Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review of "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris



This loosely autobiographical memoir from humorist David Sedaris is divided into essays, many of which are laugh out loud funny. The topics include Sedaris's childhood rebellion against speech therapy, unwanted guitar lessons taught by a midget, drug fueled (and extended) college years, weird presentations as an untalented performance artist, amusing interactions with his family and friends, living in France with his boyfriend Hugh, and more. I listened to the audio version of the book, narrated by the author, and enjoyed it immensely.

Sedaris's stories may stretch the truth on occasion, but they're very entertaining. For example:

As an art major in college, Sedaris took a pottery class: "With their thick clumsy bases my mugs weighed in at close to five pounds each. The color was muddy and the lips rough and uninviting." Sedaris's mother used these 'gifts' as pet bowls until "a cat chipped a tooth and went on a hunger strike."

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After Sedaris graduated from The Art Instutute of Chicago in 1987 he was offered a job teaching a writing workshop. Having no idea how to prepare lesson plans, Sedaris divided the twice weekly, two-hour class into a series of discussion periods including: Celebrity Corner - during which pupils presented gossip about rock bands and movie stars; Feed Bag Forum - where students brought in one-pot recipes (Sedaris had a new crock pot); Pillow Talk - during which students could discuss their private sex lives - or failing that - watch the soap opera 'One Life to Live.'

The latter activity was turned into a real writing exercise when the pupils were asked to prepare a 'guessay' about what would happen on the TV show next day. To Sedaris's dismay the attendees came up with things like 'the long lost daughter turns out to be a vampire' or 'Vicky chokes to death on a submarine sandwich.'

Later on, when the students were required to submit their own stories Sedaris would type up evaluations like "punctuation never hurt anyone" or "think verbs".....so for the most part he and the students got along.

(I can relate to the bad teaching. I had a professor for a class in 'Insect Physiology' that only talked about baseball teams and deparmental gossip. He got canned pretty quickly. LOL)

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Sedaris doesn't enjoy eating in New York restaurants, partly because his artsy Soho neighborhood "isn't a macaroni salad kind of place" but rather an area where "the world's brightest young talents come to eat racks of corn fed songbirds." Even simple dishes are dressed up: "The meatloaf has been poached in seawater and there are figs in the tuna salad."

Sedaris notes, "I'd order the skirt steak with a medley of suffocated peaches but I'm put off by the aspirin sauce" and "The sea scallops look good until I'm told they're served in a broth of malt liquor and mummified lichee nuts." Moreover, "The food is always arranged into a senseless vertical tower; it now reaches for the sky, much like the high rise buildings lining our city streets. It's as if the plates were valuable parcels of land and the chef had purchased one small lot, along with unlimited air rights."

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Sedaris's friend Alicia from North Carolina came to visit him in New York and brought a friend named Bonnie. Bonnie didn't take to the city because "unfortunately, visiting Americans will find more warmth in Tehran than New York - a city founded on the principles 'us vs. them'." Sedaris observes, "I don't speak Latin but I always assumed the city motto translates into either 'go home' or 'we don't like you either'."

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Sedaris was born in 1956 and the computer revolution took him completely by surprise. He notes, "There were no computers in my high school and the first few times I attempted college people were still counting on their fingers and removing their shoes when the numbers got above ten." Sedaris writes, "I became aware of computers in the mid-1980s when my friends starting sending creepy Christmas newsletters designed to look like tabloids.....titled 'The Herald Family Tribune' and 'Whassup with the Wexlers.' To top it off, his acquaintances started to "send letters composed to look like Chinese takeout menus and the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Sedaris writes, "I refuse to have a computer. The harder I'm pressured to use a computer the harder I resist. One by one all my friends have deserted me and fled to the dark side. 'How can I write you if you don't have an email address?' they ask. They talk of their B-trees and disc doctors and then have the nerve to complain when I discuss bowel obstructions at the dinner table."

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Sedaris's boyfriend Hugh had lived in France for a while, and the partners spent a few summers in Normandy before moving to Paris for several years. Talking about France, Sedaris observes, "My understanding was that no matter what we tried the French would never like us. And that's confusing for an American raised to believe that the people of other countries should be grateful for all the wonderful things we've done for them....."Things like movies that stereotype the people of Europe as bores and petty snobs.....and remarks like, "We saved your ass in World War II'."

