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moving under skies

NYRB Classics collector. Reads anything, so long as it's good. Sometimes historian. Frequently grumpy:  you've been warned. Also at aliceunderskies.tumblr.com. 

Welcoming summer with British mysteries

The Child's Child - Barbara Vine The Black Tower - P.D. James

Because British mysteries are a lifelong favorite subgenre of mine, it seemed like a good idea to welcome in my summer break reading with a few comfort reads. I have been slowly (re)reading P.D. James' oeuvre since her death last fall; after Ruth Rendell's recent passing, I thought I would try her as well. They were a perfectly acceptable way to spend some time, but neither was stellar. 


The James was fine--I do love Dalgliesh, and it was nice to see him in a different context, weakened and self-doubting--but I read it over a very long period of time, which diminished the novel very much. I actually began this back at the end of April but got too busy to finish it; by the time I picked it up again, I'd forgotten a lot of the set-up and so the mystery didn't pace out correctly. My fault. Even without reading it wrong, I would only rank this in the middle of the series. 


As for The Child's Child, I hope it was just a bad choice for my first Rendell/Vine. It wasn't awful--I read it in an evening, and it kept my attention--but neither was it great. The balance between past and present was off, and the whole thing was rather heavy-handed in its themes, though I did find some of the character evolutions within the far superior novel-within-a-novel compelling. At first, I was quite excited by the frame story, which features a young woman who is writing her thesis on unmarried mothers in British literature. It reminded me pleasantly of something like Byatt, and I was thrilled to see where it would take me. Unfortunately, this was hardly developed at all, just left to be one of those heavy-handed thematic parallels and was the only bit of character building that the narrator of the frame received. There was a curious lack of convincing emotion throughout the whole frame story that I do not think was intentional. It damaged the book. 


I've already moved on to the next Dalgliesh book, which isn't catching my attention yet. I do hope to give Rendell/Vine another try, but next time I will choose more carefully and try to find one of her best so that I can judge more fairly if she matches my taste. 

Faces in the Crowd, Valeria Luiselli

Faces in the Crowd - Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd was the first book from the Best Translated Book Award 2015 Longlist that I read. It is one of my favorite books that I have ever read from the BTBA titles, and will probably be one of the top books of my year. I will definitely look for Luiselli's next novel--due out this fall--and look forward to seeking out her collection of essays, Sidewalks.


It's just that good. 


I wasn't sure at first. On the first evening of reading, I remarked to my gentleman caller that it was a shame that it had been published so close to Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation--at first, the two books felt very similar:  both about young mothers with artistic goals; both told in a series of brief, elliptical vignettes. "It's not bad at all," I remarked, "It's just very similar. Like the same book, except told from an international perspective." 


I'm not sure when, exactly, it happened, but the similarities began to fall away very quickly, and by midbook--when the story takes a very unexpected turn--I was no longer comparing the two. This is not just the story of a young woman trying to balance motherhood and art; it is a meditation on influence, on places, on language, on the line between fiction and reality. This is a book that could probably be read back-to-front and work just as wel. It's a ghost story, Luiselli's narrator tells her family when they ask what she is writing, and it is:  a consideration of how literature and imagination conjures ghosts, on the fine line between writing or reading and being haunted. Much as I liked Dept. of Speculation, this is a book that I loved. 

RIP--by all accounts, she was one of Britain's greats. I've actually never read her, and was just recently planning on starting after I finish my reread of PD James. Does anyone have any advice on the best starting point?

RIP Ruth Rendell

Reblogged from Chris' Fish Place:


Oh, hello, New Yorker article on why we should read Anthony Trollope. You and I are in perfect agreement.

Best Translated Book Award 2015 Longlist

One thing that soothes the end of the Tournament of Books is the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlist. I've not yet managed to read all of any given year's longlist, but I enjoy picking (often at random) titles from it:  they are always good, challenging books that expand my mind. This year might be the one where I break my habit and read them all since I am interested in quite a few!


