As part of the promotional tour for this book, David Sedaris made a stop in a Barnes and Noble in my city, and I ended up going sort of by accident (I bought a copy of the book on a whim the day before the event and learned that, by purchasing the book, I had also unknowingly purchased a ticket to the reading the next day). It was a fun event – Sedaris is charming and adorable in person, and was very polite to the requisite crazy people who tend to show up at every author reading I’ve ever attended (I remember one particularly memorable woman at a Margaret Atwood reading who started out asking Atwood’s opinion about Britney Spears and her costumes throughout the years, and ended by shrieking that “What they did to Britney was A SIN! It was A SIN!” and it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen). A word of advice for anyone attending a Sedaris event in the future, though: the man is chatty. There were only a few dozen people in line to get their books signed, but he stopped and talked with every single person, sometimes for almost five minutes each. It took a long fucking time, which I wasn’t expecting, so be prepared for that. By the time it was my turn, I was just tired and didn’t have anything fascinating to say, but he was very nice and asked me some polite questions as he drew an owl on my book, and then he offered me one of the chocolates that another fan had apparently made for him. I suggested jokingly that they had been poisoned, because I don’t know how to talk like a normal human being, and he just kind of blinked at me, so I thanked him, grabbed my signed book, and ran. Anyway, add that to the list of Madeline’s Awkward Author Encounters and let’s get to the real review bit.
Like Sedaris’s previous collections, the essays here can be divided into three categories: stories about Sedaris’s childhood and early twenties, stories about his travels (usually featuring his boyfriend Hugh, who I’m sort of in love with), and essays written from the perspective of a fictional character. The last category is the hardest to spot, because often they’ll have the exact same tone and voice as his other essays, so you assume that they’re nonfiction until he reveals that the speaker is not, in fact, him. My favorite kind of Sedaris essay has always been the travel kind, and this book has plenty of those. I always love reading about his experiences learning new languages, and there’s a good passage about the differences between Japanese and German lessons:
“There’s no discord in Pimsleur’s Japan, but its Germany is a moody and often savage place. In one of the exercises, you’re encouraged to argue with a bellhop who tries to cheat you out of your change and who ends up sneering, ‘You don’t understand German.’
‘Oh, but I do,’ you learn to say. ‘I do understand German.’
It’s a program full of odd sentence combinations. ‘We don’t live here. We want mineral water’ implies that if the couple did live in this particular town they’d be getting drunk like everyone else. Another standout is ‘Der Wein ist zu teuer und Sie sprechen zu schnell.‘ (‘The wine is too expensive and you talk too fast.’) The response to this would be ‘Anything else, Herr Asshole?’ But of course they don’t teach you that.”
The essays dealing with Sedaris’s childhood are distinctly bittersweet, because although they’re still funny, there’s an underlying sadness to them that’s brought into the open much more than it was in his previous collections. This was the first time I had read anything about the abuse of the Sedaris children, and the saddest thing about these details was the way David Sedaris seems to calmly accept it as a normal part of everyone’s childhood, which I don’t think is true. Someone at the reading actually asked him about how his parents would beat him when he was a kid, and his response was essentially the same as it is in the book: he shrugged, and said that that was normal at the time and that he still didn’t find anything unusual about it.
Verdict: four out of five stars