SOME GREAT ROMANTIC COMEDIES FOR VALENTINE’S DAY

SOME GREAT ROMANTIC COMEDIES FOR VALENTINE’S DAY

Anyone who knows me knows I adore romantic comedies, and Valentine’s Day seems like a good time to share some of them with you. (NOTE: I’m not talking about romances. They’re a totally different genre. So fear not, you won’t find any BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY or Nicholas Sparks stuff here.)

I’m talking about romantic comedy, which has wit, charm, banter, and, most important, banter. It treats men and women as equal partners rather than seducer and seducee or conqueror and conquest, and it frequently turns romantic tropes like flowers, rings, and weddings, on their heads. Romantic comedies are about forging relationships whose hallmarks are honesty, humor, selflessness, teamwork, and bringing out the best in each other.

And it’s a genre that’s wildly underappreciated. People sneer at them as “rom-coms” and dismiss the whole genre as contrived and unrealistic. And yet Shakespeare wrote lots of them, and so did Jane Austen, and the classic screwball comedies remain popular to this day, while the dramas of the time are virtually unwatchable. And great ones continue to be made today. You just have to look for them. (NOTE: There are also a lot of terrible ones out there, which is why romantic comedies have such a bad name. I know. I have watched all of them. Many Bothans died to bring you this list.)

So here’s the list, divided into convenient categories for you, including my top ten favorites of all time. But watch them all–and have a happy Valentine’s Day!

THE CLASSIC ERA

Screwball comedies emerged with the coming of the talkies
and were brilliant all through the thirties and forties:

HIS GIRL FRIDAY
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT
BRINGING UP BABY
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY
THE MORE THE MERRIER
THE LADY EVE
BALLS OF FIRE
MY MAN GODFREY
MY FAVORITE WIFE
THE AWFUL TRUTH
NINOTCHKA
THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR
THE THIN MAN
THE DARK AGES

In the fifties, Doris Day and Rock Hudson got hold of the
romantic comedy, and it took the genre a long time to re-
cover. In the meantime, good ones were in short supply,
though there were still a few around:

HOW TO STEAL A MILLION
FATHER GOOSE
WALK, DON’T RUN
THE AFRICAN QUEEN
THE APARTMENT
THAT TOUCH OF MINK
CACTUS FLOWER
WHAT’S UP, DOC?
HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE
_____________________________________________________________________

THE MODERN ERA

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY
YOU’VE GOT MAIL
SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE
FRENCH KISS
PRETTY WOMAN
SABRINA
ROMANCING THE STONE
FEVER PITCH
ROXANNE
WORKING GIRL
RUNAWAY BRIDE
LEAP YEAR
SWEET HOME ALABAMA
L.A. STORY
SIX DAYS, SEVEN NIGHTS
MISS CONGENIALITY
THE WEDDING SINGER
FOR LOVE OR MONEY
NEW IN TOWN
GHOST TOWN
OVERBOARD

__________________________________________________________________

THE BRITS

For some reason, probably their understated approach
to emotion and their sense of irony, the British are way
better at this stuff than we are, and rate a whole
separate category.

WIMBLEDON
THE DECOY BRIDE
NOTTING HILL
BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY
JACK AND SARAH

AND THE AUSSIES

The Australians aren’t bad at it either:

STRICTLY BALLROOM
CROCODILE DUNDEE
PAPERBACK HERO

_____________________________________________________________________

THE REAL CLASSICS

Romantic comedies didn’t start with the movies, though
they’re a perfect medium for them, and Shakespeare et al,
have taken full advantage of that:

Jane Austen’s EMMA
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
PERSUASION
NORTHANGER ABBEY
CLUELESS (modern version of EMMA)
BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY (modern version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE)
BRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
AS YOU LIKE IT
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (modern version of
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW)

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

Willam Goldman’s THE PRINCESS BRIDE

Dorothy L. Sayer’s STRONG POISON
HAVE HIS CARCASE
GAUDY NIGHT

E.M. Forster’s A ROOM WITH A VIEW

SOME THAT ARE CHRISTMAS MOVIES TOO

I’ve listed these before, as Christmas movies, but they’re
great romantic comedies, too:

THE SURE THING
LOVE, ACTUALLY
CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT
BACHELOR MOTHER
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER
WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING
_____________________________________________________________________

SOME YOU MAY NEVER HAVE HEARD OF

THE BIG SICK
STATE AND MAIN
THE REWRITE
LAST CHANCE HARVEY
NEW IN TOWN
ALL OF ME
FEVER PITCH
RETURN TO ME
HE SAID, SHE SAID
LOVE HAPPENS
FOOLS RUSH IN
PICTURE PERFECT
MORNING GLORY
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

AND MY TOP 10, WELL, ACTUALLY 12, NO, WAIT, 13,FAVORITES OF ALL TIME
In no particular order:

1. STRICTLY BALLROOM
2. HOW TO STEAL A MILLION
3. WALK, DON’T RUN
4. SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE
5. GHOST TOWN
6. THE LADY EVE
7. NOTTING HILL
8. FATHER GOOSE
9. WIMBLEDON
10. OVERBOARD
11. HIS GIRL FRIDAY
12. JACK AND SARAH

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CHRISTMAS, DICKENS, AND THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

CHRISTMAS, DICKENS, AND THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

Over Thanksgiving, we went to see the movie, THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS. It’s a charming movie, in the vein of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, though not as good, but then again, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was written by Tom Stoppard. And not as good doesn’t mean the movie’s not very good. It is.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS is the story of how Dickens came to write A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and in the course of it you see large chunks of CAROL, the circumstances under which he wrote it, and the childhood events which informed his Christmas classic, particularly the time he spent working in a blacking factory, desperately trying to earn enough money to get his parents and little sister out of debtor’s prison while living BY HIMSELF in a frigid garret room.

That trauma infuses his work, from DAVID COPPERFIELD to NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and OLIVER TWIST–and, of course, A CHRISTMAS CAROL. And the movie does a good job of showing you how it does.

What it DOESN’T show you is how Dickens made the jump from freezing urchin to successful author, complete with nice family, big house, and international fame–an almost magical transformation. It doesn’t answer the question: how did he manage to survive the nightmare and avoid the fate of all those other boys and sink into the mire of poverty, illness, and crime like they did? What saved him from that?

There’s nothing to show you how he got from one to the other or how he managed to not only survive his ordeal, but also to come out of it a kind and compassionate person.

There’s obviously a scene missing, and I’m not talking about one that shows how a relative died two years later and left the family an inheritance which got them out of jail and Charles out of the blacking factory and back in school. I’m talking about the one that shows what sustained him during that dark time, what kept him from succumbing to bitterness and despair and made it possible for him to spring back once the nightmare was over.

There’s a brief hint in the movie (when he gives the little Irish serving-maid his copy of ARABIAN NIGHTS to read), and it’s echoed by the CHRISTMAS CAROL’s characters who haunt his study, but it’s not explicit enough for people who aren’t steeped in Dickens knowledge.

So what’s the scene? It occurs in that barren garret room Dickens lived in, and you can find it in DAVID COPPERFIELD, Dickens’ most purely autobiographical novel:

“My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time . . .”

The scene occurs again in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him his younger self, left all alone at school during the Christmas holidays:

“…a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be…“Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading by the bridle an ass laden with wood.
“‘Why, it’s Ali Baba!’ Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. ‘It’s dear old honest Ali Baba! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. Poor boy! …‘There’s the Parrot!’ cried Scrooge. ‘Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe!…’”

It was books–and imagination–that rescued Charles, that kept him company in his loneliness, protected him from hopelessness, and kept him from giving up, that made it possible to believe in a way out and the possibility of a better life even when none seemed possible, and it’s too bad that’s not in the movie.

