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Booklists Staff Book Reviews

What I’m Reading Next

by Adult Services Library Associate Debbie

One of the best problems to have is too many wonderful books to read. For a  bookworm like myself to work in a library is a bit like being a kid in a candy store. I have bunches of books I’m looking forward to reading and I thought I would share a few of them.  

I’ve been meaning to read one of Laura Zigman’s books forever- she has a great reputation for writing funny, poignant novels with very relatable characters. I was hooked after I read the premise for Separation Anxiety – a middle aged Mom who suddenly, impulsively starts wearing an old baby sling and carrying the family dog around in it to the shock and surprise of her family and friends.

Speaking of hooks, I’m a fool for a good book hook and Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel has a doozy.  Rose Gold Watts was terribly sick for the first eighteen years of her life and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her.  But it turns out that nothing was – her Mother was just a really good liar.  Now her Mother is getting out of prison and the town is stunned when Rose Gold opens her home to her. Has her Mother forgiven Rose for testifying against her? But Rose is no longer an invalid and she has been waiting such a long time for her Mother to come home.  It gives me chills!  I’m eager to see if Darling Rose Gold delivers the psychological twists and turns that it promises.

Long Bright River by Liz Moore is a mystery novel about two sisters; Mickey is a cop and patrols the streets and Kasey is in the grip of addiction and lives on the streets. The two sisters are estranged but when Kasey disappears Mickey is driven to find her.  I enjoy mysteries and this type really appeals to me – soulful, thoughtful mysteries that delve deep into their characters.  The central mystery isn’t as important as the mystery in the hearts of the characters.

The cover for Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown made me do a double take – red cover, 1950s image of a housewife holding a knife and teeny little skulls.  I couldn’t resist.  The story of Alice,a modern day woman who finds cookbook notes and letters from a 1950s housewife – the cookbook has a sunny, perfect housewife outlook and the letters tell the real, darker side of her story. Alice starts to see uncomfortable parallels between her life and that of the ‘50s housewife who felt suffocated by her role and her marriage.  Will Alice change her life? The little skulls hint that the solution might be darker than simple self-improvement. There is only one way to find out!

A delightful summer treat that I’m about to bite into is Take a hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert.  This novel is the second in a rom-com series about three sisters; the first one Get a Life, Chloe Brown was the perfect romantic confection – lovable characters, witty banter, adorable moments and great sizzle and I’m hoping the second is as good as the first. In the second novel Danika Brown is a hyper focused PhD student and has given up on relationships aside from the occasional fling; big, brooding security guard and former rugby star Zafir Ansari is a secret romantic and a workplace fire drill gone wrong throws the two together.  Will Dani seduce Zaf? Will Zaf win over Dani to romance? I can barely wait to find out!

I hope you’re enjoying your own summer reads and as always, Happy Reading!

Categories
Booklists

Multiracial Family Reading List

by Adult Services Librarian Sue Shipe-Giles

Raising my two multiracial children for the past twenty-plus years has proved challenging. During this time, we have each encountered a variety of discrimination and misunderstandings. I have been ostracized by other school moms and even harassed by an employer once they met my husband. My son was bullied starting in preschool, while my daughter has had to “prove” on many occasions to classmates, and once even to a teacher, that her dad is really her father.

During these extremely difficult times, I wanted to shed more light on the unique experiences and difficulties multiracial children and their parents encounter. I hope the following books will provide much needed insight and understanding on this topic. All of these titles are available to request through BPL’s catalog.

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Discussion Guide Virtual Book Club

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom Discussion Guide

As we prepare for our August 12th & 15th Virtual Book Club events, team member Debbie has put together a discussion guide that includes questions about and quotes from the BPL Virtual Book Club pick The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom.

To register for one of the two Virtual Book Club events, follow this link to the BPL event calendar (https://bexleylibrary.org/events). If you haven’t started reading The Yellow House yet, be sure to check it out digitally on Hoopla where it is currently always available. We’re excited to be partnering with Gramercy Books in Bexley as our bookselling partner, check them out at https://www.gramercybooksbexley.com/ if you’re interested in purchasing a physical copy of the book.

