News about the Christmas story collection by Connie Willis, being published Oct 10 by Del Rey Books.

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

 

 

 

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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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REMAKE COMES TRUE–AGAIN!


Website update 8-9-17

There’s nothing SF writers hate worse than being proved right. That’s because our predictions that come true hardly ever turn out to be the positive ones.

I should say right off the bat that SF writers aren’t actually in the business of making predictions, which is a good thing. Our record in that department is lousy. True, Heinlein predicted the credit card and the microwave, but he also predicted we’d all be using rolling roads by now and taking our slide rules with us into space. Clarke predicted space elevators and space stations, but had us sinking in fifty feet of sand on the moon. William Gibson may have predicted multi-national computer hackers in NEUROMANCER, but he didn’t see either Facebook or middle-school cyberbullying coming.

That’s because prediction like the psychics claim to do isn’t what we’re doing. Our job is to extrapolate, an entirely different thing, to look at trends and possibilities and say, “If this goes on, here’s what’s liable to happen.” But even though we’re not trying to be John Edward or Jeane Dixon, some of what we write about does come to pass. In my short story, “Samaritan,” I had apes being taught sign language, returning to their zoos, and teaching the rest of the primates to sign, which actually happened a couple of years after the story came out.

That’s about the only good thing I’ve ever predicted that came true. Everything else–from over-the-top ridiculous Christmas décor (“deck.halls@boughs/holly”) to duct-tape-fashions (BELLWETHER), has been stuff I’d rather hadn’t have happened.

Especially all the stuff I proposed in REMAKE. When I wrote the book back in 1995, CGI was limited to a few space ships blowing up, but in the years since nearly everything in the book has come to pass, from CGI-constructed stars to resurrecting dead actors. And messing with the classics to suit current sensibilities.

In REMAKE, my hero’s job is the “clean up” classic movies, removing the smoking and drinking and other no longer socially acceptable things from CASABLANCA and NOW, VOYAGER and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. And now here’s Sony announcing they’re going to release “clean” versions of movies for viewing by “a wider family audience,” removing graphic violence, offensive language, sexual innuendo, gore, and “adult content,” (whatever the heck that is) from such movies as SPIDERMAN, GHOSTBUSTERS, MONEYBALL, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.

It’s hard to see exactly what that family audience is doing watching CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (you know, the one about the Somali pirates who kidnapped everyone on a ship and began murdering them) or Judd Apatow movies in the first place, which makes me wonder if this wasn’t done more to sell movies to the religious right, who’ve responded enthusiastically to the idea, praising the initiative, which would make watching “high quality films without crude scenes and language” possible and protect them from the “worldly influences” of most films.

But, that aside, there’s still the issue of whether people should be able to mess with someone else’s work of art. The people defending the initiative say movies aren’t works of art, but products, and as such, can be endlessly retooled to appeal to the public, like Coca-Cola and iPhones. As one blog put it, censoring out profanity in a “sometimes disposable diversion like STEP-BROTHERS” is hardly akin to modifying “a historical and timeless work of art.”

Actually, that’s exactly what it is. Every movie (and book and poem and painting) is some artist’s creation, and the only one with the right to change it (or give permission to change it) is the author.

This is not a new issue. Look at all the attempts to censor and/or bowdlerize everything from Mark Twain’s THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN to Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET. (The word “bowdlerize,” in fact, comes from Thomas Bowdler, who changed Ophelia’s death to an accidental drowning and changed Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot!” to “Out, crimson spot!”) And it’s not the first time for the movies, either. Even before Sony’s initiative, there were numerous filtering and expurgating programs out there, like VidAngel and Utah’s CleanFlicks and the ClearPlay DVD Player (all currently being sued by the movie industry).

The cleaning up is always done for the best of reasons. When five of Emily Dickinson’s poems were submitted for publication in the local paper, the editor helpfully “fixed” all the punctuation (eliminating those awful dashes!) and changed her “near-rhymes” into real rhymes, completely butchering them. In like manner, groups have cut WHEN HARRY MET SALLY’s famous orgasm scene out, left the main action scene out of THE MATRIX, and made the two women in the award-winning CAROL “just friends.”

Which is the other reason fiddling can’t be allowed. It’s the slipperiest of slopes. I mean, since you’re taking the smoking out of CASABLANCA, why not get rid of the scene where the Nazis shoot Peter Lorre? It’s “graphic violence,” and so is Rick’s shooting the Nazi at the end. And that ending’s such a downer. Let’s fix it so Rick and Ilsa fly off together instead. Only that’ll change that other scene in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY where they discuss CASABLANCA’s ending, too, so that’ll need to be taken out, too, and while we’re at it….

