Today I’m doing a little something different. The book review part isn’t different; I’ve reviewed a number of books here before (although, not for quite some time). Upon finishing this particular book at 12:30 a.m., I slept on it, and then I spent a good deal of time writing a longer review on Goodreads than I normally do. I use Goodreads a lot because if I don’t write down some details of a book I just finished, I won’t remember it. I refer back to it a lot just to refresh my memory if someone says, “Have you read_____?” and I have, but I can’t remember a damn thing about it because it was so long ago. I had a lot of thoughts, and I’m sharing it here because when I started to read this book, a lot of people said, “Let me know how it is!” Below is my review. Happy reading!
David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors (perhaps my absolute favorite), and when I last saw him on tour, he devoted some of the time to reading us entries from his diaries. Any Sedaris fan knows that he keeps them, but it felt like a treat to be included in that part of the writing process in which he is testing passages to see what gets laughs and reactions and what doesn’t in order to determine what to include in the next book, which took me a little back to my college days, being part of writing workshops. That was the first thing I loved about this book, and it happened 2 or 3 years before I even held it in my hands.
I read the first 60 pages of this, then had to go away for 3 weeks, so it took me a while to come back to it. Why is that important? Because I didn’t feel like I’d lost my place in the story. In fact, despite my reading dates being June 2 – July 4, it really only took me 4 days to read this 500+ page book. Since it’s a collection of his diary entries over a period of 25 years, there is really no plot. If you are a plot person, you won’t like that. There IS character development in the sense that you can observe him changing, but that’s pretty normal for anyone over 25 years, so that part of it could be a plus or minus depending on your preferences. But it’s nonfiction. Plot is sort of relative.
Admittedly, the 1970s were a bit “meh.” But you know this because he tells you before the book even starts. He says a lot of the earlier passages were fueled by so much alcohol and drugs that most of the writing is just not very good. So for the first 3 years, passages are very short and tend to deal with procuring drugs and where he did them. There are also years – many of them – during which he is scraping money together doing odd jobs to make rent and keep his phone and electricity turned on while he tried to figure out what to do with himself. There is a noticeable shift in this kind of lifestyle after he meets Hugh (another part of the book I loved), and especially when they move in together.
It was interesting to watch him, over the course of these years, go from being David the guy who does drugs in a ditch next to the road, to David, the guy who goes to the Art Institute in Chicago and, upon graduation, is asked to come back and teach writing. None of these things change his drug and alcohol use — which wouldn’t end until the late 90s — but his diaries reflect him taking himself more seriously as a writer when other people do, too (whether that was subconsciously so or not, I don’t know).
We know his diaries have been where he writes down his observations, and it’s the place where a lot of his essays have taken shape. You can see that happening. I’m sure he abridged most of the entries in this book and, since many of those observations are now essays that you can read in other books, he didn’t include them. But there are a few: his SantaLand experiences at Macy’s, which ended up being a sort of breakout for him when he then wrote “The SantaLand Diaries,” later to be included in Holidays on Ice, for example. Or stories that were included in Me Talk Pretty One Day: people thinking he’s talking to himself as he walked around with his French vocab flashcards. His French teacher when he takes lessons in France to better learn the language. His mother’s death, which was so beautifully written as the essay “Ashes” in Naked.
Being a David Sedaris book, there are plenty of astute observations. It’s easy to think, how does one person see and experience all of these weird things? I’ve often wondered that when reading his essays. But the thing is, he places himself INTO those situations. He moves into sketchy areas of Chicago. He roams around the streets of New York. He sits in IHOP for hours at a time. Once he’s an established author, he takes a lot of plane rides and stays in a lot of hotels (I so appreciated his commentary on Wilkes-Barre, PA). And he’s just out and about so often. He goes for long walks and bike rides and he observes people. This is actually a practice that my writing professors used to recommend: if you are to find material, you need to make yourself a part of things and observe, observe, observe. Not all of his observations become essays. Sometimes he just sees really weird things. But those observations, in diary form, still frequently come with a dose of his trademark wry humor.
Because that wry humor is so prevalent throughout the rest of the book, its absence made 2-3 particular events even more poignant. The first was the entirety of his mother’s illness and, ultimately, her death. The way he writes about it brought tears to my eyes, much in the same way I remember bursting into tears upon reading about it in Naked. Adding to that is an entry that came a bit later, in which all of the Sedaris children are home to spend Christmas with their father and he pulls out old home movies that they’d never seen. He never says how much he and his siblings miss his mother, but it’s abundantly clear from the way he writes that as soon as they saw their mom on the screen, moving and laughing, they couldn’t focus on anything else but wanting to see it again. It’s observant, but the absence of humor makes it even stronger.
The second is his experience on 9/11 as an ex-pat in France and the sense of pride he felt in his home country then. Again, there is nothing funny about it. It’s one of the longer entries in the book, and to me it was fascinating because I can’t get enough of people’s 9/11 stories. I am also so curious to compare and contrast how we all simultaneously experienced the same thing, regardless of where we were.
The third is something that I suspect will become more prevalent in the 2003-17 book: his sister Tiffany. He doesn’t write a lot about her in this book — mostly just snippets of quick visits he had with her and being worried about her. If you’ve read his 2013 New Yorker essay, “Now We Are Five,” you know a few things: 1. Tiffany committed suicide in 2013; 2. At the time of her death, David hadn’t spoken to her in about 8 years because; 3. they each seemed to have opposing views of their shared experiences; 4. Tiffany was reportedly at odds with her siblings regularly; 5. Tiffany didn’t want David to write about her; 6. his “Now We Are Five” essay (named so because, upon Tiffany’s death, the six Sedaris children became five) made some waves. All of this is also not something humorous, but when you know the outcome, it gives more context to those entries, making them a little less “everyday” and a little more “one side of the story.”
If you’re a writer, this kind of book is great because it’s insight into someone else’s writing process, which is something that most writers find really interesting. I see it as a learning experience as much as a reading experience, and it inspires me to write, as well. I see techniques in action and I think, “well, I can’t go strike up a conversation with a total stranger because I’m too introverted for that, but I can make these observations. I can write things down. I can try this or that,” and I love that I feel like that any time I read David Sedaris.
Additionally, I love the honesty. Everyone knows writers are at least a little narcissistic, and he’s no exception, but he just embraces it. When he has awful thoughts, he writes them and embraces it. He doesn’t write himself to look like a stellar person all the time. That said, some people miss the wry humor effect and take some of his sarcasm to be much more awful than I think it is intended, but nevertheless, he’s very blunt in his writing style.
He also doesn’t shy away from writing about things that make him seem really quirky and neurotic. One of my favorite examples of this comes later in the book, when he notices a spider in his and Hugh’s country home in France. He begins feeding it, and then there are lots of spiders. He describes all of the bugs he catches to feed to the spiders, what he names them, and how he feels about his choices (example: flies are ok, but catching the moth and the bumblebee made him feel a little guilty). I liked this because it’s the kind of weird thing I would do (not with spiders — I hate those, but I recently did name an entire family of raccoons in a tree outside my house, observe them nightly, and talk to them as if we were old friends).
Ultimately, reading this has made me want to go back and reread some of his other books that I haven’t read in a long time.