1.  How do we not define ourselves entirely by where we are from? (Central Question of the book per the author)*
*In The Yellow House you write: “I did not yet understand the psychic cost of defining oneself by the place where you are from.” What advice do you have for others on avoiding this psychic cost?

That’s the central question of the book: How do we not define ourselves entirely by where we are from? I don’t just mean the city—the circumstances, conditions of our birth, all the feelings that come with feeling displaced or misplaced. For New Orleans, it was important for me to examine the mythology of the place. Because for much of my childhood I defined myself by the condition of the house, one of the key things I realized was that I was not the house. That’s an enormous power, to give any place or object the ability to define who you are. I got around this through research—finding the stories, going there and asking hard questions, thinking honestly about what it meant to grow up in this place. For me, it was doing the hard work of not romanticizing the place, my own story, or the story of my family. There are moments where I just present the story as what it is. That was important for me that my mother and siblings are seen in this complex light, which is how life is—layered and nuanced.  https://www.writersdigest.com/getting-published/the-yellow-house-sarah-m-broom  

https://groveatlantic.com/book/yellow-house-the/ 

2 On perspective: At the opening of the story, Sarah Broom describes the lot where the Yellow House once stood from fifteen thousand feet above, saying that from those great heights, her brother Carl, who tends the space, would not be seen.Have you ever brought up a Google Earth image of your house from above and zoomed out? What impact did seeing your home, your street, your state, your country shrink in comparison to the world have on your perspective?

3. On birth order:When the author calls her eldest brother, Simon, in North Carolina “to explain all the things I want to know and why, he expresses worry that by writing this all down here, I will disrupt, unravel, and tear down everything the Broom family has ever built.” He tells her he’d like to live in the future and forget about the past. (p. 8)The twelfth of twelve children, Broom works hard to reconstruct the life that came before her and to cleave it to the life she knew in the Yellow House and after, to make sense of a whole and to connect it to place. What role do you think birth order plays in her desire to preserve vs. Simon’s need to forget? Who is the keeper of the history in your family and who places more value on the present?

4. On place vs. story:Sarah Broom’s brother Carl, the seventh of twelve, occupies the space—keeps the space—where the Yellow House sat long after it’s gone. She describes this occupation (p. 3): “Sometimes you can find Carl alone on our lot, poised on an ice chest, searching the view, as if for a sign, as if for a wonder.” She says he is “babysitting ruins. But that is not his language or sentiment; he would never betray the Yellow House like that.”Do some people in your family tend to place—to “babysit ruins”—and others to story? Have you ever tried to keep a place alive by occupying it after the circumstances that led you to being there in the first place ended? What do you think it means to Carl to stay?

5.On names:The author refers to Hurricane Katrina throughout as “the Water.”Why do you think she made this choice? How does the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the repetition of language affect you as a reader/viewer? Describe what “the Water” communicates to you, and how it changed over the course of the book. Do you think it will be the same for every reader?

6. On Chef Menteur Highway:Chef Menteur Highway plays an integral, “sinister” role in The Yellow House. On p. 6 the author states: “The name, translated from French, means ‘chief liar.’ ”What are the truths we think we know about New Orleans compared to the story Broom tells? What other cities present the same kinds of half truths? Have you ever stumbled into a neighborhood in a city you thought you knew that told a different story?

7.On John McDonogh Day:The author tells us, “John McDonogh was a wealthy slave owner who in 1850 bequeathed half of his estate to New Orleans public schools, insisting that his money be used for ‘the establishment and support of free schools wherein the poor and the poor only and of both sexes and classes and castes of color shall have admittance.’” We are then told how the black students must wait in the heat on the day that celebrates McDonogh, while white students pay tribute to him first.Are there widely accepted/institutionalized holidays or rituals you can think of that exclude or erase certain people, or situations in which symbolism has been deemed more important than the wellness of the participants? Thinking about the role of symbolism and ritual in cultural bonding, whose culture is McDonogh Day intended to bond, and at what cost?

8. On parenting then and now:On p. 37, the author writes about children’s place in an adult world and the role adults played in teaching them the facts of life: “In those days, children did not speak openly to their parents. ‘Get out from grown folks’ business,’ you were told. Whatever we found out, we found out on our own.”Who were your youthful “teachers”? Tell one story about a friend/sister/ brother who schooled you on something parents didn’t talk to their kids about when you were young. How solid was the advice? Parents pride themselves on being open with their kids these days, but has something been lost?

