Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bellwether and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Last week, I quickly gobbled down Bellwether by Connie Willis and I liked it so much that I decided to pull Doomsday Book, also by Connie Willis, off my shelves. I am now officially a crazed Connie Willis fan girl. While the two books are completely different, the author's hallmark is intelligent, humorous writing in which the author pokes fun at unnecessary roadblocks caused by incompetent, mindless humans.

I bought a three-foot-long piece of po-mo pink ribbon to take back to the lab, which meant the clerk had to get off the phone again. "This is for hair wraps," she said, looking disapprovingly at my short hair, and gave me the wrong change.

"Do you like po-mo pink?" I asked her.

She sighed. "It's the boss color for fall."

Of course. And therein lay the secret to all fads: the herd instinct. People wanted to look like everyone else. That was why they bought white bucks and pedal pushers and bikinis. But someone had to be the first one to wear platform shoes, to bob their hair, and that took the opposite of herd instinct.

Bellwether
, published in 1996 by Bantam books, is labeled "sci-fi" but it's not so much a science fiction book in the usual sense (time travel, outer space, or other woo-woo topics) as it is a book about scientists. Specifically, Bellwether is the story of two scientists working for the same company. Their projects are eventually combined after they're thrown together by a serendipitous bit of incompetence on the part of a mail clerk.

Sandra Foster studies fads, how they start and what they mean. Bennett O'Reilly is preparing to study monkey group behavior but he's really a chaos theorist who lost his job and had to grab what was available. HiTek Corporation, where they both work, is a company that uses these scientific studies in order to try to determine the best way to make buckets of money. Studying fads, for example, is something they hope will lead to their eventual ability to create fads of their own.

As the two scientists get to know each other and work together, they deal with an employer who follows the latest managerial trends and constantly updates paperwork so that it's longer and more complex. Meanwhile, the doctors Foster and O'Reilly are totally oblivious to the fact that they're falling in love. Sandra Foster is, in fact, half-heartedly dating another man -- a man who just happens to follow fads like a sheep in quite the opposite way to Dr. O'Reilly's seeming obliviousness to trends. This is one of the things I simply adored about Bellwether -- there's a touch of romance but the characters themselves are a little obsessive about their work and not very self-aware. It struck me as true to life.

Bellwether is as much a side-splitting observation of incompetent management, silly trends and human behavior as it is a story about science and a slowly developing attraction. A "bellwether", incidentally, is a sheep who unknowingly leads a flock. The bellwether becomes important when Sandra and Bennett combine their studies. Answers.com calls Bellwether a "tongue-in-cheek fantasy" and this site refers to her books as "piercing evaluations of social movement excesses", which is definitely a description I can get behind.

Bottom line: Smart, humorous writing that incisively illustrates the human tendency to follow the latest trends, skewers ridiculous corporate practices and lambasts incompetent workers in the midst of unfolding a realistic, slowly-developing romance. I loved this book so much I want to eat it. Kidding. But, I am hungry and I did love the book.

Doomsday Book is quite a different animal altogether, a blend of historical fiction with time travel and more hair-pulling human incompetence.

Mr. Dunworthy, an Oxford professor, is certain that horror is going to befall young Kivrin, a 20-something historian who has wanted to travel back to Medieval time since she became his student. Now, she's dressed and ready to go to the year 1320. The head of the Medieval department has decided to rush into the drop into 1320 without unmanned tests and other necessary preparations but Mr. Dunworthy managed to at least oust the inexperienced tech from Medieval.

The drop is made and Kivrin materializes with the usual time-travel headache. But, she quickly begins to feel worse and darkness is falling. 1320 is in the midst of the mini ice age and the drop site is not quite right; she is in the midst of a forest. Where is the road upon which she was intended to materialize? Will she even find civilization before she freezes to death?

Back in 2054, everyone but the technician, Badri, has dispersed to wait for the "fix" to see if Kivrin landed in the proper time and place. Then, Badri comes rushing into the pub. Something has gone horribly wrong. He races back to the lab with Mr. Dunworthy and the physician who gave Kivrin her innoculations and enhanced her immune system (to avoid contracting any nasty Medieval illnesses) following on his heels.

But before Badri can explain what's happened, he collapses. And, his illness is not minor. With an epidemic raging in Oxford and most everyone on vacation, nobody is available to find out if Kivrin is safe. And, Kivrin herself is deathly ill in the past -- so ill that she has no idea how she arrived in the bustling home of a fairly well-to-do family. When she finally recovers, Kivrin will find that the family has secrets of its own that may keep her from ever finding the rendezvous site and returning home alive.