Luckily for those of us who want the movies left alone, the response to Sony’s initiative has been furious. Judd Apatow went ballistic with a decidedly non-clean tweet, followed by Seth Rogan’s slightly less profane message: “Holy sh*t please don’t do this to our movies. Thanks.” Andrew McKay objected and the Directors Guild went to battle, demanding Sony take down the movies already released and get directors’ permission before altering any others, and they’ve now
pulled back, but you can be sure this’ll be tried again, especially since modern tech makes fiddling with film–and books–so easy.

Which was what I was trying to say in REMAKE. And it, by the way, was supposed to be a cautionary tale, not a how-to manual!

Connie Willis

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WEBSITE UPDATE–7-4-17–MY FAVORITE AMERICANS

WEBSITE UPDATE–7-4-17–MY FAVORITE AMERICANS

A FOURTH OF JULY ODE TO REFUGEES

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest toss’d to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Inscription on the Statue of Liberty

In honor of an Independence Day being celebrated amidst the horrors of deportations, Trump’s Muslim ban, and the prospect of a Mexican wall, I thought I’d mention some of the people who’ve come here and made this country great.

My favorites:

1. HEDY LAMARR

Most people know her as the gorgeous actress who starred in movies like ECSTACY, ALGIERS, and SAMSON AND DELILAH and who was dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world.” But she was a heck of a lot more than that. She was a gifted inventor, a spy for our side in World War II, and a passionate American patriot.

Married to an Austrian arms manufacturer, she attended many Nazi conferences and high-level meetings, looking like eye-candy but actually listening to and absorbing every word she heard. She then escaped out a window with the help of a maid, and fled to Paris, London, and finally the United States, where she reported everything she remembered to the federal authorities.

Hedy then set to prove her devotion to her new country by designing a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes which would be protected from enemy jamming and offering it to the U.S. government. It employed the concepts of frequency hopping and spread spectrum and was too advanced for World War II technology to be able to build it, but twenty years later it became the foundation of cellphones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.

Hedy also offered to go to work for the government full-time as an inventor, but they told her she was more valuable as a war-bond seller. She definitely was. She raised more money touring the country and selling kisses than any other Hollywood star, including a record-smashing seven million dollars she raised for the war effort in one night.
___________________________________________________

2. IRVING BERLIN

Israel Isidore Baline came to America in 1893. His family like so many others, was fleeing the Tsar’s Jewish pogroms. (Others who did the same thing include Sophie Tucker, Louie B. Mayer, Al Jolson, and George and Ira Gershwin.) Five-year-old Isidore had only one memory of Russia, that of “lying on a blanket by the side of the road, watching his house burn to the ground.” And at first it didn’t look like the US would be any better. He and his brother and five sisters were put in a pen at Ellis Island till they were declared disease-free and their admission was approved.

Once uncaged, Irving set out to earn money by selling newspapers, singing in a saloon, and finally writing songs. And what songs! Here’s a short list:

Alexander’s Ragtime Band
A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody
Always
Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better
Blue Skies
How Deep is the Ocean
Puttin’ on the Ritz
We’re Havin’ a Heat Wave
Let’s Face the Music and Dance
You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun
Dancing Cheek to Cheek
Isn’t This a Lovely Day
I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
What’ll I Do?
Doin’ What Comes Naturally
Easter Parade
Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails

And that doesn’t even include his three greatest hits–

There’s No Business Like Show Business
White Christmas
and God Bless America
–which Irving said was “not just a song, but an expression of my feelings toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.”

Irving’s songs have been sung by everyone from Fred Astaire to Elvis Presley, from Bob Dylan to Ethel Waters, Cher, and Willie Nelson. When fellow composer Jerome Kern was asked to describe Berlin’s place in American music, he said, “Irving Berlin has no PLACE in American music–he IS American music.”
___________________________________________________

3. ENRICO FERMI, LEO SZILARD, OTTO FRISCH, RUDOLF PEIERLS, AND ALBERT EINSTEIN

This group of Italian, Hungarian, German, and Austrian physicists who fled from Europe and Hitler’s hatred of (and determination to exterminate) the Jews, were invaluable to the Manhattan Project and the race to beat Hitler in building an atomic bomb.

Einstein jump-started the project with his letter to President Roosevelt about the threat of a German atomic bomb, Leo Szilard came up with the idea of nuclear chain reaction, Enrico Fermi built the first successful nuclear pile, and Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls designed the detonation mechanism.

Without them, the war would have been much longer and bloodier, and the thought of Hitler with his hands on the atomic bomb first doesn’t even bear thinking about.
___________________________________________________

And last but not least:

4. ANDREW CARNEGIE

Carnegie’s family came to United States from Scotland, fleeing not political persecution, but economic hard times. Once here, Andrew worked as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill and then a telegraph messenger boy. He rose to become a steel tycoon and one of the richest men in America, but it’s what he did with his wealth that makes him exceptional.