9. On family firsts:On p. 57, Broom writes: “Mom paid for her house with money from Webb’s life insurance policy. She was nineteen years old, the first in her immediate family to own a house, a dream toward which her own mother, Lolo, still bent all of her strivings.”Who accomplished these kinds of firsts in your family? Were they long-ago accomplishments or more recent? What kinds of sacrifices or good-willed pitching in were made and by whom to help make them possible?

10. On hard memories vs. good ones:Broom writes almost in the same breath of harsh memories like having racial epithets hurled at them by their transient white neighbors in the trailer park, Oak Haven, across the street, and of the weekly parties Ivory Mae and Simon threw and movies projected on the not-yet-Yellow House (p. 68), “the side of the house becoming, for a night, the greatest movie screen.”What kinds of institutionalized or other hardships are you able to square with happier memories from your childhood? What bright memories stick out as balancing more difficult times? What seem the most difficult circumstances to square for the Broom family before the Water?

11. On unspoken boundaries:The author states that the adults on the street for the most part stayed out of each other’s houses (p. 87), “unless there was good cause,” like when “Ms. Octavia’s . . . husband, Alvin, died.”Do you have friendly longtime neighbors whose houses you’ve never been in until there was some kind of emergency? What makes people draw the line at the front door with people they’ve chatted on the lawn with for years? Likewise, during the eldest daughter, Deborah’s, wedding reception, the author says (p. 98) it “mostly held to the outdoors, but people still wandered inside, to the bathroom, and then others went in just to see what we had, Mom was convinced.” Ivory Mae felt that “the objects contained within a house spoke loudest about the person to whom the things belonged. More than that, she believed that the individual belonged to the things inside the house, to the house itself.” For Ivory Mae, this intrusion began what the author calls “the shifty settling in of shame.”Sometimes objects simply reveal surprising details about a person. Are there objects that expose a part of you that you hold sacred and prefer to protect? Are there common objects in plain sight that reveal everything to close friends but nothing to strangers? What are the objects in the Yellow House that reveal the most about the characters?

12. On land development:Talking about the land deals that never come to fruition in New Orleans East, the author writes that (p. 88): “there were more paved roads than walkways— certain parts of the East were best driven through. Landscapes communicate feeling. Walking, you can grab on to the texture of a place, get up close to the human beings who make it, but driving makes distance, grows fear.”Are there parts of your town that have been developed in such a way that they suppress a sense of community rather than inspire it? Alternately, have you seen development that made an abandoned or wrecked part of your city or town suddenly come alive? Was there anything that could have been done differently on the swath of land in New Orleans East that would have changed the outcome?

13. On Simon’s death:After Simon dies, the house, with so many children and so much responsibility, falls into chaos. Routines fall apart. The boys get in trouble. Ivory Mae has to depend on public transportation or rides to get anywhere. She says (p. 114), “I was a little pathetic at first. I needed to make myself know things.” When she finally learns to drive after a couple of failed strategies, she says, “It was my Independence Day.”Has there ever been a time in your life that has forced you to recalibrate, to remake yourself into someone who’s brave in a novel way in order to meet challenges in unfamiliar territory or in territory that has suddenly been rendered unfamiliar by an event? What does this reveal about Ivory Mae?

14. On the growing-up world:In the chapter “Map of My World,” the author describes five points on the map that make (p. 117) “my growing-up world.”What are some of the places that you can still inhabit vividly in your mind’s eye? Why do you think those stuck and not others? Why do you think the points in the author’s growing-up world stuck with her so strongly?

15. On the ground:The author speaks frequently of the “squishy earth” (p. 123) being “eaten by it.” Something as ordinary and foundational as the earth beneath her feet is routinely described as being untrustworthy. She writes: “In our child-wise minds, the seal between deep ground and our present reality above that ground is string thin.”What real threats/facts of life did you and the kids around you know when you were growing up that turned out to be spot-on and not just boogie men or childhood exaggeration?