Only rarely have I read any of the titles on the list before it drops, despite my efforts to mix healthy amounts of translated fiction in to my reading docket. This year, I've read one--Sergei Dovlatov's Pushkin Hills--with another--the Ferrante--waiting on my bookshelf. This year is unusual since so many of the books were already on my mental to-read list:


Edouard Levé's Works: I read Suicide a couple of years ago & while "enjoy" is not the correct word it has haunted me ever since.


The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, Tove Jansson -- I don't prefer short stories, but I do like Jansson's writing, and since I own all of the other NYRB issues of her work I've been planing on picking up this one when I run across it.


Scholastique Mukasonga's Our Lady of the Nile -- I'm eager to read fiction by a Rwandan author + Archipelago Books has yet to disappoint.


The Cortázar -- I've been slowly making my way through Hopscotch and it's a marvel; all and any Cortázar immediately go on my long-term to-read list.


Faces in the Crowd, Valeria Luiselli -- I think I heard about this one from Largehearted Boy and liked the cover enough to jot down the title? I will definitely read it now. 


I will be seeking out a few more immediately:  the two Bohumil Hrabal books (Czech literature is generally great, and Closely Watched Trains is the rare story that is great as a movie and as a book; Jean Echenoz's 1914 because one of the only things I like more than books about WWI are very short books about WWI; Things Look Different in the LIght by Medardo Fraile because the cover is lovely and Pushkin Press puts out gorgeous books; and Adam Buenosayres by Leopoldo Marachal because Cortázar praised it upon its initial publication, the cover is gorgeous, and city novels are the best novels! 



Oyster Books 100 Best of the Decade (so far!)

A list liberally populated by Tournament of Book alumni and headed by one of the ToB's best:  Teju Cole's Open City (in my heart, the true winner of 2012). I have read 53! I do have some serious quibbles. 11 of them, to be exact, though only Adam is a book that I think truly should have been excluded--a lot of the others (FreedomGoldfinch, Flamethrowers) get grudging passes for at least being important, if not good. That leaves 42 books I'm happy to have read--not bad stats, there. Maybe I'll read some others from this list!

well at least it didn't win...

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel - Anthony Doerr

Fellow devotees of the Tournament of Books might recognize me from the comments. I've been following the Morning News' spoof on book tournaments for years, and have been a hardcore ToB Irregular since my boyfriend encouraged me to conquer my internet shyness and join the comments fray back in 2012. March is the one month where I interact on the internet, geeking out about books all day every weekday with some of the smartest readers I know. Things can get rough and tumble, but at the end of the day there's a civility that keeps me coming back. Book tournament satire + deathly serious yet hyperbolically lighthearted comments=perfect month.


In past years I read all, or nearly all, of the contestants. However, this year I was too busy, and poorly prepared. In my years as a bookseller I'd frequently read at least 5 of the books when the shortlist dropped; since my return to academia, with its wonderful-yet-onerous bottomless pile of nonfiction and articles, my fiction reading has dropped to a perilous level. 


Perhaps if the books had been better I could have made time. But--and maybe I say this every year--but. This year was rough. All the Light We Cannot See is emblematic of my struggle with this year's lineup:  a universally beloved book that just could not capture my heart or soul. Everything about this book was repellent. I even tried reading it on an airplane, essentially trapping myself in its sole company in the hopes of self-inducing stockholm syndrome, but nothing worked. Maybe it's a wrong time/wrong state of mind problem, but I don't think so. I just don't like this book.


The language is pretty, I will admit it. Really, it's too pretty:  all shiny surfaces and no emotion or philosophy. An astute ToB irregular compared it a well-curated tumblr, which is so perfect:  the experience of reading AtL is exactly like scanning through infinite pages of gorgeously-photographed gems and cunning sculptures, interspersed with overwrought poetry. Mind, my use of this comparison isn't meant to be derogatory:  I am the proud owner of what I like to consider a rather well-curated tumblr, if I do say so myself! But tumblr is for fast scrolls when I'm procrastinating work; it's not something I necessarily come home to, and I've never looked forward to crawling into bed with it. It's not what I look for in a novel. 


