Mar 2, 2010

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

The Year is 2057. Ned Henry, a historian at Oxford University, has a mission: to find the bishop’s bird stump. To achieve this, he has been travelling back in time and searching endless bazaars and jumble sales. In case you’re wondering what the bishop’s bird stump is—don’t. It’s a piece of Victorian hideousness about which the least said, the better. You might by wondering why it’s wanted, though, and that I can tell you: because Lady Schrapnell, a rich aristocrat who sponsors the time-travel research program, wants it. And the reason why she wants it is because her Victorian great-grandmother once saw it at Coventry Cathedral, and the experience changed her life.

But our story really begins when another historian, Verity Kindle, brings back something from the Victorian Era that should have stayed in its place. The brains behind the time-travel research program are worried that this will cause an incongruity that will destroy the space-time continuum, so they send Ned Henry back to 1888 to fix things before it’s too late. Only Ned Henry is time-lagged (think of jet-lag, but much worse) at the time he’s debriefed, so he doesn’t really understand what his mission is supposed to be. And as a result, a lot of Victorian hilariousness ensues.

To Say Nothing of the Dog
is one of those books that prove how permeable genre labels really are, and I have to say I have a soft spot for those: it’s a comedy of manners, it’s science fiction, it’s historical fiction, and it’s even a bit of a country house mystery. Also, like the book its title pays homage to, it’s hilarious and chaotic and frenzied – yet everything manages to make perfect sense in the end. Connie Willis, my hat’s off to you. Where have you been all my life?

This book is also a perfect illustration of what I was saying the other day about literature as a conversation: it’s full of allusions and homages to other books, Three Men in a Boat being the most obvious but by no means the only of them. There’s also Tennyson, Shakespeare, Keats (both of whom are always mistaken for Tennyson by one of the characters), P.G. Wodehouse, The Moonstone, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers – there were plenty of references to Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey, much to my delight. You don’t need to have read these other books to understand what’s going on in this story, but you’ll likely have a lot more fun if you have.

All the merriment aside, To Say Nothing of the Dog actually deals with complex ideas. There are two characters, Professor Peddick and Professor Overforce, who disagree about what drives history: is it blind forces over which individuals have no control, or is it character? The plot of the novel itself deals with these themes, and makes readers consider of how much (or how little) consequence individual actions are. And what does it mean, philosophically speaking, that the system auto-corrects to avoid incongruity? Connie Willis’ humours yet serious take on these matters put me in mind of Terry Pratchett, and you all surely know how much I love me some Terry Pratchett.

But let me move on to what was, to me, one of this book’s main points of attraction: the Victorians. To Say Nothing of the Dog shamelessly mocks the era’s excesses, the overdone aesthetics, the sentimentality, the obsession with spiritualism, and so on – but it’s all done in loving mockery. One of the things that amused me the most, for example, was Ned and Verity’s tendency to break with “O!”s when being overheard by one of the Victorian characters. It's silly, and it's meant to be silly. But it's also a fond tribute.

And speaking of the characters: we have a Victorian young woman prone to swoons and screamlets, a séance-obsessed Lady of the house, an Oxford undergraduate in rapturous love, and a poker-faced butler—all of whom, funnily enough, manage not to be caricatures. Connie Willis’ characterisation is masterful in that it manages to expose social conventions as social conventions. The effects of the era’s restrictions on the characters are obvious, but there’s no danger that readers will mistake them for individual traits. In short: the characters, we soon realise, are much smarter and more interesting than we initially give them credit for.

I had a lot of fun with To Say Nothing of the Dog, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of comedies, of Victorian settings, or of cats (yes, cats. I’d explain if I could, but alas). What I appreciate the most about it was probably the fact that Connie Willis is obviously an author who respects her readers’ intelligence. The humour is often subtle, nothing is over-explained, and she invites us all to have some smart fun along with her.

