Bill’s Book Blog, 4/10/2021

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

It’s been a few weeks, so this is a longer one!

First, continuing my Connie Willis Completionist Project, I read Fire Watch, by Connie Willis (1985), her second book-length publication, and her first collection of short stories. It’s dynamite. If Water Witch was a mostly trivial novel that nevertheless showed some promise, Fire Watch is the sort of short story collection with which every author wants to burst onto the scene.

The title story is the first story in Willis’s award-winning Time Travel series (along with Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Blackout/All Clear) and it’s probably the best in the book. In it, our hero is part of the history department in a future Oxford, where history degrees (PhDs, I think; I don’t think they are doing this to undergraduates) aren’t awarded until the student has gone and spent some significant period of time actually in the past, observing and blending in. Our hero spent a bunch of time preparing to follow St. Paul around, but due to a clerical error, he is instead sent to man the Fire Watch atop St. Paul’s cathedral during the Blitz.

Unprepared for his circumstances, he nevertheless becomes deeply protective of St. Paul’s, partly because in his own time the cathedral has been destroyed due to a terrorist attack. It’s a beautiful story, human and witty. This is how all of the stories in the collection are, even the less successful ones: many science fiction authors are not particularly interested in people, and use them as a means of engaging with their big ideas. For Willis, the big ideas are a way of better understanding people. Also, she’s very funny, as in Blued Moon, which is just a series of funny coincidences stretched out for 30 pages. It’s a delight.

Not all of the stories worked for me, particularly All My Darling Daughters, which is unconvincingly written from the perspective of a foul-mouthed and sex-obsessed coed who’s going to some sort of spaceborn boarding school. What this mostly amounts to is Willis using the word “vaj” about eight times a paragraph.

Still, no collection of short stories (with the possible exception of Ted Chiang’s two) is 100% winners, and even Daughters is uniquely Willis, since it’s (very loosely) inspired by the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which is not the sort of thing most sci-fi writers are inspired by.

In all, if I had any doubts about my Willis Project, reading Fire Watch put those to bed. I’m going to move on, since we still have five other books to get to today, but I want to quote her introduction to the titular story in full, because it’s wonderful:

“While I was writing this story, the one book I could not find was the one I most needed: the Reverend Dean W.R. Matthews’ book about the Fire Watch written just after the war called St. Paul’s in Wartime. It was referred to in every other book I read, and I knew it would have everything in it that I could not find anywhere else: where they slept in the crypt, what they had to eat, how long their shifts were, where the stairs to the roofs were, how the Watch was organized and run.

The book was out of print and not even available at St. Paul’s, though the lady assured me that it was a ‘wonderful book.’ A friend finally managed to get hold of it through a London book search service and sent it to me soon after ‘Fire Watch’ came out.

It is indeed a wonderful book. It has, as I thought, everything I needed and could not find, but too late. Oddly enough, that’s what this story is about.”

Next up was Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez (2020), which has been causing controversy in evangelical and rightwing circles for a solid year now (the most recent explosion was just a few days ago). This is not a book about Trump, but it opens with Du Mez trying to figure out why white Evangelicals came out in such droves for Trump, a man who, at first glance, seems entirely anathema to their stated goals and beliefs. Du Mez thus goes back and traces the history and culture of 20th century Evangelicalism, all to ultimately come to the conclusion that Evangelical support for Trump is not an aberration, but is rather the natural culmination of the Evangelical obsession with a particular kind of white masculinity.

The book is pretty convincing, though I sometimes wish it had more detail about some of the historical moments it touches on — it could probably function if it was twice as long as it is. (Though it probably wouldn’t have sold as well or been as accessible, so that’s not really a criticism). It’s impeccably well sourced, and some of the quotes she finds are pretty incredible. I remember the Mark Driscoll era, even though I was never part of one of those churches, but it’s hard to really wrap my head around some of the nonsense he and his ilk said.

Anyway the book is not a complete history of Evangelicalism by any means, but if you, like Du Mez wondered how right-wing Christians could come out in droves for Donald “Two Corinthians” Trump, this is the book to read.

