip blindsides Sid with terrible lies about him and Hiero to the audience. The problem is, Sid did do something shameful to Hiero, just not what Chip accuses him of.

After the presentation, Chip talks the reluctant Sid into traveling to Poland. He has found out Hiero is alive and has even corresponded with him. As the two travel by bus into Poland, Sid thinks back to the events of 1939.

This novel is written in African-American vernacular that sounds fairly modern, even for the part from World War II. It takes a little getting used to, although I am not sure if it is accurate for the time. Certainly, the novel effective re-creates the feeling of the time and place, and the precarious existence of these young musicians.

This novel was on both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize lists. It was another book that I may not have chosen on my own but that I enjoyed reading.

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Day 999: Beloved

Cover for BelovedOn some occasions after reading a novel, I find my thoughts about it are not clear. Did I enjoy it? Did I completely understand it? Did I think it was powerful or overpowering? This doesn’t happen very often, but these are my thoughts after reading Beloved.

The novel, when looked at straightforwardly, is a ghost story. Sethe escaped from slavery with her children, although the plan went wrong. Most of the other escaping slaves were killed or captured, including her husband, and Sethe had to come later, giving birth to her daughter Denver on the way.

These events happened 16 years ago, but shortly after Sethe made it across the Ohio River, Schoolteacher, the despotic overseer, came after her. To keep her children from being dragged back into slavery, Sethe decided to kill them. She was stopped, but not before she slit the throat of her daughter, Beloved. (Her name isn’t really Beloved, but that’s what’s on her tombstone; we don’t know her name.)

Sixteen years later, Sethe’s house in Cincinnati, referred to as 124, is haunted. Sethe lives there with Denver, her mother-in-law having died and her sons having left. Denver is a sulky, needy young woman who craves her mother’s attention, but that is all for the ghost of her baby.

The action begins when Paul D. arrives. Paul D. had been one of the young male slaves at Sweet Home, where Sethe was a slave. He has been wandering since the war. When he realizes the house is haunted, he drives the ghost out and lives with Sethe as her lover.

But Beloved comes back, now embodied as a girl the age she would have been if she’d lived. Denver and then Sethe become enslaved to her.

But is Beloved a ghost or just a young girl damaged by slavery? Someone in the text makes a reference to a lost girl enslaved since a child, and I think that’s who Beloved is meant to be. Denver and Sethe have just mistaken her from their own needs. There is only one chapter where we see things from Beloved’s point of view, and it is incoherent.

That is what I think, but I was confused because everyone else seems to take the novel as a straight ghost story and of course, an indictment of slavery. I finally ran across a reference to an article by an academic who believes the same thing, but I never found the original paper.

In any case, Beloved is an unusual work. It uses an unusual combination of storytelling techniques, some of which I enjoyed and some I did not. It is powerful, depicting emotions and events that we can barely comprehend. Did I like it? I don’t know. Does it make me think? Yes. Do I understand it? Not completely.

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