Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

9780385534833_p0_v5_s260x420The news explodes with catastrophes periodically – an earthquake, a tsunami, a flood – and our attention is drawn to the horrors for a few days, maybe even weeks if the news cycle has little to do but monitor the clean-up.  After a while, the next explosion grabs the headlines, and those who were closely affected are forgotten.  In Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian focuses on the life of a sixteen year-old girl, whose father was the engineer who may have been responsible for the meltdown of a nuclear plant in Vermont.  Her life changes in a New York minute from typical teen-age angst and hijinks to misery, paranoia, and homelessness. Despite Bohjalian’s facility with words, this is a difficult book to read.

The protagonist, Emily, loves poetry and aspires to be a writer.  Her favorite author is her namesake – Emily Dickinson, and the story is sprinkled with the reclusive author’s poetry.  The title, however, as lyrical and visionary as it seems, is not poetic. The phrase originated from another horror – the teachers’ directions to the young children who had survived a massacre at their school.  To keep them from seeing their dead classmates, they were instructed to hold hands and close their eyes as they were escorted outside.  Bohjalian insists that the reader know this – his quirky balance between shock and relief that he does so well, as he guides the reader through Emily’s maze from orphaned self-mutilating survivor to sympathetic protector of a nine year-old runaway, and finally, to a semblance of salvation.

At one point, the author notes:

“…We watch it, we read about it, and then we move on.  As a species, we’re either very resilient or super callous. I don’t know which…”

Emily’s trials are unforgettable, and in her case…hope is not the thing with feathers…


Love Is A Canoe

home-bookAlthough the title of Ben Schrank’s Love Is A Canoe promises a schmaltzy romance formula tale, the story has more Oprah soul-searching than bodice ripping. Schrank observes relationships and offers a perspective that compares a self-help marriage manual to the reality of three couples, while he humorously skewers the book publishing business.

The story bounces back and forth from Peter Herman, author of the marriage manual (“Love is a Canoe”) based on his observations of his grandparents’ idyll in the country, to a young professional couple with infidelity issues  – Eli, a bicycle designer, and Emily, a branding consultant,  and finally back to Peter’s new relationship years after publication and the death of his wife.     Stella, the young, aspiring editor at the publishing company that launched the book, connects the characters and fuels the action with a publicity event to raise interest and sales for an anniversary edition – a contest to meet the author.

Peter Herman, a one book wonder, has become a legendary hero – Schrank compares him to Mitch Albom, with the hint that Herman’s book has the same syrupy lessons, and includes excerpts from the fictitious marriage manual with its chapters ending with self-help advisory quotes that sound funny rather than cynical:

Good love is a quilt – light as feathers and strong as iron.

Desire for your loved ones gives you strength to paddle on.

Find time to be together every day – just the two of you – in your canoe.

After a slow start, the story finally finds its focus when the contest winners – Emily and Eli –  spend a weekend with the author.  Peter’s misguided attempts at marriage counseling and his inept cooking offer some humor, but husband Eli is irredeemable and the disastrous outcome seems predictable.  Stella is left to deal with the repercussions in the publishing world, but the outcome is not what you would expect.

Finally, all the characters find their centers and go off with likable partners – albeit not necessarily soul-mates.  Minor characters reappear at the end to happily complete each scenario.

A music playlist accents the dialogue adding drama and quirky background; you can almost hear the songs of Neil Young, Credence Clearwater Revival, Roger Miller, and the Rolling Stones that helped to define the characters.

They had Emily’s iPod plugged into the car’s amazing stereo and they were listening to Exile on Main Street. Emily always wanted to listen to Alison Krauss and Eli would have preferred the new Dinosaur Jr. album, so the Rolling Stones were how they compromised.

Although Shrank concocts a modern cautionary tale about marriage, love, and publishing, Love Is A Canoe has enough funny moments to keep the story light – despite the moral that sometimes people fool themselves into living with their illusions.

The Night Strangers

It was a dark and stormy night.

No electricity in the eerie old mansion, a scary apparition calls for restitution, and bones morph into ghosts.   If you like Bohjalian’s brand of psychological drama, The Night Strangers will have the hair on the back of your neck prickling, and you will be wondering what is real and what is imagined.

Chip Linton was not as lucky as Sully Sullenberger; Chip crash landed his commercial jet into a lake, but thirty-nine passengers died.  Trying to recover from the trauma and guilt of surviving, Chip moves his family from tony West Chester, outside of Philadelphia, to an old house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  The basement of the house has a door sealed, conveniently, with 39 bolts.  The story’s narration flips from Chip’s thoughts as he tries to cope with his post-traumatic symptoms to his wife Emily, an attorney who finds work in the village, as she tries to normalize the family’s emotions, and then to their twin daughters, Garnet – red-haired and suffering from epileptic seizures, and Hallie, who, like her mother, acts as a stabilizing force.

What seems like a routine tale of a family in recovery, suddenly turns into a scary tale of “I see dead people.”  The village women who grow exotic plants in their greenhouses, and brew concoctions that can change perspectives add to the drama.

Bohjalian cleverly juggles reality with the paranormal, and you won’t know if the voices and apparitions are real or in Chip’s mind.  You may think you do, but you’ll need to read to the end to be sure.  By creating cliffhangers at strategic points in the plot, Bohjalian sustains the suspense.   The journey was more fun than getting there; the ending left me feeling robbed – but that’s Chris Bohjalian.

A great scary book to read through the night; keep your doors locked and a flashlight handy.

Read my review of another Chris Bohjalian thrillerSecrets of Eden