Doomsday Book starts out a little slower than I anticipated and is pretty repetitive as Badri quickly becomes so incoherent that he can't even speak a full sentence. I have to admit that was annoying and it did take time for the story to develop, but about halfway through, the book became utterly gripping. To say much more would be to give too much away, even though the outcome is pretty predictable.

One of the most fascinating things about Doomsday Book is that it was published in 1991. Five years ago, the author's version of the future might have been a bit more believable but now that we have iPods and nearly everyone owns a mobile phone, there are some minor concepts that really jump out. Everyone uses land lines with video capability in 2054! People still buy "vids" and play them on "vidders" rather than downloading digital content. Apart from those and a few other minor issues that are only evident because things have changed so quickly in recent years, the author's visualization of a future world still seems pretty startlingly astute and her descriptions of the past are vivid (and smelly -- I would definitely not like to time travel to that particular era).

Bottom line: A massively entertaining little chunkster that blends history and science fiction to brilliant success. At 600 pages, Doomsday Book does suffer from some needless repetition but it's so visceral and engrossing that its flaws fall away to nothing.

I highly recommend both books and am kind of going minor nutskies searching for my copy of To Say Nothing of the Dog. Crazed fan girl. Seriously. Also, you may have noticed I'm having an attack of adjectives, today. Sometimes that happens. Let's blame the heat, shall we?

In other news:

I received a copy of Fixing Delilah Hannaford by Sarah Ockler from the ever-friendly Amy, today. Thank you, Amy!

I'm fickle, this summer. I've ditched two books and started two new ones. Who knows what I'll manage to complete and what will get set aside, although I'm on the verge of finishing Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende. It has periodically made me sob, but I think I'm just overtired, this week. When your husband travels to a different hemisphere, it's rather wearing.

What exciting things are going on with you, this week? Tired of the heat, yet? I hear Tropical Storm Bonnie is headed our way. Maybe she will cool us off a bit. One can only hope.

Happy Reading!

Bookfool, happily hiding in air-conditioned home

©2010 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are not reading this post at Bookfoolery and Babble, you are reading a stolen feed. Email bookfoolery@gmail.com for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

25 comments:

  1. Based on your review I just ordered Bellwether off PaperBack Swap. It looks really interesting. The library had all her books but that one. lol :)

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  2. You *know* To Say Nothing of the Dog is my favorite Willis, but I also loved The Doomsday Book. One of my good friends HATED it, though--she thought the writing was very repetitive and elementary. I think I got so engrossed in the story that it didn't matter. Willis has a new book out--I'm gonna have to pull more of hers out of Mt. TBR. I've got Mr. Lincoln's Dream around here somewhere....

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  3. Brittanie,

    Doesn't that just figure? I hope you enjoy Bellwether as much as I did. I think half the reason I liked it is because it doesn't really fall neatly into any category. It's just a fun story. :)

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  4. Oh, and if you get Tropical Storm Bonnie...send up to Tennessee. We have a heat advisory here. A HEAT ADVISORY. That means it's officially hotter than the sun.

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  5. Tammy,

    I would never call Connie Willis' writing "elementary". Repetitive, yes, but not simplistic. Even so, as you say, Doomsday Book was so engrossing that I didn't care. We definitely have that in common!

    I'm going to have to go to PBS to see what's available, as soon as I've got Kiddo all tucked away at school (I'm on vacation hold at PBS for most of the summer, primarily so I'll have fewer reasons to go out in the heat). I do have a copy of To Say Nothing of the Dog, but I can't find it. Argh!!!

    Bonnie is definitely tracking our way. I hope she cools us off! I'll try to send her to Tennessee when we're done with her. :)

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  6. To Say Nothing of the Dog is really good - I read it for a book discussion group, and we had lots of fun talking about it.

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  7. Library Girl,

    So I've heard! I got a copy of To Say Nothing of the Dog before I got Doomsday Book, but as I recall someone told me I should read Doomsday Book, first. It took me a few years to get to it and now I can't find To Say Nothing. Might have to go on a digging mission, today. ;)

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  8. Goodness you are reading a ton of books with DOG in the title! I want to read these Connie Willis books now, too. They look fun.

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  9. Care,

    Am I? I can think of 2. If I can find my copy of To Say Nothing of the Dog, that'll make 3. But, it seems to be lost. Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs is great -- it makes me sob, now and then, but I love Heather Lende's down-to-earth writing.

    Both Connie Willis books are fun. Crazed fan girl after 2 books. Sigh.

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  10. I tried Willis, but it was years ago and I don't remember if it was Doomsday or To Say Nothing... In any event, I gave up in spite of a rave review by a friend.

