There’s nothing more satisfying than walking into a bookshop and discovering there is a new book by a favourite author sat on the shelf that you had no idea about! It happened twice to me two weeks ago, which was why I now have David Sedaris’ new book and Gulp by the fantastic Mary Roach sat on my bookshelf.
There’s a quote on the back of the book about Sedaris being ‘a man who could capture your heart and lift your spirits while reading out the ingredients of a rice cake’ and that’s pretty much spot on. He has an unerring ability to write about completely mundane things and elevate them to a borderline inspirational status, via a humour so dry I occasionally wonder how he’s a success in the big sledgehammer American market.
So this book has all sorts in it–his failing memory, pleasurable experiences with dentists and colonoscopies, the day his sister was attacked in the bushes (yes, it’s still funny), learning languages all over the world and stomping around the English countryside picking up litter. So, as a list, probably not a comedy highlight, but damn him, he just makes them all endearing and really bloody hilarious. (It does help if you ever seen or heard him live, to hear the whole book read in his voice…)
There were two stand-out moments that had me snorting. The first:
People get older, and you’d be surprised by what they forget. Like, for example, a few weeks back I called my mother to wish her a happy birthday, her eightieth. “I bet you wish that Dad was still alive,” I said. “That way the two of you could celebrate together.”
“But he is still alive,” she told me.
“Well of course,” she said. “Who do you think answered the phone?”
There are things you forget naturally–computer passwords, your father’s continuing relationship with life; here I am, just turned fifty, and I forgot that my father isn’t dead yet! In my defense, he’s pretty close to it.’
When I tried re-telling the anecdote to John, he stared blankly at me. I don’t think I do deadpan well.
‘Putting the [industrial tub of condoms] in the cart, I thought nothing of it, but a moment later, walking down the aisle with my fifty-nine-year-old brother-in-law, I started feeling patently, almost titanically, gay. Maybe I was imagining things, but it seemed as if people were staring at us–people inf amilies, mostly, led by thrifty and disapproving parents who looked at what you were buying, and narrowed their eyes in judgement. You homosexuals, their faces seemed to say. Is that all you think about?
My brother-in-law is around my height, with thick, graying hair, a matching moustache, and squarish wire-rimmed glasses. I’d never imagined him as gay, much less as my boyfriend, but not I couldn’t stop. “We’ve got to get something else in this cart,” I told him.
Bob disappeared into the acreage reserved for produce and returned a minute later with a four-pound box of strawberries. This somehow made us looked even gayer. “After anal sex, we like shortcake!” read the cartoon bubble now floating over our heads.
Bob, oblivious, looked up at the rafters and thought for a moment. “I guess I could use some olive oil.”
Which is what David Sedaris excels at: warm, funny, heartfelt. I love his ability to write around the eccentricities of his family in a simultaneously damning and loving way–it’s a balance I fail to achieve anytime I write about them, and it’s remarkable. But his finest ability, in my opinion, is his method of drawing together small strings of often unrelated, everyday ephemera to a conclusion in each essay that unexpectedly carried a huge weight of emotion and meaning, without ever being a Lifetime original movie kind of hammer. The finest example is in one of this older books where he writes an essay about his mother’s cancer, which ends with her smoking on the porch, staring into the glowing end of the cigarette and imagining cremation. There’s no ending to quite match that one in this collection, and to be honest, it’s probably not his strongest book, which is by no means an insult–it’s a superb collection, and comes highly recommended. I just feel that rather than buy just Diabetes, you should probably buy his whole back catalogue for good measure.