But it’s a really good movie about a great man, and I highly recommend it.

* * *

I also recommend watching A CHRISTMAS CAROL in one of its myriad forms (at last count there are over fifty). My favorites include:

–Patrick Stewart’s
–Alistair Sims’
–Mr. Magoo’s (with songs by Broadway composers Jules Styne and Bob Merrill)
–Dr. Who’s
–THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (which is recommended by London’s Charles Dickens Museum as being the most faithful to the book–except for the fact that there are two Marleys and a rat)
–SCROOGED (especially Carol Kane’s demented Spirit of Christmas Past)
–THE TWILIGHT ZONE’S “Carol for Another Christmas”
–BAH, HUMDUCK! A LOONEY TUNES CHRISTMAS CAROL with Daffy Duck as Scrooge)

Or you can read the original CHRISTMAS CAROL. It’s full of delights and surprises, starting with the title, which is, in full, A CHRISTMAS CAROL IN PROSE, BEING A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS IN FIVE STAVES. There are several scenes which never make it into the TV versions, such as the Cratchit’s older daughter, sent out to work and already ruining her eyes with close work in poor light, and the part where the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to all the far-flung corners of the globe to show him Christmas in lonely country cottages and at sea.

Plus, the writing’s fabulous:

“Scrooge! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

And

“The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already–it had not been light all day–and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighboring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.”

And it’s got the best first line ever!

If you already know A CHRISTMAS CAROL by heart, you might want to read my short story, “Adaptation” (in the collections MIRACLE and A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS ), which has the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come fallen on hard times and forced to get jobs in an American department store.

Or you can read one of Dickens’ OTHER Christmas stories. A CHRISTMAS CAROL has so thoroughly taken over that people are always astonished to discover it was only one of several Christmas stories he wrote. I’d recommend “The Chimes,” which bears an uncanny resemblance to another Christmas classic, “The Cricket on the Hearth,” and “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain,” which stars a grim chemistry professor and a wish with unintended consequences.

* * *

After we saw the movie, I wanted to know more about the particulars of Dickens’ life, so I went online to see what I could find out–and was promptly horrified. Not by Dickens’ history, which was harrowing enough, but by the literary critics who wrote about it. Many of them were dismissive of his sufferings as a child, and some were downright contemptuous.

“He may only have worked there a year,” one sniffed, and others suggested that he exaggerated the harshness of the conditions. Still others criticized “the self-pity that permeates many of his works,” and their ridiculous “fairy-tale plots” and happy endings, calling them mere wishful thinking.

One even accused him of harboring a childish belief that if he had died or turned bad, “it would have served the grownups right.”

Who ARE these people? In the first place, he didn’t exaggerate anything–he really did work ten-hour days in a place full of toxic fumes, rats, and a cruel dog-eat-dog attitude among the boys who worked there.

In the second place, a year (if it was a year–some historians say it was closer to two, or two and a half) is an eternity to a child , even if it’s a year with a definite cut-off date, which this wasn’t. People who were put in debtors’ prison hardly ever got out, and he had no reason to think his awful servitude wouldn’t go on forever and ever.

I’d like to see how well those same critics would have done if their parents had been hauled off to prison when they were twelve and they’d been sent to work in a filthy, disease-ridden place to work exhaustingly long days and then go home to a cold back attic where they lived by themselves, and see how THEY did, and how much “self-pity” they had. (Note: Self-pity is when you feel sorry for yourself even though nothing’s happened to make you feel that way, not when you really are a victim.)

When Dickens said he might easily have died or turned into a criminal for all the care that was taken him, he was telling the simple truth. It was a miracle it didn’t happen to him.

Trust me, Dickens’ experience was every bit as nightmarish as he depicted it–and it was very nearly worse. After his newly released father pulled him out of the factory and sent him off to school, his mother argued strenuously that he be sent back to the factory. He never forgave her.

As for the ridiculous “fairy-tale” endings, if they really happen to you, then you get to write about them. That’s the rule. And Dickens’ life was full of surprising reversals and unexpected deliverances. Including the writing of A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

As I said before, who ARE these people?

Well, of course we know who they are. They’re Scrooge and his cohorts, completely lacking in compassion, asking, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”, saying that the poor had better “die and decrease the surplus population.” People with no compassion or heart–and no imagination, who can’t imagine what it must have been like for poor Charles!

* * *

Sorry.

Christmas is no time for ranting, which is why Dickens, who’d originally intended to write a political pamphlet railing about children and poverty, decided instead to write A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which did far more good than any op-ed could have. Donations to the poor skyrocketed, a Boston factory owner gave his workers free turkeys and the day off, and charitable “Tiny Tim” campaigns sprang up everywhere.

So I’ll close with an admonition to “keep Christmas” like the converted Scrooge did and some words from the man who invented Christmas himself:

“Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us not less than our own experiences, for all good.”

and

“I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time…as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of the people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures found on other journeys.”

and

“Many merry Christmases, many happy New Years. Unbroken friendships, great accumulations of cheerful recollections and affections on earth, and heaven for us all.”

So, in the words of Dickens, “A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to the world!” from me. And, as Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us everyone!”

Connie Willis

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THANKS ON THANKSGIVING

THANKS ON THANKSGIVING

Last Thanksgiving my daughter said she was making a list of people she was thankful for.  It wasn’t the usual list of family and friends and mentors and sources of inspiration, though.  Instead, her list was of the people you might not remember to thank, the people who’d maybe done something small, but who’d nonetheless made a difference in your life.
I thought this was a great idea.  Herewith three of those people who changed my life in assorted ways:
1.  Nora Ephron and Meg Ryan.
Until the movie WHEN HARRY MET SALLY came out, I thought you had to choose from the stuff that was there on the menu.  I had no idea you could order food the way you wanted it.  But when Sally ordered her salad dressing on the side and  “the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top.  I want it on the side.  And I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it.  If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real.  If it’s out of a can, then nothing,”  it was a revelation.  Ever since then I’ve ordered food exactly the way I wanted it–my Starbucks bacon-gouda sandwich-double cooked, my milk with ice in it, my pizza with chopped garlic.  And it’s been great.  The food’s been delicious!
2.  A seventh-grade teacher.
One of my junior-high teachers–I can’t remember her name or even what she taught except that she wasn’t my English teacher, who made us read JULIUS CAESAR, which I despised, and who told an obnoxious story about her idea of the perfect student, who when asked, “Who’s there?” would answer, “It is I”–stopped me after class one day and said, “You’re a really good student, but your handwriting is terrible.”
That was an understatement.  I had skipped third grade, which is when cursive is (or was) taught, and had been flung without any preparation into fourth grade.  I had learned to write it from that large alphabet that ran along the top of the blackboard (capital letter followed by lower-case), obviously not the best way to learn anything, let alone letters that had to be connected with one another.
“Your bad handwriting’s going to handicap you going forward,” this teacher said, and told me if I was willing to bring my lunch to her room, she’d teach me cursive.  I don’t remember anything else about the lessons–whether she taught me the Palmer Method out of a book or made up her own–or how long the lessons lasted (weeks? months?).  All I know is that I now have clear, easily readable, and even, when I’m not in a hurry, beautiful handwriting, and I owe it all to her.  I’m still stunned by her kindness, reaching out to a student to help and giving up her lunchtimes to do so.

