Blackout/All Clear

Willis - Blackout coverOpening line: ‘Colin tried the door, but it was locked.’

Their assignments were straightforward: Eileen, posing as a maid in a manor house, was observing evacuated children in 1940. Polly, after observing FANYs during the V1 and V2 attacks in 1945, was going to observe civilians in London during the Blitz in 1940. Michael, whose research focus was ordinary-people-turned-heroes, was going to Pearl Harbor and a handful of other important moments in American and British history, including Dunkirk. But their supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, has been  rescheduling drops, sometimes even cancelling assignments entirely.

Willis - All Clear coverHistorians can’t alter events, they’ve all been told. The continuum wouldn’t allow it. The drop simply wouldn’t open, or there would be enough temporal or locational slippage to prevent the time-travelling historian from interfering where they weren’t supposed to. But what happens when it looks like a historian does alter events — through influencing someone they meet, or by saving a life?

And what happens when they can’t get home?


Blackout 
and All Clear by Connie Willis is a single story split into two volumes, chronicling the lives of three historians from 2060 and their experiences in 1940’s Britain. Willis again demonstrates her ability to translate an impressive amount of research to bring the daily experiences of ordinary people in the past to life, and then succeeds in doing so through the quality of her fiction. In Blackout/All Clear, Willis weaves time travel, the Blitz, Dunkirk, the evacuation of children, the fire-watch of St Paul’s Cathedral, the V1 and V2 attacks, Bletchley Park, Fortitude South, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, and more to create a tapestry of unsung heroes, each doing their bit to win the war.

It is difficult to summarize the book too much without giving anything away, because nearly everything is important (even if you don’t know it yet), so instead I will say that Willis’s writing improves over the course of her Oxford Historians series. The Doomsday Book is good, but To Say Nothing of the Dog is better, and Blackout/All Clear are even better in terms of the tightness of the prose, the presentation of different timelines or storylines, and of characterization.

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in response to Charlottesville, VA

After the events of this weekend, I am compelled to condemn the actions of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who call themselves the ‘Alt-Right’.

Independence Hall Assembly Room - Philadelphia 2015

As a white woman, I condemn the words and actions of those whites who believe that they are superior to other humans based on the color of their skin.

As a Southern woman, whose family settled in the Carolinas when they were still but colonies, I condemn the culture of racism in the South and call for those roots to be torn out and thrown onto the fire of truth. Then move onward, because racism is an invasive weed that has roots spread throughout the country.

As a descendent of slave owners, I condemn all acts of slavery and its legacy in the discrimination and disenfranchisement of people of color. I weep that this is part of my family history.

As a Christian, I condemn the actions, words, and attitudes of those who claim to be Christians but are false prophets. ‘By their fruits you will know them’ (Matthew 7.20). Racism is sin and is contrary to the message of the Gospel and to the Kingdom of God. Before God there is ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’ (Galatians 3.28; see also Colossians 3.11), but Christ came for all, died for all, and rose for all. Each and every one of us.

As an American, I condemn those Americans who would deny the freedoms of this nation to other Americans and to those seeking to build a better life in this country. This country’s ideal is to be a place where every individual can live to their fullest potential, regardless of color or creed. As a nation, we are far, far from embodying that ideal, but it is an ideal we should be pursuing in order to bring to reality — not limiting its promises to an arbitrary chosen few.

As a white Christian American from the south, I condemn the words and actions of white supremacists, both in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend and beyond, as antithetical to my own beliefs and as morally wrong, nor will I stop opposing them.

Photo: The Assembly Room in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA, USA, where the Constitution was debated and signed.

Beacon 23

Opening line: ‘They don’t prepare you for the little noises.’

Howey - Beacon 23 cover

After being shipped home with a war injury and decorated as a hero, the unnamed narrator is reassigned to Beacon 23, where he can have some R&R in the vast loneliness of deep space. The beacons serve as lighthouses for interstellar travel, warning ships of asteroid belts and other obstacles that a ship travelling faster than light would not want to run into. Most of the time it is quiet on the edge of space — except for when it’s not. And, as the saying goes, when it rains, it pours. Beacon malfunctions, bounty hunters, hackers and pirates, and alien enemies — the beacon keeper faces all of these and more on his own. He thought that Beacon 23 was as far away from the war as he could get. He was wrong.

Beacon 23 by Hugh Howey is an introspective novel as the narrator examines his own psyche in the solitude and isolation of deep space. He lives alone on the beacon and communication takes three months to reach him. His only visitors are the occasional ships bringing supplies; most of the time, his patch of space is empty, as it should be. The whole point of the beacon is to keep ships away from his asteroid belt.