He firmly believed that “the man who dies rich, dies disgraced,” and said, “I would as soon leave my son a curse as the almighty dollar,” and he devoted the last years of his life to getting rid of that wealth in productive ways. He founded Carnegie-Mellon University and the Carnegie Foundations for the Advancement of Teaching and for International Peace.

But his most important accomplishment was the building and endowing of nearly three thousand public libraries, many of them in small-towns which would otherwise have had no access to books at all. Those libraries formed the basis of today’s public library system and are still in operation all over the country, from Pittsburgh to little mountain towns in Colorado and hamlets in the Midwest, an amazing legacy of literature.

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library,” Carnegie wrote, “this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest
consideration.”
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Walter Cronkite wrote of Irving Berlin that he “helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.”

That could be said of everyone on this list. These refugees and immigrants not only contributed to America. They ARE America.

Connie Willis

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WATERGATE II

WEBSITE UPDATE
WATERGATE II

For almost three months after Trump’s election I had no idea what might happen next–a terrible feeling for a science-fiction writer to have, let alone a citizen. But it all seemed so unprecedented and so bizarre. I felt like we were in completely uncharted territory.

I’ve always relied on history to tell me what we might expect from the future, but what was this? Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth? The French Revolution? The RUSSIAN Revolution? Orwell’s 1984? Or none of the above? It didn’t seem to fit any of those categories.

But then, oh happy day, Trump fired Sally Yates (not that I approved!), and I went, “I know what THIS is! It’s the Saturday Night Massacre!” It was like when you’re driving around in a strange part of town, with no idea where you are, and you suddenly spot something you recognize. I knew exactly where I was, and where we were going. This wasn’t uncharted territory. This was Watergate.

I’ve felt that way ever since, and now this week, with Trump’s firing of the FBI Director for either 1) refusing to promise to be completely loyal to Trump, or 2) not shutting down the Russia investigation, and his covering up his real reason by attempting to blame it on the Justice Department, and with the sudden possibility of secret tapes of their meeting and the news that Jared Kushner and Sessions both lied about their meetings with the Russians, I’m more convinced than ever that we’re in Watergate territory.

I have to tell you up front that I was an absolute Watergate junkie. Till it erupted, I had never been particularly political, but I read everything I could find on Watergate, took out subscriptions to TIME and NEWSWEEK, devoured every bit of news, and watched every minute of the Watergate hearings.

This was before the Internet, YouTube, TIVO, or even VCRs, so if you wanted to watch something, you had to watch it then and there. Luckily, I could see the TV from the living room AND the kitchen, so I could get the vacuuming done and dinner cooked while watching and the beds made during commercial breaks. The rest of the time I ironed–that summer not only was every item of our clothing ironed, but also pillowcases, tablecloths, and napkins. Not since then again has my family ever been so neatly pressed.

As I ironed, I took notes, so I could update my husband when he got home. And sometimes I put down the iron and gawped at the screen, because what was happening was more riveting than any soap opera. Like the time someone quoted the Constitution, and Sam Erwin said, “Well, let’s just see what it says,” and pulled out his pocket Constitution. And the time he was questioning Haldeman, who said he’d do anything for the President, and Sam asked him, “Even murder?” and the look on Haldeman’s face was pure malice, and I finally understood what the phrase, “If looks could kill,” really meant.

Or the day Butterfield said, “I don’t know. It might be on the tapes,” and the entire committee leaned forward as one man and said, “Tapes?!”

There’s never been anything like it in American history. Till yesterday. When Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” And the whole country leaned forward and said, “Tapes?!”.

I know that history never repeats itself exactly. But I see a lot of things going on right now that sure do remind one of Watergate:

1. Nixon saw enemies everywhere and was determined to get revenge on all of them. He kept a secret “enemies list” of politicians and journalists he hated. Woodward and Bernstein were of course at the top, but I vividly remember the day the list was released. “I just got this list,” Daniel Schorr said, standing on the Supreme Court’s steps, and began reading out the names. “Representative John Conyers, Mary McGrory, Paul Newman, Daniel Schorr…” he read. And stopped short, stunned that his own name was on the list.

And don’t think the list was a toothless exercise. Nixon was having the people on the list audited and investigated, using the federal government to carry out revenge for his own personal grudges.

And Trump? After the healthcare debacle, he and Bannon talked about compiling “a shit list” on the Congressmen who voted against him. “He wants a running tally of (the Republicans) who want to sink this…Not sure if I’d call it an enemies list, per se, but I wouldn’t want to be on it.” His longtime aide Omarosa said during the campaign, “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who ever disagreed, who ever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.” And, asked after the election about the people who didn’t support him, she elaborated, “Trump has a long memory, and we’re keeping a list.”

2. Nixon absolutely despised the press. Like Trump, he called them “the enemy” and railed constantly about them for refusing to let the Watergate story go. He sent his vice-president Spiro Agnew out to call them “nattering nabobs of negativitism” and say the newspapers were “only fit to line the bottom of bird cages.”