16.On selective vision:The author is nearly legally blind and describes living in a “blurry” world until she is ten years old. When her mother discovers her vision problem, Ivory Mae buys glasses for Sarah, who up until that point has been perhaps mercifully shielded from some of the details in her life. Then, walking home from school one day, with twenty-twenty eyesight for the first time, “one detail overwhelms them all.” She writes (p. 135): “Our side of Wilson Avenue, the short end, seems a no-matter place where police cars routinely park, women’s heads bobbing up and down in the driver’s seat.” After that, she tries “not to see what is right in front of my face. Sometimes, when I want the world to go blurry again, I remove my glasses when passing by these scenes. In this way, I learn to see and to go blind at will.”What kinds of things have you tried not to see in your own city or neighborhood? What do you think the author was genuinely aware of before the glasses?

17. On middle school:The author writes about smiling “with abandon, goofy-like” (p. 136) when she is in sixth grade and proudly posing with her Edward Livingston Middle School honors sash. In the next breath, middle school goes Lord of the Flies. The “school hallways hold contests of a lurid sort.” And (p. 140) “some days we have substitute teachers who seem called in from off the street. Many times, the substitute puts a movie into the VCR that has nothing to do with the subject matter or with learning. Everything in the world feels stupid then.” Later, “We had become a horde, to be gathered and made to ‘act right,’ indistinguishable from one another.” Overnight honors students become fighters, cynicism creeps in replacing goofy pride, and order dissolves into chaos.What moments in middle school stick out to you as being turning points? What messages do you think these students are responding to? How does Broom describe her evolution when she changes from Livingston Middle School to Word of Faith? Is Word of Faith a “good school”? Reflect, as well, on times you have moved from one social situation to another and how you could, or could not, decide how to present yourself.

18. On duality:Throughout The Yellow House the author repeats Ivory Mae’s words: “You know this house not all that comfortable for other people.” But further she says: “My mother was raised by my grandmother Lolo to make a beautiful home; I love to make beauty out of ordinary spaces. I had not known this back when I was living inside the Yellow House, but I knew it in my adult years when I created rooms that people gravitated to, the kind generally described as warm. Once, a friend came to one of these made places, an apartment in Harlem, and sat in the parlor looking around. The room had made him feel alive, even happy to be alive, he said. And then, ‘You have things to make a home with.’ People are always telling me this.” At the same time she writes about the shame of bringing people to the house she grew up in because of its deteriorating condition, of the friends she and her sister never make because of the inherent threat of having to invite them over. But (p. 148): “America required these dualities anyway and we were good at presenting our double selves. The house, unlike the clothes our mother had tailored to us, was an ungainly fit.”What kinds of duality do you live with? Are some kinds easier to live with than others?

19. On “the Water”:The events of the Water are described as they are occurring in real time, often through Broom’s interviews with her siblings and mother. We see Carl awaken to the storm flooding his house and flee to the attic from which, by daybreak, he has to cut his way out through the roof. Or the author narrates her brother Michael in the midst of the chaos (p. 207): “The men foraged for food and other items from broken-in stores, eventually finding an air mattress and two boats. Whatever you needed and the last thing on earth you needed could be found, it seemed, in the dirty, fetid water.” Meanwhile in Harlem, Broom is desperately scanning the news channels in search of (p. 202): “Carl’s white cotton socks pulled up high, size 13 feet.” Searching for the faces of “my beloveds.”How does the switch in narrative tone impact you as a reader? When Michael and his group are rescued (p. 207) does it seem to you that they can truly feel safe? Can you see yourself braving “fetid water” to find food and essential supplies for your family, or imagine being unable to contact your “beloveds” in catastrophic circumstances? With this in mind, think about Broom’s trip to join her family in California at last, and hiding in her brother Byron’s bathroom (p. 210) “writing scenes into a notebook instead of feeling.” Does this differ from her description of writing prior to this? What information does Broom give us about the fate of New Orleans’s population after the storm that was new to you?

20. On the long-term impact of catastrophe:During the Water, Broom writes, “All told, we scatter in three cardinal directions, nine runny spots on the map.” Even after it recedes, most remain dispersed. How do climate events like the hurricane impact families, employment, housing prices? What effect do you think this kind of scattering after climate crises has on regional culture?

Categories
Staff Book Reviews

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

A book review by BPL team member, Christian.