3.  My eighth-grade teacher, whose name I do remember.
Mrs. Werner was my home-room teacher, and every day after lunch she read aloud to us, one of which was Rumer Godden’s AN EPISODE OF SPARROWS.  This is NOT a children’s book, even though its heroine, Lovejoy, was ten years old.  She was also a thief.  She lived in post-war London, and when she decided she wanted to build a garden in the rubble of a bombed-out church, she not only shoplifted seeds and a trowel, but recruited other kids to steal for her.  She was also thoroughly unpleasant.  Not without reason.  She had a slutty mother with an assortment of nasty boyfriends and was often left with strangers for months at a time.  As I say, not a book for junior-high-schoolers.
I have no idea what anybody else in the class thought about the book, but I loved it AND Lovejoy.  It was my first introduction to Rumer Godden, who I fell in love with, especially her novel about grief, IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE.  It was also my first introduction  to how you can take a classic and update it (AN EPISODE OF SPARROWS is actually Frances Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN retold.)
And it was my first introduction to the Blitz, planting a seed which blossomed when I went to St. Paul’s years later and fell in love with the fire watch and the history of London during the war–which had a HUGE impact on my life.
Thank you for reading EPISODE OF SPARROWS to me!  And thank you, Norah and Meg, for making my eating life so much more pleasant.  And THANK YOU, Seventh-Grade Teacher for giving up your lunchtimes to make my handwriting legible.  I’m sorry I don’t remember your name.  And I’m sorry I didn’t thank you before.
Thanks to everyone who’s helped me along the way–I couldn’t have done it without you!  And, to everybody reading this, have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Connie Willis

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BLETCHLEY PARK AND ITS UNSUNG HEROES

Website Update 10/12/17 — BLETCHLEY PARK AND ITS UNSUNG HEROES
I just saw an article about a reunion that Bletchley Park held on the seventy-eighth anniversary of Britain’s declaring war on Germany (after Hitler invaded Poland). More than a hundred veterans gathered at their old stomping grounds to commemorate the occasion and their contribution to the war effort.
(http://www.miltonkeynes.co.uk/news/…)

The one hundred men and women had all worked at Bletchley Park as cryptanalysts, translators, mathematicians, file clerks, typists, Typex machine operators, Wrens, traffic analysts, wireless operators, and dispatch riders, indexing, cross-referencing, translating Morse code into letters, sending, receiving, and decoding messages.

The reunion event, which included a tour of the museum’s displays, media interviews, and photograph-taking, was a far cry from the one at the end of the war, when they burned documents and were re-sworn to secrecy about what they’d done at Bletchley Park and then went home to their families, unable to tell anyone about the critical part they’d played in the war. All they could say was that they’d had “a clerical job” or “worked in the War Office.”

What they’d really done was to win the war. Working in absolute secrecy, they’d intercepted, decoded, and translated Hitler’s (and the Italians’ and the Japanese’s) impossible-to-break Enigma codes and then used that information in dozens of decisive battles. They were responsible for the winning of the Battle of the North Atlantic and the success of D-Day, as well as many other battles, and if it weren’t for them, Rommel would have reached Cairo and the Allies would have lost the North Africa campaign.

But they couldn’t tell anybody, including families and spouses, that for over twenty-five years after the war, even though for some it meant being accused of shirking their military duties. They kept the secret nonetheless, during and after the war–so completely that husbands and wives were unaware the other worked at Bletchley Park, and so were roommates. Mary Every and Betty Webb both worked in Block F, Mary translating intercepted messages between enemy aircraft and Betty paraphrasing those same messages so that if they fell into enemy hands, the Nazis wouldn’t’ be able to figure out their Enigma codes had been broken, but they were unaware they were working within a few yards of each other.

Some of them carried their secret to the grave, and one woman nearly did–she initially refused to have emergency surgery because she was afraid she might blurt out something under the anesthetic.

In 1970, F. W. Winterbotham’s book about the work Bletchley Park did, THE ULTRA SECRET, was finally published, and people were finally able to talk about their experiences. In 1995, while doing research at the Imperial War Museum for my two-volume novel, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR, which is partly set at Bletchley Park, I had the unique opportunity of interviewing a group of women who’d worked in World War II as ambulance drivers, fire watchers, and ARP wardens. One woman in the group said very little, and I thought she was probably just shy, but when I asked her what she’d done in the war, she smiled slyly and said, “Well…until a few years ago, I couldn’t tell you.” She had worked at Bletchley Park.

In 2009 the British government announced that Bletchley Park personnel would be recognized by a commemorative badge (which says, in typical understated fashion, “We also served”), and in 2012 Bletchley Park began holding reunions for the staff. At those reunions, Mary Every and Betty Webb found out they’d both worked in the same building and finally got to talk about their experiences in Block F, and many others made similar discoveries. For veterans like them, coming back to Bletchley Park has had a special meaning. As Doris Tuffin, aged 94, a former message transmitter, said, “It’s such a relief to come here because you had to keep the secret so long.”

This year’s event, which included a tour of the mansion, museum, and the new Codebreakers Wall, on which their names are listed, doubtless brought back memories of their time there. Bletchley Park still looks much the same as it did during the war.

I visited Bletchley Park last year–with considerable trepidation. I was terrified I’d find out I’d gotten some detail of my portrayal of it in BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR wrong. But it looked exactly like it had in photographs taken during the war. Originally a gingerbread-style Victorian estate with extensive grounds just outside the town of Bletchley, the house was transformed into offices, guards were posted at the brick-and-wrought-iron gates, and a score of wooden huts were erected on the grounds to serve the ever-expanding workforce.

The Victorian house looked exactly the same, and so did the pond, which the scientists and Wrens skated on in the winter and swans swam on in the summer, and the beautiful lawn, where people played tennis and sat listening to concerts. The gate through which thousands of workers poured every shift change was still there, and so was the gravel drive.

Some things have changed. The main hall of the mansion now holds a costume display from the movie THE IMITATION GAME, and Hut Four has been turned into a cafeteria for tourists (with much better food than in Bletchley Park’s wartime days of rationing). Block F is gone, demolished in 1987. There’s a visitors’ center and a museum, where you can see the bombes and Enigma machines and put a message into code yourself, and in the huts, you can see life-size holograms of cryptanalysts, Typex typists, and clerks working. But from the outside, when I was there, it looked just like it did in THE IMITATION GAME and ENIGMA, and, I hope, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR.

What it didn’t look like, then or now, was a military intelligence operation. It looked more like a college campus, with its assortment of bookish, pipe-smoking professors and sloppily dressed nerds and pretty girls young enough to be coeds. And a whole array of eccentrics, from Turing, who wore a gas mask while riding his bicycle, to Dilly Knox, who would absentmindedly stick pieces of sandwich instead of tobacco into his pipe, and Alan Ross, who wore a blue knitted snood over his beard, and from physicists and statisticians to Egyptologists, chess players, classics scholars, Morse code experts, and crossword-puzzle whizzes.

They didn’t look much like a crack team of anything. When Winston Churchill saw them, he told Commander Denniston, “I told you to leave no stone unturned, but I had no idea you had taken me literally.” And it’s no wonder there was a local rumor that it was an insane asylum.

To add to it, the place didn’t look anything like a military facility, let alone the site of the most closely held secret of the war. I’ve always felt that one of the reasons Hitler never figured out the Allies had cracked the Enigma code was that if he’d had a place devoted to deciphering messages, it would have had high stone walls topped with barbed-wire, searchlights, dogs, and sentries armed with machine guns, not tennis and concerts. And it would have been staffed with military officers in impeccable uniforms, not pretty young debutantes wearing lipstick and professors in tweeds.

And it would NEVER have occurred to him that those professors and debutantes would have kept the secret entrusted to them–and not just for the duration of the war, but for years and years afterward–not because they’d been bullied and threatened and terrorized into it, but because they loved their country and the values it stood for.

