Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“May your Paths be safe, your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 272 pages.
Read from October 20, 2020 to October 22, 2020.

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in 2010, more than 10 years ago. While I remember next to nothing about the book I must have enjoyed it enough to show interest in this new book by the same author. Now that I have read Piranesi and having added a few more years of age (maybe some wisdom in there too), I would probably enjoy re-reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell again. With more than 15 years between the publications of these two books, here is hoping we don’t have to wait that long for another book by this great author.

Piranesi is a curious man living within an even more curious home he calls The House. Its rooms and corridors are infinite and surrounded by oceans with its water that flood and fill rooms with ebbing and flowing with the tides. The rooms are decorated with stunning pieces of art and sculptures as well as ocean wildlife like birds and fish. Piranesi spends his time mapping this labyrinth that he lives in and living off the meagre resources it provides him. There are others in the House but the majority of them are dead in which Piranesi honours their rotting bodies and speculates how they came to be here and their previous existence. He doesn’t get lonely though as there is The Other, a man that comes and goes, talks to him frequently while he carries out his Great and Secret Knowledge research that he is obsessed with. Piranesi never questions his existence or the strange world he lives in until a newcomer, he calls 16, since they are the sixteenth person to come to the House (including the dead) but is warned by The Other to avoid this person at all costs. Piranesi’s inexpiable trust in The Other begins to wane as he begins to communicate with 16 through secret messages. 16 is trying to locate a person he doesn’t know and is inquiring about the bodies with The House. Piranesi begins to wonder if The Other is his friend at all and about his existence within The House, as well as the presence and life of a world outside of The House.

What a concept and plot! There were so many ways this book could have gone wrong since. From the historical references to the abstract concept and world within the book. To truly appreciate the genius of the book you need to know who Giovanni Battista Piranesi is. Piranesi lived in the 1700s and was a respected etcher, painter and architect. He is most known for his series of prints called ‘Carceri d’invenzione or ‘Imaginary Prison‘. The series shows a whimsical labyrinth of underground rooms, stairs, art, and machinery.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi - Le Carceri d'Invenzione - First Edition - 1750 - 01 - Title Plate.jpg
First plate in the first edition of ‘Le Carceri d’Invenzione

This art as well as the artist is the inspiration and metaphor for The House Clarke’s story. When Piranesi’ world begins to unravel is when you start to fully grasp just how crazy this story is. The concept of this story could have easily gone wrong if it were in the hands of any other writer but Clarke executed it perfectly. The story is engaging and whimsical but grounded enough even for those who may not be as interested in fantasy. Having never seen the real ‘Imaginary Prison‘ etches prior to reading this book, Clarke’s imagery and descriptions of The House provided me with the intimate detail and feel of the real etchings. The world that Clarke creates is immensely visceral and as a reader, you come to feel at home in The House, especially because Piranesi’s character is so endearing.

I adored this book and was dismayed at its short length. Even with its historical reference, it wasn’t a requirement to enjoy this story though it adds an immense amount of depth to the story. It’s a book I would reread and would recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or fantasy.

Mãn by Kim Thúy

“I offer you
The life I have not lived
The dream I can but dream
A soul I’ve left empty
During sleepless nights”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 153 pages.
Read from September 30, 2020 to October 6, 2020.

After reading Ru, the winner of the 2015 Canada Reads debates I was interested to see what else Thúy had to offer. This was also a nice short read to help me catch up on my reading goal for 2020.

This is the story of Mãn, a girl born in war torn Vietnam and how she came to under the care of three different women and what brought her to Montreal, Canada. She dutifully marries a Vietnamese restaurateur in Montreal and finds that she has a passion and knack for cooking. The food brings back memories of her home and the people who visit the restaurant come for this same taste of nostalgia and emotion. While she is the ever dutiful wife, she has little in common with her husband and they barely know each other. She is not unhappy, yet there is a void in her life that is missing, a divide between her life in Vietnam and her life in Canada. When Mãn meets a French chef and begins a passionate love affair, she discovers the elements in her life that she was missing and begins to connect the pieces of her life and story.

This book is a slow burner that peaks with intensity brought from Mãn’s food and eventually the passion she shares with her lover. The writing is beautiful, illicit, and moving. While not as potent as Ru this short novel is a great example of Thúy’s writing style and capabilities. It mixes prose in the languages of both Vietnamese, French/English (depending on the version you read) in a masterful collaboration through the book that compliments the plot and feel of the book.

Based on some of Thúy’s own personal history it’s easy to speculate that perhaps there is some truth in Mãn’s story as the plot is so emotive. Thúy herself arrived in Montreal from Vietnam in 1979 when she was only ten years old. While I would say that I still preferred Ru this was still a welcome read and a great introduction to Thúy and her writing.

