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Tinsel

Let Tinsel put sparkle in your holidays

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The Christmas carol quietly coos that "all is calm, all is bright."

You don't know about calm -- the traffic and pedestrian gawkers kind of ruin that sentiment -- but bright? Yep, that pretty much sums up your neighborhood and all the holiday lights decorating the houses and yards.

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Bright? You owe your next months' salary to the electric company.

So why do it? In the new book Tinsel by Hank Steuver, you'll read about the holidays run wonderfully amok in one Texas city, and the answer that is -- why not?

Author Hank Steuver wasn't really a Christmas kinda guy. Oh, sure, his family celebrated years ago with the requisite gifts and Santa and midnight mass. But somewhere along the way -- maybe when his parents divorced or his sister moved out-of-state -- Steuver lost the holiday.

"By 1991," he says, "Christmas seemed to be happening to everyone else."

So when he decided to write a sort-of exposé on Christmas during the 2006 season, he envisioned that it might be a book about the ugly side of the holiday, including sweat shops and "oppressed elves."

Instead, he headed for Frisco, Texas.

On the day after Thanksgiving 2006, well before dawn, Steuver began his sojourn in line, outside a major retail store with a forty-something single mother. Later, he signed up to be a volunteer "elf" for a phenomenally energetic woman who started a business decorating million-dollar homes for hundreds of dollars an hour, and who desperately wanted Steuver to believe in Christmas. And before the week was out, Steuver had spent time learning about bulbs from a couple whose house is so famous for its light show that a video of it went viral.

While in Frisco, Steuver visited megachurches, partly to watch the single mother -- a tech volunteer -- in action, and partly as a mere voyeur. While helping the decorator, he espied secrets of the too-rich, and he felt a little jaded. When he witnessed an emotional and angry family dinner-table debate over the war in Iraq, he compassionately turned off his inner-journalist. And when learning about giving for charity, he discovered that being a snoop can sometimes burst one's bubble.

Still, he says, "It is entirely possible that I suck at all of this Christmasy goodness."

I beg to differ. Much like opening a present wrapped in too much tissue paper, to read Tinsel is to pick apart Christmas and its meanings, layer upon layer, before you finally reach a gem.

Steuver is witty, and affectionate in regard to the three families of "elves" that helped him explore the frenzy that Christmas has become. He's gently sneering, and oh-so-funny. He doesn't insult, but he's willing to cast light on silliness and spoiledness, and things people do in a quest for the "perfect" holiday.

In short, author Hank Steuver is a superbly saucy and cynical chronicler of just one facet of Christmas, and I loved this book.

If you're looking for some bite to your Christmas reading, look for this drolly merry and wonderful holiday book. For you, Tinsel definitely sparkles.

***

Book review columnist Terri Schlichenmeyer lives in West Salem, Wis., with her two dogs and 9,000 books.

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