From that I jumped back a century to The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois (1903). I was generally familiar with DuBois’s biography, including his complex relationship with Booker T. Washington and several other prominent black leaders of the 20th century, but somehow I had never actually read his most famous text. Like any hundred-plus year old text about race, not everything in it sits comfortably with 21st-century thoughts about race — Ibram X. Kendi in Stamped From the Beginning links many of Souls’s ideas to what Kendi calls “uplift suasion,” or, roughly, the idea that black people should work to persuade white people that they’re worth taking seriously as people by being basically incredible examples of humanity. This places the burden of ending racism on the victims of racism rather than its perpetrators.

Obviously a full evaluation of that idea is well beyond the scope of a weekly book blog (and equally beyond my knowledge of the relevant subjects). But what Kendi and everyone else (including me) who reads Souls of Black Folk immediately realizes is the overwhelming power of the writing. DuBois could write:

“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”

Paragraphs like that are sprinkled throughout the whole text; his whole essay describing the “Black Belt,” in particular, is staggeringly beautiful. This is an Important Book for a reason.

He also at one point describes a type of guy as a “car-window sociologist, [a] man who seeks to understand and know the South by devoting the few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unraveling the snarl of centuries.” Car-window sociologist! That’s going to be a permanent addition to my personal lexicon.

I took a break from more serious stuff to read Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss (2003), which was a gift from my Dad, I think, when I was in high school. It’s a book about why punctuation is good, and why people who can’t punctuate properly should be rounded up and executed. This isn’t really an inaccurate description — Truss’s recurring gag throughout the book is to respond to punctuation errors with melodrama, often including threats of violence:

“If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once. . . [f]or any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word ‘Book’s’ with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated.”

This sort of thing is funny when you’re an insecure and pedantic teenager with delusions of literary knowledge, so this book was a good gift for me at the time. Now that I am a grown man with a proper sense of proportion, I recognize that this sort of feigned apoplexy is insufferable.

Anyway, I’ve read the book now, after having it for ca. 15 years. I learned a few things about apostrophes, and I also read a lot of unfunny rants about greengrocers who can’t punctuate “lettuce’s” correctly. Weirdly, the book is generally opposed to the use of the Oxford comma (which otherwise should be in the title), which puts it opposed to the average Grammar Nuisance online today, so the insufferable pedantry isn’t even timely.

After that weird detour I read Lincoln’s Dreams, by Connie Willis (1987), which is the first novel that Willis published on her own. Our hero is a research assistant for a writer of Civil War fiction (imagine a sort of Bernard Cornwell type) who meets a young woman who appears to be dreaming the dreams of Robert E. Lee. (Yes, the book is called Lincoln’s Dreams, but is mostly not about Abraham Lincoln’s dreams. I think it works, though you’d have to read the book to evaluate the decision completely). Why is she dreaming them, and is she in danger, either because of the dreams themselves or because of her nefarious psychiatrist?

The book is a bit messy; the dreamer (Annie) is rarely given much personality or agency, and I’m not sure the ultimate answer to the mystery is all that satisfying. But the book is filled with a wonderful humanity, and its ending is beautiful. Ultimately, if I ever write a novel this good, I’ll be quite happy.

Finally, I moved to horror and The Fisherman, by John Langan (2016). The Fisherman has a strange nested narrative that maybe doesn’t quite work. Our main character, Abe, starts fishing obsessively after his wife tragically dies, and he and a friend (whose wife has also tragically died; this is very much a dead-wife novel) decide to fish a little-known creek in upstate New York. On the drive up to the creek, they meet a man in a diner who tells a long (as in, roughly 60% of the novel) story about what happened at Dutchman’s Creek in the mid-19th century. Then, undeterred, Abe and his friend go to Dutchman’s Creek, where they find out what, if any, of the story is true. This isn’t a spoiler, by the way — although the specifics of the encounters are obviously not revealed early, you know by about page 10 that this is the general structure of the book.

It’s an odd book that maybe works better as a purely literary study of grief than as a pure horror novel; some of its worldbuilding feels a bit flimsy to me, though maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention. All that said, a few of the ideas or images in the book will stick with me for quite a while, so while I think my ultimate verdict is just “pretty good,” there are a few particular high points that will stick with me longer than the rest of the novel will.

Current Progress: 29/104, or 27.89%.

Current average pagecount: 282.69

*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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