Bletchley Park is an amazing place, and I highly recommend visiting it. The exhibits are fascinating. But the true wonder of it is the people who worked there, from Turing, who designed the bombe that cracked Enigma and was the father of the modern computer, to Mavis Lever, who cracked the Italian naval Enigma code by realizing that the girlfriends of the Nazi coders could provide a clue to its decoding. From Tommy Flowers, who designed the Colossus computer and broke the Lorenz-encrypted messages between Hitler and his generals, to the thousands of WAAFs and Wrens and debs (many of them only eighteen) who intercepted messages, transcribed them, translated decoded messages into English, and typed, filed, cross-indexed, and saved the world.

I’m delighted they’re finally being honored and given their chance to tell their stories and reminisce about old times.

Shortly after I read the article about this year’s reunion, somebody posted the picture of the staff at the reunion with the caption, “We’ve called you here together today because the Nazis are back.”

It was funny–and yet not really. Especially after Charlottesville and the article I’d just read in the New York Times about the alt-right which quoted alt-right leader Jason Jorjani as bragging, “We will have a Europe, in 2050, where the bank notes have Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great.” And when I read the comments sections of articles about the reunion, the number of pro-Nazi screeds was sickening.

“I thought we’d done away with the Nazis, finished, kaput,” Betty Webb said in an interview in the Independent. But if they come back, she’s ready for it. “I helped defeat the Nazis in 1941, and I’m ready to fight fascism in 2017.”

With her–and the rest of Bletchley Park’s heroes–behind us, I think we’ll be okay. Though they still don’t think of what they did as heroic. Arthur Maddocks, a mathematician who came up with cribs to break the coded messages, said, “It’s rather an exaggeration to be called heroes–the real heroes were the poor buggers doing the fighting.”

To which I say stuff and nonsense. They were–and are–the epitome of heroes!

Connie Willis
_____________________________________________________________

NOTE: If you’re interested in learning more about Bletchley Park and the work they did in World War II, I recommend:

THE ULTRA SECRET by F.W. Winterbotham
ALAN TURING: THE ENIGMA by Andrew Hodges
STATION X: THE CODEBREAKERS OF BLETCHLEY PARK by Michael Smith
THE SECRET LIFE OF BLETCHLEY PARK by Sinclair McKay

CRYPTONOMICON by Neal Stephenson
BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis

THE IMITATION GAME
ENIGMA
CODEBREAKER
THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, Seasons 1 and 2.

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WEBSITE UPDATE–KIT REED

WEBSITE UPDATE–KIT REED

I was so sorry to hear last week that Kit Reed had died.  she was one of my favorite authors–and had been since I was thirteen and first read her brilliant short story, “The Wait.”  It was the most frightening story I had ever read.  It left a lasting impression on me, and from that moment on, I was on the lookout for Kit Reed stories. When I found them–stories like “The Judas Bomb,” “Mr. Da V”, and “On Behalf of the Product–they were just as good as “The Wait” and, in their own way, just as frightening.  The fear came not from slasher gore or creepy atmospherics, but from the feeling that she was telling you the truth about the world–and that truth was what you’d been afraid it was.

Kit didn’t use the usual trappings of horror.  She used harmless things like housewives and day care centers and visiting moms, small towns and celebrities and magazine ads to terrify you.  And make you think, really THINK about things you thought you understood.

Like in her novella, “Songs of War,” about an actual war between the sexes, in which the women of the town take to a military encampment up on the hill and prepare to do battle.  It was written at a time when there were lots of women’s rights stories being done, and “Songs of War” has been called a feminist story.  But that doesn’t really cover it.  She was also writing about mixed allegiances (one of the women keeps sneaking back into town to fix dinner for her husband) and misplaced loyalties and  how volunteers (no matter in what conflict for what cause) always think the war’s going to be noble and exciting and easy–till it turns into something else altogether.

Kind of like Kit’s stories.  When you’re reading “The Food Farm” or “Pilots of the Purple Twilight” or “Automatic Tiger,” you think at first it’s about the cult of celebrity or the plight of military wives or the dangers of wish fulfillment.  But Kit always has bigger fish to fry, and, as you read, you realize the story’s also about culpability or grief or losing your soul.  Or something even deeper than that.

Short stories aren’t the only thing Kit did.  She also wrote sardonic, provocative novels like FORT PRIVILEGE and MOTHER’S NOT DEAD, SHE’S ONLY SLEEPING and suspense novels like TWICE BURNED and GONE under the name of Kit Craig, and she was a journalist, winning the New England Newspaperwoman of the Year Award twice as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she taught writing workshops at Wesleyan University.

But her true genius lay in her short stories, which ranged from funny to horrifying to infinitely sad.  My absolute favorite (except for “The Wait” which is in a class by itself) is “Great Escape Tours, Inc.”  It’s about a group of senior citizens who go on a field trip to the past where they’re promised they’ll be young again.  And they are.  But this is not COCOON, and the tour promoters neglected to say how young they would be or what would happen if they missed the bus back.  Only Kit Reed could have written that story–or thought of it.

Most people never get to meet their heroes.  I was lucky.  In 1998, I was asked to write a foreword for a collection of Kit’s stories called WEIRD WOMEN, WIRED WOMEN.  It was one of the great honors of my life.  And a couple of years later, Sheila Williams, my editor at ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, called to tell me Kit wanted to have lunch with me when I was in New York.  “Oh, frabjous day, callou callay!” as Lewis Carroll would say.

“You have to promise me you won’t act like a crazed fan,” Sheila said.  “She thinks of you as a colleague, not a fan.”  Which was ridiculous–she was my hero!–and I wasn’t sure I could keep from gushing all over her, but I promised to keep the fawning to a minimum.
Kit took us to lunch at her elegant club, and I was concentrating so hard on behaving that I don’t remember anything about it except the heavenly macaroons we had for dessert (long before the whole French macaron craze swept New York.)  Nor do I remember anything we talked about except for her saying they were about to lose the macaroons because the chef who made them was leaving, and she didn’t know what she was going to do without them.

But I remember the conversation was delightful and that Kit was exactly as witty and smart and kind as I had thought she would be.

Later on I got to see her at several conventions and discovered she was as big a fan of the BBC series PRIMEVAL  as I was.  We had a number of great conversations about how well-written and cleverly plotted it was, and we also talked about politics and children and everything else.

I wish we’d had the chance to have more conversations and that I’d gotten to know her better.  And been able to communicate (without sounding like a gibbering fan girl) how wonderful I thought she was and how much her stories had inspired me.  To say I’ll miss her and her unique voice as a writer is the understatement of the century.  I don’t know what we’re all going to do without her.

Connie Willis

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Books I Love – The Connecticut Contingent Part II

