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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. 

His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman

I read this as a child and was completely caught up by the magic of it. I have fond memories of playing elaborately constructed games set in Pullman's universe with my friends--we had such fun inventing daemons for ourselves! Any book that inspires excellent childhood games is automatically excellent. I've tried to reread it as a grownup and cannot bear: the underlying antireligious didactics are at constant danger of destroying aforementioned fond memories. Even when I sort of agree with Pullman in theory I just can't stand all of the real-world drama and controversy; I just want fierce, fantastic Lyra and dear Will with their marvelous adventures immaculate forever in my memory.

The Liars' Club

The Liars' Club - Mary Karr

Have I ever mentioned that I hate miserable childhood memoirs? Well. I do. O customer-who-recommended this to me, never again will I read a book on your word. New York Times, you may be on the outs as well. Because the only thing worse than a miserable childhood memoir is a substance abuse memoir (see: NYT pick-of-the-year Lit) and there is nothing so intrinsically glorious about Karr's style to make wallowing in her sad past worth my time or effort.

The Story of Philosophy

The Story of Philosophy - Will Durant

I always feel that it's cheating to read a book about an author or thinker rather than going straight to the source. Cliffnotes are an abomination; I'm even suspicious of biographies and encyclopedia entries. This is why I had to buy a second bookshelf to house all those ridiculously large books by dead philosophers. Source-snobbery aside, I do think Will Durant is a genius at distilling impossible ideas to their essence and explaining them with a clarity that does not in any way diminish or dumb them down. Sure, his book is frustratingly broad, and since it was written in the 1920s it lacks a handful of vital philosophers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, but it's the one I'd recommend in a heartbeat to anyone wanting to know more about philosophy but unsure where to begin, or to someone like myself who has read a fair bit of the originals but only half understands.

Un Lun Dun

Un Lun Dun - China MiƩville

I intensely adored this while I was reading it--the language! the illustrations! the quirk! unbrellas!! a pleasing twist on your typical 'chosen one' narrative!--but it hasn't aged well. The book, while a delightful experience, is simply too derivative of everything else in the world. If I remember correctly, Mieville mentions his debt to Neil Gaiman, and oh boy is it obvious. Un Lun Dun is truly almost 'Neverwhere for kids,' so blatant are their similarities. This is most galling to me in that I know Mieville as one of the most original minds in speculative fiction--I'm sure he could have managed to lessen the similarities if he'd wanted to. The details are certainly his own--the book is full of wonder and delight and I would LOVE to read it out loud with a kid--but the big picture is not. I wonder what Gaiman thinks of it?

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline - George Saunders

My current entry for my annual litmus test to evaluate whether or not I've transformed into a Short Story Reader. This one didn't convert me, and failed to be one of the rare exceptions of the genre that excites. Loved: the surreality of the settings, the dreamy decay of it all. Hated: the unexplored, unrelented darkness of the plots. Shock value much? It all left me cold with a veneer of active dislike; I don't think there was a single story that engaged me beyond the shallow level of dark fascination. Neutral: the quality of writing itself. I didn't notice it ever being great or even remarkable. Why the slavish adoration, World? I don't get it.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain - Oliver Sacks

Probably my favourite of the many Oliver Sacks' books I've read throughout the years. Sacks is always fascinating, but in this book he is even more passionate and more personal than usual and as a result my usual Sacks afterglow (for some reason his books always leave me ridiculously happy and hopeful about the complexity and beauty of humanity [which is pretty much opposite to how I usually feel:]) was amplified ten times. Oliver Sacks is probably now officially one of my heroes: he's just so graceful and insightful and empathetic and fascinating all at once.

Tears and Saints

Tears and Saints - E. M. Cioran

Prolonged interest in saintliness is an illness which requires a few years’ convalescence. Then, you are seized by a desire to pick up your sadness and roam under another sky, to grow strong elsewhere. The need for space is a counter-reaction to the infinity of saintliness. You feel like lying in the grass and looking up at the sky, free from the prejudice of its heights.A collection of aphorisms more than anything, a few of which--the above, particularly--set off fireworks in my head and actually completely changed my brain. Too personal to review properly; a very important book for me.

The History of Love

The History of Love - Nicole Krauss

I grabbed this from my bookstore job because I liked the title and cover. I vaguely suspected it would be shmaltzy. Which it was, sort of, but I ended up liking it anyway. It reminded me naggingly of Jonathan Safran Foer's work, and I was not surprised to find the two authors are married: they share a set of very similar themes and even storylines. Of the two, Krauss impresses me more. She is less precious, more heart-ful than her spouse. Points lost for child characters who strain credibility, but more than making up for them with a fantastic old man. (Old people > children in books for me these days.)