Another apt comparison comes from Mr. Underskies, who read a few chapters before giving up:  this is a screenplay for a movie starring Audrey Tatou, A Very Long Engagement and Amelie met in the middle of the century and mashed together. Once he mentioned this I saw it on every page. I even noted a couple of absolutely-intentional-I'm-positive explicit references to Amelie. Again, the comparison is not meant to insult Amelie (though I'll definitely cast my scorn towards A Very Long Engagement; that movie was insultingly bad):  it was my favorite movie when it came out! I owned a copy, and my parents never let me buy movies. But I was 14 then. I still love it, but I like to think my taste has evolved. Everything in AtL is so precious, every character--even the villain Nazi gem-hunter!--is a super special snowflake genius with a unique talent. It is adorable. It is vomitous. 


My last problem is broader, and harder to articulate. I read a lot of nonfiction about World War One and Two. I read a lot of fiction and philosophy and theory written by people who lived through the war. I rarely enjoy it, and I don't expect to do so when I pick up Vasily Grossman or Hans Falada. I expect to be devastated, to feel my soul curdle, to obsessively circle in my head about evil and atrocity for weeks or months afterwards. I expect books set in or about WWII to make me feel, and I expect them to have some sort of philosophical purpose:  if they don't, then I have trouble shaking the suspicion that they are exploiting the horror of this war for sales. 


I have this suspicion about Anthony Doerr. The setting is superfluous. The characters' disabilities or Nazism are plot devices. He doesn't say anything worthwhile about the era. It's treacle and sentiment, which is cool in certain circumstances, but I have a serious moral issue with WWII being used as a plot device and a means to emotionally manipulate the reader. This is a problem I've head before, it is a problem I'll surely have again, but I'll never stop noting it. I don't go so far as Adorno to claim that art cannot/should not be made after the Holocaust, but I do have a threshold for "acceptable use," and this book crosses it.


The Tournament of Books reminds me to be a more generous reader, but this one failed me. Or I failed it. But, this time, I think it's the former.

Fun Home

Fun Home - Alison Bechdel

Probably my favourite graphic memoir that I've read. Usually I come away from a graphic novel memoir--or any memoir, really--feeling halfway skeptical and wanting either more or less, but there's nothing at all to complain about here. Bechdel is breathtakingly insightful and smart, but never in a way that seems overly analytical or cold. She has a brilliance for showing all sides of these people she's writing about (including herself), good and bad, without ever condemning anyone to either absolute. I love that no one is a villain--when I started out I really expected that this would be a book of clear villains from what I'd heard of it but it completely defied that expectation. Everyone is always praising memoirs for their honesty but this is one of the rare few that rings completely true--rarely does any writer, of fiction or nonfiction, novels or graphic novels, manage to make their human beings feel so true. I've heard it consigned a lot to queer summer reading lists but absolutely everyone should read it--it's part of the genius that it isn't just a memoir about growing up queer or about family secrets or any one thing. I fail totally at capturing the wonder of this book. But it is truly great.

The Dream Songs

The Dream Songs - John Berryman, W.S. Merwin

A handful of these poems are among my favourite poems ever but, as a whole, I find the collection uneven: many, the majority, just mean nothing to me. Even so, the dream song is a gorgeous format, and when they are good they are very very good.