BOOKS I LOVE: THE CONNECTICUT CONTINGENT, PART II

5.  THE EIGHTH DAY by Thornton Wilder
In my last post, I talked about four of my favorite Connecticut-connected authors:  Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ursula Curtiss, and Sigrid Undset.  But my absolute favorite is Thornton Wilder, and he’s not just one of my favorite Connecticut writers, but one of my favorite writers of all time, so it’s sad when people say, “Thornton Wilder who?” to me when I mention his name.
By rights, he should be just as famous as his contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  (Notice that nobody says “Who?” when you mention them.)  Thornton Wilder’s the only writer ever to have won the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and drama, and one of the few to win a Pulitzer for drama more than once.  He also won the National Book Award, Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And he wrote a play, OUR TOWN, that’s been done by practically every high school in the country.  He also wrote brilliant novels, and THE MATCHMAKER (which HELLO, DOLLY is based on), and THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, an impossible-to-describe play about Adam and Eve–and Moses, Plato, Muses, fortunetellers, famines, singing dinosaurs, sniping maids, Ice Ages, wars, a casting crisis in the middle of Act Two, the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and Armageddon.
And unlike his contemporaries, everything Wilder wrote is completely different from everything else.  Which is probably why his name isn’t as well known as the more easily described Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Wilder is serious and off-the-wall funny and deeply philosophical  He’s also the most quotable author I know.  His work is full of great lines, and at our house we quote him constantly, from Barnaby and Cornelius’s code word for adventure:
“Pudding, Cornelius?” “Pudding, Barnaby.”
to Horace Vandergelder’s:
“‘Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion.'”
and Emily Webb’s:
“‘Goodbye, Grover’s Corners.  Goodbye to clocks ticking and Mama’s sunflowers.  And food and coffee.  And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up.  Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful to realize you!'”
It’s impossible to read Thornton Wilder without a pencil to underline memorable lines with, and sometimes you end up underlining the entire book.  Everything he wrote is chock-full of memorable comments–and dialogue–like:
“Hope, like faith, is nothing if it is not courageous, it is nothing if it is not ridiculous.”
* * *
“Money, pardon the expression, is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”
* * *
“We’ve always had two children…just not the same two.”
* * *
“…every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor- edge of danger and must be fought for.” * * *
“Any man who goes to a big city deserves what happens to him.”
* * *
“Dr. Gillies was lying for all he was worth.  He had no doubt that the coming century would be too dreadful to contemplate–that is to say, like all other centuries.”
* * *
“Have you milked the mammoth?”* * *
“There are the stars–doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky.  Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet…seem to think there are no living beings out there.  Just chalk…or      fire.  Only this one is straining, straining away all the time to make something of                itself.  Strain’s  so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.”
Even Wilder’s stage directions–“No curtain, no scenery”–and the warnings his characters give the audience–“I advise YOU not to think about the play, either”–are worth writing down and keeping.
Wilder also wrote two of the best endings in literature.  The first, from THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, about a random group of people killed in the collapse of a rope bridge in the Andes in 1714, is so hopeful and true I’ve read it aloud at several funerals, and the British prime minister Tony Blair read it at a memorial service honoring the victims of 9-11.
Wilder’s talking about the five people who died in the bridge’s collapse, and he says, “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
The ending of THE EIGHTH DAY, which begins, “There is much talk of a design in the arras…” is even better.  Which is doubly remarkable because THE EIGHTH DAY also has one of the best first lines ever: “In the early summer of 1902, John Barrington Ashley of Coaltown, a small mining center in southern Illinois, was tried for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, also of Coaltown.”
The paragraph goes on to tell us,
“He was found guilty and sentenced to death.  Five days later, at one in the morning of Tuesday, July 22, he escaped from his guards on the train that was carrying him to his execution.”
There’s enough plot in that paragraph for an entire novel, but Wilder’s just getting started, in a story that’s part murder mystery and part quest and part family saga, and yet not really any of those.  The novel starts in the middle and goes not just  backward and forward, but off in all directions, reading sometimes like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and sometimes like AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY and sometimes like a post-modern work of metafiction–and nothing like any of them.  As Wilder himself said, “It’s not really like usual novels.”
I’ll say!  And because it wasn’t, the critics had no idea what to make of it (or its ending).  Some of them thought it was too ambiguous and depressing.  Others called it old-fashioned and “too optimistic.”
They were right.  THE EIGHTH DAY is all those things, cutting-edge and old-fashioned, ambiguous and crystal-clear, cynical and optimistic.  And also wrenching and compulsively readable, full of indelible characters like Porky and Sophia and Dr. Gillies–and of adventure and tragedy–and plot twists that leave you gasping.  It’s full of digressions and impromptu sermons and stray comments and asides.  And suffragettes, journalists, nuns, singers, shooting matches, South American mines, Aphrodite, sea voyages, saloons, lemonade stands, boardinghouses, chinchilla pelts, newspapers, and homemade fudge.
It’s about no less a theme than history and the small, obscure part we play in it.  Or about fate.  Or that design in the arras, which may or may not be decipherable, which may or may not even be there.
All that makes THE EIGHTH DAY sound ponderous and heavy, but it’s not.  It’s fascinating, fun to read, and light as a feather, written with what John Updike called “globe-spanning nimbleness and cosmic lift-off.”  And full of marvelous insights, marvelous lines.  Which is why it’s one of my favorite books.
NOTE:  I said Thornton Wilder wasn’t as famous as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, but actually that’s not true.  On any given evening of the year, OUR TOWN is on stage somewhere, to say nothing of matinees.  Pixar introduced HELLO, DOLLY to a whole new generation in WALL-E. A new production of THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH was produced off-Broadway this year, and Bette Midler just won a Tony playing Dolly Levi opposite David Hyde Pierce (you know, Niles from FRAZIER) in a Broadway revival of HELLO, DOLLY,  so I can hardly complain.  I just wish people knew Thornton Wilder wrote them all.  And that they were reading THE EIGHTH DAY.

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A Lot Like Christmas – Oct 10th Release

News about the Christmas story collection by Connie Willis, being published Oct 10 by Del Rey Books.  Updated with a new podcast interview and upcoming appearances where you can see Connie or order a signed copy.

This new, expanded edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories features twelve brilliantly reimagined holiday tales, five of which are collected here for the first time.

Christmas comes but once a year, yet the stories in this dazzling collection are fun to read anytime. They put a speculative spin on the holiday, giving fans of acclaimed author Connie Willis a welcome gift and a dozen reasons to be of good cheer.

Brimming with Willis’s trademark insights and imagination, these heartwarming tales are full of humor, absurdity, human foibles, tragedy, joy, and hope. They both embrace and send up many of the best Christmas traditions, including the holiday newsletter, Secret Santas, office parties, holiday pageants, and Christmas dinners (both elaborate and spare). There are Rockettes, the best and worst Christmas movies, modern-day Magi, Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come—and the triumph of generosity over greed. Like all the timeless classics we return to year after year, these stories affirm our faith in love, magic, and the wonder of the season.

You can read the introduction at the Penguin Random House page for the book

Table of Contents

Introduction

Miracle

All About Emily

Inn

All Seated on the Ground

In Coppelius’s Toyshop

Adaption

deck.halls@boughs/holly

Cat’s Paw

Now Showing

Newsletter

Epiphany

Just Like the Ones We Used to Know

A Final Word on the Subject

An Advent Calendar of Great Christmas Movies to Watch

And a Score of Christmas Stories and Poems to Read After You’ve Gone to Bed

Plus a Half Dozen TV Shows You May Not Have Seen That Haven’t Succumbed to “Very Special Christmas Episode” Syndrome

======================================

Connie Willis Interviewed on The Week in Geek Podcast.

 

=========================================

MY SCHEDULE FOR FALL 2017

October 27-29–
MILEHICON
Denver, Colorado
October 27 to 29
(I’ll be doing an hour-long presentation on Irony and several panels. I’ll be there all three days of the convention.)

Wednesday, November 8
READING FROM A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS
OLD TOWN LIBRARY
201 Peterson Street
Fort Collins, Colorado
6:00 p.m.