The novel was originally serialized, and I could tell. The beginning of each section includes a brief recap of the previous chapters that felt out of place when reading the novel as a whole, but which would fit weekly installments. Each section covers a different episode in the narrator’s time on the beacon: a malfunction, unexpected visitors, repairs, a rescue, more unexpected visitors. The narrator’s monologue is simultaneously honest, funny, and poignant. The events that led to his becoming a beacon keeper are teased out bit by bit throughout the novel as the narrator shies away from them, distrusts his own mind, and eventually confronts his memories face to face. This is not only an entertaining and funny novel about a quirky lighthouse-keeper, but also an honest study of a mind with PTSD. This is novel worth reading.

Shades of Milk and Honey

Opening line: ‘The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect.’

Kowal - Shades of Milk and Honey coverJane Ellsworth is a talented and eligible young woman in nearly every respect: she paints, plays the piano, and weaves glamour with ease. But she is not beautiful; that blessing was bestowed on her younger sister Melody. The summer brings several newcomers into the neighborhood: Mr. Vincent, the renowned glamourist invited to create a new glamour in the Fitzcamersons’ dining room; Captain Livingston, one of Lady FitzCameron’s nephews, is also back from serving in His Majesty’s Navy (and catches the eye of every matchmaker in the neighborhood); and Miss Dunkirk, the younger sister of Mr. Dunkirk. Jane is not at all surprised that Melody seems to hold the attention of all of the eligible young men in their set, and so she devotes herself to being a dutiful sister, daughter, and neighbor. Despite her admiration of the new glamourist’s work, however, he is always disgruntled with her. Meanwhile, it seems possible that Mr. Dunkirk esteems her instead of Melody! And what is Captain Livingston up to? Miscommunication and intrigue abound in this Regency-styled comedy of manners.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is set in a world similar to the landed gentry of Jane Austen, only with the addition of ‘glamour’, a type of magic that can create illusions. The ability to manipulate, or ‘weave’, glamour is another of the many skills a young noblewoman needed to know to demonstrate her refinement and education of the arts. For the most part, Kowal stays true to her source material; to the well-trained eye or experienced reader, it sounds ever so slightly different from Austen’s writings because it is written by a twenty-first-century author, not an eighteenth-century one. As someone who appreciates Regency-era novels, rather than loving them, I enjoyed Kowal’s novel because of the addition of magic and from recognizing the author’s homage to Austen. The novel is the first in a series, though stands well on its own.

For fans of fantasy and Jane Austen: This novel is for you!

the joys of audiobooks

One of the major counter-culture-shocks I experienced upon moving back to Texas from Scotland was the amount of driving I had to do. I had lived without a car for six years in the UK and managed both daily life and international travel without one. I took public transport, cycled, or walked. There was no need for a car.

Not so in Texas.

2017-07-01 - Highway 380

I may live only 2.6 miles away from where I teach, but the public transport that connects where I live and where I work takes 45 minutes for what is a 10 min drive; there are no bicycle lanes and Texas drivers don’t know how to drive around cyclists; nor are there footpaths/sidewalks between there and here; and also, it’s too hot for me to walk or cycle even if there were the appropriate lanes and paths for me to do so. The same problems apply for if I wanted to go to the grocery store, or anywhere else in my city.

Add to that: My best friends live in another city 30 miles away (approximately 45 minutes without traffic), my second job is in a different city also 30 miles away (40 minutes without traffic), and my church is in a third city (20 minutes without traffic). My health specialists are also scattered across the north DFW area and range from 35 min to an hour to get to, without traffic. Have you noticed a theme here? Without traffic. It seems like all of the major arteries in the metroplex have some amount of road construction, meaning that more often than not there is traffic.

2016-10-14 - I35 modern ruins

I haven’t mentioned yet that I hate driving. I get bored in the car. I find it stressful. I get tense even when the roads are relatively clear. I hate having to find parking. The first year or so back in the States I avoided driving as much as I could. I tried to use public transport. I tried cycling and walking. I didn’t go to weekly game nights at my friends’ house because I didn’t want to drive that far at rush hour. I didn’t have a church in my city. It was lonely.

That’s when K. handed me her copy of The Hobbit on audiobook. She hates driving, too, and also wanted me to come over more often. She promised that listening to audiobooks would make driving more bearable.

And it does.

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Doomsday Book

Opening line: ‘Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.’

