Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Holiday Stories of Connie Willis

If you feel in the mood for winter-holiday-themed stories, pick up A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS (2017), by Connie Willis. This volume is an expansion of her earlier collection MIRACLE AND OTHER CHRISTMAS STORIES (1999). The twelve selections include five new pieces. Since three of them are longish, in my opinion they're worth buying the newer book for even if you've read the earlier one. Humor abounds, and in the manner of most good humor, the incidents are serious to the characters even though funny to the reader. In the majority of the stories, you can count on satisfying but not sappy endings.

My favorite pieces are two novellas that weren't in the old edition: Thousands of radio re-playings of multiple covers of "White Christmas," augmented by the stubborn insistence of a prototypical Bridezilla that she MUST have snow for her Christmas Eve wedding, spawn a worldwide blizzard in "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know." Snow even falls in locations that have never seen it before in recorded history. My other favorite novella in the book, "All Seated on the Ground," features the narrator's experience on a committee tasked with a first contact project. Aliens have landed. The extraterrestrial visitors don't behave hostilely, but they don't speak or otherwise give any indication of their purpose in coming to Earth. Until they're taken to a mall, where they hear Christmas carols—and respond to the line "All seated on the ground" by suiting their actions to the lyrics. Only the narrator, with the help of a high-school choir director, notices this reaction and manages to decipher its meaning. Hilarious, but as in all Willis's work, the humor arises from characters and situations portrayed with her usual dry, incisive wit, not mere one-liners.

Some other highlights: In "All About Emily," a cynical veteran Broadway actress reluctantly befriends a prototype android who has developed a burning ambition to become a Rockette. The protagonist of the bittersweet "Epiphany," a minister weighed down by depression in the bleak post-holiday atmosphere of January, responds to an enigmatic sense of a call by abandoning his routine duties and taking to the snow-covered highways in search of—what? The Second Coming? The narrator of "Newsletter" becomes convinced that aliens have invaded because everybody is acting too nice in the midst of the pre-Christmas rush. During the bustle of a church Nativity play rehearsal, the protagonist of "Inn" tries to cope with a lost, obviously poor young man and his pregnant wife, who don't speak either English or Spanish. You know where this one is going. The contrasts between the idealized portraits in the Bible illustrations and the bedraggled, bewildered couple and between the spirit of good will toward all and the minister's concern about homeless people stealing the Communion silver lend this moving story the sharp edge we'd expect from Willis.

A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS includes an introduction by the author about the challenges of writing Christmas stories, plus appendices listing her personal recommendations for Christmas-centered fiction and poetry, movies, and TV episodes.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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