Friday, February 26, 2010

Of Butlers, Bulldogs and Bird Stumps

To Say Nothing of the Dog or, How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump At Last by Connie Willis (F WIL Main)
Reviewed by Jeanne

When Lady Schrapnell agrees to endow the time travel project, it seems like a dream come true for the researchers at Oxford University. They didn’t count on their benefactor deciding to use the project to re-create Coventry Cathedral, sending travelers back to umpteen different time periods to locate objects. Time lagged and exhausted, Ned Henry is sent back to Victorian England to recuperate away from the demanding patron. Unfortunately, he’s sent so hastily that he arrives unprepared to fit into an era of séances, village fetes, and penwipes. He lands at a railway station in 1888 where he meets a dreamy college student who spouts poetry and tends to fall in love suddenly, an eccentric Oxford professor, a bulldog named Cyril and a whole host of characters who could have walked out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Ned is infatuated with Verity, a fellow time traveler, but he isn’t sure if it’s true love or time-lag. Whatever, they need to resolve a little problem caused by Verity’s accidental removal of an item that needs to be returned to its rightful place or else. . . well, they’re not quite certain what may happen but that might mean the downfall of civilization. At the very least they might be stuck in the past.

As you may have gathered, this is a difficult book to explain properly. I can tell you that it’s an entertaining adventure with science fiction, a bit of romance, some farce and a comedy of manners. I think it’s a delightful tale that should appear to a wide variety of readers, including those who don’t usually like science fiction or fantasy. One of my favorite scenes has a weary 1940 time traveler telling a colleague that a native asked about the Queen. “I told him she was wearing a hat. She did, didn’t she? I can never remember which one wore the hats.” They all did, is the response, except for Victoria. And Camilla. (It’s worth noting that this book was written in 1997.)

By the way, the title comes from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, but you don’t need to have read that to enjoy some of the in-jokes and brushes with history.

Connie Willis is a multiple award-winning author who lives in Colorado with her family. She takes her time between books, so fans certainly don’t expect a book a year. However, she’ll have two books out in 2010 because the book she was working on became so long it was decided to publish it in two parts. Once again, Willis sends researchers from the future back to WWII England at a critical moment in history in Blackout and the following book, All Clear.

I read this book for the first time recently because it was highly praised by members of the mystery list Dorothy-L. I echo their praise and highly recommend To Say Nothing of the Dog for your reading pleasure. It’s a book I intend to read again and again.

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