Bill’s Book Blog, 3/6/2021

I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the ones I read over the last week!

Connie Willis (b. 1945) is arguably the most highly-decorated science fiction author of all time, with 11 Hugos and 7 Nebulas to her name (her first Hugo, for Best Novelette, was in 1983 for Fire Watch, and her most recent, for Best Novel, was in 2010 for Blackout/All Clear). Yet I don’t think she’s particularly well-known outside of the science fiction community. At the beginning of this year, I had read only one Willis novel, because a friend of mine in high school had highly recommended it. I read To Say Nothing of the Dog on a whim in 2018, and it’s excellent – a mix of Austenian social satire and madcap time travel hijinks – and I’ve intended to read more of her stuff ever since.

Since I’m reading 104 books this year, this seemed as good a time as any, so I picked up all of the other books in Willis’s loose “time travel” series, which includes To Say Nothing of the Dog and also Fire Watch (1983), Doomsday Book (1992), and Blackout/All Clear (2010). Then I picked up another short story collection, Impossible Things, because I’d heard good things about it. Then my friend Joel highly recommended her novel Passage (2001), so I picked that up, and that happened to come in an omnibus edition alongside Lincoln’s Dreams (1987), her first solo novel. At that point I realized I had about 8 Connie Willis books on my docket, and decided to just go all in and get all the other ones. (Or at least try: there are a few novellas I haven’t been able to lay my hands on in paper for a reasonable price. I’ll either pick up e-book copies, alas, or just skip them, depending on how Luddite I’m feeling at the time).

This is an absurd thing to do: although many people I trust say that Connie Willis is excellent, I’ve only actually read the one book of hers, so committing to a completionist run could be an exercise in masochism. Yet I liked To Say Nothing of the Dog enough that I’m willing to risk it. So throughout the course of this year, I’ll be reading through all or nearly all of Connie Willis’s book-length published work. Hopefully I enjoy it! I’m going to read her work approximately in chronological order, though, since she has published a lot of short stories that don’t necessarily get collected until some years later, there will be some bouncing around.

So, the first book I read this week is Water Witch, by Cynthia Felice and Connie Willis (1982). I don’t know anything about Felice, other than that she wrote three books with Connie Willis. Her Wikipedia page suggests that she wrote seven books on her own from 1978 to 1991, as well as the three books with Willis. It’s not clear to me if Felice is still writing — if she is, I can’t find anything about it on the Internet.

I don’t think anyone places Water Witch anywhere near the top of the Connie Willis oeuvre, but it’s a pleasant enough time and I can see traces of the author who is going to write To Say Nothing of the Dog throughout it. On one hand, it’s a fairly generic YA sci-fi romp with a Special Girl and a Love Triangle, but it’s full of too many weird details and ideas to be written off that easily. Sure, the book is about a beautiful young woman named Deza, who lives on an Arrakis-ish desert planet and can sense the presence of water due to her quasi-magical abilities and the cool “gembone” insets she has on her cheekbones, and sure she’s probably a lost princess, and sure there’s a rakish bad boy she can maybe fall in love with and fix. But! She’s also got a pet goat-thing (an “mbuzi,” which appears to just be the actual Swahili word for “goat,” though I think this is a space-goat of some kind), and the goat-thing also houses the spirit of her recently-deceased father, who communicates with her telepathically throughout the course of the book. And! She’s a con artist, pretending to be a lost princess in order to scam people out of their money. And! If she gets too close to too much water she gets delirious and passes out and starts to remember repressed memories! And! There are cool singing sand snake things that hunt via ventriloquism! And! And! And!

For such a short book (216 pages) there are a lot of weird twists and ideas, and it starts to feel a bit like a first draft of a much longer text. I doubt I’ll think about it much in the future, but it’s a pleasant romp, and it’s going to be fun to compare it to Willis’s later, more mature work and see what throughlines I can find. Next up on my Willis project is Fire Watch (1986), a collection of short stories, including the titular, Hugo-award winning novelette that marks the first installment in her Time Travel series. (I’m also doing a Victor LaValle 100% run this year, but I haven’t finished any of that yet, so we’ll talk about it later.)