Side note: over the past few months, several fellow bloggers enthusiastically recommended this book to me, promising that it was right up my alley and I’d love it to bits. Well, they were absolutely right. I should learn to be quicker to take your recommendations. Anything else I should read right now?

Other opinions:
Becky's Book Reviews
Farm Lane Books
books i done read
Library Queue
The Indextrious Reader

(Yours?)

47 comments:

  1. I have been meaning to read this book for years! It's one of the books I own, but have no idea when I am going to get to read.

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  2. I've been meaning to read this ever since I finished Doomsday Book last year. I'm glad you liked it! It sounds like something I'll like too. I might not get all the references, but I think I know enough for it to be fun.

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  3. It does show that it pays to listen to recommendations. It sounds delightful. I love the fact that it has time travel in it, something that really appeals to me. If only we could!

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  4. I'm totally sold on this book! It sounds amazing. I've also heard a lot of good things about Willis' Domesday Book. Have you read it?

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  5. I just finished reading this book last week myself. http://libraryqueue.blogspot.com/2010/02/to-say-nothing-of-dog.html
    The word screamlet just killed me every time. It never got old. Such a unique book!

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  6. I'm guessing this is the sort of book that's not for me, eh?

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  7. This sounds like pure delightful fun! Of course, I won't get many of the allusions, but I think I'm adding it to my wish list nonetheless.

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  8. Sounds like it has all the bizarreness of another genre-hopping SF novel, Walter Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz. That one has nuclear apocalypse, space travel, cannibal mutants and Catholic masses against radiation poisoning. Very weird, very quirky, very intresting.

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  9. A Pratchett reference and a hopelessly in love undergraduate (who I fully expect to be hilarious)I must get on with this one. Once again a lovely review that hits on all the important things we need to know about :)

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  10. This is on my to-read list also, I'll have to move it up (and I can count it for Our Mutual Read!). This sounds a little bit like the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde (first book is The Eyre Affair). There's time travel, people jumping in and out of books, and all sorts of literary references. If you haven't read them, I bet you'd really like those too.

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  11. I tried this two years ago and sadly, the humor just did not work for me. But then, I've never appreciated Terry Prachett either. O well!

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  12. Connie Willis is absolutely one of my favorite authors. I love the thread of missed communications she weaves into her books in a double way: via both the character interaction and the time dislocations. I put Dooms Day Book (re the time of the bubonic plague) as one of my ten favorite books ever, and I also loved Passage (involving the Titantic disaster) for the *triple* entendre involving miscommunications.

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  13. I haven't read any Connie Willis, but I've heard a lot about this book for years and have been meaning to read it. You know I'm a great fan of English humor, and while I'm not as well versed in the Victorians as some, I think I'd be able to appreciate the allusions. I hope!

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  14. Lincoln's Dreams is the only one of Willis' books I've read, and I didn't like it at all. This sounds pretty good though, so maybe I should give her a second chance.

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  15. Another one to add to my wish list. Victorian Era - that's what attracts me everytime, since it's my favorite period. Great review, as always!

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  16. This definitely makes me want to re-read To Say Nothing of the Dog but first I want to audio Three Men In A Boat, so as to enhance the reading experience.

    I loved the significance of the Bishop's Bird Stump and what it lead to at the end, lol.

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  17. I just loved this book, the first by Connie Willis I read, and she instantly became one of my favourite authors. I re-read Lincoln's Dreams last week, and need to re-read this one, but I have to reclaim it from my son first!

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  18. Ooh, this sounds good but I am going to read the Three Men in a Boat book first :-) CLEARLY that would make the experience way better!

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  19. OH damn this sounds good! I'm like you...for some reason I've yet to read Connie Willis. Well I'm not like you any more because you have read her :p But I'm thinking this may be my first now! I've really been in the mood for something Victorian lately and this sounds like something with a great touch of fantasy and mystery and a perfect little touch of mockery too :) Right up my alley!

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  20. I read this one so long ago that I've forgotten most of it. I do remember the bird though :) Really enjoyed it so maybe it is time to give it a reread. If I manage to find my copy of it...

