Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Review: Holidays on Ice

I must admit that I tend to have a complicated relationship with the holiday season. Besides the commercialism, the greed, and the ruthless behavior (a Wal-Mart employee was actually killed on Black Friday by members of a stampeding crowd), there is also the manufactured, maudlin, feel-good songs and specials to contend with. This can be particularly unnerving for people who work in the service industry; while murderous, bargain-crazed shoppers are not typically the norm (I hope), retail workers must deal with some very unhappy, loud customers (after working 7+ Christmases in retail, I have faced more than a few). Unfortunately, all of the sweetness and light offers little comfort.

That is where David Sedaris comes into play. His book, Holidays on Ice, which has just been reissued with several more essays (most of which have been previously published in Sedaris's other works), offers a much-needed respite from the saccharine cheer often found during the month of December. Made up of reminisces from his experiences as well as several fictional essays, Holidays on Ice emphasizes the needless craziness and shallowness of the holidays. However, it isn't an entirely caustic depiction of the Christmas season.

While I haven't read the newest edition of the book, I have read the 1998 edition several times. The main attraction of the book is "The Santaland Diaries," Sedaris's account of his employment as an elf at Macy's in New York. This essay is what catapulted Sedaris to fame after it first appeared on NPR, and it stands up to multiple rereadings. In addition to Sedaris's hilarious description of his various exploits (such as when he tells shoppers that they can see Cher if they stand on the magic star) to his perceptions of the different Santas and elves that he worked with, he also offers some heart that helps temper the cynicism. The same is also true "Dinah, the Christmas Whore," an essay about Sedaris's childhood, in which he gains some insight into his older sister's life away from the family.

The other essays in the book are of the fictional/ satirical bent, and some are more successful than others. Given my theatre geek tendencies, it is unsurprising that my favorite is "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol," in which an angry theatre critic harshly reviews the Christmas pageants at local elementary schools. It balances the bombast of some theatre critics while also satirizing the trite fare offered during the holidays. The remaining three essays, "Based Upon a True Story," "Christmas Means Giving," and "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!" are funny, but I don't find them quite as successful as the rest of the book. Specifically, "Season's Greetings" and "Based Upon" are a little too harsh for even my tastes.

While the essays are a little uneven in quality, Holidays on Ice is definitely worth reading (or rereading) during this time of the year. The balance between sweet and sour makes it a refreshing antidote to the syrupy concoctions that abound during the month of December and reminds us that often there is something inherently funny in the insanity surrounding the holidays. It is worth noting that the new edition of the book contains several new essays, some of which relate to Christmas and some which have to do with other holidays (namely Halloween and Easter). While all but one of these newly included essays have been previously published in Sedaris's other books, this new edition is definitely worth a look, if only because it contains the hilarious "Six to Eight Black Men," which certainly deserves a place in the Sedaris holiday canon.