Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris: B-

holidaysFrom the front flap:
Holidays on Ice collects six of David Sedaris’s most profound Christmas stories into one slender volume perfect for use as an emergency coaster or ice scraper. This drinking man’s companion can be enjoyed by the warmth of a raging fire, in the glow of a brilliantly decorated tree, or even in the backseat of a van or police car. It should be read with your eyes, felt with your heart, and heard only when spoken to. It should, in short, behave much like a book. And oh, what a book it is!

I’m not usually one for holiday-themed entertainment: I don’t voluntarily listen to Christmas music and, beloved classic or not, the thought of watching Ralphie pine yet again for his Red Ryder BB gun fills me with despair. And yet, who could resist the allure of a piece entitled “Dinah, the Christmas Whore”? Not me, surely!

Holidays on Ice collects six short works, three of which ( “SantaLand Diaries,” “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” and “Dinah, the Christmas Whore”) have been published before and three of which ( “Based Upon a True Story,” “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” and “Christmas Means Giving”) have not. Both “SantaLand” and “Dinah” take the form of nonfiction (see note) essays while the others are clearly fiction.

I’ve never actually read anything by Sedaris before, though I’ve heard him on NPR a time or two. Perhaps, then, it was a newbie’s mistake that I expected that these stories would be funny. Instead, most feature unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. I realize that sort of humor is popular with many, but it’s not something I personally find amusing. The worst offenders in this regard are the fiction works, like “Season’s Greetings,” in which the shrill narrator’s shrieking at her slutty new Vietnamese stepdaughter goes on interminably, or “Christmas Means Giving,” in which competitive and outrageously rich neighbors attempt to outdo each other in extravagant generosity. Some unpleasant types turn up in “SantaLand” and “Dinah,” though their stays are brief and much more tolerable.

That isn’t to say there are no laughs to be had at all. At his best, Sedaris possesses a talent for noting absurdity that jives nicely with my own sense of humor. I particularly like his self-deprecating account of his own youthful pretensions in “Dinah,” like how he thought that by wearing black in protest of others’ holiday consumption he could somehow cause them to rethink their ways.

My very avoidance would set me apart and cause these people to question themselves in ways that would surely pain them. “Who are we?” they’d ask, plucking the ornaments off their trees. “What have we become? And why can’t we be more like that somber fellow who washes dishes down at the Piccadilly Cafeteria?”

Of the fiction works, my favorite is “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” in which a theatre critic savagely reviews several elementary school Christmas pageants. Here, rather than feeling like the extended rant of an unlikable person, it feels like the joke is on Thaddeus, who clearly is missing the point of these performances. This impression is aided by Sedaris’ expert imitation of a know-it-all columnist’s style; if this story were excerpted and anonymously posted somewhere I bet it’d fool many into believing it genuine.

While these six stories were hit or miss with me, I’m given to understand that this collection is not considered to be Sedaris’ best. I own a few more of his books, and will surely read them eventually. I’m sure I’ll encounter a few things to make me smile and a few observations to make me nod in recognition of a truth well stated, but I’m also confident there’ll be more of those unpleasant people whom I just simply don’t enjoy reading about. And that rather puts a damper on my enthusiasm.

Note: While I’m in partial agreement with the argument that Sedaris exaggerates too much for his essays to be rightly classified as nonfiction, I nonetheless think they’re nonfiction enough to merit inclusion in that category here. I only hope that the made-up bits are obvious enough that I never embarrassingly ascribe too much significance to them.

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  1. Your review almost precisely fits how I felt about the one Sedaris book I’ve read (I think the one about Corduroy and Denim). I’d been told he was laugh-out-loud funny, but I definely found myself cringing more than laughing. I’ve never felt the need to purchase any more of his books, and now I know I don’t need this one either. Thanks. kt.

  2. …wow. So tonight, I did my annual re-listen to “Dinah, the Christmas Whore”. Maybe it’s because I have these in audio format, I don’t know, but I love that story.

    It was a surprise to come home and see that you had reviewed this!

    Also, my take on “Seasons Greetings” is different than yours—by the end, it’s pretty clear that the narrator is unreliable.

    (Most essayists of this type embroider, in my experience. Bailey White, for instance, sure spins awesome stories about her life in Thomasville…but some details don’t hold up to scrutiny.)

  3. I admit, when I first saw the title “Dinah, the Christmas Whore” I thought of this:

  4. I really like Sedaris, though I have been a little disappointed with the books I’ve read aside from “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.”

    I haven’t read Holidays on Ice (I thought all the material in it was recycled from other books), but you pretty much nailed the problem I had with “Season’s Greetings.” It just went on and on about the most terrible things, and I hated that narrator.

    • Thanks. 🙂 I read somewhere that Sedaris’ work does get a bit nicer as he ages, so I wonder whether that accounts for you liking Dress Your Family… more than some of the other things. I believe that, aside from When You Are Engulfed in Flames, is his latest work.

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