Archive for the ‘Connie Willis’ Category

Another charming book by Connie Willis, in the Oxford/Time Travel series. But this time we have the infinite joy of time travel to the delightful world envisioned by Jerome K. Jerome in his much loved book, Three Men and a Boat. I feel so fortunate, having been introduced to 3 Men& a Boat when I was but a child–such irresistible silliness, complete slapstick melded to idiotic Victorian sentimentality. Ms. Willis loves the book as I do–as ALL right thinking people do: she not only titled her book to honor it, but even has her time traveler go  boating on the Thames one bright summer day in 1888 and actually row by the Three Men and their Boat! In fact, so delighted by the encounter is Ned, our time traveler, that he forgets to steer the boat, and they plunge straight into the bank, oversetting everyone and handing a grand laugh to JKJ and his cronies.

The hint of JKJ illuminates this book, lends a particularly sunny aspect–all must end well in such territory! We must thread our way through  a complicated and devious plot, dangerous time travel, and what seems like looming failure and catastrophe–but never fear! A book inspired by Jerome K. Jerome cannot but end happy, and of course, this one does.

There are many charming moments in the book, but I think my favorite is the ludicrous seance–Ned and Verity, our time travelers, fear that their intervention may have fatally changed history, and decide to try and persuade a silly girl towards her correct historical path by means of a seance–wresting control of it away from Madame Iritosky, the professional Spiritualist. Ned inserts wires up his sleeves  and Verity sews the two halves of a tin of sugared violets to her garters–and the fun begins.

“If you are there, spirit,” Madame Irisoky said, sounding irritated, “speak to us. Rap once for yes, twice for no. Are you a friendly spirit?”
I held my breath.
Clack went the sugared-violets box. . . .


It made me chuckle, and for that alone, I bless this book. But it also is well plotted, with much fascinating historical detail, a charming cat named Princess Arjumand, AND a happy ending. Thank you, Connie Willis!



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Another excellent book by Connie Willis–The Doomsday Book. It is well written and well-plotted–almost TOO exciting sometimes!–and includes fascinating historical details, as well as a moving account of how human beings can exhibit–well–goodness. Even saintliness. And along the way, there are many comic moments, if in a rather dark vein.

The story is set in the near future, 2040 in Oxford, where things are going on much as they do now except–there is time travel. Time travel is used for research by the various colleges in the university, with expert technologists arranging the ‘drops’ as they are called. Kivrin, a student of history, is to be sent to the middle ages, and the drop is set up. HOWEVER, owing to the exigencies of the Christmas season, the college is short staffed, and an ambitious don, eager for glory for himself and his department, grabs the project and makes some ill-advised changes. Ms. Willis has a keen –even venomous–eye for the petty battles between the various departments and the infuriating bureaucratic muddles which complicate everything. Kivrin’s tutor, Professor Dunworthy, tries but cannot stop the project, and off she goes–but ominously, the tech guy suddenly faints of some ghastly disease, and Dunworthy fears–correctly, as we soon learn– that some thing has gone terribly wrong.

winter_in_medieval_peasant_villageHowever, Kivrin does arrive safely in the middle ages, and despite one disaster after another, does well enough to begin with. She discovers that her carefully researched clothing is much too fine, that her laboriously learnt language is wrong, and that her professors’ airy assumptions about medieval behavior are mostly mistaken. But she perseveres, throughout the most terrible dire times–and let me take a moment to reassure you that Ms. Willis DOES observe the contract between reader and writer, and all ends well–as well as can be expected, at least.

A theme that winds through the book is the love and responsibility of one human being to another. Professor Dunworthy–who is indeed worthy, as his name implies–is deeply attached to his student, but in a completely paternal way, there is no hint of romance. His efforts on her behalf are heroic. And while sleeplessly striving to rescue Kivrin from what he now knows is complete disaster, he finds himself thinking of the anguish of God, whose beloved child was also left alone, another disastrous drop–he imagines Kivrin saying the terrible words Jesus said, Why have you forsaken me? By this time he is ill, slightly demented, and of course, battered constantly by Christmas, the bells, the lights, the carols. He is not only a worthy man, he is a very clever one–his dark inner thoughts provide a comical edge to the most garishly terrible of scenes. Thus does humour allow us to endure the unendurable.

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Connie Willis is a well-known sci-fi/fantasy writer, winner of 11 Nebula and 7 Hugo Awards–quite a career! Bellwether is the first of her books I’ve read, and I was instantly charmed by her sharp wit and droll vision. The book is not exactly sci-fi–well, yes,  science is involved–and, OK, it is fiction–nor is it fantasy, really: no Realm, no Dark Lord. But it is a delightfully silly and well written book, which made me larf. For which I am very grateful!

Sandra Foster, our narrator, is a researcher of fads and their mysterious beginnings. She spends a lot of time in the library looking up the latest book fads, and in coffee shops watching trends. She finds inspiration in Browning’s poems (the Pied Piper; Pippa Passes), makes references to great scientists, quotes amusing anecdotes. And meanwhile, she labors in the lab at Hi-Tek, a company of ludicrous management policies, neatly lampooned in the book. as for instance, the All-Staff Meeting:

“The principle of our exciting new management program is Initiative.” He printed a large capital I on a flipchart with a Magic Marker. “Initiative is the cornerstone of a good company.”. . . “The cornerstone of Initiative is Resources,” Management said. He printed an R in front of the I. “And what is HiTek’s most valuable resource? You!”. . . “Resources and Initiative are worthless unless they are guided,” Management said, sticking a G in front of the R and I. “Guided Resource Initiative Management”, he said triumphantly, pointing to each letter in turn. “GRIM”.

Staff are invited to brainstorm–“the cornerstone to GRIM is Staff Input”.

“All right, fellow workers,” Management said. “Do you have your five objectives? Flip, would you collect them?”
Elaine looked stricken. Gina snatched the list from her and wrote rapidly:

  1. Organize potential
  2. Facilitate empowerment
  3. Implement visioning
  4. Strategize priorities
  5. Augment core structures

“How did you do that? I said admiringly. “Those are the five things I always write down,” she said, and handed the list to Flip as she slouched by.

I have been at just such meetings, and will keep the Five Objectives handy for the next one.

In addition to the hilarious Dilbert routines, there is a lot of fascinating detail about the history of fads–shingled hair, hula hoops, hot pants—and food fads:

“I’ll have a double tall caffe latte with skim milk and semisweet chocolate on the top,” I said brightly.
The waiter sighed and looked expectant.
“With brown sugar on the side,” I said.
He rolled his eyes. “Sumatra, Yergacheffe, or Sulawesi?” he said.
I looked to the menu for help but there was nothing there but a quote from Kahlil Gibran. “Sumatra,” I said, since I knew where it was.
He sighed. “Seattle- or California-style?”
“Seattle,” I said.
“A spoon?” I said hopefully.
He rolled his eyes.
“What flavor syrup?”
Maple? I thought, even though that seemed unlikely. “Raspberry?” I said.

SheepThe story eventually winds around a theory linking fads with chaos theory. Which incidentally links Sandra to a scientist at the lab who is studying chaos theory. A flock of sheep is involved, hence the title of the book, bellwether: the sheep that leads the other sheep. The juxtaposition of sheep/fads/chaos theory is adroit and entertaining.

And, there is a happy ending! Undeniably chaotic, but happy.

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