The Reason I Checked In

Marking the passage of our individual journeys around the sun is a lovely and meaningful tradition. With cake, presents, and flattering candlelight, we celebrate the passage of one more year and use fire to call for blessings for the next one to come. We surround ourselves with the people we love the most, or at least with the people who will give us the best presents. Milestone birthdays are particularly noteworthy, as we pause at the threshold of a new decade to reflect on how our perspectives change with age, how our life experiences reward and challenge us, and decide exactly what kind of stripper we want to show up at our 40th birthday party.

40th birthday party strippers come in every permutation you can imagine, but one of the most memorable ones I’ve ever seen was a large, leather-wearing, BDSM-themed dude named Larry who was hired as a surprise for a notoriously shy friend’s 40th. Larry was hilarious, expertly balancing the tightrope between birthday spankings and….um, birthday spankings. He put on a great show for all the party attendees, properly and expertly traumatizing the birthday boy so much that he swore he would celebrate his next milestone birthday in a cave by himself where nobody could applaud while a professional wearing nothing but a harness went after him with a cat-o’-nine-tails. FUN PARTY.

Fast forward. It’s been a couple of years since Larry dominated the birthday boy. A bunch of us, many of whom had been in attendance at a certain 40th birthday party, decide to take a field trip to a particular restaurant way out in the country because we’d heard that they had a great fried chicken buffet followed by an outstanding floor show that featured an Elvis impersonator. By the time the evening in question rolled around, word had spread and we had multiple cars caravaning out to a tiny town on the lake. Everyone had individual motivations for making the trek and we were evenly divided between Team Chicken and Team Elvis. Personally? I was there for both. There were so many of us that we took up about half of the tables in the place. After swarming the buffet (and it was GOOD chicken) and eating our fill, we settled in for the evening’s entertainment. The warm-up impersonators gave me time to digest and wonder if we’d be getting Young Elvis or Hawaii Elvis.

I didn’t have to wait long. Fake Patsy Cline wrapped up her act and a hybrid Young-Looking-But-White-Jumpsuit-Sized Elvis made his big entrance through the side door next to the dessert table. He was delivering a mean “Jailhouse Rock” when a wave of recognition washed over me. Elvis looked familiar, but that made no sense at all. Why on Earth would I know an Elvis impersonator? I am just not that cool. As I puzzled on the feeling, my friend sitting next to me – the one who had hired Larry Leather for her husband’s 40th birthday many moons before – grabbed my arm, moving so suddenly she knocked my empty chicken plate sideways, and said “OH MY GOD! THAT’S LARRY THE STRIPPER.”

It’s a uniquely twisted path that has the same guy taking you from a leather lap dance to “Love Me Tender”. I like a story that comes back on itself, so it makes sense that one of my favorite authors is Lyndsay Faye. There’s no author who can frame a twisted path like Lyndsay Faye, something she proves yet again in her latest book, The Paragon Hotel. The Paragon Hotel is the reading equivalent of a nonstop surprise birthday party-you think everyone’s forgotten it’s your special day, then you walk into a room full of people who can’t wait to see how you react when the stripper shows up. The book opens with speed and sparks as we meet Alice James, riding a train out of 1920s New York to get away from the guy who done her wrong. You think you’re getting a breakup story? Well, that girl’s got a gunshot wound she’s trying to hide from her nosy bunkmate. (That’s your cue. Yell Surpriiiiise! WE REHEARSED THIS.) As Alice’s train pulls into Portland, OR, and a sympathetic porter with a soft heart and a few secrets of his own gets her off the train and into hiding at Portland’s Paragon Hotel, Faye has teased more mysteries about our gun moll refugee than you think possible-that is, until you meet the residents of the Paragon Hotel.

Full disclosure: I have recommended Lyndsay Faye books before on this blog. And in person. And on Twitter. And I’ve given them as gifts. And once, on a trip to NYC, I made my friend Bryn walk with me for 1.5 miles to the Union Square Barnes & Noble because I wanted a signed copy of The Fatal Flame, a copy I knew would be there because I low-key stalk Lyndsay Faye across many social media platforms. I guess my point is I’m mostly harmless and nobody here needs to take out a restraining order, ha ha haaaaaaaaa, I’m just saying that everyone should have seen this recommendation coming from a mile away.

Lyndsay Faye’s body of work is defined by meticulous historical research that manifests in wildly interesting, unpredictable characters, and The Paragon Hotel is no exception. There aren’t any sidebar tedious dry authorial subject matter lectures. Instead, the book is filled with people in all their glorious, fickle, human fallibility. The Paragon Hotel is fresh, frank, and brutal. It demands your attention but never wastes your time. Alice’s story expands organically as she bears witness to the heartbreaks and joys of the people who took chances by taking her in while she reconciles herself to her sudden and shocking departure from New York. The Paragon is the eye at the center of multiple hurricanes, and that stormy energy drives the story in unexpected directions. Faye wants you to trust her; in return, she will respect your reading experience. The Paragon Hotel will wreck you, but it will reward you, too.

This guy gets it.

One day, Lyndsay Faye is going to write a novel about Elvis, birthday party strippers, and an out-of-the-way country restaurant famous for its fried chicken, and I am going to slam the pre-order button so hard it’ll rocket me into a new decade. Join me! I’ll save a piece of cake for you.


Action Items

If reading this book puts you in a Pacific Northwest frame of mind, let the experts at Powell’s Books in Portland assist you.