Saturday, November 11
TALK AND READING FROM A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS
Tattered Cover
2526 E. Colfax Avenue
Denver, Colorado

Saturday, November 18
READING AND SIGNING FROM A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS
Barnes and Noble
4045 S. College Avenue
Fort Collins, Colorado

Saturday, November 18
TALK AND SIGNING
Broadway Book Mall
200 S. Broadway
Denver, Colorado

Tuesday, November 21
TALK AND SIGNING
Page One Books
5850 Eubank Blvd., Suite B-41
Albuquerque, New Mexico

 

 

 

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BOOKS I LOVE: THE CONNECTICUT CONTINGENT

WEBSITE UPDATE 8/13/2017
BOOKS I LOVE: THE CONNECTICUT CONTINGENT

We went to Connecticut this summer on a combined research and family trip. It’s our fiftieth wedding anniversary this year, so my husband and our daughter and I went back to Branford, Connecticut, where we lived when we were first married, to visit our old haunts. We did a lot of other stuff, too, and saw submarines, dinosaur tracks, panes of propped-up glass like the ones in Bob Shaw’s “The Light of Other Days,” waterfalls, Gillette Castle, and Gilmore Girl-esque village greens (about which more in later posts). And we visited assorted literary haunts, of which there are tons. Authors from Arthur Miller to Maurice Sendak, Wallace Stevens, Rex Stout, Suzanne Collins, and Ira Levin lived there. Here are my favorite Connecticut-connected books:

1. LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI by Mark Twain

People always associate Mark Twain with Hannibal, Missouri, and the Mississippi, but he actually wrote most of his novels, including LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI, while living in Hartford, Connecticut, in a gaudy red mansion that his biographer called “part steamboat, part medieval fortress, part cuckoo clock.”

The house was filled with cats–“A home without a cat–and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat–may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?” he wrote–and little girls, whom he also adored, and he told them stories, watched the plays they put on, was the elephant on their safaris, and let them play with the carved wooden cherubs that formed the posters of their bed, allowing them to put diapers and talcum powder on them.

And somehow find time to write LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI. It’s a wonderful, funny, rambling memoir that feels less like a book than like sitting on the porch of Mark Twain’s Hartford house, watching him smoke his cigars and listening to him talk. The book’s got wild tales, jokes, tragic stories, and reminiscences of his days as a steamboat pilot.

My favorite thing in the whole book is his description of how he “learned the river” and went from merely seeing it as beautiful to knowing what every sandbar and sunset and submerged log meant. “Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet,” he wrote, “I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!”

I’ve always felt that passage (and the whole book) was as much about being a writer as about being a riverboat pilot, and maybe that’s why it’s remained my favorite, though I also love ROUGHING IT, THE INNOCENTS ABROAD, and THE PERSONAL REFLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC.

And, of course, HUCK FINN. It’s one of those “too good to be true” coincidences that the two great classics of American literature about race and slavery, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, were written within shouting distance of each other, and together they changed the way Americans felt about race and slavery.

It’s hard to say which book had the greater impact on the subject, though HUCK FINN is clearly the better of the two and it’s quite possibly The Great American Novel.. It’s also fun to read and as relevant now as the day it was written, and I saw the line “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” quoted on a political website just the other day.

2. UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN isn’t nearly as fun to read, and in fact, hardly anybody has. But in spite of that, it’s one of those books everybody knows all about–or thinks they do. They’re familiar with Eliza’s flight across the frozen river with her baby, pursued by the slaveowner and his bloodhounds, and about Topsy and Little Eva. They’ve seen the play, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” in THE KING AND I (“Run from Simon, run, Eliza, run!”), and they know that when Abraham Lincoln met the author, he said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” The terms “Uncle Tom” and “Simon Legree” have entered into the lexicon, and everybody has an opinion about the book, usually that it’s badly written, overly sentimental anti-slavery propaganda, and full of demeaning stereotypes. But nobody’s actually read it.

Which is too bad, because like most really famous books, it’s much different from its common image. And so’s the author. Harriet Beecher Stowe wasn’t just any “little woman.” She was the daughter of a famous preacher and the sister of an even MORE famous one, and her whole family was right in the thick of the abolitionist movement. When Harriet found out that her black servant girl’s former owner was looking for her, she, her husband, and her brother hustled the girl to safety, “under cover of night and armed with guns.”

She interviewed numerous liberated slaves for the book and asked Frederick Douglass to put her in touch with others so she could “make a picture that shall be graphic and true to nature in its details,” and her book presented a number of things that were new to her readers: the barbarity of slave auctions and of families being torn apart as slaves were sold down the river, the forcing of slaves to whip each other, the ruthless hunting down of escaped slaves. She personalized slavery and made its horrors real, and the result was a book that had more influence on events than possibly any other novel ever written.

Just like her book isn’t what you’ve been led to believe, neither is she. She wasn’t a humorless fanatic; she was intelligent and charming and funny. She lived right across the street from Mark Twain, and she rose enormously in my regard when I found out she absolutely adored him.

Mark Twain once wrote, “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction,” and I feel the same about Mark Twain. Nobody can really call themselves a writer if they don’t love Mark Twain and appreciate his humor.

Harriet clearly did. She loved to tell the story of how she was leaving for an extended trip, and Mark Twain, when he found out, came running over to tell her goodbye. He had been at breakfast, so he came in just his shirt and trousers, with no coat, and when he went back home, his wife Olivia, ever the proper Victorian, was horrified. So he sent his butler over with his collar and cuffs on a silver tray with the note, “Here is the rest of me to say goodbye.”

The fact that Harriet thought that was hysterical and that she told the story to everyone she knew isn’t what you’d expect from the author of a book like UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. And the book isn’t what you’d expect either. I recommend reading it and HUCK FINN together. After you’ve read LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI.

NOTE: I suppose I should have picked A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT as my favorite Mark Twain book instead of LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI, it having Connecticut in the title, but I hate the ending of that book so much I can’t bring myself to recommend it. (If you want to read it, I suggest reading to the end of Chapter 39, which is all quite fun, with time travel and eclipses and lightning rods and a very annoyed Merlin, and then stop before Twain’s fury at the world makes everything go smash. Especially now, when Twain’s ending seems all too likely.)

3. THE BIRTHDAY GIFT by Ursula Curtiss

Next to Mary Stewart, Ursula Curtiss is my favorite romantic suspense writer. Her books are beautifully written and diabolically plotted, and her heroines are smart and resourceful and able to take care of themselves–or would be if they weren’t bound by a promise to a friend and if they didn’t have a small child to take care of. Or a high fever.

Ursula Curtiss was born and grew up in Westport, Connecticut, and about half of her novels are set there, among them WIDOW’S WEB, THE WASP, THE DEADLY CLIMATE, THE SECOND SICKLE, THE NOONDAY DEVIL, and THE BIRTHDAY GIFT.

Curtiss does a beautiful job of capturing New England’s small villages and coast, its idyllic summers and winter snowstorms and deadly (sometimes literally) fogs, and I read her when I’m homesick for New England. But a warning: if you pick up one of her books, make sure you’ve got some time to read it all the way through. There’s no putting it down.

It’s hard to pick a favorite–they’re all good–but I’d start with THE BIRTHDAY GIFT–about a young woman back from the Southwest to New England for a wedding who’s supposed to deliver a gift for a friend in Santa Fe–and then read THE SECOND SICKLE, which also involves a favor for a friend. In this case, the friend’s asked her to cover for her being gone for a weekend, and Victoria does, but now the weekend’s over, her friend’s still not back, and her family and fiancé are demanding to see her…

4. KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER by Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset didn’t live in Connecticut, she lived in Norway until World War II, then fled to the States, though still not to Connecticut, (she lived in Brooklyn Heights, New York), and returned to Norway as soon as the war was over. KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER isn’t set in Connecticut either–it’s set in Norway long before America was a gleam in anyone’s eye.

But I include it here because I first read it in Branford after checking it out (and having to renew it a couple of times) from the Blackstone Public Library, one of my favorite libraries of all time. It was an elegant marble-domed library completely unlike any library I’d ever encountered before, and it imbued all the books I checked out from there with a romance completely separate from the books themselves.