Here’s Trump on the same subject:
“The leaks are real, but the news is fake.”
“You’re dishonest people.”
“Fake News!”
“The news is the enemy of the American people!”

3. Nixon’s downfall wasn’t the break-in, but his attempts to cover it up and his other crimes. He lied about them and got his staff to lie, destroyed documents (including 18 1/2 minutes of tape), suborned witnesses, and tried to pin it all on scapegoats like John Dean when they were brave enough to tell the truth. To quote Paul Begala, “There are two rules in Washington. Number one: The coverup is always worse than the crime. Number two: Nobody ever remembers number one.”

Including Trump. He’s tried to distance himself from General Flynn (as Ralphie from CHRISTMAS STORY would say, “Flick? Flick who?”), he’s claimed he hardly knew his campaign manager Paul Manafort, and never even met Carter Page (who he also said was his top national security adviser and was recently discovered to still be phoning daily.) And none of his staff ever met with the Russians. Well, actually they did, but just to exchange pleasantries. Well, actually they might have discussed sanctions, they can’t remember.

Trump’s national security adviser General Flynn lied about meeting with the Russians and being paid by them, Trump’s son-in-law lied about meeting with Kislyak. It’s been reported that White House staffers are deleting their phones in advance of a possible FBI investigation, and that the FBI, CIA, and NSA were ordered by the White House to “find anything” that might back up Trump’s outrageous tweet that Obama had had him wire-tapped. And now Trump has forbidden the release of the White House visitor logs to keep people from finding out who he’s met with. And fired the FBI Director to shut down the investigation, which looks very much like a cover-up.

But it’s not just that the cover-up is worse than the crime, it’s that the cover-up attempts make it more likely you’ll be found out. When Woodward was sent to cover a break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate, his interest was piqued by the fact that a White House lawyer had showed up to represent the two burglars. But what really made his journalistic antennae perk up was when he asked, “Who called you?” and the lawyer said, “I’m not here.”

Likewise, when Nunes called a press conference to announce that he’d found proof that Obama did wiretap Trump, he refused to say where he’d gotten the information, which made the press curious. But what really perked up THEIR antennae was the fact that his staff said he’d been in an Uber car with them the night before, gotten a call on his smartphone, suddenly ordered the driver to stop the car, and jumped out and ran off into the night. (We’ve since found out the whole thing was cooked up by two Trump aides and that Nunes had gotten the information from the White House.)

And look at these headlines:
“Trump looks like someone with a lot to hide.”–The Chicago Tribune
“Latest leads who Trump sure acts like a guilty person.”–NJ.com
“Trump is Very Guilty, Very Stupid, or Very Much Both”–Daily Banter

4. At first Watergate looked like a bunch of isolated incidents. There was the break-in, and there were a bunch of mysteriously large checks to the Committee to Re-Elect the President and some indications that Gordon Liddy had been investigating Ted Kennedy, but none of them were connected to anything else–or to the President. It was only after many months that the connections linking them began to show up.

Ditto with Trump. We have a Russian oligarch who bought a house from Trump for a ridiculous price and whose plane (or yacht) seems to show up wherever Trump does, we have Erik Prince (who heads up Blackwater and is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s brother) holding a secret meeting in the Seychelles, a bank in Cyprus that Trump’s commerce secretary was vice-president of and that has ties to Russian oligarchs and money laundering, and a number of meetings between the Russian ambassador and Trump officials, including an attempt by Jared Kushner to set up a secret “backchannel” in the Russian embassy, and rumors that there was a “golden showers” incident that happened when Trump was in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant and that might have been taped and is being used to blackmail him, but the connection between all these events has not yet come clear. Trust me, it will.

5. The underlying charge in both investigations is the same–cheating to win an election. The break-in at Democratic headquarters was only one of many crimes–C.R.E.E.P. had broken into Eagleton’s psychiatrist’s office, forced Eagleton to drop out of the race, discredited Democratic presidential campaigns, disrupted their campaigns, leaked “fake news” items to the press, and tried to get dirt on all Nixon’s opponents, all in order to win re-election for Nixon.

The possible charge against Trump is that he colluded with the Russians to rig the election in exchange for a relaxing of the sanctions against Russians and letting them have Crimea (and maybe the Ukraine.). The Director of National Intelligence and the heads of the FBI, CIA, and NSA issued a joint report saying that the highest levels of the Kremlin were involved in trying to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect Trump. It’s known that Carter Page, General Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Manafort had meetings with Russian oligarchs and intelligence agents.

6, It’s a maddeningly slow process. The Watergate break-in happened in June of 1972 and Woodward and Bernstein started writing about it then. By October, the FBI had established that it stemmed from a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon re-election effort,” but in November, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, and he didn’t resign till August of 1974.

