‘Blackout’ by Connie Willis – a review

‘Blackout’ by Connie Willis

 I’ve got to begin by saying that it took more than one start at the preceding work, ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’, before I came to appreciate and love that book. (see this review ) In that instance I decided that my initial resistance derived from the distinctly quirky characters combined with the slow pacing in that work. Both of those qualities eventually become advantageous, especially in counterpoint to numerous plot turns and prat-falls that leap at you in it.

Willis’ follow-up, ‘Blackout’ does not lack for quirky characters and slow-pacing, but, alas, the cook seems to have left out a necessary sufficiency of cunning plot-turns and prat-falls. There is action, but very little sense of forward movement in this novel. A set of characters does have a very significant, shared problem, and individual subsidiary problems engendered by the MAIN problem, which is that they are all time-traveling historians trapped in wartime England during The Blitz, but these characters are so ponderously slow to comprehend and act on their situation, I kept finding myself snarling advice at the leaves of my copy, or pleading with them to change direction. They didn’t listen.

 Set aside the plot problems, Willis DOES have an historian’s love and eye for detail, and this work is resplendent with it. And, too, she has an historian’s love for History, itself. The history her characters are living through is the real center of this work, and the central story is one of a besieged citizenry waging war by sheer endurance, courage, and good humor. That is a story worth telling, but it’s a story of gritty daily privation and nightly fearful hiding away from the bombs in shelters. It’s difficult to incorporate any kind of quest within that story. The time-travelers’ problem of returning “home” to 21st century Oxford, along with their angst that one or more of them may have altered time’s fabric is too hackneyed to serve the need for a unifying quest, especially in a novel approaching 500 pages, and closing with an aggravating,  “…To be continued!”.

 Alas. Yes, the novel does NOT conclude in any way shape or form when you reach the final page. I had this exact problem with another bulky science fiction work I read recently, ‘The Dreaming Void’ by Peter F. Hamilton (see the review ). It’s not insignificant that both books were gifts from the same daughter, (Hmm…) but to the girl’s credit she also gave me the sequel, Willis’ ‘All Clear’. I started it just last night, and have hunkered down in the shelter of my armchair to transit the 600-some pages it offers. I am placing my faith and hope in Willis drawing all the threads into place, and hope to report that it proves to be a tapestry worthy of the The National Gallery in London.

 Magnum opus, anyone?


If you know me at all, then you likely know Ann, my closest friend, my partner and wife, and the defacto CEO of my corporate and corporeal being. This short note is to pay tribute to this wonderful woman, and especially today. As I am writing, she is driving home after a very long week away from our river’s shore. I know she’s feeling pretty happy and good.

What I want to herald and report is that she spent this past weekend helping a dear friend of ours to attend a professional conference in Atlanta. Our friend had shattered his leg in a biking accident more than four months ago, and is still struggling with mobility and healing issues. He absolutely HAD to attend this meeting, or face re-taking state board examinations to keep up his professional licensing.

Ann volunteered to be his driver and help-mate for the four days of the conference. She cut short her quilting vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and drove about a thousand miles to help our friend get to his meeting and home again.

In just a few minutes, she will be getting home to our house on the marsh, checking on her garden, skritching the cats’ furry heads, and taking a look at facebook and the blogs, and seeing this:

Ann, you are such a wonderful person. I am only one person of so many who can celebrate how much good you bring into our lives. Thank you for everything you do. Thank you for being You…



Life in Balance

Portal FlagThis post is about sharing contentment.

It’s just been one of those weeks in which  life hits its stride, the cogs mesh, and everything feels pretty darned good. My “boxes of life” are various, and, as a list, can change around quite a bit, but have always included “Time with Ann”, “Fixing Things Up”, “Flying”, “Work in the Clinic”, “Server Maintenance”; those sorts of things.  This past week it just seems like everything I’ve had time to tackle has felt good, and made me happy.

I think it’s helped, too, that we are enjoying a taste of early spring just now.

The big thing is this:  I’ve made a pact with myself to use the airplane several times every week, even if it’s just for short trips. I’ve been able to arrange things so I have a vehicle (the old LeSharo camper), in position at the airport so I can FLY to work from the airstrip here at the house, if the weather cooperates. The journey by air is trivial, something on the order of 10 minutes if I hurry, but with ground handling the airplane at both ends it doesn’t really save any time.  That doesn’t matter! I FLEW TO WORK!

