October 2020 Books

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke (2020)

An atmosphere of melancholy pervades this book, mostly the journal entries of our narrator, Piranesi. He lives mostly alone in the World–or at least, in a large sprawling House of stone with statues and strange tides.

He visits twice a week with the Other, a man who comes to question Piranesi about the House and a secret knowledge which he’s sure they can discover if they keep looking for it (and by “they,” he means Piranesi).

It quickly becomes clear that Piranesi is an unreliable narrator (or maybe just a narrator with an extremely limited view) and that something is strange about the House with its innumerable halls, exquisite statues, and silence.

It’s hard to say much about the plot as the story takes some turns that the reader discovers with Piranesi.

Clarke has said that she was inspired by C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, and I can certainly draw connections between that book and this (there are a couple of direct references to the Narnia series, though they in no way detract from the story).

While Clarke’s first novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is large and sprawling, a nineteenth century work written in the twenty-first century, this is a tighter, more contained world, like a little spiral seashell (it’s under 300 pages). Clarke’s writing still has that sense of loneliness, her characters have an undertone of melancholy, and while Piranesi may evoke pity, he never gives in to despair. There’s always a glimmer of hope.

This was a lovely meditation on loneliness, belonging, home, and safety.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling (1999)

After I listened to the first book in the Harry Potter series I thought it would be fun to continue…so I skipped to the third book. It’s not that I don’t like the second book, it’s just that 2020 has been tough and this is my reading life and I think Rowling’s writing took a big step up in book 3.

So. Harry and his friends are back at school, but this year’s threat comes from a convict, Sirius Black, who escaped from the wizard prison of–you guessed it–Azkaban. He might be trying to hunt down Harry, so everyone is a little on edge.

There’s a new professor, Remus Lupin, who bonds with Harry, which is a bright spot compared with the potions master, Snape, who is a terrible teacher as well as a garbage person. Lupin actually cares about his students and encourages them to learn. He pays special attention to some of the overlooked and bullied students (Neville), which I appreciated.

I know there are reasons Rowling wrote Snape as being so horrible, and part of it might be that as a kid things can feel more intense than they can feel to an adult, but there were definitely ways to write a character like Snape without making him quite so unforgivably terrible. He’s abusive, prejudiced, and while he personally may be good at potions, he has no idea how to teach anyone else and there is no excuse for him behaving as he does to children! And now I’m angry at Dumbledore for allowing him to teach at his school.

Anyway, pedagogical difficulties aside, I enjoyed this entry into the series. It’s got new characters and the world expands in new and interesting ways.

I listened to the audio book narrated by Stephen Fry, and he does a great job (note: the American audio version is read by Jim Dale, who probably also does a good job, but I’m sad Scholastic thought they needed to make a separate “translated” version for American).

It was nice to read some books lighter in tone during a year that is decidedly not light in tone.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Magician’s Nephew, by C. S. Lewis (1955)

Continuing the “read lighter books” theme, I went back to the source of Susanna Clarke’s inspiration. I read this one a chapter or two right before bed, which was a great call.

Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer and neighbors who stumble into the study of Digory’s Uncle Andrew and become experiments for his magical theories (Uncle Andrew’s theories, not Digory’s).

They discover a place that is a portal to many different worlds and explore two of them in the pages of the book. In the first, Charn, they accidentally wake a witch and in the second they arrive to see the creation of Narnia.

This is such a hopeful book. It’s about magic and uncertainty, mistakes, forgiveness, and new beginnings. There are warnings about the dangers (or at least, unpredictability) of magic and also a warning to those who think they are above the rules.

I also love that Aslan doesn’t just clap his paws together to solve all the problems. When Digory comes to ask for help for his dying mother, Aslan responds this way: “‘My son, my son,’ said Aslan. ‘I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.'” He weeps with Digory and is present with him, and then he sends him on a quest to protect Narnia from the witch Digory introduced into the new land.

He does return to Digory’s problem later. But he doesn’t rush to solve it immediately, nor does he downplay or say that his mother’s suffering is “for the best.” This beautiful theme of presence stood out to me in this reading, and I appreciated Lewis’s handling of it.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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