All Seated on the Ground

By Connie Willis

Years ago, author Connie Willis released a collection of delightful Christmas-themed scifi stories called Miracle. The two best stores are considered annual reading in my family: one is about a woman who gets “haunted” by a Christmas spirit that insists on granting her heart’s desire; the other is about an invasion of puppet-master type aliens during Christmastime. My extremely brief summaries here do not at all capture how funny these two stories are, which is what makes them so wonderful (not all the stories in the book are funny, and be warned, when Connie Willis goes serious, she goes very serious indeed.).

Then, in 2011, Willis released the novella “All Seated on Ground,” which I put off reading due to my dislike of novellas (they always seem both too short and too long), even though it sounded like it recaptures the tone from her earlier Christmas stories. Unfortunately, I felt that it recaptured her earlier writing a little too much, becoming a bit of a retread. Once again, aliens have come to earth, but in this scenario, they have landed and then proceeded to stand around, saying nothing but glaring disapprovingly, while an array of academics and politicians attempt to communicate with them. This has been going o for nine months until just before Christmas, when they react to something for the first time by promptly sitting down upon hearing the line “all seated on the ground” in a Christmas carol.

The novella then follows the rush to determine what they are reacting to and what their reaction is trying to communicate. I love the idea of having to deal with disapproving aliens on top of all the other holiday stresses, but the implementation was just so similar to some of Willis’ other stories that while it was still quite funny, it was just not as surprisingly funny as some of her earlier work.

—Anna

P.S. – In case you are looking for a quick holiday-themed distraction at work, may I recommend Cracked’s “6 Things People Get Wrong About the Bible’s Christmas Story”? This line made me snort on the metro: “It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the magi began to be described as kings, largely to make the New Testament story better match the Old Testament messiah prophecies, and probably because ‘kings’ sounded better than ‘magical spice perverts’.”

Lincoln’s Dreams

By Connie Willis

Book Cover: Lincoln's DreamsSo, with all the movies about Lincoln cropping up (I’m counting Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter as ‘all the movies’), I was inspired to reread Connie Willis’ Lincoln’s Dreams, which I’d only read once many years ago.

It is a bit of a mess, I’m afraid.

It also turns out to be just the second novel she wrote, which explains a lot.

There are four central characters to the book, and while there are other peripheral characters coming in and out of scenes, the whole book focuses on the tension between these four: an author writing a novel about the Civil War, his research assistant, a young woman having persistent dreams about the Civil War, and her doctor, who is also the old college roommate of the research assistant.

(With the limited characters and settings, it occurred to me that this could actually be made into an interesting stage play, though the script would definitely need some tightening-up. This is the one nice thing I’m going to say about it.)

Actually, one more compliment: each chapter begins with a piece of trivia about the Civil War, and the research assistant describes more within the chapters. For those readers like me who want a lot of narrative with their nonfiction, this is the most palatable way to take in Civil War facts. (I also know from Connie Willis’ other books that she is extremely interested in history and does meticulous research for her novels, so I trust her historical accuracy.)

Okay, now on to the savaging. About a third into the book, I started noticing that the single female character didn’t have very many actual lines, and when she does speak she is often interrupted or instructed by a male character.* The woman is pretty much the central character, around which the three male characters orbit, so it took me longer than it should have to notice what an extremely passive character she was, really more of a target for the male characters’ expressions of emotion than a character in her own right. Even the final climax of the book, in which the cause of her dreams is discovered, supports the idea of her as a vessel to be filled with male ideas rather than a fully functioning person.

From reading Willis’ other books, I trust that she was actually doing this on purpose, and making a commentary on how, by trying to protect people we care about, we can end up marginalizing them, and thus doing more harm than good. It ends up being kind of a pat observation, though, and is not sufficiently explored enough for me. I have to admit that I might be being a bit unfair to Willis, though; I find that I am judging her early books in comparison to her later books, and then criticizing them for not being nearly as good.

The final thing is, though, that I would actually continue to recommend this book to people. Certainly not as an introduction to Connie Willis (for that, read To Say Nothing of the Dog), and not even as a good read, necessarily, but definitely a book that gives a different and interesting viewpoint of the Civil War and even wars in general, and for that I still consider it completely worth-while.

—Anna

*This is becoming a bit of a bee in my bonnet, actually. I’ve just recently started noticing that female television pundits get interrupted and talked over a lot more than male pundits. I know that shouldn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t, really; it just makes me really mad at how blatant it all is.

Christmas Reads

Now that Thanksgiving is over I can officially start one of my annual holiday traditions: the rereading of the Christmas books. I don’t tend to decorate much, but there’s a certain set of books that makes it feel like Christmas to me.

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis
I am alternatively thrilled and aggravated by Connie Willis. To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of my favorite books, but Blackout and All Clear were interminable (this does not mean that I didn’t cry at the end, because I totally did). But I adore this book of Christmas short stories and read it every year. Each story has at least a hint of science fiction about them, but the stories span the range of emotions. There’s a romantic comedy that involves aliens invading at Christmas and a haunting thriller about three modern-day wise men driving across the U.S. in a blizzard. In my favorite story, Mary and Jesus accidentally stumble through time into a modern day church during Christmas preparations, and a busy mom has to help them get back to Bethlehem. Plus, the forward to the book includes Willis’s own list of favorite holiday books and movies.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice
This one is not overly Christmas-y–although it does feature a Christmas scene–but  for some reason it puts me in a cozy, holiday state of mind. Perhaps because the story about British teenagers in the 1950s is so pretty and candy-colored that it feels like a fairy tale. I’ve read about a trillion books set in WWII England, but hardly any about the generation that came of age immediately after the war, so this offers a slightly different perspective.

Olive, the Other Reindeer
Yes, it’s a kids’ book, but it’s got a small dog! Named Olive! It’s just charming.

Comfort and Joy by India Knight
This just came out last year, but it immediately earned a permanent place on my list of holiday books. There’s not a lot of plot here, it’s just the story of a modern-day, many-branched English family trying to sort out how to celebrate Christmas. I adore India’s blog and love following her on Twitter because her writing makes you feel like you’ve just sat down with her to have a cup of tea and tell scandalous stories about all your mutual friends. This book feels exactly the same way and is full of all sorts of wonderful family and holiday details. I had to order mine from Amazon.co.uk last year, but now you can can get a nice, affordable American version.

Also, I think all of us would happier people if we all rewatched While You Were Sleeping during this time of year.