It isn’t the bragging rights.  It’s more to do with using a skill, and keeping the batteries charged, the airplane’s, that old Winnebago’s, and mine!


Speaking of contentment, a few of our readers might know about the issues we’ve had with our neighbor’s mean-spirited dog over the past two years. Well, I’m very glad to report that after a few serious run-ins with that pest, animal control has come out and read the riot act to the owners, and they seem to have started to control the dog more responsibly. Sometimes we hear him barking, but we never see him anymore.  What a wonderful difference that makes!


Other stray and happy details:

Our friend, Bruce, who had a wretched accident last fall said today that his leg is definitely knitting natural bone into the scaffolding in his leg. We’ve been waiting months for this good news. Mend, Friend, mend! Ann expects to be helping him around at a professional meeting in a few weeks, so he can maintain his professional licenses during this hiatus in his life.

Lastly, I bought an updated navigation radio for my airplane. It was a genuine bargain, as these things go, and I’m delighted with it. It’s a GPS with VFR and IFR charts, and approach plates loaded into it, if that means anything to you. The device is called the iFly 700, and you can check it out here. I might do a comprehensive review of the device eventually.

Thanks for tuning in…  🙂

The Ups and Downs of Gardening

Sometimes, I hate my garden. When the deer eat the baby cucumbers, when something digs up my whole crop of elephant garlic and spreads the cloves willy-nilly along the path, when it’s too hot, too wet, too cold, too dry, too buggy.

Other days–admittedly fewer in number–I love my garden. Today, the temperature is just right, there are no bugs yet, and in cleaning up for soil preparation, I dug up a dozen sweet potatoes I’d forgotten I’d planted. I might have remembered–if the deer hadn’t eaten all the leaves to tell me they were there.  So, sweet potatoes for dinner tonight!

The onions are doing well, the garlic is still buried, the turnips are slowly coming along, the broccoli heads are small, and the cabbage…is cabbagey. By the time the weather gets warm enough to plant the spring seedlings that currently live in the sunshine on my dining room table, the others will need to come out to make room.

I’m trying flowers this year too–so into the ground today went freesias, gladiolas, lilies, and a single amaryllis. All pinks and reds.

Seedlings are spinach, sweet peas, morning glories, tomatoes, cucumbers, sunflowers, peppers, zucchini, and … something else I don’t remember. Last year, the squirrels got all my tomatoes and melons–I suspect because I put the birdfeeder above the deck and the seeds attracted the squirrels. The deer got the blueberries and the climbing hydrangea, but I’m hopeful they made it through the winter, and soon I’ll start spraying Deer Off on them again. I’ve also got Concord and muscadine grapes, if they made it through the winter.

Gardening is an iffy thing for a lazy and haphazard gardener like me. I’ve stopped taking it personally when something doesn’t grow, figuring it just wasn’t meant to grow in this sandy coastal soil. When something does grow, and grow well, I think I’ll just plant more of it. That might lead to a garden full of sweet potatoes…and I can think of worse things!

Dining at Cafe 37 , Savannah, Georgia

Ann and I have a bad tendency to be stay-at-home mud-sticks. After two-plus years of living on the Georgia coast, we can count on the fingers of one hand the new restaurants we’ve visited. So we’ve made a New Year’s resolution and pact with our friends, Ted and Lori, to take ourselves out to someplace new for a good meal once every month.

Cafe 37, 37th Street at Abercorn, Savannah, Ga.

February’s choice last night was Cafe 37 , a cosy and unassuming bistro tucked into the ground floor of a commercial conversion of one of the old houses on 37th Street at Abercorn, in Savannah. The kitchen, we were told, is upstairs, and I forgot to ask if they use a dumbwaiter to shuttle plates and platters up and down. (I always loved the silliness that dumbwaiter-business permitted in old movies, people cramming themselves into them, or climbing up the ropes in noir mysteries.)

Our table was waiting for us, and throughout the evening the service was congenial and precise.

For openers, the table bread was fresh and piping hot. Three of us had the house salad, which was garnished with hot sugar-glazed pistachios and a sweet dressing. Ted shared bites of his escargot in roasted-garlic butter.

