Monday, January 26, 2009

To Say Nothing of the Dog (book) by Connie Willis

Ned Henry is one of the many historians who are part of Lady Schrapnell's incredibly determined effort to restore Coventry Cathedral. As far as Lady Schrapnell is concerned, "God is in the details." Ned's detail is the bishop's bird stump, which he's having trouble locating, no matter how many jumps back in time he makes (in this vision of the future, historians do a good chunk of their research with time travel). In fact, poor Ned makes so many jumps back in time in such a short period of time that he develops a bad case of time lag, resulting in symptoms like maudlin sentimentality, difficulty distinguishing sounds, and fatigue. Ned's not going to get any rest in his own time, however, not with Lady Schrapnell around, so he's given an easy assignment in the Victorian era. Unfortunately, Ned's Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds means he never quite hears what his assignment is supposed to be, or even who his contact is in the Victorian era. Ned is left to figure all this out on his own, while at the same time trying to act the part of a Victorian gentleman.

Although Connie Willis is American, she does an excellent job of writing something that often reads like a British comedy of errors. This book starts off slow and a little confusing, but things get easier and much more interesting once the time travel aspect has been explained a little more thoroughly. Even though I didn't always understand what was going on (things got a little complicated near the end of the book), I didn't mind, because I was enjoying the characters and the humor so much.

At first, the humor mostly centers around Ned's Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds and his attempts to figure out what he's even supposed to accomplish in the Victorian era. Soon, Ned finds himself in love with Verity, his contact, a feeling which may or may not be due to his time lag, and dealing with his assignment and helping his contact with hers. Although Ned left his own time to get away from Lady Schrapnell, he finds himself living in the same house as one of her ancestors - Tossie doesn't terrify him the way that Lady Schrapnell does, but she can still be a bit much to deal with. The people Ned stays with and meets add to the humor in the book, as do some of the Victorian details - I loved the bit where one of the girls in one family talks about Miss Marmalade, a cat, and her mother corrects corrects her with "Mrs. Marmalade." I guess the idea is that even cats need to be married before they can have babies...

Besides the humor in this book, I also enjoyed all the animals. There are two animals that show up a lot in this book - Cyril, a bulldog, and Princess Arjumand, Tossie's cat. Cyril has so much personality he's practically human. Princess Arjumand just does as she pleases. Both animals seem to really like Ned. Ned has at least a little familiarity with bulldogs, but I really laughed when I read any parts with Ned and Princess Arjumand. In Ned's time, all cats are extinct, having been wiped out by some kind of distemper. Princess Arjumand is the first cat Ned has ever really interacted with, so he has a lot to learn. Just as an example, in his first encounter with her, he tries to figure out if she'll respond to any commands. He also learns what a cat's purr sounds like (and how nice it is).

Another thing I enjoyed was all of Willis's references to other books. My "to be read" list has grown after reading this book, because I want to find out more about the things that Willis's characters talked about. For instance, Ned often finds himself thinking about Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog. At one point, he even meets Jerome K. Jerome. Verity, whose specialty is the 1930s (if I remember right), brings up a lot of early mystery authors, characters, and books. Agatha Christie gets mentioned often (especially Hercule Poirot), as does Dorothy Sayers. Willis never feels the need to explain any of these references in much detail, but there's enough information there that readers (like me) who haven't read these works won't be lost and may even find themselves wanting to read them.

There were only a couple things in this book that I didn't like quite as much. I thought that the romance between Verity and Ned was one of the weakest parts of the book, since it never really seemed quite real. I already mentioned that this book starts off slow, but another thing I didn't entirely like was how confusing things got near the end. Because this book was one of my book discussion group's picks, I was able to talk about some of the more confusing parts with other discussion participants, but I did get the the point where I felt like I needed to draw a diagram or something in order to figure out what was going on.

I'm not usually a huge fan of time travel books, because I always find myself thinking too much about whether things could actually work the way they're described in the books. Whether Willis's presentation of time travel is believable or not (one of the more science-minded people at the discussion group said that it fit well with current theories about how it might work), it's remarkably comforting. In a lot of time travel books, shows, and movies, people always make a big deal out of protecting the timeline, or someone might end up being their own grandfather or otherwise accidentally mess up history. Characters in Willis's book have some of the same fears, but the timeline actually turns out to be pretty robust, because self-correcting fixes any problems people might cause.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I even recommended it to my mom - because of her love for British comedies, I think she'll have fun with this.

Read-alikes:
  • Three Men and a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog (book) by Jerome K. Jerome - This comedy follows the misadventures of three Victorian-era bachelors who decide to travel on the Thames in a rented boat. Along with Monty, a devilish terrier, they get into every kind of trouble imaginable. This book is mentioned a great deal in To Say Nothing of the Dog.
  • Diary of a Nobody (book) by George Grossmith - In this comedy, Mr. Pooter, a pompous city clerk and the "nobody" of the title, decides to keep a record a record of his life, family, and friends for posterity. Those who'd like another comedic story involving mishaps and misunderstandings may enjoy this book.
  • Alice in Wonderland (book) by Lewis Carroll - Young Alice falls asleep during her lessons and dreams of following a white rabbit down a rabbit hole. While down there, she meets strange people and creatures and finds herself in one bizarre situation after another. Those who enjoyed To Say Nothing of the Dog's weird, rambling conversations and would like another strange story might enjoy this (which I would say is definitely stranger).
  • The Eyre Affair (book) by Jasper Fforde - In an alternate universe, Thursday Next is an operative in the Literary Division of the Special Operations Network. Her latest case involves finding someone who's been stealing characters from the original manuscripts of beloved works of literature, thereby removing those characters from all copies of those works. Those who'd like another strange genre-bender with lots of literary references might enjoy this book.
  • The Color of Magic (book) by Terry Pratchett - This is the first book in Pratchett's Discworld series, although it is by no means necessary to start with the first book when tackling this series - feel free to begin wherever you'd like. This particular book stars Rincewind, an incompetent wizard whose greatest skill is in running away. He involuntarily becomes a guide to Twoflower, a rich and naive tourist, and ends up on a journey around the Discworld. Those who'd like another comedy filled with mishaps, misunderstandings, and odd conversations might enjoy this book (or even the entire Discworld series).
  • Thank you, Jeeves (book) by P. G. Wodehouse - Bertie Wooster, a bumbling aristocrat, attempts to solve his personal problems on his own and is eventually forced to turn to his butler, Jeeves, for help. Fans of To Say Nothing of the Dog who'd like another comedy of errors with a similar "feel" might enjoy this book, or something else in Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster series.

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