‘Pleasant but uneven’: A bad review! Ow-ie!

crying-with-santaYesterday my editor at Houghton sent me Kirkus Reviews‘ take on Tinsel from the Oct. 1 issue. Remember when I promised I would post the bad reviews along with the good?

Well, here’s a bad one — not horribly awful, but far from glowing. First of all, you might ask: What is Kirkus Reviews? It’s a magazine that nobody but nervous authors and publishers read. It reviews books way before they’re released, like Publisher’s Weekly. You can’t get the reviews online unless you subscribe to it. But I’m cutting and pasting from an e-mail. So here:

In 2006 the author went to live in suburban Texas, with return trips in 2007 and 2008, to pursue the cultural meaning of Christmas in America. He tells the stories of three Christmas-obsessed Texans: Tammie Parnell, a mother of two who runs a holiday decorating business; Jeff Trykoski, a computer engineer who becomes a local celebrity each year as he decorates his house with nearly 50,000 Christmas lights; and single mother Caroll Cavazos, who, along with a mob of other bargain shoppers, camps out in a Best Buy parking lot the morning after Thanksgiving. The Dallas suburb that Stuever documents—Frisco, population 90,000—is a fairly stereotypical example of suburban sprawl, dotted with megachurches and stripmalls, with all the garish tackiness and consumerism that entails.

Though the author aims to empathize with his subjects, he can’t resist taking some shots, singling out shallowness for special ridicule. Parnell, for example, fantasizes about doing Christmas decorations for the Bush White House, but is absolutely clueless about the wars Bush is waging; after learning of an earthquake in China that killed some 10,000 people, Trykoski worried about whether the Chinese Christmas-light factories were destroyed; Cavazos, the ultimate American consumer, overspends on Christmas presents and attends a church that features a Starbucks in the vestibule. The mockery here is a bit obvious, perhaps, but it does have a certain wicked charm. The problem occurs when Stuever tries to raise the tone of the narrative—quoting statistics about consumer spending or dwelling on the emptiness of suburban living—in an effort to transform the book into a more serious study. As a result of the tonal shifts, his sociological conclusions about the meaning of Christmas in America are somewhat muddled. A pleasant but uneven look at Christmas in suburbia.

I’m not one of those people who tries to avoid reading bad reviews. (Madonna is. But I am not.) I think I can learn from any and all feedback, and hope to. I’m also going to ask a dermatologist if there are any topicals that literally thicken one’s skin. Tinsel is a strange book and not everyone is going to love it.

And can we talk about karma? All these years I’ve been writing about other people, sometimes in ways that did not please them, and now I’m a critic of TV shows. There’s a huge karmic imbalance here. I’m surely due for a serving of my own medicine. (Shit, you should see what I just did to Kelsey Grammer’s new sitcom. Yes, it’s called Hank.)

The Kirkus review doesn’t bother me too much. It did stir up the strangest mother-hen feelings in me for the characters. I think the critic (there wasn’t a byline attached) has more contempt for Frisco and its people — sight unseen — that I would have ever conveyed. Also, Jeff wasn’t literally worried about the fate of his Christmas lights in the Chinese earthquake — he is making a smart joke about his own obsessiveness. And Caroll never overspends on anything. She’s the only person I met in Frisco who kept to a strict Christmas shopping budget.

Anyway, I can make this all better with magical, sparkly ellipsis, like many a movie-poster copywriter before me.

“Pleasant! … A certain wicked charm!”Kirkus Reviews


  1. blathering on September 30, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Kirkus is used by librarians to help purchasing decisions but I
    don’t think it is a primary resource.

  2. Jolene on September 30, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Love the movie-poster line. And don’t you hate it when reviewers don’t get it? Treating the joke about the joke about the Chinese lights as snark from you is a serious misrepresentation.

  3. Jolene on September 30, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    On another topic, I got a kick out of your review of Ken Burns on the parks. So different from my own take! Like NN, I’d resolved not to watch it because I knew what was coming–rapturousness and piousness. But, for whatever reason, I did watch the first episode and got interested.

    I am more a policy/public issues person than a pop culture person, so what I found interesting were the struggles over development vs. preservation and the stories of the individuals and organizations involved in those battles. I probably should already have known more about them than I did, but am glad to have learned what I did. The four hours I’ve seen so far have reminded me of the basic facts of life and politics. To wit, life is struggle. Change takes time. You have to find champions. You have to build public support. You have to persist. So, despite the piousness and repetition, I’m inspired by what I’ve seen so far–not about the wonderfulness of nature, but about the wonderfulness of people who keep on keeping on.

    So, a much more earnest take than yours, but, what can I say? I’m an earnest person. Thus, I especially appreciate your sharp take, which is exactly right in an entirely different way.

  4. Jolene on September 30, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Whoops! Forgot to look at the bottom of the tiny little screen I’m typing on before posting. Oh well.

  5. Hank Stuever on September 30, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Jolene — I fixed it for ya! Thanks for coming back here and leaving comments.
    I’m sorry (to all) that comment screen trails off — I have asked and
    asked WordPress how to fix it. Will keep asking. (Does anybody know?)

    And you’re right about National Parks, too. There is a TON of fascinating
    history in it. I think I just chafe at the tone, the default to pompous.
    (Good thing I live in Washington, hunh?)

  6. Leanne Potts on October 1, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    This isn’t criticism, it’s anonymous sniping. Ignore it. If the writer can’t put his name on it he don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

  7. Joanne on October 8, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    I disagree with the reviewer’s comments. I didn’t see your remarks
    as taking shots at the characters or “singling them out for
    ridicule”. I thought those remarks added a lot to the
    understanding of how most people think, centered very much on their
    own lives, not thinking globally. I think we can all admit to
    being caught up in our own lives to the exclusion of things that
    are happening elsewhere in the world. Maybe it’s more from a sense
    that we’re pretty much powerless and have little control over what
    happens beyond our own community.

    I actually thought those remarks added something. I read a lot of
    books, and this one really stands out. I didn’t expect to like it
    so much.

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