This post is about 3 books I read for the 12 Books, 12 Months reading club and 1 book that I did not.
On my original 12 Books, 12 Months blog post (
), I listed out the Connie Willis related books as such:
- - Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, 1992
- - Three Men in a Boat, to say nothing of the dog by Jerome K. Jerome, 1889
- - To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, 1998
- - Black Out by Connie Willis, 2010
- - All Clear by Connie Willis, 2010
Here’s the gist of this series: It’s the year 2057, time travel has been invented but only the history departments of major universities even bother with it since the money holders found out they can’t steal things from the past (no really, they physically cannot remove objects from the past, no matter how hard they try). I don’t recall any of the historians trying to visit the future, but then … all the time travelers are historians, not futurists. Most of the stories focus on visitng England in World War II. Doomsday Book, however, is focused on the Black Plague, and To Say Nothing of the Dog (TSND) centers around 1888 – Victorian times.
But in my 12 Books 12 Months list, I forgot about the story that started it all — Fire Watch, from the 1984 short story collection of the same name. So I read that first and I’m very glad I did. Even though this story was published first, the events in it actually take place *after* the events in Doomsday Book, which came out in 1992. Fire Watch is a good place to start not only because it’s the first story in the series, but because it takes the reader right into the heart of Willis’ style. Our hero is a PhD student in history who has to do “field work” in London, England during the Blitz. He is stationed at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Have you ever seen war ruins? Have you visited a church or a school that has remained in shambles for decades as a reminder of how stupid war can be? I visited such a church in Stuttgart, Germany while I was a freshman in college. The roof was gone, the windows were empty eye sockets. There were large laminated black and white photographs around the ruins showing what it looked like before the war. It was beautiful. Even as a heathen atheist, I could see how beautiful and special this place was. And it was dead now. Fire Watch reminded me of that church and then it showed me what it would have been like to be there when it happened. Bombs, incendiaries, fires, and more bombs. The Fire Watch was the group of volunteers who stood guard at the cathedral and tried to put out as many fires and incendiaries as they could, often getting killed in the process.
Strange as it may sound, this novella set in World War II reminded me how painful it had been to read Doomsday Book set in 1348 the first time. So I decided not to read it again after all. Doomsday is a very good book — historical fiction done as historical fiction should be, but man, was history depressing sometimes. I don’t remember the story very well, but I remember crying at least once. I don’t want to be depressed when the days are getting shorter and the weather colder so I moved on to Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome – a comedy travelogue about three chums taking holiday on the Thames in a pleasant English June.
But first I will tell you about the book that got me here. I first read To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis when I was a sophomore in college. I found it on a “take one, leave one” shelf at the college library and completely fell in love with it. I was a history major with crazy, delightfully eccentric history professors, and the book seemed to be made specifically for me. One of my requirements of an excellent book is that it leads me on to other excellent books. In the 10ish years since I first read it, I have worked my way through some of the other classics that it introduced me to — The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, the Sherlock Holmes canon, and – of course – Three Men in a Boat. My re-read this time around has given me more to look up that I forgot about — Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novels.
Call me a heretic, but I actually think the Connie Willis sci-fi is a far better book than the Victorian classic. I did enjoy Jerome’s anecdotes and (some of) his tangents into English history and sentimental descriptions. I have to admit that the Victorian elements of TSND made a LOT more sense after reading Jerome. My advice would be to skim through Jerome’s book (it is free out on Gutenberg and FeedBooks) and get the taste of Victorian flourish and a dose of good humor before traveling through time with Willis.
Willis definitely has her own sense of humor and uses it very well in TSND — especially where dogs and cats are concerned. I also love that sci-fi in this instance is not about the gadgetry but more about theory and thought puzzles. In TSND, the thought puzzle revolves around time, paradox, and whether or not history can “correct” itself. I won’t go more into it because I would just confuse us both, trust me.
Also, she doesn’t simply quote from other works, she weaves them into the texture of the story. One of her characters uses examples from Agatha Christie’s Poirot to try and solve a problem, and another character relies almost entirely on Tennyson’s poetry for everything he says.
TSND cries out to be a hyperlink novel. Unfortunately, the ebook edition available on Amazon is pathetic. Granted, I only looked at the sample chapter, but the format of the chapter headings was ghastly and it did not include any table of contents. Why? Why would you not have something as basic as a table of contents for an ebook? I read the entire Jerome book in the Kindle app on an iPad and it had the same problems – no table of contents and clumsy formatting in the text. Being able to quickly look up obscure Victorian terms by simply tapping made the reading much easier, though. I realized that my experience in reading these books now is very different than it was ten years ago thanks to the online search tools that I keep close at hand. I first read TSND around 1999. Google Images and Wikipedia didn’t come out till 2001 – which I used this time to find what the heck a penwiper is supposed to look like and to follow the route along the Thames.