The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

I didn't find this one as entertaining as the other books of Waters' that I've read. After several months of occasional consideration, I think it's because the ending is so ambiguous. Now, ambiguous hauntings are actually my favourite kind--see Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House for a perfect and horrifying example--but this book had such a lengthy amount of buildup that I felt rather cheated to be deprived of the definitive denouement, the gut-punch-twist ending, that I had come to expect based on Fingersmith and Affinity. Had I gone in without prior expectations I might have felt more fulfilled by the book. Or perhaps I read too quickly (it was an all-nighter) and missed out on important clues in one direction or another...Dissatisfaction aside, this was an undoubtedly strong novel from a good writer. I really do love historical novels that play upon the conventions of their time period's literature, and Waters is always quite clever at working within the architecture of the gothic romance.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination - Elizabeth McCracken

Far too intense and personal to assign any sort of rating to--to judge this one by silly stars seems disrespectful to the incredibly painful subject matter. It's excellent, though; rarely am I as empathetically involved as I was with this memoir. Probably not a good book to read if you are or plan to ever be pregnant on grounds of sheer horror and tragedy. (Though the sorrow was gorgeously balanced with humor and humanity.)

On Beauty and Being Just

On Beauty and Being Just - Elaine Scarry

I am not entirely convinced by her argument that beauty leads to justice--it is too easily disproved by a gloomy glance through history--but Scarry presents it all so, well, beautifully that I can't help but love this book.

Dictation: A Quartet

Dictation: A Quartet - Cynthia Ozick

I loved the title story of this collection, but the others became increasingly disappointing after the standout experience of "Dictation." As is usually the case, Ozick is, despite herself, a nonfiction essay writer. Her fiction is idea-driven, turning entirely on novel concepts that almost always fail to carry a story to a fulfilling conclusion. When it works, as it does in "Dictation," the result is fabulous, but more often than not I wish I were reading her nonfiction instead. Rather than the whole book, I would recommend "Dictation" as a side to any of the essays in her nonfiction collections.


Sunshine - Robin McKinley

At first I was rapturously excited about Sunshine. At last!, I thought, I had found a suitably smart alternative to the despicable Twilight, a similar-but-better book I could recommend to vampire-crazed customers to ease them into reading superior fantasy. The titular heroine is capable with a variety of talents ranging from the domestic to the magical and the vampires are actually, you know, dangerous but vulnerable, retaining the tension that makes them interesting. Strong female lead, well-rounded supporting characters, intriguing chemistry between the leads, and vampires-as-they-should-be. It really should have been a perfect book.Alas, Robin McKinley goes overboard with her stream-of-conscious infodumpy style. Now, I happen to really enjoy intricate, info-dumpy worldbuilding--I adore Neal Stephenson and China Mieville, for example--but McKinley does it so constantly (and at the most inappropriate times, like in the middle of what should be a tense vampiric confrontation) that even my considerable indulgence was strained. Sunshine is perfect, yes: a perfect example of 'too much of a good thing.' To use one of the book's recurring digressions as an example, the first few times McKinley shot away on a baked-goods spiral I was with her in full: I love cinnamon rolls as much as everyone and it was charming to read them so loving described. After about the billionth time McKinley interrupted the plot to extol Sunshine's delicious desserts I started to get a sugar hangover by proxy. Maybe a harsher editor could have helped make the book as lovely as it should have been...? In the end, I did enjoy the book. The characters were memorable, the world was interesting, and the ending was sighingly perfect. However, it is not the Twilight alternative I have been searching for. I seriously doubt the recommendability of this book--I certainly don't feel confident in handing it off to most of the Twilighters.

Fevre Dream

Fevre Dream - George R.R. Martin

The vampires retain their proper deadly/vulnerable dichotomy! Hurrah!- But Martin does nothing new with them to keep it all from being extremely familiar territory. Steamboats! I know nothing about steamboats and am automatically interested in the historical setting!- If only there were much, much more steamboat history and river-town culture. "Ohmygod a twist I didn't see coming oh yay I love Martin *kisses book*"- "Huh. That didn't last long." George R. R. Martin = automatically > most fantasy authors, particularly the vampiric ones- But it's so short. Such a very slim Martin. Like the first chapter of one of his usual tomes. There could (and, it feels, should) be so much more. Conclusion: it's like Martin read an Anne Rice book and said to himself, "Hmm, this is sort of intriguing, what with the vampires taking refuge in bayous. I bet I could do better!" And then he did--but got bored or distracted and decided to just end it any old place, thus creating a tantalizing glimmer of relatively awesome possibilities that really didn't materialize in the book.

The Manual of Detection

The Manual of Detection - Jedediah Berry

Berry wants to be China Mieville when he grows up. So far he's just a pale imitation, heavy on surreal quirk and light on everything else.


Slam - Nick Hornby

A wholly unremarkable (but also inoffensive) book about a teenage boy who ends up a premature father. Gratuitous time travel lowered my enjoyment enormously--it was poorly done and annoying and took up far too much of the book. The mothers were the most interesting characters--their interactions with the kids were the best, most touching moments of the book. Perhaps Hornby should've written an adult book about them rather than a YA book about their kids.