The city of Kars, Turkey is like a winter snow globe constantly being shook by the hands of geopolitical affairs and religious tension. As the snow falls, covering the city with suicides of teenage girls, Ka, a poet, returns to Kars to write on the suicides of the alienated youth. Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is a novel that resembles his literary contemporary, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks–in the way that Snow takes place in clone of a city where real crimes have occurred (Kars being the placeholder for the suicides of girls in Batman, Turkey in Snow and Santa Teresa being the placeholder for the murders of women in Cuidad Juarez in 2666) and the mysticism of a location (such as the dream-like qualities that resemble the cities of Kars, Turkey and Twin Peaks, Washington).

Kars is the epicenter of the novel, a city that attracts cultural heterology–a group of Islamic militants and Western-influenced secularists fighting over the subject of whether women should bare head scares. Ka is in the middle of this war between religion, politics, and culture, playing the role of a double agent through his amiable personality. As a Turkish expatriate in Germany, Ka faces the drifting qualities of diaspora as he can never truly identify himself–whether in the political, religious, or cultural spheres. He becomes a mediator, never truly deciding the ethical choices he is given–a consistent quality in the novel’s ever-expanding plot. And despite the tense events that Ka gets himself in, the creative spark that the city of Kars grants him (as he writes nineteen poems that he pieces together in a collection baring the same title as the novel) and his hasteful infatuation for Ipek (a childhood acquaintance) are what makes himself bare through the suffering, cold city of Kars.

Snow is a dense book, spanning more than 460 pages, and as the novel goes through two theater shootings, the assassination of a university director, and a blizzard, the time Ka spent in Kars is reflective of decades of fragmentation that concerns the geopolitical country of Turkey–the suicide of the girls is reflective of a trauma that has endowed through these decades; it is not a concern of what is happening now, but rather, something that has been happening for such a long time. The novel leaves a vague idea of the future of Turkey because it is a country that is locked between Western and Middle Eastern influence, uncertain of its own collective identity. Kars is a city in a snow globe–and inside it’s glass exterior, the outside world can look distorted and unclear.

Similar Reads:
Blindness by Jose Saramago
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Categories
Staff Book Reviews

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Sarah M. Broom’s debut memoir and 2019 National Book Award winner, The Yellow House, tells a hundred years of her family’s story and their relationship to home in New Orleans. Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, purchased a shotgun house in New Orleans East as a young widow and mother with insurance money. She remarried Simon Broom, and their combined family eventually included twelve children. Six months after Sarah was born, Simon passed away suddenly, leaving Ivory Mae to care for their large family and small home on her own. The Yellow House went into disrepair while Sarah was growing up, and it was finally destroyed when Hurricane Katrina swept through the city. Broom’s mother, siblings, and other family members survived, but most were then scattered throughout the country during evacuation efforts. Sarah and one of her sisters were living in Harlem at the time, and they could only watch the devastation on television while worrying about the safety of their loved ones.

Broom, a prodigal daughter and writer traveling the world, finally came home to New Orleans to research her multi-generational family history. One central question that she tried to answer during the course of her book was “How do we not define ourselves entirely by where we are from?”. She examined the mythology of the city of her birth, and how greed, discrimination, indifference, and poor city planning led to her family home being literally wiped off the map. Sarah also discussed the enormous power of the Yellow House during her childhood and even in later years after its destruction. Broom’s work provides us with an intimate portrait of her family as well as the city and home where they grew up.      

Keep an eye out on BPL’s social media and website for a schedule of virtual programs related to the book, including lectures about themes from the book and, of course, book group discussions for later in the summer. The Yellow House by Sarah Broom has unlimited availability on Hoopla. We’re excited to be partnering with Gramercy Books in Bexley as our bookselling partner, check them out at www.gramercybooksbexley.com if you’re interested in purchasing a physical copy of the book.

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Online Resources

One of my favorite digital library resources is Hoopla. Through Hoopla, BPL cardholders have access to ebooks, audiobooks, comics, movies, tv shows, and music – their selection is endless! My absolute favorite thing about Hoopla is that there is no wait for any of their material – if you see it, you can check it out (how amazing is that?). 