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  21. I'm so glad you finally got to this one - and that you loved it so! I enjoyed this one so immensely that I even got my husband to read it, and he doesn't read much 'genre' fiction at all. I read it the weekend after I'd read Three Men in a Boat, so it was particularly appealing. So much fun :)

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  22. Have you read Michael Chabon's Summerland? If not, I think you should read it RIGHT NOW. It's an attempt to involve younger folks in the conversation that is literature, among its other charms.

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  23. Your description of this book reminds me of how I feel about the LOST TV show...wildly entertaining, at times funny, plenty of adventure, and so many references to art and literature and everything else that my head feels like it will spin. This one sounds really good!

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  24. Yay! So glad that you read this one! It's one of my all time favorite books and it's just very, very funny. If you haven't read anything else by Willis, I would definitely recommend Doomsday Book. It was a great read, but much more somber than this book. Such a great review, Nymeth!

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  25. Sounds like a delightful read to me. The premise of this story and plus your excellent review have really made me want to pick up this book! :D

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  26. This sounds great! And very interesting, considering it's a combination of a variety of genres. I'll keep an eye out for it!

    Emidy
    Une Parole

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  27. This is probably one of my favorite books EVER. I pretty much laughed the whole way through. I agree with you about the "permeable genre" bit; that actually appeals to me (as long as it is done well, which Willis does) since I'm such an eclectic reader. I've missed visiting everyone's book blogs the last few months. I'm currently taking a class "Literary Exegesis and Analysis" and between that and work, etc. I've had to temporarily abandon my blogging. Great review, Nymeth!

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  28. I know that you're told this a lot but I think you are such a well-read individual. I really enjoy the way you describe your various reads to us!

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  29. I really must read this SOON! I've had a copy for a couple of years and just keep putting it off, even though I know I'm likely to love it to bits.

    If you want to read more Willis, I think Jenny's reviewed just about all her books over at our blog. She's a big Willis fan. (And I have yet to read any Willis.)

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  30. I have never heard of this book, and I was captivated by your review. I am really intrigued by the "what drives history" thing. it reminds me of Tolstoy's writing.

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  31. I'm immediately intrigued, so onto the wishlist it goes! Great review and it sounds right up my street.

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  32. I absolutely adore time-travelling stories and the idea of mixing it with the Victorian era sounds great. Tim Powers does this in his excellent Anubis Gates, taking us to the early 19th century, but it is more of a darker adventure than a 'comedy'. Your review has made me want to read this right now. So another visit to the bookshop tomorrow :O)

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  33. Marg: I hope you enjoy it when you do :)

    Meghan: I need to get my hands on Doomsday Book! And don't worry about the references - I didn't get them all either (I've never read Christie, for example), but it was still tons of fun.

    Vivienne: It definitely does! Book bloggers are the best recommenders ever :D And yes, if only we could...

    Chasingbawa: Nope, this was my first. But I definitely mean to!

    Tricia: Argh, I feel awful that I missed your review again! Are you a part of Fyrefly's Search Engine? That's what I use to look for other reviews, but somehow yours didn't come up! Anyway, yes - the screamlets KILLED me :D

    Amanda: Hmm...I'm not sure. You might enjoy it, actually :P

    Debi: You'll get more than you think :P

    Loren Eaton: A Canticle for Leibowitz has been on my list ever since someone compare it favourably to The Road.

    Jodie: lol, yes, the undergraduate IS hilarious :D

    Karen: I've been meaning to read Fforde for SO long! I need to get to the series soon, as I definitely think I'll enjoy them.

    Jeane: hahaha :D Your "O well" cracked me up :P

    Jill: I can definitely see her becoming one of my favourites too. I need to read Doomsday Book soon! And then everything else she's written :P

    Steph: I definitely think you'd appreciate them!

    JoAnn: I'm not sure whether that one is different from her others or not, but often it does pay to give authors a second chance!

