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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Keep passing the open windows.

The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Hotel New Hampshire is the story of the Berry family and the series of events that precede and follow their ownership of a collection of not particularly successful hotels, each of which bears the titular name. The novel takes the family from the Granite State, to Austria, to the Big Apple, and eventually to Maine. It is a story of the love - often comical, sometimes painful, yet always redeeming - that the Berry family shares, and their adventures in this frequently absurd game we call life.

For reference, the Berry family tree (forgive the gender normative color choices to indicate the sex of a character, but it seemed the simplest way to denote it - Egg isn't exactly an obvious one ;) ).

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Greetings, readers! It has been quite some time since I've written a post, and I admit I took my time with Hotel New Hampshire. It was partly because I was enjoying Irving, and partly because I was feeling a bit at sea about having completed my first list and embarking on my new one. I thought I would feel an overwhelming sense of pleasure when I finished my first list, but I felt a deep sadness at having to say goodbye to those first 100. That said, if I don't move forward, I can't make the acquaintance of other, potentially equally pleasurable novels! (And that will throw her in the path of Other Rich Men!)

My sister, Diana, did a read-along, and managed to finish right beside me, despite being treMendously busy with that whole third year med student business (birthing babies, etc. etc.) I'll post her thoughts alongside mine so you can compare.

Without further ado, onwards we go!

Primary thoughts: I really enjoyed this book. I think it's earned a place among my all-time favorites, and since this was #101 with some pretty heavy hitters, that's saying something. It's definitely a bizarre read, so if you're not inclined toward the theater of the absurd meets Wes Anderson sort of vibe (think prostitutes, incest, taxidermy, political dissidents) then this probably isn't for you. That said, I thought it was brilliant. 

Secondary thoughts: My spoiler alert system is a rather imprecise one, in case you haven't noticed, or are new to this project. I apologize if you are annoyed by this pesky trend, but admit I am unlikely to change my behavior. It can be hard to write about the book without letting you in on some of the secrets of what went down in the book. So I guess this is just to say #sorrynotsorry.

Tertiary thoughts: My plot summaries are often quite short, and rather vague. I find it more fun and less book reportish to capture the essence of a novel, rather than detail the play-by-play. Besides, it's a Breakthrough norm to 'Be crisp. Say what's core.' So there! I'm #winning.

Quaternary thoughts: Did you know what came after tertiary? I didn't. I looked it up. 

On the thoughtful and strategic use of italics
I enjoy employing various methods to ensure that the emPhasis of my words is on the right syllAble, but often find that writers shy away from such methods, either because their editors were sticks in the mud or because they felt bound by convention. In any case, I was delighted by Irving's use of the quite simple and yet so expressive technique of italicizing. Please enjoy this tidbit as an example:

                                                                    When Father decides to put down Sorrow, the family dog:
"Frank did not care for Sorrow, but even Frank seemed saddened by the death sentence.
  'I know he smells bad,' Frank said, but that's not exactly a fatal disease.'
 'In a hotel it is', Father said. 'That dog has terminal flatulence.'
 ' And he is old,' Mother said.
 'When you get old,' I told Mother and Father, 'we won't put you to sleep.'
ahghaghaghaghaghahgahgahag. I in this case is John, as he is our narrator. Wasn't that nice of him? ;) The dog in Hyperbole and a Half (featured on the left) is what I imagine Sorrow to look like, btw. 

On good old-fashioned concrete chapters
I loved that this book had such clearly delineated chapters. Each one could almost stand alone as its own mini-novella, and it made the slowpoke reading experience I opted for quite pleasurable. It not only allowed me, but encouraged me, to slow down with my reading, and take the book literally (Chris Traeger voice) one chapter at a time.

On a good old-fashioned incestual romance
Oh I'm sorry is that not a thing? Brothers and sisters aren't supposed to fall in love? Listen to Armande - don't worry so much about not supposed to! OK, well I suppose there are lots of reasons why we don't condone incest as a society, and certainly not as a widespread phenomenon, but there was a poignant kind of beauty to Franny and John's love for each other. Irving made it feel forbidden, but also almost...expected, matter-of-fact. Like why wouldn't a brother and sister who are the closest siblings in a large family who protect and care for each other not also feel something more for each other?