Another thing I love about Hoopla are their collections! In the mood for a movie from the 90s? Hoopla has a list for you (https://www.hoopladigital.com/collection/9804). Want to listen to the latest new music releases? Hoopla has you covered (https://www.hoopladigital.com/collection/787)! Do the kids want to take a trip with Miss Frizzle on the Magic School Bus? Look no further, Hoopla is here to help (https://www.hoopladigital.com/collection/7014).

During this crazy and scary time that is Covid-19, Hoopla has been there not only to keep me sane but also happy! Here’s what I’ve been borrowing on Hoopla over the last few months:

You can access Hoopla by following this link https://www.hoopladigital.com/my/hoopla or by downloading the Hoopla app to your device!

Categories
Booklists

LGBTQ+ Reads

Today is the last day of Pride Month – the annual celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning communities. But just because this month of celebration is ending doesn’t mean you should stop reading lgbtq+ books! Here are some of the latest and greatest lgbtq+ books to add to your Pride reading list. Happy Reading!

Categories
Staff Book Reviews

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

A book review by BPL team member, Leann.

I read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror and then immediately read So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, because, I guess I don’t want to feel happiness ever again.

Let’s start with the book everyone has been telling you to read since the moment it was off the printing presses in 2018: So You Want to Talk About Race. Oluo’s book is a primer for anyone and everyone who truly wants to do the work of dismantling the racist systems within which we live, work, eat, pray, and love. It reads like a textbook, which I think was the intention, with easily referenced chapter headings like “Why can’t I say the ‘N’ word?” and “Why am I always being told to ‘check my privilege?’” and “I just got called racist, what do I do now?” Oluo lays out in crystal clear language the answer to these questions. She does not mince words. The book is written both to people of color and to white people.

If you are already familiar with phrases like “school to prison pipeline” and are comfortable seeing the words “police” and “brutality” next to each other without huffing defensively, Oluo’s book is an excellent resource for you. Read it, and bone up on your answers so you can get more comfortable talking about race. Follow Oluo’s advice to talk, act, and importantly listen. If, however, you are skeptical about all the hubbub around the incarceration rates of black and brown men, or maybe you think affirmative action is why your kid didn’t get into Yale, or if you like the phrase, “Blue Lives Matter,” I wouldn’t recommend this book to you. Oluo doesn’t build an argument brick by brick, she whacks you over the head with the brick.

Oluo pulls no punches because there’s no time for that: she needs to get to the point and she needs to get there in reasonable word-count. If you’re a reader who’s been looking for that one resource to answer all your questions about why people won’t stop talking about race in America and you’re ready to hear the answers: I definitely recommend this book to you.

For Oluo’s book to work, and specifically for it to work for adults who have already learned so much Bad Information that we have to spend a bunch of time unlearning stuff, you need to have some basic foundational knowledge of systemic racism in America. You need to either be willing to take Oluo at her word when, for example, she cites the damaging and profound impacts of microagressions and/or you must have a pretty good grasp, already, on how racist America truly is. It’s a catch 22: to read this excellent diagnostic on basic American racism, you must already have some understanding of, and belief, in the damning nature of American racism. Otherwise, you’ll probably be in such shocked, mortified, embarrassed, and humiliated defensive disbelief, that you’ll put the book down and say she’s, “overreacting.”

If you’ve been having a frustrating conversation with someone about how American systems are inherently racist from the day they were created and you just want to shove something at that annoying person or link them to an article with all your proof, this book is going to feel very tempting. It does answer all those questions and demolish any arguments that American racism is over, and it does it quickly! With style! Nevertheless, as Oluo herself acknowledges, she’s not here to get into a Twitter feud over the troll-favored “proof.” If you think there’s even a chance, though, that the frustrating person might be willing to think about it further, grab Oluo’s book for yourself.

I encourage everyone to read this book, especially white people. Maybe if we all keep talking about race, more people will be ready for this book.

For more resources about race in America and Black Lives Matter, please visit our website at: https://bexleylibrary.org/black-lives-matter

Categories
Staff Book Reviews

The Glass Hotel

A book review by BPL team member, Beth.

“The building would have been beautiful anywhere, but placed here, it was incongruous, and its incongruity played a part in the enchantment.”

