Hippo Manchester
December 29, 2005

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Books: The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales (HarperAudio, 2005, 6 hours on 5 CDs)

B- 

It’s all in the delivery.

Of this compilation’s 18 essays, read aloud by their authors, the one that made me laugh out loud was Marian Keyes’ “We Really Must Get Together This Year,” read by Katrina Keyes, and it was all because of that Irish accent saying “whoever th’ hell ya are” about Christmas card addressees.

The one that made me snort-laugh was “Buy Humbug,” by Cintra Wilson, again because of the gusto with which she reads it.

Runner-up was “Donner is Dead,” where Cynthia Kaplan recounts the time she and her small family hit a deer while driving their tiny Honda through snowy Vermont.

It is less the content of these tales – though that helps – than the richness with which their writers relate them.

Others sound tedious – maybe they were better on the printed page – and too many hinge on the awkwardness of being a Jew who does, or doesn’t, celebrate Christmas. A potentially humorous topic, that, but not so many times in one Noel collection.

The best ones are the funny ones, unless you simply feel like wallowing in Eeyore-land for a while. Binnie Kirshenbaum’s tale of a bad breakup in front of the Christmas tree is very good, but not at all funny or zingy. Joni Rodgers’ verbal re-enactment of the time she comforted a wounded (car-struck) Santa in the street is more disturbing and sad than anything else. Of course, the book is called “Hellish Holiday Tales” … but the sad-sack tree pictured on the cover looks funny-hellish rather than sinister-hellish, so you might be excused for expecting mirth, which is also foreshadowed in titles like “I’ll Have Christmas with the Works on Rye, Hold the Ham and Jesus,” and “Rum Balls.”

However, approximately zero of the humorous or quirky essay compilations ever made are 100 percent satisfying; there’s always a stretch or two of boredom, always some disappointment (possibly in different paces for different readers). If you’ve learned this and you are OK with getting three really good essays and a few might-as-well-have-listened-to-this-as-anything-else essays out of an 11-essay collection, well, then, enjoy.

—Lisa Parsons