The filet mignon at Cafe 37

I ordered the seed-encrusted tuna, flash-seared and very rare, on a bed of couscous, and garnished with tart greens and papaya. Exquisite! Ann had the red snapper in a generous and meaty lobster sauce, with greens, mushrooms and vegetables. We shared many bites, and couldn’t decide which was better. Our friends ordered the tuna, and the filet mignon, which was garnished with baby asparagus, and looked just splendid.

The wives were four-square onboard for Afters, while the men spent a moment hanging back, but in the end one of EACH of the four dessert offerings was ordered and brought to table, with a pact made to take a bite and pass the plate round.  It was a carousel including: 1. A rich chocolate flourless-torte cake. 2. A molten-chocolate-lava dessert, semi-sweet with a dab of real whipped cream. 3. A New York-style blueberry cheesecake. And 4. A fabulous creme-brulee. The plates gathered speed, reversed course, and started making direct crossings of the table as well. Soon it was a free-for-all resembling a figure-8 demolition-derby. Fortunately, no crockery got smashed.

It was a wonderful evening, and for Ann and me, an early St. Valentine’s celebration. Cafe 37 has our whole-hearted recommendation for fine dining in Savannah. I hope you try it sometime soon.

Elton John’s motel room…

Just a short note about the naming of cats. We have two house cats, and a former house cat. The former house cat was named Stormy by his mistress, our younger daughter, more than ten years ago.

According to T.S. Eliot, all cats have three names: the common one used around the house,  then a unique and particular name which belongs to no other,  and lastly a self-secret name. If the self-secret name is NOT unique (Eliot was not clear on this point), I may have found out Stormy’s. (‘The Naming of Cats’ by T.S. Eliot)

Based on the abuse of his “winter quarters”, I have determined that he must be calling himself Elton John.  This porch cat has a heated sleeping box, but when the temps approach freezing at night, and in deference to his age, we bring Stormy inside, and set him up a space in the laundry room.

This morning his quarters look like he was entertaining Benny and the Jets along with the Hell’s Angels in there.

Henceforth, he shall also be known as Elton John, who famously destroyed hotel and motel rooms as thoroughly as Hunter S. Thompson  or Keith Moon.

As I’m writing this, “Elton” seems to have shaken off the excesses of the night, and is now howling for his breakfast. I’d better bring a catnip-mimosa along with his kibble.  Hair o’ the dog, you know…

"Elton John"

The Nature of Friendship

(posted by Ann)

I rejoice in the diversity of my friends.

This morning, I got one of those e-mails that says “If you forward this, you’ll get a check in five days” with all sorts of presumably logical reasons.* And I thought, “What the heck, it’d be nice to see a check in five days, especially from our misguided and hazardous-to-our-stress-levels movie investment.” So I picked five friends at random, people I thought would appreciate not so much the e-mail but my gently poking fun at such things.

First response: “Oh, how I love thee, Ann.” Needless to say, I’m all on board for that one. (Okay, I confess that one came from the person who originally sent it to me. Still, she loves me.)

Second response:  “Sorry, I really hate this stuff. Please don’t send any more.” She assures me she still loves me too, despite my sending her a chain e-mail.

Both responses are valid.  Our time at the computer—and offline as well—is limited, and we are inundated with things of no interest to us. But my mind now had fodder for playing with such totally different reactions. I’m glad my friends are different from me and from each other. I bask in the positive comment. At the same time, I find myself responding personally and defensively to the negative comment. I want to say “Bravo! I’m glad I’m the kind of friend you can say that to” and “Chill, for crying out loud. It’s just one short e-mail” all at the same time. I’m a magnet caught in that infinitesimal spot, wobbling midway between north or south.

It’s easy to accept praise, or what we choose to interpret as praise. It’s harder to merge within ourselves the reactions to anything that causes our defensive hackles to rise up and do a prickly dance. But really, it’s not about me, and I have to remind myself of that a fair number of times. My friend doesn’t want those sorts of e-mails, that’s all there is to it. The world has not imploded, I am still the same person I was five minutes before I read that e-mail, and life will go on just as it has. If I’m a good friend—and I usually try to be—all I have to do is remember not to forward her any chain letters. I can do that. It doesn’t make her a less valuable friend in any way.

My friends are still remarkably diverse and by choosing to take the ego out of our friendships, I haven’t closed myself off from people who don’t agree with me. Tribalism is in that direction, and I’d rather be of many tribes that limit myself to just one, to be inclusionary rather than exclusionary.

