Just in time for the holidays: Guilt

Want some Christmas cheer with your magazines? Forget about it.

Published December 20, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

December is a flush time for magazines, for all the obvious reasons. Even though newsstand sales are down by 40 percent (according to the fall issue of Consumer Magazines), there's plenty of advertising to go around in the holiday season and plenty to be thankful for.

Unless you work at New Woman, which was unceremoniously closed last week, with the editors told to clean out their desks in two days. Or George, which announced it was scrapping its next issue. Or at Vibe or Spin or the Village Voice, where you don't know who you're going to be working for next year.

But even as the balance of general-interest publications are grinding out the service copy, promoting Christmas flicks, holiday cookies and office-party-don't lists ("Humping the stock boy on the xerox machine won't get you that bonus you're looking for!"), a number of more serious periodicals have nixed the mirth. For every 10 Martha Stewart wannabes telling you how to flock a pine cone, there's one somber sister reminding you that some people have to eat pine cones in the winter. Unflocked.

Here is a list of the better lumps of coal we saw this month:

The Utne Reader This bimonthly compendium of "the best of the alternative media" is never exactly a feel-good read; its social conscience won't allow it. But somewhere in the frozen Minnesota tundra some levity must flourish. How else explain the banner on this month's issue -- "Return to Sender: The Gifts We Reject"? The David Ehrenfeld story (originally published in the quarterly Orion) is actually a tender meditation on opportunities missed, on "gifts" rejected by our own selfishness and short-sightedness and not (thank goodness) a guide to returning politically incorrect presents. The issue's theme -- "The Great American Sellout" -- is one the editors found everywhere, in hundreds of publications. They've just gilded them and placed them under your tree -- a tree that will never be a magazine.

Mother Jones Just as countless teenagers are bugging the shit out of their parents in hopes of finding Quake III Arena under the tree, MoJo comes out with a feature on the possibly pernicious effects of computer battle games. "Culture Quake," by Paul Keegan, follows the believers to E3 (the annual Electronic Entertainment Exposition) to see the latest in virtual annihilation. "Target specific body parts and actually see the damage done -- including exit wounds," a game called Kingpin exhorts its users. (Well, sure; what's the point without the exit wounds?) Keegan's even-handed reporting is sold somewhat short by the numerous photos of Quake and Doom users staring at the screen as if dreaming up the next Columbine massacre (one guy's eyes even have pinwheels drawn over them). And is he really offering up the Hobbit-like Myst as an alternative? You can't blow anything up in that game. Maryanne Vollers tracks more terrestrial prey in "Buffalo Soldiers," an account of a ragtag group of hippies and American Indians trying to save wild bison in Yellowstone from massacre. No reindeer games here.

The Atlantic Monthly The Atlantic would seem to be playing the Marley's-ghost game with the season in putting a story about an Indian reservation on its cover. But Ian Frazier's "On the Rez" (from his forthcoming book of the same name) takes on the reader's assumptions about the miserable life of the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the very first paragraph. "When I describe this subject to non-Indians, they often reply that it sounds bleak," Frazier writes. "'Bleak' is the word attached in many people's minds to the idea of certain Indian reservations, of which the Oglala's reservation is perhaps the best example. Oddly, it is a word I have never heard used by Indians themselves. Many thousands of people -- not just Americans but German and French and English people, and more -- visit the reservations every year, and the prevailing opinion among the Indians is not that they come for the bleakness. The Indians understand that the visitors are there out of curiosity and out of an admiration which sometimes reaches such a point that the visitors even wish they could be Indians too." This is luminous writing, Frazier at his finest. It is heartening that the Atlantic's new editor, Michael Kelly, cited this as an example of the kind of thing he'd like to be running regularly.

Harper's Magazine You can read Guy Lawson's "Down and Out at the Hotel Providence" while enjoying your Christmas dinner of turkey with all the stuffings, you bourgeois swine, though it's not guaranteed to make you feel guilty. The author, who lived in a Bowery flophouse in researching the article, limns the world of the dispossessed convincingly. But since many of the people presented are low-level cons, drug addicts and shake-down artists, I failed to find my heart bleeding. Which I think was the idea: Lawson's is a clearer-eyed depiction of men whose lives play out like a lit fuse. These are the facts without the gravy, let alone the cranberries. And sometimes the facts are quite enough: Be sure to check out Harper's Index this month, which takes us (with its typically elliptical logic) from the number of Americans who favor a resumption of nuclear-arms testing (one in 10) past the average number of death threats Rudy Giuliani receives each week (2) to the percentage of Americans who feel that the media "hurt democracy" (38). I wonder how they feel we do with the holidays?

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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