In which it becomes clear to me that a “best of” list means next to nothing.
I’m trying (and doubt I will make it) to catch up with my long backlog list from 2020 and to actually reach my goal of 52 reviews. Putting together mini-groups to review together has made this somewhat easier, and yes, I know that some of my groupings are probably random.
Here we have two books that I thought were fine. I probably wouldn’t recommend them to friends, but if they came up in conversation I would happily discuss their merits and their faults. But I have seen them on many “best of” 2020 lists and am just not feeling it.
First up, a book that everyone read, The Glass Hotel.
Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: Why don’t you swallow broken glass. High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. When the financial empire collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan’s wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: a woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container ship between ports of call.
In this captivating story of crisis and survival, Emily St. John Mandel takes readers through often hidden landscapes: campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping, service in luxury hotels, and life in a federal prison. Rife with unexpected beauty, The Glass Hotel is a captivating portrait of greed and guilt, love and delusion, ghosts and unintended consequences, and the infinite ways we search for meaning in our lives.
Reader, I was shocked when I saw this on a best-of list on the mothership last week. Because, to me, it was a huge disappointment.
We all adored Station Eleven, I know. I think after two readings (one in a pandemic!) it’s probably be on my top-ten list of all time, and in my top-two pandemic novels (is that a thing?). So I wanted to love The Glass Hotel, and simply did not.
I wasn’t quite finished with it when we had our online book club discussion, and was glad to see that I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.
I did love a few things about the story. Its been a while since I read this, so apologies for the fuzzy details.
The hotel seemed like a beautiful place to visit. If it existed in real life, I would put it at the top of my vacation list post-pandemic. I liked the character of the caretaker who decides that he could happily live out the rest of his days at the hotel, simply to be surrounded by peaceful beauty.
I was fascinated — and horrified — by the plot with the shipping executive who lost everything in the Ponzi scheme, and ended up living out his retirement in an RV doing odd jobs in various locations. And it was about this time that I first saw the trailer for the new Frances McDormand movie, Nomadland, which seemed to be about a similar situation. I had no idea (which is on me for being uniformed) that this was a common thing and it made me so mad.
That’s pretty much it.
I disliked the main characters. I LOATHED Paul. I didn’t care about Vincent at all.
I was furious at everyone involved with the financial scheme. I am aware that they hadn’t signed up for what they ended up with, but still. I felt sorry for their children and families. Not them.
The Shakespearean use of the ghosts in the prison didn’t quite work for me, and I disliked Jonathan so much that I didn’t care.
One last tiny gripe: I usually enjoy shout outs and call back to other works. I always enjoy the Easter eggs that Stephen King drops into his books, linking everything to Derry or the Dark Tower. But I was so annoyed that Miranda from Station Eleven showed up here. I have no idea why that rubbed me the wrong way, but I literally said “NO” out loud.
The next book is on a billion year end lists. And while the writing is good…I maybe just didn’t get it?
Memorial is about family — both the kind that you are born into, and the kind you make for yourself. It’s about loss. It’s about the beginning and the ending of relationships. So many people that I respect in the book world raved. And I was like, ok?
Benson and Mike are two young guys who live together in Houston. Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant and Benson’s a Black day care teacher, and they’ve been together for a few years—good years—but now they’re not sure why they’re still a couple. There’s the sex, sure, and the meals Mike cooks for Benson, and, well, they love each other.
But when Mike finds out his estranged father is dying in Osaka just as his acerbic Japanese mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Texas for a visit, Mike picks up and flies across the world to say goodbye. In Japan he undergoes an extraordinary transformation, discovering the truth about his family and his past. Back home, Mitsuko and Benson are stuck living together as unconventional roommates, an absurd domestic situation that ends up meaning more to each of them than they ever could have predicted. Without Mike’s immediate pull, Benson begins to push outwards, realizing he might just know what he wants out of life and have the goods to get it.
Both men will change in ways that will either make them stronger together, or fracture everything they’ve ever known. And just maybe they’ll all be okay in the end.
To be honest, I wish I had read this blurb before I read the book, as it provides a much more optimistic view of the story than the one I came away with.
It was a weird story. Mike taking off to see his dad in Japan that he hadn’t seen in years, and ditching his mother in Houston with his probably-soon-to-be-ex boyfriend. Meanwhile, Benson’s family has a crisis, Benson doesn’t know what to do about anything , Mitsuko has a million secrets, and everyone cooks all the time. While all of this is going on, Mike is finding out some truths about his parents, learning how to run a bar, and getting to know the city of Osaka.
The writing was amazing. I loved the details about Houston and Osaka. I could picture Mike’s father’s bar in a tiny dark alley, filled with the regulars who made it their second home. I wanted to eat everything in this book — the homemade recipes that Mitsuko taught Benson, the Houston street food that Benson and Omar would eat, Mike’s makeshift recipes that he practiced for work — and I wanted to wash them down with a cold beer or two.
I really wanted Mike and Benson to become better people and have an AH-HA moment. Maybe they did? A tiny ah-ha? But it wasn’t enough for me to get past some of the cruel things they had done to each other while their relationship was struggling. It was painfully realistic, and maybe that’s not what I was looking for in my fiction?
Maybe my issues are my own. Could just be the wrong book at the wrong time for me, and in a non-horrible year, I might have felt differently about it. No doubt that Bryan Washington is tremendously talented and I wish him all the success in the world. I’m assuming that this will end up as a small Tom McCarthy-type independent film, that I would absolutely see.