So says one character in describing the distinction and allure of the Hotel Caiette, the titular hotel in Emily St. John Mandel’s newest novel, The Glass Hotel. Accessible only by boat and at the edge of wilderness in an inlet on Vancouver Island in Canada’s British Columbia, the Hotel Caiette offers its guests a temporary respite from the modern world. As the only location in which almost all of the novel’s multiple protagonists cross paths (albeit unknowingly, in some cases), the contrasting of the Hotel’s luxury and the surrounding wilderness offers insight into one of the novel’s ongoing themes: the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom of the economic ladder.  

The novel follows a multitude of characters, across both time and place. Paul is a young man in his early twenties who, after years of struggling with drug addiction, successfully enrolls in the University of Toronto. Following a tragic incident, Paul leaves school after only semester and goes to live with his estranged younger half-sister, Vincent, in Vancouver. Having dropped out of high school, Vincent is struggling to find what she wants to do with her life. This is in December 1999, and these characters, like others throughout the world, imagine whether the end of the millennium will bring with it the end of civilization. Flash forward to 2005, and both Paul and Vincent are working at the Hotel Caiette. Jonathan Alkaitis is a wealthy investor, and owner of the Hotel. On an evening that Jonathan is set to arrive, someone scrawls a disturbing message on the windows of the Hotel. That same evening, a conversation between Vincent and Jonathan leads to an intimate relationship. Not long after, Vincent quits her job and moves with Jonathan to New York City, leaving behind a working life just outside the wilderness, for a life of opulence in a large metropolitan city. 

Vincent, like other characters throughout the novel, illuminates the difference between wealth and want not merely as a difference of station, but a difference of country. Aside from the luxury available to one in the “Kingdom of Money” (as Vincent refers to it), perhaps its most distinguishing feature is the freedom of its citizens, particularly the freedom to never have to think about money. But Vincent and the rest of the world soon learn just how much of a façade the mechanisms creating such wealth are, as the 2008 economic crisis reveals the fraud of financiers like Jonathan. Ponzi schemes, subprime mortgages, and other risky and predatory financial products lead to the most devastating financial crisis since the Great Depression. The household wealth of millions are wiped out overnight, resulting in evictions, foreclosures, and destroying the hopes many had of retirement. 

While readers, for obvious reasons, are reviving Mandel’s 2014 post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, a novel about a worldwide viral pandemic, I’d argue that her newest novel speaks just as well to the times that we are living in. The Glass Hotel is largely a story of who loses most in an economic crisis. To many, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis will be just as devastating as the virus itself. For the majority of Americans who have no savings, and no accumulated wealth, they again will be hit hardest by the current economic downturn. As in 2008, a crisis whose consequences we’re still dealing with, we again learn that those who have the least, end up being the ones who lose the most. If in times of crisis we continue to fail to address the obscene gap between those on the very top and those at the bottom, more and more people will be forced to live lives, as one character puts it, with “no space for any kind of error or misfortune.”

The Glass Hotel is an evocative and immersive read, one that I would recommend to fans of Mandel’s previous works. Like Station Eleven, the novel is told from multiple perspectives, full of unique and compelling characters; characters whose stories circle around and intersect with others in unexpected ways. It’s a sweeping, atmospheric novel, whose impressions will stick with readers long after they finish reading. Dense with metaphor, symbolism and provocative themes, it would make an excellent selection for a book club.

Click “read more” to see a book discussion guide for The Glass Hotel, which includes spoilers.

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Bexley Writes

Introducing Bexley Writes: “Write Your Story”

This summer, join us for Bexley Writes: an 8-week support and inspiration series to get Bexley patrons imagining—and writing—their stories! 

As part of BPL’s Summer Community Read theme, Imagine Your Story, Bexley Writes will focus on writing personal narratives: the stories of you, your families, and your communities. Whether you’re a first-time writer or a professional, we invite you to join us! 

Stay tuned to the BPL@Home blog and our social media streams for the following posts: 

Mondays: A prompt, to kick-start your writing

Wednesdays: Inspiration and writing tips, to help you find different ways to tell your story

Weekends: Excerpts from participating patrons* 

* To submit your responses to the prompts, email bexleywrites@bexleylibrary.org. While we can only share a few, all submissions will be read with care, and (with writers’ permission) gathered for a community-wide collection.