Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

I haven’t been so captivated by a book since before my daughter was born (and that was over 4 months ago!). I simply couldn’t put Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, down. Firstly, it’s incredibly unique: it blends our complex, busy, present world with a fantastical, simple, barren one. But if “Fantasy” is a no-go for you, this one is still worth a go – trust me on that. In my opinion, this book could just as easily be categorized as a psychological thriller, mystery, literary fiction, or sci-fi. It really has a little of everything.

Most importantly, though there are just two characters for much of the book, Clarke is somehow able to keep Piranesi’s voice interesting and the novel’s action moving quickly, even in a world where nothing much happens beyond the tides coming and going. It’s truly remarkable.

But beyond just the gripping plot and entrancing voice, there is so much happening in this novel on a thematic level. It asks huge questions of the reader: what happens when we’re left alone? What does it mean to be in touch with one’s surroundings? These questions (and so many others) are, perhaps, even more intriguing and insightful given our recent experiences during a global pandemic – sometimes Piranesi’s experiences hit really close to home.

With so many ethical, philosophical, and thematic overtones, I found it especially helpful after finishing this one to listen in on a few podcasts with the author. In particular, I’d recommend this discussion with Susanna Clarke, from Vox FM (I listened on Spotify, so you can find it there as well!).

10 for 10 I recommend this one to just about anyone.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

It’s been a long time since I was so intrigued by a narrator, or even by a protagonist. In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Tokarczuk delivers a character that is incredibly complex; she is serious but funny, odd but convincing, unstable but proactive. Even without the plot that drives this novel forward, I think I would have kept reading just to observe her.

That said, there is a plot, and it’s the classic whodunit murder mystery, set in a tiny Polish village. But while I often think of murder mysteries as being pure entertainment, this novel was much, much more. Tokarczuk elevates this plot to grapple with some really big topics: borders, motherhood, death, justice, mental health, art, and so much more. I picked this one up because it’s the @fictionmatters book club pick of the month, and I just can’t wait to discuss some of these big themes.

I have to admit, before starting this one, I was a little skeptical, having read Tokarczuk’s prize-winning story collection, Flights, and not absolutely loving it. But now that I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed Drive Your Plow…, I may need to revisit Flights (admittedly I was much younger and I’m a different reader now). I’ll definitely be doing that soon…

The Whispering House – A “Beach Read” for 2021

As Spring Break fast approaches, I’ve been seeing a lot of books being marketed as “Beach” or “Spring Break” reads, and have been thinking about what those terms really mean. As it turns out, I’m not first to investigate…

In 2019, the New Yorker acknowledged that the term is controversial – not everyone has the same definition and not everyone likes the categorization. But when Book Riot took a shot at the definition in 2020, landing on terms like “light reading”, “compulsively readable”, “mass appeal”, and “accessible,” they were more aligned with my own understanding of the “Beach Read” category (though I would also like to acknowledge that term as somewhat problematic, often “dripping with sexist assumptions” or assumed to not be “particularly intellectually stimulating”, to cite Book Riot).

When I recently read The Whispering House, by Elizabeth Brooks, I couldn’t help but think of this as a sort of 2021 beach read: characterized by accessible language, familiar characters, and a balance between romance and mystery that keeps you turning pages but doesn’t make you work too hard. And who doesn’t need a book like that, once in a while? Admittedly, I typically go for books that are a little more “academic” – like classics or literary fiction, books that win Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, that drive tough conversations in social and literary circles. My inclination isn’t usually to reach for a beach read. But sometimes, you need a little (Spring) break.

Also, I’ll just add that if there is a “Beach Read” of 2021, The Whispering House feels right. I mean, it’s got all the elements of a good social distancing story: extreme isolation in what may or may not be a haunted house, sick people quarantined in their rooms, plenty of scrounging when the groceries run out, and let’s not forget all the characters that get a little obsessed with their new hobbies (not bread-making though, thank God).

Additional Links:

Get the book

The New Yorker: The Invention of the Beach Read

Book Riot: What Makes a Book a Beach Read

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