On families, and how despite the supreme curveballs of life, it sounds the same note
I fell hard for the Berry family. I was definitely thrown for a loop when the transition to Austria happened, but Irving kept me on board. I loved their strangeness, but also the fact that no matter how odd they seemed, they were a family, and their bond was achingly permanent.

Here are two of my favorite examples of this:
#1 - When Frank, the cymbal-playing oddball of the family, intervenes to help John save Franny from her psycho crush who is trying to force himself on her, after she has saved Frank from humiliation and bullying: "Frank clashed his damn cymbals together  (in said crush's face)- so startlingly loud that I thought an airplane was flying into another airplane above us...Frank continued to clash his cymbals together - as if this were a ritual dance that our family always practiced prior to slaughtering an enemy." ahgahgahgaghahgahgahghaghg. oh yes - the ritual Berry cymbal dance!

#2 - 
"When Lilly and Egg and Father came home from the game, Franny and I put Egg in the dumbwaiter and hauled him up and down the four-story shaft until Frank ratted on us and Father told us that the dumbwaiter would be used only for removing linen and dishes and other things - not humans - from the rooms." typical sibling shenanigans ;) 

#3 - "'You see,' Franny would explain, years later, 'we aren't eccentric; we're not bizarre. 'To each other,' Franny would say, 'we're as common as rain.' And she was right; to each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread, we were just a family. In a family, even exaggerations make perfect sense; they are always logical exaggerations, nothing more." God, I LOVE the smell of bread.

And now, I give you a brief review of les trois hôtels de New Hampshire:

#1 - Dairy, NH
- Constructed out of the remains of the Thompson Female Seminary (a school)
- Featuring the 'outhouse for elves' (think miniature toilet facilities for young children)
- Frequented by Ronda Ray & her 'dayroom' - an employee, as well as John's first, well, you know
- Complete with intercom between rooms, much to the Berry children's maniacal delight
- Rounded out by Iowa Bob lifting weights in his room, huffing and puffing away

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from numero uno:
  • Iowa Bob, to guests, on the fact that the chairs are screwed down because it used to be a school:"Just hold on to your seats! Nothing moves at the Hotel New Hampshire! We're screwed down here - for life!"
  • "Father bought Frank a bus driver's uniform, because Frank was so fond of uniforms; Frank would wear it when he played doorman at the Hotel New Hampshire. On those rare occasions when we had more than one overnight guest, Frank liked to pretend that there was always a doorman at the Hotel New Hampshire. The bus driver's uniform was the good old Dairy death-gray color; the pants and the jacket sleeves were too short for Frank, and the cap was too large, so that Frank had an ominous, seedy-funeral-parlor look to him when he let in the guests." haghagha yessssss, perfect, Frank. 'Welcome to the Hotel New Hampshire!' he practiced saying, but it always sounded as if he didn't mean it."
#2 - Vienna, Austria
- Featuring the unforgettable Freud (not the Freud, but better, imho); the man who convinces Winslow Berry to sell his first HNH and start a second one in Austria, of all places
- Guarded by Susie the Bear (note: not a real bear. human bear. much stranger.)
- Permanent home to a bevy of prostitutes and a pack of political dissidents
- Easy access to delicious coffee, with schlagobers of course

Choice telegrams from Freud to Winslow:
  • On the political dissidents:"Their typewriters bother the bear." Especially amusing when you remember that the bear is not a real bear. 
#3 - Arbuthnot, Maine
Please note: this HNH is not, in fact, a real hotel. It is a ruse imagined and perpetuated by John and the rest of the children, which is successful largely because at this point Win Berry has lost his sight. It is on the grounds of a resort hotel that Win Berry used to work at in Maine, and could be a hotel if it Wanted to. (Just like I could have been sick all night)

