Book Review: David Sedaris “Holidays on Ice”

Note: I’m behind on posting these. I read this one around Christmas time 2020.

This book and I have a rocky relationship before I ever opened it up. In college, part of most of my courses required me to attend events. So for my writing courses, I had to head out into the city and seek out writing or bookish events. A friend in the class mentioned that a famous author was coming to a Borders (oof it’s been a while since all of those shut down huh?) and that we should all go-to for our required event. I protested that I hadn’t read anything by them or knew any of their work but my friend was like it’ll be fine. So we went. And we waited in line for hours. I don’t think I got back to my dorm room until about 3am. I spent the entire time pulling manga from the shelves and reading it as we inched our way around the Borders. I bought this book, not because I knew anything about it but because it was one of the ones they had still available that was the cheapest. And when we finally made it to the signing, hours and hours of slowly snaking around the Borders, which had closed long before this point all I wanted was my bed, I wanted it to be over, but I also wanted it to be worth it. I wanted this to be a fun story of how I found my new favorite author and met them before I started reading any of their work. Kind of like John Green whose work I didn’t read until after he led me and a small mob of people out of Millennium Park because it had closed during an art event and gave everyone candy.

Instead I was given two choices. Did I have a joke to share or if not he would share jokes with me. I was a zombie so I shook my head, I had no creativity or humor in me at that moment, and I already wasn’t a person particularly excited to participate in things, to begin with. So he gave me two quick jokes, one about cancer, the other rape. I numbly took my signed book from him and waited for my friend then slowly headed back to the dorms to pass out, wondering who tells those kinds of jokes to strangers, let alone young college freshman at 2 am?

I chalked it up to him being on tour, having already done a reading and Q&A (which we missed because so many people showed up), and then stuck it out to sign every book of every single person who’d shown up to see him. I applauded him in my essay for class for his work ethic but included that these jokes greatly soured whatever joy I had garnered by a long evening with friends reading manga surrounded by people who enjoyed reading. And then I set the book on my shelf, and later in boxes and now for the holidays, I figured I’d give it a shot.

Here’s the thing. Those jokes he made really fit in with the theme of the book. The book is a collection of holiday-themed short stories. Some are creative nonfiction while others are fiction. One I realized belatedly I’d read before in college and arguably the most famous from the collection called the “Santaland Diaries” which pulls upon his memories of being an elf for Macy’s and discusses the things he witnessed from guests, his own collection of musings as well as his mischievous streak. Others include a grotesque short story about a guy working in a coroner’s office around Halloween, the differences in different cultural celebrations like how the French celebrate Easter and the Dutch celebrate with their version of Santa Claus. When and if ever possible these seemingly satirical stories go for a dark humor. But not in a dark humor I enjoy. I have been struggling to put my finger on exactly what I mean because there is dark humor I enjoy and this isn’t it. This is the kind of shock value dark humor where the idea is is that everything is absolutely awful so let me create a ridiculous satire of it and then crank it up to a 1000%.

Here’s an example. One of the short stories is despairing on how absolutely awful school plays and pageants can be for people without a child to coo over in the performance. So we have a dry reviewer eviscerating fictional Christmas School plays by being as outrageous about it as possible. Children are berated for not being sexual enough or being too sexual, for being overweight enough to play Santa but making fun of their size at the same time with cruel adjectives and discourse. The people who directed or wrote from nuns to other children are likened to the worst possible people for subjecting the reviewer to the heinous show they watched.

And this isn’t the only time this is done. Cruel language is used often because more often than not whoever the narrator is, is arguably better than anyone else in the story. They’re above it all. They don’t actually care about being a Santa elf, they don’t get into it like the other embarrassing excited holiday elves do. Or the out of touch TV person who shows up to a church in Kentucky to boast and strut around about how better than them he is because he works in TV and has money and access to good doctors but because they’re a small town they all lower than him in every possible way but he’s there to give them a gift. He’ll give them money, cars, and side by side refrigerator and freezers (what is with that, it gets used often in the stories as like peak rich person) if they within 3 hours get a woman to sell him the tragic story of how she saved her son only for him to die shortly after. (All shared in rather ridiculous and gruesome fashion.)

None of the main characters of any of these stories would I ever want to meet or sit down with. While the voice is arguably strong within the short stories there’s a lack of warmth or care. It’s cynical and depressing and really I don’t know what I was expecting, setting it aside to read later all these years later. The humor is not for me. I don’t find any of the shocking content funny, I laughed once and that was when in the “Santaland Diaries” the elf says that the closer you get to Christmas the later the images arrive that the families order and since they were already upset about the pictures arriving in January, after Christmas was over he switched to saying August because why not, it’d feel like it was going to arrive that late anyway.

But that was it. And even getting one laugh out of me surprised me. It’s just not my cup of tea. The same way those books that are jokes about dead babies are not my cup of tea. Callous cynical and dark humor just doesn’t bring me joy even if it’s satire. And now I feel like I’ve got to find something else to bring whatever little festive cheer I had this year back.

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