2020 Best Books: Book Club Ideas : Pop Culture Happy Hour Every year, NPR brings together some of the best books of the year in a searchable, explorable guide called the Book Concierge. Today, All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro gives us his recommendations for your next book club.
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Book Concierge: Book Club Ideas

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Book Concierge: Book Club Ideas

Book Concierge: Book Club Ideas

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The pleasures of reading a good book are second only to perhaps the pleasures of sharing a good book. That's one of the reasons people love a book club. But if you have a book club, you have to pick the books. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about three great reads for your book club on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.


HOLMES: Welcome back. As you may know, NPR has an annual roundup of books that our critics and staff think you might enjoy. You can find that at npr.org/bestbooks. One of the people who contributed to the 2020 edition is one of our friends, Ari Shapiro, host of All Things Considered and NPR daily afternoon news podcast Consider This and, of course, book recommender. Welcome back, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Linda. It's so nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

HOLMES: It's been much too long. We love to have you on the show. And you, like me, recommended some books for the Book Concierge this year, and we thought we would ask you to talk about three of them that would make good book club picks. What is the first one that you want to talk about?

SHAPIRO: OK, the first one is called "Piranesi," and it's by an author named Susanna Clarke, whose debut novel, "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" was, like, this global phenomenon. It was this huge novel set in a version of England that had magic. It was adapted to a BBC miniseries. It was translated into a bajillion (ph) languages. Like, there was a couple years where you couldn't swing a cat without hitting a reference to "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell." It was so everywhere. And then Susanna Clarke kind of vanished.

And so last year, I heard she was coming out with a new novel all these years later called "Piranesi." I knew nothing about it. When it arrived in the mail, it was so much physically smaller than "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell." And I started to read it, and it's written as a diary. And it feels like a myth or an allegory. It's totally captivating. And the narrator is this sort of lovable but very unreliable character whose world is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. He's, like, trapped in this endless house with an ocean that roars through the basement and halls that stretch on forever, full of these marble statues. You can see what I mean when I say it sounds like a myth or an allegory.

HOLMES: It sounds exactly like my house.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You've got an ocean in the basement?

HOLMES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SHAPIRO: The diet - rich in omega-3 fatty acids from all the fish.

HOLMES: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: So I interviewed her about it, and I had no idea where she had been all these years. And then I asked her about kind of the difference in size and scope between her first novel and this novel. And she said, well, I actually had this serious illness, and I was sort of psychologically impaired, disoriented. I was stuck in my house, and for years, I couldn't write. I knew none of this. And then it hit me that there are really strong parallels between that real life experience she had and the experience that this character in "Piranesi" was having. Here was what she told me.


SUSANNA CLARKE: I was aware while I was writing it that I was somebody who'd become incapacitated by illness, who is, to a large extent, housebound and cut off from people. And I was writing a story about someone who lives largely alone, but in a vast house, in a house in which there are many, many things to explore and many avenues of exploration. And there's still knowledge to be found and still wonders to be seen, and there's still beauty to fill your eyes, even though you are cut off from a lot of other things.

SHAPIRO: And so it goes without saying that there is a third level of meaning here, which is you have this largely housebound author writing a work of fiction about a largely housebound character that comes out at a time that everyone reading the book is largely housebound. Anyway, I found it to be just this kind of beautiful little gem of a puzzle story that also had so many echoes for the experiences that we are all having, and - yeah.

HOLMES: Yeah, totally. All right, so that is "Piranesi" by Susanna Clarke. What's your next one?

SHAPIRO: My next one is called "Swimming In The Dark," which has all the pleasures of kind of a romance novel set in an exotic place and also the richness of kind of historical fiction.

HOLMES: I'm listening.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I know. This was, like, made for you, Linda. It's about these two teenage boys in communist Poland in the 1980s who fall in love. And one tries to kind of work within the system to get ahead, and one rebels against the system. And it captures so beautifully the sort of dreaminess of a summer when you're young and everything feels so extreme, the passions and the tragedies. And the author, Tomasz Jedrowski, told me his parents grew up in communist Poland. And so in a way, writing this novel was kind of an exploration of the experience that his mother and his father had.

And he said that the two of them sort of followed the pattern that the characters in this story followed, where one was sort of content with the life that they were born into and the other saw something more. And of course, you know, he grew up in the West, and so they did leave communist Poland. But again, I found these parallels with the situation we are all in now where everything feels kind of crunched, and yet there are still these small pleasures to be found. I mean, here's what he told me.