If reading this book puts you in a Lyndsay Faye state of mind, start with Gods of Gotham and keep going.

The Reason Zeus Is Still Here

Let’s say that you’ve got an Ancient Greek hanging out with you while you’re running around doing errands. Likely as not, your day would go something like this:

You: Man this red light is taking forever

Ancient Greek: The story of the slow red light begins when Zeus distracted his wife Hera by building a fancy water park on the island of Crete. Hera, unable to resist boogie boarding in the wave pool, grabbed all of her maidens and left Zeus alone on Mount Olympus. Free from his wife’s jealous eye, he transformed into a bucket of jumbo buttered popcorn and attempted to seduce

You: Light changed

Ancient Greek: The story of the changing traffic light begins when

You: Give it a rest, Xanthos

The Greeks have a big story for EVERYTHING. Seriously. Pick a subject. Weather? Oooohh, let Xanthos tell you about the shenanigans on Mount Olympus. The seasons? See, Persephone really needed her me time and that’s why trees bloom. Mirrors? Bad hair days? Oak trees? I can do this all day, because the Greeks had every base covered with stories from a complex and intricate community of gods, goddesses, and endless variations of human/immortal hybrids with social lives that rival any Shondaland plotline.

Of all the things the Greeks lauded in their storytelling-beauty, athletic ability, cool chariots-they valued one attribute above all else. The brass ring, the Stanley Cup, the Shake Shack burger of Greek attributes is immortality. No goal was more desired than that of living beyond human limitations, of achievement that would catapult an ordinary man to off the planet to Olympus altitudes. Immortality is the spokesman for the franchise, the thing that defined what sacrifice and nobility meant to the Greeks. We are talking about immortality today because it is immortality that is the center of one of the few books that made reading life bearable for me in 2018, a story about an immortal woman banished for eternity back when eternity meant serious business, not just how long it felt to wait in line to check out at Trader Joe’s.

What would you do with unlimited circles around the sun? Not that Greeks perceived the Earth circling the sun, HAHAHAHAHA AS IF. Ancient Greece pegged itself as the center of the known world, the sun cheerfully charioting around the earth during the day (waves to Helios) and then non-sun time revealing an imaginary sky city full of star dot people, star dot Zodiacs, and some star dot bears. (Yes, astrology is bullshit, but just try saying that to ancient Greeks. They will straight cut you. Are they wrong though? If I have to pick my arbitrary magical personality prediction system, astrology wins every time because it’s fun and there are lots of branding opportunities. You know what Renaissance England gave us as personality predictors? The Humours, featuring Bile and Phlegm. It didn’t get better in the UK until JK Rowling redeemed everything with the Hogwarts sorting hat.)

Anyway….Greek something something….OH. Right. Book!

Madeline Miller, a classics scholar and Greek/Latin teacher, takes the Greek idea of immortality and gives it her full, formidable attention in her gorgeous and compelling novel Circe. Circe is Miller’s second book and a continuation of her novelization of Greek mythology (go read her first book, Song of Achilles, RIGHT NOW.) Circe is a daughter of Helios, the cranky sun god, and niece of Zeus, the cranky thunder god. Zeus becomes angry (duh) with Circe when she offers assistance to Prometheus, who…okay, we cannot go down the Greek-god-family-tree-and-why-Zeus-is-a-butthead rabbit hole right now because we will be here all day. Suffice it to say that Zeus was a control freak who was a little hypersensitive about loyalty and a creative streak when it came to revenge, and Helios backed him up on everything due to Fear Of Thunderbolt To The Face. To punish Circe for her transgression, Zeus banishes her for life to an island off the coast of…Greece, probably, but this is not a map blog so let’s not sweat that detail either.

“Banished for life” is a bummer phrase, but if you’re an ordinary human, at least there’s an end to banishment because death comes for all mortals eventually. I mean, you are only going to have to come up with so many ways to fill time. But what if you’re part god and “banished for life” means you’re never getting off that island, times infinity? What is it to have endless time in solitary confinement? In some of the most marvelous passages in the book, Circe takes on her Island Challenge. With the occasional visit from Hermes, a cousin from the Gods Squad, she establishes a home, tames a lion, and invents witchcraft. Banishment sucks, yes, but real estate and an exotic animal farm sure soften the blow. Just ask Lisa Douglas.

Book recommendation validated: Check
Greek gods recognized as creeps: Check

If you read Homer’s The Odyssey – and if you did, give yourself a big high-five – you probably remember Circe as a sorceress who turns Odysseus’s crew into pigs. She exists primarily to give Odysseus yet another obstacle to overcome as he earns his place in the company of the immortals, becoming the hero whose story is told time and again. Miller’s book asks the question: Why does an island-bound goddess want to turn anyone into a pig in the first place? And as it turns out, pig-dude transformations are the least interesting thing about Circe. This book presents a deity growing into her inherited power and making it her own, an origin story for a woman who decides that immortality is as much her destiny as that of any of the powerful men who try to negate her with geography.

Madeline Miller’s attention to detail and lavish treatment of her subjects has her on pace to publish a new book every ten years, but I’m going to need her to pick up the pace. At this rate, I’m only going to get to read a couple more of her books. Not all of us are immortal, Madeline.


Action Item

In loving memory of fellow book nerd Linda Brown, a fiercely beautiful soul who had her own amazing trove of epic stories. I hope everyone on Mount Olympus knows how lucky they are to have her.