REVIEW: Sedaris’ ‘Holidays on Ice’ more chilling than festively thrilling

Promotional artwork for ‘Holidays on Ice’ courtesy of Little, Brown & Company.

As December is the month of fairy lights, festive drinks, family gatherings, and impending deadlines, there is nothing better than seeking reprieve in the comfort of a good book. ‘Good’ being the operative word.

If you’re looking for a book to sap any and all happiness and holiday cheer out of your life, congratulations — you’ve found it!

Holidays on Ice is a collection of stories written by American humorist David Sedaris. There are 12 stories in the collection, of these short stories, one of them is particularly memorable for all the wrong reasons, and the rest have become vague fever dreams, random details rearing their ugly heads every now and then. Some of the stories were anecdotal, from Sedaris’s own life, and others were satirical poking fun at the shortcomings of humanity. 

In “Season’s Greetings to Our Family and Friends,” Sedaris is writing from the perspective of a matriarch writing a letter to her family, recounting the details of the family’s life since her husband’s bastard was spawned while he was in Vietnam. The matriarch continually details the behaviors of her husband’s daughter, most of which can be explained by the fact that she’s foreign and doesn’t understand English, portraying the daughter in the worst light possible. A lot of the jokes in the story seemed to be at the expense of the daughter rather than the mother whose views were ignorant at best and offensive at worst. The conclusion of the story was quite horrifying but was written in such a gilb way that felt out of place. 

Some of Sedaris’s stories aren’t very memorable, for example, “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol” was Sedaris’s thoughts of the local grade school’s Christmas Pageant and while most of the details are forgettable, one sticks out like a sore thumb. 

Sedaris was making fun of children.

Children. Most of whom are between five and 10. 

Stories like “Us and Them” and “Let it Snow” are better suited to the sense of humor that Sedaris exhibits because they were based around his life and the reader can relate a lot better to the content, so it’s easier to follow what’s going on and laugh at it. 

“Us and Them” was a detailed explanation of what happened the day after a certain Halloween in Sedaris’s youth. His neighbors, who were gone the day before, showed up for trick or treating. His mother forced him and his siblings to give some of the candy that they had dutifully earned the night before to the kids. Unwilling to give up his candy, Sedaris did what any reasonable person would do and proceeded to start eating the candy that he had gotten. This story works really well with Sedaris’s humor because everyone has been that child and as someone who has grown from that it’s easy to look back and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. 

“Let it Snow” works in the same way, although in a darker way. Sedaris writes about the frigid winter night that his mother had locked him and his sisters out of the house and proceeded to ignore them as they assaulted the front door in an attempt to be heard. They then decide that the only logical way to solve the issue is for one of them to get hit by a car. 

Sedaris’s stories have a stream of consciousness way of unraveling the story, much like The Catcher in the Rye, so the humor is not developed to be deep and meaningful. The stories enclosed in the dark, occasionally funny pages, are not meant to change the world, only show the reader what is going in Sederis’s twisted mind. Sederis is not trying to give the reader a story with the typical message of, The holidays might be stressful, but in the end they’re all about love and the spirit of giving. No, that is not what Holidays on Ice is about. Instead Sedaris tells the reader, ‘People are screwed up and that doesn’t change even if there’s a tree in the living room.’ So for individuals looking for a warm-hearted, kind-spirited selection of stories to coo over by the fire, this is not the book for them. 

The one positive thing about this book is that the writing style was quite intelligent and appropriate. Although some of the stories couldn’t stand on their own, most of them could, which was a pleasant surprise. It was very clear where jokes were meant to be and they are set up properly, showing that Sedaris actually does have a working knowledge of how humor is supposed to work. “The SantaLand Diaries,” were choppy and anecdotal, much like reading someone’s actual diary would be and the rest of the stories are written so that they escalate up to the big twist or conclusion of the story. This did create a very repetitive effect though and after reading two or three stories the reader gets sort of numb to the shock factor of it all. 

The compilation of Sedaris’s stories and sometimes even within the stories themselves feels like someone who doesn’t fully understand comedy and thinks that by doing or saying random things, he or she can make people laugh. It was difficult to follow along with what was happening at times and it was necessary to go back and reread paragraphs to try to gain some ideas for what the joke is meant to be. Reading each short story felt like getting stood up by a date that you weren’t even into. 

The comedy itself was often in bad taste, so much of the comedy was reliant on stereotypes and stigmas, with the jokes being at the expense of the stereotyped and stigmatized. When Sedaris talks about people, the observations are surface level, without there being an actual commentary on the behavior to elevate the observation. The jokes often amounted to, “This person did this. Did this! Right there, they did this! Can you believe it!?!” It’s enough to make people disgusted to be a part of the human race, not enough to make a joke. He is often crude or dark which would be perfectly fine, if it actually had a point beyond just being edgy to shock the readers.  

The shock value of the stories isn’t enough to carry the book to the finish line, it becomes boring and the reader becomes desensitized to it. The only actually amusing stories were the ones in the latter half of the book based on his own life like ‘Us and Them’ or “Let it Snow’, which were relatable in a way, but they were not enough to overshadow the mediocrity of the rest of the stories.  Sedaris’s stories are definitely meant to be satirical, that much is obvious but when reading them, but it’s difficult for that tone to shine through. 

Sedaris is an acclaimed humorist, who first found success reading his diary from his stint as an elf in Macy’s SantaLand on the radio. On the radio, Sedaris may be gut-wrenchingly hilarious, but on paper? Not so much. Part of the reason that Sedaris’s humor didn’t seem funny, could have to do with the medium. A large part of comedy is delivery; tone, inflection, emphasis play a crucial role in a joke landing with its audience and conveying them through text is very difficult and even though it was clear Sedaris was telling a joke, the punchlines remained non-existent. If perhaps the medium was radio and the stories were primarily those about Sedaris’s life, then his humor would be showcased in a better way, and it would actually be funny instead of the jumble that the book is. 

Reading the book was an uncomfortable experience. Each turn of the page laborious. Each new story bringing a different level of misery never before experienced. The spirit of the holidays slowly withering away into nothing.

Bah humbug.

Mythreyi Namuduri is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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