Amurph11’s #CBR4 Reviews #38 and #39 – A Tale of Two Sedarises“Sometimes the sins you haven’t committed are all you have left to hold onto.” ― David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames “Like all of my friends, she’s a lousy judge of character.”― David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day
Well, it’s December, and the holiday season has officially begun. In the Murphy household (read: the household in which I am the only resident), this means it’s time to start reading one of two things: Harry Potter or David Sedaris.
Yes, December is a time for tradition, and my tradition is to read about socially awkward young men with hidden talents (in the case of Harry Potter, magic, in the case of David Sedaris, witty self-deprecation). Which one I choose greatly depends on the outlook with which I have chosen to greet the holiday season. This year has found me in more of a Sedaris mood – make of that what you will.
I find David Sedaris to be one of the world’s most comforting writers, and these two collections are without a doubt my favorite of his entire catalogue. They both show off his greatest talent to its best possible effect: the rare ability to both attract and repel simultaneously. Sedaris has an unapologetic fascination with things that repulse ordinary people, and for that alone he is worthy of praise. For instance, one of the stories I have found myself returning to again and again involves the head of a guinea worm poking out of his mother-in-law’s leg (“It’s Catching”) – it’s a disgusting story, but for some reason it fills me with a reassurance that most people find from their actual mother. Another one finds him enlisting his longtime boyfriend’s help in lancing a boil just to the left of his crack, and it is, no kidding, one of the great love stories of our time.
Sedaris made his name off of the dysfunctional stories of his childhood and for good reason, but my favorites are always the stories that deal with the daily pratfalls of his current life. One of my all-time favorites, from When You Are Engulfed In Flames, involves a process that should be familiar to anyone who is the less functional member of a couple (incidentally, if you are reading this wondering which person in your relationship is less functional, it’s probably you). He decides, in a fit of pique, that he is done with his long-term relationship, and rehearses in his mind the speech with which he will break it off before realizing that his boyfriend is the one that does absolutely everything:
“Hugh takes care of all that. And when he’s out of town I eat like a wild animal, the meat still pink with hair or feathers clinging to it. So is it any wonder that he runs from me? No matter how angry I get, it always comes down to this: I am going to leave, and then what? Move in with my dad? Thirty minutes of pure rage, and when I finally spot him I realize that I’ve never been so happy to see anyone in my life.”
Another place Sedaris shines is when he’s attempting to learn a language – by “shines” I am of course referring to his writing about the experience, and not his mastery of the languages themselves. Both of these books involve stories about Sedaris’ travails with foreign languages; the inspiration for the title of Me Talk Pretty One Day was the series of fruitless attempts Sedaris made to learn French, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames involves a fantastic story about the time he moved to Japan to quit smoking and subsequently enrolled in Japanese class. Spoiler alert: he succeeds at quitting, and fails miserably at mastering anything beyond “konichiwa.”
Possibly the only thing better than when Sedaris is learning a language is when he’s offending random strangers. And my god, are there ever examples to choose from. The best is probably “Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle,” the tale of the epic battle between Sedaris and his seatmate on a flight to Raleigh. I’m not even going to explain it further, except to say that it involves, among other things, a misplaced lozenge.
Reading all of Sedaris’ books in a row gives a great overview of what an amazingly accomplished writer he is. Part of the beauty of shorter pieces, whether it be essay or short story, is that they give you more opportunities to hone your work. Personal essays seem deceptively easy when you’re not the one writing them; it’s only be seeing Sedaris’ progression from his first collection to his most recent that one can fully appreciate his mastery of the form. His stories become progressively shorter, tighter, and cleaner, without ever losing the pure infusion of personality, the honest assessment of his character deficiencies, and his brilliant sense of the absurd and the macabre.
But I digress. Chances are, you know all this already because you read one David Sedaris book and then immediately went out and read the rest. If you haven’t, then why are you even still reading this? Go fix it.
Recommended for: Weirdos
Read When: You’re begrudgingly entering a season dedicated to religious observance and familial tradition
Listen With: the audiobook versions of all his books.