Which was a good thing because the book had a hideous cover with a long-braided Valkyrie-type maiden on it that would have completely daunted me if I’d found it any place else. Plus, it was massive, a fourteen-hundred page tome with tiny print instead of the easier-to-hold three-volume set I later found it in (THE BRIDAL WREATH, THE WIFE OF HUSBABY, and THE CROSS.) But the size and illustration seemed completely appropriate for the Blackstone wrought-iron shelves, and as I’ve learned through a lifetime of publishing, you should NEVER judge a book by its cover.

Because KRISTIN was wonderful–my favorite novel, in fact. It’s the story of the life of a young woman in medieval Norway, which sounds as bad as that Viking-maiden cover, but Kristin’s no ordinary daughter. She’s headstrong and passionate, and once she meets Erlend, the story turns into a can’t-put-it-down tale of forbidden meetings, lies, kidnappings, fights, accusations, imprisonments, estrangements, treason, deaths, and disasters.

All that makes it sound like a mere soap opera, but it’s so much more than that. Her characters are wonderfully drawn, Kristin’s life is riveting as she struggles with her faith and trying to find meaning in her life, and her world is more real than our own.

That’s because Undset was the daughter of an archaeologist who grew up steeped in medieval history and culture and then became an authority on the subject herself, visiting medieval churches and monasteries and studying old Norse manuscripts and chronicles. Her research is impeccable, and her skill at working it into the story is phenomenal. When I wrote DOOMSDAY BOOK, KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER was my Bible.

And in my mind, impossible to separate from the Blackstone Library. I got to go back and visit this summer and it’s (of course) changed a lot from the 1960s, but it still looked like something straight out of THE MUSIC MAN, and it still had the openwork iron spiral staircase up to the stacks, and the ancient open-cage elevator I remembered, and it still had a copy of KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER, though this one, thank God, had a better cover.

And 5. THE EIGHTH DAY by Thornton Wilder.

No, on second thought, that’s such a wonderful book and he’s such a wonderful author they deserve a post all to themselves. I’ll save them for a future post. After I tell you about my favorite letter of all time.

Connie Willis

Connie at The Blackstone Library in Brandford, CT

Inside the Blackstone Library

Connie with a copy of KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER by Sigrid Undset

 

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WEBSITE UPDATE: ECLIPSE REDUX

WEBSITE UPDATE: ECLIPSE REDUX

“When suddenly, and without warning, there was this total eclipse
of the sun…”
Little Shop of Horrors

Witnessing a total eclipse is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, and that’s definitely what I thought it would be when I set off for Lewistown, Montana with my husband, daughter, and our friend, science-fiction writer Ed Bryant in 1979.

It seems foolhardy now to have driven across the wilds of Wyoming and Montana, famous for their blizzards, in the dead of winter, but we were blessed with great weather all the way, and when we arrived in Lewistown, we found what Ed described as a “Woodstock for geeks,” hundreds of people with cameras and eye patches (to help your eyes adjust to the darkness) and telescopes, all talking about pinhole cameras and shielded lenses and telescope settings and Baily’s beads. And the weather.

ESPECIALLY the weather. Eclipse-viewing is fraught with the anxiety that comes with having no control over what happens. Just because you’ve driven 750 miles, there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually get to see the eclipse. All you can do is show up at the right place at the right time and hope the sky’s clear.

Which it wasn’t when we got up at five a.m. the morning of the eclipse. It was completely overcast, and we had to decide whether to head to Helena (which a number of people did) or stay where we were.

We stayed put, which turned out to be the right thing to do–Helena was completely fogged in. (Though we can’t claim any credit for making a smart decision. It could just as easily have turned out the other way around, and we’d have missed the eclipse altogether.)

But, whatever, as the partial eclipse started, the clouds began to thin, and half an hour before totality, they parted altogether, and we got to see everything: Baily’s beads, the diamond ring effect, and, best of all, the shadow bands. I’d read about the other things, but not them. They happen because the eclipse is already total west of you and the ground under it in shadow, so if you’re in an open area, you can see the darkness rush toward you across the fields like the wings of some huge bird. Except that there’s no accompanying rush of wind, no sound, and watching it swoop down on me across the snow, I could see why early humans were terrified by eclipses.

The eclipse itself was amazing. The blur of the corona flickered pinkly around the blacked-out sun, and an orange-red solar flare lashed out on one side as we stared transfixed at it. Afterward, people clapped, Ed shouted, “Encore, encore!” and a group of college kids stuck a tape of “Here Comes the Sun!” into their car’s tape player.
“One of us should write a story about this,” I said.
“Well, we can’t both write one,” Ed said. “They’d be too much alike. The first one to finish theirs gets dibs on the eclipse.”

 

I don’t believe for a minute that our stories would have been anything alike, but nevertheless, I wrote mine in the back seat of the car on the way home. It was called “And Come from Miles Around” and explained why the weather cleared up so miraculously. Now I’m sorry–I’d have loved to read Ed’s eclipse story. And I’d have loved to have him with us at this year’s eclipse, which was even total in Wheatland, his hometown.

We didn’t go there–or anywhere in Wyoming. The word was that the state’s population was going to triple on August twenty-first, and they were predicting bumper-to-bumper traffic north on I-25. (Sadly, that turned out to be true, and I read several accounts of people who were stuck in their cars and who ran out of gas–in short supply–or who couldn’t make it up to the area of totality in time, and missed the eclipse altogether.)

We also knew I-25 was pretty much the only route north for people from Denver, Colorado Springs, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and points south, so we decided to go to Nebraska instead. We picked Kearney because 1) August weather in Nebraska is usually sunny in the morning, with the thunderstorms not usually building up till late afternoon and 2) there were still hotels available there when we tried to get reservations in January.

We made our daughter get plane reservations at the same time, and last Sunday set out for the eclipse, taking back roads to avoid the mess on I-80. Once in Kearney, we connected with my husband’s cousin (who’d gone to Minden), a college friend of my daughter’s, and a science-fiction friend, who’d all convened for the big event, and congratulated ourselves on the fact that the weather forecast said sunny.

 

Not so fast, Mother Nature said. That afternoon the forecast abruptly changed from sunny to “intermittent clouds” and then “cloudy,” and when we got back to our hotel a group of seventy-two Minnesotans staying there were anxiously consulting their computers and talking about going back to Alliance (four hours away) to try to get west of the front. Should we?

We fretted (and/or dreamed) about it all night long, woke up to cirrus clouds that looked like they might get thicker, and sat through an anxious breakfast, looking out the window and trying to decide what to do. In the end, we decided to stay where we were, just like we had in Montana, except for going thirty miles north to the little town of Ravenna, which was on the center line, to gain an extra thirty seconds of totality.

On our way there, we passed people parking along the road with binoculars and picnic lunches, and Ravenna itself was full of signs directing you to eclipse T-shirts (already sold out) and viewing locations. We settled on a big green field in city park because 1) there was room for my husband to set up his telescopes, cameras, and pinhole-camera viewing devices, and 2) there was plenty of shade, though we weren’t going to need it if the clouds got thicker.

They didn’t. By ten a.m. the clouds had dwindled to wisps, and by 10:30, they’d disappeared altogether, and I’d stopped worrying. In the field with us were people from Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Texas, and even Ravenna, though they pointed out that they could sit in their own front yards and watch it. The atmosphere was less Woodstock than Picnic, with lots of kids running around, people sharing watermelon, pears, homemade cookies, and viewing tips.

 

Everyone was really well-informed, except for one guy who said, “Once it gets to 95% total, you can look at it with the naked eye.”
“No, you can’t!” everyone else, even the kids, shouted, and kept their glasses on as the moon kept taking bite after bite out of the sun.

It began to get noticeably cooler, the colors of the sky and field and surrounding trees seemed to grow sharper and clearer, a rooster crowed, and the kids called me over to look at the road through the park, where the trees were acting as a pinhole camera and making dozens and dozens of crescent-shaped shadows on the white gravel.

