Tuesday, November 17, 2009


David Sedaris is another author (like Bill Bryson) that I look forward to reading, book after book. The first one I read was Me Talk Pretty One Day, back in the summer of 2001. You know how some movies or books have such great and funny and apt lines that they just don't go away and you keep incorporating them into your life and conversation and laughing over and over? Well, that's Me Talk Pretty One Day! When I had this book open, I could not stop laughing - even while sitting all by myself on a public park bench. I may have looked a bit on the crazy side, but I couldn't help myself. He is that hilarious!

A couple of summers later, I was reading his book Naked while traveling, and the same thing happened again, yet another bout of suppressed (as best I could) snickers and snorts. Coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of thing that Sedaris loves to write about, i.e., what to do when you find yourself seated beside a nutcase on an airplane.

Holidays on Ice kept me entertained (more audible, embarrassing chuckling) while sitting in a huge holding pen in Philadelphia, waiting to see if I would be chosen for jury duty. Some of these Christmas essays don't strike me as Sedaris at his best, but "Dinah, the Christmas Whore" (also included in Naked) really captures his mother's compassionate nature. And in "SantaLand Diaries" (also included in Barrel Fever) Sedaris recounts his laughable stint as a department store elf named Crumpet. Laughable, but also grim. It is certainly not all HoHoHo in Elf Land. Sedaris reveals the dark side of seasonal employment and the less than charitable side of some parents who bring their kids to sit on Santa's lap.

If you're a fan of that silly movie Elf, then you know what "SantaLand Diaries" is all about. In fact, you'd swear that Sedaris had a hand in that film script. Watch Elf closely, and you'll notice that Amy Sedaris, beloved sister of David, has a part in the movie as an office secretary. (Speaking of Christmas movies, you may also recall that the two little brothers in A Christmas Story have a similarly bad experience when they visit the humorless department store Santa to ask about the BB gun.)

It is sad that David & Amy's mother didn't live to a ripe old age to see the success of her talented children. As portrayed in her son's essays, she seems an amazing woman. I admire the way she blows off all the teachers and school counselors who try to tell her there's something wrong with David when he is little and just starting school: "The kid's wound too tight, but he'll come out of it," she says, in "A Plague of Tics" (14, Naked). She trusted that everything would come out okay for him, and it did! The essays in which he describes the end of her life are heartbreaking, especially, "Ashes" (234 - 250, Naked).

Neither of his parents are anything like either of mine, nor are his five siblings much like my five; yet the family life he describes -- the discipline, the holidays, the values, the squabbling -- feels so familiar to me! Maybe it's his gift (one of many) to make everyone feel that way. In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, he takes a tender-hearted look at his various siblings, now adults. In When You Are Engulfed in Flames, he shares many funny moments of traveling with his partner Hugh, as well as many humorous examples of his attempt to learn Japanese, while living in Japan and giving up cigarettes.

His Japanese language lessons are reminiscent of his earlier French lessons, as described in the essay "Jesus Shaves" (177 - 180, Me Talk Pretty One Day). In a vocabulary exercise featuring French holidays, Sedaris learns that in France it is not the Easter Bunny who brings the chocolate eggs; it is the Easter Bell! This hilarious essay contains everything that I like most about Sedaris. He is so earnest yet so whimsical and unbelievably funny. So cynical yet so hopeful. Nothing slips past him. As he says of his French class:

"Why bother struggling with the grammar lessons of a six-year-old if each of us didn't believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve? If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. So why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt? I told myself that despite her past behavior, my teacher was a kind and loving person who had only my best interests at heart. I accepted the idea that an omniscient God had cast me in his own image and that he watched over me and guided me from one place to the next. The Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and countless miracles -- my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.

A bell, though . . . ." (180)

[You'll have to read the book yourself to see his final observation concerning this cultural oddity!]If you're into books on tape (CD, IPOD, whatever) it is especially fun to listen to Sedaris read his own works. He is very funny, of course, and so sincerely modest and unassuming; there's a touching sweetness in his tone that I wasn't really expecting.

For additional listening fun, try Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!). Colbert, like Sedaris, has a built-in shit detector (see The Quotidian Kit, right hand column.) and he's not afraid to use it! You can plug these books in, do a few miles on the treadmill, and let everyone else at the gym wonder what the heck it is that you're chortling about!