Book Review: ‘Miserable Holiday Stories’: The Season’s All About Beginning Anew

TIMENovember 26, 2021

One of life’s universal truths is that everyone has lived through their own personal holiday disaster. Whether due to unexpected circumstances, already existing family tensions, or a simple oversight blown out of all proportion, we can all recall at least one festive situation that is best forgotten. Alex Bernstein uses this premise as a starting point for “Miserable Holiday Stories.”

The book presents an involving collection of experiences where confusion, despair, and desperation threaten to overwhelm those involved. But rather than simply explore holiday incidents gone awry, Bernstein makes it a point to include important life lessons in each of his tales.

Alex Berstein author of Miserable Holiday Stories
Alex Bernstein at a book signing for one of his previous books, “Miserable Love Stories.” (Carolyn Smaka)

Those caught up in the circumstances depicted—situations almost always of their own making—are given the opportunity to discover answers that were right in front of them the whole time. Such is the case in “Blue Christmas,” where Rob, the treasurer of the local Jewish Community Center, obsesses over his selection of an Elvis Presley impersonator for the group’s annual holiday party. At the same time, he tries to explain to his 6-year-old son why they can’t have a Christmas tree.

Similar themes are also explored, albeit through difference circumstances, in “Young, Confused Parents,” where an interfaith couple attempts to determine how to best spiritually raise their son.

While the aforementioned tales contain strong comedic elements, things take a more somber turn with such offerings as “Grampa Lou’s Legacy.” The tale features a recent divorcee and frustrated writer who returns home for the holidays to go through her long-deceased grandfather’s dairies.

In the same vein is “Julian,” in which a man who has lost everything that gave his life meaning must decide if it’s worth it to even try to get it back. He’s not helped by the fact that his friend has no conception of personal responsibility or the effect one’s behavior has on others.

Another involving tale is “Brownie Mix.” It’s basically an inner monologue from a totally exhausted and not-quite-innocent husband and father. He finds himself cleaning up after a massive party at his home after everyone has gone to bed.

While many of these stories have a specific holiday connection, others have a much more peripheral link to the Yuletide season.

A case in point is “The 22,” an offering that had me laughing out loud. The author brings together a diverse group of characters, including an 82-year-old man with a penchant for deer hunting, a woman obsessed with social media, a daughter in denial of her father’s altered mental status, and a law enforcement officer just trying to maintain order. Yet despite the ever-increasing absurdity, as more and more situations and characters are added to the mix, one can also see the power of a quiet moment of reflection. This highlights the beauty of the season and the simple things in life.

This same premise can also be found in “The Smoker’s Lounge.” One of the inhabitants of said location becomes a shining example of how people can be far different from the way they are initially perceived.

Interspersed with these different “slice-of-life” tales are stories that go the more fantastical route. “The Unbreakable Toy” is about a nerdy inventor who seems to have invented the perfect gift for the holidays, only to find himself forced to choose between his friends and his creation, and the success it can bring. The story is a not-so veiled warning of “being careful what you wish for.” There’s also “The #$@!# Bicycle Boys Save Christmas Again!”—a delightful spoof on the teenage detective genre.

The book closes with “Bits & Pieces.” It’s a series of writings in which the unnamed commentator expounds on certain constants of Christmas that annoy him.

Guaranteed to bring a smile to your face, an occasional tear to your eye, and at least one wry nod of empathy, “Miserable Holiday Stories” makes a perfect stocking stuffer for anyone who celebrates the holiday season (and also for everyone who doesn’t).

Did I mention that the book’s subtitle is “20 Festive Failures THAT ARE WORSE THAN YOURS”?

‘Miserable Holiday Stories’
Alex Bernstein
Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
Paperback: 288 pages

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.