Book: Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

Reviewer: Jeriann

Age/Genre: Adult Fiction

Preferred Reading Environment: Wrapped up In Blankets

Reading Accoutrements: Something Warm and Boozy

Content Notes: Ableism

David Sedaris is an author who I’m very interested in, but have yet to form a solid opinion on. His books all have funny titles and I’ve heard some radio shows with him where he seems interesting and smart, but I’ve never been able to get a read on when he’s serious and when he’s joking, which can be important when someone comes across as a bit of an asshole.

A few years ago I ended up with a couple of his books- Naked and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. There’s something about memoirs, particularly short story memoirs, that I really enjoy and I laughed my way through both of these autobiographical collections, though there were a couple stories that fell a bit flat.

When I recently visited Bethany in Arkansas, we went to a book store and I found three David Sedaris books, each for only a dollar. Since I want to eventually decide if I like him, I picked them all up and added them to my pile (That was the trip where I also found Wild and A Raisin in the Sun, which I’ll be reviewing later this month). It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I already had one of the books I’d picked up – Holidays on Ice. I regret nothing, though, because I much prefer the cover on the one I got second. The one I already had has some christmas figurines ice skating. This edition has a whiskey glass filled with ice, snowflakes, and whatever liquid you want to imagine. So I leveled up there.

This collection was published in 1997, but some of the stories were previously published. Since the Sedaris works I had read previously were autobiographical, I started reading this one assuming it was, as well. The second story made it clear that wasn’t the case. This is a collection of holiday stories, some autobiographical, others fiction.

The collection starts off with “SantaLand Diaries.” This piece follows Sedaris upon his arrival in New York City with aspirations of becoming a famous television writer. For short-term employment, he ends up working as an elf in a Macy’s SantaLand Department. I really enjoyed the beginning of this piece, as it shows the ridiculousness of applying for low-wage work. Between pointless interview questions, multiple interviews, and weeklong trainings, Sedaris shows the absurdity of how much work it takes to get a job standing around in an elf suit keeping people happy while they wait in line to see Santa.

Once Sedaris starts sharing his reflections of the actual job, though, I wasn’t as entertained. Most of his observations are of customers and coworkers, and while many simply explain events as they happen without really passing judgement – good or bad – others rubbed me the wrong way. In one scene, Sedaris talks about wishing he’d insulted a guy by loudly saying “Sorry man, I don’t date other guys.”

In another, Sedaris describes how a large group of “profoundly retarded” people came to visit, “rolling their eyes and wagging their tongues and staggering toward Santa.” He goes on to say that after a few minutes, he couldn’t tell “where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began. Everyone looks retarded once you set your mind to it.”

I realize these stories were written in the 90s, and using sexuality as an insult and calling people “retarded’ were more socially acceptable. But even then, those were still asshole things to do and I don’t think I would have found them funny even back then. Also, it seems like the second scene is trying to make a point, possibly about consumerism affecting people’s brains, but it’s done in such a way that all I can think is that he doesn’t see people with developmental disabilities as real people.

The second story, “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!” is framed as a Family Christmas Letter from a woman who is clearly supposed to be seen in a negative light. The reader is not supposed to like or agree with her, so her racist rantings about her husband’s newly discovered 22-year-old daughter from Vietnam don’t hit the same way as Sedaris’s comments about “retarded people.” The woman writing the letter is clearly unbearable, insulting basically everyone and illustrating how insufferable she must be. This story is pretty funny and has a small twist at the end that makes you laugh in a sad, wry way.

“Dinah, the Christmas Whore” originally appeared in Naked, and I was pretty much just underwhelmed both times I read it. This story recounts the year Sedaris’s sister took him out on a winter night to retrieve a coworker of hers from an abusive situation and bring her home. Her status as a prostitute doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the story, except the fact that it shocked and entertained teenage Sedaris. There’s not too much overt sex-worker prejudice here, but I was disappointed that the “I was proud of my sister” epiphany revolved around the fact she had provided a memorable holiday story and not around the fact she stood up for someone who needed help.

“Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol” is a collection of reviews of children’s Christmas plays. Mostly what I got was that the narrator hates children. I can appreciate the obnoxiousness of children – especially when forced to sing and recite lines on stage – as much as anyone, but mainly I was just bored by this piece. Who spends their time writing bad reviews of kids’ plays? That’s the joke, but all the pokes at kids’ looks make this a bit too mean-spirited for me. The end kind of makes it clear that the narrator is obviously missing the point of these plays, but overall this just isn’t that funny to me.

“Based Upon a True Story” is another piece where the speaker is someone you’re meant to hate. This story is told by a television producer trying to manipulate a congregation into guilting a woman to let him produce a miniseries based on her tragic life experience. This story made me hate the main character, which was definitely the intent, but I didn’t really find it funny. He was an asshole, but it wasn’t done in an entertaining way. He didn’t get any comeuppance; there was no irony or punchline. He was just an asshole. Not much to go on there.

The final piece in Holidays on Ice is “Christmas Means Giving” and this one is similar to the last one in the fact that the characters are assholes who you are meant to hate. The plot is basically “rich people compete with each other and end up ruining their lives.” There were some funny moments here, mostly brought on by the fact that the narrator believes his own bullshit. The precious story is told by a manipulative guy who knows he’s taking advantage of people. I don’t believe anything he says, and since we aren’t shown any reactions from anyone else, or given larger context, I just tend to want to zone out. But “Christmas Means Giving” shows how self-sabotaging people can be, and unlike the last piece, there is a comeuppance. I do think that Chuck Palahniuk has a better story involving rich people and homeless people, found in his novel Haunted, but this story was a decent ending to a mediocre collection.

Overall, I was disappointed. The blurb on the back of this book  quips that the book is the perfect size to use as an ice scraper or coaster, and honestly, those are pretty good uses. These stories aren’t bad, they’re just not my style. Not bad to pick up off a coffee table if you’re in a waiting room or reading to ignore your family, but that’s about it.

Have you read any David Sedaris? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

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