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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Title: To Say Nothing of the Dog
Author: Connie Willis
Reviewed Format: mass market paperback
Release Date: December 1, 1998
Pages: 512

When Ned Henry begins to pet Mr. Spivens and wax poetic about the role dogs have played as Man’s Best Friend throughout the centuries, he suddenly finds himself yanked out of 1940 and back in the year 2057.  Ned is a time traveller.  He also has a serious case of time-lag--Mr. Spivens is not a dog.  Time-lag is the wonderful after effect of extraneous time travel with little to no sleep or rest in between.  It renders its victims confused and sleepy; if you are suffering any of the following symptoms: Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds, Blurred Vision, Slowness in Answering, a Tendency to Maudlin Sentimentality, then you may be time-lagged.  The only cure is rest.

Unfortunately for Ned, he works directly under Lady Schrapnell--an American woman who’s taken it upon herself to commandeer every available time travel agent and send them through the Net and across time in her obsessive attempt to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, in Oxford.  Her schedule is rigorous and unforgiving.  The consecration is in seventeen days and Ned’s just been prescribed two weeks of bed rest.  To complicate matters even further, he’s been sent back to 1888 Victorian England where he’s supposed to fix a possible incongruity for Mr. Dunworthy, avoid Lady Schrapnell, find some rest and relaxation, and not worry about finding the Bishop’s bird stump until after his new mission’s completed.  The only problem is he can’t remember what he’s supposed to do, with whom, or where.  At least the Maudlin Sentimentality will help him fit right in.

Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog combines elements of Science Fiction, Mystery, and Historical Fiction with a healthy dose of British humor.  Part of what makes this book work so well are the diversions of dialogue between characters in which Nothing Gets Done.  The characters themselves are hilariously depicted, sweet caricatures of the Spoilt and Silly Girl, the Distracted Father, the Butler, and the Fainting Mother that argue around each other in comical displays of affection that somehow manage to keep the plot rolling in suspense and plodding along delightfully.  It’s a novel built around Flaubert’s idea that, “God is in the details.”  Willis masterfully takes that quote and constructs a theme that sprouts marvelous allusions, showing readers her ability to create one of the most complicated and enjoyable mysteries I’ve ever read.

There’s many references to the namesake, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog.  I’m not familiar with it and, after having read through Willis’ book, don’t think it’s necessary to know anything about it (but it’s out there somewhere for recommended further reading).  It’s more important to take the references into context with the rest of Willis’ novel and see how the jumble of seemingly incongruous pieces begin to make sense as a working whole.  Mr. Mering and Professor Peddick are constantly discussing the details affecting various important moments in history, coming to the conclusion that it’s always the minor and least expected thing that must have altered history to bring contemporary events about.  Mr. Dunworthy has sent Ned on this mission in deep worry one of those niggling details will forever change the outcome of one of the worst wars in history.  There is always a Big Idea, to Say Nothing of the Details which, as we all know, are just as important.  The forest would be nothing, if not for the trees, right?

Jerome K. Jerome is not the only author with works prestigious (or related) enough to earn multiple allusions in To Say Nothing of the Dog.  Most of the Romantics (Tennyson, in particular, with my favorite poem,“The Lady of Shallott,” which is under Terence’s constant scrutiny) make appearances; Shakespeare, various romantically tragic couples, and some hilariously phonetic Middle English words are there as well. My favorite two phrases would have to be, “Tha kahna bay” (p. 396) and “Guttgottimhaben” (p. 397).  If you’ve ever tried to read Middle English (i.e. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) and had trouble contorting your palate to articulate the words on the page your brain was telling you look one way with familiar letters, but are not pronounced in contemporary ways at all, then you might be grateful for Willis’ clever and helpful spellings. You might even, as I did, literally laugh out loud at her handiwork in appreciation for her efforts to make a trip into the Middle Ages as least stressful and reminiscent of English class as possible.  Having loved my Middle English courses (I originally and still want to get my MA in Medieval Literature, a little bit) with little to no problem reading and understanding non-translated Chaucer, I still found myself laughing.

Don’t worry if the Middle English bothers you at all--I focus on a small portion of the book, a few pages really.  To Say Nothing of the Dog was so much fun to read that even if that makes you hesitant, Willis’ wit will win you over and have you smiling before long.  It’s a lovely and absurd book filled with precious characters, sublime settings, and picaresque landscapes.  But the characters, they really steal all the attention.   I became so invested in the Victorians (an odd bunch of manner and decorum-driven individuals) that I was disappointed when Ned had to switch through various times.  What complicates the mystery so much is the time-travel and Willis’ convoluted yet simple explanations of How It All Works (this is also what made it so riveting for me).  Despite figuring out who the elusive Mr. C was pretty early on in the book, I found myself enjoying the ride anyway.

Overall, it’s a frabjous book with one of the most romantic lines I’ve ever read, talented writing and story-telling, Victorian exclamations, but to top it all off: it has kittens.  I had a hard time putting this book down.  I do have a warning, though: the humor is mostly subtle.  If you like to get your laughs in other, mysterious ways, consult a medium and have the Other Side direct you in the proper direction.  Also: I still can’t find a definition for “fenoxidils.”  Is it some type of facial hair?

How many Jawas recommend this book?

I read this book as the March selection in Calico Reaction's LiveJournal book club.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this book. Willis makes me impossibly envious over her command of language. :)

Erika said...

TJ: I know! I went to bed thinking, "I'll never be able to write like that, but I don't care--she does it all so wonderfully."

I've been recommending her, and this book, to everyone already!

Shara said...

Ah, the kittens were SUCH a lovely surprise. :)

Open ID does not like me right now, so just so you know who I am:

--Calico Reaction

Erika said...

@calico-reaction: Yes! The kittens! I was so sad (SAD) of the idea that cats, even fictionally, could become extinct. The very real ruins of Coventry Cathedral? The threat of Nazi Germany winning the war? Nothing compared to a world without cats. But oh, the kittens. Bless their little hearts and paws and toes and tails and whiskers... And the cat dialogue was great. "More," hahahaha. Genius.

It's all about the details. And cats.

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