The Perils of Reading

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Reading a good book can be fabulous and depressing all at once. Page turners, stories that can’t be put down, books that demand to be picked up again, all can leave a reader wanting more. Perhaps it’s a sad commentary on my psyche that I grow so attached to the characters in a book, but on the other hand gifted authors paint such vivid, realistic pictures that their characters practically jump off the page.

Enter gifted author Connie Willis. Classified as a sci-fi writer, Willis writes books that are really historical fiction with a bit of sci-fi thrown in. Her Oxford Time Travel series uses, wait for it, time travel to get characters to a particular point in history, and then the stories become almost entirely historical fiction. And what stories they are! Doomsday Book finds a time traveler trapped in a village during a bubonic plague outbreak. Here Willis creates a world where you-the-reader actually feel that you’ve experienced the insane hardships of the black death.

As amazing as this book is, today I want to discuss Blackout and All Clear, two books which really are just one book split into two. In this adventure, time travelers (called historians) from 2060 go to various points in WWII England to observe and study. Initially, the story jumps around quite a bit between 2060 Oxford and each of the traveler’s adventures. As stories begin to intertwine, three historians who are on separate assignments in 1940 gradually discover that they cannot return to 2060. They start looking for each other (not an easy task in the middle of a world war), each of them incorrectly assuming that the others still have access to the future. Thus the story ends up focusing on Polly, Eileen and Mike in London from mid-1940 to mid-1941.

As much as one can know facts about WWII, there’s no way to know what it was like living through it without having done so. And although Willis’s books are fiction, they thoroughly immerse the reader in the mindset of Londoners during the war. Terror and uncertainty caused by the blitz, loss of loved ones at any given moment, annihilation of homes, daily bombings, destruction of roads and railways and on and on.

But perhaps more than the negative impacts of war, we are shown the resilience of the British. Throughout eight solid months of bombing, people continued going to jobs, shopping, celebrating Christmas and living life day to day. I can’t even begin to imagine the numbing difficulty of living through such an event. And yet live they did.

There is also a sci-fi component to the stories with each of the main characters worried that they might change history (seriously, no one considered this in the 40 years that time travel had been happening?), that they could even cause Hitler’s Germany to win the war. In fact, they are obsessed with this issue. After the time travel process stops working, the three fear that their actions have somehow caused its failure. And to top that off, Polly had earlier in her life gone back to May 1941, so she must return to 2060 before then or the laws of physics and time travel will eradicate her. So we have a thriller that exists on several different levels simultaneously.

When I finished All Clear (some thousand pages later), I felt an emptiness because the end of the book was the end of my relationship with the book’s characters, people who took me through life-changing adventures. In a small way, it paralleled the end of the war when people who had grown so close returned to their normal lives without their wartime families. Happy that the war was over, sad that the experiences which forged strong bonds had ended.

Bittersweet.

Fabulous, depressing, wondrous and fleeting. This is the literary world. So read a good book, make new fictional friends and mourn their departures as the book concludes.

And then, repeat.

Oh, Sister

book coverHaving grown up in a big family, I thought I knew a thing or two about sibling rivalry. And then I read The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary Lovell. The Mitford family makes my own eclectic clan’s dramas and differences seem downright dull.

In this stunning family biography, Mary Lovell introduces the six daughters and one son of a landed aristocratic family in Edwardian England. The family generated controversy and intrigue aplenty over the years. Despite intimate bonds with each other, they had very public political disputes and wildly disparate adult lives.

Diana married Oswald Mosley, head of Britain’s Fascist party. Unity, a close friend of Adolph Hitler, shot herself in the head when England and Germany went to war. Deborah married the  Duke of Devonshire and thus filled the coveted role of Duchess of Devonshire. Jessica, a Communist and bestselling non-fiction writer, scandalized the family when she eloped with a nephew of Winston Churchill. The eldest daughter, Nancy, drew upon her family’s colorful upbringing in her bestselling novels and was good friends with writer Evelyn Waugh. Pamela, wife of the wealthy physicist Derek Jackson, led a relatively quiet and humble life.

As you’d expect, there is never a dull moment in the lives of the Mitford family. And as a result, there’s never a dull moment in the book. This biography effectively captures the intimacies and complexities of familial love, loyalty, betrayal, heartache and happiness. The book also serves as a captivating introduction to 20th century social, political, and literary history in Britain.

After reading The Sisters, my curiosity about this curious clan was still piqued. The edited collection The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters offers another  intimate portrait of their tumultuous lives.

If you’re in the mood for an intelligent, thoughtful and scintillating story about a family far weirder and wilder than your own, try The Sisters. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to call my sister.

Mindy