A pissed-off holiday
No matter how many tidings of comfort and joy are thrown our way, some of us refuse to accept the holidays as anything but a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket. You may know us as Grinches, Scrooges - miserable bastards, all. We're the ones using eggnog as creamer for our mug of rum. Lighting cigarettes off the menorah. Reading Holidays on Ice instead of A Christmas Memory ("Fruitcake weather? How about a little ass-kicking weather, buddy-boy?") So if you're willing to risk, say, being boiled in pudding or staked through the heart with holly, here are a few gift ideas to try on your favorite Yuletide misanthrope. Just wrap up one of these sour little treats, leave it on the porch, ring the doorbell - and run like merry hell.
Call it a Chicken Soup for the Cheesed-Off Soul: Ian Urbina's Life's Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can't Take It Anymore (Times Books, $15) is a collection of inspirational tales meant to remind us that "petty behavior is the stuff of everyday survival." A veteran New York Times reporter, Urbina details dozens of ways that ordinary people have rebelled against social irritants including telemarketers, self-important wait staff, bad tippers, and clueless billing departments. Mostly, it's supremely passive-aggressive stuff (flagging uncollected dog poop with gold spray paint, pointedly aiming a tape recorder at a yakking cell-phone user), but it works, say the interviewees. As for the karmic repercussions of revenge, Urbina - who once spiked ice cream with salt to get back at a food-thieving roommate - observes with a shrug, "The prudent people are those who even the score now."
Having dressed down grammar scofflaws everywhere in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss is back to wag her finger in Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door (Gotham Books, $20), a screed against the "philistinism and yobbery" of modern society. It is not a guide to good manners, which Truss believes would be useless in "an age of lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence." Instead, she defines and analyzes the areas in which we flaunt our worst behavior ("The Universal Eff-Off Reflex," "Someone Else Will Clean It Up"), in the admittedly faint hope that recognizing bloody rudeness might, in the end, help defuse it.
Even people who hate people need a good laugh now and then, and Fraud author David Rakoff delivers with his viciously funny new collection of essays, Don't Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems (Doubleday, $22.95). Rakoff, who shares his drier-than-dry wit with contemporaries David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, lays bare our modern-day vanities and innate churlishness in such pieces as "What Is the Sound of One Hand Shopping?" - which asks how it is, exactly, that creature comforts have become moral virtues ("What's the thread count, Kenneth?" Rakoff wonders) - and the bumfuzzled patriotism of "Love It or Leave It," the story of the Canadian-born author's naturalization as an American citizen. Beneath our flabby First World exterior, these essays suggest, lies an enormous lack of character. Somewhere, Oscar Levant is smiling.
No matter what kind of miserable holiday hand you've ever been dealt by friends and loved ones, go ahead and fold 'em: The contributors to The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales (HarperCollins, $14.95) surely have you beat. United in the observation that Christmas can feel like, as Catherine Newman puts it, "one big sharp-sucked candy cane poking into your eye," the writers strip away the peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-all haze to share what are essentially survival stories. Not surprisingly, the long-suffering holiday Hebrew is well represented here, most notably by Neal Pollack's "The Jew Who Cooked a Ham for Christmas." In the best of the 18 essays, "Buy Humbug," Cintra Wilson admits that the holidays can bring the occasional transcendent moment of hope and peace. However, she adds, "I usually miss that moment because I'm pouring boiling water all over some child's snowman."