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.

Shine On

shininggirlsThere are empty houses with ugly pasts. People may have lived there, moved around every room, and dropped plates in the kitchen while drying them with tattered dish towels. There may have been love in one room, quiet whispers that never reached the air. There may have been violence in other corners, fists blasting holes into plaster walls, droplets of blood on the door frame, signs of a failed escape.

And then there are houses that are alive and have their own agendas.

In Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls, a bad man walks into a run-down vacant house in 1931 and walks out of the same run down vacant house into different years. Harper Curtis is a collector of human lives and a destroyer of bright futures. He is fleeing from hoodlums in a 1931 Chicago shanty town, homes made out of found wood and tar paper. He finds a key and pockets it. A key means possibility. A key is a means of escape. While walking the streets of Chicago he begins to hear music and a voice inside his head urging him this way and that way. He finds the house, almost like it was waiting for him. This is where he discovers his opportunity to take lives.

He seeks out women at different times in their lives. He approaches them when they’re 5 or 6, gives them a trinket and comes back twenty years later to kill them. As his calling card, he leaves seemingly random items. On one body, a 28-year-old widow on her way home from a 9 hour shift of welding, Harper leaves a baseball card with Jackie Robinson on it. He visits a young architect sketching at a café table. He takes her fancy black art deco cigarette lighter and years later when he sees her again, he shows her the lighter and she immediately knows who he is.

Harper visits Kirby Mazrachi in 1974 when she’s 7. He gives her an orange toy pony and says he’ll see her later. But 22-year-old Kirby Mazrachi is different. She was supposed to die like the other bright and shining women with so much potential burning in them. Her throat was cut and she was nearly disemboweled like the other women but she survived. She begins to search for her killer.

Kirby interns at a newspaper and is assigned to Dan Velasquez, a sports reporter. He used to cover homicides but burned out after following so many grisly deaths. He doesn’t want to be a nanny for some college kid. She says she chose him because he “covered my murder.” He grudgingly helps her find old articles about similar murders. He sees her getting more and more obsessed and tries to tell her to slow it down; especially when she riles the police by talking to the mother of a girl who was a victim. Kirby knows the murders are connected and they have something to do with her.

Harper continues to go in and out of time. He enters the house in 1931 and leaves it in 1950 or 1993 or 1987. He kills for no real reason other than the fact that he sees the light in the girls he’s chosen, their future potential. He wants to snuff out those dreams and ambitions. He takes away mementos from each one, pinning them up on the wall of the house. A bracelet. A baseball card. A dirty tennis ball.

Kirby is beginning to put the pieces together and is getting closer to finding out who tried to kill her. While going through an old box of toys she notices the little orange pony. She remembers it’s from him. She looks at the bottom of the toy. It was made in 1982. He gave it to Kirby in 1974.

Kirby and Dan, the only one to believe that the killer is from a different time, chase after Harper and what happens next….well, I can’t tell you. I picked this book up on Monday and finished it two days later. If I had less morals (they’re already pretty lax as it is) I would have called in sick and spent the day reading it. That’s how good it is.  Now I’m trying to pass it along to a friend who is going on vacation. It’s a great book to spend reading for hours at an airport waiting for your connecting flight.  Or holed up in your bed with a blanket wrapped around you and three lamps on.