Waxing [Literarily]: The Hotel New Hampshire {John Irving}

I’m going to start with a metaphor. We’ll have to see how long I can carry it for.

Reading John Irving is like having your mom do your laundry for you.

Okay, how far can we take this.

For one, Irving, and though I’ve read a couple of his pieces, I’m going to stick with The Hotel New Hampshire here.

So maybe it should be: Reading The Hotel New Hampshire is like having your mom do your laundry for you.

It’s neat & folded — Irving is a master storyteller. He’s almost too good at the literary conventions of bringing something up (a metaphor, a mantra, a detail) and having it reappear later in a seemingly innocuous way. He plans. He folds. Things are not arbitrarily thrown around. There is not a sock in the middle of a few t-shirts.

In THNH, for instance, we get the Berry family, all seven of them, each with their quips, but those fold so neatly into each other. The whole family knows the same sayings — “keep passing the open window” — and everyone seems to have their perfectly fitting take on each situation. The nuances almost come to be normalized and by the end, each person has found their fitting end. Irving makes sure of it.

it starts messy — the character’s nuances may come to be predictable at times, but it doesn’t start all easy like that. The book dives into strange forms of homosexuality, rape, incest, blindness, prostitution and, although barely, anarchy. Of course, that’s on top of the usual literary staples — death, love, loss of innocence. As with all good laundry, this batch is pretty wild before it hits the machine. Full of spunk, dirt, sweat, and well, any other substance that make its way into a hamper. In TNHN, we’re guided a narrator in love with his sister, obsessed with weightlifting and curiously incurious about exploring sexuality because of point one there. He’s surrounded by writers, suicides, blindness, bears and, well, somehow makes sense of it. See below

it gets the best treatment — this ain’t your corner laundromat. This is mom’s house. She’s got all the good stuff. Good detergent. Fabric softener. Color refreshers, stain removers, a good lint catcher. Everything. Those clothes have never seen such good days.  Which is kind of how Irving gives us, John, our narrator. He may be surrounded by a story of stable lunacy, but it all works out and along the way Irving gives you that great treatment. Literature, languages, advice from disappearing shamans, some one-liners to remember, more than a few moments that completely break your heart, and enough hints of the future for you to contextualize the book’s present. It’s a nutty family in the hands of a most capable author.

it’s warm, but just for a minute — see note about the moments that break your heart. Early character deaths. Favorite character deaths. Blindness. Sadness. It’s a warm story of a family staying together, loving each other, helping each other go through the worst of the worst, but it fades. Like your favorite blue shirt.

Okay, starting to lose the metaphor.

I’ll leave it there. The Hotel New Hampshire had two reviews I had before I picked the book up. One called it a farshot and nothing was believable. The other said that if you suspended belief you should suspend your heart too, since its twists and turns were sure to break it.

Both were true.

Is it Irving’s best? No. Garp was better and I still haven’t read much more. But this is good. And it’s lengthy and break-up-able as you read and yes it will break your heart. But you’ll come back to it after it does. After all, mom isn’t going to always do laundry. Take the chance while you can get it.

Waxing [Literarily]: William Boyd’s ‘Waiting for Sunrise’

I was looking for books that took place in Vienna shortly after the turn of the 20th century. I had read the LA Times book review of Franzen’s Kraus Project and was particularly interested in his assertion that “Our situation looks quite a bit like Vienna’s in 1910, except that newspaper technology (telephone, telegraph, the high-speed printing press) has been replaced by digital technology and Viennese charm by American coolness.”

I hadn’t thought that another time in history might echo what we’re experiencing now. I wanted to dive in. And I wanted to start with fiction.

Some searching led me to William Boyd’s 2012 novel Waiting for Sunrise which obviously wasn’t the best for my project (only the book’s first third takes place in Vienna) but it seemed an easy read and I had never read a book by Boyd.

I dug in. I rather enjoyed his bit taking place in Vienna. It did give some of the cultural overview that I was looking for — what with the charm that Franzen mentioned and psychotherapy being all the rage. There’s one cheap bit where the main character, Lysander, runs into Dr. Freud, but we’ll excuse that.

The Vienna part paced nicely. It introduced a love interest, some shady characters and a psychotherapist, all tying Lysander to Vienna while he had a woman waiting for him back in London (his home). Of course, too, he was there to solve a problem of, well, not being able to get it up — so we have some personal strife to add to the drama.

And drama we get as the Vienna part comes to an end. Lysander is accused of rape of his new Viennese mistress and love interested and he must flee thanks in part of the shady character he met earlier. Alright, alright, a little more a thriller than I bargained for — but I should have expected that with Boyd.

The rest of the book dives into WWI London (and Geneva for a bit) and some politics surrounding that. There’s a spy plot, more drama added as the Viennese love interest finds herself in London and a whole lot of belief that needs to be suspended as the plot unravels.

Fine. It had been a while since such an easy read (in terms of the depth of the text) found its way into my  hands and I think all in all I rather enjoyed it. Boyd has some lines, certainly has the ability to tell a story and resolve it as quickly as it needs to be (it’s only a few hundred pages) and still give some reasons to empathize with Lysander.

Overall prognosis: Ehhh, why not? Wouldn’t suggest it, but wouldn’t tell you to put it away later.