The other book I read this week is an entirely different thing: The Vet’s Daughter, by Barbara Comyns (1959). I picked up The Vet’s Daughter (along with Pitch Dark, which I talked about a few months ago, and about five other books which I’ll get to later in the year) in an NYRB sale after B.D. McClay spent some time on Twitter recommending books from the sale.

Our titular protagonist, Alice Rowland, is a 17-year-old girl who lives with her dying mother and her father, an abusive and overbearing veterinarian who, among other things, sells the animals given to him to be put to sleep to a vivisectionist. As a quick side note, is there any word more upsetting in the English language than “vivisectionist?” I submit that it’s even worse than the verb by itself. To say that someone or something was “vivisected” is certainly unpleasant, but a “vivisectionist” is someone who not only has vivisected someone or something, but does it often enough that it’s become part of who they are. You don’t become “a vivisectionist” if you do it once, right? This has to be at least a hobby.

Anyway, the book is about our protagonist dealing with the death of her mother and the various weird things that happen to her afterwards. Eventually the weird things include an element of the supernatural (or, dare I say it, The Weird) and I defy anyone to read the first few pages of the book and then predict how it ends.

Perhaps this is just because I have a one-track mind, but The Vet’s Daughter reminded me of Shirley Jackson. Here, as in much of Jackson’s work, we have a first-person account, written by a very strange young woman, about a terribly dysfunctional family; some quiet, banal cruelty; and the Weird. We even get to spend some time in a bizarre mansion with a tragic past halfway through. It’s also roughly contemporaneous with Jackson’s best stuff (Vet’s Daughter was published in 1959, the same year as Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and only a few years before We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)). This means that I am predisposed to like The Vet’s Daughter, since I am a certified Shirley Jackson Stan and therefore enjoy anything that reminds me of her, though it also meant I was a little bit disappointed by it, since it’s not as good as the Shirley Jackson novels it reminded me of. This is not fair: if the metric for whether or not a book is good is whether or not it is as good as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, very few books are good; Castle is genius.

I didn’t know anything about Comyns before I picked up this book, and a few cursory Google searches made after I read it suggested that her work is often understood as “outsider art,” that is to say, art which is made by a person without formal training, and which often behaves in unusual or unpredictable ways accordingly. (Her first book, Sisters by a River (1947), apparently was submitted with a host of spelling errors. The publisher, helpfully, chose not to fix them, and in fact added more.) The Vet’s Daughter is certainly a strange, dreamy book — the supernatural elements wander into the narrative at such an oblique angle that I was never sure I understood them correctly, which is probably the point. Alice is essentially a bystander in her own life, tossed about by various overbearing men (some horrible, some well-intentioned but still uninterested in recognizing her own agency), and moves through the world in a haze of daydreams and self-doubt. It’s a weird little book, but it’s very good. Consider a paragraph like this one:

“The small dog danced at the end of its lead when we crossed the road and came to a square of flat-faced houses. I delivered it to a grave-faced housekeeper, who took the little creature as if it were a parcel and shut the yellow door in my face. I stood outside in my absurd white overall and looked at the well-kept houses, the pretty square garden where ladies strolled under their parasols, and the flower-like babies asleep in their perambulators. Horses and carriages waited outside some houses, with liveried coachmen in attendance, and there were great motor-cars shining like fabulous monsters. It seemed to me that everything was rich and very safe—even the fat pigeon that was being stalked by a huge grey cat. I stood there in the sun and thought, ‘Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me—both doors at once, perhaps.'”

I can’t speak to whether or not it’s outsider art, but any book that has stuff like that in it is definitely worth reading.

Current Progress: 19/104, or 18.26%.

Current average pagecount: 270.26

*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.

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