My favorite snippets from le troisième HNH:
  • "The third Hotel New Hampshire had lots of unpaying guests." The third HNH becomes a rape crisis center, and a general refuge for rape victims (this has to do with Susie the not-bear and her future with John). 
  • "With a degree in American literature from Vienna, I could do worse than become the caretaker of my father's illusions." I love this line. :0)
  • "Reading aloud to someone is one of this world's pleasures." This always makes me think of Jo March reading to her Aunt March, and makes me wish I had someone to read to.
  • "Occasionally, tourists get lost and find us; they see the sign and think we are a hotel. I have explained to Father a very complicated system that our 'success' in this hotel business has afforded us. When the lost tourists find us and ask for rooms, we ask them if they have reservations. They say no, of course, but invariably - looking around themselves, at the silence, at the abandoned quality of peace we have achieved at the third Hotel New Hampshire - they ask, 'But surely you have vacancies?' 'No vacancies,' we always say. No reservations, no vacancies.'' Hagh. Sometimes I feel that way about my brain. No reservations, no vacancies. Tant pis!
  • Everyone else knows that the HNH is a rape crisis center, but part of the irony is that Win Berry, the only one not in the know, is often the kindest and most helpful supporter of women who frequent the HNH. Susie the Bear/notbear often sends women to the dock to see 'the blind man and seeing eye dog #4'. The metaphor of a hotel seems to fit quite nicely into the idea of a gentle recovery from trauma. Here's Win Berry:
"A good hotel turns space and atmosphere into something generous, into something sympathetic - a good hotel makes those gestures that are like touching you, or saying a kind word to you, just when (and only when) you need it. A good hotel is always there, but it doesn't ever give you the feeling that it's breathing down your neck."

A collection of my favorite moments:
  • Exchange between Franny and John, after Franny has been gang raped:  "I got up and went to the bathroom door and asked her if there was anything I could get her. 'Thank you,' she whispered. 'Just go out and get me yesterday and most of today. I want them back.'" 
  • Junior Jones, a football player, to Franny, after she has been raped: 'When someone touches you and you don't want to be touched, that's not really being touched - you got to believe me. It's not you they touch when they touch you that way; they don't really get you, you understand. You've still got you inside you."
  • Exchange between Franny and John after they have tried to deny their feelings for each other: "'Do you still love me?' Franny asked.
    'Yes, I can't help it', I said.
    'Poor you,' said Franny.
    'Poor you, too,' I told her.'"
  • Franny, looking for her sweater: "'Egg, what did you do with my green sweater?'
     'What?' Egg said.
    'My green sweater!' Franny screamed.
     'I don't have a green sweater,' Egg said.
     'It's my green sweater!' Franny shouted. 'He dressed his bear in it yesterday - I saw it,' Franny told Mother. 'And now I can't find it.'
     'Egg, where's your bear?' Mother asked.
     'Franny doesn't have a bear,' Egg said. 'That's my bear.'
     'Where's my running hat?' I asked Mother. 'It was on the radiator in the hall last night.'
    'Egg's bear is probably wearing it,' Frank said. 'And he's out doing wind sprints.'" ahgahghaghaghaghaI love everything about this exchange. 
Word I learned:
weirs - a low dam built across a river to raise the level of water upstream or regulate its flow; an enclosure of stakes set in a stream as a trap for fish. my mother and I took a leaf-peeping train a few weeks ago (yes. leaf-peeping is a thing in NH) and it left from a place called Weirs Beach in Meredith, NH.

In closing, I will let you in on a little secret. I am now a firm believer in the idea that a book can come to you at the just right time. This book did that for me. I picked it as a bit of a lark, knowing that my sister Diana has always been a big Garp fan, and bemusedly feeling that I ought to read the only semi-famous work of fiction I know of with New Hampshire in its title while I'm living in the land of the live free or die.

What I found, however, was not only a beautiful work of art, but an intimate companion, and a world where the fictions could not have been more timely to match my own feelings and personal plights. The title is a reference to a sort of morbid but optimistic catchphrase the family passes on to each other from time to time -- it's an allusion to an artist who jumps out of an open window and commits suicide, but leaves a note proclaiming, "Life is serious but art is fun. It is hard work and great art to make life not so serious." I love the confusing poetry of these lines, and the idea that, even in times of great darkness, we can remind each other to simply 'Keep passing the open windows'. [2015 - Survive Alive!] Because Irving is a realist and not remotely bound to the perfect happy ending, one member of the family doesn't manage to keep passing the open windows. But the harmony in the novel's outcome and its ultimate triumph is not in the glamour of a simple and comfortable traditional happy ending, but the messy and raw, yet stunningly brilliant beauty of a complex and nuanced denouement.

I leave you with another of my favorite passages:
"So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero; and someone's older brother, and someone's older sister - they become our heroes, too. We invent what we love, and what we fear. There is always a brave, lost brother - and little lost sister, too. We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them."

May you continue to dream vividly and often, keep passing the open windows, and find the book you need to read at the just right time. I'm off to 221B Baker Street! Cheerio!