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  34. Andreea: I think you'd really enjoy this :)

    April: lol, me too. And yes, having read Three Men in A Boat recently definitely made it even more fun.

    GeraniumCat: I can so see her becoming one of my favourites too. Must get my hands on more of her books!

    Aarti: Yes! I hope you enjoy them both :D

    Chris: Well, I'm happy to hear you're in the mood for something Victorian, as I'm sure Jason is. How about Aurora Leigh? ;)

    Fence: I'll surely be revisiting it sometime in the future too...I can see it being one of those books that get better with each re-read.

    Melanie: Yes, having read Jerome K. Jerome recently made it even more fun. I LOVED the scene where they actually cross paths with the three men in a boat :D

    Jeanne: I have! I enjoyed it a lot :) Love Chabon.

    Kathleen: Can you believe I've never watched Lost? Clearly I should!

    Zibilee: I'll definitely read Doomsday Book before too long! Well, unless all those other books get in the way, as so often happens :P

    Melody: I think you'd enjoy it :)

    Emidy: I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up :)

    Terri B: It's good to hear from you! I completely understand being busy, though. Still, I look forward to your return!

    Staci: That's so nice of you to say! Sometimes I feel I'm only just beginning to discover what this whole literature thing is all about :P

    Teresa: I want to read Doomsday Book next but have no idea where to go after that, so I'll check out Jenny's reviews for sure!

    Stephanie: You won't be surprised to hear I haven't read any Tolstoy :P Someday, someday...

    Gaskella: I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Veronique: I loved Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard and have been meaning to read him again ever since - Anubis Gates sounds awesome! Also, I wanted to tell you thanks for your lovely e-mail! I'll reply properly tomorrow, but I just wanted to say right away that you did NOT bore me to tears :P

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  35. To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Blue Castle really sound like something I'd enjoy; thanks for posting about them.

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  36. "literature as conversation"

    I like that phrase. And art is a exactly like that, too. :)

    Have you read The Adoration of Jenna Fox yet?

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  37. This sounds awesome. I too love me some genre-bending/mixing books. :)

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  38. I hadn't heard of this prior to reading your thoughts. It sounds fantastic. If written well, I do enjoy a good time-travel story (think Back to the Future).

    Would love to read this.

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  39. Nymeth, you'll enjoy Canticle more if you're prepared for it's triparte structure. It reads like three linked novellas instead of a straight novel. I got really invested in the character in the first novella and was extremely disappointed when he ... well, I won't spoil it. But he exits the action rather abruptly.

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  40. After I read (and loved) this, everyone was all You should read Doomsday Book! And I did and it was as good, nay, better. But be prepared, it is a fish of a different kettle. Still Willis, still time-travel, not as rompy.

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  41. I'd like to read this one just to figure out why you mentioned cats.

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  42. Diane, you're most welcome!

    Heidenkind: I haven't! What is wrong with me? I've been meaning to for ages.

    Christy: Me too :)

    anothercookiecrumbles: As do I! I hope you enjoy this - I thought the writing was great.

    Loren Eaton: Thanks for the heads up. I'll keep that in mind.

    raych: The title alone makes it sound more sombre :P I guess there's also the fact that the Victorian era lends itself to romps more easily. But I look forward to reading it anyhow.

    Kathy: Cats are a BIG plot element, and more I cannot say :D

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  43. I want to read this SO badly! I wonder if there's any possible way I could squeeze it in before I leave for New Zealand...

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  44. If you liked the references to other books, you'll love Bellweather. Is funny and crazy and so interesting. But I'm a huge fan of Mrs. Willis, so I may not be truly objective about her work :)

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  45. Oh, I KNEW you'd like this. Now you have to read her short story collection, Impossible Things. You will love it!

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  46. Okay, I'm finding a copy of this. You had me with Keats and Shakespeare being mistaken for Tennyson!

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  47. Thanks for this non-spoily summary. I linked to it from my review because I had a really hard time writing anything without spoiling the plot!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.