Friday, September 10, 2010

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis - Part 2

Ned is suffering disorientation, maudlin sentimentality and a tendency to become distracted by irrelevancies: classic symptoms of excessive time travel. And no wonder. Oxford's history department has just pulled him out of World War II and Ned's barely had time to wash off the gunpowder when he has a straw boater shoved on his head, a carpetbag in his hand and is thrown straight into Victorian England. For a holiday. But an impossible accident makes it hard to relax. Ned's holiday becomes a mad struggle to put together a historical jigsaw puzzle involving a cat, a diary, young lovers and the mysterious bishop's bird stump. If he can't make all the pieces fit it could mean the end of history itself. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a delightful and intriguing mystery spanning almost two centuries.

A couple of days ago Aarti from Booklust posted the discussion we had about the first half of To Say Nothing of the Dog. This second part of the discussion took place after we had both finished reading the book.

Aarti's thoughts are in green, and mine are in black.

We hope you enjoy our discussion.


I thought we could start this part of the discussion talking about genre. By it’s very nature this book seems to be cross-genre to me. I have seen it referred to as sci-fi, there’s lots of historical references to Victorian times, to the battle of Waterloo, WWII, there’s humour and there is mystery. Do you think that the book fits into any one genre?

I think this is one of those books that I wish people didn’t place in a particular genre, because I just know that many people will skim a general outline of this book, think, “Oh, this is science fiction/historical fiction/humor/romance/fantasy. That’s not for me.” And then they’ll probably never look into this book again. I think it’s placed in fantasy/science fiction sections because of the time travel, which I don’t think is fair. Jasper Fforde has a similar premise (kind of) and is placed in general fiction, so why not this book by Willis? I guess I’d classify it as science fiction due to the time travel, but also historical fiction and satire. I don’t really care how it’s classified, really- it’s fun, and I don’t think potential readers should allow its genre to turn them away. If you read 20 pages of this book and are not hooked, then you can give up on it- but until then... I think it should be on your wish list!

I have every intention of reading both Black Out and All Clear (when it comes out later this year). We also mentioned briefly about the Doomsday Book in our discussion of the first half of the book, and how we weren’t sure about it given the doom title and the subject matter being the Plague. Having now read one of Willis’s time travel books do you feel any differently about reading that book?.

DEFINITELY! Those both are on my wish list as well as Doomsday Book. I think I will try to read Doomsday Book now as after reading the Amazon page on it, it looks like there is quite a bit of humor in it and I think I’d enjoy it.

From what I can tell there is at least one character that crosses over between both The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. I was reorganising the bookshelves the other day and found my copy of The Doomsday Book. It is now sitting on my “to be read very soon” shelf.

One of the things that I loved in this book was all the little details. At one point found myself googling penwipers just to find out what on earth it was that Ned was looking at all these jumble sales!

I did the same thing for bird stump! Once I saw a picture of one, I understood immediately what it was, but I wish I could see this particular one as it sounds fabulously Victorian, as though excess vomited all over a tree and created the horror of the bishop’s bird stump.

It did sound particularly unattractive didn’t it, especially considering the fact that everyone was going to such lengths to try and locate it!

One of the things I really liked about this book was the idea of inevitability. Does what we do really matter, in the grand scheme of things? If something is supposed to happen, it will happen. And it was interesting to see how the main character struggled with the concept of free will, even as he was spending countless hours trying to lead people from generations before onto the life paths history said they went down (not sure if that makes any sense as a sentence, but hopefully you understand what I mean). So while some people consider time travel fascinating because of all the things you can change, all these characters were struggling like crazy to keep things exactly the same so as not to alter history too much. I thought the whole idea of fate and consequences tied up so well, and I found it particularly fitting that it was centered around WWII and the idea that people were forgetting about the war and its impact and the importance of monuments. I loved that entire theme. What did you think of it- the idea that the universe leads you down a particular path through all sorts of small coincidences?

In my life I have often had examples of where something is going to be the right thing to do, then the doors will open, whereas if it isn’t necessarily right then those doors will be getting slammed in your face. Very often, I have found myself in one situation, which then led to another, which in turn led to another, so I do think that a series of small incidents (rather than coincidences) can change your direction in life.

Yes, I got what you meant by that sentence, and I do like your train of thought there. Ned in particular was trying so hard to manipulate events so that what he thought had already happened did in fact happen. At the end of the novel though, I had a bit of an a-ha moment, when I realised that the anomaly that they were trying so hard to correct was actually not what the story was about at all. There was a whole other storyline going on. So clever!

Other random question I wanted to ask you- what do you think the Pandemic was? How many people do you think died, and how do you think it affected the world? I know there were only glancing references to it, but I find it interesting (and terrifying) that so much of sci fi refers to some sort of great outbreak of disease in which the population is decimated and the civilizations that come afterward are substantially changed from what came before.

I did wonder about the only glancing references to the Pandemic. At the time of reading it I wondered if it was something similar to the great flu epidemics, but I have a feeling that it was something much worse than that. It was interesting that there was so little focus on those events. I think it would be much more common for authors to dwell on those kind of events but maybe it wouldn’t have been the right tone for this book. I don’t think the author wanted to lose sight of the fact that this is supposed to be a fun book!

We mentioned in the first half that there should be a term for characters without speaking roles. Another thing that I loved was the books within the book - is there a term for that? I loved all the references to other novels, and by the end of it I realised that I really have to read the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I had heard of them before, but I hadn’t been all that fussed about reading them. I think I need to change that. Were there any books that were referenced that you want to read as a result?

I have read one of the Lord Peter novels, but not the one that came up so often. It makes me want to read those, too! Especially the ones that involve Harriet Vane. I thought the whole storyline around those two was adorable and hilarious. I am sure Connie Willis must be a massive Sayers fan.

This is one of those books that I can see myself rereading in a couple of years, and finding new aspects to enjoy. I don’t do a lot of rereading normally, but every now and again I do come across a book that I think will benefit from a second, and subsequent, read through.

I hope to do a read-through of this one again, too, but maybe not in a couple of years. I actually hope to eventually read it again in tandem with someone else who maybe is reading it for the first time- it would be fun to read the funny parts out loud with someone.

I am so glad that I got to read this book after it had been sitting on my shelf unread for several years. I really should have read it earlier, although if I had of we wouldn’t have been able to do this discussion! The right time must have been now!

It was fate ;-)


  1. You guys really make me want to read this book. I love your conversation about this book. This is a really great format.

  2. It's a fun way to review a book for sure!

  3. Oh, I have loved these reviews! I think you both really hit on all the interesting and comedic aspects of this book, as well as the larger and more serious issues portrayed in it. Every time I see that someone has read this book, it's another small moment of win for me. I really love Willis and think that she has a rare talent, which is evident in the breadth of her work. So, so glad to have read this joint review. It made my day, twice!!

  4. I just found your blog not too long ago and I'm glad I did. Your book discussion is such a neat idea! I really enjoyed reading this post. I hadn't heard of this book before, but now I want to check it out!

  5. This books is on my TBR. You two make me what to put it at the top. Great team review!

  6. I actually started reading this book about 2 weeks ago, but didn't get too far into it. Your review has inspired me to persevere!



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