In between, there was a steady stream of stories about payoffs, dirty tricks, attempts to retaliate against journalists, buggings, abuses of power, denials–“I am not a crook!”, court battles, firings, obstructions of justice, and guilty pleas, each of which should have resulted in Nixon’s immediate resignation, but didn’t.

In the end, it wasn’t any one event that did Nixon in, but the steady “drip, drip, drip” of leaks and evidence coming out on an almost daily basis–and seeming to have no effect at the time.

Looking back, Nixon’s impeachment and resignation seems inevitable. But, trust me, it didn’t at the time. I remember revelation after revelation that seemed to have no effect at all, and I frequently thought, “WHAT will it take before people wake up and realized they’ve got to get rid of this guy?”

My only companion in my outrage and frustration (besides my husband) was our minister’s wife. She was from Czechoslovakia and got out on the last train in World War II before they closed the border, so she recognized all the warning signs. She and I sang in the church choir, and every week we compared notes, commiserated, and tried to convert our fellow choir members but they were a) paying no attention at all, b) thought it was much ado about nothing, or c) knew the President of the United States couldn’t possibly be involved.

The tipping point was incredibly slow in coming. There was no gradual growing awareness of the severity of the situation, no increasing number of people who agreed with us. No nothing–even after the hearings–and Olga and I began to think, “He’s going to get away with it.”

And then, bang, just like that, the tipping point came, and it all went so fast we almost missed it.

For Watergate, the tipping point was the Saturday Night Massacre, when, rather than turn  the tapes over, Nixon ordered his Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire the special prosecutor who’d asked for the tapes. Richardson refused. So did Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Nixon fired both of them and finally got Acting Attorney General Robert Bork to do his dirty work for him. Trumpgate or Russiagate or whatever the hell this will end up being called will not go exactly the same way. As Mark Twain is said to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Here, the Saturday Night Massacre and the firing of an FBI Director came at the beginning, not the end. And we have no idea what the tipping point may be.

But we do know that the firings have led to outrage and more intense investigation. And more leaks, more news stories.

Drip, drip, drip…

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BOOKS I LOVE, PART 2: OXFORD BRANCH

BOOKS I LOVE, PART 2: OXFORD BRANCH

When I visited England the first time, the place I most wanted to go was Oxford, the home of some of my favorite writers.  I wanted to see the Bridge of Sighs where Lord Peter proposed to Harriet, and the gate of Christ Church where Peter’s nephew collided with Harriet and spilled the bag of meringues, and the deanery garden at Christ Church, where Charles Dodgson first met the Liddell girls, and then I wanted to go have a pint (well, of shandy) at the Eagle and Child, where the Inklings used to meet to read and critique each other’s manuscripts.

Many of my favorite writers are associated with Oxford and/or wrote about it.  Here are some of my favorite books of theirs:

THE PERELANDRA TRILOGY by C.S. Lewis

I discovered the Inklings, that band of writers who assembled at the pub, the Eagle and Child (or, as they called it, the Bird and Baby) and which included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and assorted other professors and writers, through C.S. Lewis, whose work I first read in college.  I loved his religious allegories–THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS and THE GREAT DIVORCE and A GRIEF OBSERVED–and his reworking of the story of Psyche and Eros:  TILL WE HAVE FACES.  It’s probably his best work.  Because his faith is so intertwined with his writing, he can sometimes be annoyingly preachy, but in TILL WE HAVE FACES, he’s working outside that world, so that he focuses entirely on the story, and when he does that, there’s nobody better.

But my favorite C.S. Lewis work has got to be the PERELANDRA trilogy–OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA, AND THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH.  It’s part science fiction, part religious allegory, and full of fascinating ideas.  Especially about the nature of evil, which Lewis sees not as grandly Mephistophelian or even clever, like Ray Walston in DAMNED YANKEES, but petty and pointless and gratuitously cruel.  His scene with Weston and the Venusian frogs has stayed with me for fifty years.  Plus, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH has a great Merlin in it.  And Coventry.

Lewis is one of those writers who’s just exploding with ideas, and is full of opinions, with the result that the meetings of the Inklings were often contentious (especially after Lewis, who’d refused to allow women into the group, insisted that his wife be included), and I have a feeling that if I’d been allowed into the Inklings, I would have been mad at Lewis most of the time.  As it is, I disagree with lots of what he says, but he’s still one of the most interesting writers I know, and I highly recommend his work.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien was responsible for my getting married.  I’m not kidding.  When I was a senior in college I flew out to Connecticut over spring break to break up with my boyfriend (which for some unknown reason I thought it would be kinder to do in person).  Flights took even longer than they do now, so I went to the bookstore to find something to read on the flight, and picked up a trilogy with strange pinkish and purple creatures on the front.

