There are those who enjoy a lengthy novel sopped in plot building and emotional candor--I am among them. I mentally swam in Doomsday Book (1992) and lounged along side of To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998). Willis has a knack for bring out emotion in the pages and also lightly layering humor along side it all. She’s had me smiling, laughing, and concentrated all in a small number of pages. The woman can write, as is obvious from the number of nominations and awards given to both of the books above. The exact some emotional and emotional nuances found in these two novels are also found throughout this short story collection (which actually won an award for “best collection”). Most of the stories are great, but a few find the author indulging in some whim or another. Many of the stories themselves are award winner, too!
The Last of the Winnebagos (1988, novella) – 5/5 – David McCombe is a photojournalist reporting on the last Winnebago RV, a dying breed on the American highways which have increasingly outlawed such behemoths. The elderly owners strike up conversation about dogs, reminding David of his last dog Aberfan and the circumstances of its death. David then becomes involved in the “Society’s” investigation into a dead jackal on the highway, a crime which caries a heavy penalty in a world devoid of canines. 63 pages ----- An interesting vision of the future, where dogs have all died and the roads are dominated by semis hauling water to parched landscapes. An extrinsically interesting story morphs into an unsettling intrinsic depth of empathy and forgiveness. A great start to the collection and the most emotional story in the mix.
Even the Queen (1992, shortstory) – 5/5 – The Liberation social movement has freed women of their monthly burden with the help of the drug ammenerol. Traci’s mother calls her with concern that her granddaughter Perdita has become one of the Cyclists, a group of women who accept their menarche and the subsequent cycles. A lunch meeting is made in order to dissuade Perdita from the pains of the Cyclists, but the meeting simply becomes a mix of innocent curiosity, male domination conspiracy, and menstrual reminiscing. 22 pages ----- The humor here is welcome after the soppy previous story. The two generations of women conversing about their experiences with menstruation with the new generation gasping in disgust and forwards awkward questions is added fun.
Schwarzschild Radius (1987, shortstory) – 4/5 – Travers visits a retired university biology teacher and WWI veteran because he has personal knowledge of Karl Schwarzschild (of a black hole’s Schwarzschild’s Radius fame) whom with he served with in the trenches. As the radio operator and medical practitioner, the veteran had access to the disillusioned physicist near the time of his death, but also at the time of his correspondence with Einstein. The Doppler effect of a shrinking black hole projects itself on the memory of the events. 23 pages ----- Like much of the collection, the present time is blurred with memories. The two interweave and the result is hard to unravel, but the war story and the physics story here are more easily unthreaded. Not as emotional as “Winnebagos,” but equally as unsettling.
Ado (1988, shortstory) – 5/5 – Before teaching Shakespeare in the high school English class, the teacher must first go through each of Shakespeare’s works line-by-line in order not to offend any of the hundreds of organization who find one line or another offensive to their race, sex, trade, clan, profession, etc. One student even protests the works as the work of the devil, so when the student’s get their Hamlet, its reduced to a paltry few lines. With political correctness… nobody wins. 10 pages ----- Viewing political correctness gone horribly wrong, Willis paints a realistic nightmare of competing interests, petty squabbles, and dense red tape. Love this story!
Spice Pogrom (1986, novella) – 3/5 – In the Japanese orbital named Sony reside humans and their alien guests, the Eahrohhs. The Japanese translation team has difficulty between the alien tongue, English and their won. One alien, a compulsive shopper and hoarder named Mr. Ohghhifoehnnahigrheeh, is moved by NASA into an already crowded apartment, where even the stairway has residents sleeping. The translation difficulty, wanton sub-letting, compulsive shopping, and alien antics drive the leaser a tad mad. 97 pages ----- Slapstick comedy on the pages with long, derisive dialogue and a jumbled cast, this story is the hardest to follow. What’s supposed to be a comedy and love story just turns into a random jumble of people and items, but what I gathered in between, some passages were great.
Winter’s Tale (1987, novelette) – 2/5 – A two decade absence renders vague the memories of the wife and children of a returning man. Accepting the form of the man but partly hesitant of the actions of him and his men, the family rejoin but are yet rejoicing. At a later time upon his deathbed, the same man, imposter to the position of husband and father in the family, outlines the inheritance to the members of the same family that has adopted his person and prose. 28 pages ----- Something about Shakespeare. I’ll leave it at that.
Chance (1986, novelette) – 4/5 – Elizabeth’s husband’s recent job as associate dean at her old university correlates with a Tupperware party at a neighbor’s house brings back to many memories of her life and love in college that she finds herself hallucinating. At the university applying for a job, Elizabeth sees versions of her old self, her old roommate, and the love she lost. Through the alumni organization, she learns that her love interest from yesteryear is now dead from suicide, she wonders what she could have done differently. 38 pages ----- As in “Schwarzschild,” the blurred division between memory and reality is difficult to establish. With some silly nuances amid the emotional toll Elizabeth experiences, the contrast is weird. By now, the university theme is making an appearance.
In the Late Cretaceous (1991, shortstory) – 4/5 – The Paleontology department of a university comes under the eye of the dean’s visitor, Dr. King, a educational consultant with a rather unique vocabulary with words like “impactization,” “innovatizing,” and “ideating.” King aims to “do some observational datatizing” to assess the modern relevance of the program. The Paleontology professors are at a loss of words and draw parallelisms with the extinction of the dinosaurs and the evolution of mammals. 17 pages ----- A cheeky story chronicling the eminent demise of the department by the hand of a jargon-spewing consultant… I’m sure we all know the type and can sympathize with the dread the department must feel.
Time Out (1989, novella) – 4/5 – A quantum time travel experiment is scheduled at a grade school where the test subjects are students. The blind participants are those who are working with the eccentric Dr. Young. When chicken pox breaks out in the school, circumstances escalate and the present time becomes as confusing and opaque as the past. When lost love and reminiscing veils visions of the future, the doctor’s test results hinge upon the mysterious grey box with a simple on-off switch. 59 pages ----- Again, the blurred line between memories and reality, but this time even the past-present becomes blurred. Not as blurry as “Schwarzschild” but the resulting mixture is a wreck to unravel, but in the end the threads are pulled taught.
Jack (1991, novella) – 5/5 – Amidst the rubble and fire of Chelsea are the volunteer wardens who sight the location and find the survivors of the WWII bombing. One new volunteer has an uncanny ability to seek out bodies buried beneath the rubble. Without a shout of despair or rapping of desperation, Jack quickly becomes known for his peculiar talent, but another volunteer, also named Jack , is more intrigued with the man’s elusive nature when dawn rises—Jack discovers a man with no documentation. 61 pages ----- The best story in the collection! The eerie setting of blacked-out London during bombing raids and planes and bombs buzzing overhead compound the rising fear of the mysterious man named Jack. Is he a spy, a murderer, or something else entirely? Real gripping stuff here!
At the Rialto (1989, novelette) – 2/5 – At a hotel in Hollywood, a convention for the International Congress of Quantum Physicists is being held. Between the ditzy receptionists and implacable seminars, the bizarre effects and behaviors of the quantum world manifests itself in the seemingly chaotic relationships, conversations, and choices made among the physicists. With Benji, Bing Crosby, Charlton Heston, Donald Duck, and Red Skeleton all being mentioned… expect chaos and only chaos. 28 pages ----- Something about Hollywood. I’ll leave it at that.