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 1249: Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867-1957

Cover for Wild BeautyAlthough we live in Washington, one of the most beautiful wild areas nearby is the Columbia River Gorge between Washington and Oregon. That’s why, when we saw a program about Wild Beauty on television, we had to have a copy of the book.

Wild Beauty is a collection of stunning photos of the Gorge, taken between 1867 and 1957. The introduction explains how the Gorge was formed geologically and tells about advances in the field of photography during the time these pictures were being taken. Then, the book is divided into five sections, roughly chronological.

Section I features the photography of Carleton Watkins, who made several trips up the Gorge between 1867 and 1885. The introduction explains that the state of photography at the time required him to cart along large panes of glass and a portable darkroom, because the photos had to be developed immediately. Each picture is accompanied by a short caption telling what is known of the photo. This section contains the first known photo of the famous Multnomah Falls.

Section II shows photos by a variety of photographers between 1885 and 1910, when advances in both transportation and photography made it easier to take photos in the Gorge.

Section III is devoted to the work of Lily White and Sarah Hall, whose photographs tended more toward the artistic than the historical. The two women traveled up and down the Gorge on a houseboat between 1903 and 1905.

Section IV features photography along the Gorge’s new scenic highway between 1911 and 1929, including some photos that are hand tinted.

Section V features photos between 1930 and 1957 after dams were built along the river. Many of these are also hand tinted.

This book is full of stunning photographs that provide a historical record of the Gorge. This is an interesting book for people interested in the beauty or history of Oregon and Washington or the history of photography.

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Day 910: The Sisters Brothers

Cover for The Sisters BrothersThe Sisters Brothers is a book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project, but it also turns out to qualify for my Man Booker Prize project. It is a peculiar novel indeed. It is blurbed as hilarious. I did not find it so. Satirical, maybe; dark, yes; picaresque, definitely.

It  is 1851, and the Sisters brothers are on their way from Oregon City to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. They are hired killers who work for a man known as the Commodore. Charlie is the Commodore’s man, but Eli is tired of the life and wants to own a store.

This is definitely a road trip novel, and on the road, Eli and Charlie encounter many odd people. Most of them they deal with brutally. Eli and Charlie are themselves almost self-parodies, as is their mode of speech.

Although there is an underlying plot, the novel is a series of episodes, where the brothers encounter one situation after another and get out of them more or less fantastically. There is a bit of dark humor in the dialogue, but unlike some other reviewers, I did not find the novel funny. I was interested in Eli’s mental journey, but after he and Charlie blew away a bunch of people, not so much.

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Day 689: Wild

Cover for WildI didn’t actually become interested in reading Wild until I saw the terrific movie adaptation. That and a few excellent reviews changed my mind about reading it. There was just something about the author having changed her name to Cheryl Strayed that annoyed me, to be honest, and was keeping me away from the book.

If you have seen the movie, it is amazingly similar to the book, only changing the sequence of some events and leaving a few things out.

This memoir is about Cheryl Strayed’s attempt to get her life back on track by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to near Portland, Oregon. After Cheryl’s mother’s death from cancer several years before, her life fell apart. She became promiscuous and eventually began using heroin. After she and her husband divorced, she decided to hike the trail alone in an attempt to return to her true self.

Although Cheryl views herself as an outdoorsy girl, she soon finds that she is unprepared for the rigors of the journey. Her pack is so heavy that she can barely lift it, her boots uncomfortable, she herself not in condition and not understanding that such an endeavor is painful even for an experienced hiker. She originally planned to hike about 20 miles a day but finds herself only making 6 to 8 miles, less at the beginning.

This memoir is vividly written and quite harrowing at times as it follows Strayed’s journey. She encounters snow and landslides, wild animals, friendly as well as scary people, and her own truth. Wild is an interesting journey into the wild and into self-awareness.

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Day 634: The Never List

Cover for The Never ListThe Never List is one of several books that were published last year to capitalize on the huge popularity of Gone Girl. Unfortunately, The Never List never comes close to reaching the tension and suspense of Gillian Flynn’s work.

Caroline has managed to arrange her life so that she has not left her New York apartment for years. She was once Sarah, held captive with three other women for years and subjected to torture by a crazed psychology professor named Jack Derber. Derber’s parole hearing is coming up, and Agent McCordy is trying to prepare her to testify. That would mean she would have to leave her apartment.

Of course, Sarah doesn’t want Derber out of jail, but she is more concerned about whatever happened to her best friend Jennifer, with whom she was kidnapped. After a car accident in their teens in which Jennifer’s mother was killed, Sarah and Jennifer constructed the Never List, things they would not do that would put them in danger. One of those things was to never walk back to their college dormitory at night after a party. It was after they got into the car they thought was their cab that they were kidnapped. The last time Sarah saw Jennifer alive was in that car. After that, Jennifer was kept in a box in Derber’s basement.

Sarah begins to believe that letters she receives from Derber hold coded clues for her fellow victims Tracy and Christine, and that theirs may hold clues for her. In hopes of finding Jennifer’s body, she tries to get them to help. She believes that Jack’s wife Amelia, the member of a religious cult, might know something. But when she travels to Oregon to see her, she can’t find her.

Eventually, Sarah begins traipsing all over the country looking for clues, later helped by Tracy.

The first thing that struck me was the novel’s narrative style, a certain flavor of first person that reminds me of the style adopted for many young adult novels. I find it irritating, used to provoke a false intimacy.

I also found it completely unlikely that an agoraphobic who hasn’t left her apartment in years and is full of terror could put it aside and suddenly begin flying and driving all over the country. I had this same complaint about Louise Millar’s Accidents Happen, and that character was only traveling around the city.

Zan doesn’t successfully build suspense in this novel. At one point, Tracy and Sarah are captive in a van with a bunch of women and you wonder how they are ever going to get out, when before it can get too scary, they are miraculously released. Not only does she make this happen too quickly to build the suspense, but the character who releases the women has somehow managed to fly straight across the country from New York to Oregon in a few hours, just in time to witness them being kidnapped. (I only have to travel halfway across the country to Oregon, and it takes me almost all day.) Other scenes that could be terrifying are not.

I won’t go into much more detail about the plot, which mixes serial killing and torture, S & M clubs, human trafficking, and cults. Did I miss the kitchen sink? Suffice it to say, I did not believe this book for a minute.