The Guest Room


Bohjalian-Chris-The-Guest-Room-coverThis was a disturbing read. It follows Alexandra, a captive in the sex trade industry, from her kidnapping as a young teenager in Armenia to her arrival in Bronxville, New York as a stripper at a bachelor party in a private home. It is a heartbreaking story, but also a testament to the human spirit’s ability to survive. While fiction, it is based on actual stories  researched by the author. In an interview he suggests that there is much nonfiction in the world to better address the issue of sex trafficking. He hopes that his book shines a light on human trafficking in a way that nonfiction might not be able to by prompting an emotional response as the reader connects to these very real, very human, very flawed characters. He also wants the reader to be invested in the two remarkable female characters in the story and the breakdown of a marriage.

One of the aspects of the novel that struck a chord with me is how when a person’s freedom has been taken away, instead of rebelling against their captors, the captives seek their approval. This phenomenon has so many applications in all relationships where the balance of power is unequal: parent/child; teacher/student; boss/employee; marriage where one person’s earnings far exceed their spouse’s, et al. The cruelty that was leveled on these poor girls (and they all were just girls) left them with nothing. They survived by doing what was expected of them to the best of their ability, in spite of the fact that none of that got them any closer to “normal” relationships. Their normal was living in an abusive environment. As revulsed as I was by what they were made to endure, I was filled with respect for their ability to survive. I found myself angry at the men in the novel, mostly the captors and enforcers, but also the privileged white men who paid for the girls’ services. The latter group never once thought about why these clearly young, some underaged, girls were engaged in this activity. I felt at times as close to physically sick as a reader can become by just reading a book. So much of my reading recently has been about man’s inhumanity to man, here, women. The inequities of the world are about power. But I wonder why it is that power feels so good when it’s used to keep others down. Is a world where all human rights are universally upheld even possible?


Two female characters in the story behave in a way that subjugates their personal feelings, wants, and desires, compelling them put the needs of those who have suffered the most before their own, even their family’s own. It made me ask myself, what would I sacrifice to do the right thing, provided I could even figure out in the first place what that was?


The food is a Middle Eastern sugar cookie called a ma’amoul. Alexandra had a dream near the end of the novel where she is being fed a maamoul by a trusted adult. The innocence of this imagery summarized the book poignantly, and provided a comfortable “hook” for me to come to terms with my feelings about the characters in a very satisfying way.

I bought a ma’amoul mold online because I liked the way the way the cookies made with one looked. When I opened the package when the item was delivered, I was surprised to see where it had been made.

                           IMG_3613          IMG_3621

Ma’amoul Date Cookies
Yield: 2 dozen


3 C farina
½ C All Purpose flour
2 T granulated sugar
½ tsp salt
1 C ghee, clarified butter (regular butter works too)
½ tsp active dry yeast
½ C lukewarm water
⅓ C whole milk

In a small bowl, mix yeast in water and allow to stand for 3 minutes. In a stand mixer with paddle attachment, mix together farina, AP flour, salt, sugar and butter. Add the yeast and water and milk to the bowl and mix until dough forms. Allow dough to rest for 10 minutes.


3 C dates, pitted
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp orange blossom water
1-2 T coconut oil or vegetable oil

Blend dates together in a food processor with spices and 1 tablespoon oil until smooth. Add orange blossom water. Roll 1 tablespoon dates into 24 small balls and reserve on a baking sheet.

Assembling the cookies

Preheat oven to 400º.

Use a level tablespoon of dough. Flatten it in your hand to make a 3″ circle. Place a ball of filling on top of the dough. Bring up the edges of the dough to meet and press them together to seal the filling. Place the filled dough in the mold and press down to etch the imprint on the dough. Gently tap the mold on a clean surface until the dough releases. Place on the parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack. When cool, dust with confectioner’s sugar.







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