My Favourite Reads of 2020

2020 was a dumpster fire but I read some decent books…

Let’s just skip over the fact that 2020 (as well as 2019 for me) was a dumpster fire and that I’m late in publishing this post, okay? Right, so this is where I summarise the top five fiction and non-fiction books I read over the last year. I read some solid books this year so decided to expand it to my top six (lucky you). I guess I should I also mention that I’m a bit behind with my reviews so if there is a review missing from my selection I will add it soon and update this post as soon as I can. So, without further ado I present my favourite reads of 2020.

Non-Fiction


5. Unfree Speech – Joshua Wong

I’ve lived in Hong Kong for five years now and its a place I’ve come to love and adore. There have been some substantial politic shifts and changes since I have been here with the CCP gaining more and more control of Hong Kong since its handover from the British in 1997. This book talks about why you should care about what happens to Hong Kong and the changes that are happening here from a young man who has been actively advocating for his home country’s democracy since he was 14 years old.


4. Why We Swim – Bonnie Tsui

Another fun fact about me, I used to be a competitive swimmer and I love water. When I saw this book about about swimming that merged history, science, and passion I knew I had to read it. The author is a passionate swimmer who travels around the world to look at the science of swimming as well as our history with it and how our love for swimming brings us together even in the worst circumstances.


3. A Life on Our Planet – Sir David Attenborough

I adore this man and I’m absolutely obsessed with the documentaries that he narrates and participates in and will cry many rivers when he inevitably passes away. Attenborough is a remarkable human who has lived a remarkable life. With the time he has spent globetrotting and talk about nature and our planet he has seen some frightening changes. This book is a testament and statement of his experiences what we must do to prevent climate change from destroying our home.
Review to come.


3. The Road Out of Hell – Anthony Flacco

I love true crime, especially documentaries but I actually don’t read that many true crime books surprisingly. I’m trying to change that. This book is one of the most unnerving stories I’ve read to date. It’s about the Wineville Murders and the young boy, Sanford, that endured and survived unimaginable torment at the hands of one of the most sadistic individuals in existence. What makes this a phenomenal story is the that ending has a positive outcome despite the horrors that occured.


2. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? – Caitlin Doughty

While an odd selection for someone in grieving, it was a nice humorous and informative look at death that allowed me to at least think about it in a somewhat healthy manner. Doughty is a mortician and she answers all the gory and interesting questions on death and dying.


1. Solutions and Other Problems – Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh is one of my favourite people off the internet. I read her first book, Hyperbole and Half years ago and it’s a book that stuck with me for it’s humour and immense relatability. Allie disappeared off the internet for about sevens years due to some serious difficulties she faced her in life. This book goes over some of her turmoils and how she coped, with her trademark drawings and humour, as well as revisiting hilarious scenes from her childhood. It was my number one pick for non-fiction this year as it summarised how so many of us felt this last year.
Review to come.


Fiction

6. Fangs – Sarah Andersen

Another artist I discovered from the internet, Sarah Andersen is known for her humorous and relatable comic strips. I often read Andersen’s work online which is how I came across Fangs. Andersen shared a few strips from this book and I was hooked. The story features a relationship between a werewolf and vampire, it begins with their meeting and how their relationship progresses. Fangs has Andersen’s trademark dark humour with a relatable relationship story that transforms the old paranormal romantic tropes.


5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain Reid

I only picked up this book after a recommendation and I’m glad I did. This story was not at all what I was expecting. Like, at all. I don’t want to give too much away as the surprise story and twists are what really made this book. Review to come.


4. Circe – Madeline Miller

This book was worth the hype. It’s a beautifully written feminist rendition on the story the Greek goddess Circe. The writing is exceptional and the story is engaging while offering and interesting perspective on how women and femininity are often viewed in literature.


3. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Want to read a really good book about a pandemic that wipes out the world while you’re living in the middle of a real pandemic? Look no further. This gripping story takes a unique look at a post apocalyptic world where humans. You follow a troupe of traveling actors who perform Shakespeare while travelling from camp to camp after a virus wiped out 99% of the world’s population. You get to intimately know the characters and how their differing stories connect.


2. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – V.E. Schwab

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. It’s a sort of romance that is also a historical fiction with added flares of fantasy thrown in. I was won over by Addie’s character and the dynamics she had with the main antagonist and love interest. The author absolutely nailed the concept she was going for and created a story that I didn’t want to walk away from.
Review to come.


1. Obit – Victoria Chang

I read this book of poems twice this year. It’s rather reflective of the person situation that I managed this last year. The first time I read it I wasn’t very open to its messages but bits and pieces managed to find their way through. The second time I read it was a powerful awakening of buried grief that was both painful and relieving. It’s a phenomenal tribute of love, grief, and regret.