Willis - Doomsday Book coverKivrin has always wanted to go to the Middle Ages. Fortunately for her, a history student at University of Oxford in 2054, time travel is possible, though still relatively new technology. When it is time for her to go, her tutor Mr. Dunworthy still holds misgivings about how her other tutor is running the ‘drop’ and whether Kivrin should be allowed to go at all. When the net technician collapses after sending Kivrin through, no one is able to confirm where or when Kivrin was sent to, and the only person who seems to care is Mr. Dunworthy. Oxford is put under quarantine; the Head of History is somewhere in Scotland; Balliol College is filled with detainees, including a group of American bell ringers and a student’s insufferable mother; Mr. Dunworthy has taken in his friend’s twelve-year-old grand-nephew while she takes charge of the situation in the hospital; it’s Christmas, and, as his secretary frequently informs him, the college is nearly out of lavatory paper. While Mr. Dunworthy tries to manage the confusion in the future, Kivrin arrives in the fourteenth century, and also collapses. She recovers, only to realize that she doesn’t know where she is or where the drop is for the rendezvous. Undeterred, Kivrin records her observations: of her hosts, the manor house, the village, the church, and the preparations for Christmas. She becomes enmeshed in the lives of Lady Eloise, her mother-in-law, and her two daughters, Rosemund and Agnes, and of the village priest, who believes Kivrin is a saint sent from heaven to help them in their hour of need. Kivrin thinks that finding the rendezvous before Lady Imeyne decides she’s a runaway nun and sends her off to the bishop is the worst of her troubles — until the first of them falls ill with the ‘blue sickness’, and Kivrin realizes exactly when she is.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a detailed, fascinating, and devastating book. Willis’s attention to detail captures characters’ idiosyncrasies with wit and compassion, creating fully-developed characters. This is the second time I’ve read Doomsday Book (I actually listened to it as an audiobook this time around), and it is still as wonderful and terrible as the first time I read it. The quote from the New York Times on the cover calls the novel a ‘tour de force’, and it really is. The first three-quarters of the novel are about the daily lives of Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy in their parallel timelines; there are difficulties, but they seem manageable at the time. And then people start dying, and it doesn’t stop.

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going to the ballgame

Yesterday, I went to see the Frisco RoughRiders play the San Antonio Missions with my friends C. and A.

FRRvSAM 2017

It was great because I could support both teams. I couldn’t lose!

When I asked my friends if they wanted to go, they were enthusiastic, and then asked, ‘Wait — will it be all right for you to go? It will be so hot.’

It was a reasonable question. My chronic illness makes it easy for my body to overheat quickly. After my brush with heat stroke a few years ago, my body has been even more sensitive to heat. We haven’t reached the hottest part of the summer yet, but already we’ve had heat advisories and heat indices above 105 F (40 C). It is unsafe for me to be outside for any length of time when the temps go above average human body temperature. The game was scheduled to start at 7.00 PM, and though that would be cooler than the afternoon, it was likely still to be excessively hot.

But I wanted to go. It had been so long since I had been to a baseball game. I had gone to Missions games when I was a kid, and I wanted to see them play the RoughRiders.

One of the lessons I’ve had to learn about having a chronic illness is to not let the chronic illness ruin my life.

If I stopped whenever I was in pain, if I stayed indoors every time the temperatures rose above 98 F, then I couldn’t work, play, or live. I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I read ‘I won’t apologize for having fun while chronically ill’ at The Mighty. I would figure out how to stay cool at the game.

I looked up the ballpark’s policies for what could be brought inside the park and assembled a bag of supplies. I assumed that we would be in the sun for part of the game, at least until the sun went down.

My bag included:

  • a parasol
  • a folding fan
  • a spray bottle
  • a reusable ice pack
  • two instant cold packs
  • sunscreen lotion
  • insect repellant
  • a bottle filled with Gatorade and ice

It also happened to be ‘Thirsty Thursday’, which meant all drinks were $1 and cups of water with ice were free. I would be able to stay well-hydrated during the game. I made sure to wear light and loose clothing and noted the location of the first aid tent, just in case.

And you know what? It turned out that I was over-prepared. When we found our seats, our section was already in the shade. There was a consistent and gentle breeze. Despite the clear sky, beating sun, and heat advisory, it was surprisingly pleasant. The only items I used from my bag were the spray bottle, the Gatorade, and insect repellant. It was a thousand times better than what I was expecting.

Of course, I’m exhausted today. Being outside for four hours still wore me out, even if it wasn’t sweltering. But I budgeted for the exhaustion; that’s part of having a chronic illness.

Baseball, fireworks, and friends — what more could you ask for in a fine summer evening?

Photo: The Frisco RoughRiders vs. San Antonio Missions in Dr. Pepper Park, Frisco, TX.