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During Sedaris's first visit to Normandy, his French vocabulary was limited to words like 'ashtray', 'bottleneck', and the phrase 'see you again yesterday.' He made an effort to learn new phrases and "Went from talking like a baby to talking like a hillbilly." In a butcher shop Sedaris asked, "Is them the thoughts of cows?" - pointing to cow brains.....and requested "lampchops with handles."

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In Paris, Sedaris took a French class with other foreign residents. The class was daunting and the teacher was volatile. Sedaris writes, "My only comfort was knowing I was not alone. Huddled in
hallways my fellow students and I engaged in conversations normally heard in refugee camps. For example, one student lamented, 'Sometime me cry alone at night' and another responded, 'That be common for I also, but be more strong you. Much work and someday you talk pretty.'

In the second month of French classes - during a lesson about holidays - a Muslim student from Morocco asked, 'What is an Easter?' The teacher asked the students to explain. A Polish girl started, 'It is a party for the little boy of God who call hisself Jesus and'......she faltered and her fellow countryman chimed in.....'He call hisself Jesus and he die one day on two morsels of lumber.' According to Sedaris, "The rest of the class jumped in with bits of information that would have given the Pope an aneurysm".....explanations like, "He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father'..... and 'He weared of himself the long hair and after he die the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.'

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To help expand his vocabulary, Sedaris's sister Amy sent him the audiobook of 'Pocket Medical French', designed for visiting doctors and nurses. From this gem Sedaris learned "conversational sparklers" like 'remove your dentures and all your jewelry'.....'you now need to deliver the afterbirth'.....and 'could I trouble you for a stool sample' (among others).

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Sedaris goes on to say, "I never thought much about how Americans were viewed overseas until I came to France and was expected to look and behave in a certain way. About his appearance, Sedaris says, "If I was thin it was because I'd recently lost the extra fifty pounds cushioning the standard American ass".....and "If I was pushy it was typical.....and if I wasn't it was probably due to Prozac."

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Talking about expenses in France, Sedaris says, "Shortly after moving into my Paris apartment, I noticed a leak in the bathroom and phoned the landlord to say, "The toilet, she cry much of the time." Bathroom repairs cost him $1000.00 for a job that would be $300.00 in the United States.

Thus, the author feared a doctor visit would be truly exorbitant. However, an office visit to a French dentist cost only $25.00, so Sedaris felt brave enough to go to an eye doctor. He explained to the optician, "From the time I had five years I have worn of myself some glasses".....and "Then when I had 20 years I said to myself, 'Enough of this. I am tired of something living all the time upon my nose'." Sedaris goes on to say, "I got a new pair of glasses and I'm still adjusting to all the subtle things I've been missing all these years, things like the expressions of disgust that typically cross people's faces when they discover that they're talking to an idiot."

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Sedaris also muses about food. He notes, "In a French market, in the section devoted to foreign foods, I came across a large can of peanut butter and it broke my heart. Peanut butter is not something you traditonally find in France and I could sense that someone had gone through a great deal of trouble to make this happen. The problem of course, was the can....the items that come in cans are generally the things that you use in one or two sittings, like cat food or baked beans. The French manufacturer obviously had the impression that homesick Americans just sit around with tablespoons and go through a pound of peanut butter in a single afternoon, shoveling it in until they pass out."

Sedaris also writes, "In France, I often leaf through cookbooks looking for vocabulary words that might come in handy. That's how I learned the verbs 'to simmer, to dice, and to set aside the beak'."

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And finally, Sidaris's friend lent him a book called "Imperial Dishes of China." The author observes, "As a working cookbook I felt like it left too many holes. When told to 'arrange the camel paw attractively' my first question was..... how ? Camel paws don't even look attractive on camels. On top of that, where are you supposed to buy these ingredients in the first place? if you can't locate a single camel paw can you use two dozen cat paws instead?"

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At the end of the book Sedaris talks about moving back into his parents basement when he was between colleges, using drugs, and unemployed. His father told him to leave, and Sedaris assumed it was for the above reasons. However, Sedaris's mother - breaking into sobs - apologetically explained that his father threw him out because he was gay. This made me feel a little sad.

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 I'd recommend the book to Sedaris fans and anyone else who likes hilarious memoirs.

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