*Just in case you want to try forwarding it on, here’s main part of the e-mail I sent:

“This year’s July has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays, which apparently happens once every 823 years.  This is called money bags.  So send this on and money will arrive in 5 days.  Based on Chinese feng shui, the one who does not pass this on will have money troubles for the rest of the year…”

My e-mail added these comments:  “Was feng shui around 823 years ago? How about 1646 years ago, so that maybe somebody would have noticed a trend? A quick Wikipedia check tells me it’s been around in some fashion since around 4,000 BCE.  Or did they have so little to do with their spare time 823 years ago that they worked out the calendar for the next 820-odd years? And only THEN noticed that, gosh, there are five Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays!!   (Or, more precisely, 星期五,星期六和星期日, as the case may be.)  🙂

My view: Super Bowl XLV

Portal Flagposted by annmeeker:

Elliott has been sweetly pushing me to write something for his/our blog and I have gently and stubbornly said I have nothing to write. Who would want to hear my opinion on anything? Anyone I know would simply ask me. But in the interests of spousal kindliness and from a certain amount of stubborn I-can-do-it-when-I-get-around-to-it-ness, I am writing something. About the Super Bowl.

“Sheesh,” I can hear you say, “Ann’s writing about the Super Bowl? She doesn’t even known which end of the ball goes forward.” (Yes I do, it’s the pointy end.)

Actually, it’s not about the game I want to write, though we did watch one (I’m tempted to call it an inning) quarter. We also watched the half-time show and a lot of the ads.

First, the ads. I must be getting old, but I simply don’t find it amusing to see a woman knocked down into the mud by a giant log or a guy brought to his knees by a kick to his balls or any other sort of violent mischief. I know I’m not supposed to take these sorts of things seriously (“Aw, come on, Ann, it’s just in fun!”), but such representations leaving me feeling like I live in a very sick society. When did we ever find amusement in watching someone else get hurt, even if it is “just in fun”? I admit to an irrepressible urge to laugh when I see someone do a slippy dance on a bit of ice, but it doesn’t last past that moment when the poor dancer actually starts to fall and it slowly sinks into my brain that someone might get hurt. I admit to roadside fascination about accidents. But so many of the ads on the Super Bowl (and have you noticed how they now have ads about the ads?) are gratuitously violent? Our youth ARE impressionable and we are subtly and surely molding their minds–not to mention the squishy minds of we adults–to find violent acts amusing and not reprehensible. I was disgusted, in short. But that’s not a surprise. I gave up watching television a long time ago. When I find myself somewhere where it’s playing, I have to drag my eyes away from it much like driving past that roadside accident. It’s fascinating in a deranged way. (Side note: Two weeks ago somebody introduced me to The Biggest Loser. My first reality show. I hate to say it, but I loved it.)

Now on to the half-time show, the Black-Eyes Peas. First a disclaimer: I’d never heard the Black-Eyed Peas before. (And is Usher part of them or was he a separate act? I’m still not sure…) Anyway, and it must be age again, but I couldn’t understand most of the lyrics. I’ve always been challenged that way, music never having been one of my strong points, but I watched the lips move and tried to make sense of the words–and there was a big disconnect. So, I turned off my ears and looked at the costuming. Now THAT was cool. Hokey, but cool. I think the choreographers/costumers deserve the credit for the show, however much is due. To pull off that sort of a live event must take an enormous amount of coordination and technology. I don’t know much about costuming (despite having just edited a 1900-page book on costumes) but pulling off a dance of that magnitude had to take all of the dancers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area a fair amount of time–tho admittedly the “dancing” didn’t look hard, but remembering “Oh, now I’m supposed to be a green arrow!” “Okay, red heart time” “Let’s see, white rows, and I turn left–no right!” must have been a lot to keep track of. Keeping track of my arms and legs is tough enough, but color too? So, hats off to the dancers, choreographers, and costumers! They were the stars of the show.

And the game? I hear the Packers won. Whatever. They were both good teams and had to play a lot of great games to make it as far as they did. There’s no shame in losing, tho I admit winning is probably a lot more fun.

And now the hype begins for next year. I can no longer say I watch for the ads. Or the half-time show. Maybe I’d better figure out how to play football and watch for the game itself.

…our word-window on the world.