I knew nothing at all about Tolkien at that point–it was way before “Frodo Lives” and decades before Peter Jackson and Viggo Mortensen, but the blurb on the back looked intriguing, and from the moment I opened up the first volume and read, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit,” I was entranced.  Here was a fairy tale–for grownups!

By the time I arrived at Newark Airport, I was so deep in the story and so worried about Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin I couldn’t think about anything else.  “The Black Riders are after them,” I told my boyfriend, “and nobody knows what’s happened to Gandalf, and I’m not sure they should trust Strider,” and completely forgot to break up with my boyfriend.  As a result, we are about to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary, and I’m still in love with him, and with LORD OF THE RINGS.

Tolkien gets all sorts of praise for creating languages and inventing an entire world, complete with geographic, history, and maps, but it’s the story that keeps us riveted–the tale of a small, ordinary person (just like us) who finds himself caught up in events beyond his control and beyond his abilities, facing enemies of great power, somebody who can’t possibly win but who simply has to.  It’s a timeless story that never gets old.  I’ve read it many times, and it only gets better each time.

If you’ve never read it, you should probably start at the beginning and read THE HOBBIT first.  And I’d also recommend Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories.”  But skip The SILMARILLION.

  1. DESCENT INTO HELL Charles Williams

Charles Williams, the third of the Inkling triumvirate, is the least known of them.  I once got into a fight with a clerk at Blackwell’s because they didn’t have a single one of his books.  “How can you not have Charles Williams?” I said.  “He was an Inkling.  He lived here.  And he worked for the Oxford University Press!”

He may be the least known, but to my mind he’s the best of them.  Tolkien’s the best storyteller, C.S.  Lewis has the clearest prose style, but Williams has the most imagination.  I know that sounds like an unlikely claim when you’re talking about the authors who invented Perelandra and Middle Earth, but it’s true.  Williams’s books are so strange and visionary that there’s simply no way to describe them.

Some reviewers have called them “supernatural thrillers,” which has an element of truth to it, but gives completely the wrong impression.  Others have called them “religious mysteries,” and one even said he wrote about the occult and “talking animals,” which gives totally the wrong impression.

But I can understand their difficulty–I have no idea how to describe them either.  They do deal with the supernatural–and I guess they are thrillers–there are villains and car chases and even murders–but none of those definitions do his books justice or tell what they’re actually about.  WAR IN HEAVEN, for instance, begins with the finding of the Holy Grail in a little church in rural England.  ALL HALLOW’S EVE begins with the heroine standing on Westminster Bridge, looking across the Thames at the plane crash in which she has just been killed, and in THE GREATER TRUMPS, the figures on the Tarot cards come to life and head out into the world. And they’re all full of unsettling insights about love and faith and reality.

DESCENT INTO HELL begins with the heroine, on her way home from a play rehearsal, seeing her doppelganger walking toward her.  It also involves a suicide, trapped in a half-constructed netherworld of two-by-fours and ladders and scaffolding.  It’s also about a martyr being burned at the stake and a play that may be more than a play–and the true meaning of bearing one another’s burdens.  A brilliant book.

It’s like no other book you’ve ever read, eerie and touching and infinitely strange, and the only things remotely like it are Williams’ other novels.

They’re sometimes difficult to read.  Reading Williams’ prose can sometimes be like hacking your way through a thicket, and on several occasions I’ve reached the end of a page only to think, “I have no idea what I’ve just read,” and have to go back and read it again, but his books are definitely worth the effort.

  1. GAUDY NIGHT by Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy Sayers didn’t just live in Oxford, she went to Somerville College and worked at Blackwell’s Bookstore.  She also wrote about it, and her mystery Gaudy Night is probably the best novel ever written about Oxford.

Not only does it have punting on the river, the May Day celebration on top of Magdalen Tower, dinner in a college hall, getting caught out after hours, and a concert at the Sheldonian, but it’s about Oxford, the scholarly research and the faculty infighting and the undergraduate excesses.  And the spell it casts over anyone who spends time in the “city of dreaming spires.”  Plus, it has the delightful romance between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, though to get the full effect of that, you need to read STRONG POISON, HAVE HIS CARCASE, GAUDY NIGHT, and BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON in order.

I took a walking tour in Oxford one time with a bunch of tourists who yawned at the sight of Shelley’s Memorial and Lawrence of Arabia’s college and Einstein’s blackboard.  But when the tour guide showed us the Bridge of Sighs, and said, “This is where Lord Peter proposed to Harriet Vane,” everyone took their cameras out and began clicking madly away, in spite of the fact that they weren’t real.

But that’s just the point–they are real, and they’ve made just as indelible a mark on Oxford as Einstein and T.E. Lawrence and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Sayers’ other mystery novels are good, too.  I especially recommend Murder Must Advertise, Clouds of Witness and Nine Tailors.

  1. ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS by Lewis Carroll.

