"Spending the Holidays With People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Yuletide Yahoos, Ho-Ho-Humblebraggers, and Other Seasonal Scourges" (Ballantine Books), by Jen Mann
The wisecracking, self-proclaimed underachiever behind the popular blog and book "People I Want to Punch in the Throat" is back with a holiday essay collection that's both bah humbug and bahaha funny.
The stories that author Jen Mann tells in "Spending the Holidays With People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Yuletide Yahoos, Ho-Ho-Humblebraggers, and Other Seasonal Scourges" are familiar and relatable, no matter which holidays you celebrate.
Mann describes herself as a "sarcastic, bitchy, funny, sometimes offensive, middle-aged, tired, married mother of two who tends to say out loud (with as many profanities as possible) what everyone else is thinking." When she turns her artful pen on the folly of the holidays, hilarity ensues.
The tone is snarky, and Mann's candid style is easy and conversational. She is skilled at authentic dialogue and creates amusing recurring characters, including the socially awkward, penny-pinching "Hubs" and her enthusiastic Mom, who sees holiday decorating as an "Olympic sport."
Mann admits she doesn't have the time or energy to match her mother's holidaypalooza, which boasts 12 themed trees, 102 nativity scenes and 150 Santa figures. Although she describes her mother's winter wonderland in amazing detail, she cheats readers of the joy of photos.
It seems everyone in Mann's world is just one bad gift, one lost tradition, or one burned cookie away from ruining Christmas. She builds suspense in each harrowing tale of missteps, while commenting on the anxiety the holidays create, especially for moms trying to hold everything together and create the magic of the season.
Two essays — one on an overheard conversation between Overachieving Moms preparing for the holidays and another on humblebrag Christmas letters — give Mann a chance to air her grievances about all the irritating people who tout perfection.
Mann keeps it real in her own witty, self-deprecating letter, which heralds broken bones, her young son's propensity for nudity and outrageous prices at Disney World.
By poking fun at the insanity of Martha Stewart-worshipping moms, and the cultural pressure to acquire expensive stuff, Mann provides relief — and a voice — for those who feel they can never compete.
While Mann spends a sleigh-load of time on Christmas stories, there are recognizable riffs on other holidays, including fighting over the TV on Thanksgiving, trashy Halloween costumes and the stress and effort required to perpetuate the myth of Santa and the Easter Bunny.
Mann's first essay collection cast a wide net on suburban life. Here she is limited by the holiday theme and seems to be stretching more to find the funny. But she still manages to dig deeper into the sociological implications of crowd-think behavior and the dangers of getting sucked into a "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality.
In one poignant story, Mann writes about a shopping trip with her grandmother and two younger cousins who don't have children. The cousins buy a fancy designer purse and jewelry, but Mann's desires are more practical — like a washer-dryer. Like many moms, she'd rather spend money on gifts for her kids. As her cousins seem to pity her, Mann proudly buys a fleece muumuu, proving she's comfortable in a caftan, and her own skin.
Mann mercilessly mocks everyone from caroling neighbors to a randy department store Santa, yet it's clear the holidays are meaningful to her. While her cookies might not be perfect (or even baked), and she may forget where she hid her son's coveted gift, she's determined to create happy memories for her children.
Mann's writing has transcended from witty anecdotes and complaints to notable satire. Hidden among the many laugh-out loud zingers are lessons on how we relate to each other, and how ridiculous parenting culture has become.
Check out Brooke Lefferts' blog carpoolcandy.com and follow her on Twitter @carpoolcandy.