Friday, November 2, 2018

David Sedaris

Reviewed by Jeanne

I first encountered David Sedaris on NPR with his classic story, “The Santaland Diaries.”  I soon heard him on other shows but never picked up a book until this summer.  I started with Me Talk Pretty One Day because I knew part of the book was about living in France.  The first section dealt with Sedaris’ early years, transplanted to North Carolina along with his parents and siblings.  It was a great deal of culture shock for all concerned.  Sedaris’ youth, move to New York, and struggle to simply survive in the city while stuck in a variety of unsatisfying jobs were all covered as well. The second part of the book was more focused on Sedaris’ life in France.  He and his partner, Hugh, bought a house and Sedaris set about learning French, which wasn’t easy as the title of the book implies. 

Now comes the hard part:  how to describe Sedaris’ writing to someone who has never read him.

First off, they are wonderfully well written.  Sedaris knows how to turn a phrase and has a wide vocabulary to express his meaning, though it never feels as if he is showing off.  More than anything else, though, he knows how to control a narrative.  It’s almost like a symphony: there are cringe-inducing incidents, moments of despair and futility, hilarious interludes, and a good dose of thoughtful observations—followed by something rather appalling.  He plays his audience like a grand piano.

I followed Me Talk Pretty One Day with the audio version of his latest book, Calypso.  Sedaris himself does the narration and does a predictably masterful job.  Some of the subject matter is darker this time, as his sister Tiffany has committed suicide.  This thread runs through the entire book as family members pause at different times to question and to wonder: what drove her to do it?  As always, Sedaris is brutally honest, even quoting a comment left by a non-family member accusing the family of causing Tiffany’s suicide.

Also as always, the stories are entertaining, thoughtful and frequently hilarious.  One reoccurring event is the family gathering at a beach house Sedaris bought in North Carolina.  He recounts childhood visits to the beach and how in the first flush of the visit his father would proclaim that they would buy a house there (to wild acclaim from the children) then walk back the idea as the week progressed. So Sedaris decides to make that notion come true.  He envisions it as a family retreat and as such, refuses to allow a TV in the house, leading to one of my favorite moments in the book. I won’t spoil it for you.

After reading comments on Goodreads, I think now that perhaps I should have started with his first book, Naked, or such was the recommendations by many.  There is more family background presented and might have given me more insight during Me Talk Pretty, though I enjoyed it as was.  However, I am going to make Naked my next Sedaris book, before I pick up any others.

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