TOMASZ JEDROWSKI: For them, economic collapse is something normal, and yet life continues. People find other ways to be happy. People still fall in love. People still go to the forest, as you said in your introduction. People still go skinny-dipping. People still smoke cigarettes. And people still dream. They just have other means of dreaming, and their dreams are a bit different, but I don't think that takes away from the happiness necessarily. And I think that's something that we can learn from the past right now.

SHAPIRO: So if your book club is looking for something that you can defend as thoughtful historical literature but also really dig into as juicy romance fiction, "Swimming In The Dark" is the book for you.

HOLMES: Very, very good. Thank you so much. So that is your second one. And what is your third one?

SHAPIRO: OK, my third one is actually the book that I have recommended to the most people over the last year. It's the one nonfiction title out of the three, and it's by somebody who used to be one of our colleagues - Lulu Miller, the founder and former host of the Invisibilia podcast. And the book is called "Why Fish Don't Exist," and it sort of combines memoir with scientific biography. Lulu describes her sort of obsession with this scientist named David Starr Jordan, whose life was this series of tragedies, some external, some self-inflicted. And her learning about him takes all of these crazy twists and turns.

You know, I sometimes feel like the best documentary films are ones in which things happen over the course of filming that the filmmakers could never have predicted, and the movie wouldn't have been any good if those things hadn't happened, and somehow, like, the universe conspired to make those big twists and turns happen in the course of the documentary. This nonfiction book feels the same way to me. There are so many - oh my God, I can't believe that actually happened. I can't believe this twist is real.

And I don't want to give away all of the kind of zigzags that the story takes, but the way that Lulu interweaves her own story, David Starr Jordan's stories and the lessons that she takes away from it - which are not at all pat and easy, but complicated and thorny and difficult and sort of like - you know, one of the takeaway messages of the book is that when you try to categorize things, whether that's fish or people or experiences or anything else, you in some way diminish them.

Like, as I was talking to Lulu about it, I referenced a friend of mine named Taylor Mac, who's this performance artist who once said comparison is violence. When you say, oh, this city reminds me of whatever other place or that person reminds me of that celebrity, you diminish the uniqueness of that city or that person. And in a way, that was what David Starr Jordan was guilty of doing even as he tried to impose order on the world. Here's a bit of what Lulu told me.


LULU MILLER: I mean, disaster struck his life again and again and again, and he reacted instantaneously. Like, he did not sit around and bemoan what he lost. He just tried new stuff. And so I'm suddenly thinking, I think I just wrote this book that was a cautionary tale, but shoot, there are lessons for this moment, which is to not sit around studying what's lost and stolen from you, but to actually just use this as a moment to innovate.

SHAPIRO: It's funny, Linda. I only now realize that all three of these books, like, speak so directly to this moment that we're all living in, which is, I'm sure, subconsciously why I was like, oh, I love this book. And maybe if I had read it five years ago or five years from now, who knows if I would have felt the same way, but I think all three of these give you a lot to dig into and also sort of, you know, help us all cope a little better with all the things we're coping with right now.

HOLMES: Yeah, I don't think you can really expect yourself to process art at this moment in the way that you could in any other moment. I've had that thought many times.

SHAPIRO: But isn't that what art does for us - that all the staring at maps and charts and infection, hospitalization, death numbers is not going to give us the insight that a well-written book of fiction that, you know, might have been written long before the pandemic was even on the radar can give us? It's by taking that step back and performing that act of translation - whether it's with, like, a mythic, endless house with an ocean in the basement or a love story in Poland in the 1980s - that I feel like that step removed, that aesthetic distance helps us better understand our lives than sometimes reading or listening to the news can. And I say that as a person who is involved in delivering the news every day.


HOLMES: Yeah, yeah. Ari Shapiro, absolutely a delight to talk to you always. If you want more book club recommendations across a number of genres, make sure to check out the NPR Book Concierge. You can find it online at npr.org/bestbooks. Ari, thank you again so much for being here to talk to me.

SHAPIRO: Oh, I'm so happy to share these books with you, Linda. Thanks a lot.

HOLMES: Oh, of course. And we will see you all right back here tomorrow. Happy reading.

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