In Susanna Clarke’s wondrous and moving novel Piranesi, a gentle man finds the tranquility of his vast but bounded world challenged by visitors from the outside.
Piranesi lives in a house whose halls seem endless. He’s been close to alone for as long as he can remember: the bones of a few who came before him rest in a hall nearby, and he visits them to pay his respects. Crumbling statues—of fauns, and kings, and women crowned with coral—rest everywhere, hinting at befores. The Other shows up now and then, but he’s too concentrated on his search for lost truth to be perfect company. Birds arrive and leave, sometimes seeming to deliver messages in the patterns of their flight, and in where they choose to alight; the fish of the submerged lower floors provide Piranesi sustenance, as do the rains that fall from the upper floors.
Piranesi introduces this strange, perilous, and often lovely world in the soft, awed tones of a willing acolyte; he’s learned to track the tides, and he trusts the house’s benevolence. But there are hints that not all is right with Piranesi’s world, including: that it’s replete with evidence of life beyond it; that Piranesi himself is quite sure that “Piranesi” is not his real name; that pages are missing from Piranesi’s journals; and that the Other’s warnings against interacting with new arrivals are suspect.
As new faces appear in Piranesi’s halls and a convergence of tides approaches, he starts to piece together hints of what came before his journals began: of a community of occultists who believed they could enter other worlds; of an abusive academic whose dabbling in dark arts cost unsuspecting people their lives; and of his own previous life. Piranesi treasures his vast but lonely world; he’s circumspect when it comes to change. But he is kind, and there are others to consider.
Empathy opens new horizons in Susanna Clarke’s glorious new novel about occultists, lost ages, and the power of belief.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (September 2, 2020)
Live, Laugh, and Let Sh*t Go
Enough with kindness and gentleness: this book calls people on their bullsh*t. Jodie Eckleberry-Hunt’s self-help book issues a wake-up call to those who are fed up.
As a therapist and a person, Eckleberry-Hunt once faced an impossible work situation in which she’d reached the limits of her techniques and got a hearty “f*ck you” from within herself. From that rock bottom place, the “move on, motherf*cker” technique was born. It’s based on the fact that, in addition to cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness, sometimes people need to vent their emotional energy while taking responsibility for their mistakes—if you’ve been a “motherf*cker,” why not say so?
The book begins by recounting the documented benefits of swearing: it increases pain tolerance, lessens aggressive behavior, and helps people bond. Its chapters show how elements like family, parenting, love, and work become f*cked up, then suggest ways forward. The common thread is taking control of one’s self and releasing that which one cannot be control, along with a good amount of swearing.
Don’t be fooled by the irreverence: this is an honest-to-goodness self-help book, packed with useful tools and psychological wisdom that will generate results, inside and out. Its swearing is just the gateway for deep transformation, designed to get the audience’s attention and open them up to understanding the damaging stories they tell themselves—stories that keep them trapped in the same behaviors and situations. Once this awareness is achieved, people are able to take to heart the book’s more mundane, but still transformative, practical steps, including journaling and practicing saying no.
Move On, Motherf*cker is a self-help text that delivers a necessary slap in the face to jolt its audience awake.
MELISSA WUSKE (October 27, 2020)
In Francesca Ekwuyasi’s Butter Honey Pig Bread, a Nigerian woman’s homecoming stirs bad memories, old hurts, and a chance for new beginnings.
Kehinde has not seen her mother, Kambirinachi, or twin sister, Taiye, in years. After spending so long stewing in her own trauma and resentment, Kehinde now knows the futility of her misplaced grudge. But neither she nor her sister know how to bridge the divide that has grown steadily between them since childhood. They all learn that reconciliation, no matter how desired, does not always come easy.
The narrative cycles through the three women’s perspectives. Each picks her own way along the path to healing, but they all realize that, to understand what is happening now, they must examine how they got to this point. Their stories—of Kambirinachi’s troubled youth, Taiye’s wild hedonism, and Kehinde’s struggle for self-acceptance—are compelling portraits of loneliness, belonging, and identity.
Among the defining moments of the women’s lives are the ghosts of lost loves and the effect of Kambirinachi’s mental illness on all of them. Their efforts to forget take them far from home: to England, to Canada, even to the edge of oblivion. They have kept their sorrows to themselves for so long that they are reluctant to open up. Silence threatens to suffocate their stunted relationships, but hurt and love are both stronger than anger. By the end, fueled by desperation, Kehinde, Taiye, and Kambirinachi are eager, fighting to have their voices heard. Their saga is heartfelt; they refuse to give up on the power of family love, no matter the obstacles.
Punctuated with mouthwatering recipes and a dash of the mystical, Butter Honey Pig Bread is a touching novel about the unbreakable bonds of family.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (October 27, 2020)
A boy visits his grandmother across the stars in this future-set galactic adventure. Starting at a space station that’s littered with inventive aliens of every size and shape, the boy hops on a spaceship headed to Earth, where technology melds with the natural world. The boy and his grandmother float over wild horses and waterfalls and explore a cave, where he is amazed to find out that humans once lived with many wondrous creatures. It’s a subtle message about conservation for the next generation.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (October 27, 2020)
Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis
Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paper Bullets is a captivating tale of queer love and resistance during World War II. From Paris’s Jazz Age through the war and beyond, Jackson tracks two childhood friends who became lovers and artists and fought German leaders on the occupied Channel Island of Jersey.
Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe met as young women in their hometown, Nantes, and fell in love. They both came from wealthy families, and were able to afford to move to Paris in 1920, where they fell into literary and artistic circles. Though they never referred to themselves as lesbians, they eschewed feminine ideals and created alternate male identities. A progressive lifestyle suited them: Lucy spent her days writing essays, and Suzanne created art and illustrations.
In 1937, after many years spent vacationing on the island of Jersey, Lucy and Suzanne bought a large home to share right on the beach. Three years later, the Germans occupied Jersey. Thus began the women’s artistic subterfuge and resistance to the Germans’ presence. Including seemingly small acts, like creating montages to stick inside of German language magazines, they committed to disseminating regular anti-German propaganda across the island, and were eventually jailed.
Jackson’s research is impeccable and his writing is lively. Even though this is a Holocaust biography, the trajectory of the women’s lives, and their artistic symbiosis, make for fascinating reading. The book’s clean, crisp language incorporates needed historical context well.
Full of struggles, triumphs, and intimate knowledge of a complex relationship, Paper Bullets is a gem of a historical text about two women who stood up to power defiantly, living on their own terms.
MONICA CARTER (October 27, 2020)