Shape up, America! Miss Manners (a/k/a Judith Martin) is back with a fresh updating of the original MISS MANNERS' GUIDE TO EXCRUCIATINGLY CORRECT BEHAVIOR from the 1970s. And she lays down the law -- only when necessary. She's more interested in deriving principles of correct behavior for everyday life; yet somehow her writings still manage to hold the conceit that the writer is just a little old mid-Victorian lady, quietly sobbing in her lace handkerchief over some new egregious violation of the canons of etiquette.
In short, Judith Martin is more pragmatic than many people give her credit for. People who want only to "do the right thing," wedding-wise, are sometimes unfortunately in thrall to the stereotype of a Hollywood film wedding, "circa 1948." If the numbers and relative sizes of the ushers don't match those of the bridesmaids, well, better to work something out than adhere to a strict model that was idealistic and perhaps a touch bogus to begin with. Miss Manners is against all this "pseudo socializing" at work, especially when people get nickled-and-dimed to death for gift recipients they barely know; but she's for uniforms on kids because otherwise they would look "so drearily alike" in their t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. She's against the kind of complicated and expensive stationery kit that bills itself a "stationery wardrobe"; note cards and letterhead are plenty for most of us, she avers, and don't waste money on preprinted "thank you" cards. Soon-to-be-married couples who suggest that they prefer money to presents deserve neither, in her estimation, especially if it's a second marriage. And she makes each case -- and so many others -- with ironclad logic and penetrating wit.
I must take gentle exception to the feeling that the advice in this book is more suitable to the Fifties than nowadays. Miss Manners deals quite well with blended families, moms-at-work, e-mail etiquette and other modern-manner topics. She correctly identifies the kind of clothing that today counts as "formal," in varying degrees, and depending on time of day. (A tuxedo is not necessarily "less formal" than a cutaway, it doesn't compete with the former because one is for day, one for night.) Yes, she tells how to serve "a la Russe" for fantastic multi-course dinners, but she gets the basics down first. There are definitely times when the humor is so tongue-in-cheek it sounds almost like a parody of those very strict etiquette guides so prominent in American life between the 1920s and the 1960s, but she invites us to laugh along.
This book is a great bargain and will serve as a complete guide for most Americans (well, almost, riding-to-hounds isn't dealt with, but I said "most" Americans). The extra zing from the humor and occasional high dudgeon of Judith Martin's alter ego make the trip all the more enjoyable. About half the text of the original 1970s EXCRUCIATINGLY CORRECT book is extant, but updated so carefully that I never felt we were being served leftovers.