on david sedaris

Mini reviews of essay collections by David Sedaris: Calypso, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.

Around the middle of October I first encountered David Sedaris through his 2018 memoir Calypso, which I really enjoyed on audio and still consider to be my favorite book of his. The collection deals with themes of loss and growing old, and as I would later find out, it’s a bit more reflective than the author’s work typically is; I thought it struck the perfect balance between being lighthearted and serious.

Sedaris’s glib style makes for easy listening at work, so over the next two months I listened to three more collections: Me Talk Pretty One DayNaked, and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. I quickly learned that if you’ve listened to one Sedaris collection, you’ve listened to them all, but something about his work’s monotony pairs so well with how mundane and repetitious administrative work is.

I’m still not sure about how I feel about Sedaris as a writer. I tried finishing a few essays from Naked in a used bookstore a few weeks ago, and I found the prose to be simple and bare without the aid of his voice and the pieces I read struck me as much more mean spirited and embittered in print than they did on audio. Listening to his audiobooks, which he performs himself, I’ve always thought of Sedaris as more droll than clever or funny, but in print he comes across as snarky more than anything else.

I’m planning on checking out his holiday-themed collection later in the month, and then I’ll probably take a break from his writing. Mini reviews of the books I have read are included below.

fullsizeoutput_2ca6A collection of humor essays centered on speech and language, Me Talk Pretty One Day is David Sedaris’s most focused work as well as his most famous. The collection brings together stories describing the author’s childhood, travel writings detailing his move to France, and personal pieces reflecting on his aimlessness as a young adult. From recounting his experience of speech therapy as an elementary student to recalling his first gig teaching creative writing, Sedaris covers many subjects without straying from the collection’s theme of language. His stories are sarcastic and self-indulgent, and they’re better listened to than read. The collection isn’t life changing, but it passes the time nicely on a long commute or at work.

fullsizeoutput_2ca7Sardonic and droll, the abridged audio of David Sedaris’s Naked offers a series of fast-moving autobiographical pieces. As in most of his work, the author is ironic and self-deprecating as he alternates between recounting memories from his childhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, and recollecting his travels abroad as an adult. Because the audio is abridged, though, all the mediocre pieces that typically embellish a Sedaris collection have been removed. Naked offers the perfect introduction to the author’s work for that reason.

fullsizeoutput_2ca5Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls takes on subjects likely to be found in any other Sedaris collection. The essays center on the author’s many travels, his writing, and his relationship with his father; several of the pieces rehash material he covers more effectively elsewhere, from early essay collections like Naked to his recent memoir Calypso. A set of short stories, more disturbing than entertaining, follows the essays, but it’s best skipped. I think listening to the collection on audio made me like it more than I would have had I read it, since Sedaris’s voice always brings his writing to life, but I’d recommend more inspired collections to readers who are new to his work.

fullsizeoutput_2b1aA collection of twenty-one personal essays on approaching middle age with humor and hope, Calypso stitches together the poignant and the satirical. Sedaris takes on a wide array of lighthearted topics, from fitbits to vacation homes, as well as more serious subjects, like illness, addiction, and death. The author’s wit shines no matter what he discusses, though, and he paints a vivid portrait of his family across the entire memoir. The concluding essays focusing on his sister’s suicide and his mother’s alcoholism are especially moving. A few of the middle essays drag on, but otherwise the memoir is engaging.

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11 thoughts on “on david sedaris

  1. I tend to find him quite uneven: Me Talk Pretty One Day is my favourite of his, and I do love The Santaland Diaries from Holidays On Ice, but the rest of his work has never clicked with me.

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    1. Uneven is a great word to describe him. He also recycles material a lot, which can start to feel old after a while. I’ll have to see if I can track down Santaland Diaries online without buying the full book!

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  2. I read and enjoyed Me Talk Pretty One Day, but more recently I started reading Holidays on Ice and quit. His essays step into offensive territory, and he loves to use the word “retarded” throughout. I work at a civic theater, and in 2019 we’re putting on The Santaland Diaries in December. It’s a one-man play. The actor is older and looks back to the time he worked as an elf instead of being the actual events when they took place. I can’t wait to see it!

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    1. Hm, I’ll probably just check out The Santaland Diaries online then, thanks for giving me a heads up. Other parts of his earlier work haven’t aged well either, despite being only ~15 years old. That sounds like an interesting twist! Hope the production goes well 🙂

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  3. Thanks for the cool review Michael! I really loved the Santaland Diaries so I had high hopes for his other stuff- sounds like Calypso is probably the best bet to read more of him. I have heard a lot of people say that he’s better on audiobook, especially if he actually reads his own work, because he does really skate on thin ice when it comes to dark humour and I imagine with audio it’s easier to get the lighter side across. I will try more of his stuff although looks like it’s not necessary to download the whole oeuvre!

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    1. I listened to Santaland Diaries earlier today, and really liked it! It was a great way to end the week ahead of Christmas. Thanks again for having introduced me to it 🙂

      You might also check out Me Talk Pretty One Day. I enjoyed it for the most part – it just felt like the collection had filler material toward the end. Reading his essays, I guess I had trouble gauging his tone: he came across as a lot more likable and playful on audio.

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