    I've been fickle lately, too. Gave up on Kerouac's On the Road and an ARC of Mr. Rosenblum Dreams of England (think that's the correct title!). I may go back to that one. It just wasn't holding my attention on our flight to VA, so I quickly downloaded an ebook for my iPad. I love technology! :)

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  11. Les,

    If it was Doomsday Book, I'm not entirely surprised. You have to be patient with it; it takes a while to pick up. Fortunately, I'd just read Bellwether and I love time travel, so I was willing to wade through the slow bits to get to the good parts. Boy, did that pay off. I thought it was awesome.

    I haven't made it through On the Road, but I keep telling myself I'll give it a second go, someday. Mr. Rosenblum is on my wish list. I hope you get back to it, soon. I want to read your thoughts!

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  12. I did so love Doomsday Book! but I haven't read Bellwether yet. It sounds just as good.

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  13. I loved The Doomsday Book but it's got both of my favorite things, time travel and the plague. Also I didn't hear any reviews of it yay or nay. I've noticed that I have a huge resistance to books that "everyone" raves about or seems to have read.

    Too funny you're reading a Heather Lende book! I picked up her bio at the library on the recommendation of a client that lives in Alaska.

    That fox photo is splendid. The photo-sketches are too cool.

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  14. Jeane,

    Bellwether is really a completely different kind of book from Doomsday Book and it's totally fun. I highly recommend it!

    Carrie,

    I know, you just can't beat the combination of time travel and a plague. Such fun. I think you're actually the [deeply trusted] friend who told me I needed to read Doomsday Book before To Say Nothing of the Dog. I know at some point we had a conversation about Connie Willis because I also ended up getting Bellwether on your recommendation. You're just so freaking persuasive.

    Which Heather Lende book do you have? I love her writing.

    Thank you and yeah . . . so cool. Oh, no, now I'm going to go off and play with that sketch program, again. Troublemaker!

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  15. I'm going to have to add both of those to my reading list. I have read To Say Nothing of the Dog which I thought was great fun so I must read more by Willis.

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  16. Iliana,

    Me, too! I found my copy of To Say Nothing of the Dog, so I've got my next Willis read lined up. But, my greedy little bookloving heart wants everything she's ever written -- except maybe the confession stories (I read a couple of bios of her, yesterday). I'm glad to hear you enjoyed TSNoTD. It does look fun!! :)

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  17. Bellwether & Doomsday Book were my introduction to Connie Willis too :D Thought the former was really clever and funny, and I keep re-reading it every time I feel sad.

    Willis likes to repeat things/topics in her longer novels, but it's usually with a purpose. Although, I prefer her novellas and short stories, to be honest.

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  18. Misskindle,

    I am so, so glad you said that. I've been pondering whether or not to keep Bellwether and I hadn't thought to save it for when I need an upper. Super idea! I think I smiled all the way through that book and I do reread books I love. Decision made! :)

    I am going to have to read her short stories and novellas, then. I read an interview with Connie Willis in which she said she prefers short stories (to read). I thought that was interesting, since so few people even like short stories. I love them, myself-- as long as they're done well.

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  19. I actually picked up To Say Nothing of the Dog a week or so ago from the library, so I'm happy to read more praise for Willis' writing. To Say Nothing of the Dog will be my first book of hers.

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  20. Christy,

    Lucky timing, eh? I hope you enjoy To say Nothing of the Dog. I've located my copy and I'm trying to decide whether I should wait to read it or dive right in. It's very tempting.

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  21. I hope you enjoy the book! Sorry it took me a little while to send...not a huge fan of the post office. :)

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  22. Amy,

    I loved her first book, so I'm hopeful! :) Thanks, again for sending it!!! I'm not a big fan of the post office, either. We used to have two post offices and stamp machines in the lobby. Now, we're down to one P.O. and no stamp machines, which means longer lines. And, they're so slow!!!

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  23. I finished Bellwether today and it is just as good as you said. I am going to get Doomsday and to Say Nothing of the Dog from the library soon. :)

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  24. I love Connie Willis! I reread Bellwether earlier this year, and Doomsday Book last winter, and just read her latest, Blackout, which is so very good also. I don't know if she is written anything that isn't good - even in the earliest novels, the ideas are interesting. I'm so glad you are enjoying her books! This year I remind myself of G.R.I.M. when I'm at work, and it always makes me giggle :-)

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  25. Brittanie,

    Yay! I thought you'd enjoy Bellwether, thanks to your science background. Doomsday is also great. I can't wait to start To Say Nothing of the Dog, but we've got so much to do it'll just have to wait. I'm not getting much reading done, right now! :)

    Susan,

    So, you're a Connie Willis fangirl, too! I need to read more of her work. I might as well just put the entire Willis canon (if there is such a thing) on my wish list. G.R.I.M. was hilarious. I loved the way she picked on the idiocy of workplace trends.

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