Charles Dodgson is even more of an Oxford writer than Sayers or the Inklings.  Not only was he a professor at Christ Church his whole life, but his rooms overlooked the deanery garden where he saw the Liddell girls playing and were right across the street from the little shop he immortalized in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS as the Sheep Shop and just up the way from the river up which he took Alice and her sisters on that most famous of all picnics.

ALICE and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS are quoted far more than they’re read (in fact more often than anything else besides Shakespeare and the Bible and there’s been a sharp increase in these Wonderland-like times.  I must have heard, “We’re really down the rabbit hole now,” at least a dozen times in recent days, followed closely by references to Alice’s telling Humpty Dumpty, “The question is whether you can make words so many different things,” and Humpty Dumpty’s replying, “The question is which is to be master–that’s all” and to the Red Queen.) but you really should read the books themselves, especially if you haven’t since you were a kid.

Alice is wonderful, the voice of common sense in a world in which everyone else is clearly mad.  Except for the White Knight, who’s one of my favorite characters in all of literature.

I’d also recommend watching DREAMCHILD, a movie about the real Alice and Charles Dodgson, and SyFy’s miniseries, ALICE, a Nick Welling miniseries set in Wonderland a hundred years after the original Alice visited.  It’s a science-fictional take on the story, with Wonderland a dystopian place, Hatter as a drug-dealer, and unexpected takes on the Dormouse, Owl, and Caterpillar.

DREAMCHILD is a British film about a real event.  In 1932, Alice Liddell was invited to accept a posthumous honor for Dodgson at Columbia University, and the movie tells the story of her trip to America, during which unsettling memories of her childhood and the books begin drifting to the surface.  It stars Ian Holm and Coral Browne, and is unfortunately nearly impossible to locate, but it’s worth the search.  It’s my favorite movie of all time.  Absolutely beautiful.

Connie Willis

 

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Crosstalk – News and Information

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Crosstalk by Connie Willis is being published by Del Rey on October 4th, 2016.

Part romantic comedy and part social satire, here one of science fiction’s most lauded authors examines the consequences of having too much connectivity, and what happens in a world where, suddenly, nothing is private.

One of science fiction’s premiere humorists turns her eagle eye to the crushing societal implications of telepathy. In a not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure that has been promised to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage. So when Briddey Flannigan’s fiancé proposes that he and Briddey undergo the procedure, she is delighted! Only…the results aren’t quite as expected. Instead of gaining an increased empathetic link with her fiancé, Briddey finds herself hearing the actual thoughts of one of the nerdiest techs in her office. And that’s the least of her problems.

For more information, visit the GoodReads page for Crosstalk

There will also be a signed limited edition from Subterranean Press Note that the book summary there I’d consider much more spoilerly than the one above.

The U.K. edition is being published in paperback by Gollancz on September 15, 2016.

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Website Update 4/4/17 – WonderCon

4-4-17–WEBSITE UPDATE–WONDERCON

Just a quick post to tell everybody I’m back from Wondercon in Anaheim and to say thanks to all of you who made it a great con for me, especially to all those people who came to my events. I had two panels and a solo event over the course of three days, with signings after them (signings which were almost the full length of the arena away from the meeting rooms.) In spite of that, many hardy souls came to all three events AND the signings, and I really appreciated it.

A few of you said you were afraid I thought you were stalking me, but not only did I not think that, but I was really happy to see you. Every writer’s fear is that no one will show up at their events, and Comicons aren’t exactly a place where science fiction writers are the main event. Most people are there to see the cast of their favorite show or the author of their favorite comics–or to buy a bunch of T-shirts and collectibles. So I was afraid things might be a bit thin on the ground. Happily, that was not the case, and I loved that I got a chance to talk to so many of you for more than a hurried couple of minutes.

(BTW None of you acted ANYTHING like stalkers. Trust me. I have met stalkers.)

Thanks also to Cordelia’s friends, who came and kept me company at one of my signings and to my handlers, who got me to my events on time and steered me efficiently through the crowds.

And many thanks to Michael Cassutt and Michael Toman, who drove down to see me, braving the traffic and the parking so we could have a great dinner together–and who discovered a Starbucks without a horrendous (we’re talking fifty people here) line and showed me where it was. I spent the rest of the entire convention there. THANK YOU, Michaels.

Connie Willis

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Don’t Kill the NEH

DON’T KILL THE NEH

With the newly-released Trump budget slaughtering everything from the PEA and Appalachian job retraining programs to ebola vaccines, climate change research, Big Bird, school lunches, and Meals on Wheels, the killing off of the National Endowment for the Humanities may seem too small a thing to get worked up about, but it’s a critical program, and one I have a very personal stake in.

For those of you who don’t know about the National Endowment for the Humanities(NEH), it, along with the better-known National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), does a whole variety of things: it gives grants to libraries, museums, historical societies, and schools, and sponsors writing projects, films, and exhibitions.