It got even cooler, the light began to dim (oddly, not in a smooth progression, but in abrupt steps, like what happens when you switch a lamp from bright to medium to dim), and the rooster got more hysterical. He sounded like he was shouting, “WHAT is going ON?” and continued to crow right through the eclipse to the very end of the partial.

The sky turned sapphire and then dark, dark blue, and, to the east and west, you could see the sunset, all pink and yellow. Venus came out, bats began circling, and everyone got out their cameras.

I actually missed the start of the total eclipse. I was scanning the ground to the west, looking for the shadow bands, someone shouted, “There it is!” there was a collective gasp, and I looked up.
And there it was.

It looked completely different than it had been in Montana, where there must have been some haze obscuring it. This time the outline was sharp and defined and the sun coal black, jet black, pitch black. It looked like a hole had literally been punched in the sky. Around it, the corona was ghostly white, feathery, and just as sharply defined against the navy-blue sky in which Venus glittered and the stars could be seen if you really looked. At one o’clock in the afternoon.

Words can’t really describe how beautiful it was. I’ve seen lots of pictures and videos of eclipses, but they’re pale and flat compared to the real thing, and, as I learned in Ravenna, each one is completely different. I can see why people become eclipse chasers.

Afterward, giddy with delight, we said goodbye to everybody, had lunch at the local Creamery, and went back to Kearney to try to track down T-shirts of the occasion, finally succeeding at the T-shirt screening place, which printed out a new batch just for us. While we waited, we chatted with a family who’d come all the way from Plymouth, England, to see the show. “There won’t be one in Europe during our lifetime, so we decided to come here,” they said, and they were really glad they had. Just like we were.

That night we toasted Ed Bryant, the sun, the moon, and eclipses in general, and started making plans to go to the next one. Which you should definitely go to. There’s one on April 8, 2024, which goes north from Texas through Missouri, Chicago, Indiana, and New York, and then another on August 12, 2045, which starts a little south of where this one was and goes all across the U.S., ending in Florida. And I won’t have to go farther than Colorado Springs to see it. If I’m still here. But even if I’m not, I’ve gotten to see two total eclipses in the United States in my lifetime. To say nothing of a bunch of partial eclipses and lunar eclipses, the aurora borealis, Comet Kohoutek , the Perseids, and Halley’s Comet. But I have to say this was the best!

Connie Willis

P.S. Just in case you were worrying about those people who went to Alliance, we at first heard they were clouded over, then that they’d seen it just fine. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Lancaster, Kansas, Nashville, and parts of Charleston, South Carolina. I’m so sorry you didn’t get to see it!

P.P.S. My story “And Come from Miles Around” can be found in my short story collection, FIRE WATCH.

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WEBSITE UPDATE–CHARLOTTESVILLE–8-17-17

WEBSITE UPDATE–CHARLOTTESVILLE–8-17-17

ON TRUMP’S PRESS CONFERENCE

“I decline to be impartial between the fire brigade and the fire.”

Winston Churchill

“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other that was very violent.”
Donald Trump

Since this is my author website, I try for the most part to post about writing rather than politics, but there are times when remaining silent is not an option.

This is one of those times. Last weekend neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan held a torchlight rally in an American city, a rally bearing a chilling resemblance to both lynch-mob Klan rallies and the Nuremburg rallies:
–A rally at which the participants displayed swastikas, Confederate flags, and Klan paraphernalia and shouted, “Jews will not replace us!” and the Nazi slogan, “Blood and soil!” and “Heil Trump!” while doing the stiff-armed Nazi salute.
–A rally at which people shouted, “F–k you, f—-ts!” and “Go the f–k back to Africa, n—-rs!” and stood, armed with semi-automatic rifles across the street from a synagogue while Nazi websites encouraged them to burn the building.
–A rally during which a woman and two police officers were killed and dozens of other people were injured, including a University of Virginia librarian who was hit in the neck, partially dissecting his carotid artery and causing him to have a stroke.

President Trump said this about that rally on Saturday:

“We condemn this egregious display of hatred, bigotry,
and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

And then, just in case we didn’t understand what he was saying, followed it up on Tuesday with:

“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this: What about the fact that they came charging, that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”

And:

There “was blame on both sides.”

And:

“You had a lot of people in that group (the Klan and neo- Nazi rally) that were there to innocently protest and very innocently protest…”

And:

“You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”

In other words, both sides–the neo-Nazis and KKK people and the people who came out to protest their hateful rally–were morally equivalent. You know, like the Nazis who bombed London and the RAF who tried to stop them. Or the Nazis who ran the death camps and the Allied forces who liberated them. Or the Civil Rights workers in the Sixties who went to Alabama to register voters and the good ole boys who murdered them. Exactly the same. Equally to blame.

Well, they’re not. And all the spin (the White House sent out talking points today encouraging news outlets to blame both sides) or the parsing of Trump’s words, or the claims that that isn’t what he meant or that he isn’t really a racist down deep, can’t make them the same. As House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “There are no good neo-Nazis.”

And letting Trump get away with this means we’re okay with a President who sides with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, one of whom said on TV today, “I’m sorta glad that them people got hit and I’m glad that girl died” (Justin Moore, Grand Dragon for the Loyal Knights of the KKK in Pelham) and another (neo-Nazi Christopher Cantwell) proclaimed, “We’re not nonviolent–we’ll f–king kill these people if we have to.”

It also means we’re okay with what’s likely to happen next as a result of Trump’s emboldening these people. (And just in case you don’t think Trump was doing that, look at what David Duke, the former head of the KKK, and Jason Kessler, the organizer of the rally, tweeted in response to Trump’s comments.)

Their representatives were on TV all day yesterday excitedly planning rallies (nine planned for this weekend), intimidation, and violence, convinced that Trump is on their side. Cantwell predicted “A lot more people are going to die before we’re done here,” and a twenty-three-year-old man was just arrested for attempting to bomb a bank building in Oklahoma City in tribute to Timothy McVeigh.

So what’s next? Another car driven into a crowd of peaceful protesters? Another Murrah Federal Building bombing? Another Kristallnacht?

I don’t know, but, listening all day to reporters say that Republicans are really, really upset with Trump but are afraid to call him out by name for fear of alienating “his base,” I can see exactly how Hitler happened. It was because people refused to speak up until it was too late. Or hoped it would all blow over. Or thought if they kept their heads down, like General Kelly, they’d be okay.

We won’t. We have to speak up.

Thankfully, a lot of people already have:

Charles Krauthammer, conservative columnist: “It was a moral disgrace.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: “It’s a disgrace that we still need to say that neo-Nazis and white supremacists are wrong–as if this is somehow not obvious.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumko: “On Tuesday President Trump stood in the lobby of his tower on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and again made excuses for bigotry and terrorism.”

The head of every branch of the military released statements that the military do not tolerate racism.

USA Today is calling for the Congress to censure President Trump.

Senator Patrick Leahy: “Mr. President, Heather Heyer was not murdered by both sides.”

Chuck Todd: “President Trump has likely lost moral authority to speak for the country and the Republican Party.”

J.K. Rowling: “One good thing about that abomination of a speech, it’s now impossible for any Trump supporter to pretend they don’t know what he is.”

And Tony Schwartz tweeted: “The end game is on. Trump goes down or we do. He will blow up the world to prove he matters. We must stand up in opposition every day.”

But it’s not enough. We need to speak up, too. Tweet. Write posts on Facebook. Call your Representatives and Senators. Call somebody else’s Representatives and Senators. Shout it to the rooftops! Tell them there’s no place in America for the KKK or Nazis! Or for a President who makes excuses for them, sides with them, and eggs them on!

Connie Willis

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