This year we decided to choose a special book for each other to celebrate the holidays. As we’ve gotten to know each other’s literary tastes, it has been fun to make recommendations, and we thought you all might enjoy a little behind-the-scenes look at what we chose for each other and how each was received.
Anjanette’s choice for Jennie: PIRANESI by Susanna Clark
What Jennie thought about Piranesi
The book arrived with a note from Anjanette saying that she felt it would be good to “go in blind” without reading the premise first. Which I never do. So, I did it! I kept trying to find my way with both the character and the story which mirrors how the protagonist feels throughout most of the story. It reminded me of the tv series Archive 81, which I enjoyed, and Jorge Luis Borges, who is one of my all time favorite authors. Often I’m frustrated in stories if I have to spend too much time figuring out where the protagonist is and why, but I realized this was an integral part of the story.
The book starts in the fifth month and ends at the end of the eleventh month which to me signals a May-December story in which Piranesi is the youth being guided by the Other. The book ending before getting exactly to December was a signal that the guidance had been interrupted because the Other is not who he initially seems to be for Piranesi. And the albatross, ever present with the calendar, is a symbol of fortune changing and travel.
It seemed odd to me that the incantations are made in Celtic, but the world the incantations lead to has the physical geography of the Greco-Roman world. The labyrinth of Greek myth is meant to contain a monster, and so I spent time wondering who was the monster in this story. The reversal was satisfying. I did not expect 16 to have that profession, and I’m surprised and pleased with the patience 16 shows Piranesi. I’m glad that Piranesi builds trust at the end with 16.
The story, of course, is partly a metaphor for how we are prisoners in the labyrinth of the mind. It could be a metaphor for mental illness or for how the psyche can be so influenced by outside forces that someone can’t even recognize themselves. It is also the story of how people manipulate others and the worlds they build to carry out misdeeds. But, ultimately, internal forces will encourage a person towards normalcy and there is great hope for recovery. It’s also a story that reminds us that there are still worlds to discover and explore, and we may find them by traveling unexpected paths.
Why Anjanette chose Piranesi for Jennie
While Jennie’s favorite reads overlap with mine somewhat, I gravitate more toward the fantastical and she toward the literary. It’s nice that there’s plenty of fiction that blurs the lines these days, but it made it difficult to decide on something! I wanted to send Jennie a story that was unusual and thought-provoking, but still a breezy read. Piranesi is fairly short, and I found it almost impossible to put down when I read it because it has elements of mystery that unfold continuously – there aren’t many natural stopping points because the author has paced each revelation so well.
I feel that Piranesi is a book that makes the reader ruminate on philosophical and anthropological questions while also offering engaging imagery and the tension of a protagonist we understand to be naïve to the dangers we are seeing as the reader.
Jennie’s choice for Anjanette: THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES by Robert Hellenga
What Anjanette thought of Sixteen Pleasures
It was easy to see why Jennie might send me a bookish book full of nuns and poetry and art. I am, after all, Catholic and a self-confessed lover of fine art and antiquities. It was a little less clear to me how I would enjoy a book centered on the discovery of an old book of erotica that needs to be covertly smuggled from a convent and sold.
But one of the things I enjoy about reading books that are recommended to me by others is the opportunity to pick things up that I wouldn’t choose on my own. I would steer clear of this book if I saw it on the shelves, but it was absolutely a worthwhile read.
To begin with, the writing is beautiful. Each chapter – especially in the first and third act of the story – feels like a poignant personal essay, but still cohesively moves the plot forward. There were also many references to classic literature and art that I loved (I wouldn’t have expected a book like this to fit in ways to shout out both Lord of the Rings and Emma!), and much more poetry than just the erotic sonnets that the cover copy mentions.
In fact, the (historically genuine) erotic manuscript that provides the hook for this bestseller is the least interesting character in these pages, and the spiritual lives of the protagonists was what held my interest. Including a plotline centered on erotica served to signal that there would be nothing too taboo for this author to discuss, and since religion is often just as taboo as sex, I appreciated the attempt at an honest treatment of the various ways sacred relationships and covenants fulfill – or don’t – our human needs and desires.
Why Jennie chose Sixteen Pleasures for Anjanette
I admit that I read this book a long time ago, but I remember this as a stunning debut for Robert Hellenga. I wanted to share this book with Anjanette because it combines books as treasures, a convent, a foreign setting, and the protagonist’s need to figure out her alliances so she can make a difficult decision and act on it. When I read it, I wanted to jump on a plane to help with the restoration!
I thought she’d like the foreign setting in Italy because she majored in a foreign language and likes to travel. Anjanette has strong faith, and I thought that the lives of the nuns would be both relatable with their faith but also captivating because a convent is an insular, almost secretive society which she would join as a reader. The central object is a book about sex, but to the nuns it’s both mysterious and terrifying. And, the story is not about divulging what is in the book so much as it’s about what to do with the book after it’s found. The protagonist is a well-intentioned volunteer trying to restore damaged books so they can be preserved in the libraries, but this one needs to be purged from the library in order to restore the convent. In other words, the story is about returning the convent to purity by removing an inappropriate object.
Closing thoughts on choosing books for friends
From Jennie: When I choose a book for a friend, I like to pick a book that juxtaposes two or more of my friends’ interests for a premise that will make them want to start reading right away. I think about the protagonist a little bit, but I think about the main conflict in the story more. It’s hard to guess if a friend will like the voice, but I do think about the writing when I’m choosing a book. While I hope they like it, sometimes liking parts and disliking others leads to a better conversation. Then again, it’s always great to get an excited “I loved it!” response as well. It’s great to connect afterwards and hear what parts we both enjoyed as well as what didn’t work or what loose ends we found that we’re still thinking about. A really good book becomes part of our shared history as friends, something we experienced together by talking about it afterwards.
From Anjanette: I’m always tempted to send friends a book in their preferred genre that I know they will be excited about receiving, even if I haven’t read it myself. I love to give gifts that show people I’m paying attention and want to make them happy. I’ve found, however, that it’s even more impactful to find a book at the intersection of my interests and theirs, especially if I read and loved it. The gift then becomes multi-faceted – I am not just sending them $20 worth of story that they could have purchased themselves, I’m sending them the gift of shared experience and conversation. Sometimes the conversation will reveal that they didn’t love it as much as I did, but that’s valuable too because it highlights our differences and gives us more to talk about.
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