It’s funded Ken Burns’ documentaries, THE CIVIL WAR, JAZZ, and BASEBALL (which all by itself should make it worth saving); published the Library of America editions of the classics, financed the TREASURES OF TUTANKHAMEN travelling museum exhibition, funded the complication of the DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN REGIONAL ENGLISH, and sponsored the U.S. Newspaper Project, which has digitized (and saved) the newspapers of the early Republic.

It’s also helped literary critics, historians, and other scholars research, write, and publish books. It’s awarded honorariums to American scholars who’ve communicated the humanities “in an accessible and appealing way,” people like Toni Morrison, Robert Penn Warrant, and Arthur Miller. And it’s given grants to poets and writers to enable them to pursue their writing.

In 1980, I received an NEH Writer’s Grant. I had been writing science-fiction stories for 10 years with only marginal success and very little remuneration. I’d been substitute teaching, but I was rapidly approaching a time where I was going to have to “fish or cut bait”: get a real teaching job and give up on my ridiculous dream of being a writer.

Enter the writing grant, which not only enabled me to write for another year, but made me feel like someone had faith in me and I wasn’t just wasting my time.

The money from the grant also made it possible for me to go to England, where I did the research for “Fire Watch” and DOOMSDAY BOOK and first got the idea for my two-volume London Blitz novel, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR. It also enabled me to buy a bunch of research books, including Leonard Mosley’s invaluable BACKS TO THE WALL, Mollie Panter-Downs’s wartime journal, and the Mass Observation diaries, and to do the initial research which culminated in my writing “Jack,” “Lost and Found,” TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, and “The Winds of Marble Arch.”

People often say that if you really want to write, you can overcome any obstacle, and maybe I would have continued to write if I hadn’t gotten the grant. But it’s also possible that I would have given up or given in, like so many writers I’ve known over the years who fell by the wayside because they had to take a full-time job or care for an aging parent or deal with illness or divorce or financial reverses. Or all of the above. Who knows what a grant at the right time might have done for them.

I know what it did for me. Thanks to the money it provided, I was able to keep writing and do the research that fueled future works. It tided me over till I could justify writing full-time. By the time the money was gone, my career was launched, I’d won a Hugo and two Nebulas, one of them for “Fire Watch,” and I was publishing regularly in GALILEO and ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE. And I’d decided not to go back to teaching, but to keep writing. Which I did for the rest of my life.

Now, I realize that seeing to it that one writer continued to write may not seem like much, but I was not the only writer who benefited from those grants, and if they were anything like me, they worked hard to pay back the government’s investment in them–and to pay it forward.

In my case, I’ve taught writers’ workshops; lectured at public libraries, library conferences, science conferences, and universities; taught elementary, middle-school, high-school and college students; worked with my state’s arts council; donated books, manuscripts, and money to libraries; and tried to share my love of books, literature, and science fiction wherever and whenever I could.

Literature isn’t just some frill of the “elites.” It’s absolutely essential. Our country is what it is not only because of the explorers and farms and miners and steelworkers who forged it, but because of the novelists and poets who wrote about it: Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. And Toni Morrison and Ken Burns. The humanities are what give our country its soul, and we can’t afford to lose that.

As Lyndon Baines Johnson said when he started the NEH, “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage, for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.” We are in more need than ever of a uniting vision for our country. Keep the National Endowment for the Humanities alive.

NOTE: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security weren’t addressed in this phase of the budget (they’re in the next go-round) and Trump’s promised not to touch them, but since his health care plan has already decimated Medicaid, I don’t think we should trust him. So I need to give credit for my success not only to the NEH, but to the Social Security Survivor’s Benefits program.

That’s what got me through college. My mother died when I was twelve, leaving me in the “care” of my stepfather, and when I began applying to colleges, he refused to fill out the financial need forms on the grounds that it was “nobody’s goddamned business” how much he made. Without the information (and his signature), I couldn’t qualify for any financial aid at all and was not sure I could even get into college.

A wonderful high school counselor who understood my situation somehow managed to get me a scholarship that covered my tuition and a job in the dining hall, but it still wasn’t enough to get me through, and without the help of those survivor’s benefits (which I began to collect at age 18 when the payments were transferred from my stepfather to me), I simply couldn’t have gone to college–where I majored in English lit, fell in love with Shakespeare, and was first introduced to Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Trollope, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and all the other writers who’ve inspired me through the years–and who taught me to write.

Ronald Reagan was fond of saying the government’s the problem, not the solution, and that the most frightening words someone can say to you are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.”

But he was dead wrong. The NEH grant and Social Security survivors’ benefits were from the government, and they both helped me immeasurably. As so many government programs help other people. We need to make sure they’re around to help the next generation, too.

Connie Willis

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