The Missing of the Somme

The Missing of the Somme - Geoff Dyer

Let's just acknowledge a few things: 1. Dyer is not an in-depth critic with the ability to thoroughly plumb a concept. 2. Dyer is not a historian. 3. Dyer is always, no matter what, present in his texts, either as an explicit "I" narration forming it all or as an anecdotal presence. None of these things are problems for me. Geoff Dyer's ADD approach to writing--wherein an idea will be tossed out and written about for a sentence or a paragraph--excites me: the quality of those ideas often catch hold of my mind and encourage ongoing rumination even after I've finished the book. In this one, for example, there's an off-hand reference to Britain's failure to attain glory in polar exploration as a society-large preparation for how it viewed the Great War in memorialization: an exaltation of glorious failure. His tactic of using art and literature to explore history worked very well for me in this slim book. Though it is definitely not the read for anyone looking for a blow-by-blow account of WWI, it does not intend to be: this is a consideration of memory, of how British society consciously--even as early as the war's beginning--shaped how it would remember the war. Dyer's use of Wilfred Owens and his interrogation of various war memorials are brilliant. And his personal presence, his family's history in the war and his own travels through the Somme in research for this book, give the study a rich emotional grounding (and also provide some levity in what is, by nature, a devastating subject). This is an excellent companion volume to more traditional histories and I would recommend it to anyone interested in WWI; also, any readers intrigued by concepts of historical memory and how it is formed should definitely seek this out regardless of whether they have an extant interest in the Great War.

The Road

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

I really adore some of McCarthy's sentences, and I was really excited in the first few pages when I had to pause to look up three words, but by the end of this book I was hurrying to be done--not because I was enthralled (though I suppose I was, in a way) but because I was having nightmares about post-apocalyptic cannibals and was starting to feel perpetually horrified. I recognize that McCarthy is an excellent writer--that's exactly why I have trouble reading him. There's something gorgeous about the cadence of his creepy-cold sentences that gets stuck in my brain, which is great except his material is dark and I am a scaredy cat who can't handle horror movies or even sometimes particularly tense episodes of television crime shows.

Nothing to Be Frightened Of

Nothing to Be Frightened Of - Julian Barnes

Most personal nonfiction is addressed clearly outwards; as if the writers need the assurance of public eyes to validate their experience. One thing I quite liked about this book was how internal it was: it's like eavesdropping on a conversation Barnes is having with himself, attempting to console himself of his existential fear of death. I go through phases of grappling with the very same questions--is there a God? what is death?--and found this book to be a genial retread of many of my own hamster wheels, with the added bonus of neat (if navel gazing about the meaning of death & existence can ever be neat) quotes and anecdotes. Alas, there are no answers, but who would go into such a book expecting any? I am actually devoutly grateful that Barnes never does have an epiphany; it would profoundly disrupt the sense of internal conversation, of good-natured anxiety, that makes this a surprisingly worthy little read.

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World - A.J. Jacobs

As insufferably annoying as the title implies, but it had at least two genuinely amusing scenes that kept me reading in hopes of more. Alas, it was not to be.

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage - Anthony Brandt

I know quite a lot about polar death, so it's remarkable that this book kept me relatively riveted despite treading familiar ground. It gives some fascinating insights into British imperialism while managing to tie itself to present day issues of global warming--always nice to read a history book that explicitly states its relevance. (I am being slightly facetious with this last comment but I do mean it: I am not a historian, just an interested freelancer, and I appreciate mightily when history is made relevant without bombarding me with a constantly restated thesis. Brandt struck a really nice balance, making a lot of larger connections that illuminated my own [very literature-centric:] experience with the British Empire while expanding my existing knowledge of polar death. Frankenstein is suddenly a lot more interesting when placed in its proper historical context and for that alone I am indebted to Brandt.)

The Last of Her Kind

The Last of Her Kind - Sigrid Nunez

A book so atrociously written that not even its intriguing premise could save it--it's a painful, overwritten example of stream-of-consciousness taken too far. Maybe if I were more interested in 60's politics I would have soldiered through.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

The Six Wives of Henry VIII - Alison Weir

This was a fun, fascinating, and surprisingly riveting history, but I cannot in good conscience give more than 3 stars to anything with so many word-for-word repeated sentences (especially ones that so often concerned minor details like who-wore-what). Definitely a neat companion to the ubiquitous Tudor subgenre of fiction, though; I rather wish I'd read this before Wolf Hall and not after.