Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

To Say Nothing of the Dog, or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump At Last

Posted by nliakos on February 13, 2012

by Connie Willis (Bantam, 1998)

This quirky novel is classified as science fiction because it is predicated on time travel, but it’s totally unlike any other sci-fi book I can think of. Ned Henry, a 21st-century historian, is searching for an artifact known only as “the bishop’s bird stump” (after a while, I googled bird stump because I couldn’t stand not knowing what the thing was–but it turns out it wasn’t, after all, so no matter), hounded by Lady Schrapnell (!), who is bent on recreating Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was before it was destroyed by German bombs in 1941 and so needs to know whether  the bishop’s bird stump was in the Cathedral or not when it was destroyed. It’s all quite confusing. Anyway, Ned travels to Victorian England to escape Lady Schrapnell and meets a fellow historian, Verity Kindle. They desperately try to undo Verity’s inadvertent mistake (carrying a cat forward in time), which could change the course of history.

There is a lot of technical discussion about drops (trips through time), the continuum of history, incongruities which can alter the continuum,  time slippage which occurs in the vicinity of an incongruity or a historical crisis point, etc.  Willis focuses on the question of whether history can be altered by minute changes in events or behavior. What would it take to tip the balance in a war, to avoid a catastrophe, to cause or prevent one’s meeting one’s own true love?  And if we fiddle with these things, can history correct itself? Will it? These are the questions the book’s characters try to answer as they stumble through time together and apart.

What I enjoyed most was the comical description of Ned’s flounderings through Victorian society, his commentary on the people and customs, and the weirdos he keeps meeting (naive Terence St. Trewes, crazyProfessor Peddick who will inconvenience anyone for a chance to go fishing, ditsy Tossie Mering and her ditsy mother, the almost-human bulldog Cyril and the time-traveling cat Princess Arjumand).

I tried reading this on the Nook, but my library eBook expired after only two weeks. At almost 500 pages, there is no way to read it in two weeks (unless one were on vacation). Disgusted, I placed a hold on an old-fashioned paperback and finished it that way.

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